For Workshop 2, From "I" to "We", Activity 4, The Margin, the Center
Excerpted from “Centering the Marginalized: Symphony and Triptich,” a post on Medium by CB Beal, written in response to a Spring 2019 UU World article.*
I. The Margin, The Center
I used to refer to myself as a “masculine of center, tomboyfarmgrrl, butch, queer, woman-ish type person.” That was quite a litany of words needed to describe my internal understanding of my gender. I now find that “non-binary” or “genderqueer” is much tidier, and accurate. We have developed a level of understanding and nuance in our language that means we don’t have to work so hard to name approximations of identity; we can hold some common language.
It’s ok for cisgender people to be confused, to learn as they go… we all did, we all do. What’s problematic is when cisgender people speak to cisgender people about trans people when we’re right over here.
I’ve been a UU religious professional for nearly 20 years, both within congregations and as a consultant. I teach consent and sexuality education, preemptive radical inclusion, and other workshops supporting justice and equity. One of my more popular workshop experiences is Mind Your T’s and Q’s: Supporting Transgender/Non-Binary People.
During those 20 years, as part of preparation for a conversation about a hire in a congregation, I was told, “Don’t be too butch.” The thinking went like this: If I was going to be a lesbian/queer person working with children in a Sunday school, I should downplay my masculinity.
I didn’t have to put on a feminine dress, they promised, but really, the button-up shirts and ties should probably go. It was also recommended that I use the name Cindy and avoid my preferred nickname, CB, because “Cindy is more professional.” Given my social location as a queer masculine of center person, I was encouraged to maximize “professionalism.” I was encouraged to let my more feminine partner choose my clothes and dress me. Since I don’t understand women’s clothing, when I took this advice I adorned my body for someone else. When I was wearing my own clothes, when I dressed so that I felt the most myself, voices around me suggested I made them uncomfortable. And so it followed that I should myself be less comfortable in order to attend to the comfort of people who do not have to live in my body.
Expecting some people to modify themselves for others’ comfort is a poor starting point for engagement with a faith tradition, and it’s further complexified when it is our calling, and/or our source of income.
When we UU’s speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion. Inclusion without allowing people to be present in their natural state is like simply pouring more milk into rice pudding. It creates a larger mushier dish, which, while still palatable and maybe even delicious for some, is not, in fact, a whole meal. It is not equity. It is not justice.
When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.
In the practice of preemptive radical inclusion, which is how I frame this work, it is our responsibility as leaders to continually understand that who “We“ are is made up of multitudes. Our responsibility is to work harder than we would otherwise to ensure that our privilege has not prevented us from perceiving the very thing we are attempting to unveil. Our responsibility is to learn about the ways our privilege hides reality from us and fools us into believing we have accurate insight. Our responsibility is to practice humility and curiosity. Our responsibility is to bear witness to others of us who are marginalized and oppressed, to center them, to hold up their lives and experiences. To shhhhhhhhhhhh (not talk, just listen) much more often than we are used to.
* The UU World story, “After L, G and B,” focused on the comfort, discomfort, and learning process of cisgender people, rather than providing transgender Unitarian Universalists a space to speak and write of their own experiences. The article, the magazine editor’s apology, and links to several responses from transgender Unitarian Universalists can be found on the UU World website.