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Back at the gym.  This time the conversation was about a transgender person.  My trainer asked me what I thought about the recent controversy over the ruling of the federal court judge who ordered the Massachusetts Department of Correction to pay for the reassignment surgery of a prisoner, Michelle Kosilek, who had previously been known as Robert.  (The ruling has since been put on hold pending an appeal.)  I said that it was my understanding that the prisoner had a gender identity disorder and that it seemed appropriate, as she is a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that the Department of Correction should provide the remedy of surgery.  I personally agreed with the judge.

This is a small gym, so everyone hears every conversation.  Before my trainer could respond, another trainer offered his opinion, which was very different from mine.  My trainer didn’t agree with me either.  Back and forth we went.  It got pretty heated and, of course, no one’s mind was changed.  These are not unkind men.  I couldn’t just dismiss them.  They are my friends and I’ve known them for years. 

The conversation stayed with me for days.  It even became part of my prayer.  Mostly I was mad at myself.  I wished I had been more articulate.  You probably know how it is after a conversation like that.  I kept saying to myself:  “If only I had said this, then they would understand… .”  The more I went over it, though, I got the clear sense that God was shifting my focus from this unconvincing conversation to the deeper place of my own conviction.  God was asking me how I had come to the place where I could be open to securing the rights of a transgender person.

I knew immediately.  It was several years ago in a workshop on transgender issues.  I didn’t really want to be there but a friend had asked me to go.  Intellectually I think I understood why someone should have the right to change their sex, but I was pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea.  Then a transgender woman stood up and told her story.  She was a minister and she spoke of how she had suffered in making her decision and how she had sacrificed her career, friendships and family relationships.  She told of how alone and helpless she often felt because of the discrimination she experienced, and of how hard it was for her to fulfill her vocation. 

“Wow,” I thought to myself as I listened to her poignant story, “all she wants is to practice her call from God.  She isn’t any different from me, from anyone who takes their call seriously.”  Something shifted inside of me, and the Spirit opened me to her dignity as a human being.  It’s almost always different when it’s a personal encounter like that, or when it’s someone you know.  Somehow their dignity is right there in front of you and it speaks to your dignity as a human being.

So ever since then it comes to me at odd times in my prayer:  Who else don’t I know?  Who are all the other people I’ve kept at a distance or let circumstances keep at a distance from me?  Who is God trying to put in front of me and open me to?

M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE
Posted:  12/05/2012

Opinions here and in the comments section are those of the writers.

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I read your blog post when it was re-posted on another blog for Transgender christians. I want to say thank you as a transgender person and as a christian for sharing your story, and also the struggle you went through in your understanding of transgender people. I deeply appreciate how you connect this to the many ways we "close" ourselves or oppress each other. You remind us that every day it is our choice and responsibility to struggle with our thoughts and actions and do better by one another. Treating each other with respect and dignity in a world that ingrains us to do otherwise, is hard work. So thank you for the hard work you are doing, for speaking truth, for standing up, and for sharing.

From: Sonny Duncan
Location/Parish: Berkeley, CA

Thanks so much for this thoughtful reflection. I love how these every day sorts of encounters can lead to deep insights. And I especially appreciate your offering of your journey on this issue. As a trans person myself, it hasn't been easy to see the news coverage of this particular story, and the often quite vehement negative responses to it. So I appreciate your reflection that much more. Thank you.

From: Cameron Partridge
Location/Parish: Episcopal Chaplaincy at BU

There are many things I used to take for granted, like "Christmas concerts" in public school, for example, that I have fond memories of. When schools stopped having them and stopped having Christmas parties, I at first felt a bit irked and sorry my children would not experience them, but then I thought about what it would be like for a child who is not Christian and I thought about the pain they felt. On another occasion I was in a college classroom and someone made a "joke" about being gay. Most of the class laughed. There was one young man in the class who I knew was gay. He sat there with his head down. I told the joke teller in front of everyone, "You know, I don't think you really are a mean spirited person, but when you say things like that you don't have any idea who you could be hurting." There were a lot of hung heads after that. How do these tie into your story? They require standing in someone else's shoes and trying to feel what they would feel in those circumstances. I agree that the transgender story and the state paying for the surgery makes me very uncomfortable,but I also know that I am not a psychiatrist and I believe that the judge took all the facts into consideration before making a decision. My immediate reaction was to not pay for the surgery, but perhaps with more reflection and trying to understand the person who is suffering, I will change. I am not there yet, but I am trying.

From: Susan Gates
Location/Parish: All Saints' Chelmsford

I think that one strong driving force behind the increasing support for LGBT equality has been exactly the kind of personal encounter Bishop Shaw describes. It shifts the focus from me, and my feelings (which may or may not be relevant) and the person who is suffering from injustice and discrimination.

It's not for me to "mind" or not mind whether a person receives the treatment they require to be well. They don't need my permission -- it's a fundamental human right. But that's not the real issue here. The great point here is how prayer cracks open our defensive postures and makes real empathy possible. It's something I've experienced first-hand, and while the experience isn't always a comfortable (or even welcome) one, it always leads to a place of grace.

Thanks for sharing this.

From: Beth Dunn
Location/Parish: Church of the Holy Spirit, Orleans, MA

This person has health insurance through the state; I assume it is Mass Health; the same health insurance the poor have. If gender reassignment surgery is not covered under MassHealth, then it should not have to be payed for by the state for this individual.

From: Patty Begin
Location/Parish: Norwood

I don't mind if someone wants to change their gender, I do mind that she is asking the state of ma to pay for it. We have enough on our plate as it is. Let her get donations from people like yourself to help pay for it. I'm sure she could get enough money for the operation. Why should we pay for it. Her wife didn't have that opsion when he/she decided to take her life!!

From: June Sbuttoni
Location/Parish: Grace Church Medford, MA