and James Ishmael Ford
27 April 2014
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame
Song of Solomon
A few days ago, a friend of mine and I got together for coffee. My friend (let’s call him “Alex”) and I hadn’t seen each other in a long time and we wanted to catch up. We had originally met five or six years ago when we were both in the same choir (Alex has the gift of a beautiful baritone voice, and I’m quite an adequate alto) – and, although both of us have moved on, we have tried to stay in touch. As we sat together sipping coffee that late afternoon, I became aware of a couple that had just sat down at another table. Alex, who had the five-o’clock shadow of a young man who was enjoying a brief vacation, didn’t notice them. As the other couple arranged themselves at their table, Alex was in the middle of describing a dilemma he was experiencing. He said: “I’m trying to find really nice shoes, but that don’t have a heel.” “Why’s that?” He smiled; “You know, I can’t wear heels in a ball gown!” The couple, who seemed to have been paying at least some attention to the conversation Alex and I were having, now looked like they would be very happy not to eavesdrop any more.
Among the many avocations of my talented young friend, Alex, is being a drag performer. And he’s very good at it. Alex, is a young, gay, man, and drag has been a significant part of gay culture for a very long time.
Drag certainly hasn’t always been without controversy (even within the gay community) and it wasn’t that long ago, when some feminists were highly critical. But as Alex said to me, he’s not trying to imitate or mock anyone – he’s just trying to look and be as “amazing” as he can be (his words, not mine). But, to be honest, I have to admit that I don’t really get drag. It’s just not part of my own experience. Although, when Alex described what it was like telling his mother that her son is a drag queen, I could certainly understand some of the complex emotions he must have felt. I can just imagine his frustration when his mother asked him if all of this was because he “really wanted to be a woman.”
“Coming out” is emotionally perilous. It often leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions. When one takes such a step, they risk rejection, ostracism, and in some cases violence. There are two kinds of coming out, really – as risky as it is to come out to others, it is often harder to come out to yourself: to be honest with yourself about who you are.
In my own experience, I can truly say I always knew I was different. My parents named me “Gregory” and I tried so hard to be that boy. But it isn’t who I am. Can I explain to you what it’s like to be raised male – for everyone to see you that way – and yet know that you aren’t? Probably no more easily than Alex could explain to me what it’s like being a drag queen. For me, it was never about appearance, or fitting a stereotype – but it is all about who I am; being female.
From my earliest childhood on into adulthood, I just wanted to be like everyone else. Yet I knew I wasn’t. My life often felt more like a role played by an actor. My own “coming out” to myself, was when I realized that this wasn’t living at all, and I had to try to just be myself – regardless of what the consequences would be.
And there were – and are – serious consequences. But to not risk such consequences would mean continuing to lie to everyone – family and friends – about who you are. That’s a burden that never gets lighter.
When I was serving in Newton I had the privilege of witnessing the transition of a sweet but haunted man into the proud and confident woman she was meant to be. Not that it was easy. This isn’t waking up one morning deciding I’m in the wrong body and then correcting it. The process is arduous.
I don’t know where it all starts, that has something to do with the mysteries of our human hearts, but the critical part, the part that I think speaks to who we are as religious liberals begins when we’re finally able to be honest with ourselves about who we are. This is a profound thing for any of us. And when it touches on our basic sense of who we are, and gender identity cuts close to that bone, well, it opens worlds, whole planets to us.
In Newton I was just one of a network of supporters as our friend moved from tentative steps, to the in depth psychological evaluations, to sustained time dressing and living as a woman, and only at the last to surgeries and the full expression of her life as a woman. Enormously fortunate, she was blessed with a wife who stayed with her through it all. Which opens into the mysteries that truly are complete worlds within our human hearts, and speaks to the amazing power of love. Something I’ve thought about a lot over the years that have followed.
Now even in cobalt blue Newton there were whispers and questions and challenges. Their children had more than a couple of rough moments. And there was a nasty whisper campaign we had to go through. What I was particularly proud of was how the congregation rolled with it. We’d established ourselves as lesbian and gay friendly. But knowing someone for years as one gender and then finding that person was another was, as they like to call moments where our worlds change, a real learning experience.
I was so pleased to get to know Gwen after we moved down to Providence, working together on various justice projects. I knew she was an ordained UU minister, although she was attending Beneficent Congregational church. I found her just the sort of colleague I admire, intelligent, with a fierce sense of justice and a quick ability to laugh at herself. Hard to say which is more important. I was saddened to learn how in her own ministerial career, when she came to that point where she had to be honest with herself about her true gender identity, that it wasn’t handled well by the congregation she served, nor our Association.
