guest post by contributor Tara Woodard-Lehman, from her blog on the Huffington Post
I just walked back to my office after a heart-breaking Transgender Day of Remembrance service at Princeton University.
During the service a well-known prosecuting attorney spoke of a recent case regarding a young person who was murdered because they didn’t conform to someone’s notion of “appropriate dress” for their gender. The prosecutor also shared how the Latin root of the word “passion” means “to suffer.” For her, this young life was snuffed out because they were living a life of passion; a life of suffering.
Throughout the service, I began reflecting on another word, “compassion.” Com (with) and Passion (to suffer). At its root, we see the deeper meaning of the word and the call it invokes, “to suffer with.”
On days like today, when I hear gut wrenching stories about those who are brutally tortured, beheaded, sliced, and maimed because they don’t fit into cultural prescriptions of gender dress or behavior, I wonder what it means for me to be compassionate.
How can I remember those who have been dismembered, simply because of their gender non-conformity? What in the world does it actually mean to ‘suffer-with’ in this context?
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean to pity. That would be ridiculously condescending. I’m quite sure it doesn’t mean to speak on behalf of the Transgender community. That would be presumptuous and pretentious.
So what it does it look like for me to practice compassion, and not just feel it?
Can I, a straight woman, actualize compassion in this context? Is it even possible?
I may not be the most stereotypically feminine woman in the universe. I wear sensible shoes and have a traditionally male occupation. I’m the primary breadwinner and primary driver of my vehicle. I speak with conviction and zeal. I walk with deliberation and purpose.
Sure, I’ve had haters over the years who’ve said things like, “It’s no wonder you don’t have a boyfriend. You’re just too masculine.” Or, “Maybe if you didn’t act like a man, you’d actually find one.”
But in the end, I’m hardly oppressed. For the most part, I meet my culture’s expectations of what it means to be feminine.
I may walk “with purpose,” but I also sway my hips. I may speak with conviction, but my voice is predictably “feminine” in tone and tenor. I enjoy wearing stockings and skirts; I adorn myself with scarves and jewelry; I’m afraid of mice; I’m addicted to Pinterest; I’ve even popped out a couple babies.
How can I, a “straight” married minister and mother of two who drives a minivan, actually “suffer with” my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters?
I suppose all I can do is this: Seek to find meaningful ways to stand in solidarity. Listen deeply. Offer my silence and space and presence and advocacy. Speak words of life and love. Speak against words of hatred in my religious community. And finally, publicly, “come out” as one who believes God’s love is too deep for any human boundary and no one is beyond God’s wide embrace, and say that without fear. Or better yet, say it despite my fear.
Because to be honest, I’m afraid to speak about issues of sexuality and gender non-conformity in public spaces, online or otherwise. I’m afraid of the backlash. I’m fearful of the condemnation I’ll face. I dread being told, once again, I’m going to hell for even mentioning issues of gender identity. I’m afraid coming out as an Ally will give more ammunition to those who already eye me with suspicion, or consider me “unfaithful” and a “heretic” because I’m a woman in ordained ministry.
But despite the potential backlash, I acknowledge I’m still the privileged one. I still have a choice to ignore the violence (physical, emotional, and spiritual) against the TG community. The cost for me is nothing compared to the cost of those who face daily discrimination, exclusion, hatred, and brutal acts of violence because they don’t look or sound or behave like some think a “female” or “male” should.
Though I may not be able to practice com-passion as fully as others, I’m pretty sure silence is not the answer.
So, for now, I do what I can: humbly seek to create space for others to name their pain. I may not make seismic change, but I can take some small steps. Like writing something that isn’t just cute or clever or comfortable on a blogpost. Something that may likely illicit more trolling comments than Facebook “likes.”
And I can invite others, like you, to join me.
Join me in this whole beautiful, hard, important, and sometimes messy com-passion thing. Join me in suffering with, standing with, and laboring alongside all LGBTQIA folks who live passionate lives of suffering.
And as we do, perhaps someday we can live into that long awaited day when com-passion won’t be necessary, because suffering will be no more.