Sunday, May 1, 2011

Easter People in a Good Friday World

Cross-posted from the Walking with Integrity Blog:

Retired Bishop Barbara C. Harris has a saying that we are “an Easter people in a Good Friday world.” That’s what I find myself pondering as I think of the current state of affairs for trans people in the U.S. right now. If we are an Easter people—an Easter body—we are, as tomorrow’s passage from John 20 so strikingly depicts it, a risen body marked by wounds that remain open.

The U.S. trans community got some good news this week when the Department of Labor announced it has added "gender identity" to its equal employment statement. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's press release on the addition can be found here.

We also got some good news two weeks ago when the state legislature of Hawaii sent legislation to Governor Neil Abercrombi that would protect trans people in the area of employment. On Monday, April 18th, Hawaii’s House of Representatives passed Bill #546 which, as the Star Advertiser explained, “would bar employers from discriminating on the basis of gender expression, bringing Hawaii's labor law in line with similar protections in the areas of housing and public accommodations.” The governor is widely expected to sign this legislation.

That Hawaii already protects trans people from discrimination in several areas, particularly access to public accommodations, is also significant. In other states, public accommodations access is being hotly debated, with opponents of equal access often caustically terming such legislation “bathroom bills.” The specter these opponents raise in such debates is of vulnerable women and children being open to attack in women’s restrooms—if not by trans people, then by people posing as trans. With such fear tactics, they seek either to prevent the passage of laws that would safeguard trans access to public accommodations, or they seek to repeal legislation already on the books.

The state of Maine is currently considering just such a repeal, as shown by Integrity Maine member Ben Garren’s recent testimony against that repeal effort.

As of Monday, Texas became the home of another repeal effort, this one attempting to prevent trans people from marrying. As Bay Windows reported earlier this week, “The legislation…. would prohibit county and district clerks from using a court order recognizing a sex change as documentation to get married, effectively requiring the state to recognize a 1999 state appeals court decision that said in cases of marriage, gender is assigned at birth and sticks with a person throughout their life even if they have a sex change.” In addition to preventing future marriages, this legislation may well undermine the legal standing of existing ones—my own, for instance, if I lived in Texas.

Meanwhile on April 11th in Maryland, the Gender-Identity Discrimination Act (House Bill 235—which addressed employment but left out public accommodations) was effectively killed for the current legislative year when it was narrowly voted back to the state’s Judiciary Proceedings Committee. As the Baltimore Sun reported, “While the bill was being debated on the House floor, one delegate alluded to Cpl. Klinger, a comic-relief character from the TV show "M*A*S*H" known for wearing women's clothes while trying to get a psychiatric discharge from the Army. The delegate wanted to know if his colleagues wanted Klinger leading a day care center.”

On April 18th, one week after the bill was killed, a young transwoman named Chrissy Lee Polis was attacked by young non-trans women as she tried to enter a bathroom in a Baltimore MacDonald’s. The story of the beating, including a video taken by a MacDonald’s employee -- in which Polis can be heard asking “what bathroom am I supposed to use?!” -- went viral in the days that followed (youtube has now removed it). This story has been covered everywhere, from this call to action by Chris Paige of TransFaith online to an NPR story yesterday and a Washington Post piece earlier this week. A Baltimore Sun story from earlier today considers whether perhaps this horrifying event may be a moment we look back upon as a turning point.

As TransEpiscopal co-founder Donna Cartwright put it in a letter to the editor of the New York Times today, “Defiance of rigid cultural gender expectations still makes many people uncomfortable, and all too often we pay the price for others’ discomfort.” Nevertheless, she continues, “we can create new cultural space by being who we are, without apology.”

When I think about the process of creating that “new cultural of space,” I can’t help but be reminded of the mystical theology of Julian of Norwich, whose feast day falls on May 8th. I think of her vision of the body of Christ, its side mystically opened to all as to Thomas in the upper room—opened in a strangely infinite capacity as a place of refuge, a body of transformation, a passage of rebirth.

An Easter people in a Good Friday world indeed.

-Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is a Lecturer and Interim Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University

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