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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”)

 

Becoming Thomas

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.

“Thomas?”

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.”

Thomas replied:

“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.”

Thomas replied:

“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.

Thomas replied:

“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.”

Yeshua responded:

“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.”

THE END

 

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.

 

 

 

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Note:  The following is a dramatic reading called The Descent of Ishtar — featuring Asushunamir the two-spirited, intersexed, trickster, that I presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in  Philadelphia where I am a lay minister. This skit was part of the Through the Gates:Transformation service that I gave with lay minister Annabel Grote. You can watch the skit on You Tube or read the text below. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Mythos is defined as “the body of customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings associated with a people, thing, or place.”  I think of it as story — and it can be a story or stories of your own invention or reinvention. 

Creating our own mythologies is a way of defining ourselves. 

We have created a dramatic reading of story based on mythology that is part of a novel that I recently completed. 

Mythology is one of the ways that societies over the eons have made sense of their world. In my story, human characteristics of jealousy, of not meeting the norms of society, encountering a “trickster,” and the timeless tale of regeneration and life ever after create an interesting journey. 

 The novel I wrote is, in part, inspired by the Bible and explores the fluidity of gender. When I was researching it, I was delighted to come across this Babylonian myth with a two-spirited, intersexed (male and female) hero.  The myth is based on the earlier myth from ancient Sumer (in 4,000 to 3,100 BCE) where the goddess Inanna descends to the underworld and enters its seven gates.  

Inanna is the more ancient counterpart to Ishtar.  Ishtar was an important goddess in Babylon which had its first dynasty a thousand or so years  later around 2,000 BCE.  Babylon was in the part of the world which is now Iraq. The Ishtar gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed about 575 BCE. It was excavated in the early 20th century.  A reconstruction using original bricks is now shown in a museum in Berlin. 

There was a lot going on back then including an overlap with Biblical history.  It is thought that Moses led the exodus of the Jews from Egypt around 1,312 BCE. My narrator is Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible. She is telling this story to her young nephews, who were actually born intersexed, or male and female. In public, they are referred to as male, because their father, Judah, was told that he had “sons.”  In those days, boys were valued more than girls. And we’re still changing things. 

 

It is my pleasure to introduce the cast of characters — 

Narrator/Janice Rowland Radway  as Tamar from the Hebrew Bible 

The twins — also from the Hebrew Bible 

Pharez — Sarah Skochko  

Zarah — Annabel Grote  

The Gatekeeper from the myth of Ishtar in ancient Babylon — Allen Radway  

 

 [narrator/Janice:] 

“Close your eyes and imagine the long ago city of Babylon, in a land called Mesopotamia, near the mighty Tigris.  A gentle wind blew.  There was a beautiful Goddess named Ishtar. She was also known as the “Queen of the Night.” 

 [twin Pharez/ Sarah:] 

“What night, Auntie?”  

[Pharez is sitting nearby — on the floor up front or in a chair] 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Ishtar was called the Queen of the Night because she was known as the goddess of love and … well of love.”  

…Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality.  And she may have been a sacred prostitute.  But the twins were still too young to hear about war and sex. 

[Zarah — Annabel — also sitting on the floor or in a chair up front] 

“What did the goddess look like, Auntie?”    

[ Zarah looks up with wide eyes.]  

[narrator/Janice:] 

“She was tall and beautiful and she had wings. She had wide set eyes shaped like almonds and a high forehead under a crown that was piled very high in ridges like a fancy temple. She held her arms up and  grasped two loops of rope that also may have been hand mirrors. Her two pet owls were usually by her side.” 

 [both Annabel and Sarah/ Zarah and Pharez]: 

“Ooooh owls!” 

 [Pharez/ Sarah]: 

“Do you have a picture?”  

[narrator/Janice:] 

“I have one that we can look at later, but first I want to tell you the story of someone called Asushunamir who was both male and female, just like you.  Asushunamir was a spirit guide and a trickster who rescued the Queen of Heaven from eternal death…” 

 [Zarah/ Annabel ] 

“What’s a trickster?”  

 [narrator/Janice:] 

“A trickster is someone who gets his or her way — or his and her own way — by playing tricks on someone.” 

 [Sarah/Pharez] 

“What’s eternal death?”   

 [Janice/narrator:] 

“We cease to exist eventually.  But don’t worry, it won’t happen for a long, long time. And if you meet a spirit guide, it might not happen at all.”  [Different tone of voice] Tamar told herself that lying was okay if it made people feel better — especially children. 

