Bodies on the Line

This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new.


revrobin2-023Bodies are always at risk in the world. But it feels to me that many bodies, and in some ways most bodies, are under attack in the United States these days.

Here are a few items in the news that create that reality for me:

  • Trans Bodies. In one of his first acts as the new Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions has alerted the federal appeals court in Texas that the government will no longer appeal the ruling af the district court judge who blocked, nationwide, Obama Administration rules protecting trans students in public schools. Read more here   This raises concern about how the new administration might position the government (or if it will try to do so) in a case, involving an appeal from the Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board already scheduled for hearing at the Supreme Court (the board appealing an appeals court ruling granting the right to Gavin Grimm to use the boy’s restroom at the county high school). Every trans public school student and their parents are facing great risk, not long after the Obama Administration raised hopes for real change.
  • ice-police-raids-pj-media
    PJ Media

    Immigrant Bodies. In the past few days, there has been reports of a marked increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests of immigrants who are without the necessary papers and those with criminal records. The targets have centered on eleven states, including California, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Illinois. Some of this continues Obama Administration practice of expelling immigrants with criminal records, but it also seems more people than under Obama have been deported for not having papers. The actions seem clearly focused Mexican nationals and other Latin Americans living in the United States. Articles in various foreign-language local media outlets have reported on widespread fear. Read more here and here.   Who knows where this will all end, but it is safe to say that millions of bodies, not just those who are deported but also those left behind, are likely affected.

  • Refugee Bodies. Closely connected are others from foreign lands, especially those fleeing horrible violence in their own land who, according to the President and others in the government, allegedly want to wreak it here. Clearly, we do not know how far the current government will be able to go, but in the meantime it is pretty scary–tens, nay hundreds, of thousands, at least, are at risk. .
  • Bodies Needing Healthcare. The continuing uncertainty about whether there will be any realistic replacement of the Affordable Care Act (after its almost certain repeal) leaves many facing not having health care that is affordable and accessible. The legislation to repeal seems stalled at the moment, as apparently those rabidly opposed to the program are realizing that though they belittled it many people depend on it for adequate health care. What does not seem to be going away however, is the determination of the Republican Congress and the President to end the Obama version even if they cannot agree on what the new one should look like. The anxiety for many with clear and ongoing needs for care is real—millions of bodies are at risk.
  • protect-womnes-healthWomen’s Bodies. Connected to the future of health care is the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The bodies of at least two million low-income women are at stake if Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence succeed in doing what the Trump campaign promised last fall: take all federal Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood and give it to local community health clinics. Even if that does not happen, the health of many other women will be impacted due to the high proportion of women’s services, other than abortion, provided by Planned Parenthood clinics all over the nation. Read more here.
  • LGBT Bodies. And even one bad action averted is not fully reassuring. After public pressure, and according to some sources, the intervention of the President’s daughter and son-in-law, the rumored Executive Order to rescind protection of lesbian and gay persons in federal employment decisions was withdrawn. Read more here. The White House even publicly announced the change, touting the President as supportive of LGBT rights. Read more here.  Still, the Administration has not yet issued an expected order about religious freedom that would undermine LGBT rights, and Vice President Mike Pence has a long record of championing anti-LGBT causes. These factors leave many nervous about how far protections for LGBT will be undermined and rolled back. It seems clear there will be no forward movement—queer bodies again in jeopardy.
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    Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

    Black Bodies, Poor Bodies, Elderly Bodies. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General causes a rising concern among African Americans, and other racial minorities, about federal protections. It seems clear that the Justice Department will slow down, or even end, efforts to help, and certainly stop suits against, local police departments to end racial profiling and other racist practices. In addition, voting rights seem likely to be under threat, and that involves not only African Americans but also poor people and elderly people of all races.

It may be then, that white straight men (WSM), at least those not poor, have little to fear, especially in their bodies. Those who want to grab pussy can still do so—just don’t talk about it in the locker room (someone might take you seriously), and their voting is not at issue.

I am old enough to remember days like that, the days when America was really great, at least for middle- and upper-class WSM. I don’t want to go back there. I doubt you do either.

Malachi and I usually write more obviously about bodies as connected to sex. However, he and I know that patriarchal constructions of society are never far removed from sex. And bodies are always at risk—even, potentially, some of those male bodies that look secure (e.g., men with LGBT children or siblings, friends and neighbors or business associates or co-workers who are Black or LatinX or Muslim, etc.).

bayard-rustin-angelic-troublemakersThe theological truth is that every body belongs to God, is part of the family of God, and deserves not only respect but also tender care and opportunities to thrive and glow, each in their own way. I am at a loss to explain how people who say they are conservative can so easily not engage in conserving each and every one of these glorious creations, and even more, actively engage in opposing efforts to care for every single body.

I shall resist as best I know how all anti-body rhetoric and activity. That begins with writing the truth as I see it, and asking you and others to join me in more truth-telling, marching, writing letters to Congress, and agitating wherever and whenever we can, being the “angelic troublemakers” (St.) Bayard Rustin called up decades ago.



14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMy childhood minister (prior to Rev. Robin), Rev. Gill Storey, told me once that “patriotism is the birthplace of racism.” That phrase has stuck with me throughout the years and has greatly influenced and informed my perspectives and beliefs on patriotism (particularly post 9/11) through adulthood. Right now, though, I think that it’s a particularly poignant message, as we have seen an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids behind the banner of “Make America Great Again.”

Indeed, how can we not see the link between patriotism and racism right now? But beyond racism, we see an assault on all bodies that do not conform to the accepted “all-American” look. We see, as Robin has linked, article after article in which different groups are being actively targeted because of their (actual and perceived) race, gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ethnicity, and/or country of origin.

Today, I don’t come with facts and figures, theory and substantiation. Today, I come with stories. Memories. Moments in my life that resonated so strongly that, when I see the echoes of them today, they make me shake with rage and fear.

I remember being trans in high school. I remember going by the name “Tony” on days where I wanted to be a boy. I remember, in acts of solidarity (as we understood them at the time), guys from band sitting with me on the bus and explaining which pocket you put your wallet in and which wrist should carry your watch. I remember, for the most part support. Except for that one day, when I needed to pee, and went into the bathroom, and freaked out a younger girl coming out of the stall. When I told this story to my friends, they looked at me and said, “Well… duh. You should have used the men’s room.” I didn’t know how to explain my fear of what would happen if I did, and instead tried to avoid using the bathroom at school, ever.

I remember changing band uniforms on the bus- they had a boys bus and a girls bus, and I was never sure which I should be in, which half my friends telling me one thing, and the other half saying something different.

I was on a trans panel a few years ago, and I listened to a friend talk about

being in a chronic state of dehydration because he didn’t want to navigate the public bathrooms on a college campus. I was floored, realizing that I, too, don’t drink nearly enough water and live in a chronic state of dehydration as a subconscious method of avoiding bathrooms. This is not a particularly good thing for me, as an adult, but it’s significantly worse for children and teenagers, whose bodies are growing and changing. It’s one small side effect of these bathroom bills and anti-trans laws that is rarely talked about, but we (as trans people) are doing violence to our own bodies to mitigate the fear of violence being perpetrated onto us.

Compared to what kids are facing now (and what many other kids faced when I was in school), my experience coming out as trans in high school was positively charmed. But I also remember the tension, the fear, the anxiety, the nervousness I felt in an environment that was, for the most part, fairly safe. And then I think about what these laws could do, the impacts they could (and do) have on kids who are struggling to figure out everything from who they want to take to prom to where they want to go to college to how to explain to their parents about why they missed curfew, and it makes me sick with rage and fear and concern. I want to be there, to be able to support these kids, to take something off the stress they are feeling from every other part of their lives. I see high school teachers struggling to connect and wanting to support their students, but not knowing how to.

I have friends that are undocumented, who are struggling to figure out next steps for themselves, their partners, their families. I have friends directly impacted by the ICE raids, struggling to figure out where to go to get away from the threats and realizing that there is nowhere to go. I have other friends talking about trapdoors to basements and who has enough space to house a family for a little while.

I have known someone whose visa ran out, and she and her partner had to figure out next steps because her partner, who was chronically ill, was as a vet and received all medical care through the VA. Leaving wasn’t an option for her partner, staying wasn’t an option for her, and being apart was an option for neither.

I have known black and brown bodies, black and brown friends who have been targeted by the police and civilians because of the color of their skin. I have known queer women who have committed suicide because of sexual assault. I have known sex workers who have been threatened with “outing” and prosecution unless they provided services to the police.

