This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk on gender (including transgender and non-binary) and read an excerpt from my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders. I introduce the piece by giving a talk on gender –including transgender and non-binary — from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. The reading is an excerpt titled, “Becoming Thomas.” (This reading was part of a service on “Entering the Sacred.”)
You can view the YouTube video of the introduction and the reading of “Becoming Tnomas” below. Or below the video, you can read the introduction and “Becoming Thomas.”
Several years ago, my partner became friendly with a young couple with two young children — at the time two boys — who lived down the street from us. The oldest child kept saying to my partner, “I am a girl, I am a girl.” At the time, the child was four years and old, and somehow knew. Fortunately, she was born to open-minded parents and now she is a little girl — and I might add she is more of a little girl than my partner and I ever were!
Around this same time, I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist and taking a class here at Restoration and reading the Bible for the first time (this was not required). Soon the muse was descending on me and I was writing a novel based on biblical themes with gender-fluid characters. At the same time, I was reviewing a book on transgender issues and remember reading a passage that if trans people saw themselves reflected in the Bible, we would live in a different world.
I titled the novel THEY. They is known as a plural pronoun in the English language– which is inclusive of both genders. They is also increasingly used as a singular pronoun to signify a person who does not identify with male or female. (It also has a history as a singular pronoun.) It is a pronoun of choice for many who identify as non-binary — that is not male and not female.
Gender is a spectrum — and in my experience it ranges from extremely butch to extremely femme — and there are many options in between. As a lesbian over six feet tall — who on occasion is called sir — I have given gender some thought. I have always believed that we are more a alike than different. Gender is not necessarily fixed at birth, some people are born intersex (that is with male and female sexual characteristics), many transgendered people feel like they were born in the wrong body, and increasingly many young people are identifying as non-binary.
To me, it all makes sense, including the non-binary choice. Behavior and clothes do not have a gender. When I was young we called this way of thinking androgyny. As a very independent feminist friend said to me when her niece became her nephew — “I’ve been gender non-conforming my entire life!”
We should be beyond gender.
But the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey, found that we as a society are definitely not beyond gender — or beyond making it extremely difficult for trans people.
The statistics are disturbing — and not unfamiliar to me. Much has changed since the early 1980s when I was coming out in my early twenties. But some say that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Enter Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. The incoming administration is extremely right wing –and is very anti-human rights on all fronts (and also holds positions that are destructive to the planet). So what can we do about it? One thing we can do is to keep an open mind and heart and stand strong and be allies to each other.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe in the sacredness of ourselves and the sacredness of each other.
I have presented several excerpts from this same novel at Restoration. In this version, Tamar is reborn from the Hebrew Bible as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. In this excerpt, “Becoming Thomas,” Tamar transitions to Thomas.
There are many non-gendered pronouns that people who identify as non-binary use to define themselves. In “Becoming Thomas,” I use the following pronouns which may be new to you:
h-i-r which is pronounced (“here”)
h-i-r-self pronounced (“here-self”)
z-e which is pronounced(“zee”)
Since Tamar had become Thomas, ze carried a small scroll. One of the benefits of hir twin brother Yeshua deciding to make hir male was that ze could write in public. It felt liberating. Thomas unraveled hir scroll and wrote: “So this is how the one known as Tamar became known as Thomas and joined forces with hir twin to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.”
First Yeshua gathered his apostles. It wasn’t difficult to transition from Tamar to Thomas, one of the twelve. The other apostles were more concerned about themselves — that they get good placements (Jerusalem was a popular destination) and with sitting closest to hir brother, Yeshua. Thomas didn’t care. Ze was quiet — even meek. But ze was okay with this. Ze had heard somewhere that “the meek will inherit the earth.”
Ze had been sitting next to Yeshua, but the others had jostled hir to the outer edges of the activity room at the Temple. Thomas rubbed hir arm.
Ze didn’t appreciate being jostled by the other apostles and questioned their motives in wanting to be close to Yeshua. Ze pushed the thoughts from hir mind. Now that ze was helping Yeshua, ze tried to follow the example of turning the other cheek.
Thomas decided to leave since ze wasn’t waiting for a placement — ze would be travelling with Yeshua. Ze could sit next to him at any time. They were both staying with their Mother. Tamar had told the Mother that she could now call hir Thomas and that ze would be helping Yeshua. The Mother just smiled.
In the Temple, Thomas grew tired of waiting for Yeshua. He would be flanked by apostles when he was leaving anyway. Peter and James and John were always vying to walk next to him. Thomas yawned.
Ze wondered what the sun dial said. It seemed like days had passed. But it was probably only a few hours. Ze slipped out the back door.
Startled, Thomas jumped.
