Gender has felt uselessly complicated my entire life.
Sometimes I think that’s because I’m a non-conforming woman in a patriarchal world, and it’s hard to figure out how to be a woman when you’re not the kind of woman the world and church are comfortable with. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m not a woman at all – that “non-binary,” a gender that isn’t male or female, is a good description of what it feels like to be me.
When I first drafted this essay two years ago, I didn’t know the answer. Working on this essay today, I still don’t know the answer. I’m just not sure.
This way of writing and being human is new for me. I like to write from the far side of clarity – here are the things I KNOW about myself and God and the world! Now you can KNOW, too, thanks to me! I like writing from a sense of (however misplaced) clarity. It feels good to feel sure!
Today, though, I’m writing smack dab in the middle of the wondering. This isn’t a Coming Out essay, even though I kind of wish it was. I’m only coming out as someone who isn’t sure and is gonna say it all out loud anyway, incomplete and in progress and all. I’m trying to stay curious and humble, because none of us know ourselves as well as we think, and we’re all timebound in cultures that only have words for some experiences and some identities. Every culture has a blind spot, and some of our bodies live in places our religion or culture hasn’t found words for yet. Maybe if we’d been born in another time or place, this would be easier.
We’re in this here and now, though, and there’s no shame in asking questions we don’t know the answer to. There’s no shame in coming out, then wondering some more and realizing that we “came out” into something that doesn’t fit us anymore. Wondering is holy, and wondering out loud is a gift to ourselves and to our neighbor.
This piece is about gender, but it’s mostly about the wondering. It’s about the sacredness of the non-binary places, but it’s mostly about the mystery of a non-binary God.
I’m going through my seasonal gender dysphoria, and I’m learning to normalize wondering.
The still small voice of Gender has been complicated for me since I was tiny. I’m good at ignoring still small voices, though, especially the ones coming from my body. Evangelical purity culture taught us that bodies aren’t friends to listen to, they’re enemies to resist. I am very good at resisting my body.
My body just will not stop keeping the score, though. Sometimes my body very noisily tells me that the way I talk about myself or present myself in the world is not true. Something is off. Sometimes non-binary feels like the truest way to talk about that offness.
“Sometimes” is the most important word in that sentence, though. Sometimes I feel very strongly that Woman is NOT ME, that when they made up Gender they didn’t add my category. Sometimes I joke “my pronouns are panicking when people ask my pronouns!” because joking about the panic feels better than panicking.
Sometimes, though, I feel a deep connection to womanness – to the bravery and intimacy of the ancient nuns and lady mystics, to the intuition of fire dancing wild women, to wise funky healer women and their overgrown herb gardens, to my circle of thoughtful church women at Thursday morning Bible study.
I’d like to say that these two parts of myself have made peace with each other, but instead they take turns tapping each other out, players in a bizarre Calvinball gender game that no one will tell me the rules of. TAG! Today is solidarity with contemplative lady nuns! TAG! Today is I am a strong genderless being outside of the laws of gender like an ocean wave upon a rocky shore. TAG! Today is I AM PURE MASCULINE ENERGY. Who is gonna be playing this carnival made-up game today?? Who knows!!
I teasingly call this process my Seasonal Gender Dysphoria, the chaotic little sibling to my Seasonal Affective Disorder. Daniel M. Lavery describes his trans revelation as a sneaky demon who slithered in and out his window at night, whispering “what if you were a man, sort of?” My Seasonal Gender Dysphoria wraith is a little more chaotic – they break my window at 3AM and bang a cymbal in my ear and scream “HEY ARE YOU REALLY A WOMAN?!?!” I lie in bed flush with adrenaline in a panic, stress about it for six or seven weeks, buy eight or nine books, and follow a dozen new people on Twitter. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the sense of being “off” as a woman fades and “woman” doesn’t feel like a performance or a lie. Everything is hunky-dory for a bit, until the wraith dusts off their cymbal and comes at me again, window shattering and all, to make a mess one more damn time.
How long has this been going on? Definitely longer than I’ve had words for it. When I was sixteen I was cast as a woman for the first time in our annual high school Shakespeare play. Our theatre company was heavy on girls, so I’d always been a male character. When I got the call that I was cast as Olivia in Twelfth Night, the girliest of girls, one of the most feminine of Shakespeare’s very genderqueer leading ladies, I panicked, and stayed hysterically stressed the whole run. I asked a friend how I was supposed to “be a girl!” She laughed and told me I was a girl, presumably wondering why I thought I had to Put On womanness for the show when I was living in it every day.
