Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for April, 2010

Learning the Language

Tell me about the man who became a woman.
— ten year-old to Bishop Tom Shaw after he received me into The Episcopal Church
Did you used to be a guy?
— The Darling Boyfriend right after I told him about my history of transsexualism

I’ve been talking a lot lately to a lot of people. I’ve been meeting new people. I’ve been reconnecting with old friends. I use specific language to tell my story when I speak with people, but other people make a muddle of all the words and concepts that they have for transsexualism, transgender, intersex, genderqueer, and queer folks. I’m not talking about people who think I’m some sort of freak or abomination; I’m talking about folks who are very new to the concept that a woman could be born with the wrong body – or that someone might not be comfortable with our easy little binary of “man ~OR~ woman” – or that someone might dress like what is perceived to be their opposite sex for either fun or profit – or that someone might feel more comfortable identifying with the opposite sex but might not need or want medical interventions. I’m talking about folks who are eager to understand, but don’t yet. And maybe they can never fully grok the experience, that’s fine. The very fact that they’re asking questions and interested in understanding as best they can is something that is really lovely.

All this expansion has taught me that I need to let go of my rigid sense of self when it comes to other peoples word choice. What does that mean? Well, I’m a woman. I get that. I was born with a birth defect. I get that. I’m heterosexual and so is my boyfriend. I get that. I’m my mother’s daughter. I get that. I’m infertile, and my infertility bites at me just like it would at any woman. I get that.

But I didn’t always have words to describe it. I don’t know anything now that I haven’t known for my entire life. But when I was six I didn’t have words – I just hurt myself. And when I was 12 I didn’t have words – I just tried to figure out why I felt like I might be a girl even though I had a penis. And when I was 16 I didn’t have words – I just knew I hated the effect testosterone had on me. And when I was 18 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to have sex with men. And when I was 20 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to wear feminine clothes. And when I was 25 I didn’t have words – I just wanted to paint my fingernails. And at none of these points could I see the whole picture. I was glimpsing pieces of the puzzle, never able to fully accept or process what I was seeing. What seems so annoyingly obvious in retrospect was completely confounding at the time – in the moment.

And so, if I didn’t always have the words for it ~while I was living it~, how can I possibly hold others to a higher standard than that? Why was it ever difficult to be patient with others? Maybe it was an expression of my own frustration finally coming out. Maybe I’ve been militant about language simply as a reaction to my own inability to find the right words for so much of my life. I guess I still have a lot to learn.

It was the bishop telling me about that question the 10 year-old asked him: “Tell me about the man who became a woman.” Six months ago my skin would have crawled and I would gotten all language-police about it – yes, even with a ten year old. But in the moment when the bishop said that I finally put it all together. I fully support the people who live very quietly about their medical history, but I think it’s important for the world to understand transsexualism and transgender and intersex. I think it’s important because people still misunderstand and hate and hurt. I believe that the world can be a better place. And so for me, right now, what I need to do is, as I said in my last post, tell my story.

For that ten year old, the words he has are “the man who became a woman.” For my Darling Boyfriend it was “used to be a guy.” Another thing I’ve heard from people is that I “decided to be a woman.” There are many more misconceptions and poor ways to word things, but almost always it seems like it’s done more from ignorance than hatred.

And so I have decided to make a conscious effort to not take the way anyone else describes me personally. It won’t always be easy, I’m pretty sensitive after all. But most people seem to be just curious and they’re doing their level best to understand. It’s tempting to react with Calpernia Addams’ “Bad Questions” when people are ignorant in ways that cause some discomfort, but I’m feeling like I don’t want to do that. I’m very lucky in that I blend really well, so nobody ambushes me with these questions anymore, and that is a help. I’m consciously putting myself out there from a position of strength to be a tool for education. Few people know the answers to these questions better than those of us living it; I think it makes sense for me to be answering those questions – even when they’re really personal. Who better, right?

