The UU World is the official magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the religious organization I belong to. About two years ago, a controversy erupted over the embarrassing fact that despite its stated commitment to racial diversity, the UUA was far too white dominated and people of color were being passed over for positions in it that they were indeed qualified for. When this became too obvious to ignore, it forced President Peter Morales to resign.
Now, two years after that blew over, another problem has emerged: the disrespecting of transgender people by the magazine itself!
It started with this article published in it:
From a mainstream American point of view, it seems like a progressive article about advocating for the rights and dignity of transgender people. But from the point of view of transgender people themselves, it was a complete FAILURE! Reason: the article was written from a strictly cisgender perspective, which is as pointless as writing an article about blacks only from a white person’s point of view, instead of allowing the blacks to speak for themselves.
Nothing We Do Will Be Perfect. The irony of the cover of the print issue of the spring 2019 UU World has not been lost on the membership of TRUUsT and our greater trans* community.
The UU World’s article titled “After L, G, and B” frames the trans experience by centering a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman’s experience. By doing so, it reduces trans people to objects—something that happens far too often in society and in our UU communities. The use of harmful slurs, the conflation of intersex and trans experience, and a repeated focus on surgery, hormones, and pronouns perpetuates stereotypes around trans experiences that devalues the gifts we have to bring to the world and Unitarian Universalism.
The impact of this article will have long-lasting effects. While the UU World has a vital role in communicating issues of importance to Unitarian Universalists around the world, often representing the leading edge and the best in our UU faith, it is that trust and faith in this magazine which makes this article all the more harmful. Well-meaning people who have no other known relationship to or interaction with trans lives will now believe that these words and actions are acceptable. They are not!
Soon after that was published, the UU World editors themselves admitted their mistake.
Our story hurt people
Transgender and gender nonbinary leaders in the Unitarian Universalist movement, along with their allies and other UUs, are expressing alarm and sharing their pain at reading an essay in the Spring 2019 issue of UU World, “After L, G, and B” by contributing editor Kimberly French. I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.
In consultation with the steering committee of TRUUsT (Transgender Religious professional UUs Together, an organization of trans leaders), we are keeping the essay on our website rather than taking it down, but are adding a preface that points to and quotes from this apology. My apology will appear in the original essay’s place in the online Table of Contents.
Many have asked why we published this article. My intent was to model, through a personal essay about one family’s experience, ways for the majority of our readers to engage respectfully with trans and nonbinary people; the impact, however, was to hurt and alienate trans and nonbinary people. I can point to three editorial mistakes: I planned an approach to the important topic of trans and gender nonbinary experiences within Unitarian Universalism without enough input from people who identify as nonbinary or trans. We did not model respectful engagement. Additionally, it was hurtful to put a straight, cisgender person’s experience in the foreground, especially as one of the first major articles in the magazine on this topic. We should have developed another kind of story in such a prominent spot that centered trans and nonbinary voices. Finally, when we reached out to Alex Kapitan, a leader in the trans and gender nonbinary community, while researching the story and ze urged us against the approach I had picked, I erred in failing to grasp the important cautions ze offered: a story told from a cisgender perspective would cause harm. I believed, falsely, that we could address the concerns within the framework of the story I had commissioned. It was a mistake to disregard this caution, and I apologize.
Several readers have also pointed to specific language in the article that is painful if not traumatic to encounter in the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These include a reference to jokes at a high school in the 1970s that involved a homophobic slur, a reference to “so-called corrective surgery,” and alarming statistics about violence against transgender people that one colleague told me felt “grim without hope.” As editors, we did not have enough experience with trans issues to notice the microaggressions throughout the essay that our trans readers are calling to our attention. These specific editorial choices added pain to injury, and for that I apologize.
If you can’t hire an actual transgender person to write about their own experiences, don’t bother with the topic at all. Seriously!
I can say that with conviction because the UU World already had a great article about the transgender experience back in 2017. It didn’t need that bogus article that came out with the current issue!
People are far more comfortable allowing the messy business of a gender transition if it is presented by storytellers as a foregone conclusion from the start.
But reality is nowhere near that neat. I spent the first fifty years of my life with no earthly clue I might be transgender. An observer might have found my teenage preference for female friends unusual, but I did not. Teenage gender norms and those of the liberated era in which I was raised allowed anyone to be friends with anyone else, and I put together a rich social life.
