What's Tony Thinking

Twice In One Week: It’s a Family Affair


Actually it’s twice in one day, for a blog, which is unheard of (for me). But this is Transgender Day of Visibility, so with permission, I am reprinting here a recent blog from my daughter Laura’s life-partner, Noah Herren. And it’s twice in one week for contributions to this space from family.

Thanks Noah for writing this wonderful piece, for sharing it with us and for allowing me to share it with my readers. (Laura and Noah at right on a recent hike)

When I was a kid, I remember a book that made it’s way into mainstream popularity, All I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. I can’t say that kindergarten was a particularly easy experience for me as a gender ambiguous kid in the suburban upstart of Clay, Alabama in 1985. We wouldn’t have even known what to call it then, I was just different. By the time I arrived at the cinder block strip of classrooms painted with a colorful mural, I was already fairly scrappy and ready to defend myself.

Looking back, the issues seem familiar and predictable. I had multiple accidents because I was scared to go into the bathroom. I got into a fight with my best friend because she referred to me as my feminine legal name instead of my preferred nickname. I read a lot of books and isolated myself. But I also learned how to make friends, that my class and teacher could be found behind the yellow door, that hot days often equaled popsicles on the playground.

We learned the names and dispositions of LOTS of dinosaurs, crafted and colored, walked in single-file, and washed up before meals. We learned the realities of life and death as we watched the Challenger space shuttle explode on live TV. We learned to mourn as a group. Kindergarten, for me, was the first stop on my journey of domesticating my identity, my first understanding of why community might be important, a relatively innocuous primer in why it’s a good idea to try to fit in. Here are Fulghum’s principles:

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Nearly forty years later, I find myself at the intersection of multiple identities after decades of informing experience. I have, by the grace of God, been able to fully claim and live into my identity as a transmasculine person. I have been ordained as a pastor in a mainline denomination. I have two young adult sons, loving family, amazing friends, and wise and caring mentors and guides along the way. I live a life that feels true to me AND allows me to stay in community with those I love. In some ways, it feels like a feat of great importance. So it baffles me that I even need to say this out loud, to grown adults, who ostensibly learned similar things in their formative years, but please stop being mean and hateful to trans folks – especially children.

I like to use a kindergarten-level metaphor for gender identity. You can do this exercise if you like. [For those with more nuanced understandings of gender, please bear with the simplicity of this exercise for educational purposes.] Take a pinch of blue PlayDoh and imagine that it represents what you would qualify as your masculine qualities and expressions. Now take a pinch of pink PlayDoh and imagine that it represents what you would qualify as your feminine qualities and expressions. Now smoosh them together and roll them into a ball or shape that makes you happy. You now have a work of art to represent your beautiful gender identity, unique and perfect just as God created you. Try as hard you like, but separating the PlayDoh back into two distinct, binary colors becomes pretty difficult at this point. Admire the beauty of swirling pinks, dotted blues, and streaks of purple, and let it be.

If you want to be a good ally, don’t be afraid to get back to basics. I particularly like #13, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.” Have a transgender friend that’s struggling right now? Bake them cookies, suggest a crafting day, ask them if they need help with anything. Take them on an adventure, and offer to be a bathroom buddy if they need one. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to even be in public right now. Confused about what it means to be trans? Be willing to unlearn what you’ve been taught about gender. Read a book or do a Google search for transgender-affirming resources; don’t put the burden of education on your queer peers. Take responsibility for your own fears and misinformation. Consider how rigid gender roles have negatively impacted your own life.

Wondering what to make of the news around trans folks these days? I’ll share something else I learned in kindergarten as the lowest bar of being polite: don’t stare, don’t point, and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Hopefully, one day we’ll get to a higher bar where we value the wisdom and lives of those who can hold such beautiful complexity in our bodies.

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