One feminist’s view of non-binary gender

I became aware of feminism as a teenager, back in the 1970s. After some initial resistance, feminism wound up appealing to me not only because it held out the hope of equality for women, but also because it challenged existing gender norms and gender roles. I’ve never been comfortable with the stereotypical gender norms for men in the United States. I’m not the strong silent type. I’ve always liked working with children. I kinda like doing housework (except cooking, I’m bad at cooking). I didn’t know the term “toxic masculinity” back then, but I knew what toxic masculinity was, I knew it was hurting me, and I wanted to change it.

But we mostly remained stuck with the old gender norms throughout the 1980s, and the 1990s, and the 2000s. In 2002, I took a battery of psychological tests as part of my preparation for ministry. On one of those tests, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), I scored well out of the normal range on gender identity. Worried that I had some kind of pathology, I asked the psychologist who administered the test what that score meant. Oh, the psychologist said, don’t worry about that, men going into ministry often test out of the normal range on that scale. I found the psychologist’s reply even more disturbing than the thought that I might have a pathology — because the psychologist’s reply meant that men trained to be empathetic, caring, and group-oriented were considered pathological by society.

So when non-binary gender finally emerged as a viable option, I felt we were taking a step in the right direction. Biological females who happened to be assertive and articulate and willing to talk over men didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be deferential and self-deprecating. Biological males who happened to be caring and empathetic didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be strong, silent, and unemotional. Non-binary gender gave the promise of allowing a wide range of gender expression, far beyond these two examples.

Non-binary gender is a step in the right direction. It has opened a tiny and fragile space between male and female gender roles. But across the U.S., only a small percentage of people now consider themselves non-binary gender. For most people in the U.S., the old gender norms remain intact. I feel hopeful about that fragile open space where non-binary gender exists. But I’m discouraged that the old gender norms still wall in that tiny open space. I’m discouraged that non-binary gender has to be a matter of individual choice for just a few people, rather than a change in the way society understands gender. I’m discouraged at the thought that as a man, I’d still probably test as pathological on the MMPI. And I’m especially discouraged that non-binary gender people face wide social discrimination.

When non-binary people are discriminated against in much the same way the women are discriminated against, it seems to me that we’re still stuck with toxic masculinity running the show. We have taken a step in the right direction, but from my feminist perspective, it’s only a baby step; I wish we could grow up, and take adult-sized steps.

Neighborhood pilgrimages

So we’re still stuck in lockdown, and maybe you’re getting bored with your daily walks. The British Pilgrimage Trust has a suggestion: turn your walks into mini-pilgrimages. Their Web site has a list of “holy places” in the U.K. that you can walk to. Next you set a spiritual “intention,” then treat your walk as a kind of “focused meditation.” In an interview with Religion News Service, Guy Hayward, director of the Pilgrimage Trust, says more about those “intentions”:

“Pilgrimage is about traveling, about being a stranger in a strange land, according to [Hayward]. The pandemic flips that on its head. ” ‘Staying still is actually even more of a strange experience,’ he said. ‘It’s like, how do you make yourself be a stranger in a place you know really, really well? How do you make yourself see it fresh and see it in a new way?’ “

This, by the way, sounds a lot like Henry Thoreau’s essay on “Walking.”

For us Unitarian Universalists, what might constitute a “holy place” to which we might make a micro-pilgrimage? Back when we lived in downtown San Mateo, I would walk to different houses of worship. As is true of many small American cities these days, San Mateo has quite a diversity of faith communities, so from our old apartment I could walk to a Hindu temple, an Islamic masjid, a couple of historically Black churches, a Pure Land Buddhist Temple, a UCC church, a Catholic church, a Pentecostal storefront church, and several other places of worship. I’d think about — maybe I should say, do “focused meditation” on — the religious diversity of the world, and my place in that diversity. It proved to be both uplifting (“A masjid? how cool is that!”) and humbling (“Gee, Unitarian Universalism is not as important in the world as I’d like to believe”).

