Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Names

Jennifer Erin Felix taught me that when you know someone’s name you cannot hate them. I met Jennifer at a youth event when she wrote one of the most awesome prayers I’ve ever heard. I followed her progress through college and we had several discussions over whether she wanted to go to seminary. But first, she had to sift through the wire mesh of limitations that would present itself to a gay woman in the Presbyterian Church.  While the Presbyterian Church took some time to decided whether to ordain gay folks Jennifer grappled with transgender issues and is now transitioning to Jeff and working with the United Church of Christ in Florida.

Barbara was my sister-in-law for eight years. There are only a select few who call her Babs, the nickname my brother bestowed on her early in the marriage. Loving Babs is as easy as rain falling down your cheeks in a springtime shower.  She is a woman of grace, dignity and generosity.  The thing I have always loved the most about her is that she always insisted on doing the dishes after Thanksgiving and Christmas. She wouldn’t even let me in the kitchen. She also was rabid about paying the tab at a restaurant. I learned to negotiate the payment in the parking lot before we even entered the restaurant.

When she left my brother for a woman I expected to have a jolt the first time I called her house and another woman answered. But to my surprise the only jolt was that the woman had a New York accent. It turned out that my Texan prejudice against Yankees was far stronger than my opinions about sexuality. Thankfully that affair didn’t last long and for around 30 years now Babs has been committed to Tracee, a delightful woman with no discernible accent. They were finally married in 2016 in what I call "My big fat Las Vegas Lesbian Buddhist Wedding"

Mary Stuart never had a middle name. She never married so she lived and died by those three syllables. She was my older sister and she died on her thirtieth birthday. In that short time she packed enough misery to take anyone to their knees. She had so many problems that being gay was just one on the list. She was an alcoholic and a drug addict; schizophrenic, overweight and left handed. And the left handedness was by default when the bullet from a suicide attempt left her right hand paralyzed. Plus she was incredibly short.

She had more than a few problems, you might say.

When she came out to me in the last few years of her tumultuous life I couldn’t accept the idea. And I’m afraid I never did during her lifetime. At that time in the late 60’s, there had been no conversation in the American culture about homosexuality. So I was flying solo trying to figure out where a lesbian sister fit into my life. They found her body underneath her 3rd floor window the afternoon of her birthday. We will never know if she jumped or fell. By the time she died, her life was so chaotic that we seldom had any contact with each other, not enough to have any real conversations about her sexual orientation. But I can say with the authority of someone who watched her life unfold alongside my own that I know she never chose to be lesbian any more than she chose to be schizophrenic or short, nearsighted, brown haired or right handed.

Isaac Bennett Towb actually began his life as Leah Kathryn. The thing I loved best about Leah was watching her carefully scoop chocolate cake onto a potato chip to eat when she was around second grade. “I like this kid,” I thought to myself. She was in my Confirmation Class but wasn’t a person to stand out, for being either good or bad in particular. I did notice that she was a good artist as evidenced by the pictures she would draw on her Styrofoam cup during meals. When she was in high school she started fading from church. She resurfaced about a year ago in search of names for when she transitioned into a legal male. He had one of the most interesting and imaginative experiences a human can have: He got to pick the name that went on his new birth certificate.  He got to name himself. And he wanted to be called Ike.

His mother and I, being the age we are, could only think of President Eisenhower at the sound of the name. I suggested putting the more formal name of Isaac on the documents; “ In case you ever want to run for president,” I told him. I know it worked for Eisenhower to be known as Ike but I had some doubts that my Ike would command an army on the same magnitude as D Day. Eisenhower could probably have run as Shirley and still been elected President. Plus, I pointed out, Isaac means “God’s laughter.” Somewhere along the line, biology had played an enormous, cruel joke on Leah and this would give Ike (and God) the last laugh.

You may have figured out by now that I do not personally believe in the inerrancy of the bible and I don’t run around proof-texting my religion. And I don’t believe that my own marriage needs defending. We are just fine, thank you. Why don’t you go feed some starving children instead of worrying about who is married to whom?

I believe in love. I believe, like Jennifer, that when you know someone’s name you cannot hate them. And when you find something unique in them like eating chocolate cake with potato chips you can fall in love with them so purely, so joyfully, so exuberantly, that sex becomes only a tiny part of who they are.

Can we please move on to more important things now?

One final note:   I always get permission from the people involved when I write something like this. Babs, who has more guts than anyone I know, also has a small but growing business and was a little lerry of having her last name used so I left it off.  Maybe we haven't progressed as far as I thought.

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