Sermon March 4, 2012 What is Real? The Transgender Experience
The theological significance of the Transgender experience.
Of course, the arguments about the transgender experience is rooted in deeper theological and philosophical disagreements. Arguments that are still current and show up in many public issues.
Moral decision making has to make reference to the real world: what we are supposed to do is some subset of what we are realistically capable of doing. It is not a moral act to breath, since we have no choice. It is not a moral requirement to fly since we have no chance. In order to be moral, it must first be a real possibility. So figuring out what is moral is first figuring out what is real.
The Western Christian tradition has worked with the presumption that there is a natural moral law that everyone, no matter their religion, should be able to see and follow. It’s a morality written into nature itself. If you follow it, health and happiness result. If you don’t, then you will cause bad things to happen.
Which leads to the questions “what is natural about gender” “What is the reality of gender” “what is moral about gender”?
One way is to look at the reality out there which seems to be that human beings are mostly either male or female. There are two distinct types of people with clearly defined biological differences. And for the most part, there have always been two different social roles -- a man’s role and a woman’s role.
Working from this data, it is possible to make the leap that this represents some conscious planning on somebody’s part. For most of human history, it was the divine authors of the world, that set things up this way. And it was possible to assign divine purpose to what seems the dominant reality. “God made humanity male and female and joined them together in marriage for the purpose of having children.” It is called what is “natural”, meaning “in accordance to something’s essential nature which derives from its purpose.” It’s teleological -- meaning that the most important thing about something is it’s purpose in God’s order.
I want to emphasize the sequence of this thinking: look at reality, determine its most important function, assume that that function is its purpose, say that God made it for that purpose. Look at all these dogs. They live with us. They love us. Their purpose seems to be our most loyal friends. God made dogs to be our friends. Just as God made horses for us to ride. This is natural.
According to this, the natural purpose of sex is reproduction. The natural purpose of gender is sex. It’s a totally ingenious system that God designed. He designed these two kinds of people -- man and woman -- with these particular body parts -- which fit together so perfectly -- all for the purpose of getting chromosomes mixed up to make and endless variety of new people. It’s the natural way and the natural way is actually the divine way.
I am describing one way of looking at reality, of determining what is natural from reality.
Actually, this kind of thinking is idealist.
In addition to being idealist -- it is categorical. All the variety of human beings can be sorted into two different buckets: the male bucket and the female bucket. Those buckets are the real reality -- the essential truth of human gender.
That is the real reality according to one sort of thinking.
What’s wrong with this way of thinking?
Well, it just doesn’t explain everything. There are exceptions and variations to this so-called divine and natural reality. People who don’t fit into this schema. People whose sexual desires don’t facilitate reproduction. Just the fact that people have sexual desire completely unrelated to reproduction -- people continue to have strong sexual desires past the age of fertility -- there are people who desire people of the same gender -- people who don’t feel that they are of the gender their body says.
Now, one of way of thinking about reality -- about what is natural -- says that all these exceptions are not “natural.” What is natural is that boys are boys and girls are girls and boys like girls and girls like boys and they make babies together because they really really want to . That is the natural order. Everything else is not “natural.”
These situations are malfunctions -- poor implementation of the divine design -- or even worse, these exceptions are individuals who rebelled against the natural order. Freaks or Sinners or Psychopaths.
And to the extent that the society allows such people to be different, it undermines the culture’s effort to emulate the ideal -- which is the ultimate reality.
The other way of looking at what is reality -- what is natural -- says that all these variations are in fact natural. They happen; they just happen in nature. Just because they are not as common, doesn’t mean that they are not natural.
But it you just look around long enough you see that the there are a lot of other people, in whom these elements line up differently. There is lots and lots of variation. So, the description of reality is more like a continuum or a bell curve than an binary division.
Now what is the real reality: what we project as the ideal form of what we see, or what we see?
This philosophical conflict over what is the reality of human sexuality, reproduction and gender is at the heart of the culture wars that have been simmering along since the end of world war 2. (and it was world war 2 that did it, not the swinging sixties or roe v wade, or the invention of the pill etc. -- it was mass mobilization of millions of people in the late teens and early twenties to live away from families and local communities that showed the potential of a less constrained sexuality).
