This sermon was delivered virtually at Unitarian Universalist Church West in Brookfield, Wisconsin, on March 28, 2021, in a service dedicated to Trans Day of Visibility. You can watch/listen to a recording of the whole service (the sermon starts at timestamp 30:30).
I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for thirty years, ever since my parents joined my home church in Milwaukee when I was six. This is the kid my parents brought to church with them:
The Little Mermaid had recently come out, and I was instantly obsessed. This ingenious Halloween costume, made for me by my mom, quickly became a year-round outfit. I used to sit in our front yard imagining the amazement of all the people driving by at the sight of a mermaid so far from the water. We took a road trip to visit my great-grandmother and her ocean-view cottage in Massachusetts, and I distinctly remember the lengths my mom had to go to to convince me to not wear my tail all the way there and quickly throw myself onto one of the glorious rocks in front of my great-gram’s cottage before she came outside to greet us. “You’ll give her a heart attack!” she pleaded. “She’ll be too surprised to see a mermaid in her yard.”
What really made me the little mermaid in my mind and my heart, though, was not the outfit but the music. I memorized all of the songs and sang them everywhere, including at church. Legend has it that it was my earnest belting of “Part of Your World” in the lower level at all hours that inspired the music director to start a kid’s choir.
1990 marked the year that both The Little Mermaid and the Broadway production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin were released on VHS. These two musicals are the backdrop of my early childhood. I was mesmerized by both title characters. My very favorite childhood memory was my Peter Pan-themed seventh birthday party, to which all of the guests had to come in costume. I was Tinker Bell, wearing yet another magical outfit creatively crafted by my mom, and I downright forced my best friend to come as Peter Pan. In true-to-Broadway fashion, my dad played a Captain Hook to rival Dustin Hoffman’s and chased us all around the house and yard for hours. It was heaven.
I was deeply blessed to have parents and a church that gave me complete and total freedom of expression. No one ever told me I wasn’t a mermaid, or a fairy. No one ever tried to hush my song. The first seven years of my life were full of magic, brought to me through art and books. I was a rough-and-tumble princess who loved bugs and dinosaurs and dresses that could be twirled in. All of my best friends were boys, and I was the ringleader. No really, I literally played the ringleader in a kindergarten circus production.
It wasn’t until third grade that things changed, that the fairytale world that I invited everyone around me to join me in every day was challenged. That was the year that the other kids on the playground started letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t following the rules of being a girl.
You see, I was able to have a carefree childhood because everyone assumed that I was a girl. After all, I wore pigtails and princess dresses, so the adults in my life never picked up on my gender nonconformity. But it was only a matter of time before my peers did.
I started third grade in love with life and with school. But by the end of the year, I had lost my spark. I’d always thought of everyone as my friend, but now, lines were being drawn, and I didn’t understand any of the rules. No longer could I wear the frilliest dress I wanted every day and run with the boys without being sneered at and mercilessly teased for both my excessive femininity and my apparent masculinity.
So I made a conscious choice to try to follow the gender rules I didn’t understand. I turned my back on my best friend, joined a crew of girls, tamped down the fairytale part of myself, and tried to fit in.
But it just made me more miserable. My new friends cooed over New Kids on the Block and had posters of Justin Taylor Thomas on their bedroom walls. They played games that revolved around things like marriage and motherhood. Far from being able to fit in, I only felt more and more like a square peg in a round hole.
My parents came through for me. They didn’t know why I was miserable, but they had a sense that if I stuck with the same group of kids and the same suburban school system, things wouldn’t get any better. So they gave me the chance to go to a middle school for the arts across town. And once again, my life had creativity and vibrancy—and more musicals! I still felt adrift, but I slowly carved out a space for myself among other misfits.
It would be ten years before I would be able to reclaim my authenticity and rediscover the unbridled joy and fabulosity of my six-year-old self. But honestly, ten years of seeking and becoming feels pretty darn lucky to me, as a genderqueer, non-binary person who grew up with no sense that there were other people out there who weren’t girls or boys; no representations of people like me beyond Mary Martin as Peter Pan. I found a way anyway. I found people who saw me as I truly am, loved me for my contradictions and fairytale nature, and reflected who I was back to me when I was wracked with doubt. I found more music, and kept on singing, slowly journeying back to myself.
The popular, mainstream story of what it means to be trans is one of absolutes, and pain: the visceral hidden knowledge of who you are from a young age, the unspeakable suffering of being forced to live as someone you’re not, the agonizing decision to tell the world who you really are, the transition that marks a closed door on the past and the emergence of the real, true you. This story isn’t wrong. It is many people’s story. But it’s not the only story. It’s certainly not my story.
My story is a story of a lifelong journey and dedication to living authentically. It’s a story of constantly exploring, questioning, and becoming myself. It’s a story of being a mermaid, and a fairy, and a boi who never grows up. It’s a story of knowing who I’m not long before I could articulate who I am. But ultimately, it’s a story of joy.
Every single day now, I get to make an active choice to be my fullest, most glorious self. The self I was made to be. And I am here to testify that when you have been told by the world that who you are is impossible, who you are doesn’t exist, and you laugh and say oh honey, do I look like I don’t exist to you?—that feeling, the feeling of knowing yourself and being yourself despite it all, is the best feeling in the world. It makes me feel like I can fly.
My best friend Mykal, who is a queer and trans Black man, and an ordained minister, talks about how he was called to be the person he is. “Who I am right now is who I am called to be,” he says, “I don’t know how or when that happened and I can’t explain it, but I know that it is true. And so I move toward that call every day in all the ways that I can.”
As I reflect on Trans Day of Visibility, which is celebrated annually on March 31, this is what visibility means to me. It means taking the risk to live authentically. It means being visibly, authentically you—the most you version of yourself, the you that you are called to be.
There’s a spark in each of us—not just trans people but all people—that refuses to go out, no matter what the world throws at us. There’s something that pulls us forward and compels us to be who we are meant to be. When we live from that place of authenticity, that’s when we come truly alive. And when we are truly alive, we bring that aliveness forward in everything we do—all of our relationships, our work, our activism, our art, our play.
In her absolutely incredible book Redefining Realness, Janet Mock, a Black and Native Hawaiian trans woman, writes, “self-definition and self-determination is about the many varied decisions that we make to compose and journey toward ourselves, about the audacity and strength to proclaim, create, and evolve into who we know ourselves to be.”
That’s what “transition” actually means. Transition doesn’t mean surgery or hormones or pronouns. It means journeying toward ourselves. Transition doesn’t mean changing genders. In the words of Janet Mock again, it means revealing who we’ve always been.
For me, journeying toward myself and revealing who I’ve always been was a process of reclamation. It was a process of rejecting the rules, and the boxes, and the limits that were placed on me by our wider culture—everything I was forcibly taught about who I was supposed to be and how I was supposed to act based on who the world perceived me to be.
What have you been taught about who you are supposed to be and how you are supposed to act based on who the world has perceived you to be, and based on what the world thinks of as the most normal and valuable ways to be? I think of my grandmother Lee Kapitan, who was at the top of her high school class but was passed over for a college scholarship because she was a woman. I think of my dear friend Lynn Young, who was socialized to be and act white and ignore the Lakota heritage and identity buried inside. I think of all of my friends who have been told to hide their queerness, or their disabilities, or their class background, in order to fit in.
“Living by other people’s definitions and perceptions shrinks us to shells of ourselves, rather than complex people embodying multiple identities,” says Janet Mock. But every day we get to make a choice about who we are going to be. Every day is a chance to “proclaim, create, and evolve into who we know ourselves to be.” Every day is an opportunity to access the joy in living authentically.
Now, don’t get it twisted. Living your most visible, authentic life doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone you meet every single facet of your life story and history. And I don’t want you to think that just because I chose to share a little about my six-year-old self today, you’re entitled to know the childhood story of every trans person who crosses your path. My vulnerability in sharing that adorable little self that I was with you comes from a place of wanting to share more about who I have always been. Sharing with you some of the fullness of my sparkly, gender-overflowing, non-binary self helps you see the real me, my authentic self, rather than assuming that I’m a man based on how you perceive me or your associations with the word “trans.”
I don’t actually need to share anything with you in order to be my full self, because I know who I am and I live fully from that place of truth. That’s what visibility means to me.
My partner Teddy would just as soon move through the world without anyone knowing that he was assigned female at birth. He is living his most visible, authentic life as a man. Being a wood-working, blue collar, kind and gentle man is how he comes most alive and shares his aliveness with the world. Every day, he gets to decide what kind of man he’s going to be. Visibility is about the joy that comes from being himself, not the shock factor of telling people he’s trans. Does that make sense?
You don’t owe anyone any explanation about what has led you to your truth. You only owe yourself the chance to live from that place of truth.
There’s a relatively new term that has taken off among young trans and non-binary folks. It’s “gender euphoria.” Have you heard it? Isn’t it wonderful? It describes the flip side of gender dysphoria, that sense of wrongness in your own skin. Gender euphoria is the sense of profound rightness and joy that comes with being your true self. Folks will say things like “omg my mom finally called me by my chosen name and it made me feel so euphoric!” or “these heels make my gender so happy today.” I want everyone to experience that kind of joy. Every single person. The sort of joy that comes from living authentically.
What is it about this culture that we live in that trans people are only affirmed as “real” and visible through the avenue of our deepest pain and suffering? For decades, the gatekeepers of this society have said, “I’ll only believe that you are who you say you are if you can prove to me that you’d rather die than live as the person I perceive you to be.” What if we honored each other’s joy more than each other’s pain? What if we said, “I see and validate you because I recognize your gender euphoria,” rather than needing a person’s gender dysphoria to get so bad that the only, last-ditch option for survival is acknowledgment of who they truly are?
Trans Day of Visibility was born a few years back not as some trans-specific National Coming Out Day but rather as a corollary to Trans Day of Remembrance. Trans folks were answering the call from trans women of color to give us our flowers while we are still alive. Instead of the only international day of recognition of trans people being the day on which we mourn those lost to anti-trans violence, they created a day for trans joy. Euphoria. Authenticity. Resilience. Thriving.
Trans people are a model for all of us of the joy in living authentically. Each and every person has a homing beacon, and that homing beacon is joy, the voice that calls us to be our most authentic, joy-filled, euphoric selves, that brings us most alive. On this day, as we honor trans joy, I want to invite you to consider who you are called to be. To what wholeness are you called? What parts of yourself have you hidden away, buried, or boxed because of the expectations or perceptions of others? What would it look like if you let them shine?
Every day we have a choice. My commitment to living authentically is to choose joy. I hope you will too.
Amen, ashe, aho, and blessed be.