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The Gender Police – 4/27/2014

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself in a few different conversations with interfaith colleagues, trying to answer different versions of the same question: “What is Unitarian Universalism’s central story?” This is probably because Easter and Passover have just gone by. The first celebrates the story of the resurrection of Jesus, what is often described as being the central story of Christianity. The second commemorates the story of the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt, which again is usually considered to be Judaism’s central story. So, the question was presented to me in one formulation or another – what’s yours?

My answer, which I’ve given many times before and which isn’t uniquely mine, is that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a central story, at least not in the sense of a clear parallel with the resurrection or the exodus. That is the point, and indeed the power of our faith: the world is full of stories, no one is supremely true above all others – in fact the deepest truths are to be found in the cracks between them. To make our way in this world, we have found that we need to have more than one story.

Still, there are particular stories that we tell more often than others, that we keep coming back to again and again. The stories of Passover and Easter are two of these. Another, which you might have heard almost as recently if you come here often enough, is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Its lesson on the subjective quality of truth, and the multiple stories to be found in any one thing, resonates with our faith, so we end up returning to it often. I realized when I was preparing my thoughts this morning that I wanted to point to something specific hidden in that story, something we don’t talk about much. So I’m going to use a particular telling of this old familiar tail that might be just a little bit less familiar. The story of the blind men and the elephant originally comes from the Indian subcontinent. There are versions of it told in the Jain, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim traditions – it’s old enough that we can’t say with certainty which had it first. But it was popularized in Europe and the Western world through a poem by John Godfrey Saxe published in the 1800s, and that’s what I’m going to share with you now:


It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”


The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”


The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”


The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”


And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

Here’s what I want us to consider about this story. Normally, we view it from outside: we’re not in the story, we’re just watching it – or rather, hearing it – unfold. Now imagine that you’re actually inside it; not as one of the blind men, though that might be an experiment for another day. Imagine that you’re the elephant. If you’re the elephant, the story comes across rather differently. The headline isn’t, “the truth is arrived at clumsily, in bits and pieces, always imperfect and incomplete.” Instead it’s, “six men assault elephant.”

But don’t run from this now, think about it for a moment. Here you are, minding your own business, when a group of strangers approach without apology or introduction. They prod, they examine, they grope, and they make their own pronouncement as to just what exactly you are. At no point do they ask for your permission, or even more infuriatingly, your opinion. Think about that for a moment.

This sermon is part of a series on the social justice commitments held by Unitarian Universalism, and my particular topic this morning are the social concerns that fall under the broad category of gender and gender expression. In particular, the rights and worthiness of transgender, genderqueer and gender fluid people, the rights and worthiness of women, and the establishment and protection of reproductive freedom. This sort of a slightly disjointed list, and in particular not everyone who might advocate on one side of one of these issues will necessarily feel at home on the same side of another. There are feminists who are antagonistic towards trans* rights, and advocates for the ordination of women who oppose reproductive choice. Yet I’ve grouped these issues together because the analysis that our faith applies to them – the ‘why’ that makes us care about them – tells us that there is really one cohesive system of injustice at work in all of these areas. There is a direct line to be drawn from verbal and physical attacks on trans* people, to the earning gap between men and women, to employers demanding that their employees be denied birth control coverage through their HMO.

That line is composed of our society’s social expectations about gender: about what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and the names, behaviors, fashion choices, hairstyles, hopes, dreams, ambitions and ideas that are permitted or forbidden, based on those expectations. Because these boundaries are social constructions – not in any way natural or readily occurring on their own – they can only survive by being enforced by acts of aggression and coercion, from the very small to the very large. These rules of gender are policed all around us, every day, by a million million individual actions.