“Ishtar had never gone to the underworld where her evil sister, Ereshkigal, ruled.  First Ishtar had to ask the other gods if she could go. They ignored so she asked again and then again. Finally, they said she could go.” 

[narrator/Janice pauses]   

[Janice/narrator] 

“The underworld had many gates.  There were seven in total.  Ishtar came to the first gate and rang the bell. Claaanggg. There was one ring for the first gate and two for the second gate and so on. Ishtar rang the bell and waited.  She tapped her foot.  Finally, the gatekeeper came. 

[Alan/ Gatekeeper] 

[The Gatekeeper is old with a creaky voice] 

“Hello [sounds like he is just waking up ] … Who goes there?” 

 [Narrator/ Janice] 

But he did not open the gate.  Ishtar told the gatekeeper that if he didn’t open the gate, she would smash it down. 

[Alan / Gatekeeper] 

Wait one minute. I’ll go talk to the Queen of the Underworld. I can’t  do anything until she tells me what to do.” [muttering] 

 [Narrator/Janice] 

“The gatekeeper was old and walked with a cane.  He was used to dealing with demanding people who came down to the underworld.  He decided that Ishtar was not so bad.  She was beautiful and he liked looking at her. 

“So the gatekeeper went to Ishtar’s evil sister Ereshkigal and told her that Ishtar was coming.  Erishkigal was already mad at her sister for  being a beautiful goddess. And now she had to deal with her sister coming down to her kingdom.   

[Janice/narrator continued] 

“Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper that Ishtar could only enter if she agreed to obey the laws of the Underworld. In death all are equal, so the dead who came to the underworld had to leave their possessions behind, including clothing and jewels.  Since there was no food, the souls had to eat clay and dust.” 

[twins/ Annabel and Sarah:] 

“Ewww.”  

 [Pharez/ Sarah] 

“I could never eat clay and dust. My favorite meal is figs and almonds, sometimes locusts and honey.” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

[smiles at the children and continues] 

“Since Ishtar agreed to obey the laws, she could visit the Underworld even though she wasn’t dead. To pass through the first gate, Ishtar had to take off her crown.  She took off her earrings at the second gate and her breast ornaments and her necklace at the fourth and fifth.  At the sixth gate, she removed her shining silver bracelets from her arms and her legs. Then at the seventh gate, she removed her white tunic, so she was…” 

 [Pharez/ Sarah:] 

“Naked!” 

 [Annabel/Zarah] 

“We’re not supposed to be naked. Mama told us so.” 

 [Janice/ narrator:] 

“You’re both right.  Ishtar was naked. And after she had passed through the sixth gate, her sister confronted her and asked her why she came.  ‘If you want to know what it is like to be dead, I can show you,’ said the evil sister.”  

[Narrator/Janice raises her eyebrows and unleashes a cackle] 

[Narrator/Janice — continued] 

“Ereshkigal told her soldiers to torture her sister — by afflicting every part of her body. But Ishtar was favored by the gods and they were watching over her from their thrones in the sky.” 

Annabel/Zarah  

“Just like our God. He lives in the sky.” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Hmmm. Kind of…but in this story there are many gods and goddesses. Some of the gods decided that as long as Ishtar was in the underworld, the trees and plants would stop bearing fruit. No children or animals would be born either. All of creation would die if Ishtar stayed in the Underworld much longer. The god of all things that grow and the moon god got together and made a plan.” 

 [Annabel and Sarah in unison] 

“And then what happened?”  

[Janice/Narrator]   

“Ishtar’s brother was the god of water.  From the dirt under his fingernails, he created Asushunamir , a spirit guide.  Asushunamir was both male and female and very beautiful.  The plan was to send Asushunamir to the underworld so that Ereshkigal would forget about her sister.  When Asushunamir knocked on the first gate, the gatekeeper went down and told Ereshkigal that a beautiful man was coming — just for her.  Ereshkigal’s right eye drooped. Her cheeks were sunken. And because she was Queen of the Underworld, she wore a drab dress with a large belt buckle that was a skull.” 

[Annabel and Sarah in unison /Zarah and Pharez] 

“Ooooooh.”  [They shrink back] 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Ereshkigal rarely met anyone in the Underworld who wasn’t already dead, so she was very excited about meeting this beautiful man. So the gatekeeper hobbled back up to the first gate.  

[Alan] 

“I got the go ahead from the boss lady. Come on down!” 

