As I sit in church watching my friend Paul preside over communion, I am moved to tears.
Paul and I were both Presbyterians. After finishing Princeton Seminary as an out gay man, Paul joined a congregation that was aligned with both the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Presbyterian Church USA. I joined the same church a few years later. That’s where we met and became friends.
Despite Paul’s gifts for ministry, the Presbyterian Church would not ordain him because he is openly gay. The dually aligned status of our congregation presented him with a choice and an invitation: He could stay in the Presbyterian Church, which was his home, but where he could not fulfill his calling, or he could transfer his affiliation to the UCC and pursue ordination.
After much soul-searching, Paul decided to pursue ordination. I remember vividly the day he was ordained as a UCC minister and presided over the Lord’s Supper that first time. Emotion was palpable. It was a moment of both joy and grief as Paul stepped forth into this new identity.
It’s several years later. Now as I watch him in this, his not-so-new church, far from where I first met him, he says the words of institution as nonchalantly as if he had been saying them all his life. I weep tears of joy at seeing him, after so many years of struggle, fulfilling his call. He has survived the difficult choice to leave the church he was raised in, where he found his faith, and he has made a new home.
I know many other lesbian and gay ministers and seminary graduates who have been faced with a similar choice and decided to stay in their denomination of origin to work for reconciliation. Each has a unique story. They are prophets and ministers of transformation in a church that often seems it would be just as happy without them.
And then there is me–and others like me. I am both in and out of the Presbyterian Church. I claim this “both-and,” caught somewhere in between.
I care deeply about the Presbyterian Church and its struggles. I remain a member of a local Presbyterian congregation, serve as an elder, and regularly participate in the life of the church. But I have also left the Presbyterian Church. I no longer attend Presbytery meetings. I keep national church politics and the struggle to reshape the Presbyterian Church at arm’s length. I am wary of identifying myself too much as Presbyterian. That identity feels like a trap that holds me in an embattled state of being, unable to be “home.”
Yet I do not have it in me to abandon my church tradition and identify with the UCC or some other more affirming church body–though I could easily do so without even leaving my local church.
I am somewhere in between, neither in nor out. I live at the margins of each identity while seeking to be at the center of myself. I have let go of the idea that the Presbyterian Church is capable of holding my full spiritual identity.
These struggles and choices mirror my dilemma around gender identity.
I am a woman. But I have come to realize that this label has created substantive internal conflict for me. No matter how I have tried to reconstruct “woman,” it still feels limiting–as if it somehow cuts off an important part of me.
I will always be a woman in the same ways that I will always be a Presbyterian. Both of these identities and affiliations have shaped me into who I am in important ways. But I am also letting go of the idea that “woman” is capable of holding my full gender identity. I am freeing myself to explore my own inclinations and leadings without feeling any pressure to justify them in terms of a “female” identity.
Certainly “man” is another option. I am sometimes mistaken for a man and could pass. I have seriously considered whether that label fits me better than “woman.” But it’s just not who I am. I may be male by association in some circumstances, by the structures and traditions of our society, but I don’t feel it is my journey to become a transsexual man. For me, such a transition would not solve my dilemma–in the same way that actively identifying with the United Church of Christ would not bring me home. It is simply not who I am.
I am somewhere in between. Not really male. Not completely comfortable as female. I am OtherWise. I appear to live on the cusp of indecision. But only because we are all taught to demand a decision.
Social cues taught me that it was not acceptable to “be whatever I wanted to be.”
It was when I began to read the work of Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook, that I began to let go of the struggle to fit into male or female boxes. I was able to name the insidious societal violence I experienced growing up as a child, a violence I call nonconsensual gender.
We are assigned a gender at birth. This label–male or female–goes on to define nearly every interaction we have as children and adults. It is permanent, immutable, and nonnegotiable.
Some of us–and this is my experience–enter a social world where the expectations associated with this label terrorize us. The pressure to conform is constant. We are expected to cut off parts of ourselves in order to fit into binary boxes: either male or female. In addition, we are expected to graft on pieces of identity that feel utterly foreign to us–further threatening our integrity. This pressure is applied through threat, command, and outright hostility, as well as through systematic but nuanced forms of reaction, rejection, disapproval, abandonment, and lack of support.
This subtle violence leaves its mark. The violence and terrorism of nonconsensual gender begins so early, however, that we hardly “remember” it. It has simply always been part of the fabric of our lives. We grow accustomed to this systemic abuse. Our adaptations become unconscious habits.
Personally, I was raised to be a little feminist. I had always been told that I could be anything I wanted. This understanding empowered me in a variety of ways–from playing with toy cars instead of Barbies to being good at math and science and sports. I always had unconditional support at home. But nonetheless, at a subconscious level, I learned that there were also gender limits and expectations.
