My Gender, So Far… – Rev. Andrew Tobias Nelson

ThomasLinda sittingAs our conversation on gender continues, we’re going to make a marvelous twist in the road with our next author, Andrew Nelson. From the halls of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Holden Village to his call in New York state, Andrew is extravagant with his energy, sincerity, and enormous heart. Since coming out as trans a little over one year ago – barely one year into his first call – Andrew has spoken openly and playfully about everything that he’s been going through. Thankfully, Rev. Nelson is now, generously and joyously,  sharing some of those thoughts with us. Gender is a thing, people, so take a peek at what Pastor Andrew has to say about it and – of course – read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

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A transmasculine person writing on why gender matters…
There’s a sentence, isn’t it?
Are we ready for a conversation about genders outside the binary, genders along the spectrum, genders that are fluid, genders for which we don’t have words in English?
To put myself in a gender category is easier some days than others. Growing up with a female body (that’s called my sex, different from my gender) there were expectations for my behavior which were only partially enforced. Grandma called me ‘young lady’ when I needed to calm down, my father adjusted my posture at the piano, and of course I had to go to prom in a dress. But when it came to climbing trees and playing music or sports, I was just a kid, and being a boy or girl didn’t come into it.
When I came out as Transgender about a year and a half ago, some of my friends who have known me awhile responded by nodding and telling me I make more sense male than I do female. While this was a great affirmation to hear, it does make me wonder what in the world we mean when we perceive people as either male or female, how we behave when we meet somebody who is androgynous, and why it matters so much.
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Everyone inhabits a multitude of spaces: age, gender, sexuality, class, race, mental health, physical ability, education, politics, family systems, culture, Star Trek or Star Wars… We are none of us only one thing, yet male/female seems to be one of the first things we give as primary identity. It’s already been noted that when a baby is born or expected one of the first ways we decide what gifts to get and what dreams to start dreaming is to unveil the birth sex (which we call gender, but these are not actually the same thing).
Gender plays into our power structures, culturally who is allowed to get how angry about what, who is allowed to grieve in what way, who is expected to take care of the household or be the breadwinner. Even when a heterosexual couple tries to live in an equal partnership, the pay gap and surrounding culture don’t support equality within marriage as much as reinforce unhealthy pressures for culturally gendered roles. We’re getting a little better, changing tables are gradually showing up in men’s restrooms so dad can change a diaper, Target recently stopped specific gender marketing toys for kids (though toy guns have an aisle that’s blue and dolls have an aisle that’s pink – and don’t even get me started on “Lego Friends”), and more hopeful stories are being told about folks who don’t buy into to the binary – but it’s slow going since so much of our expectations are internalized past the point of noticing them.
Gender is the water we swim in.
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So why do we still hold to gender? What does it matter that ‘real women have curves’ or ‘real men love Jesus’? What are ‘real’ men and women, and why do we perpetuate that conversation as though we need to prove our own validity as human people?
Can’t a ‘real’ person just be a person?
I remember an old movie I used to watch as a kid included the song “I enjoy being a girl,” which, coming from a family where sexuality was taboo and gender got all conflated with attractions and purity, was not something we ever really talked about. But then came the Disney movie Mulan and the song “I’ll make a man out of you” was both exciting because I connected with it, and problematic because it reinforced a very particular kind of masculinity. I mean, my father darns his socks and speaks quietly, but he’s no less a man for his gentle behavior.
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So how do I know how to behave to convince the people around me of who I am as a transmasculine person?
Does it even matter that they see my gender?
How do I have to hold myself in public to hear ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’ (neither of which seems like I’m old enough for those labels, which speaks to cultural ageism)? (How) do I need to adjust my interactions with women and other men so as not to make anybody uncomfortable by my loud humor and big hugs, which could be received differently depending on if I’m wearing a suit or a dress? Navigating gendered space, like public bathrooms, is not something we should have to be afraid of. Yet because our brains learn categories as a way to make sense of the world around us, we need to know some basics, some boundaries, some common sense for keeping one another safe and providing for community flourishing the best we can.
Gender matters, in that we can fall back on it for generalities, for stories, for illustrations of ways of being, but it also doesn’t matter, in that there are so many ways to be male or female or both or neither, and every situation and relationship calls out different nuances, different varieties of strengths and weaknesses, as we support and connect with one another. Gender can be a game instead of a power play, it can be fun instead of rigid, but far too often machismo and homophobia relegate masculinity and femininity to small, tight spaces where there is no room to breathe or figure out who we actually are. We do not need to prove ourselves as ‘real’ men or women to celebrate and discover who we are individually and as part of God’s Beloved Community.
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I am a transmasculine person who looks forward to playing with gender expectations, to make the space around me safer for those who don’t fit the binary, to open up conversations about getting to know one another beyond the ‘types’ of our male/female expectations.
I am a transgender man because it is the most honest way I have to present myself to the world around me.
That’s what gender is about, how we relate to and through our presentation of self and our interactions with others, how we explore and share the selves God has created us to be, how we reflect the Image of a God who is so much bigger than our labels.

1234069_10100529137486034_1394595583769889368_n.jpgAndrew Tobias Joy Nelson is a 2012 graduate of LSTC, serving his first half-time call in Chatham, NY. He’s trying to be as visible as possible about being Trans for the sake of those for whom visibility is impossible because it would put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Andrew plays french horn and is always reading four or five books at a time, though he can’t pick a favorite between Star Wars and Star Trek because the musical scores are too good. He writes in tribute to his mother, who responded to his public gender transition with the assurance that she “always knew [she] was carrying a boy.”


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22 thoughts on “My Gender, So Far… – Rev. Andrew Tobias Nelson

  1. Fritz Wendt, MA, MDiv, LCSW-R

    Thank you for your moving story. The church as a whole has much learning to do regarding human sexuality. I hope your witness will help in that learning.

