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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I remember Martha

It was my first DOB event - Daughters of Bilitis - the national lesbian organization which began in 1955 in San Francisco by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons.

It was November, 1977. DOB was having its Annual (Imagine that, I thought - this has happened before and will continue to happen, every year.) Thanksgiving Dinner in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Cambridge, MA.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had never even been in a Unitarian Church, much less the basement of one, which was about to be filled with lesbians.

I was there with Ms. Conroy. We were elbow-deep in the first open lesbian custody case in Bristol County, MA. We were scared. We didn't know any other lesbians other than our friends, Sheri and Lois, who had founded the Boston Chapter of DOB. But, we knew that we needed to network with other lesbian women. We knew we needed the company of other women who had experience in dealing with the oppressive, regressive, punitive laws at that time - especially in the Family Court System - against women in general and lesbians in particular.

There was so much we need to learn - and, unlearn.

So, there we were. Early. Very early. We had driven down from our home in Maine and, thankfully, the traffic had been light. We had been greeted warmly at the door and told to make ourselves comfortable. Someone would come soon to put us to work, if we wanted, or we were free to come back when dinner was ready in about an hour. Some women were in the kitchen, setting up. A few other women were busy with last minute arrangements and plans.

I looked around the room, nervously checking out the other women. Had we over-dressed? Under-dressed? What does one wear to one's Lesbian Social Debut? In Massachusetts - the place of both of our births and the very birthplace of 'Thanksgiving'?

As I was pondering these and other weighty questions of the newly "out", I saw her coming toward me. Her name was Martha, she said. "How do you do?" she asked, arms folded across her chest, hands nervously gripping her sides.

She said she worked as a secretary at MIT. She looked like a caricature of a frumpy clerical worker: an ill-fitting brown tweed suit, blue pin stripped Brooks Brothers buttoned down shirt, clunky brown shoes, rumpled hair tied in a bun on the back of her head, thick horn-rimed glasses, not even a hint of makeup.

She was more than shy. Socially awkward in a painful sort of way. We made some small talk and then she moved nervously away like a mouse that had been scared away by the scent or silent padding of a cat.

I didn't know what to make of her, really. She was odd. Very odd. Then again, I felt pretty odd myself. Queer, you might say - although we didn't say that word back then. It was like the 'n' word for the African-American community. Just saying the word 'lesbian' was a bit of a stretch. I rather liked the more innocuous but still risky sound of 'gay'.

"Hey, girls," someone said, "We need help setting up tables? Can you do that?"

"Sure," we said. All five of us. That's when I noticed Martha. Her hands, actually. Big. Strong. More like a man's hands. She was also incredibly strong, moving and setting up tables all by herself, while the rest of us struggled in pairs to lug and haul and tip and pull.

Later, after a marvelous dinner, I remember going over to Sheri and asking about Martha. "Oh yes, Martha . . ." she mused. "Do you find her a bit . . . odd?"

"Yeah," I said. "I mean, really? C'mon, Sheri. Admit it. She's odd."

Her face was as serious as a heart attack, "Well, darling, of course she is. You see, she was once a man. Now, she's a woman. She's had the surgery, but psychologically, she's still transitioning."

Sheri looked at the confusion on my face as her words sank in and, being Irish, couldn't resist the mischief of compounding my befuddlement by saying, "Oh, and, she's a lesbian."

"Wait. Wait. Wait," I managed to sputter out, "Okay, I get that she's a male to female person - although I'm still getting my head wrapped around the fact that I've actually met. . . one . . . but . . . if she was a he and now she's a lesbian . . . Wait. Wait. Wait . . . she can't REALLY be a lesbian. She was a he and now he's a she and she still likes women. Why, that means she's still . . . heterosexual. . . I mean . . .doesn't it?

I remember Sheri smiled and said, in her matter-of-fact way,"It's a brave new world out there, honey. Better get used to it."

You know, I don't have a conscious memory of my first-time meeting of a person of color - African American, a person of the First Nation, an Asian. Or, an Italian, Mexican or Puerto Rican, much less an Iraqi, Pakastani or Egyptian. I also don't consciously remember meeting a Jew or a Muslim or a differently-abled person for the first time. But, I am blessed to know a great diversity of people now.

Perhaps I was very young. Perhaps it's buried deep in my subconscious.

I remember Martha.

It was 33 years ago, but I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

I remember learning later, from a conversation that Ms. Conroy had with her, that Martha used to be Marshall. He, when he had been he, was a professor at MIT. After Marshall became Martha, she took a position as a secretary in her department because she felt that was a more "appropriate" role for a woman.

"Wait. Wait. Wait," I said. "You're kidding me, right? I mean, it's 1977, for Pete's sake! She can still be a professor. Surely, at MIT, there are lots of women who are professors. What the what?"

"I know," said Ms. Conroy,"I don't pretend to understand it either."

Martha, without knowing it or, I'm sure, even intending or wanting it, started my journey into exploring my own assumptions about gender and sexuality. The memory of Martha has become a touchstone for the work I was to do - and continue to do - on my own sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia.

