My 2 minute Starr King School for the Ministry Commencement Speech

I am Barb Greve…
Master of Divinity!

They said it couldn’t be done. They said there was no chance for success. Few believed it would ever be accomplished. And even in the final moments, as the ink dried on the paper, some tried to stop it from happening.

For the powerful elite do not want people who look and live as I do to succeed. If they had their way, I would not be standing before you today. I would be lying in a shallow grave, another uncounted statistic of a hate crime. Or perhaps I would be living on the streets, selling my body because while some work to prevent my success, they are also quick to objectify and eroticize our transgender and genderqueer bodies.

I should not be standing here before you today. Not in this robe, with this hood, having earned this degree. Many said it couldn’t be done. They weren’t willing to believe in the possibility for success. But one mighty little school was willing to not only place its belief in me, but to also teach me how to place belief in myself and my communities. Our mighty little school named Starr King School for the Ministry was willing to use its resources to educate, empower, and bless each of us into our shared ministries.

So, where do we go from here? We are still living in a broken world where too many people are hurting and dying. We who sit robed here tonight have been educated to counter oppression. Now is our time to share that education with the world – to ensure that our words,
our actions,
our ministries
bless the world in the spirit of love.

While the powers that be may not want people like me to survive, the world says otherwise. The world continues to bless life with a plurality of possibilities. Our ministry, should we take up this mantle, is to provide a salve for the hurt in life; to be the voice of resistance seeking out other voices in the struggle, and always…. always my dear, dear friends, be holders of spaces where plurality and life have opportunities to flourish.

Published in: on 18 May 2007 at 9.22  Comments (1)  

A Life Saved

3 May 2007
NA LREDA at Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua
Mr. Barb Greve
Dedicated to all Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators!

I sat in the dark theater, listening in wonder and anxiety as I waited for the folks around me to start snickering. I knew my jaw had dropped in disbelief, and my heart was fluttering with . . . I don’t know what exactly, excitement perhaps. Or maybe it was something deeper, a sense of validation? Or hope… hope that we are making changes in the world. As I sat there and no one around me said anything, I began to wonder if I had misheard the character. And as I thought about it more I second guessed myself so much that I no longer believed I had heard it at all. I mean, come on no character in Star Trek would start a wedding toast with the greeting, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and invited Transgender Species.” Or would they?

I asked my companion about it on the drive home. Sure enough, I had heard it right. We were feeling pretty good about life – think about it . . . language for our gender was used in the most recent Star Trek movie. Shouldn’t we feel good? Ok, so we agreed that we could live without the “species” being tacked on to the end, but still, we were feeling good. And then it hit me like a brick. We shouldn’t be feeling good; we should be outraged. Or at least be less excited than we were. We shouldn’t need recognition from pop culture to feel like our lives are worthy; that our gender does exist and is recognized.

I mean, come on – I’ve known my gender since I was in kindergarten. I figured it out at the same time I learned that I was to spend the better part of my life on rocky terrain. I remember the day when my kindergarten teacher asked us to draw a picture of what we were going to be when we grew up. Without hesitation I began drawing a picture of my future self. I had no doubt that I would grow up to be a minister and so I drew a picture of myself preaching a sermon from my congregation’s pulpit. Because church was a formal affair, I drew myself wearing my best suit. As my teacher walked around the classroom he congratulated each of the students on both our career choice and artwork. When he arrived at my place he took a quick look at my picture and asked me whom I had drawn. As I sat there in my pretty purple dress, I explained that the person in the drawing was me. He told me that, “I was wrong. I wouldn’t grow up to be a man, only boys could do that.”

I left school that day confused and with a deep understanding that I was different than the other students in my class. While my teacher was telling me that I couldn’t grow up to be a guy I was absolutely sure that I would. In some regards, this was in conflict with the lessons I was learning in church school. Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and household, I was taught to always trust my inner voice and life experiences. But what is a kindergartener to do when that inner voice and the teacher are saying contradictory messages? The lesson I learned was that my knowledge of my gender was something to be hidden and never shared with anyone ever again. Thankfully, I’m a slow learner and I challenged this lesson later in my life.

