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Unitarian Universalists

The Integrity of the In-Between

En Español

This is the Sermon that tells my story by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison

International Transgender Day of Remembrance

Interweave Continental

November 20, 2016


    • You are welcome here.
    • No matter your age, your size, the color of your eyes, your hair, your skin,
    • You are welcome here.
    • No matter whom you love, or how you speak, or whatever your abilities,
    • You are welcome here.
    • Whether you come with laughter in your heart or tears,
    • You are welcome here.
    • If you come here with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands,
    • You are welcome here.

    Opening Words

    Lighting the Chalice

      We light this chalice as a symbol of our faith.

      By its light, may our vision be illumined

      By its warmth, may our fellowship be encouraged

      And by its flame, may our yearnings for peace, justice, and the life of the spirit be enkindled.

      David Usher

    Joys and Concerns

    (We throw a small stone into this bowl filled with water, to symbolize our thoughts, which move in circular rings eternally, like concentric waves.)

      We invite you to share your joys and concerns since our last meeting


    ( followed by a moment of meditation)

      In the quietness of this place and in the Spirit of the Community in which we share and find strength let us pray. Keep fresh before us the moments of high resolve, that in good times or in tempests, we may not forget that we are a justice seeking people. The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed upon deed, and thought upon thought, and thus we shall strive to find the strength and common purpose to lead a life worth living.

    Story for All Ages

    (the children go to Religious Education at the end of the story and the adults sing "Spirit of Life" )


        # 123  (STLT)   "Spirit of Life"   by Carolyn McDade (adapted)
      Spirit of Life, come unto us,
        Sing in our hearts all the stirrings of compassion.
          Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
            Move in our hands, giving life the shape of justice.
              Roots hold us close; wings set us free;
                Spirit of Life, come to us, come to me.

    First Reading

    The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds. This love is not a soft and sentimental virtue, not a fuzzy feeling of romance. The love of which spiritual tradition speaks is a tough love, the connective tissue of reality.

    The act of knowing is an act of love: the act of entertaining and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own.

    Here is the insight most central to spiritual experience: we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us, known as members of a community ...that depends on us and on which we depend. ~Parker Palmer

    Second Reading

    This cannot be an easy life. We shall have a rugged time of it to keep our minds open and to keep them deep; to keep our sense of beauty and our ability to make it, and our occasional ability to see it in places remote and strange and unfamiliar. We shall have a rugged time of it, all of us but this is the condition of life, and in this condition we can help because we can love one another. ~J. Robert Oppenheimer


      I remember when I was about seven years old and a new family moved into the house across the street. I could see they had a child about my age and I was full of questions and full of hope that this new child and I would become best friends. I wanted to run across the street and bombard the new family with questions. Who are you? Where are you from? What was it like there? What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

      At the same time, I was far too shy, and far too well raised to indulge that impulse. I knew I would have to wait, to let the new family settle in and reveal themselves to me and to the neighborhood at their own pace. Still, my curiosity was so strong it was almost painful. It took what seemed like ages, but eventually, the new family did come over, and their daughter, Sara, and I did become best friends.

      I have learned a few things since I was seven. One of them is that if I want to get to know someone, there are much better ways to do it than to mount my own personal inquisition. In fact, one of the best ways I’ve found to get to know folks is to open myself up and tell my own story.

      Now for anyone, telling his or her story is a risky thing. That’s why my mother taught me to be patient and let the family across the street do it at their own pace. My story too, is a little risky, and a bit unusual. It took me quite a few years to risk telling it for the first time, and even longer to tell it from the pulpit. But once I took that risk I discovered some wonderful things.

      When I allowed myself to be known, I could finally trust that what Parker Palmer said was true:

      Here is the insight most central to spiritual experience: we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us…known as members of a community that depends on us, and on which we depend.

      I no longer had to be alone, afraid, or isolated. That was true in a spiritual sense for me, but it was also true in a practical sense. The other wonder that happened when I began to tell my story is that others began to tell me theirs. And the depth and breadth of my community grew.

      I’ve come to understand that one of the best things I can do–one of the foundational acts of ministry I can offer to other Unitarian Universalists is to tell my story. Of course, I can’t tell you the whole story–that would take hours and we’d all end up pretty hungry and cranky. But I can tell you the part that is a bit unusual, and that has taught me the most and both literally and spiritually made me who I am today:

      I am Transgender .