Let me get down into some of the specifics. The author Teddy Wayne penned a short article recently outlining the “Heterosexual Agenda.” This piece was a satire of the hateful and frankly bizarre idea that there is a clandestine gay campaign to make straight people feel ashamed for being straight. Wayne imagines a massive, all-heterosexual conference at which strictly gendered food and entertainment have been provided: football and buffalo wings for the men, salad and “Real Housewives” episodes for the women. Following the call to order, the moderator begins to outline the heterosexual campaign:

“First on the agenda: movies, always a central plank in our mission, since they’re where we go for our dates. Specifically those movies that depict a woman who works at a fashion magazine and dates a guy with slicked-back hair in finance, but he’s kind of a cad, and then she meets another guy who does pro-bono law but still makes a lot of money and is really nice, and eventually she realizes that the second guy is much better for her after she catches the first guy cheating on her with his secretary. Let’s see if we can’t up our monthly production to more than fourteen.”

The stories we tell outline the roles that are possible in the world we share. When we keep telling the same story over and over again, it sets a boundary. With the possible exception of a sexless best friend character, Teddy Wayne’s thumbnail description of every romantic comedy of the last 30 years pretty-well outlines the range of accepted forms for men and women in our society: good girl and bad girl, good boy and bad boy. The good ones are supposed to find each other and live happily ever after. The bad ones are supposed to be doomed to a hollow life – unless they find just the right member of the opposite sex, who will transform them from bad into good.

Wayne presented this as an example of the powerful cultural, artistic and economic forces arrayed against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – teaching overtly and covertly that same-sex attraction is unseemly or unnatural. And those messages are real and powerful, but they are not just aimed at gay folks – they apply to straight folks too. All homophobia is a form of gender oppression: it seeks to establish a fence around gender and oppression – asserting that all men are attracted to women, or all women are attracted to men – and then to police this barrier, punishing anyone who sets foot over the line. It is the same with the boy who wants to wear his princess dress to school, or the girl who wants to be a steam shovel when she grows up. Any variance from the expectation is suspect, and draws some form of punishment or another: stares and whispers, perhaps, or questions and threats, or violence either legal, physical, or both.

People who cross over the boundary, or who mix symbols of one or the other are subject to such violence in particularly large numbers. Trans* people, folks whose self-understanding of their own gender does not match the one assigned to them based on biology, or who otherwise transgress the checkbox of “M” or “F,” face very real threats to their lives just for being who they are. But they face other profound indignities as well. One of the most common is the attitude that their genitals are up for discussion. Only the most recent public example of this came when Katie Couric interviewed Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox, both trans women, and led off by asking about Ms. Carrera’s private parts – she politely turned the question aside. Later in the same interview, Laverne Cox pointed out that besides being astoundingly presumptuous and rude, the ‘what’s under your pants/dress?’ question is also a way of turning away from the person and the seriousness of their struggles, “by focusing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lived realities of…oppression and…discrimination.”[i]

This system of gender policing, is not just person-to-person, it is also woven out of laws and the practices of larger groups. For more than fifty years, women in America campaigned actively for the right to vote, with some of their chief leaders being Unitarians. But now, almost a century after that battle was won, that most basic measure of political equality does not mean that the playing field is now or ever has been equal. Which is why our association continues to advocate for equal pay and access to work for women and for trans* folks, as both groups are paid less than men, on average, and suffer from a higher rate of unemployment. We have also long-held it as a matter of conscience, that people of all genders and gender expressions should be afforded basic protection under the law. That day is still far off, unfortunately, in a country where – to site just one example – trans* folks face the realistic possibility that after they die, no matter how up-to-date and correct their identity documents are, they may be assigned the wrong gender on their death certificates.

This points to the root problem with the entire system of the gender police, this whole network of interlocking social expectations that exists in our government, in our entertainment, in our communities and our families and even in ourselves. Whether it manifests in a cat-call, or a silent leer, or a fashion magazine, or a government policy, or a medical diagnosis, or a hate-crime, the project of policing gender seeks to tell a person who they are, what they are, what is possible for them, in defiance of what they know about themselves. It says, ‘you’re not a boy, you’re a girl,’ or ‘you’re not a girl, you’re loose, or you’re frigid, or bossy,’ ‘the choices you have made with your mind, and the truths you have found in your heart – what you wear, whom you love, what you hope to become – all of that is wrong.’

