catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 21 :: 2008.11.21 — 2008.12.05


Unequal embrace

In nearly eight years of marriage, Rob and I have only had one church directory photo taken.  Though I had learned since my grade school days to grin and bear the sitting for formal portraits, my smile in this photo is less than sincere.  The conversation before the flash went something like this:

Photographer: So, how long have you guys been married?

One of us: Just over a year.

Photographer [with a sneer]: So do you hate each other yet?

One of us: Uh, no.

Photographer [to Kirstin]: Put your chin down a little bit.  There-perfect.  Okay now, saaaaaaaay diamonds!

In the photo, my mouth is smiling, but my eyes are expressing disbelief-disgust, even.  I could hardly believe the depth of gender stereotypes conveyed in such a short conversation in such a seemingly innocuous situation.  We left feeling…just sad.  And at the same time, we both felt grateful for our relationship of mutual respect, listening and love, modeled on something other, something deeper, than sitcom-style antagonism of the sexes. 

Over the course of a 14-year relationship, we’ve honed our partnership, softening each other’s sharp edges when conflicts arise and cultivating a healthy working relationship that allows us to share both jobs and a home intentionally and gladly.  We seek to affirm each other’s passions and interests as equals who both have as much to teach as to learn, not as competitors who have to wear the other down to nothing.

Though we have successfully rejected certain destructive patterns in our marriage so far, we are not immune to stereotypes.  On Sunday afternoons, I read interior design and gardening magazines while Rob watches football.  Many weeknights find me cooking in the kitchen (sometimes even barefoot) while Rob does the household finances.  Rob almost always drives when we’re in the car together, takes care of vehicle maintenance and pays at restaurants.  I manage social engagements, sew clothing and quilts and make Christmas gift lists for our families.  There are certainly exceptions within our roles-we share lawn mowing and laundry, for example, and I struggle with symbols of feminine identity like wearing makeup and shaving body hair-but for the most part, our responsibilities are delineated according to some elusive sensibility that’s both innate and cultural.  And I’m mostly okay with that.

Sometimes I wonder if I should feel more guilty about being rather stereotypical in many respects, but I quickly realize that my contentment with who I am as a woman, wife, friend, daughter and sister is a gift.  In the context of a life that’s examined in almost every other aspect, I don’t feel as if I’m merely settling for an unrealistic or confined image of a woman, but actively embracing who I am, even as I discover new and changing and flawed aspects of myself.  A level of contentment combined with a community that doesn’t want to force me into too narrow of a category liberates me to spend my energy on other pursuits of learning and service.

I have no illusions of having “arrived” at some sort of fully gendered perfection, but I place my gratitude for where I am in the context of the oppression and struggles of others for whom the road to gender identity is much more painful, even perilous.  You see, as I write, some are observing Transgender Day of Remembrance, a time of memorializing those who have died as a result of violent acts against transgendered people.

For many Christians, the lives of transgendered people are far from our concerns and experiences.  However, in 2006, I and some others were given the gift of testimony by Angel Collie, a Christian who joined the Soulforce Equality ride to share his story with college students around the country.  Learning about Angel’s struggles as a transgendered person transformed my preconceptions about transgendered people and opened my eyes to another form of injustice that needs the attention of faithful Christians in the form of listening, embrace and advocacy.

His story made me realize that in addition to acknowledging the systemic privilege offered to me as a white person, I need to acknowledge the privileges that are mine as a person who fits quite comfortably into a female identity, both externally and internally.  Even while rejecting certain aspects of the airbrushed feminine image and feeling like an outsider in certain circles of women, I’m still able to freely claim my identity with my family’s blessing and without society’s curse.  In its simplest incarnation, my privilege takes the form of knowing without question which public restroom to use and doing so without incredulous stares.  In its more acute form, it’s my privilege to walk down any street in this country without a legitimately entrenched fear for my life. 

While justice for women in contemporary U.S. society is still an issue that requires our attentiveness, and in some cases our righteous anger and activism, I have to acknowledge the ways in which I have a head start over transgendered people on the road to equality and acceptance.  On a very local scale, I can bring the love of my life home for Christmas without fearing awkward silences.  I can decide to wear or not wear a bra, make up, high heels, skirts according to my principled inclinations without having to worry about getting fired from my job.  There are battles I simply don’t have to fight, not because of any choice I made, but merely by virtue of being born at a certain time into a certain body with a certain disposition.

Why would God create people whose physical gender identity is different from their emotional and intellectual gender identity?  I don’t know.  And while it’s my luxury not to have to wrestle personally with this question, I believe it is my responsibility to listen to the stories of those who do, as my fellow human beings and as brothers and sisters in Christ-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and otherwise.   People who fall-neatly or not-so-neatly-into one of these categories and also profess faith in Christ often experience rejection from two or more sides, like pin balls endlessly bouncing off of cold, unforgiving surfaces.  Following Christ’s example, we should never be afraid to commit to a first response of embrace, especially when it comes to those who have been marginalized by the empire.  Any discussion of policy or even personal opinion should be rooted in stories, for we are a storytelling people who are called to be identified most distinctly in our love for one another.

Angel’s story makes my experience with the photographer seem trivial, and yet there are common threads.  There’s a struggle to sort through what’s right and what’s wrong about dominant cultural images of gender.  And we both have a sense of being called to acknowledge and embrace our unique identities as beloved children of God.  Male or female, slave or free, black or white, gay or straight-each one is precious in the eyes of the Creator, and yet so very humanly fragile.  Let’s handle one another with fitting care, no matter where the other in front of us is in his or her journey toward whole identity. 

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