Exploring being me
(I considered naming this post Do you mean there's a name for me?)
In 1989 I had the privilege of working with an astute and generous psychiatrist. In one of our sessions he suddenly asked, "Have you ever thought that you'd rather have been born as a woman?" I have no recollection that I had ever thought that to myself, but it seemed so obvious that I replied, "Well, of course. But there's not much I can do about that, is there?" And went on with whatever I'd been talking about. Wisely, I think, he let it go. At that moment I had more pressing issues to manage.
I have always related much more easily to women. I've had few male friends, and those relationships have always been a little at arm's length. Once or twice, I have sensed that another man and I have both longed for something deeper and more intimate, but had no idea how to proceed. I am at ease with female friends. Female parishioners have typically confided in me in a way few males have done. I have been able to listen to those woman, and perhaps even help them, with an ease I have never had with men.
In my "Conversation" (aka job interview) with the last congregation where I was the Minister in Placement, I was casually asked, "You don't have any problems working with LGBTI people, do you?" I didn't. I was astute enough to realise that if had, I would never have been taken on as the minister. And the reasons became clear. Everyone was either LGBTIQ+, had family members who were, or had good LGBTIQ+ friends. Delightfully, no one ever pointed out who was LGBTIQ+. I simply found out over the years! And I was at home in that place.
It was a very part-time ministry placement, so I worked another paying job as an IT consultant which seemed often to end up being as much pastoral care as it was about computers and websites. I was deeply involved in care for folk in the areas of mental health and domestic violence, both within my congregation and elsewhere. Predominately women, of course.
I took some leave in early 2020 after spending months feeling increasingly weary. Once I stopped, I discovered I was exhausted to the point of being non-functional. I initially put this down to working two to four jobs for the previous 13 years. That was true, but the question, "Would you rather have been a woman," loomed back into focus. It had never quite gone away in my 30 or so years of congregational ministry. I had begun to mourn my "emotional illiteracy," grieving at what my male enculturation had done to me. I began to realise I loved colour and pretty things, and yet found I had hardly any language for aesthetics. I needed help to buy a suit for the wedding of one of my children. I had no idea how to do such a thing, let alone buy something with colours I liked. My partner and child had to come with me and show me what to buy. I could not believe how good that suit felt and how good I looked!
At the wedding, I watched the young folk dance. I can't dance; that freedom had been squashed out of me. One young woman fascinated me. This was nothing about sexual attraction. Here was a joyful abandonment to life and movement and beauty that I had longed for, and yet somehow been forbidden. Like numbers of my female friends, and my partner, she was showing me something of what I'd always wanted to be. Something—someone—I was beginning to realise I could have been.
During the time of my exhaustion, one of my closest friends told me they were transgender. It rekindled my own thoughts in this area. I shared with a friend and colleague who is also a psychologist, female of course, that I wondered if something like this was the case for me.
She suggested that perhaps I was searching for a different kind of masculinity, a healthier way to be male than the often toxic masculinity of my growing up, (and still today.) I could see her point. I had, I thought, none of the body dysphoria which can so agonise trans people. In some respects I was quite comfortable with being male—although not others. But something about this naming of myself did not fit.
I was able to articulate this in a conversation with my partner. "Take Mike," I said. Mike is my oldest male friend. His gentle and different way of being male, especially his way of expressing empathy and interest in a conversation, captivated me in the early 80's. In many respects, I have based my whole ministry style upon his example. "But there are conversations I've never had with Mike, and can’t imagine having." I said. "But I frequently have them with women."
I understand the power of naming names and labels can be restrictive, and allow us to typecast and exclude people. But they also provide a language, which means they provide new perceptions to consider the data of our lives. Give a young botany student the language to describe leaves and flowers, and suddenly they are able to see not just “gum trees,” but dozens of obviously different species. So I decided to experiment with privately naming myself "non-binary." As my transgender friend has pointed out, gender has a developing lexicon in our culture. This reflects our lack of interest—our suppression, indeed—of gender as a valid human description. It has suited us to squash everyone in to the boxes of male and female, and to ignore, devalue, or even attack those who don't fit this model of human experience. So we have little language, and we are clueless and inarticulate as a culture, about swathes of the human experience. We are willfully silent, and suppress those whose lives and experiences of life don't fit. The irony is that this distorts life even for those who hold the power in society, for it also flattens and impoverishes the landscape of their emotional lives! We are not binary creatures; we are more than right/wrong, in/out, good/bad, male/female, and full of complexity.