It was not so much a problem with the congregation I was serving – the district executive in our area of New York, made it clear to me when I came out to her that I needed to leave my congregation and I was to never tell them about the real reason why. And yes, the reaction in Boston was not better – I was told that I, as a person, was “supported” but I needed to realize I should be practical and find a new career because I would never be able to serve as a parish minister again.
This was in the mid 1990’s and for years after, I would tell anyone willing to listen about my anger over this. And I probably should have been angry, but, in fact, what I really felt was sadness and disappointment. I had hoped for more, but one doesn’t undertake this journey without the expectation of rejection (as hurtful as it inevitably is). However, I have to admit that things in my life have been easier for me than they have been for others I know – I still have friends, my parents coped with remarkable ease, my spouse (my best friend) and I will be celebrating our 34th anniversary together this October.
It is always tempting to revisit all the rejections one has experienced – it’s like prodding a wound just to remember that it’s still painful. But over the years since my transition, I think I’ve made a lot of progress in being able to recognize and celebrate the good that I have encountered. That process has been made easier because I now experience life as me, Gwendolyn Howard, not as a person pretending to be someone they aren’t.
For a number of years, I tried avoiding Unitarian Universalism and UU congregations as much as possible (and given my experiences, I hope that this is understandable). I got to be fairly adept at translating from the religious idioms of others into something I might find meaningful. Yet, in all that time, it never felt quite right. I was a visitor just passing through. A little over two years ago, I realized how tired I was of always having to adapt to a religious environment that wasn’t the right place for me, and I decided that I should try looking at Unitarian Universalism again. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
I’d gotten to know James through various circumstances, and for many reasons, he’s someone for whom I have great respect, so I spoke with him about attending here. I remember that first Sunday I visited. I can only describe the experience this way: It was good to come home.
The values have not changed – peace, compassion, justice, the belief in the worth and dignity of every person. At the same time, it seems to me that progress has been made in living these values.
Today we’re not talking about sexual orientation. I would say we’re not even talking about gender identity, which is different than sexual orientation, and, yes, the touchstone for our remarks. Both of these things, sexual orientation and gender identity are part of it, but not it. Rather, we’re talking about authenticity, about knowing who we are, and living from that knowing. We’re talking about what love really can be.
I’m sure you’ve picked up from what Gwen and I’ve said how we Unitarian Universalists have not always lived up to our ideals. Gwen’s treatment not all that many years ago shows that this process of authenticity, of knowing who we are and living from that knowing is ongoing. It is a process.
Partially this is because we see through a glass darkly. That lovely line from scripture also says there will be a time when we see clearly. I fear that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Okay, it’s a wild exaggeration. We are by our biology destined to see in part, to interpret in part, to know in part. This means we’re never quite done, we are always growing, right to the end. We are, as we know, not nouns, but verbs. And so change is the name of the game.
Now, there are counter forces in our human hearts. There is an inclination to stop, to think I like the way I see the world today. But we do that and we miss so much. In fact our whole tradition is an assertion that revelation is not closed. Instead our tradition and our discipline is to continue in wonder, and awe at the glory unfolding as our lives.
Here’s where we’re invited into the discipline of our spiritual tradition, the liberal way. If we are willing to watch our hearts and minds, to challenge our assumptions and to go ever further into the depths of what I believe we can say we are called to from before the creation of time, we will reveal our true purpose here: living into the mysteries of love.
Yes, love is a problematic term with too many possible meanings. But, it is also the word that invites us into our authentic lives, the word that speaks to our meaning and purpose in life. To separate it out from the many lesser loves, let’s call it fierce love.
This past week a meditation from a young UCC minister was making the rounds on Facebook. It was a call to this fierce love, a reference I’m sure you know to that passage from the Song of Solomon, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” His remarks caught me, because it is what we’re talking about here, our invitation into the school of love.
The Reverend Vince Amlin painted some of the picture of this fierce love. “The recent widower mooning over his sixty-year old wedding photo. The young wife staying positive in the midst of a separation she didn’t want. The men who waited years to be allowed to adopt their son. The partner who has become more caregiver than lover. The couple staying home for the weekend to sit beside their dog in his final days.”
Of course, just one person’s collection of images of what this fierce love is. I can add. Glancing at my elderly auntie sitting on the couch listening intently to her vampire romance novel. Thinking of our gathering each third Monday to make sure the hundred plus families walking into our parish house will leave with enough food for a week or two. Recalling those who make a meal in our kitchen and carry it to the homeless. And those who sit and write letters to dictators asking them to free prisoners. And there are more intimate things. A couple holding hands in this worship service. The person in this room today struggling to know herself as she truly is. We know this fierce love. Each of us can contribute to that list of images.
The love that looks deep within.
The love that reaches out.
The love that heals the broken heart, and binds up ancient wounds.
The love that gives new life.