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  2. Bill Beermann

    Andrew, thank you for helping me to ponder these mysteries. Your strong gifts for ministry have always been obvious to anyone who knows you. Your clear focus on the gracious Word of God in Christ even as you have navigated your own journey is nothing less than remarkable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Erin Branchaud

    Thank you Andrew. This is a beautiful witness.

    What you have written helps me think about my own gender. I’ve been thinking about the language some people use when trying to understand gender – the language of being “born a woman” or “born a man.” As if those of us that still appear to fit in binary boxes haven’t also had to play/explore different expressions!

    Of course I was not “born a woman,” but I was born a baby. As I grew, I tried out different gender expressions (mostly shades of femininity) until I found what kind of “being a girl” and “being a woman” seemed true for me. And I am still growing and trying out different expressions!

    And some expressions feel better some days than others! Today I prefer to speak with a lower pitch of voice, I wear my hair short and shaved on one side, I wear pants and not dresses, I prefer to communicate directly and assertively, AND I wear big dangly earrings and sometimes makeup, I love to cook for my partner, and my posture and body language is more feminine.

    Thank you for the new language you have given me – I like saying that this is “my gender so far!”

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  4. Mick

    I’ve met Andrew, who is a very nice and energetic person. The question I have is the apparent conflict between being a minister and a transgender. By being transgender, is he not saying that God made a mistake in making him sexually female, and is therefore not infallible?

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    1. That is a fair question, but I have to point a couple of things out. First of all, lots of people are born into bodies that don’t fit them quite right and God is no the less perfect for it – still more so those that are born with those bodies. The second is that it isn’t God that makes problems for people who are trans. It is people who make problem for people who are trans. God doesn’t have anything to do with it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bart

        Except that people FEELING like they don’t fit into the bodies that God has given them is just another part of the fallen human nature. The bodies do fit them exactly right because made them to be either male or female. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:13-14a. Our feelings about stuff can often betray us. If someone FEELS like they need to sleep with adolescents, does that then make it ok? Of course not. That’s why we don’t always trust our feelings, but trust in the promises of the Lord. Andrew was wonderfully made as a female. What kind of clothes she wears, or hair she has, etc doesn’t really matter. However, by acting in her gender as a man, I would agree with Mick in that she is giving the perception to others that God didn’t do the job correctly.

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      2. Then you didnt read it very well. Andrew isn’t giving the PERCEPTION that God didnt do the job right. She is saying clearly and unambiguously how the fallen UNIVERSE makes it hard for him to be and live as he was CREATED. That’s the rub.

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    2. I don’t think that Andrew being a transmasculine person and a minister is a conflict, nor is it saying that God made a mistake. God made people; our western culture (filled with people, who are broken by sin) has developed the gender binary so that babies are determined (by parents and society) to be a certain gender, based on the sex organs that are presented at birth. Many other cultures have words or concepts which move beyond the gender binary; you can read more here if you are so inclined: https://sites.psu.edu/transgenderedlinguistics/cross-culture/ Andrew’s “call”, perhaps, is to give voice to others who may not fall into the binary and to show them that they, too, are worthy of God’s love, grace, and mercy.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Meghan Foote

      I was born trans, but I was also born hypertensive and nearsighted. Should I consider the latter two things to be “mistakes” that God has made? And if not, why should I consider the first to be? Is any deviation from some imagined ideal version of humanity a mistake on God’s part?

      To extend the question to the place it inevitably seems to go, if I wear glasses so that I can see well enough to drive, am I going against “God’s will for my life”?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R

    Thanks for your moving story. Our church has much learning to do regarding sexuality, and I pray that your witness will help with that learning task.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bob Beaver

    Andrew, WOW! Thanks for your gift. Richard Rohr reminds us that we spiritual beings, in a human body. That is our true self, always, in all ways being transformed into the love of Christ. All the human stuff that we are uniquely wraped in, makes each one of us a part of the body of Christ, connected as one body, soul and spirit in the love of Christ. Let us celebrate the mystery of God.

    As you share your life journey, in real and honest dialogue with others, It encourages all of us to experience the Spirit, the beating heart of God in us
    and in all God loves.

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  7. Allie Leitzel

    Andrew, I love the witness of your story. I love having you as an inspiring colleague. I love that you are living into who God made you to be. I thank God for you!

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  8. Jordan Miller-Stubbendick

    Andrew, thank you so much for sharing your story! Since becoming a parent, I am aware in new ways of the importance of intentionally helping my child learn about the wonderful diversity of this amazing world that God has created, and your story is one that I would like to share with him in the future. Thanks for your courage in being true to who you are, as a beloved child of God–and for allowing us to walk along with you as you continue to live into who God is calling you to be.

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  10. Megan Giltz

    I have had the privilege of being your friend since we were both young. I am proud of you and admire your courage and strength. You are a shining example of bravery and fortitude and I can only hope to have the same strength.

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  11. Pjc

    Pastor, you no doubt have an opportunity to witness. I’m intrigued by one aspect of the conversation that you touch on briefly. That is that if society is to let go of the norms then why identify with any one classification. You say you fit better into society as a man, and your mom knew she was carrying a boy, but in those simple statements don’t you reinforce the stereotypes. What if your mom had carried a soft natured mild mannered non alpha male, would she still have identified him as a boy. The point is that by self identifying with a gender you then are playing with and off of the stereotypes of the norms, which may or may not be viewed in a positive light by those being emulated. I have an opportunity to Your work with people around your age, and honestly most of them when asked to describe themselves never mention gender, they are what would be called conforming I guess but they identify with their interest and gifts and talent. I look forward to the day when your only know as Pastor Andrew without any qualifiers.

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