Thought for the Week – Cisness

Audrey Sebatindira, Congregation and PCC member, talks about their relationship with transness.

Cisgender is when your gender identity (how you identify) is the same as the sex you were assigned at birth (male or female). In contrast, people who are transgender or nonbinary have genders that are different from their sexes.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

Thinking about cisness has conjured up different images in my mind over the years. In my late teens it was encapsulated by Madeleine Pontritter, the extravagant ex-wife of the fictional protagonist in Saul Bellow’s Herzog who was able to perform womanhood with the sort of ease I could only dream of. Later, I fixated on the borders of cisness, which I stretched and warped as much as was necessary to ensure I was always on the right side of them.

More recently, it has become a desert city to which I’ve never been able to find entry. Instead, I’ve walked beside the high stone wall that marks out its boundaries. I’ve pressed my ear to that wall, able sometimes to hear muffled signs of life on the other side. I’ve come to know every weed and pebble that sits at the foot of the wall as I circle the city over and over, wondering whether one could claim citizenship purely by virtue of their proximity to it, through sheer force of will.

The wilderness that surrounded this city was an amorphous transness. Vast, open, dusty land populated by scrubby vegetation and tumbleweed, with no protection from the beating sun.

At some point, in response to the growing sense that I deserved more than the wall, I started to venture out into the trans wilderness. Yet after walking a little while, I’d suddenly find myself back at the wall, the comfort of a familiar unhappiness winning out in the face of a fear of the unknown. Each expedition would take me slightly further out but then I’d blink and find myself back where I’d started.

One of the reasons I decided to go on the Camino in March of this year was in the hope that somewhere in Spain I’d find the bravery to walk out into the trans wilderness and keep on walking. I don’t know that I found that bravery out there but I did find something useful in Walter Brueggemann’s Lent devotions, which I read in the mornings before each day’s journey.

For the Fourth Saturday of Lent, he recounts the story in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus feeding thousands of his followers in the wilderness with five loaves of bread and two fish. Brueggemann writes that Jesus transformed the wilderness from a place of lack to a place of ‘nourishing plenty’. He set aside his disciples’ firm belief that the wilderness was barren and without resources and performed his miracle instead. In doing so, he radically disrupted our ideas about what we can expect from the world. He taught us we can meet scarcity with hope.

After reading this, it occurred to me for the first time that I’d been imagining the trans wilderness as a place of lack when it needn’t be. I began to think about what it might be like to close my eyes and in place of desert see some of the gorgeous landscapes I’d been walking though during the Camino. Maybe go even further to other wildness I’ve loved: the roar of the Atlantic on the West African coast, the quiet of the forest on the grounds of my primary school, or Dartmoor’s bleak beauty.

In doing so, I did wonder if I was missing the point. I suspect a proper interpretation of Brueggemann’s reflection is that I should learn to stay hopefully, prayerfully in the desert. Learn to trust that there I will be met with all the nourishment I need, unlikely as that might seem. But the honest truth is I’m not sure how to do that yet. In the interim, I’ve taken the easier interpretation that wilderness need not be barren. In practice, this looks like approaching my relationship with gender with curiosity. Surprising myself by discovering that there are elements to it that I find funny and intriguing. This realisation has kept me and fed me in the wilderness where I think I’d otherwise have turned back by now, and I hope in time to become brave enough to stay with the bits that scare me – the bits that feel like desert – and trust that there I’ll also receive all the nourishment I need.

Maybe getting to that point will also look like escaping metaphor. Because outside of my imagination there is an increasingly firm but loving call from God to stop thinking about being trans and just get on with it. Clear reminders that in many ways I am already getting on with it and in this instance there’s no need to try and articulate in the abstract something that’s meant to be lived in practice.

I’ve heard the call in Lucy’s powerful chapter on resurrection in Our Sound is Our Wound. In a biography of activist lawyer and priest Pauli Murray, whose efforts to access gender affirming healthcare in the 1930s and 40s were constantly thwarted, which contrasts heavily with my own situation in which the care I need is fairly accessible (as long as I don’t rely on the state). I heard it in Ayla’s Pentecost sermon. In the person who came up to me after I led prayers of intercession that secretly drew from this fear of transness with a “God-word”: ‘the door is open, walk through it’. It’s there in my daily prayer life, in conversations I’ve had with other congregants at SJP, and in many, many other contexts.

For as long as cisness is just a city, a border, or a fictional character, transness remains nothing more than an idea, too. But I believe in a materialist God who wants us to live out our truths actively in the world. This means using whatever metaphor for transness happens to be useful as a source of empowerment to walk out into the world as exactly who I am, and to keep on walking.