Archives for the month of: August, 2013

Magazine-illustration-1950s-colour-lithoYesterday Liam and I participated in our third We Do Campaign action for the Campaign for Southern Equality. You can read about our participation in two earlier stages here and here. Recently, clerks in such places as New Mexico and Pennsylvania have been issuing marriage licenses despite the fact that their individual states do not sanction same-gender marriages (New Mexico neither approves nor prohibits them and Pennsylvania is not legally recognizing the marriage licenses issued in spite of state laws). Here in North Carolina, we have added Amendment One to the books, in spite of the tireless lobbying against it. Amendment One makes any kind of same-gender union illegal in this state. The Campaign for Southern Equality seeks, in this stage, to engage a clerk of court, bring them into our experience, and encourage them to stand with us in an act of conscience and award a marriage license to a same-gender couple. We hoped to be that couple.

In anticipation of our action, Liam wrote a beautiful and heartfelt letter to the clerk of courts here in Forsyth County requesting that we be granted a marriage license. Although the answer was a resounding and precipitating “no”, we still prayed that, when we got to the desk and actually presented our story to the clerk, our no would become a “yes”. Wishful thinking.

Our action took place early in the morning and we arrived at the public staging area at 8:15. We were greeted with hugs and an overwhelming amount of love and respect from friends; some live locally but others drove from the far reaches of our state and from South Carolina to support us and the We Do Campaign. Our incredible friends from Gender Benders got themselves up at 2:30 a.m. to make the 3 hour journey. My heart skipped a beat to bear witness to the support of our friends. After greetings, we filled out our license application alongside the other couple, our friends L Rankin and Kristin Hedin (who would also be requesting a license in the action). The inimitable Reverend Jasmine Beach Ferrara gathered us into a small circle and gave voice to our prayers and wishes for the day’s event.

The group at large circled up and prayers were spoken by the clergy present. Our own UCC pastor was in attendance (his third time accompanying us as well), along with two of our very good friends from the UU church in Asheville, NC (a couple who had participated in a We Do Campaign action in the last stage). My heart was racing as we queued up to head into the registry of deeds and I clung tightly to Li’s hand.

Liam and I do not talk about what we are planning to say prior to each action. I generally let Li do the talking as I tear up and well over when speaking on issues that hit close to home. As a pastor and educator, he is used to public speaking and does so well and eloquently. This was no exception. We approached the desk (taking note of a heterosexual couple applying for their own license at the next counter), and before Li would make a request, he retained our licenses and asked the clerk (a nervous smile plastered on her kind face, she was clearly steeled for the onslaught) to hear our story.

I cannot tell you exactly what he said to her. I remember her face. I remember the fact that she never once broke eye contact during the telling of it. I remember hearing not unkind laughter from the couple next to us. I remember the feeling that the support group behind me radiated love and affection and had our backs. I remember that Li did not identify himself as a member of the trans* community and being surprised about that. (One of the things we wanted to focus on was the fact that when his gender marker changes—one initial on a driver’s license—our outcome in these actions will automatically change as well; which just proves how ludicrous these laws actually are. We will be the same couple that has stood at that counter and been denied three times.) And I remember screwing up my courage, looking into her eyes and that frozen smile (after already having been told “no”) and saying to her “Your job is to grant joy to loving couples every day. Would you deny us that joy?”

The answer was the same: “I’m sorry but I cannot issue you a marriage license at this time.”

I don’t know why I thought these actions would get easier as time goes on. You’d think we’d be old hat at this and it would be no big deal. The truth is that it gets much more difficult. The fact that we are second-class citizens is thrown into the harsh light of day. The fact that the majority of my home state chose to discriminate against me and went so far as to put a constitutional amendment on the books banning me from legally solidifying my marriage to the person I love is staggering. We turned from the desk and I walked out, ahead of Li, and into the loving arms of a friend who literally held me up as I my breath caught and my chest heaved. I had no control over the sobs that escaped me and clung to her as other friends rushed over with tissues and comfort. My heart shattered and I was left feeling very much less than.

Less than the couple that left before us, smiling and on their way to lifelong recognition of their marriage. Less than respected. Less than a citizen. Less than human.

The remainder of the morning was filled with prayer, support, love, friendship, coffee, and a few interviews with local news agencies that never made it into print. I awoke this morning to a text informing me that my photo was plastered all over the local newspaper’s website. I have yet to see a print version, so I’ve no idea whether our action warranted ink or not.

In the end, we accomplished a great deal. We made a connection with someone who is in a position to make a difference. We told our story, publicly and honestly, and asked her to see us as worthy of the same human rights as our heterosexual counterparts. We looked into her eyes and she looked back at us. She “saw” us. While we were not granted equality at this time, my prayer continues to be that someone, somewhere, will come out from behind that counter and say “Yes, I will grant you the right to marry your partner. The laws are unjust, you are hurting no one in so doing, and I want to stand on the side of love.” The action continues and we will pray for just such a day.

Page001The South doesn’t have the best reputation for being liberal or accepting. My own state of North Carolina has become somewhat of a police state and bills are being passed on a near daily basis that restrict our rights. Unless you are a white upper-class male you can’t vote and unless you live somewhere not North Carolina, you can’t get a safe abortion. But you can carry a concealed weapon into a bar. So that’s something (says the pacifist with the Quaker upbringing).

