Nothing that defines our humanity is binary – except our habit of mind.

I felt as though Reverend Edman had grabbed me by the throat.

I have always been drawn to and fascinated by the under-40 queer community. Being a transgender woman of a certain age and generation, I have found it difficult to escape the binary gravity that anchors me to my formative years. The best I could manage was to marvel at this new generation of youth who, from my vantage point, were orbiting high above me, freed from the bonds that kept me earthbound.

This was true, that is, until I read Reverend Edman’s book, Queer Virtue. The subtitle is what grabbed
me: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity.

What?!!! This I’ve got to see.

When you reduce someone to a label, you are colonizing their soul for your own comfort and convenience.

Binary Limitations, Lazy Labels

I opened the book with more than a little skepticism. Rev. Edman went right for my jugular. “I am not saying that queer people are or must be Christian. I am saying that authentic Christianity is and must be queer.”

The Reverend went on to point out that Christ was all about rupturing binaries: between life and death, man and God, the sacred and profane. The Apostle Paul, Edman reminds us, insisted that there is neither male nor female. Paul queered boundaries between Jew and gentile, slave and master.

As I pondered Edman’s message, I realized, “I am queer!” I am queer through and through. I am just queer on my own terms.

I find all binaries artificial, limiting, and divisive. When you ask someone whether they are Republican or Democrat, you force them to reduce themselves to two of the most meaningless words in the English language. When you ask them if they are Christian, you are implying that this is a meaningful way to define someone, even though Christians are at constant war with one another over what it means to be one. When you reduce someone to a label, you are colonizing their soul for your own comfort and convenience.

Intersectionality is a step in the right direction. But I find it more of a Band-Aid than a cure. It suggests that I am the intersection of many binaries. While this is an improvement, I don’t find that any label or combination of labels is capable of capturing anything important about me. I like to think of myself as extra-sectional. I am Tina. I am a verb who is constantly searching, adapting, backtracking, and evolving. If you want to know me, you’ll have to consult the source. And you’ll have to do it today.

And yet I accept that, so long as we use language, we will never escape labels. But we don’t need to. We just need to learn what they are good for.

The labels we use define us more than they define the object or person that we label. If I meet a person on the street and the first thing that comes to mind is “there goes a Black man”, all that I have revealed is that the first thing my mind does when it sees someone is to notice their skin color and their presumed genitalia. I know absolutely nothing about the essential qualities that animate this man: his gifts, joys, fears, and sorrows. I don’t know his politics, his family values, or his talents.

I am not ashamed of such experiences. I am, after all, only human. But I can use my labels to learn. I can take a moment to acknowledge that I know nothing about this person that is important. If I were to ask him what it’s like to be a Black man, that would only compound the error. It presumes that my labels are a relevant starting point for knowing him. If anything, they are a starting point for establishing and examining my ignorance and our societal failings.

It’s OK to be ignorant. We have to start our journey wherever we happen to be. But we need to own it.

This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago. A house is going up in our neighborhood. A man who I immediately typecast as a “good old boy” (let’s call him Jake) was operating a back hoe. “Oh dear,” I thought. “I’d better be on my guard.” [I am an out transgender woman with lots of Pride paraphernalia on my house.]

Jake turned out to be a sweet and gentle man. In spite of all the rainbow flags hanging from my house, he took the time to appreciate my garden and my pond. He saw that I was missing a conduit joint. The next day, he dropped one off. We talked during his breaks. Yes, Jake likes to fish and shoot. But I quickly realized that all the stereotypes that I associate with such activities in no way define him. They define me. They define what I am afraid of. I had to eat a lot of humble pie that week. Getting to know a little
of the real Jake opened my mind and enriched my life.

What we can all learn from the queer community is a healthy skepticism of any binary, label, or stereotype.  The categories we use to define people define the limitations of our minds, algorithms, and institutions. They never define the people we seek to box away.

This lesson, by the way, applies in equal measure to our queer community. We all stereotype. We are all works in progress.

Look for and celebrate the person inside one another. It is hard work, but so worthwhile.

Get Your Queer On, Asheville!