I wrote about this wrestling in my “coming out queer” piece five years ago. I wrote about it slant, though, coming to the ideas from the side. I thought the essay was about bisexuality. A friend helped me workshop it before I hit Publish, and he casually suggested that “this piece seems like it’s a lot more about gender than about sexuality?”
I wasn’t ready to think about that, so I just. didn’t. Outrageous, being fully seen, when you couldn’t even see yourself.
So I put off talking about gender. I thought I couldn’t talk about it until I knew for sure. I was stuck in THIS or THAT, even around LGBTQ+ issues. I thought transgender people were “one or the other” – you are the gender you were assigned at birth, or you are the opposite, and non-binary people were maybe – well – they were outside my internalized binaries, so I just didn’t think about them at all. And Lord love me, I definitely did not think about genderqueer people, even thought friends helpfully suggested this might be a way to talk about my shifting sense of identity. But in my blessed Enneagram 1 rigidity, I didn’t want a shifting sense of gender identity. Absolutely not. We gotta find out who we are for permanent. (Maybe this desire is misplaced. Maybe in five years, I’ll be writing another essay where I wryly quote this essay as telling it slant once more. Lord have mercy on our souls, that can only ever discover our deepest selves on slant). For years, I thought I was one of two things: a cis woman wrestling with the patriarchy or a trans man in denial. Just decide, Truman, I scolded myself. Figure it out! PICK A TEAM.
The first time I talked about feeling “off” with gender to my Christian therapist, I was very nervous. I told her I was making lists to organize my thoughts about Feminism and Trans Issues and The Patriarchy and Maleness and that I’d just ordered six books. She laughed comfortably.
“Some people do find the academic path is fruitful,” she said. “It sounds like you’re doing a lot of intellectual work up there in your brain! That’s OK. But I like the embodied path of play. What if you played with this person you don’t know yet? What would he wear? What would their name be? Try it on! If it doesn’t fit – no loss, take it off.”
If it doesn’t fit – no loss, take it off. What on earth. Are we permitted to be that free??
I had never heard someone suggest that there was a way to know things besides thinking harder. I had never heard that there are things we only learn by playing. And I’d definitely never heard a Christian suggest that there’s nothing wrong with trying something, and if it doesn’t work, that the experiment itself was still OK and still sacred.
Into a culture that demands we bring our polished and fully-realized selves, and doesn’t make space for the wondering and wandering, I started to wonder about a wilder God who didn’t mind if we played a bit, and made mistakes, and took strange new paths. I imagined a God who was different from me – a God who didn’t think it was a deadly error to turn around.
I imagined a God who didn’t need me to know the answers before I started to play.
It wasn’t just fundamentalism that made me think playing with identity was scary. I had anxiety about progressive Christian progress, too. If I said I was wondering about gender, then “took it back,” would it enforce negative ideas about non-binary people? If I changed my pronouns in my bio to they/them and then changed them back, would people say aha, I told you so? If I told people I was wondering but didn’t do sufficient research, if I said something foolish that proved I hadn’t read the canon, if I showed my small, unprotected self and looked ridiculous, would it be another failure for the legitimacy of queer Christianity?
Trying something on, though, and discovering that it doesn’t fit, isn’t failure. It’s growth. It takes tremendous courage to put something on without knowing beforehand if it’ll fit. That kind of bravery is a holy thing.
Coming home to ourselves is a journey. It involves forward motion and backtracking. There are no “wrong” paths when we’re discovering our deep self. There are only paths that don’t quite fit us right. Walking down those not-quite-right-paths for a ways while you figure it out isn’t failing. It’s part of the play of becoming.
I’m writing this on the porch, drinking from my “Gender is Garbage!” raccoon coffee mug. I love this small racoon. He’s waving a tiny non-binary flag and looks unphased about the whole gender situation. I can see the top of the huge tree over the back fence shifting in the wind. Fall has hit Atlanta. The trees are changing, turkey vultures are hovering over the neighbors backyard, and crows are cackling in oak trees. I smell a bonfire. The wind is getting strong, and my fingers are getting a bit stiff and cold while I type. I want to keep writing outside, though, where it’s more untamed. Wildness is still on the edges of this city. We haven’t tamped it out entirely.