      Now “transgender is a pretty new word, and its meaning isn’t always clear–not even among those of us the word is used to describe. In my case, it means two things: that I was born female and now am male, and that I honor that journey by being honest about my experience as both. That is not true for every transgender person. Many of my transgender friends feel that they were always one gender, and that they are changing or have changed their bodies to make them fit with the gender they have always known themselves to be. That is their journey.

      My journey has been to wrestle with living with what Rita Nakashima Brock calls “interstitial integrity.” She describes this kind of integrity from her experience as a multi-racial woman. She says:

      Interstitial refers to the places in-between, which are real places, like the strong connective tissue between organs in the body that link the parts. This interstitiality is a form of integrity…Integrity has to do with entireness or of having no part taken away or wanting.

      This is the heart of what it means for you to know me and my story. My life is a journey toward the integrity and wholeness of who I am and a journey that lets me see into two worlds. I am a transgender man.

      I began this story in small-town Iowa, where I was born and raised. My family was a troubled and a difficult place to be. I sometimes describe myself as a poet in a house where there were no books. Truthfully, gender was not an issue most of the time. I ignored it as much as I was able and played along when I absolutely had to. I was uncomfortable with what I experienced as the trappings of girlhood–the pink and the frills and the frustrating inaction of it–but I was sure all girls hated those things.

      I spent thirty years in Iowa, trying hard to fit in. I never quite succeeded, but I did build a lot of wonderful friendships (most of them in the UU fellowship there) with people who accepted me as a rather masculine woman who was raising a young son as a single mom.

      I was twenty-nine years old when I was first questioned gender. I read Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues, and found myself emotionally drawn to the main character, Jess. I was captivated by the story of Jess’ choice to live in the world as a man, even though the story was incredibly painful. Even through the tragedies of Jess’ life, I couldn’t help but see the possibilities for me. For the first time, I knew it possible to change my gender.

      Later that year, Feinberg’s second book, Transgender Warriors was published by Beacon Press. I asked the friend who was coming to Iowa to help my son and I move to California to start seminary to bring a copy along. We read it aloud to each other in the moving truck and during the four-day trek to Berkeley, I came to realize that the stories in the book were my story. I saw my face in the portraits Feinberg had gathered and I saw my questions, my feelings, and my struggle in the stories of other transgender people. I began to ask myself who I was, deep in the center of my being.

      It was a shock to notice that deep down I felt more like a teenage boy than a grown woman. I had spent years trying on the different female identities that were open to me but none of them fit, leaving me stuck. I had tried to be a fundamentalist Christian vision of a woman; I had tried to be a good radical feminist, I had tried to be a good mother, I had tried to be a good lesbian, and I had tried to make up my own definition of “woman” and live that. But reading the stories of other transgender people made me realize that what I had always wanted to be when I grew up was a man. I was shocked and scared by the intensity of that desire.

      One night shortly after we had settled in to our new Berkeley apartment, I had a dream. It was a dream I’d had many times before in which I was trying to catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror, but no matter how I twisted and turned, I could not see my face. I would cry and struggle to stretch and contort myself into some position where I could see myself, but I always failed. But this time, in the dream, I heard a voice say, “Move the mirror.” So I reached out and grabbed the mirror and turned it completely around. There, in what should have been the useless back of the mirror I could see my face, tear-streaked and undeniably male.

      That was a hard dream–hard because it called me to make a decision about my life. Was I going to stay inside the little box marked “F” for female at my birth, or was I going to live what felt true and real for me? Was I going to choose to live with integrity?

      The most difficult part of that decision, aside from dealing with all the feelings it evoked in the people I loved, was the sense that I had to choose male or female. I had spent thirty years as a woman, six of them as a mother, and now I felt I was supposed to deny all of that and live as another kind of creature–a man. All or nothing. The little box marked “F” or the one marked “M.”

      My life does not fit those boxes. My gender is not that simple. As hard as I have tried to choose one over the other, what is true for me is that I am both. It is more comfortable and more authentic for me to move through the world as a man. In my deepest knowing of myself, a male face, a male body, and a male identity feel true. When I think of myself or describe myself, it is as a man.

