Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I've never learned how to act like a lady

We were playing tag and I found myself backed up against a flower bed. I had to make a quick decision. Either I got caught, which would result in me becoming it, or I could jump through the garden. Unfortunately I did get caught – by an adult who saw me cutting through the flowers. As a result, I had to spend the rest of the afternoon on the porch watching the other kids play so I could "learn how to act like a lady."

To this day, I associate acting like a lady with being put in my place. While some women might consider it a compliment to be referred to as a lady, it always gets me riled up. In fact, limitations that are placed on me because of cultural gender expectations, as a rule, leave me feeling like a bird trapped in a paper sack, desperately trying to peck itself free.

I suppose I’ve struggled with gender expectations my whole life. Certainly, this became an issue for me when I felt called to ministry as the result of some mystical experiences in my young adult life. I wasn’t really a church person and had no idea when I arrived at seminary in the mid 70s that ordaining women was a recent novelty in my denomination. With no female role models, my sister seminarians and I fumbled around to find our way. In the beginning, while we were all trying to prove that we could do it like a man, it dawned on me that this approach was denying the distinctive gifts women brought to ministry. I needed to figure out how to become a woman pastor. It took a while, but I did.

Now, my struggle is more with being a person who happens to be female. The older I get, the more I see my life as a journey toward wholeness. And while my gender is a significant part of who I am, first and foremost, I am a person. Culturally bound gender expectations hinder my quest for wholeness. Whether I’m giving in to them or rebelling against them, they mess with me in a way that makes me less than the person God created me to be.

The culture around us is so mired in its expectations of women and men that it has become acceptable for us to settle for partial people. Every time a man who cries over a movie is ridiculed as a wimp, or a woman who stands up for herself is called a bitch, we are all diminished. We can never allow ourselves to fully explore who we really are as long as we allow cultural expectations to render us gender-bound. And we can never become whole people.

I serve in a congregation where there are lots of people who are in same gender relationships, and being with them has led me to think more about the limitations of opposite gender relationships. Sometimes I wonder if the need folks have for a relationship with a person of the opposite gender is a way of seeking the completion they can’t find within themselves because gender expectations have stifled their quest to explore all that is within them. The classic case of the man who needs to have a woman in his life who can emote for him, or the woman who needs a man in her life who can protect her is all too common. Wouldn’t relationships be healthier if they weren’t driven by a need for completion, but by a need for companionship? That way we wouldn’t overwhelm one another with unmeetable expectations, but be present to one another in our life journeys, to love, support and encourage one another along the way. Of course, the gender of the person we are in a loving relationship with becomes irrelevant then. We don’t love the gender, we love the person.

Since serving at Holy Trinity, I’ve also been blessed with transgender friends who have had the experience of living in both worlds: male and female. My life has been enriched tremendously because they are a part of it. Transgender folks have helped me to see that I am a complex person who cannot be defined by the world’s labels and expectations. I’ve experienced a growing freedom to explore who I really am, the person God created me to be, in a new way. When I’m with them, I feel like it may be possible for this bird to free herself from the paper sack and fly.

So much has happened in my life since the day I was sentenced to an afternoon on the porch pondering what it means to act like a lady. And the journey continues. The further I travel, the more I realize I don’t have to walk the path that anyone else has traveled before me. My path is my own. It’s the path God has planned for me, and I discover it, one step at a time.

1 comment:

Rev. Linda said...

Outstanding reflection, Nancy. I'm with you... acting like a lady was never a goal for me. Indeed, I spent childhood being dubbed a "tomboy", which was fine with me, since boys had more fun. Being a whole person has become easier as I've gotten older...one of aging's many blessings.