This sermon was delivered at First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA, on February 21, 2016.
I want to start by telling you a story. This story comes from one of my spiritual mentors, the fabulous Kate Bornstein, and it is her version—a queer and transgender version—of the story of Adam and Eve. Here’s how it goes:
Once upon a time, God was bored. God needed a project. So God created a world! And God created Lilith, but she was a little too much to handle so God sent her on her way and created Adam and Eve. And God made them a garden and told them, “Everything you need is here. Go anywhere you please, do anything you want, be happy and fulfilled.”
“Oh—there’s just one little thing,” God said. “All I ask is that you not eat the pretty looking apples on that gnarly looking tree over there. Okay?”
Well before you know it a serpent showed up and seduced Eve into eating an apple. And Eve in turn convinced Adam to take a bite. And as the story goes, they were instantly aware of their nakedness and were ashamed.
God realized what had happened and came to see them. But God wasn’t mad. God was profoundly sad. And I’ll tell you why. The reason God had wanted Eve and Adam to not eat from that tree was because it was the tree of good and evil. As soon as they ate from it, they were aware of the binary of good and evil, and they were seduced by it.
Once they were stuck on the idea that good and evil is a binary, that good and evil are complete and utter opposites, all nuance was destroyed. All things had to be either good or evil, with no overlap, no other options, no complexity. This, according to Kate Bornstein, was our fall from grace. Our fall was believing that good and evil is a binary, that good and evil are fundamental opposites.
Before this fall from grace, Eve and Adam were openhearted, curious, joy filled, exploring the world and marveling at its complexity and beauty. After the fall, they were fearful, shame filled, closed hearted; the world lost its vibrancy and color.
Because of our fall from grace, because we got seduced by the binary of good and evil, we humans came to believe that everything can be categorized as good or evil, as right or wrong, and ultimately, at the heart of our infatuation with good and evil, we came to believe that we can use this system to know what is safe and what is unsafe.
And so we set out to categorize everything into these binary systems. Light and dark, warm and cold, day and night, life and death. And then we tied all of these mutually exclusive sets of opposites back to that big one: good and evil. We decided that light is good, right, safe, and dark is evil, wrong, unsafe. Warm is good, right, safe, and cold is evil, wrong, unsafe.
But we didn’t stop there. We are so stuck on the idea that binary opposites help us determine what is safe and what is not that we started dividing humanity into binaries too. Civilized and uncivilized, Christian and heathen, rich and poor, white and black, able and disabled, male and female, straight and gay. In each case, and these are just a few, one so-called opposite is considered good and right and safe and normal, and the other is considered wrong, evil, unsafe, even subhuman.
Now, hopefully we can emphatically agree that there is nothing wrong, evil, or subhuman about being non-Christian, or poor, or black, or disabled, or female, or gay. But there are forces at play, forces that carry immense power, that promote the idea that in fact these ways of being are fundamentally lesser than; that they are not normal. And what I want to pose to you today is that in order to fully defeat these forces, in order to fully destroy oppression and injustice, we have to defeat the foundational and flawed idea that these binaries exist to begin with.
Christian and heathen, rich and poor, white and black, able and disabled, male and female, straight and gay. And on and on. The story we are sold is that all people fit into one box or the other. Each one of these sets is a question in an online survey and we are all forced to check one and only one box. Whenever we meet a new person we are trained to make a split-second decision about what they are—white or black. Able or disabled. Rich or poor. Male or female. We are stuck on the illusion that all people are one or the other, that this information somehow helps us make sense of the world and helps us stay safe.
But is it true? Is any of it true? Spoiler alert: none of these binaries are true. But let’s break it down a little. Let’s take white and black—that one’s clearly untrue, right? Can all people be sorted into these two mutually exclusive boxes? Are all people either white or black? No. Black people exist and white people exist, but that’s not all there is to the story. In this country there are people who are both black and white and people who are neither black nor white. There are multi-racial people, Latino and Latina people, Native peoples of all hues, Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders, Arab Americans, and more. Furthermore, not all black people have a universal experience of blackness, and not all white people have a universal experience of whiteness. “Black” isn’t a singular way of being, and neither is “white.” So black and white—or even “person of color” and “white” is a false binary.
