Welcoming Capacity

“As a pastor, I have found,” said one woman, “that if you welcome a person from a place of capacity, engaging what they have to offer, rather than from a place of need, deciding how you can solve their problems with your answers, that they tend to open up more.”


What she didn’t go on to explain was why greeting them with a question — what are you bringing to us? — is so much more difficult than greeting them with an answer.

With an answer, you are asserting your own beliefs, staying in control.

With a question, you are opening to change, being willing and even desirous of having your understanding changed, your group changed by the contributions of another.   You come from a place of openness and vulnerability, expanding your world by adding a new relationship, a new view and new gifts to it.

“What do you want?” a pastor asked me once.

“I want what everyone wants,” I replied.

“Surely everyone wants different things,” he sniffed.

“I want to be seen, accepted and valued for my special and unique contributions to the community.”

He thought for a moment, then agreed.  “Yes,” he said.  “That is what everyone wants.”

The most painful thing about trans is not to be able to give your gifts and have them accepted,” I wrote in 2002.

For me, the essence of queer, of engaging teachy preaching over preachy preaching, is the willingness to open to seeing the world in a new way and being transformed, growing, through that experience.   The preachy way is to impose your own beliefs on the world, but the teachy way is to never stop learning new ways to have your beliefs sharpened and deepened, learning to put your values into practice.

One pastor decided to tell us that she had a bad experience with a non-passing transperson who was just too needy and demanding.  Her question was about how to not have to take on the burden of broken people, even the challenge of entering their journey and helping them find the resources that they need.

I am not safe in any community that seeks to erase my own nature for the comfort of the group.   I understand the pull towards stability and the apparent peace of non-challenge, but I know that is a false and vain comfort.   I am a non-passing transperson and to ask me to work to pass for the comfort of the group is to ask me to conceal and deny part of my truth.

“I was at a service and a transperson read the lesson,” the same pastor said, “and I felt so open, safe and welcomed.   This person crossed many barriers, of class and race and status and was so embraced by the church that I knew that I would also be embraced, that I was safe there.”

The difference between coming into a place where you have to be the one to fight to open the hearts and minds of those around you and coming into a space where those hearts and minds are already open, people having done the work to be inclusive, queer and valuing of the wide possibilities of humanity is heart rendering.   If no one has been able to open them before, what chance do you have?

When we welcome someone from capacity and not need, we expand and build our world, making it a little bigger and a little stronger.   We also make it a little more messy and a little more challenging, but that is always a side effect of growth and healing.    We cannot stay neat and proper and also open to new creation and new compassion.

As a transperson,  the most difficult thing is engaging other people’s fears, as I also said in 2002.  The fear that their neat and comfortable world may be disrupted by people who have walked right through the wall that separates the genders, that they may have to recalibrate what “normal” is to them is one that is very hard for a visibly queer person to engage.    We become the problem, the target, rather than them owning their own fears.

I know I am gifted with much to offer.  I have had to do the hard work of accepting my own queer gifts, that big bold painting as I wrote in 1994.   Finding a way to return those hard won gifts is always a challenge, as Joseph Campbell reminds us.

The gift of gracious receiving
is one of the greatest gifts
we can give anyone.
— Mister Fred Rogers

The greatest gift we can give one another
is rapt attention to one another’s existence.
— Sue Atchley Ebaugh

Opening to the capacity of another person isn’t just a gift to them, it is a gift to ourselves and to our community, expanding both.

Scary Tranny

You know, I suppose there are cute transwomen in the world, but I have long known that I am not one of them.

Years ago, after a Halloween party, I did the work of guiding a fellow so he could get his van out of a parking space.   I was a vision in sliver motorcycle vinyl, all zippers and fishnets .

“Thank you!” he told me.  “I’d kiss you if you weren’t so scary!”

After meeting me, Jeffery Roberson told a friend of mine that he found me “scary bright.”  When the amazing Varla Jean Merman‘s alter ego finds you scary, well, honey, you know that you are scary.

Even the arrogant Russian pulmonologist who misdiagnosed my father in ICU two years ago remembers me, according to my sister who saw him last week.

And tonight, at a Presbyterian presentation on Transgender Identities, Alex Patchin McNeill knew that I was trouble the moment he looked into my eyes.  I eventually got some thanks for my contribution, but the pastor of my local church who was down on “non-passing transpeople,” never chose to connect with me after I made my discomfort about that judgment clear.

The most valuable commodity in the world is human attention.   We usually dole it our parsimoniously, trying to interpret other people in our context rather than wasting the attention on really hearing and reflecting the other person.

When people threaten to demand too much attention, too much engagement, too much transformation, most people learn how to shut those people down and assign their own meaning to them.

I don’t know quite why I am scary.

I’m big boned, yes, which doesn’t help with cuteness, but more than that, I suspect, I look actively present in every moment.   You can tell I am seeing you, probably more of you than you intended to show.   I’m not looking for your affirmation or friendship, I am looking for respect.

One of the issues tonight was aging, how people expect older people to be either caretakers or be abject old fools.   Few people know how to reach into a mature life with grace and empathy, instead assuming that older people should take care of them.    So many people expect transpeople to do the same thing, be obligated to be their guide to a challenging and  scary subject, either aging or transgender.

When I end up opening my mouth, though, I end up speaking like a writer, with grace and authority, clear and sharp.   Somehow, years of exploring and polishing my own thoughts tend to leave me with that skill.  Ask enough questions and you end up with a few good answers.    People who see clearly and then speak those truths are scary, just as my parents proved when I was eight and they decided my family nick name should be “Stupid” in an attempt to devalue me.

In my family, my Aspergers family, I learned very early that cute just didn’t cut any ice.   I was left to fend for myself from as early as I can remember.  I  fought with and for my family from an early age, and that didn’t stop until 2012 when I helped my parents die.

I am not unpleasant or nasty.  I know how to be appropriate.  I am very good at using humour to make a point.   I do, however, know how to ask just the wrong question at just the wrong time, one that shakes up convention and rationalization to cut to the core.   Pleasantries don’t interest me, transformation does.

I have spent my life being a scary tranny, making jokes to an audience too afraid to laugh.    It would be lovely to think that some people see me as cute or at least useful, as one mother did tonight as we chatted about the issues around having a queer child, but I am more used to people not getting the joke.

My power is real and is seen, I know.  It just isn’t always engaged, especially by people who feel the fear and need to stay where they are.  I will go there and not back down.   In fact, I want to go to those deep places where emotion roils, because those are the places where healing is needed.   I show the scars and the wisdom of that journey, show my willingness to engage in every moment.

I’m amazing to be in conversation with if you want to grow, annoying as hell if you need to stay where you are, as I am often reminded.   Death and rebirth served here, often far too much for even the closest friend.

I am a big person, with a big brain and a big spirit,, paying big attention, and that can often seem to be too much for people.

In the end, though, life is, as I told the therapist when I was 11, about being who you are.  I am who I am.    And that seems to be a very queer, very challenging, scary tranny.