Things changed after graduation. People began pairing off, and social overtures toward single women were generally interpreted as romantic. Finding friendship among females became more challenging. However, I made the best of my opportunities, getting married and raising two children. I was mildly uncomfortable with my role as husband and father, but since I had never really felt like I fit in anywhere, that seemed unsurprising and certainly not an indication of anything unusual about my relationship with gender.
As a married man, I found that developing friendships with women was nearly impossible. I couldn’t come up with any way of approaching women socially without looking like I was interested in an affair. Luckily, my wife and I were great friends, keeping the loneliness of my married years partially at bay. I had family and career to keep me busy, so it was not until age fifty that I turned my focus toward the gaping holes in my social life.
My wife supported my explorations until the clues began to suggest I might be transgender. “If you transitioned, I’d probably leave you,” she told me one night, and I did not object. I certainly would have been upset to find myself suddenly married to a man, and I understood why remaining in a marriage with a woman would not be her choice.
So I was cautious. I tested the waters, first presenting as a woman in public and then joining a transgender-friendly women’s reading group. A realization took shape: I was far more comfortable as my female self. Female social interactions seemed “right” in a way that male interactions never had. I began to see my female life as the “real me,” while the prospect of spending the rest of my days as a male looked unbearably dreary. I was conscious of a part of my being that demanded I be true to it by living as a female. I could no more change it through an effort of will than I could my height or eye color.
However, many whom I took into my confidence urged me to save my marriage by remaining in my male life and avoiding disrupting my family. I had survived a half-century as a male, surely I could survive the rest of the way.
After much soul searching, I still couldn’t agree. Imagine you are on a long hike, feet throbbing with discomfort. You soldier on, because everyone on the hike is complaining. But then you all take a break, and you find that your shoe is full of pebbles, while everyone else’s shoes are clear. You realize that, though no one’s feet feel fine, it’s been far worse for you than for others. A simple solution exists—remove your shoe and empty out the pebbles.
What would you say to those who remind you that you’ve hiked this far, surely you could hike just a little farther? That the hike is more than half done, and you’d inconvenience everyone else, who would have to wait for you to untie your shoe and then lace it back up again? What would you do? Would you just finish the hike, knowing that every step will hurt, or would you beg their indulgence while you emptied your shoe?
In the end, I reluctantly and with much trepidation decided that, while I wished I could have remained as I was for the sake of my marriage, it was asking too much of me to insist that I spend the rest of my life pretending I was someone I’m not. I needed to change, and if my wife left me because of it, I couldn’t control that and shouldn’t try.
That decision shattered our marriage. After months of vitriolic wrangling we decided she would buy my half of the house. My daughter, then a junior in high school, remained living with her. I moved into my own place, my wife furious that I’d chosen transition over her. My son was away at college by then, so for the first time since getting married I was living alone.
Fast-forward to the present, and nearly every friend I have I met at UUCC. I never miss a chance to hear Getty preach if I can help it, and I look forward all week to the lazy lunches after services, discussing the sermon, current events, and what’s going on in our lives, or just kicking back and enjoying our food. I teach religious education classes every week, have helped lead services, and have participated in reflection groups, fun feasts, game nights, and other events too numerous to name. When I had gender-confirming surgery, I came out as transgender to the entire congregation during the sharing of joys and sorrows. I spoke of my excitement and fear, and I was met by an outpouring of support and a promise from a lay member of the Pastoral Care Committee to call me frequently during my recovery period.
As I write this, I have just returned from three days at a spiritual center after participating in the annual UUCC women’s retreat. During one of the fascinating workshops there, it occurred to me how amazing it was to bask in the love and support that warmed that all-female space. And how unremarkable it felt that no one had ever questioned whether, as a transgender woman, I belonged there. The subject simply hadn’t come up.
I can’t imagine where I’d be had I not found UUCC. My life would certainly lack much of its richness. The dark, lonely period after my separation now seems a distant memory.
That is what we should have stuck with, and it will always be what we need, now and forever.
UPDATE: I found this comic that spells out the problem with that first UU World Article I linked to, but refused to copy any part of here: