[for accompanying music, listening to this in the background! And, yes, it does make me laugh to have suggested it.]
Some of my friends were joking with me about dressing in drag. “I’m not sure I’d have a ‘drag persona,'” I commented to one friend. He looked at me and said, “She said, with her thumbs in the belt loops of her jeans.” Because that’s unconsciously exactly how I was standing.
It’s international women’s day, and while gender equity and feminism are both incredibly important to me, it seems like an opportunity to reflect on something I’ve been chewing over for years and had some exceptional partners in this conversation over the past few months in particular.
When I was in seminary, in 2004 I remember writing a reflection for a ministry class about how unhelpful gender constructs were to me and how those gender constructs, when imposed on me, misshaped my ministry and my relationship with people in my congregation. The director of ministry, whose daughter was in college, said, “Many of my daughter’s friends refuse to check the gender box on forms.” At the time, that seemed silly and unrealistic to me. And yet, as time goes by, I see how those boxes have a lot more meaning than a simple question of plumbing.
I have found that sometimes traditional church folk are at a loss as to what to do with me, and even that my ministry has been less effective, because while I am in a denomination that has ordained women for almost as long as it has ordained men (even though some local churches were debating whether women could serve at the table as recently as thirty years ago), there has emerged the image of the male pastor (strong, visionary, authoritative, even while being kind, compassionate and fatherly in the good sense of the word) and the female pastor (kind, gentle, storyteller rather than preacher, and incredibly mothering). Some women have made it in ministry by being better at the male pastoral model, but they’re still functioning out of that binary. I don’t fit comfortably into either of those roles, though, being a little of one and a little of the other, so that even I don’t know fully where to stand (although several years ago, a congregant said to me, “Sandhya, you’re the dad in the church; where’s our mom?” When Tai Amri had been at our church a while, he decided Tai Amri was the mom, so we were no longer a broken family.)
I think I’m always going to check the female box on the forms, but this small version of the wrestling has made me aware of the deeper wrestlings of very authentic, deep thinking friends of mine. One of my friends is biologically female and in a same-gender-loving relationship. This friend of mine has found the gender binary less and less helpful as time has gone on, however, even with the theoretical nuance of lesbian or queer. Raising a pre-schooler has helped my friend develop some clarity around their identity as their child has tried to make sense of it. He knows this parent is “Mama,” but that doesn’t mean mama self-defines as female. My friend has had to parse out what is limiting, unhelpful, and even harmful about having a female identity imposed on them. And in my own little, not-as-complex way, I get that. When the only thing others have for us is boxes, and those boxes come with pre-definitions we’re not even aware of, then when we don’t fit into those boxes, it causes tension both for ourselves and for the people who only have access to those two boxes.
This turns out to be true for many straight men and women, gay and lesbian people, transgendered people, and people who self-identify as queer. We don’t realize the ways in which we’ve created normative gender roles and the options of either conforming to or defying them. (We know I’m conforming when I wear skirts and more problematically when I ask the guy I’m dating to help me hook up my television even though I could do it myself. We know I’m defying when I talk about coming from the Dr. Phil school of pastoral care, which is not how girls offer support and comfort. But who thinks about the fact that my gender identity gets judged by the fact that I stick my thumbs into my beltloops sometimes?)
I don’t know how to navigate this stuff, and I find that it doesn’t actually bother me too much that I get called “Hon” and “Babe” occasionally when I suspect my co-pastor, Tai Amri (the mom), probably doesn’t. Because those are terms of affection, and there’s enough respect mixed in that I’m okay with it, by and large. What’s more troubling to me is the ache that I feel when someone doesn’t feel ministered to because I’m not what a female or male minister is supposed to be.
I’m so grateful to friends both referenced and unreferenced in this article who help me and call me to continue to wrestle with this issue, so that maybe the generation after the generation after ours won’t have to wrestle with this question imposed on them: