Life Beyond the Comma

The Reverend Dr. Erin Swenson

Accepting the 2005 Lazarus Project Award at the Lazarus Banquet in Pasadena, CA.

February 26, 2005

Thank you. There is no way that any one person can be so honored, and this award is clearly for all those who are bridge-builders. When Don Crail called and said that the Lazarus Board had made this choice, it came completely out of the blue for me. I of course said, “yes” I would be here with you tonight.  Then shock set in as I found myself thinking about the countless people who have worked for so many years, the ones I have worked beside at General Assembly, and those who serve the church, both PCUSA and Universal in every capacity imaginable.

So in accepting this award I also know it is not mine… I can only hold onto it for all of us… a witness to stories told and untold of offering, sacrifice, and love that springs from the lives of so many of God’s most beautiful children.

It was one of those phone calls you put off as long as possible, yet there I was in the basement apartment in our home actually pressing the buttons on the phone. Everything inside me did not want to do it, and still my fingers pressed until the ringing sound emanated from the earpiece. A moment later and I was talking with the chair of our Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Lloyd. This is Eric Swenson. You probably don’t know me, but I am a minister member of the Presbytery, a pastoral counselor. I’m calling to inquire how one goes about changing their name on the roll of Presbytery.”

“Sure I know you,” came the reply. “Well, it’s really not too hard. You just need to send a letter to the committee stating the name you want changed, and we take it from there.”

“I see.”

“By the way, what are you wanting to change your name to?”

“Uhh… Erin Katrina Swenson.”

“Why would you want to change your name to that?”

“I am actually changing my gender expression to female, and thought that this would be a better name.”

Silence.

After an awkward pause he responded, “I see… I’m going to have to get back to you on that…”

This happened in 1995, as I was in the midst of rearranging my life from one lived in the masculine key to one lived in the feminine, and the “church piece” was the one I had dreaded the most. The phone call led to a letter in which I was required to outline just exactly what this process was, and what I intended regarding my ordination. I am sure they were not comforted by my request that my ordination be continued, yet that was what I wanted. The Committee on Ministry was up to the task, and gathered a list of reading materials, listened to experts, and finally interviewed me before recommending to the Presbytery in June 1995 that my name be changed without changing my status as an ordained minister in good standing.

The Presbytery wasn’t buying it, however. As the motion came to the floor, one of my colleagues rose to make a substitute. He wanted the request sent back to the committee for further study… you know, the Presbyterian version of the “deep six.” He went on to explain that there had been no other Presbyterian minister that had made such a change, and that this move would set a precedent for the entire denomination, perhaps for all of Protestantism. He argued that the church’s acceptance of people who had changed gender had never been established.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it HAD been done before. When the bible study for the 215th General Assembly arrived in my mailbox a couple of years ago, I dutifully read the assigned passages. The theme of the G.A. was “A house of prayer for all peoples” and the study was of Isaiah 56.

Now if you are a lectionary preacher, you will be facing this text in late summer of this year. And if you follow the lectionary you will be reading Isaiah 56:1, 6-8.That’s verse one, and then jumping to verse 6. Now commas are often used in lectionary readings to skip parts of a passage that add little to the meaning, or to pull logical units out from their background, so the comma isn’t unusual at all. But there are also times when the comma is used in other ways, and it so happens that this comma bears fully on the perspective of my colleague who believed that my predicament in the church is novel.

At the risk of making this sound like a sermon… I would like to look carefully at this for it bears witness to what we are doing here tonight. First, allow me to read the passage as the lector arranged it for us, the way you preachers might use it this in Year A, Proper 15, if you follow the comma:

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed…And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Is. 56: 1, 6-8)

Now these are powerful words indeed. They come at a place and time in the life of Israel when the question of membership in the church is foremost. The Jews had been scattered for a generation throughout the ancient world in what we know as the Babylonian Exile. The temple, the church, had been demolished in 587, bringing despair among the people. Now, however, the people were returning to Jerusalem, and the temple was being rebuilt.

But there was a problem because so many of the Jews had been scattered for so long. While they had maintained their worship of Yahweh and kept the law, they had also been absorbed into the cultures in which they lived. They had become foreigners with different dress, language, and custom… strangers among their own people.  The Deuteronomic Law was clear that foreigners were not to be allowed into the holiest places in the temple where the sacrifices were offered. They were allowed only in the outer courtyard where the women and children gathered. So when God declared through the prophet that these foreigners would be allowed in, and that their sacrifices would be accepted, it was radical indeed. One could imagine Jesus himself nodding in pleasure that those who had been cast out were now embraced fully with full membership in the church.

Funny thing about commas, though… pesky little things that can change the whole meaning of a statement. A book on punctuation by Lynne Truss was published a couple of years ago that made the best seller list on the strength of a comma. In fact the title of the book was from a now famous joke:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the Panda makes towards the exit. The Panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a Panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

[Truss, Lynne.Eats, Shoots&Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.2003, Gotham Books. The quote can be found on the outside back dust jacket.]

