From Broken Boys to Whole Men: #12 – Gender Identity and Gender Expression

Sylvia and Candace taught me a lot about gender identity as a spiritual journey. They also gave me the safe space to own my own feelings about gender: my own, and that of others.

Candace I met at Grace Baptist Church in Chicago in 1993. She was a trailblazer who had transitioned a couple of years earlier, and her presence in the congregation, a largely gay and lesbian group, was pushing the envelope in terms of acceptance.

It’s hard to believe, now, the presence of a trans woman in an LGB-inclusive local church was radical, but it was then; we have come quite a ways since the 90s.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. Sylvia was a parishioner at one of my previous churches. She became active in the church in several capacities over the years, and was a passionate advocate for congregants and others who slipped through the cracks, not just LGBTQ folks.

We met as the result of her reaching out, pre-Sylvia, in a phone call to me at my office. She wanted to make an appointment to come in and talk, and as I found out later, the fact that she explained her situation on the phone and we still made an in-person appointment was a good sign to her.

Like sexual orientation, gender identity and expression exist on a continuum, rather than as the binary categories of male and female. These are labels which sort people into categories but aren’t a true reflection, for all of us, of who we are.

Also like sexual orientation, gender identity is not a choice so much as an inherent part of who we are. At birth, one of two genders is assigned the baby, based on looking at body parts—but a person’s identity, as we know, forms over the course of one’s life. Why would gender be any different than other aspects of a person’s identity?

Both Candace and Sylvia spoke to me of feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the physical manifestation of the gender they’d been assigned; other trans people have spoken of feeling split in two, or pulled apart, or pulled in two opposite directions; still others have said there were times they felt like they were going to explode, the dichotomy was so strong.

Gender expression, on the other hand, can change, because it’s the way the person chooses to externalize and embody their gender.

Imagine living in your body, labeled male or female and coming into an intense, persistent feeling that you’re the other gender—OR that you don’t feel at all like either gender, but somewhere in between, with elements of both.

Then, imagine starting to dress differently, cut your hair differently, and adjust other externals to feel more aligned with the inner you. How would that affect your closest relationships? Do you know who you would tell first? Could you tell anybody?

Or would you have to keep it to yourself? At what cost?

Nov. 13-20 is Transgender Awareness Week, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance on the 20th. This is an occasion to reflect on the trans community and the abuse its member face every day, just trying to live their lives: they deal with rejection by family and friends, their faith communities, the face joblessness, health care needs that often aren’t understood by health care providers.

It’s also an opportunity to develop empathy for trans persons, and the stigma, discrimination and barriers they face.

And finally, gathering with others at a Trans Awareness event or a Trans Day of Remembrance vigil is a chance to unite against the hate and fear and ignorance that give rise to all these threats trans people face in our society.

I will never forget Candace and Sylvia’s patience with me as I learned from them.

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