The message of conformity came to me in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. When I was done playing in the dirt with the boys, I would have to line up with the pretty girls in dresses, reminding me that I didn’t fit in either world. The boys on my primary school basketball team blatantly refused to pass me the ball–even after I scored three-quarters of our points! Recognition of achievements was regularly noted with reference to my gender. Returning my outstanding work on several science papers, my otherwise progressive high school teacher joked, “Nobody likes a smart girl.” Whether for kindergarten plays or college basketball team travel, there was a social expectation that I wear a dress.
Social cues taught me that it was not acceptable to “be whatever I wanted to be.” I learned to watch my step and made constant choices between conforming to or resisting the gender expectations of those around me.
I am a survivor of the violence and terrorism of nonconsensual gender, but I am no longer divided against myself.
As an adult, when store clerks call me “sir” and then recognize their mistake, I find the intensity of their anxiety confounding. As a child I was often mistaken for a boy, and such negative reactions, experienced regularly, communicated a great deal to me about the impropriety of my identity. In fact, I wore long hair from junior high through college specifically to avoid that experience. Such adaptations helped me survive, but they also threatened my integrity.
Through careful presentation and social awareness, I somehow attempted to reconcile these two radically opposite notions–that I was both pure potentiality and that I was deeply wrong. And on the surface, I guess, I made it work. But the dissonance I experienced cut deep. My subconscious learned well what society taught me through years of interactions and assumptions and expectations and reactions. I know now that simplistic labels do not fit the complexity of our actual identities.
Having identified myself as a survivor of this systemic, societal abuse, I am now empowered to explore my gender identity from a fresh position, rejecting both “male” and “female.” Instead I claim “OtherWise” as my gender identity. In that process, I am slowly growing more aware of the pieces of myself that I attempted to cut off in order to survive–the “boy” parts and the “girl” parts that were pitted against one another. I am learning to put the pieces back together in new ways. I am a survivor of the violence and terrorism of nonconsensual gender, but I am no longer divided against myself.
Each of us has a gift to bring when we live with integrity. Yet we can discover the nature of the gift only if we do live in a way that is authentic to who we are.
Only now, from a place of growing wholeness, can I question more deeply the assumptions that forced me to make such agonizing choices, as if the world would fall apart if I remained suspended somewhere above or between the two limited options of male or female.
We are taught that it is essential to be one or the other. You are either in the Presbyterian Church or not. You are either male or female. You have one and only one identity, and the lines are allegedly clear.
Well, I refuse to make that choice. To do so would do violence to myself. It would violate the fullness of identity that is me.
Instead I claim my place as OtherWise. And this is the OtherWisdom which I bring: that we do not have to choose. That “either-or” is not the only option. That this place of “both-and” is one of joy and fullness–even as it brings new grief and struggle.
I bring you this OtherWisdom–that your own integrity must define your identity. For some this will mean continuing to identify with the gender (or church) you were assigned at birth, while shaping and reshaping that tradition and what it means to you as you change and grow and make visible your deepest self.
For others, the choice will be different. Erin Swenson left behind the gender identity she was assigned at birth in order that she might live fully in her identity as a woman. This is similar to my friend Paul leaving behind the church tradition of his birth to live fully in his identity as a UCC minister. Paul’s early life as a Presbyterian will forever affect his identity and his story–but he is now fully a member of the United Church of Christ. Similarly, while Erin is forever influenced by her early life as a male, she is now fully identified as female in gender.
In each case, there is a transition, a change in identity. The person inside might be basically the same–but the individual makes a choice, a change in identity, in order to live with more integrity and honesty.
And then there are the rest of us. Those who refuse to choose. I choose to stay suspended somewhere in between. I don’t correct people when they mistake me for a man. Yet, if forced to choose, I identify as a woman.
But something deep inside of me is set free when I say both (or neither). When I claim this label “OtherWise,” I experience a fullness of spirit that brings with it a powerful sense of joy and wholeness. There are these two parts of myself (i.e. “masculine” and “feminine”) which have long been in conflict with each other. In OtherWise they make peace, join hands, and begin to dance.
I don’t know yet all that this new identification will mean for me. But I am sure of this one thing: Each of us has a gift to bring when we live with integrity. Yet we can discover the nature of the gift only if we do live in a way that is authentic to who we are.
Our choices will surely vary. Identities may shift with time. But together, we weave a story of healing, which joins with others throughout the centuries. Like the blind man in John’s Gospel who was asked to explain his healing and new identity, let us testify to our own integrity and sing out along with the One in whose image we have been created: “I am who I am” (John 9:9).
©2001 Chris Paige. All rights reserved. Originally published in The Other Side magazine, May-June 2001, Vol. 37, No. 3.