I’m trying to imagine a wilder God lately.
Bless us, we’re a rigid people who worship a rigid God we’ve created in our own image. John’s Epistle says that our interactions with people spill into our interactions with God. You can’t say you feel a certain way about God if you’ve never practiced it with people. “If we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars,” says John. “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).
In the same way, if we talk about a Mysterious God above our understanding, but don’t stay curious about the mystery of God’s creation, we’re only paying lip service to the mystery of the Divine. If we can’t stay curious about the mysteries of creation, how could we imagine a wilder God? If we can only put people into understandable terms, we’ll do that for God. We’ll only be able to see God in Western cultural ways. That God looks like a King and a Judge and other masculine, warlike characters that we’re used to submitting to because that’s the only way we understand power.
There are a lot of ways to be powerful, though. Artists and mothers and carpenters and teachers all hold a kind of power. Even Mary mistook God for a Gardener one morning before dawn.
God is so much odder and wilder and more tender and more weird than we have words for. If we can’t even see how our neighbors break outside traditions and binaries of our culture, how can our imaginations have space for this untamed God?
Learning to put our fingers in the cracks and gently peel apart our assumptions helps us know ourselves and love our neighbor. It stretches our souls so that we can see a wilder God.
The practice of wondering – making a home in the maybes, the possibilities, and the I don’t know yet‘s – is a spiritual discipline.
I’ve been messing with this piece for awhile. I’ve put off publishing it, ironically, because I secretly hoped I’d have more clarity if I waited, that if I messed with it long enough it would be more polished, more focused, more clear. Why publish something honoring the I don’t know’s if I could publish a I DEFINITELY know piece? A few years ago, I would have never published something like this. I would have been scared that someone would snort “see? Kids and their pronouns are just confused! Non-binary identities are Just A Phase!“
“It’s just a phase” is a such a strange condemnation, though. Why use the diminishing word “just” to describe the process of being a human person, in all its gorgeous changeability and malleability and ability to grow? We are all in phases, constantly – in our relationships, in our vocations, where we live and what we love and the things we prioritize and how we understand ourselves. Changing and growing and unlearning and relearning is healthy. To put “just” in front of the process of becoming ourselves is ridiculous.
Permanent things aren’t the only worthwhile ones. The things that come for a season and then pass on are sacred, too.
This idea is still so hard for me, because I tried to be a theologian at the expense of being a mystic for so long. I used citations to protect myself. “Proving” things with the original Hebrew and a stack of commentaries felt safe. The mystics made my soul sing, but I was scared of them, too. I ran from less scholarly way of knowing, because I was taught that “less scholarly” meant “less true.” I hid from knowing God through poetry or sex or a long run in the rain.
As I get older, though, I’m coming back to my vulnerable, embodied self, who knows God by touching and seeing and tasting and smelling. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Reach out your hand and put it into My side. The heavens declare the glory of God!
There’s nothing wrong with knowing God through a well-formed theological proof, and praise Jesus for the people whose deep self sings there. But my deep self was made to know God in my body. That means this is also how I was made to know myself. My argument for identity isn’t an analysis or a history lesson. My argument is my body and my prayers and my wonderings, and what it feels like to wonder in this body. My argument is what it feels like to be myself, in relationship with the One who made me.
There is no argument here except the argument of a Gardener, who knows the earth because She’s knelt down and touched it, and is willing to be patient with it while it breathes and moves and shifts with the seasons.
And the work of a gardener is slow.
It’s a privilege to live in a time when we’re permitted to wonder. We have this gift because of our queer ancestors – trans and nonbinary and genderqueer people who did the analysis and taught the history lessons, who put their own bodies in harm’s way so that I could write this essay, so that we could have space to wonder out loud. It’s a gift to hold this sacred trust. We hold it with fear and trembling, because it’s so sacred. We also hold it lightly and with delight, because it’s so sacred.
We are permitted to play. We are permitted to be this free.
Maybe I’ll play with gender and find out that “woman” makes sense for me. Maybe I’ll play with gender a bit more, and “non-binary” will feel good and true. Maybe I’ll keep discovering, and rediscovering, my whole self for years and years. Maybe I’ll change my mind a lot. OK, I’ll definitely change my mind a lot.
That will be OK, too. That will be good. The journey will teach me so much, and it already has. Take off your shoes – this wondering place is holy ground.