Liberal Religion is religion tempered by the Enlightenment. It is religion that has made a philosophical break with older idealist and teleological understandings of reality. It is empirical. It looks around. It observes the living reality of the world around it.
It’s at this point that I turn to Channing’s the Free Mind, which we read this morning. This is one of the statements that sums up Liberal Religion and it describes how liberal religion looks at the world. It is mostly a negative statement in that it describes how liberal religion is not going to mechanically copy the past or be in bondage to old habits or inherited truths.
But one of its positive statement is when it says that the free mind sees “everywhere the radiant signatures of an infinite spirit and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.”
I have a colleague in the UU ministry who is a transgender person, a person who presents herself in an ambiguous gender expression. She has a mustache and a beard and visible breasts and wears men’s clothes and has a female name. She told me about one aspect of her ministry. She goes to conventions of transgender and transexual people. And at these conventions, there is also an exhibition hall filled with organizations for trans people and vendors selling garments designed for the trans market. My colleague goes to the exhibition hall wearing a ministerial collar and carrying a big leather-bound bible. She borrows a couple of chairs from another booth and sets herself up in some spare corner -- it’s just two chairs and a minister. And people line up to talk with her, hungering and thirsting for someone with spiritual authority to say they are not a mistake.
And because she is of a free mind and of the liberal religious tradition, she sees in them the radiant signatures of an infinite spirit. It is the work of spiritual enlargement, for her, for them, for me by telling me this story and I hope for you as I relay it on to you.
We are preventing a lot of future pain here today. People will take these inserts home and read them.
They will be educated in the future and will be the voice of one who sees the radiant signatures of God in people that others want to exclude or deride. You will stand up and redirect situations in which much pain could have occurred. The children here present will be the ones to say “what are you freaking out about -- we talk about transgender people at our church -- it’s no big deal! and “I have a transgender friend.’ Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, the amount of pain and suffering and intolerance that we are preventing will grow and compound.
So much has happened before to bring us to this point. Liberal Religion in general and Unitarian Universalism have been advocating for an empirical reality based approach to sexuality since the 1970‘s. We have been willing to take up the next right thing over and over again.
We celebrate freedom. We uphold the right of people to live in the reality of their lives, especially in the most intimate areas of their self-understanding and relationships. You have a right to you, within a context of respect for all others.
There have been political and cultural and social battles in every sphere of society about sexuality and gender. We just witnessed this last week two battles: one was the state of Maryland recognizing the reality that gay couples make life-long commitments of love to each other. They have decided that the institution of marriage cannot be limited to what previous generations have decided was its real purpose, its natural and divine essence.
And we have been watching the brouhaha about Rush Limbaugh’s comments about the reality that young women need contraception; they need for many reasons and one of them is that they are having sex.
In fact, if you have seen the video of Rush’s commentary, you see the philosophical conflict I am talking about enacted before you eyes. Once Rush establishes the fact that the subject on the table is young women who are having sex outside of marriage, he leans backs and asks some form of the question: what is really going on here? And then he stops and theatrically pauses and then he reminds us of what the reality of the situation is -- young women like the one question are sluts.
He thinks that he is telling us the truth that everyone else is afraid to say. But how does he know what the truth is? His truth is a mental construction, an idealist picture of what a proper young woman is supposed to be like. It’s a mental category, and with it comes the mental category of someone who does not conform to that mental picture and that girl is a slut.
In each case -- Rush Limbaugh or the Maryland legislature -- , it is the question of what is the real reality: the mental construction of what is supposed to be or the actual reality of what is going on in the real world.
It was the skirmish of a couple of weeks ago that the Girl Scouts had come under fire for including all girls, yes, trans girls, too, in their programs. Who is really a girl? Who is really a boy?
I could preach a sermon every week about the latest skirmish in this on-going theological and philosophical struggle. It is that often that the issue comes up. It seems like a constant push and pull of forces.
That’s why I was struck by the lines of the Clough poem.
Let me quote that last stanza again:
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
Look westward, the land is bright. Everything to the west reflects the light of the sun, even though it is obscured itself by the clouds on the horizon. Do not be discouraged by the constant push and pull of the moment. Turn around and see how much the world has changed. How bright the sun is.
There is room for you in that bright light. Take your place there.