As I’m writing this, it’s just after Christmas. We recently passed through the liturgical season of Advent, the beginning of the church calendar. The church year opens, not with a crack of fireworks or a jubilant chorus, but with watching and waiting. In the world outside, the Christmas season with its hustle and bustle has already begun; but here, it is a season of preparation. Christ has not yet come.
A year ago, I began gender-affirming hormone therapy at the start of Advent. The season that year was filled with palpable waiting. Waiting for the prescription to come in. Waiting for my appointment with the nurse. Watching for the first signs that new hormones are working in my body. Anticipating what changes may come.
We start the new year, the new season, with the hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah, from Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The book of Isaiah was written to a community of Israelites in exile. The Babylonian empire tore them from their homes and forcibly relocated them hundreds of miles away. Isaiah aims to comfort these dispossessed, reminding them of God’s faithfulness in the midst of their suffering. Some parts of the Hebrew Bible understand exile as punishment for Israel’s sins. Not here. As scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, Isaiah “sees diaspora existence as a means of religious testimony.”1 A few chapters on from the above text, Isaiah proclaims: “You are my witnesses, says YHWH, and my servant whom I have chosen.” The presence of the Israelites in diaspora, and their eventual return to the promised land, will show God’s power to all the world. This could not happen if the Israelites stayed in their little corner of the Middle East, isolated from the sufferings of the broader world around them.
Rev. Liz Edman, in her book Queer Virtue, calls LGBTQ+ folk “a priestly people.”She offers this definition: “A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred.”2 The act of transitioning is one of remarkable vulnerability. I put myself in the hands of my doctors. I open myself up to negative reactions from colleagues and strangers. The Israelites faced vulnerability in exile, and in so doing were witnesses to God’s power among the nations. In the same way, I hope that my transition will be a witness to God’s faithful love.
Isaiah proclaims to those in exile: A way must be prepared in the wilderness.
This body has been a wilderness and a place of exile. A place I did not feel comfortable, safe, at home. To be endured as a wandering through the desert, and like the children born to Israel during the Exodus, I could not imagine anything else.
It’s tempting, in this reading, to see the wilderness as simply a wasteland to travel through, an obstacle along the way. But so often in story (both sacred and otherwise), wilderness itself serves a purpose and is even the location of formative experiences. Moses encounters the burning bush and receives his mission to liberate God’s people from Egypt. Hagar sees God in the wilderness — twice! — and it’s through these encounters that Ishmael is saved, to eventually become the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad. After Jesus’ baptism, he spends forty days in the wilderness on a journey of self-discovery. Buddha receives his Awakening in a forest. In fact, the Sacred seems to rarely encounter people anywhere else.
So, too, the wilderness has had purpose for me. In a body interpreted by others as female, a body I did not want to inhabit, I have been able to make deep connections with folks who may not have taken so immediately to me otherwise. I spent long hours in Irish kitchens with older women, boiling potatoes and telling stories and sharing life experiences. I saw the women in my family — my grandmother, my aunt, my mother — find themselves reflected in me. I have learned to step into queer power, unfettered by social gender expectations.
To be non-binary, for me, is an experience of seeking, of moving between. There is much about what I experienced in this body, as it is now, that I feel like I am losing. Just as there is much that I hope I will gain. Time and again, in the stories, those who encounter the Holy in the wilderness want to stay in that space. But they are called to move out of it, to continue the journey.
Though transition is a deeply personal act, it is also deeply communal. All flesh will see together the glory of the Lord. Not just me in my own body, but the effects of transition ripple out to my family and my community. I’ve experienced this in many parts of my transition. My relationship with my parents has deepened as they come to see me as I truly am. I have become part of a queer community that has given me life, as I have supported others in the community.
We all, together, have been travelers in the wilderness. And we all, queer and straight, cisgender and trans, beloved of God, will walk the broad highway that we are clearing together.
May it be so.
- Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (New York: HarperCollins Press, 2011), 371.
- Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), 107.