But back then, as I was growing up, I never heard the word “transgender.” No one ever told me that it was ok to identify as something other than man or woman. Alone, I struggled with how to describe what I knew inside was a truth: I was not going to grow up to be either one. And since I thought I would grow up to be a guy, I was sure some mistake had been made.

Unfortunately, society’s need to define, dichotomize, and limit gender sacrifices the real life experience of people like me. Rather than trust us to identify our own gender, society tries to force us into one of two options: man or woman.

When transgender folks are strong enough to refuse this dichotomy of gender, we are still forced to buy into a continuum that puts two options on opposing ends with us “transitioning” between the two: I was a man, now I’m becoming a woman or you identified me as a woman, but now I’m creating the man I’ve always known I am. Is it so hard to imagine that there are more than these 2 fixed points? What if there is a different point for each gender? What if some folks always stay where they start, others transition between 2 or 3 or more genders, some live in the intersection where it all comes together, and still others don’t live anywhere near the intersection?

Some of the most common questions people have asked me over the last 12 years are “How is your transition going?”, “When did you transition?”, and “When will you transition?” Interestingly, no one that I can recall has ever asked IF I will transition –

The act of transitioning,
of transformation;
of morphing
from what we were
to what we are becoming –
this act is not a simple act.
Nor is it a once in a life-time, check it off the list, “I’m done with that task now” item.
It is an act,
an action
and it can be both difficult
and constant.
We can not be anything other than whom and what we are.
We are we; I am me.
And yet at the same time,
we are in a persistent state of flux.
We are forever the link
between the past
and the future,
moving with time and space,
yet constantly caught between the done
and the imagined.
For some of what was yesterday’s future
is today’s past.
We
are the present in motion,
constantly becoming,
forever transforming what could be
into what was
and
what is
into what
can be.

Just as we are forever the link between what was and is, I am also forever myself. The all of me, not just the pieces I want to focus on nor just the pieces you want to focus on, but all of the pieces. And yet, more often than not the focus comes back to the “trans–”… that is: transgender and transition, but not necessarily transformation.

On Star Island, I was asked, “How is your transition going?” – Perhaps she meant it as a friendly question, such as “how are you?” or “how is your family?” But it digs deeper. Is it truly meant as a friendly question, asked by someone who is or is becoming an ally? Or is it more asked out of entitled curiosity? Does it matter that my transition lasted a week or less – that my “transition” is less about me than it is about you. I suspect you assume that I am transsexual, not transgender and as such you also assume I will change my body and name. …

For perhaps you have known me in previous identities and this present one makes it difficult for you to cleanly put me in a box. But I am un-boxable – at least not boxable in the sense that that question implies. How do I answer you with authentic integrity without making one or both of us uncomfortable?

Howard Thurman wrote in his book The Search for Common Ground, “I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”(1) Much as that is the sentiment with which I move through the world, I have learned that for me to move at all is to risk making it difficult for you to be you. And conversely, for you to be you often makes it difficult for me to be me. Does this mean that we should stop moving in the world? Perhaps build walls and cocoons around ourselves and never interact with others? Shelter ourselves from the danger of influence and change; protecting our imaginations until we no longer dream…until we give up and believe that only a Creator, or Savior, can make a difference. When we do this we forget that anyone can Co-Create.

Walls, like chrysali will not hold forever. We can choose to either break out of them when we are ready to fly or wait until they crumble on their own. Each one of us who chooses to emerge from our chrysalis and re-engage with the world is a Creator – a person who dreams of flying and opens up to the possibilities waiting to happen. In a world order that continually pushes us towards isolation and fear, pitting one group against another, in a world such as this, anyone who refuses to stop dreaming, who engages in communities, who challenges fears, privileges, and assumptions, who breaks out to fly – anyone who does these things can make a difference.

In my experience, Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators have continuously been the dreamers of our faith. You have not only dreamed new dreams, but taught our members of all ages how to dream. And you have taught many of us how to bring our dreams into being. You have created classrooms and communities where possibilities are waiting to happen.

