In 1970, while Jan, my wife, was serving as an interviewer for the Illinois State Employment Service in Woodlawn on Chicago’s south side, a couple of transvestite job-seekers came into her office. They were obviously enjoying the day, with make-up applied and dressed more extravagantly than anyone in the office. Jan prepared their forms, leaving the male or female box for the next referral counselor to fill in. She regretted that the next available counselor was Mr. Z, who tended to be abrupt and careless, instead of Mr. P, who saw the best in everyone. It wasn’t long before the two clients emerged from Mr. Z’s office, acting as though they had never been so insulted in their whole lives. Jan and I again had something new to think about at supper that evening.
When did we cease to play the game of dress-up, playing with the discarded dresses, purses, and high heels that my grandmother provided to her 30 plus grandchildren? Probably around the age of five or six; after that it became either a cause of ridicule or a rare source of fun, although one of my cousins made a career out of it, serving in the costuming and entertainment industry. Why did people make such an issue of the clothes that people wore or the gender roles that they identified with?
Some of our high school, college, and seminary friends had wrestled with sexual identity issues personally, finding little acceptance when they “came out” to others, but they remained our friends, and we found them just as faithful, and socially and morally appropriate as we were.
We studied sexual identity issues in bible classes in seminary, finding that a close reading of scripture gave no support for the kinds of discrimination and cultural exclusion that had dominated our society. The very words that were sometimes translated “homosexual” did not refer to the same behaviors that they did in our contemporary society, and the censure of transgender behaviors was, at best, part of a rigid culture long gone.
In 1982 we happened upon the movie Victor, Victoria, while we were taking a rare three-day trip without the children. A charming commentary upon gender identity, sexual orientation, culture, and poverty, the movie represented issues that were always present but often suppressed. Birdcage came in 1996, and Connie and Carla in 2004; otherwise our transvestite cultural contacts have tended to be rare. Along with other media, these movies made their points effectively with good humor.
In 1983 I was a delegate at the United Church of Christ 14th General Synod, meeting at Ames, Iowa. I gladly voted in favor of the “’Resolution Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming.’ This resolution encouraged a policy on nondiscrimination in employment, volunteer service and membership policies with regard to sexual orientation; encouraged the congregations of the United Church of Christ to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith.” It felt like a small step in the right direction.
In 2003, I was a synod delegate assigned to the study committee on transgender issues at the Minneapolis Synod. Along with a group of dozens of UCC members who represented different forms of transgender identity, we elected belatedly to add “transgender” to the list of people for whom “open and affirming” should apply. The joy expressed in that room when the vote was almost unanimous contrasted with the stories of risk and rejection that many had shared.
Again in 2005, I was a delegate voting in favor when the “Equal Marriage Rights for All” resolution passed the 25th General Synod of the UCC in Atlanta, Georgia. We knew that a statement by seven hundred was just a little step, when so many people in our country had expressed outrage against it.
In my life these have been small and relatively easy matters, but they are still a part of some substantial and significant changes for people’s acceptance of themselves and others.