In the midst of all of this frustration with my home state, Liam and I traveled deeper into the south last Friday afternoon for the most unlikely of events: Camp GB. Through the Campaign for Southern Equality’s We Do Campaign, Li and I got involved with a rather ragtag group of renegades called the Gender Benders. They are a rapidly growing non-profit organization consisting of trans* and genderqueer folks—mostly young folks—who offer each other support, education, and resources for mental health and physical transition, to name but two. We have been blessed to attend a couple of legal workshops and Liam was invited to present his work on spiritual reconciliation, which was received with so much positivity that we carried a glow in our hearts for weeks. Out of that opportunity rose a discussion about a day-long retreat. That discussion turned into the possibility of a weekend retreat and Camp GB was born.

It was born five weeks ago, to be precise and it was built on a prayer and a spitball. There was dust in the coffers and no time to plan but these hard workers made it happen. My hat (you know, that straw fedora with the black band?) is off to the two original members/leaders and their respective partners. They embarked on a mad Internet fundraiser and in no time had all that they needed and then some to house and feed every single member that wished to join us, free of charge. In the end, the attendance, at its high point, was likely around 30 (the overall membership is into the 200s, but distance/jobs/short notice made it difficult for some). At Sunday’s family/friends meeting we saw numbers well into the 40s, but more about that later.

So there we were, two old fogies lugging our bags up the porch steps on a Friday evening. The air was thick with the humidity that would stick to us like Saran Wrap for the remainder of the weekend and the porch was already full of beautiful young people in all states of glorious gender non-conformity. I will admit that I was full of trepidation and experienced the first of several moments of self-consciousness. I would estimate that the average age of this group falls around 22 or 23, maybe even younger. We are twice that and then some. I was acutely aware of my silver hair and Li’s face well-lined with character. The camp was held at Ivy Acres in Piedmont, South Carolina, and is an RV Campground for those 45 and older. I imagined that the campers thought we were wayward old folk, heading up to the office to check in. I could hear the creaking in my joints.

Yet, as they welcome every single person they encounter, so too did they welcome us. They welcomed us as allies, as compatriots, as their pastor (by the end of the weekend, Liam was being introduced as such) and his wife, as friends and confidantes. I felt an overwhelming motherly love toward each of these incredibly brave souls. These are my heroes. Each of them–where they are now and where they have been and where they are heading. Some of them I had met, briefly, during one of the previous workshops or meetings; some of them I had seen only on Facebook. By the end of the weekend, I felt as though I had formed the first groping tendrils of bonds that will last a lifetime.

I’m not going to recap the schedule, but I will refer you here, should you wish to learn more. Suffice it to say that our time was jam-packed with a wide variety of offerings. We had meditation sessions and breakout groups and a Spirit Walk (which, sadly, I slept through as I had hit a wall of emotional overload and came away with a particularly nasty headache) and meetings to learn more coping skills (who knew that my own husband could still teach me a thing or two about getting through panic and anxiety?). I had the wonderfully good fortune to co-facilitate a partners and allies group, which I expect will lead to more support of my own ministry. And the food! Oh, the food. Dancing! Birthday cake! Team building exercises filled with laughter and camaraderie!

I could go on and on about what an amazing time was had by all, but what I really want to say is this: these people really are the bravest human beings on the planet. They are the intrepid explorers of the road far less traveled. They are, by turns, exuberant and introspective. Many are fledglings, just shaking their tentative wings in preparation for flight. Several are confidently pointing the way, having gone before and beaten back the underbrush. My own husband is early in his physical transition and it seems that testosterone becomes the great equalizer—at times I felt surrounded by pre-teen boys ranging in age from 20-50. I know that he felt a true kinship with these young men and women and those that blow my mind by being able to see their own fluid place on the gender spectrum that is neither one nor the other.

At the close of the weekend, we wrapped with a family and friends meeting that was facilitated by a local family therapist, Landa Basham. We had gone for a tour of the extensive and beautiful grounds and came back to see the porch, living room, and front yard filled with parents, friends, siblings, partners, and children. All of them there to offer various levels of support. I really had managed to hold my tears all weekend (unusual for me as I am a crier, but I think the constant laughter kept my weeping at bay), but I admit to misting up then. Growing up as “other” I never had this kind of support system, and I know my husband would have benefitted from a group like the GenderBenders. Their mantra has become “You are not alone,” and I felt that so keenly in that moment. While some family members were still expressing doubt and hesitancy and insistence upon using birth names and pronouns, some were not there at all.  Yet the overwhelming message was clear: no one was going through this stuff alone. Each of these pioneers has each other. A whole group of caring individuals that love each other unconditionally and accept each other where they are and where they’ve been and where they are heading.

I realize that this sense of magic will wear off quickly. We return to the real world and instantly we are confronted with life and all of its discrimination. I already see members, who just spent a weekend wrapped in the loving arms of acceptance and encouragement, struggling against self-doubt, self-hatred, deep depression, and even suicidal impulses. As a much older woman who has been there (yes, I have been there), I want to take each of these children (to me they are children, my children) and shake them by the shoulders. I want to tell them to look around at each other and remember that they have all that they need to succeed right here. They are part of the luckiest group in the world; a group that holds each other up and lets the light shine through the cracks and into the deepest, most hurt part of their souls. “You are not alone.” And, when they are ever in doubt that their lives will never be more than they are right now, they should look to these two old veterans and be reassured: it really, really does get better.

In the meantime, to my dear Gender Benders: I love you. I am grateful for each of you. You, you are my heroes.