      I cannot choose one side of myself over the other. To choose would be to willingly let some part of myself wither and die. To deny that I live in a body that was born female, and that I lived as a woman for thirty years would be just as painful as it was living in denial of my knowledge of myself as a man.

      In the process of figuring this out I called on a lot of resources. I learned a lot about transgender history. I learned that in the past, one couldn’t get through the medical system’s scrutiny unless he or she created something called a “plausible history.” A plausible history for me would have been a story I created about my life as a little boy, a teen, and a young man. In short, it would have been a lie. But I didn’t do this to live a lie! I did this to tell the truth about who I am.

      When Rita Nakashima Brock wrote of interstitial integrity, she showed me she understands something that is vital to me. She understands how it feels when the categories are too small and too unimaginative to hold her life. And she names interstitial integrity as an act of resistance–a liberatory act–in a world that seeks to confine us all to an oversimplified view of what it is to be human.

      There are many reasons this society wants us to be completely quantifiable. For the marketplace and statistical analysis, it would be so much easier if we were digital–every detail of our lives reducible to a one or a zero, an “M” or an “F”–an us or a them. For us to be really good consumers of this culture, we need to be willing to make ourselves small enough to fit into the boxes on all the forms.

      It is useful for people who value profits and efficiency and the bottom line to have boxes and categories in which to place us. But human beings and our lives are so much more than that. When Rita Nakashima Brock notices and lets us know that…”the places in-between… are real places” she reminds us of the beauty, the strength and the utter necessity of all that lies between the little boxes of this culture.

      Interstitial integrity is the heart of my story. The muscles, sinews, ligaments, and fibers that hold us together are the strength and real substance of the body. Without them we would be piles of bones. It is an act of courage and an act of liberation to remember all of ourselves. Re-membering means being conscious of all the parts of ourselves that are too complex, too messy, too solid to be held by imaginary boxes. Reclaiming these parts of ourselves is the work of integrity, and integrity is one of the things we as individuals, and as a society, need most.

      One doesn’t have to be transgender to know how it feels to be crushed into a role or a box that is uncomfortable and painful. This is the heart of every social justice movement. Women know how it feels to be defined in ways that do not hold their strength and value. Anyone whose skin is not white knows how it feels to be limited by others’ definitions of their place and power in the world. Gay, Lesbian and bisexual people know how it is to be made small by prejudice and defined by only one small part of their whole being. All of us know. Even straight, white, men with healthy bodies and strong minds know the pain of being judged and limited by other people’s assumptions.

      One doesn’t even have to be struggling with issues of identity to understand how it feels to be in-between. We all experience in-between times. Times when we are not sure we fit in one place or another. Times when change catches us by surprise, and we are left a little shocked and a little disoriented. These are in-between times, and they can be difficult, and yet, in-between places and times are also incredibly beautiful. They are full of possibility, and creative energy. They are places and times in which we get to make new choices about our lives. We can recreate ourselves, renewing our vision and our hope.

      When I try to express the power and beauty of the in-between I am inspired by the brilliance and beauty of sunrise, and the quiet stillness of sunset. In these times between night and day, our vision adjusts, we take time to prepare for what lies ahead, and we enjoy the beauty of what is. Twilight is a real time, a beautiful time, and a necessary time. I don’t believe any of us would rather that night suddenly turned to full day, as if someone flipped a giant switch. The shock and the glare would be too much.

      There is something special and needed about the in-between. When I look at the world and see evil, it is so often in the form of enforced duality. We are “us.” They are “them.” Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. White people are one way; people of color, another. When I imagine a world where justice flows down like water, I see that flood washing away the categories, and leaving us all in the messy middle, together, as human beings. In one of my favorite readings from our hymnal, Judy Chicago imagined it this way:

      And then all that has divided us will merge
      And then compassion will be wedded to power
      And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
      And then both men and women will be gentle
      And then both women and men will be strong
      And then no person will be subject to another’s will
      And then all will be rich and free and varied
      And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
      And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
      And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
      And then all will nourish the young
      And then all will cherish life’s creatures
      And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
      And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

      May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so.
      Ashe’, Blessed be, and Amen.

