Monday, June 22, 2009

Narrating a Transgender Presence at Episcopal General Convention

Three years ago, TransEpiscopal had one representative who could attend the Episcopal Church’s General Convention (GC). Donna Cartwright, then of the Diocese of Newark, NJ, went for about a week and testified at a committee hearing in favor of the one transgender-related resolution that had come to Convention. The resolution never made it to the floor.

Last summer, I attended the Lambeth Conference, joining Rev. Dr. Christina Beardsley along with three other transgender people on a panel called (appropriately enough, given the ongoing Anglican Communion “listening process”) “Listening to Transgender People.”

But this July, I will join several other members of TransEpiscopal in Anaheim; indeed, we are hoping that as many as eight of us will be present for part or all of the nearly two-week span. This is truly an unprecedented representation.

We come with such numbers this year to support an equally unprecedented number of transgender-related resolutions: four of them call on the Church to support transgender people both in its own life and in the civic arena. As we draw nearer to Convention, we will report more details on those resolutions, and on TransEpiscopal’s presence at GC.

In the meantime, from where I sit, two plus weeks from Convention’s start, I wonder how our presence will be received, not simply in person but in communications about the Convention. I wonder because it is not clear to me how, or even whether, those who write about the Episcopal Church – whether official Episcopal communicators, bloggers, or secular media representatives – will incorporate transgender people and concerns into well-entrenched narratives about the debates of the Episcopal Church.

Narrative is a particularly interesting lens through which to look at the Convention this year because GC is actively inculcating the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Public Narrative Project during its two weeks. What I wonder is how much this narrative project will interface with—perhaps offer insight into, complicate, or disrupt -- the already existing narratives about human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular that have roiled the Anglican Communion for years now.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church itself is preparing for GC with a series of narratives about what is coming up. If your congregation included an insert about the Convention in its bulletin this Sunday, you may have noticed that nothing to do with sexuality was listed anywhere among the Convention’s work (at least, the one in our bulletin only briefly mentioned resolutions that seek to get "Beyond B033" and never actually used the word “sexuality”). As the Convention nears, my guess is that Episcopal communicators around the country will be under pressure to emphasize anything but Anglican Communion conflict over the Episcopal Church’s increasingly progressive consensus on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.

On the other hand, I imagine the secular press may be keen to report exactly that aspect of the General Convention, and not always in the most thoughtful, nuanced manner. Which is, of course, why ecclesial communicators will be working hard to open the media’s eyes to the many other stories of Convention.

I admit that as an academic as well as a priest, I’m wary both of sound bites and of the avoidance of stories, especially of people, that need to be acknowledged. Narratives can have a way of overly smoothing rough edges. The truth is often complicated – sometimes more than words, or indeed narratives, can convey – but it’s worth trying to articulate, even if it takes time. And as a transgender man, I’m also highly aware of how sensationalistic and objectifying media (including new media) stories on trans-related topics can be (though I do think there have been major improvements over the last few years).

And so, as I look out over this emerging Episcopal intentionality about narrative, and as I take in the familiar, frustrating dynamic of stories about — and in avoidance of — the sexuality debates, I wonder how to productively incorporate transgender people into the mix. Will our work be completely overshadowed by the secular-ecclesial media cycle of endless, narrow focus on sexuality debates, on the one hand, and determined aversion to anything sexuality-related, on the other? Will we be patched into that narrative cycle, sensationalistically reported as the latest emblems of church schism? Will people truly listen to some of the amazing stories of faith and resilience, as well as of heartbreak, that we have been sharing with one another on our communal listserve since 2004? Will people listen as we seek to clarify how, as trans people, we are distinct from and yet also connected to what is at stake in the current sexuality debates?

We cannot simply add transgender to the same old stories. We must tell our stories anew.

But, you know, I look forward to the telling, because as wary as I can be of narrative, I also love it. I am, after all, a person “of the book” in more ways than one. And so I look forward to the give and take of listening and telling. I pray that the anxiety that has long accompanied our Anglican/Episcopal conflicts might not overwhelm us, trans or cisgender, that we might truly find ways to open our hearts to one another, and that the Spirit —whom the Gospel of John pointedly calls the Spirit of Truth — might blow us where it will, telling (and, as the hymn puts it, "singing") a new Church into being, and inspiring people beyond its borders.

Cameron Partridge

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