A note for NEYM folks before you read: This reflection contains criticism of some aspects of Sessions, and I want to make it clear that this is not meant to be a passive aggressive critique, nor is it directed at anyone personally. I am deeply grateful for all of the work put into planning Sessions, and plan to be in touch as directly as I can figure out how to be about my concerns in the coming weeks. I invite folks who know me to contact me directly about any concerns as well. I am sharing my story here to provide greater insight into my experiences as a transgender person in the world and among Friends, with the hopes that it will reach folks beyond NEYM.
When I arrived in Castleton, VT for the 2014 Annual Sessions of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (NEYM),* I felt a mixture of excitement and wariness. I was excited to be among so many Quakers (over 600 Friends attended NEYM Sessions this year), and to reconnect with many dear friends of mine, some of whom I’ve known for many years, some of whom are newer to me. I was wary because, despite having lived in New England for nearly a decade and knowing many Quakers in the region, this was only my second time attending Annual Sessions, and I still feel like a newcomer, a bit on the outside. Also, I was wary because I knew that there was not (yet) much work done to ensure that this conference was trans*-inclusive.
Earlier this summer I was at a different Quaker conference, FGC Gathering, which also has much work to do in order to be trans*-inclusive – but! I know that work is happening. I know because they asked me to facilitate a working group to make recommendations about how to make the Gathering more trans*-inclusive. As a working group, we started a campaign to get folks to write their preferred pronouns on their nametags, and one of our recommendations will be to have pronouns more or less automatically included on the pre-printed nametags in future years. Despite the work yet to be done at FGC Gathering, I felt a sense of welcome and inclusion knowing that trans*-inclusivity had become somewhat of a priority. Arriving at NEYM Sessions, with this work fresh on my mind, I felt exhausted. Now that I had tasted inclusion at another Quaker conference, it was harder to feel suddenly several steps behind. I knew that I would need to advocate for myself all over again.
Since my housing for the conference was in a suite-style dorm, with bathrooms located within each suite, it wasn’t until I had been on campus for a whole day that I encountered the bright pink signs on the bathrooms around campus. I don’t recall exactly what they said because I didn’t want to write it down. I do recall that they had ‘NEYM’ printed across the top and a big female or male bathroom figure on one side, and text that included “Please find your closest gender-specific bathroom,” and something about not removing the sign. The first time I saw these signs, they were taped up on the doors of bathrooms that were already gender-segregated, which felt like an extra punch in the gut for me.
Without knowing the history or intention of these signs, they read to me as extra rigid and restrictive. In my mind, they may as well have said something like this: In case you didn’t know that these bathrooms were gender segregated, please NOTE that they ARE and you should use the CORRECT one. Don’t try to be an activist by changing the sign or using the wrong bathroom, because that might confuse (cisgender) people. They were also located on some bathrooms that would otherwise would have been gender-neutral. I spoke to a few friends about these signs and how upsetting they were to me, and others offered a different interpretation: Perhaps they were meant to be gender inclusive, inviting folks to use the one that they felt best matched their gender, regardless of others’ perceptions. In any case, it is clear to me that whomever made these signs, whatever their intention, they failed to consult a transgender person or ally about it.
These bathroom signs are but one small detail of a much larger, more complicated planning process for this conference. Yet this small detail was a big deal for me. Even if the signs were well-meaning, and even if I am beginning to feel safer using men’s bathrooms, these signs signal a larger lack of awareness about, and lack of consultation with, trans* and gender non-conforming Friends. I felt unwelcome, and it was harder to let my guard down.