    Closing circle of hands

    (Holding hands or link arms as you read the closing words together)


        Go now in Peace     
      Go now in Peace, Go now in Peace,
        May the Love of God surround you
          Everywhere, everywhere, You may go


    Remembrance from past years Remembrance 2015

    * Video 2009

    Tuesday, November 20th is Transgender Day of Remembrance - a time of remembering the transgender people around the world who have been killed in the past year simply for being themselves. This video honors those who have died.

      Transgender Child
          Mother of Transgender Toddler Gets a Lesson in Love By Tracie Stratton Originally published on

          My child is now ten. He transitioned at the age of five. By eighteen months I knew that this child, my fourth daughter, was different from the first three. In particular, she was very boyish, a characteristic which I had never thought about much before. Until Izzy, there were a lot of things I never thought about.

          One of Izzy's first sentences, even before she was two, was, "Me a boy, Mama." I thought her confusion was cute. By the age of three, I discussed the issue with our pediatrician. By age five, I was in the doctor's office again, and consulting a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, who came with great credentials and was the head of the pediatric psych association here in Oregon, had no clue how to handle the situation. Our final meeting with him concluded with him stating: "For God's sake, just let her be a lesbian." Of course by this time I knew that gender and sexual identity were two different things. I was upset that there was so little help for children like mine, nor did I know of any other children like mine.

          I then went to an endocrinologist, who drew some blood from Izzy for lab work. When discussing the results, we found that my child had been making both sets of hormones, estrogen and testosterone, in equal parts. We learned that in a child so young, however, hormones can ebb and flow, and that this was not conclusive to anything. So what could we think? The endocrinologist said our child was transgender, but that we should not let a lab test alter our path. In short, we should continue to do what is right for Izzy.

          So what was right for Izzy? I had no idea. I consulted the Internet and found a gender therapist, who in turn recommended a child specialist. This specialist, Cat Pivetti, has been and continues to be our lifesaver, helping us navigate life with an intersexed, transgender child. As a result, Izzy feels loved and confident about who he is.

          My parents and siblings were great through the whole thing. My current husband, Izzy's step dad, was on board before me, and his parents have been supportive as well. The only person who had great difficulty with the transition was my ex-husband. In part due to our differences around supporting Izzy's gender expression, a terrible custody battle ensued. I am happy to say that I gained full custody. My ex spent several years in therapy himself, and, after almost six years, was able to accept Izzy completely. Their relationship has grown as a result. I realize that it is not very often when a custody battle involving a transgender child goes as well as mine did. Luckily, I utilized a great lawyer, a therapist, and a parent coordinator, all who worked very hard. It definitely paid off for Izzy, and for our entire family.

          In some ways, and to many observers, my child's transition seemed to have happened overnight. But Izzy has always been a boy dressed like a girl. Kindergarten was the beginning of the transition, and it really hit home when we realized he was having difficulty navigating bathrooms there. In fact, he would rather have peed his pants than use the girls' restroom. At one point we were told Izzy wanted to be a boy because he saw this as strength and power. I knew in my heart Izzy did not want to be a boy, he was a boy, a boy trapped in a girl's body.

          By Christmas time of that first school year, my child was extremely depressed. He never played with other kids at school, because he didn't fit in with the girls or the boys. In fact, most kids had a hard time telling what Izzy was: a boy dressed like a girl or a very boyish girl.

          Around this time, Izzy would lay in bed every night and tell me he was a boy. He'd say, " God made a mistake," or ask, "Why does God hate me? " He also asked questions like "Why won't my penis pop out, it hurts up there" and even, "Am I going to be an abominable snow man?" (This last question stemmed from Izzy unfortunately overhearing a conversation in which one of the church ladies stated that Izzy was "an abomination of God.") I had no idea how to answer all of his questions.

          I knew the therapy we had originally tried was failing, because my child was more and more unhappy, and, in retrospect, possibly suicidal. And then one Sunday it happened. We are not churchgoers, but my ex-husband attends a church that is not exactly "welcoming." The kids were with my ex, who was trying to put a dress on Izzy to get ready for church. After tantrums from both my ex-husband and Izzy, Tyfany, Izzy's older sister, found Izzy standing in the middle of a somewhat busy street. When she asked him what he was doing, he said he would rather die than be a girl. I realized then that I had a suicidal five-year-old child who needed help.