By adding one little comma to this simple statement about a Panda’s eating habits, our cute bear is turned into a hungry and impatient potential executioner. It might be argued that our comma, the one in the Revised Common Lectionary, doesn’t really change the meaning of the prophecy. I would like you to judge for yourself. Here’s the part of Isaiah 56 that is hidden in the comma:

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  (Is. 56: 2-5)

For us… ones so clearly left out, removed from the places of worship and community, these words are life-giving. Every TG gathering I have read this to has been filled with amazement and tears of joy. How have we as the church become a community where these people, so honored by God that they would have a place and name better than sons and daughters, are stuffed behind a damned comma? As Isaiah brings this to us God’s intention is anything but to hide us, but to make sure that we are honored and remembered. So why are we hidden in the comma?

Could it be fear?

That’s what it was for me. I was certain, at the age of 10 when I first knew I was different from other little boys, that I would never fully belong to the human race. Terrified by this truth, I endeavored for the next three and a half decades to hide… not behind commas, but behind the appearance of being normal.

In my fear I constructed myth to explain my quirk. I developed the idea that all boys wanted to grow up to be girls… it was just a secret. The trick was that when you grew up and fell in love with a woman that all the desire to BE a woman was refashioned into the love bond between you. (Remember that this was the 1950s, and same-sex attraction was also still well hidden behind commas and everything else it could hide behind.)

This is the old idea of completion in heterosexual bonding taken to new depths… and I know that now, but it comforted me. So that when I fell in love with Sigrid at the age of twenty I was cured instantly. She was (and still is) a wonderfully strong and handsome woman, and it worked. I was cured, at least for awhile and until about three months after our wedding, when I found myself standing alone in our bedroom dressed in Sigrid’s clothes devastated that I was not only NOT cured, but I had entangled my beloved in my web of fear-laden deceit.

It took 25 years for me to finally get honest with her… time to have children and build as normal an appearing life as I could. I was, in fact, quite successful. As a middle-class white male I found admittance to just about all of the “holy places” of life. I was a successful psychotherapist, honored by my peers and blessed by a robust and growing practice. I was a vital part of a number of ministries that spanned denominations and churches in Atlanta, developing the first successful premarital workshop in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and spearheading an equally successful movement in the state legislature to reform professional licensing in our state. I was flying high, well hidden behind the very large “comma” of my normalcy.

But those closest to me knew otherwise. While my public life seemed to soar, my private life descended into inevitable depression. Twenty years of my own therapy, the best antidepressants, and endless hours of solitude and prayer could not stave off the advancing darkness. Sigrid, my beloved, finally had her fill and through painful tears told me that she would be leaving me… that she loved me and always would, but could not let my depression destroy her spirit. Darkness set on my life with no apparent hope for a new dawn… depression moved to despair as I began to consider suicide.

And then an unexpected thing happened. Despair became the harbinger of hope for me as I had to accept that I could hide no longer. My life slid from behind my own personal “comma” as I came out to family, colleagues and friends, discovering in each new encounter that truth, like birth, is messy, life-giving, and often painful.

I decided that a gender transition was necessary to my continued health and well-being, and began the process that eventually led to that Presbytery meeting where I was sent back to the committee. Sixteen months later the church voted for the second time on my continued ordination, and this time the “comma” fell from the page as the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta approved my request, 186 to 161.

It is no simple victory, however, for there are many who continue to be afraid. This is why this award tonight is so important to all of us, for it signifies your willingness to help the church stop using commas to hide uncomfortable truth. In the ten years since my gender transition literally hundreds of transgender Christians have contacted me to find out if it’s really true. “Yes,” I tell them, but with hesitation. “The church was willing to accept me, but it’s not so simple.” We as a denomination continue to be uncomfortable with people whose gender identities are non-normative. I think of this as the church’s struggle not with people like me, but with itself as the church. Our denominational resources continue to be devoid of any distinctively transgender materials for pastoral care. When the word transgender is brought to the floor of our General Assembly, commissioners still rise to question what that really means. And our own statements about ordination standards and marriage speak exclusively to humanity lived in the binary identities of male or female. There is no room for people like me, whose identities cannot be so easily categorized.

So there is much work to do beyond the comma. And I thank God that you and people like you make it possible to carry on.

Thank you very much.

The Reverend Dr. Erin Swenson is an ordained Presbyterian minister (PCUSA) and a licensed marriage and family therapist. In 1996 she became the first known mainstream Protestant minister to make an open gender transition while remaining in ordained office. She provides counseling for individuals with gender identity issues and their families from her office at the Morningside Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta and lectures nationally on issues of gender and faith. Erin serves on the national board of More Light Presbyterians and is co-founder of the Southern Association for Gender Education, Inc. For more information, please visit http://www.erinswen.com.

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