It was Mary Magdalene. Thomas had met her once before. Ze recognized the angular planes of her dark face. Her large hands. Her smooth dark skin. The strands of her dark hair fell in narrow plaits past her shoulders.
“I recognize you. You’re Thomas, the twin,” she said.
The transformation from Tamar to Thomas felt natural. Ze had wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around hir small breasts. Ze wore a tunic and a brown linen robe that ze borrowed from Yeshua. Hir breasts didn’t show. The tightness of the fabric pressing into hir breasts reminded hir to lower hir voice. Ze wore a shawl around hir head, of loose woven linen, draped over hir shoulders just like Yeshua’s. The shawl fell over hir tunic. As Tamar, ze had usually worn a blue robe like the Mother’s. When Yeshua first saw Tamar as Thomas, he said that he had always known that ze would make a righteous brother. Thomas took it as a compliment. Ze didn’t feel like ze was impersonating a man. Ze felt more like hirself.
Yeshua had told hir to smile less, because it would make hir appear more masculine. It was true. Ze trained hirself not to smile. The Mother smiled all the time. Sometimes it was a distant smile. A tired smile. A mysterious smile. At times an inquisitive smile. Tamar had to remember to drop hir voice when ze was dressed as Thomas — even though the Mother had named hir Thomas when ze was born. Thomas was Greek for twin.
“I wasn’t allowed in the Temple, so I took off my head scarf,” Mary Magdalene explained apologetically.
Thomas kept hir voice at a low register:
“What do you mean, you weren’t allowed in?”
Mary Magdalene responded:
“When I came to the Temple to attend the meeting that Yeshua called, Peter met me outside and told me that the meeting — because it was being held in the Temple — was closed to females.”
“That is not true. I used to go … I mean the Mother comes to the Temple all the time. Yeshua invited you, so you are welcome.”
“If only all the men were like you,” replied Mary Magdalene. “I had a feeling that Peter was up to no good when he sent me away. He had evil in his eyes.”
“Yes. Peter is jealous of you and Yeshua.”
Mary Magdalene looked dejected.
“It does not matter,” Thomas said. “You and I are Yeshua’s favorites. We’re the only ones he trusts. He told me himself that there is no way to know that the apostles won’t abandon him in a crisis.”
“That’s true,” said Mary Magdalene.
“Besides, we’ll be travelling with Yeshua when he performs his miracles. There’s nothing that Peter can say that will change that.”
Mary Magdalene nodded and said, “Peter treats me like an adversary. But I am trying not to respond with anger. For one thing it would tarnish the feeling that I hold for Yeshua. I do feel that he can truly save us.”
Thomas had an idea:
“I’ll walk with you to your destination. Yeshua would want that.”
Thomas felt bad about deceiving Mary Magdalene. Ze wanted to tell her that ze was born as Yeshua’s female twin. But then ze remembered the pact with Yeshua in the desert — when he had declared that they were beyond gender.
The next day Thomas and Mary Magdalene travelled with Yeshua and the Mother to a marriage in the town of Cana in the tribal region of Galilee. It was a hot day and a half a day’s journey. The Mother had borrowed some camels so that they could make the trip. When they arrived at the dusty grounds outside the tabernacle, Yeshua poured himself a cup of water from one of the stone water jugs sitting in the shade.
“It’s a shame that the wedding party has no wine,” said a man standing nearby.
Yeshua drained his cup, wiped the arm of his robe across his lips, and spoke:
“But the water is cool and refreshing. And it is infinitely better for a body than wine — especially on a hot day like this.”
Thomas was helping Mary Magdalene with her bags and turned around and looked at the man to whom Yeshua was speaking. The man was dressed in a white linen robe woven through with strands of gold.
He narrowed his eyes, looked at Yeshua, and spoke: “I don’t recognize you. You must be a traveler. Allow me to introduce myself. I am John, the son of the governor of Cana.”
“Then, your father is a Roman?”
“No,” replied the man. “He’s a Jew — a well-respected Pharisee.”
“I see. I’ll tell you what. I can change this water into wine,” replied Yeshua.
The man cocked his right eyebrow, looked amused, and asked:
“And you are?”
“Yeshua, the son of God.”
Thomas had a sinking feeling in hir stomach. Yeshua was acting sincere, but ze knew that he had something to prove. It occurred to hir that Yeshua might be going around saying that he was the son of God because he wasn’t sure that Joseph was his real father. Thomas had a moment of feeling sadness for hir twin. The bad feeling that ze had felt when she heard Yeshua saying that he was the son of God, didn’t go away. It got worse.
“The son of God?” asked the man.
“Yes. I will prove it to you by changing this water into wine.”
You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15
Another excerpt is in the recent issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue
A diffenent excerpt is also in the aaduna literary magazine (this excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
Another excerpt (starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.
To learn more about THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, click here.