          So, I started letting Izzy be a boy at home, wearing what- ever clothes he wanted, and playing with whatever toys he chose. Most of these things had previously been removed from our home after some really bad advice from ill-informed "experts." We had been trying for a while to have everything be "female" around the house, and we even created a special "girls' club." I think Izzy would have loved to have been a girl just so this terrible nightmare would end. In fact, he really tried to act like a girl for a while to appease us, yet would always say things like, "See I could make a cute girl if I wanted to, but I'm really a boy." It took a while for us to really get that message.

          One day my husband, Izzy's stepdad Buzz, was having a hard time getting Izzy ready for school. He decided to just let Izzy wear the boys' shirt with the car on it that day. His message on my phone went something like, "Honey don't be mad, I know we said not to let Izzy wear boys' clothes out of the house, but I had to get the kid to school. "Later there was another message: "You're not going to believe this, but Izzy is playing with other kids! It's amazing. I can't believe it." Izzy never played with other kids; he never had friends. Not a girl and not a "real" boy, Izzy never fit in and usually felt isolated and depressed. It seemed as though this were about to change.

          When I asked Izzy later if he was teased that day for wearing boys' clothes, he replied that only one kid had said anything, and it was only to tell him he was wearing a boys' shirt. No teasing ever ensued. By that spring Izzy had transitioned, and later that summer, we used only male pronouns when referring to him. Izzy was so happy, and we had a huge birthday party of all his friends from school. This was the turning point. Many of the kids' parents who attended did not have a clue about Izzy's gender, and some people were upset by this. Was Izzy a boy or a girl? I have had many conversations like this along the way.

          I knew I would have a rough road ahead, particularly when it came to school and my ex-husband. And I did have moments of really missing my daughter Isabelle, who in reality was never there. I always had the same child. Where was my mind? How could I miss a little girl who was never a little girl?

          Now, my kids and I are so close. The whole experience has bonded us as a family. I learned so much about myself and how strong "just a mom" can be. When facing folks like school directors, I go in with my head held high and tell them what my child needs, instead of them telling me. I have consulted with transgender experts and have worked hard at Izzy's school educating administrators and parents about what transgender means, about my child's legal rights and what is and is not OK to ask or say.

          This hasn't been easy, but I have stayed strong, kept my guard up, and continued to intervene before any problem ever touches my child. My child is unaware of the many meetings it takes to keep his life safe.

          It has been almost six years since my child began his transition at school. He continues to use the boys' restroom, he plays on an all-boys' basketball team, and he is completely recognized as a boy. There has never been teasing, nor bullying.

          We live in a small town, and at one point, everyone was aware of my child being "different." I know this is very challenging for many parents of trans children. But if you are a nice person, and let people know that this sort of thing happens, and that you are doing what the experts say is in the best interest of your child, they tend to shut up. I don't ask people what's between their child's legs, and they don't ask me about Izzy.

          This last fall, Izzy had an implant placed, which will last for a year, to stop puberty. We plan on letting Izzy call the shots when it comes to hormones and all that. Izzy checks in with his very supportive therapist once a month and I believe it's still very important for Izzy to talk regularly to a professional whom he has known for years.

          I also want Izzy to know he is not alone, so he has frequent play dates with other children like him, and we always go to gender conferences. I also use two web groups to help me through the experience.

          I think parents of trans kids are the best parents ever. They unconditionally love their children, even when they don't completely understand what their child is going through. So, my advice to other parents is really just to love their child, no matter what, and to stay strong. This is not about you or your religion and beliefs; it's about your child. And get a great therapist, and an even better lawyer. Never let anyone question you. If your child is happy and a nice person, then you are doing the right thing.

    Tracie Stratton was raised in Oregon with religious beliefs that are nondenominational, but include a touch of Catholic and New Age spirituality. Her childhood was good. She has very tolerant parents, who never spanked her, and tried to be as nonjudgmental as they could be. This helped her to accept all her children and love them in an unconditional way. This piece is excerpted with permission from Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle, and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, collected and edited by Rachel Pepper (Cleis Press)