I think the real gift of transgender people is that they challenge these assumptions about our identity as well the entire theology of creation as articulated in Genesis. We are forced to go "back to the beginning" - to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

Many biblical scholars, including Phyllis Trible, professor of biblical studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, offer an analysis the Creation story in Genesis 1 that defines that the original ‘earth creature (ha-adam)’ is not a man, nor a woman, possibly not even sexual but a human being.”

If we accept that premise, where does that lead us in terms of a theological understanding of the gift of gender and sexuality? What does the church have to say about - and to - our transgender sisters and brothers?

I was remembering Martha as I read "Beyond Adam and Eve" By Becky Garrison in this morning's Religion Dispatches.

My trip down Memory Lane was inspired by this paragraph:
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco recounts how this gay-positive church struggled with how to welcome a very attractive transvestite man who walked through their doors in the mid 1980s. Some straight men in the congregation felt odd when they learned the woman they'd felt attracted to was a man, while some women did not want to share the bathroom with a male—even though she dressed like a female. After a month or so this person ended up leaving the community because at this time, the church could not create a welcoming space for those on the outer fringes of the LGBT community. By the time distinguished evolutionary biologist and transwoman Joan Roughgarden came to St. Gregory's around 2002, the community had learned enough that she could call this church her home.
I suppose every movement has its "firsts". But, I think, it is the "personal firsts" who are the real pioneers. They are the quiet revolutionaries who make us think - and re-think and challenge - what it is we really believe about ourselves, our life, our place in culture and our roles in society.

It's not been an easy journey. I've come a very long way since that day in 1977. My friends and clerical colleagues Cameron Partridge and Gari Green have been an enormous gift to me and my own personal growth and development.

I am deeply grateful for their generous spirit and patience with me as I learn to navigate my way around culturally-ingrained assumptions - not to mention pronouns.

I've still got a long way to go. There are some trans folk - mostly male to female trans people who like to act and dress like women but invoke male privilege whenever they can. I remember one woman at a hotel in San Francisco. Drop dead gorgeous. Flirty and sexy. Obviously young and strong, but when it came time to take her wheeled luggage to her room, she insisted that the also young and strong but obviously female bell hop carry her luggage for her.

Not because she couldn't, but because she was acting out the role of a "typical" female. It made me angry. I'm not sure why, exactly. I think I know, but I'm still exploring why anger was my reaction. Anger is always a secondary emotion. It's important to go deeper, to examine what's so important under the anger that sparks that as the reaction.

Like I said, I've got a long way to go.

As this article point out - and is an example of - so do many other people.
RD contributor and pastor Dan Schultz preaches against those who claim to be for LGBT rights but focus solely on issues pertinent to gays and lesbians — such as same sex weddings and ordinations.
Look, this is really simple. Either you accept the entire span of the LGBT community, or you don’t. More to the point, perhaps, either you spend the time getting to know the LGBT (or LGBTQQ+ community, as they say), or you don’t. You can’t say, “Well, gays and lesbians are okay, but transgendered people are weird and threatening and not deserving of protection.” The fact is that gender reassignment surgery is an accepted medical practice and legal in the United States. Scruples don’t count in making the law. So either demonstrate the legitimate policy interest in denying transgendered folk equal protection under the law, or admit that you’re caving in to moralistic bigotry. You can’t have it both ways.
It's interesting to note that the article in Religion Dispatches quotes lots and lots of people, most clergy - some of them lesbian, gay and bisexual - but none of them, themselves, transgender.

I wonder about Donald Schell's comment about there being more male-to-female transpeople than female-to-male. I don't know that that's true, but that's certainly the perception.

And while many, many of the clergy quoted in the article are allies from the Episcopal Church, members of our own Trans-Episcopal - like Cameron and Gari - are not quoted.

Oh, and, the term is "transgender" - not "transgendered".

But, you know, it's a good article. I encourage you to read it. There's lots of good stuff and some good links.

Every body has to start somewhere.

Like me. With Martha. Whom I remember. With enormous gratitude.

7 comments:

Mary Beth said...

Wow. May God bless Martha.

Cameron Partridge said...

glad to be a colleague in the trenches with you, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't know for certain, but I suspect she is now numbered among the saints - and continues to bless us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Cameron - I couldn't ask for a better mentor. And, Gavin couldn't ask for a better Daddy. I hope one day we can write something together. We need to raise our voices together in justice.

JCF said...

Scruples don’t count in making the law.

SO important to remember. A couple of days ago, I read (on another board) a lesbian going off on how uncomfortable Chaz Bono made her feel [As if, "if you're going to be this freaky thing, at least do it (transition) in obscurity so I don't have to hear about it"].

The closet is a KILLER. Silence = Death. This is true for LGBs . . . and it's true for TG people, too.

Thank you for this, Elizabeth.

claire said...

Wow, that's a neat post. Thank you.

I will never think of Martha the same way either :-)))

Blessings on all the Marthas.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Prayers and Blessings!