This is what is so profoundly theologically wrong with that idea. None of us knows ourselves perfectly, but we all still know ourselves better than that. The project of fully understanding and appreciating who we are takes a lifetime, and to do it we need other people and communities, and the insights they can provide about ourselves. But the process of interrogation, contempt, and violence – the way in which gender is constructed and policed – alienates us from each other and from our communities. Our society breaks down gender into two narrow and exclusive boxes, weighed down by thousands of years of privileging one and oppressing the other, and then rejects whatever doesn’t fit. When we are the things being rejected, it breaks the connections we need to grow.

We understand as sacred our gifts and powers as humans, and that means a profound duty to grow and unfold our abilities and capacities, and also to use them responsibly. Doing this requires control over our own faculties, and this is the basis for our association’s standing support of universal access and availability of birth control – the third point under the umbrella of gender justice I mentioned earlier. Not a particularly controversial matter as public-opinion polling goes, but this is still an issue where many faith groups disagree. The greater disagreement, of course, is over abortion. This extends even into our own congregations, and so I want to remind you that this is an examination of what in our shared tradition has led us as a national movement to take certain public positions. But those positions are never binding on us as individuals. The Unitarian Universalist Association has supported the universal right of women to access safe abortions as part of her basic medical care since ten years before Roe v. Wade – a case which, by the way, is deeply bound up in the history of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX. That is not to dictate the choices you make, how you vote, or how you speak in the public square. But the position we have taken as an association – radical for its time and still radical today – has a deep grounding in our theology.

The creation of new life is a stupefying miracle, a fundamentally mysterious magic trick that should not be any less awesome for the billions upon trillions of times that it has taken place. And depending on how you understand it, where you sit with the mystery of a few cells growing into a human child, you might find that you cannot justify to yourself any abortion, or can justify some but not others. That is within your right to assess for yourself, when the mystery is taking place within you. But we each have a right to a fundamental and absolute authority over our bodies – that is what our theology demands. Anything less means the degradation and destruction of the sacred gifts and powers within any person denied the right, and by extension the diminishment of all of humankind. If the body and all its capacities are sacred, and we are each invested as stewards of our own, then that stewardship must be trusted and respected – for we are each just as important to ourselves as you are to you and to the source of all being, whom some of us call God.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about the danger of having just one story – whether it is a story about a person, or about an entire category of people. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”[ii] The problem with the limitations of gender in our society, by light of our faith, is not that the particular elements of masculinity and femininity are bad – or at least, it is not that all of them are bad. Rather, it is when these elements become limitations that we get into trouble, and do ourselves and each other harm.

Just as we could reasonably expect for the elephant in the famous story, none of us wants to be prodded and poked and examined on a whim, or told what we are by people who understand us less than we understand ourselves. Encountering anything or anyone that is different, there is an understandable impulse to stare, to whisper, to gossip, even to try to declare that we understand before doing the hard work of understanding. It is understandable, but it is not the best that we have to offer. That best is respect first, curiosity second, and humility over all. Each of us needs space enough to be who we are, and the support, encouragement, and counsel, necessary to become whoever and whatever we hold the promise of being. So let us remember the elephant – the difference between active companionship and casual judgment – and do what we can to create a world no longer defined by the gender police.

[i] These words reflect what I said during the service, but after the conversations I had with some of you afterward, if I had it to preach over again, I would reframe this passage to be clearer in my intention: not to criticize Katie Couric particularly, but to highlight a very real, systemic problem faced by trans* people – the sort of thing that happens thousands of times in the course of ordinary lives for every one time it occurs on television.

[ii] Much more detail can be found in her excellent TED Talk, here:


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