A version of this piece was originally posted on Facebook on March 5, 2019
Yesterday morning I started hearing from fellow trans Unitarian Universalists because I was quoted in a feature article in the spring issue of the UU World, the UU magazine that is published out of the denomination’s national office, the print version of which is just landing in people’s mailboxes.
I need to name publicly that being quoted sends the impression that I condone this article. I don’t. I’m deeply disappointed in the UU World, in senior editor Chris Walton, and in author Kimberly French for publishing this piece. In a political environment in which trans people are being actively targeted for violence by the state, in a context in which trans UUs are increasingly voicing the fact that Unitarian Universalism’s approach to LGBTQ welcome has failed trans people, an article written by a cis person, that centers cis people and cis perspectives, about trans people, is not incremental progress—it’s harm.
I originally heard about the article because Chris Walton contacted me to find out if I knew any trans illustrators who the magazine might be able to hire to illustrate an article about the “growing visibility” of trans people. I immediately named my concerns about the frame of “growing visibility” in the context of what is more accurately growing *violence* against trans people.
Over the next two months I spent hours on the phone with both Kimberly and Chris. I urged Kimberly, back before the article was written, not to do it. I named that a cis person writing a piece about trans people would cause harm. I suggested doing, instead, a feature story of profiles that showcased the diversity of trans UUs, in their own words. I offered to provide a list of folks who could be contacted for such a piece. I thought she had heard me, so I was pretty upset when I found out three weeks later from Chris that things were moving forward with the planned article. In my response to him, I wrote, in part (in reference to my conversation with Kimberly):
I also shared my very sincere concerns that if she did a story that centered herself, or centered cis UUs in general and their struggle to “deal with” all of the “increasing visibility” of trans people, it would further the harm that trans people are currently experiencing within UUism. If UU World wants to do a feature story about trans people, it is essential that trans people be given voice and agency and be centered in that feature story, not cis people. I can’t emphasize this enough. You have a choice here around whether to actively support trans people and help the UU movement as a whole move forward on this, or harm trans UUs by continuing the current trend of marginalizing trans people and helping cis UUs feel seen and justified in their resistance to creating basic access for trans UUs, much less fully inclusive and affirming spiritual homes.
Imagine wanting to do a story about Black Lives Matter that was written by a white person and was all about the “increasing visibility” of black people and the discomfort that white people have with Black Lives Matter banners, black people’s needs within UU churches, and the concept of Black Lives Matter as a movement. I know that the intentions are good, but this kind of approach will unquestionably cause harm.
I really hope you’ll make the right choice. If there isn’t time to do the right story/project, then wait. Please don’t do a story that will cause harm and then have to rectify that harm with a better story later. Just do the better/right story.
In a follow-up conversation with Chris, it became clear that he had firmly decided that the article by Kimberly was going forward, so I made the hard choice to focus on harm reduction, which is why I agreed to talk to Kimberly again and allow myself to be quoted in the article, even though I was denied my ask to see it before it went to print. Chris also, as a compromise, offered to run TRUUsT’s call to action in the same issue, which was a significant and unprecedented concession—but doesn’t make up for the harm done.
I’m speechless about the title (for so many reasons). I’m stunned at the casual dropping of the f-slur. I’m angry at the conflation of trans and intersex identities and experiences, the over-emphasis on surgeries and hormones and genitalia, the way in which people of color and disabled people (many of whom are also trans) are also ignorantly diminished. I’m frustrated by the lack of actual spiritual content or connection to faith. But mostly I’m bone tired of cis people holding out their good intentions as progress. At the end of the piece when Kimberly writes “…this is about building relationships. It’s about being respectful and about listening and about helping fight when asked” it feels like a slap in the face. She and Chris heard me, but they chose not to listen, to respect me and hundreds of other trans UUs, or to help fight when asked.
I invite others to join me in learning from and amplifying the voices of trans UUs. Here are some great places to start—and I’ll keep adding more as I hear of them:
- “Putting the ‘T’ First: Public Statement on This Week’s UU World Article,” by TRUUsT, the organization of trans UU religious professionals
- “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article” by the Transforming Hearts Collective
- “Centering the Marginalized: Symphony and Triptych” by CB Beal, who goes into more detail about the harm and impact of the UU World article
- “Reflections in the Aftermath of the UU World Article” by Rev. Mykal Slack, an open letter to the UUA and UU World published by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism
- A blessing for trans*, non-binary, genderqueer, and gender expansive friends and kin by Rev. Theresa Inés Soto
- “The Fallacies of the UU World” by Kio, who lifts up a number of the under-the-surface flaws and dangers of the article
- “One Trans UU’s Story” by Evin Carvill Ziemer, who speaks to the diversity of trans experience and the importance of listening to those most marginalized
- “Nothing About Us Without Us” by Beau Ohlgren, who reflects on the “othering” of trans people and the sacred duty of people with dominant identities to do better
- “Narrative Freedom” by Rev. Andrée Mol, a sermon (audio only) that powerfully speaks to what it means when we don’t have agency over our own stories
- Report on the Experiences of Trans Unitarian Universalists by TRUUsT, published in January 2019
- TRUUsT’s Call to Action to support trans Unitarian Universalists
Oh, and if you’re interested in engaging in some deep learning and transformation, please check out the online course Transgender Inclusion in Congregations, which Rev. Mykal Slack and I created via the Transforming Hearts Collective.
Update: Thanks to the advocacy of the TRUUsT steering committee and others, the subsequent issue of the UU World included a feature collection of stories, poetry, and artwork by trans UU leaders, collected and edited by Rev. Theresa Inés Soto.
5 thoughts on “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article”
Thank you, Alex!
Thank you, Alex. I’m a UU seminarian and I will check out the course you and Mykal created — thank you for doing that, too. (Maybe Janice and I take it together.)
Lord, I’m so sorry you went through that. That’s horrible. I hope you received a personal apology from the editor for failing to listen to you!
Thank you for the work you are doing!
I am so sorry for what you went through (and are going through) with this ordeal. I am a DRE, white, cis, female and I cannot imagine the trauma this has caused you personally. I’m dumbfounded that your words and warnings were so clearly ignored by the very people that were supposedly trying to promote listening. You were not heard, but many are hearing you now. Through this horrible situation, my only hope is that in time, we learn to check our privilege more, we learn to truly hear what we are told, and that transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, and all other marginalized groups have a stronger voice and have to fight much less to be heard in our UU world. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your strength. Thank you for your voice.