“Okay,” you might say, “so there’s a lot more complexity within humanity than just white or black, able or disabled, rich or poor, sure. But male and female, that one’s solid, right? Everyone is either female or male—it’s one of the foundational ways we make sense of our world!”
Actually, it’s a lie. A big, profound lie. And I’m not just talking about the fact that some people who are raised as boys identify as women and some people who are raised as girls identify as men. Oh no. I’m talking about biology—the epic lie that all of creation comes down to two gendered factory settings.
Here’s what’s true. Biological sex diversity is a fact of this world and exists in an infinite number of species, including us. Because of natural biological variation, as many as 1 in 100 bodies differs from what’s generally considered standard for females and males. 1 in 100. Even if we just look at what is considered the epitome of biological sex—our external genitalia—we discover that for about every 1 in 1,500 births, someone checks to see whether the baby is female or male and simply can’t tell from looking.
To put that number in perspective, about 1 in 2,000 people in this country are members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. That means there are more people in this country who were born with ambiguous genitalia than there are members of UU congregations! The gender binary of male and female is a lie. A big, huge lie. It is simply not true that all of humanity is either female or male.
And that’s just biological sex. The gender binary is so much bigger than that. The gender binary tells us that not only do all people come in two separate and distinct biological models, but that all people with model M factory settings identify as men, are masculine in every facet of their behavior and expression, and are attracted to women. We are told that there is a universal experience of maleness. All of these people, says the gender binary, have short hair and are emotionally unexpressive and only care about sports and small engine repair thank you very much. Is this true? No! It’s a lie. An enormous, epic lie. There isn’t a single and universal gendered experience of being a man.
I’m not a woman or a man. I don’t know if it has anything to do with my biology, but what I do know is that my authentic self, down to my toes and down to my soul, does not fit into this gender binary we’ve been taught and pressured to conform to. The word I use for my gender is genderqueer, which basically means non-binary gender. I describe myself as a gender fluid, flamboyantly masculine and feminine all at one time, neither here nor there bowtie-flashing tea-cozy-knitting roller-derby-playing gay-men’s-chorus-singing motorcycle-riding b-o-i boi. It’s just who I am. But in order to be myself, I had to uncover the lie that told me that my biology dictated my identity and my self-expression. I had to reject the lie that said there are only two ways to be in this world.
I want all people to find freedom from binary ways of seeing ourselves and the world. That is what my faith, my transgender Unitarian Universalism, teaches me. It teaches me that the world is not a binary of black and white, it’s not even a spectrum of shades of gray. No, the world is a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. My faith teaches me that it’s a spiritual practice to break down binary thinking in myself, and help others shake off their dependence on opposites as well. Because our original sin was getting stuck on good and evil, right and wrong, safe and unsafe. To truly know ourselves, to truly know each other, to truly experience the world in all its glory, we have to unlearn the idea that all things are one or the other.
Most importantly, we have to unlearn the idea that all people—ourselves included—are one or the other. We have to stop putting ourselves and each other in boxes. Have you ever felt as though there was something inherently wrong or bad about you because of something you did, or some way that you are? Have you ever felt like someone else was a horrible, bad person, or gotten angry or frustrated with someone because they just weren’t doing things right? That’s what I’m talking about. Putting people—ourselves included—into categories of good and bad as a way of upholding this idea that you can only be one or the other closes ourselves off from the fullness of the world.
It’s a dangerous illusion that if we put people into boxes we can keep ourselves safe, secure, and comfortable. Because this seductive binary of good/right/safe or bad/wrong/unsafe isn’t just about trying to avoid physical harm. It’s about avoiding shame and discomfort. What was the first emotion Eve and Adam felt when they were seduced by the binary of good and evil? It was shame. Being stuck on binaries and opposites leads us to being stuck on shame. We don’t want to feel shame. We want to avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable, that make us feel incompetent, that make us feel like bad people.
When someone calls me she or her and I correct them and tell them that actually my pronouns are he and him, or ze and per, or just Alex, that person isn’t a bad person for getting my pronouns wrong, they are a human person. When one person says that queer is a hateful, horrible slur and another person says that queer is a beautiful, inclusive identity term, neither of them is wrong. If someone gets turned on by being slathered in peanut butter, and they aren’t forcing peanut butter on anyone else, there is nothing wrong with that person, no matter how odd or even gross a peanut butter fetish might seem to someone else.
Mind you, behaviors can be morally wrong and bad when they cause harm to other beings, but people are not wrong and bad. Stealing is wrong, but those who steal are not evil. We are all human, we are all different, and we’ve all had experiences that have made us who we are.
I’ll let you in on a secret that’s not so secret: unlearning binary ways of thinking is not easy. It is so much easier to categorize everything and everyone as male or female, white or black, good or bad, than it is to do the hard work of practicing kaleidoscope thinking. It’s easier to interact with people from our heads than from our hearts. But I’ll tell you something else—it’s worth it.
Being able to be our full, multi-colored, multi-layered selves and affirming the same vibrancy in others is worth it. That’s what’s at stake. Because practicing kaleidoscope thinking isn’t just about seeing the world in color instead of in black and white, it’s about understanding that when you layer red on blue you don’t just get red and blue, you get purple. It’s about understanding how all these colors interact with each other, creating infinite possibilities of tone and texture and shade. It’s not about understanding the boxes better, or creating more boxes to put each other in. It’s about getting rid of boxed ways of understanding each other.
And I’ll let you in on another secret: unlearning binary thinking and practicing kaleidoscope ways of being is something we do best together. I’m going to say that again because it’s that important—this isn’t something for us to master in the solitary towers of our own minds, this is something we need to do, to practice. Together. Ultimately, I believe that this is the purpose of Unitarian Universalist spiritual community. To help each other dismantle the idea that people are good or evil. To practice what it means to affirm the inherent goodness of all of humanity, of all of life, in all that we do.
The Welcoming Congregation Program is a great example of this. It offers us the chance to practice getting outside of binary boxes, practice expanding our understanding of the diversity of sexuality and gender in the world, practice making this space, this community, more welcoming to all of the differences that we each bring forward.
But the temptation of binary thinking is to forget the role of practice in all of this. The temptation is to say that we are either a good church or a bad church. If we proclaim ourselves to be a Welcoming Congregation as a way of saying we are a good church, we are good people, and we don’t have any more learning or growing to do, then we aren’t living into the purpose of this spiritual community.
The invitation of being a Welcoming Congregation is to create practices as a community that help us collectively embrace difference and continually stretch our awareness of difference in the world. Practices that deepen our relationships with one another in ways that break down assumptions and build authentic care for each other. Practices that ultimately expand the boundaries of this community and who we welcome into our midst. It’s not about being good or bad, and it’s definitely not about avoiding discomfort or shame. It’s about practicing affirming the kaleidoscope nature of humanity. Practicing getting uncomfortable, and feeling like it’s safe to be uncomfortable. Practicing allowing ourselves to feel curious without feeling shame at the fact that we still have more to learn.
We are never done learning. We are never done growing. We are never done practicing. That’s why we are here. We are here to say there is more to life than good and bad, right and wrong. We are here to love each other and love the differences between us.
This is my charge to you: the next time you are tempted to put someone in a box, whether it’s straight, or female, or white, or anything else, practice instead being curious about what that person’s truth might be instead. About whether they might actually be bisexual, or genderqueer, or multiracial, for example. Or about what being straight, or female, or white has been like for them, and how it might be different from what it’s like for you or others. And: the next time you are tempted to think of someone as wrong, or bad (yourself included!), practice instead affirming the inherent goodness at the core of all life.
Thank you for joining me in this practice. Amen. Ashé. Blessed be.