By "non-binary," I meant that I didn't fit. My body is male. I have been enculturated as male. And even though it has frequently made me miserable, or unwell, I can (sort of) comfortably pass for cis-gender[i]. Except that I don't fit the binary model that equates sex with gender. It is not that I am in a male body but feel I am a woman. Nor is it that I long constantly to be a woman, although I suspect that in many ways I would have been happier. (I remain well aware of the privileges being born male has given me, despite my alienation.) With women, I am instantly at home. I am safe. I feel like me.
I am a long distance cyclist. If two cyclists meet anywhere north of Clare, we always stop to compare notes. It's almost always another male, of course. And the conversation is about the wind, water, bikes, and so on—nothing intimate. The last time I was heading towards Blinman, I met a young woman. She was riding the Mawson Trail, solo, on an absolutely gorgeous pink bike. We stopped to talk, as you do. Instant rapport for me. When we set off again, I was energised, delighted, and quite deeply moved by a few minutes conversation with a complete stranger.
Why, I wondered? Yes, she was physically attractive, but it wasn't about sexual attraction. She reminded me of one of my oldest female friends; she has the same accent, and you'd not be surprised to find they were cousins. But neither was it the pathos of fond memories and regrets. She reminded me of my partner, and my daughter: strong and brave. She was everything I wanted to be: all the bravery and physicality of the long distance cyclist, with empathy, gentleness, and… femininity—I can find no other word.
A few weeks after that meeting, my bike frame broke. In the Covid shortages of the time, I could find nothing suitable to replace it in the local bike shops. I began to trawl the websites of smaller and more expensive Australian bike builders, and spotted a photo of that beautiful pink bike, and its owner, who identified as non-binary. That cracked me up, and cracked me open.
In our conversation, I'd had the slightly disconcerting experience of being "seen into." I could explain it away as merely the frank gaze of a young woman who didn't conform to gender expectations in the way she spoke to me. But something about it leaves me wondering if I was, in that meeting, gazing upon myself, and being seen by myself.
Because of naming myself non-binary, much of life looks different. I wondered in the early 90's why I was so invested in articulating why there was a place for LGB[ii] people in the Uniting Church. My answer then, was that if there was no place for them, there would be no place for me; my kind of theology would not be acceptable. I had a similar passion regarding the full humanity of women. I saw that being driven by the struggles of my mother, not the mention those of my partner and daughter. And both those understandings were true. But now I see that, in both cases, largely unconsciously, I was also seeking the acceptance and inclusion of my non-male self. I saw intriguing parallels between my life and that of my Dad, who had been a passionate member of Friends of Unity. Because of this and other observations, I wonder now how much we both knew something about ourselves for which we had no words, so that it was rendered nearly invisible, although still informing us in some way.
I spent years charting how bullying and the sense of exclusion I had experienced at school had traumatised and formed me. It was valuable work. I had also begun to see that as important as this was, it was not quite as significant as I had imagined—there were other things happening. Life had been far happier than I remembered. I had been more liked, admired even, than I ever realised.
Then a realisation arrived, almost fully formed. The problems at school had never been about the men and boys. The alpha males at school were just there. They were a nuisance to everybody, and even sometimes a danger, but they were mostly incidental to my life. It was girls who began the bullying. Why did three girls on the cusp of puberty pick on me? What did they see? It was girls who were occasionally really cruel, and it was girls who were often most accepting and kind to me. They were my people. When I stopped looking at myself, and thinking of myself, as male, I stopped interpreting all my memories and feelings as male, and as the growing pains of being male. I realised that what I had thought to be the typical feelings and struggles of a growing boy were themselves a mild body dysphoria.
Some of this reassessment was breath taking. I was writing an article about another topic and remembered a particularly appropriate quotation. I could not remember who had said this, or in which book. But I knew I had used it before. So I did a text scan of my archives. Not only did I find the quotation, but found it in a detailed prose poem about my life, written more than thirty years ago. I remember writing it, using Jung's metaphor of the female and male aspects of each of us. A long prose poem about Andrew searching for the woman he had glimpsed within himself.
And I am happier and healthier than I have been for a long time.
One of my friends fell in love with a girlfriend whilst a mum with teenagers. I can't imagine the turmoil that brought her. She said to me that she didn't think of herself as a lesbian: "I am just me." I found that wise and comforting. And the theologian James Alison says something like this. "There are not simply two genders." Nor, I might add, do we fix this by simply suggesting a third kind of in-between trans-gender. Rather, "there is a myriad of genders as we grow more fully into the image of God." And for this I thank God.
And I really need to buy some nice clothes.
Andrew Prior (Feb 2022)
[i] “The term “cisgender” (pronounced “sis-gender”) refers to people whose gender identity and expression matches the biological sex they were assigned when they were born.” https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-does-it-mean-to-be-cisgender-103159
[ii] LGB was the language used by sympathetic folks; those homosexuals, or worse, was common.
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