So, while I will maintain my own focus and integrity with my story and will endeavor to be even more clear with my choice of language, I will also allow for the fact that many other folks will be learning things that they may have never considered before. They will need time, space, and patience to learn the correct language. It makes it especially difficult because there are several different ways to say so many of these things; there are so many different ways to tell the stories. I can offer my story, and I will do it sincerely, openly, and gently.

Let’s all educate each other…

Clarity and Being Open

“I still struggle with it. I remember when I was little trying to figure out if I was a boy or a girl – I mean, I know I’m a man…”
— a friend
“You’re Tranny Famous.”
— another friend

It’s become clear to me lately that I’ve made decisions in the past couple years that have lead to me being fairly public about my history of transsexualism. It shocked me when I realized that I could walk through the world as a woman. I never expected to have the choice to be secretive about my history.

I still remember the very first moment when the world made it clear to me that it saw me as a woman. A few years ago I was teaching an at the time new student, and I mentioned to her that I had a trying week as I had just had the court date for my divorce. And without missing a beat she asked, “Oh, and was he a musician too?”

“~he~”

It hit me really hard in an amazing way. I suddenly really, ~really~ got that I was seen as a woman, and that people would assume that I was a straight woman (which I am). I had officially entered the “normal” part of the gender- and hetero- normative world. It was strange at first. It felt like the ultimate acceptance and recognition all at once. I managed to stammer a “no” at my student (because my ex isn’t a musician) – I couldn’t see a value in telling my student that my ex was a she and not a he.

And so I realized, to use the term we use, that I pass. I amble through the world and everyone sees me as the woman I am. It’s about the best feeling ever. I never, ever take it for granted. After all those years of being an almost-person, living a life horribly askew, I was given a very clear insight that the world agreed with me – I’m a woman.

And yet, for some strange reason, I keep outing myself. Over and over again, I tell my story in more and more public ways. That second quote at the beginning of this post was made about me. I understand the decision of so many women to keep their histories more private than I do. It’s tiring; answering the same questions over and over again, having assumptions made about me, my boyfriend, my ex-wife, my friends, it just gets heavy sometimes. I often think that maybe I should keep myself more private and go about the task of living my nice normal little quiet life.

And then I hear people say things like the quote that began this post. Someone said this just the other day. And I remember why I’m doing this. I’m doing this for all the time that I struggled with my transsexualism. For all the times that I beat myself up, pushed other people away, and just lived a life that wasn’t my own, I feel a need to be open about my history. I’ve come to the point where I feel like this was part of the deal I made with God. I often say that my transition was as much about me giving up and stopping fighting against reality as it was a conscious decision. I now view that more clearly as giving in to God’s plan for me, and part of that plan is evidently for me to be involved in education. I certainly can’t speak to the science as well as some people, and I’m not a political firebrand like some of my friends, but something I’ve been practicing doing since I was very little is telling my story.

It took me a very long time to finally put all the pieces together. I’ve talked several times about the reasons for that. Yet now I have a clarity that I find an amazing blessing. The pieces of my life finally fit. I can look back at my early years and I can understand so many of the decisions I made, so much of the confusion I faced, and so much of the anxiety and depression I lived through.

I’m not saying all the answers, far from it. But I’ve been blessed at this point in my life with a great deal of clarity. I see things that I never saw. I understand things that baffled me before. I have experience and skills I only dreamed of before.

And when I see someone express the confusion that I used to live with, it breaks my heart, and I want to reach out to them, and help.

And even further, I know that the only way I have of possibly helping folks is to just talk to them and tell my story. My story is unique, because all of our stories are unique, but I believe there is value in more stories being told, so I will add my voice to the chorus.

And I will tell my story with my words.

An Easter Vigil Reception

So, last night was the Easter Vigil at church. I was received into The Episcopal Church, and I preached the sermon. It was a pretty amazing evening. The Darling Boyfriend and my mom and several of my dear friends were there to witness the night’s important moments.

Before I detail the service, I want to say that I took the step to formally rejoin a Christian church very deliberately (I was raised Lutheran, but haven’t considered myself a member of a church in twenty years). I have always turned to the teachings of Jesus when I’ve felt most challenged in my life. So, I guess in some ways I’ve been a Christian all along. But there is something about the Episcopal Church (and yes, clearly, The Crossing, ~my~ church is incredibly special) that has called me to join a community. For the last several weeks I took part in a catechesis study small group, and the more I learned about the Episcopal Church, the more sure I was that this was the right step for me to take. I don’t want to turn this into a history and explanation of the Episcopal Church, let’s just say the the Episcopal Church feels like a very good place for me to call “home.”

On to the Vigil…

We began in the bowels of the church in darkness. Liturgically we were still sitting with the fallen Christ, while Jesus was lost in Hell. The service started with a lighting of candles (“The Light of Christ”) and an amazing Blues version of the Exultant – I was already weepy. There was a light-hearted and fun spoken-word telling of the Creation story, a beautiful Psalm (with Crossing-style chanting), and an enactment of the story of the valley of the dry bones.

After the readings we moved to the group that was to be baptized or confirmed or received or to renew their baptism. There were several of us joining the church in one way or other, from one place or other. There was a woman who had been Muslim who was baptized in a full-immersion ceremony (~way~ cool!), a toddler who was baptized, and then a bunch of people that found the Episcopal Church from diverse paths (or grew up in it) who were deciding to make their commitments public. It was sort of interesting, in that I guess I’ve sort of been Episcopalian for a while now, in that I’ve believed and belonged for quite some time. My reception was merely a public acknowledgement of the connection that God and I already share.

After the baptism/confirmation/reception ceremony, the service progressed upstairs into the Sanctuary. The next thing I knew, the Gospel was done and I was up to deliver the sermon (I’ll include the text of my sermon at the end of this post). My sermon was very personal. I spoke about my journey, and how strongly I feel a connection to Jesus suffering and resurrection and triumph over death. I almost broke down a couple times, but I felt better about fighting the tears back than letting it go full throttle. I’m amazed by how comfortable I am with public speaking nowadays. I was sharing my deepest truths, showing people my heart, and I felt good and strong. I found it easy to make eye contact with folks in the congregation and I just generally felt pretty calm. Honestly, preaching the sermon is a bit of a blur, which always makes me feel like I was in the zone (to use a performance concept). I am so glad I did that, and I feel energized and empowered by the experience.

During the Eucharist the new members of the church distributed the bread and wine to the congregation. It was incredibly powerful to offer the body to people and say, “The Body of Christ.” The Eucharist is something I have grown to really love. There is something really powerful about sharing a meal together, and this meal is special for all sorts of reasons.

After that there was the sending (which I did also), and there were plenty of Hallelujahs and then we partied like God herself had come to party with us. 🙂

I was touched by how many folks sought me out to tell me how much they appreciated my sermon. I’m still slightly bemused by how much I seem to connect with people. I really sometimes don’t feel like I’m doing anything all that special. I’m just telling my truth. But, for whatever reason it often seems to have a powerful effect on people, and I admit that makes me very happy.

We partied and drank champagne and chatted and just had a wonderful time.

Then today my folks came over and we had a Easter feast!

It was a weekend I will never forget.

And now I am an Episcopalian. Yay!   🙂

Let the people say, “Amen!”

AMEN!

[here’s my sermon:]

Good Evening.

Happy Easter!

This is a little overwhelming. Here I am, just received into The Episcopal Church, taking my first real steps back into Christianity and I’m preaching at the Eater Vigil. Why? What did I feel called to tell you all tonight?

Just about a year ago I was in a catacomb similar to the one we just emerged from. For me it was the culmination of a several-year process in which I finally had the facts of my life brought into congruence.

But I should back up a little first. When I was very little I knew that something was different about me; in the fullness of time it became clear that the difference was that I was born with the wrong body. To put it simply: I was born with a female brain inside a male body. It took me three and a half decades to find the strength, courage, and wisdom to undertake the process of putting that right.

I walked through some very dark places on my journey. I battled depression and anxiety that required medication and hospitalization. I was afraid to venture out into the world. Jesus sat alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, and I sat alone in my room.

I wish I could say that I consciously decided to give in to God’s plan for me when I decided to fix my body and my life, but the truth is that I just gave up – I couldn’t fight anymore.

On September 5th, 2006, I finally began living my life as it should have been all along, as a woman. Ironically, it was also in the fall of 2006 that I found myself attending church for the first time in many years. Though at the time I thought I was in church just to drum, it quickly became clear that it was beyond mere coincidence.

When I met Jesus again nearly four years ago I was raw and weak, but I was open to the truth. I had been hurt by all the anger and misunderstanding that others had thrown at me – and that I had thrown at myself – because I was different. Jesus’ suffering at the hands of the ones who would crucify him hits me very hard, though I have never been tortured by others, I have tortured myself.

What does Jesus suffering, death, and renewal mean? What’s so important about Jesus claiming victory over death? What does it mean to a mere transsexual woman that Jesus rose from the dead and cast off his tomb? It’s a great story, and a glorious way for God to make a point, but what does it mean now? Today? For me?

Christ’s victory over the ultimate death is magnificent, and promises us paradise. But what about life? When I was suffering through the worst of my days, either harming myself, or contemplating suicide, or purposefully isolating myself from the world because I thought that no one could ever accept this very unique girl – least of all God, I felt like I was dead already. I despaired. I understand how the women felt as they walked to the tomb that morning. They had just watched their friend die. We all know death; it’s a truism that by being living creatures we also know death – sometimes we use a softer word: loss. The desolation that those women must have felt that morning, walking to the tomb is an experience that is universal.

I also know their shock upon finding the tomb empty and Jesus’ body missing and getting the news from the angels. I remember getting the news that everything was all set for the surgery that would finally bring my body into line with my being. I was sitting right over there, drumming during a service of The Crossing. And I got an email from my surgeon’s office. I couldn’t believe it. I sat there for a second. I knew the news was coming, and yet I felt unprepared for it. I’ll bet that Peter didn’t run back to the tomb any faster than I did when I ran out into the stairwell and literally jumped with glee. I overflowed so much that a member of The Crossing noticed that even my drumming sounded especially joyous.

And that’s the wonder of Jesus triumph over death. It’s said in a nuanced way in Luke, but in Revelation he says it directly: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” This is very difficult to believe. I get it. Indeed, even though Jesus had told everyone that he would be delivered to sinful men and killed and then rise three days later, the news was hard to believe. Even as the women were telling the others about the angels’ message their reaction was to scoff and call it nonsense. I remember being afraid that something was going to mess up my plans for surgery and speaking with therapist about it, and she said, “Penny, nothing is going to keep you from this victory.” And I started crying with the truth of the moment.

This night is when we honor the ultimate victory, not only because it was a victory for our friend Jesus, but because he shares the victory with each and every one of us. Every time there we suffer a loss, Christ has offered to turn it into a victory. It is pretty shocking. It takes some getting used to. And it’s easy to think it’s nonsense. Which is why it’s good that God is patient, even if it takes 35 years to get it, the promise of life is there.

When I emerged from that catacomb a year ago, the Department of Records at Boston’s City Hall, I had a corrected birth certificate that listed “Name of Child: Penelope Jane Larson” and “Sex: Female.” I had triumphed, and I am certain that God celebrated along with me.

Shortly after I got home from having surgery my family and friends threw me a party with a very special message: “It’s a girl!”

Tonight we throw a party to celebrate the most wondrous message of all: “He is Risen!”

And so are We All!

Hallelujah!

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