These are not abstractions for me. These are my friends, my people, the ones that I have potlucks with and watch their dogs while they’re away. These are the people whose postcards cover my kitchen wall and whose heads I have held while they cried. This is not statistics or figures or even something new for me. These are the people that I stand beside at protests, watching their courage as they hold signs and claim their lives and identities.

These laws enshrine an attitude in this culture that many have tried to deny for years. Yet as the days pass and executive order followed by cabinet appointment followed by misinformation continues to come from the White House, more begin to see the atrocities and we are banding together.

relationshipsThis is the time for community. This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new. Now is the time that we must persevere, and the intersections of our identities give us different abilities and privileges to work within toward that goal.

If patriotism is the birthplace of racism, what then is the birthplace of freedom? Extending our communities to those of different experiences. Inviting refugees and welcoming immigrants. Holding hands on the street. Stopping and witnessing when the police have stopped and questioned a person of color on the street. Actively working against rape culture.

These executive orders and lawsuits and appointments are dire, and they are an assault on bodies- all bodies. So perhaps, those of us with more privilege can use our bodies- our whiteness, our straightness (or straight-passingness), our American citizenship, our maleness- to protect those who might otherwise be killed in the onslaught. We build community and protect others against this assault on our bodies, our beings, our existence. And through community, we are able to truly find freedom.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your thoughts and reflections on Ruth 4:7-17? Have you had any experience with non-monogamy and unconventional relationships that have brought you joy to think on? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us tomorrow, THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.


Workshop description: Non-Monogamy 2 continues from where a previous workshop ended. On December 15, 2016, Malachi and Robin delved into non-monogamy. Malachi described its various forms in contemporary culture and offered observations from personal experience. Robin commented on some of the positive aspects and understandings he has gained through learning more about non-monogamy and reflected on his own feelings (which are more positive than he would have thought). There was a good discussion among those participating on the call, and questions were raised. Malachi and Robin plan to offer more information, and specifically some responses to the questions. If you were unable to be present on December 15, we are hoping a video of the presentation (but not the discussion) will soon be available.

We Just Want to Pee in Peace

by Robin Gorsline & Malachi Grennell


North Carolina protest against HB 2

The recent passage of HB2 in North Carolina and the discussion of similar “bathroom bills” in several other states, causes us as people of faith to  consider how we respond when legislation is passed that targets vulnerable populations. We, as people of faith- and particularly those of us within Christianity- are reminded in these weeks following Easter that we are called to embody our love of Christ through our care for one another. If you love me, Jesus teaches in John 21:15-19, then care for My sheep, tend to My flock, feed My lambs. We also note that we can find no evidence that Jesus ever worried about who used which bathroom, and of course, he often crossed social boundaries of his time- including honoring those who transgressed gender norms (more about that here)

from Robin

revrobin2-023The controversy about individuals using the public restroom that corresponds to their gender identity (but not necessarily all of their body parts or birth certificate) continues unabated around the country. Legislators, school board members, and other guardians of the public trust are being bombarded with demands that individuals be required to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the gender identity noted on their birth certificate.

One can envision a leader in the movement to prevent people from “invading” the wrong restroom proposing a system of digital check-ins at restrooms in airports, shopping malls, schools, restaurants—everybody must carry a card with a chip that designates birth gender which must be swiped at the facility entrance. A loud buzzer will sound when the “wrong” card is swiped. They might even install cameras to record the attempt, and then publish the picture—a gender offender registry like those sex offenders’ registries (Steven Petrow suggests public restroom attendants here).

genital_fixation2_f warrenmars com
“Genital Fixation 2” by Warren Mars

Such is our fixation on genitals, but the gender binary is neither natural nor necessary. From the moment of a baby’s arrival out of the womb and the declaration, “You have a boy,” or “You have a girl,” social rules work to make sure we are clear which box is ours, and maybe even more to the point, which box is not. Like the marriage debates where opponents of marriage equality insist that the only valid marriage is one with “procreative potential,” it all seems to come down to whether you have a penis and scrotum, or a vulva/vagina and mammary breasts. We are who our genitals say we are. In marriage, according to many who seek the old rules in place, there is supposed one of each, while in the public restrooms there can be many but they must all be the same.