As a transgender guy in a world that tells me on a moment-to-moment basis that my life is without value, I am certain that it has been the values and self-worth that being raised Unitarian Universalist instilled in me that have not only sustained me but also inspired me and compelled me to help bring about a better world.

I have little doubt that without my church youth group, I would not have so successfully survived my teen years. In those years I wondered if I would ever be understood. I worried that I would never be able to be myself and be loved. Had I not had our Unitarian Universalist faith and the support of my congregation to fall back on, I would have given up during the hard times. But my church school and the people of my congregation taught me to trust the entirety of my life’s journey.

Sadly, not all transgender people are instilled with such a strong empowering message. As transgender people we often feel great despair deep in our hearts because it is rare that we are told that we are good people. Everything in our lives reinforces that there is not yet a place in the world for us. From public bathrooms and dressing rooms, conference housing options, governmental identifications, and language we are reminded that we do not belong. We do not see our lives reflected in the stories told in history classes or the authors read in literature classes. The first question we hear asked when a baby is born is not “is it healthy” but rather, “is it a boy or a girl?” Again, we are not even counted among the options.

Despite all this, transgender people have existed and survived. To exist at all is to show courage and fortitude of the spirit that cannot be destroyed. But too often spirits are broken. They are broken not because we are transgender but because the world has broken us in its attempts to make us into something that we are not. It has broken our hearts and spirits time and time again in an attempt to mold us into a binary gender system rather than embrace us for the natural diversity that we bring forth. …

Our spirits are broken because after years and decades of being reminded that the world does not want to acknowledge our existence, we internalize this message. We question everything we are and do. We begin to believe that we are not as worthy as other people in our lives. We accept substandard health care, and are thankful that we have health care at all. We give up our religions and rather than find new ones, we assume there is no religion that would accept us and thus we are left to our own devises to create spiritual fulfillment.

Religion need not reject the variety of existences that transgender people provide. Churches need not be additional places of pain and suffering for the transgender spirit. Religion and churches are meant to lift the spirit up and remind us of the goodness in life. Unitarian Universalism can do this.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. I know that Unitarian Universalist religious education saves lives. I know this because it has saved my life time and time again. As the television show Babylon 5’s character Brother Alwyn Macomber says, “Our faith sustains us in the hour when reason tells us that we can not continue, that the whole of our whole lives is without meaning.”(2) Through religious education, I was taught and subsequently internalized a faith that has sustained me throughout my life.

Our congregations provide us with, James Luther Adams writes, “A place to practice what it means to be human.” I believe that the world needs more places like this – places where we can each show up with all of our gifts, flaws, and growing edges. Places where when we join with one another we can be a collective force for goodness in the world.

Unitarian Universalism has a prophetic message that proclaims freedom of thought and equal justice; it reminds us that all life is connected and interconnected. Our faith calls us to think not just of ourselves and our immediate neighbors but also of those beings geographically far from us. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to be the best human beings we can be, guides us in times of trial and tribulation, and gives us a faith that holds us through all life brings our way.

Throughout our history Religious Educators have been the tenders of the faith. You have held our feet to the fire and carried the flame of our faith to each new generation. Without your steadfastness and imagination we would not be who we are today. Unitarian Universalism saves lives because you put the time, effort, and love into creating communities where dreams can be dreamed. Bless you all for jobs well done – you make a difference; you save lives!
May it be so.
Amin. Ashé. Blessed Be.

Endnotes:

1) Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground. (Richmond: Friends United Press 1971), xiii.

2) Babylon 5, Episode no. 422, first broadcast 27 October 1997. Directed by Stephen Furst and written by J. Michael Straczynski (Although this episode is part of the fifth-season production run, it’s actually the fourth-season finale. The fifth-season finale, “Sleeping in Light,” was shot during the fourth-season production run because it wasn’t clear that the show was being renewed; once the renewal was announced, another episode had to be substituted. For some reason the onscreen credits at the end of the episode don’t reflect that; they list a production number of 422 rather than the more accurate 501.)

Published in: on 3 May 2007 at 9.30  Leave a Comment