Crazy things are happening in Houston. Early this summer, the city council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance that added sexual and gender identity to the usual list of unacceptable reasons to deny someone housing or employment. Initial drafts of the ordinance also mentioned bathrooms and other gender-specific facilities, and even though that language was removed from the final ordinance, the legal consensus seems to be that if you aren't allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, you aren't allowed to keep people from using the restroom of their choice. The conservative Christian community found this pretty scary, and gathered more than enough signatures to put the ordinance to a referendum. The city rejected the petition, though, saying that there were multiple instances of double-signing, and many of the pages were not notarized. Now the petitioners are suing the city, and as a part of that case, the city's lawyers have subpoenaed sermons and other communications from several prominent pastors.
Like I said, crazy. Snopes has a good recap.
Anyway, the other day, I started writing an essay about the situation. It was clever and witty, funny and compelling. At least, I think it was, and nobody can tell me otherwise, because now it is gone forever.
Save your files, people. Save your files.
I stand by every lost word of it, but maybe it's just as well that the file is gone. My heart wasn't really in it.
I wrote that essay shrewdly, prudently. I tried to meet my audience half-way, establishing our common ground before moving on to my main arguments.
Actually, I felt compelled to go a whole lot more than half-way, and that's part of what bothers me about this whole situation.
I believe in conciliatory dialogue. Really, I do. Real communal truth seeking can only happen when we root our arguments in shared premises.
But it needs to go both ways.
I was pretty sure that if I wanted anyone to listen to me, I would have to start out by saying that I think it's scary for the government to subpoena sermons, and that I think it is quite possible to love someone while disapproving of his or her way of life.
So far so good.
But I was doing way too much beating around the bush, when I really needed to just come right out and say that I don't see how you can possibly love your neighbor while simultaneously campaigning to keep your neighbor from going to the bathroom.
This is kinda awkward, though, because I seriously doubt that anyone is thinking of the petition in those terms. They should just use the other restroom, right?
Unfortunately, this solution works a whole lot better for hypothetical constructs than for real flesh-and-blood human beings who can't use either bathroom without running the risk of raised eyebrows.
I've never heard of a rapist using an equal protection ordinance to sneak into a ladies room (there are much more effective ways of eluding detection!), but bathroom rape is a real thing, and the transgender are at particular risk.
But I haven't heard any of the petition's supporters even acknowledge these issues.
This is a problem.
People are people, even when their lives are messy and full of sin. And people need to go to the bathroom, even when it's not entirely obvious which restroom they belong in.
Moreover, people need Jesus, especially when their lives are messy and full of sin. And I cannot imagine darkening the door of a church that was conducting a campaign to keep me from going to the bathroom.
This is not about shifting our ethical positions on gender and sexuality. This is about the gospel. Love and mercy accomplish what shame and the fear of punishment cannot.
If you want a different kind of salvation, a different kind of transformation, then go and get yourself a different religion.
As for the ethics of gender identity, I have no idea what it could possibly mean to be born with a body of the wrong sex. Philosophically, this makes no sense to me at all.
I do, however, know exactly what it feels like to know that my soul could only be valuable if it were paired with a different sort of body. I know what it is like to try to squeeze my repulsively un-feminine soul into an acceptable mold, and to loathe my successes more than my failures, because it was a rejection of who God made me to be. I know what it is like to be disgusted by everything about my body that insisted upon telling lies about my soul. I know what it is like to starve myself in a desperate bid for femininity, while simultaneously trying to starve away my grotesquely feminine curves and erase their condemnation. It was terribly contradictory, but it didn't really matter. I couldn't have eaten anyway, with my stomach in so many knots. I watched helplessly as the numbers on the scale sank lower and lower, and I wondered if death might be the only escape from this ill-fitting flesh.
Without ever meaning to, it is so easy to be cruel to anyone who fails to live up to our culture's intensely exacting and often arbitrary gender categories.
What if instead of getting mad at people for trying to escape those categories, we started out by trying to make those categories more welcoming places?
Let's start with the little things. Let's make a world where boys are free to love flowers and dancing, where girls don't have to pretend to be bored with math.
Before we start talking about how people should live out the genders implied by their biology, we need to make sure that we haven't turned gender into something unnecessarily constricting.
Besides, for a lot of people, gender is verifiably complicated in ways that have nothing to do with sin and choice. Out of every hundred babies, one is born with an ambiguously sexed body. These people were outcasts in the Old Testament, but Jesus explicitly welcomes and blesses them.
All this is pretty hidden, though, as well it should be. Whenever we meet someone whose gender perplexes us, we can safely assume that we don't know what's going on.
And most of the time, it's not our job to know, either.
It's our job to love, because love accomplishes what shame can never do.
If you've managed to read this far, thank you for listening to me. Thank you for meeting me in my hurt and disillusionment. It's an image of what Jesus did when he left the glorious purity of heaven to come break bread with swindlers and prostitutes.
I bet there are some other people who could use that kind of listening grace, as well.
Michael Symmons Roberts*
1 day ago