Public bathrooms are not easy spaces for many people, including me. Part of that is that they are spaces designed to enforce the gender binary, and over the years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable in such spaces. And these are spaces that involve intimacy with our own bodies, and that includes draining our bladders and emptying our bowels—the latter being an activity associated with sometimes unpleasant odors and dirty substances.

Two businessmen using the bathroom

I am not always comfortable in public men’s rooms. More than smells and uncleanliness, I am reminded each time of my own body and how it compares with those of other men.  Some of that arises because I am aware that some men use these spaces for sex. I have not participated in that but when I lived in New York, I witnessed men (almost always men who appear to be white) displaying their penises (Port Authority Bus Terminal used to be notorious for that).

Men stand at urinals most of the time, and an awful lot of them stand with a wide stance (think former Sen. Larry Craig from Idaho) and even back a ways from the wall, so you almost can’t avoid seeing their penis. I know for some this is a deliberate effort to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m really hung.”

It reminds me that I do not have such equipment—a fact that continues to cause me some unhappiness (even after years of therapy and lovers who do not complain).  Of course, there are many men equipped like me, and I suspect that they, like I, almost hug the urinal to avoid disclosure.

One way I avoid this is by using a stall. But if I stand to pee, I am sure everybody can hear that the stream from my little guy is not like the Mississippi in the stall next to me, but more like a small gentle brook in midsummer. And if I sit, I often discover that some man before me has peed standing up and made the seat wet—this of course reminds me of male cats I have known and loved, marking their territory (and dogs, too, of course, including our beloved Cocoa).

Bottom line for me, I don’t feel all that good in public men’s rooms.

I have several experiences with unisex bathrooms, at the last MCC Triennial General Conference and at Creating Change, the annual activists’ conference sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force. In both cases, activists posted signs on certain gender-specific restrooms indicating that the particular facility was now unisex.

all gender restroom

At both, I was glad to use these facilities, sharing them with both those who appeared to be men and those who appeared to be women. In one instance, I met a female-identified MCC clergy colleague and friend. We both looked startled, laughed a little, and said, “Great to see you!” Later, we chatted briefly about the experience, each saying we were glad to meet a friend—it made it all seem real and even friendly.

In conversations with trangender friends, and with lesbian friends who look “butch,” I hear horror stories about people attempting to shame them for using the “wrong” restroom, even people calling security officials to evict the person, as Malachi relates below. I, for one, am making a commitment, here and now, and to be repeated personally with trans friends and acquaintances, to offer myself as a safe person, a friend, an ally, in any public situation where they feel the need of support. And I am going to educate myself to be more observant so I can be helpful when the need arises.

What all this says to me is how insecure we as a society are in our bodies. We have to police other people’s bodies to feel safe.

This is the real point I think. The history of public restrooms is not long, going back only into times when in industrial societies masses of people began working away from home. As long as it was just men, it was easy, but when women too began working away from home, it became necessary to create public restrooms. And in order to make sure women were safe, but also to make sure they knew their place, gender separated space was required (you can read a good article about this development here).

The safety concern remains. Women are still vulnerable far more than men to violence, mostly from men. So I understand why women may object to having someone who appears to be male in their women’s only space.

But I yearn for the day when we don’t have to police bodies. I have male genitals, and I enjoy them despite the anxieties I mentioned above. But there is so much more to me than them, and I know that is true about everyone.

Personally, I want all public restrooms to be unisex. But that is probably not practicable or acceptable. So, we have to be creative. Single-person unisex facilities may be possible in many cases. In workplaces and communities like churches and synagogues, we can experiment with multi-person unisex facilities, too, even setting up escorts or safety teams for those who are uncomfortable.  Surely, in these kinds of communities we can begin to build a new world.

I just want to pee in peace, in fully human space, a new world where we don’t feel the need to enforce gender rules, racial rules, or any of the myriad ways we set up hierarchies of privilege.

from Malachi

Malachi GrennellThe issue of bathrooms is, in some ways, complicated, and in other ways, remarkably simple. The reality is, every single person needs to be able to use to the bathroom. As a trans person, this is something I have struggled with for years: trying to figure out at what point in transition I “passed” well enough to switch bathrooms juxtaposed against my need for safety.  As a result, I got very good at holding my bladder until I could pee in the privacy of my own home (which has the unfortunate consequence of perpetual dehydration most days that I leave the house).

we just need to pee

I remember one experience in particular in which I was traveling with my mother. I didn’t yet feel comfortable using the men’s room, so as we stopped quickly at a rest stop, I walked into the women’s room. As I was in the stall, I heard the sound of escalating voices and quickly realized that someone had called security because “there was a man in the women’s room.” My worst fears realized, I sat in the stall, frozen, trapped, and unsure what to do. My mother, wonderful ally that she is, stepped in and said, “That’s my daughter; she’s allowed to be there.”

In that moment, she did the best thing she could have done. Having a gender 101 conversation in that situation wasn’t helpful. Calling me her “son” wouldn’t have been helpful (although she absolutely honors my identity and sees me as her son). What she did kept me safe and kept the situation from escalating further. When I finally came out of the bathroom, she gave me a big hug, and I knew it was time to switch bathrooms.

This was years ago, before these so-called “bathroom bills” were the subject of national attention. But just because the issue is finally receiving space for public discussion doesn’t mean that it’s a new issue: trans people have struggled with bathroom use as long as there have been gendered bathrooms.

Photo by Malachi Grennell
Photo by Malachi Grennell

On the other side, though, I do understand the role that women’s spaces play in providing an environment where women can  be vulnerable without worrying about the threat of violence. This past weekend, I was able to attend a showing of the Memorial Quilt, honoring stories of sexual assault survivors. While there are quilt squares that speak to a variety of experiences and each story is unique, the overwhelming majority of stories and experiences came from women. Women experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence and trauma, and I can understand and appreciate that women’s bathrooms are one of the few places that women don’t have to keep their guards up. In no capacity do I believe that type of space shouldn’t exist.

But in the faces of the people walking around in the quilt, as well as the stories I was reading, there were also more queer stories, experiences, and faces than I was fully prepared for. Queer people- particularly queer women of color- are subject to harassment and violence every time they step out of the house.  As a survivor of sexual assault and trauma, I never want to do anything that contributes to another person feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. Balancing the bathroom issue is, for me, multifaceted and complicated, and often puts me in a position where I am risking my safety to protect someone else’s.

Red Emmas gender neutral br sign

We must find a way to create safe space for all vulnerable populations. The easiest solution, of course, is to create single use gender neutral bathrooms so that those of us who do not fit the binary can pee in peace. I have never met a trans person who sought to use a public bathroom for the sole purpose of making other people uncomfortable. To my knowledge, trans people go into a bathroom for the same reason as everyone else- to use the bathroom. We don’t want to invade your sense of safety and safe space, nor are we a threat to you in any capacity. We need our safe space, too. The difference is that no such space has ever existed for us.

I don’t believe that one person’s safety should come at the expense of someone else’s, but that sentiment works both ways. The reality is, the biological imperative to use the bathroom will reliably trump any politicized understandings we have of gender and identity. Trans people are not trying to take safe space away from women; we are simply asking that we be included in that safe space in ways that are appropriate. As people of faith, we can do so much to help facilitate this kind of space, including:

  • gender-neutral bathrooms in our places of worship
  • offering to go with a transperson if they need to use a public restroom
  • providing resources to support people when they have violence perpetrated against their bodies
  • having open, frank discussions about the intersections of oppression: a homeless, non-binary transfeminine youth of color faces a much different struggle with respect to bathrooms than an adult, college-educated binary-passing white transmasculine person does. Simply “being trans” does not mean that there is a shared experience, and as people of faith, we seek to open our doors to everyone, not just those who look and think like us.

There is an inherent vulnerability in discussing bathrooms. As Robin mentions, it is an intimate experience between ourselves and our bodies, often times full of shame, feelings of inadequacy and dirtiness. By forcing people to disclose the difference between their presentations and their genitals by “picking a door” creates a volatile situation in which that private experience becomes the subject of public commentary. And unfortunately, there aren’t simple, easy solutions (for a humorous, satiric take on signage, click here).

Making all public restrooms gender-neutral is not a viable solution, but neither is maintaining the binary dichotomy at the expense of people’s safety. Jesus reminds us that it is through our actions that we show our love for him. Our actions must be ones that are aimed at providing safe space for all, rather than stepping aside to allow bigotry to increase the body count of our queer and trans siblings.

Now, what about you?

We have shared some of our thoughts. We’d be glad to hear yours. Please feel free to comment, add your own experience, ideas, perspectives, in the comment space below.