Even given that, however, there was so much that did go well for me, and that signaled to me that I am welcome in this community. There is a story and a concern that I am carrying with me, which informs most of what I write in this blog, and much of what I post on social media. It is a message that several Friends have recently named as my ministry, the work that I am called to do right now. At Sessions, I felt as though my message was well received among those with whom I shared it. That story and work, in short, is this:
When I was first coming out as transgender, everyone was nice to me. Everyone is still nice to me. Folks worked to get my new name and pronouns right, and treated me the same as before. I didn’t lose any friends, no one obviously avoided me. Everything was great – right? Actually, no. Despite the niceness and the effort around my name and pronouns, I still felt excluded and on the outside. It took me many months to put my finger on it. I finally realized that everyday conversations often reinforce dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity: Men do this and are this way, and if they aren’t it’s funny or shameful. Women do these things and are this other way, and if they aren’t it’s weird or ugly. These assumptions are so ingrained in our daily discourse that it took even me months to begin identifying them, and only after being forced to confront them for my own well-being. And worse, entire ways of being male or female go unacknowledged as folks make these sweeping generalizations, including most of the ways that I have embodied my own gender my whole life. It’s as if I don’t exist, despite sitting right there in full view, my gender-breaking story supposedly known. The burden is left on me to exclaim my own existence, over and over and over again. I am right here in front of you, defying these narratives. Can’t you *see* me? It’s isolating and exhausting, and makes me want to leave any environment that doesn’t make space for my identity like this. It makes me want to leave.
This experience has caused me to question many things, most significantly, who am *I* not seeing? What assumptions and generalizations do I make in everyday conversations that leave out whole identities, even if they are right in front of me? How am I perpetuating oppression in this way? As a white person, how am I regurgitating dominant, white supremacist narratives, just as the cisgender people around me are inadvertantly regurgitating cisnormative, rigidly binary ideas about femininity and masculinity? Who in my own communities is absent because we did not make an effort to truly see them when they were right in front of us? As Quakers, we speak of everyone having a piece of the Truth, or that there is that of God in everyone. If we do not make space for non-dominant identities, we are complicit in exclusion and oppression and we limit our access to the whole Truth, to a whole experience of God and the beloved community. It is not about being nice, and it is not about being good, it is about wholeness and spiritual transformation. Anti-oppression work is essential to our spiritual wholeness. This is my story, and the work that I carry.
I have shared this particular story with the community of Young Adult Friends (YAFs) in NEYM, and have received positive feedback. We have formed a Wholeness Working Group, which I hope will allow us to find ways to do some of this work. A fellow YAF shared about my ministry with the coordinator for the middle school group at Sessions, and they eagerly invited me to be on a panel for the middle school group with others to share about how we witness and follow leadings in the world. I was able to share about how it feels to carry this work, and the spiritual aspects of moving forward with transition. In a world where people still try to shield their children from LGBTQ folks as if we carry some kind of disease, particularly people claiming “religious convictions” as a reason to discriminate, here is a spiritual community that easily and eagerly invited me to speak to our youth about my experiences and leadings as a transgender person, and not in a way that felt tokenizing. Afterward, a couple of folks connected with me who were looking for support around gender issues, or wanted to connect me with someone else who was. This is where my heart is.
Speaking of the YAF community, I felt a sense of support there around trans* inclusion as well, in part having spoken about my needs among that community in the past. I emailed the YAF list serve, inviting folks to join me in writing their pronouns on their nametags, with a quick explanation about why this is important, and many YAFs followed through and gave me positive feedback about my email. At some point, I returned to the bathrooms where I had first encountered the pink notes, which were located near a designated YAF lounge, and two YAFs had made new signs, taped over the pink ones, protesting the pink ones and designating these bathrooms to be gender-neutral. These YAFs signed their names openly on the new signs, and I was so grateful. I was especially grateful to notice that these were two Friends whom I had not already spoken to about the bathroom signs myself. Any sense that others, who are not me, are putting forth the energy to do some of this work, helps me to feel valued and included. (Which is part of why I carry this question: How can I put forth energy to do work to help include folks with identities different from mine in this way?)
I have other reflections on my few days at Sessions that are not explicitly related to my transgender identity – I haven’t even mentioned the actual business sessions or the plenary or anchor groups or YAF worship and business! – but I will save those reflections for another post. I do plan to find out who to speak to about the bathroom signs and other needs. I am not the first, nor the last, nor the only transgender or gender non-conforming Friend in NEYM, and not everyone feels comfortable or moved to self-advocate. As long as I have the energy to speak up, I will continue to do so, and I invite other Friends to join me in this work.
*For those unfamiliar, New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) is a regional organization comprised of more than 90 Friends meetings (congregations) in the New England region. Annual Sessions are a time when we come together each summer to conduct the business of our regional community, as well as to enjoy fellowship with one another. Most Friends congregations are affiliated with a regional yearly meeting in this way.