I pride myself on being open-minded and I think that I do a very admirable job of not just talking the talk, but of walking the walk as well. Even so, I have to admit that accepting everyone is much easier when done from a distance than when it becomes up close and personal. My ability to be truly accepting of people who have different views, life experiences and ways of being in the world was tested recently, and for a brief moment, I wondered whether or not I would pass the test.
I belong to a very liberal church and we are a welcoming congregation which means that we really do welcome all. You can believe in God (or gods) or not. You can lean towards paganism or fancy yourself a western Buddhist. You can be black or white, Asian or Hispanic, lesbian or gay, transgendered or transsexual. Come one, come all.
Our inclusiveness is what drew me to this church and I believe myself to be ready for anything. But then I met Tracy (not her real name). I wasn't quite sure what to make of Tracy. She was always beautifully dressed and very polite but her figure and features had a masculine edge that I couldn't help but notice. I began to wonder if she was really a "she" at all. A masculine looking woman? A transsexual in progress? A man who just likes to wear dresses? Whatever the answer, I was truly willing to accept it. I just found that the not being clear on who I was dealing with was a bit disconcerting, not to mention distracting. How does one make small talk with a man in a dress anyway?
I made a point of pushing myself to look past the incongruities and to get to know Tracy, the person. It wasn't easy at first. I wasn't feeling judgmental or prejudiced. It was more a feeling of confusion. The first few conversations
were a bit awkward, but other people who knew Tracy better would come along and join in and make fairly blatant comments that helped to confirm my suspicion that Tracy was not female from birth. Okay, so the mystery was partially solved, but short of asking "So, are you a girl or a man or a girly-man or what?", it wasn't going to be possible for me to become totally clear on Tracy's situation. But I persisted trying to get past my need to know and instead, to get to know the person.
Then one day - a breakthrough. After the service, Tracy and I engaged in a lengthy conversation about all kinds of everyday things. We chatted and laughed until my husband and kids dragged me out of there. I later told my husband that that was the first time I had spoken to Tracy and really felt that I was relating to her, not as an unknown quantity or a gender-issue to-be-solved, but as Tracy, just Tracy. And I must say that I really enjoyed our conversation and my new-found sense of Tracy as a friend instead of a conundrum.
Since that conversation, Tracy and I have had many others. She also loaned me a book written by a friend of hers about her own transition from male to female. The book, "She's Not There" by Jennifer Finney Boylan, is a must read for anyone who wants to better understand how and why one chooses to actually change gender. Boylan takes you from stories of her boyhood, her career, marriage and fatherhood to stories of upheaval, emotional pain and physical transformation. Through her story, the reader begins to understand and appreciate what she, and many others like her, go through. We get a glimpse of their confusion, their pain, and the many difficulties they face in the quest to align who they are on the inside with the face they present to the world. It is a touching and often laugh-out-loud funny treatment of a very serious and often-misunderstood topic and I highly recommend it.
So why have I told you this story? I guess that my point is that, as open-minded as we try to be, dealing face-to-face with people who are very different from us can still prove a challenge. But I also believe that we owe it to ourselves, and to those who are different or misunderstood, to rise to that challenge. Interacting with people who we see as different can be difficult or even scary. It requires us to step beyond our comfort zones and into the great unknown. But if nothing else, my experiences with Tracy and with many other "different" people throughout my life have taught me that the leap of faith is worth it. Reach out. Take the time to get to know the other person. At the least, you'll learn something about them. At best, you'll grow as a person. And who knows? You might even make a new friend.