 [Janice/Narrator] 

“Just as the gods had planned, Ereshkigal forgot all about Ishtar. 

Ishtar started coming back up.  She left the Underworld and returned through the seventh gate first. Her clothes were given back to her and she  put them on so she was no longer naked.    At the same time,  Asushunamir entered the first gate. Just as Ishtar left the first gate and was given back her crown, Asushunamir passed through the seventh gate and was forced to give up all clothing.   

Ereshkigal saw that Asushunamir was a man and a woman, not just a man as she was expecting.  She was furious. The gods had tricked her! Ishtar came back from the dead, and the land flourished. Because of Asushunamir, Ishtar was resurrected and lived forever. 

 [Pharez/Sarah] 

“Why was Ereshkigal upset that Asushunamir was a man and woman instead of just a man, Auntie?”  

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Because…Ereshkigal liked men better and she wanted one as a… playmate.” 

[ Zarah/Annabel] 

“And what happened to Asushunamir?” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

I actually didn’t know.  The myth that she had heard just ended with Ishtar coming back from the Underworld. But these two children wanted to know what happened to the spirit guide who was two sexes, like them. I decided to make up a new ending. 

“Ishtar had her powers restored.  She was a goddess again.  She blessed Asushunamir and freed hir from the underworld.” 

[Zarah/Annabel] 

“Did they live together forever and ever?”   

[Janice/Narrator] 

“Yes.  They lived together forever and ever, and … Asushunamir was grateful not to have to stay in the Underworld with Ereshkigal.” 

[Pharez/Sarah] 

[stamping foot] 

“I don’t believe that story. Whoever heard of someone coming back from the dead and living forever — even if she is a goddess!” 

 

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One of the things that I love about being part of the LGBT community is feeling strongly connected to the rainbow way that spans the globe. Sometimes our experiences are different — vastly so — but there is some commonality in struggle and, for me and most likely for many others, this increases empathy and identification.

Recently, I read three books — Pride Climbing Higher: Stories by LGBT People from Nepal, Mardis Gras (a collection of photos from Australia), and The Last Conception (a story about an East Indian woman who is also American) reminded me that we are all deeply connected.

In Pride Climbing Higher, Stories by LGBT People from Nepal (Creative Nepal, 2014), editor and writing instructor Chad Frisbie and his associates put together a moving collection of stories by sexual and gender minority identities in Nepal.

In “Power From The Inside,” Simran Sherchan writes poignantly about being transgender:

“When I arrived in Nepal, my heart would not allow me to return to Pokhara because my parents would force me to marry a girl. I didn’t want to ruin someone’s life, my wife’s life. So I hid her in Kathmandu. In front of the mirror in Katmandu, I took off my clothes. I looked at my body. I felt that my soul was in the wrong body. I realized that I had to wear what my mind and heart wanted. The very first time I wore the clothes I wanted to wear since childhood, a woman’s casual attire, I felt like a magician’s wand had touched my body — I became a lady.”

Pride Climbing Higher also includes photographs, some taken by the authors, from the Nepal Photo Project. One photo taken by Simran Sherchan, is of a red flower with a blue sky background and the caption reads: “The saying about Nepal goes that it is a ‘garden of four castes and thirty six sub castes.’ In the garden, there are so many different flowers, and we as third genders are also one of those flowers.”

Mardis Gras (2014, Sonia Friedrich) is a beautifully done collection of photographs from Australia. There are no words to accompany the photos, but there is something about a man in a gold lame nun’s habit or two men wearing mostly sparkles and skin holding hands that in undeniably gay. There are also photos of drag queens with pink hair, and a pretty young woman waving a rainbow flag, and a sign about Christians supporting Equality through Marriage that looks absolutely pedestrian in this context.

The Last Conception a novel by Gabriel Constans (Melange Books, 2014), is a mystery of sorts about a lesbian couple who get together and have a baby. But will their plan work? And what about one of the women’s tradition-bound East Indian family who she finally comes out to?

A major part of the mystery lies in the religious beliefs of the protagonist’s parents. As the Savarna, their lesbian daughter, says, “But Mom… Dad… doesn’t this sort of thing go against all your religious beliefs? I mean, I’m not trying to put a damper on anything, but I’m a little confused.”

In The Last Conception, the main characters discover many of the challenges that lesbian couples face when deciding to have a baby — plus it has the added dimension of family expectations based on culture and tradition. It reminds us that we can never leave our past behind us, especially when it involves family and culture.

A free download of Pride Climbing Higher can be found here

from The Huffington Post

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