Now I live next to a cemetery. Walking in cemeteries was something of a tradition in New England, in part because they plow the roads in cemeteries in winter so it’s one of the few places you can walk safely without skis or snowshoes. But it was also a meditative practice: you’d read the inscriptions and wonder about the person who had died. This is another exercise in humility, and a lesson in perspective. How well am I living my life now, knowing that I’m as mortal as that person lying under the gravestone? But perhaps you have to be from New England, with that grim New England worldview, to appreciate this kind of micro-pilgrimage.

You can also follow Thoreau’s lead, and look at the world of nature around you. Even when you live in the city, or in the inner suburbs, places where humans utterly dominate the landscape, there are still plenty of non-human organisms worthy of human attention. Recently, I find myself looking for flowering weeds, like this chickweed:

Or this flower, which is not a dandelion, but a related flower from the Cichorieae tribe (probably a Sow Thistle):

Why do I look for weeds? Maybe because of the same sentiment that Malvina Reynolds expressed in her song, “God Bless the Grass”:

God bless the grass that grows through the crack,
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back….
God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it, and think that it is done….

The real point in all this is that any walk, even a walk around your neighborhood, can become more than just a walk. It can become a spiritual journey, where even though you stay in your neighborhood, you travel very far in spirit.

Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Last night, our congregation hosted an online class by John Buehrens on the women of Transcendentalism. John’s stimulating talk prompted me to go read some poetry by Transcendentalist women. I remembered some of the Transcendentalists I knew in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1990s talked in glowing terms of the Sturgis sisters — Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Caroline Sturgis Dall — so I started with Ellen Sturgis’ poetry. And came across this:

Beauty may be the path to highest good,
And some successfully have it pursued.
Thou, who wouldst follow, be well warned to see
That way prove not a curvèd road to thee.
The straightest path perhaps which may be sought,
Lies through the great highway men [sic] call “I ought.”

This short Transcendentalist poem directly contradicts today’s typical notion that the Transcendentalists were a bunch of wild-eyed hyper-individualistic proto-hippies, bent on “doing their own thing.” Actually, none of them was; a few of them, like Emerson himself, pursued beauty as “the path to the highest good,” but that is quite different than being a hyper-individualist. From what I can tell, most of the nineteenth century Transcendentalists followed the path of duty, rather than beauty; these are the Transcendentalists who fought for abolition of slavery and women’s rights, and fought against poverty; they are better described as disciples of Immanuel Kant and his moral imperatives. I’d prefer to group myself with the Transcendentalists who follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Another of Ellen Sturgis Hooper’s poem struck me:

Hymn of a Spirit Shrouded

O God, who, in thy dear still heaven,
Dost sit, and wait to see
The errors, sufferings, and crimes
Of our humanity,
How deep must be thy causal love!
How whole thy final care!
Since Thou, who rulest over all,
Canst see, and yet canst bear.

Though Ellen was a Unitarian, this strikes me as a Universalist poem, because the phrase “thy final care” implies to me that Ellen Sturgis’s God plans to bring all souls into God’s embrace. Yet Sturgis also confronts head on the hardest thing to understand about universal salvation: there are certain people whom I would not want to extend ultimate salvation — such as the police officer who killed George Floyd, thus betraying both his public trust as a police officer, and his humanity — or the people who commit domestic violence — or the plutocrats who, to defend their ill-gotten wealth, fund and stir up Christian nationalists and white supremacists to destabilize U.S. democracy. Yet Ellen Sturgis’s God has a love for humanity that is so deep, that God can see humanity’s “errors, sufferings, and crimes,” and bear them, and still love. That’s well beyond my limited power, and I suppose that’s why people like me need to follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Ellen Sturgis Hooper died of tuberculosis in 1848, at the age of 36. Her poems were published in Transcendentalist periodicals during her lifetime. After her death, her son Ned printed her poems for private distribution, in an edition of just 8 copies. Several of her poems were also included in hymnals and anthologies.

I found little biographical information about her, aside from mentions of her marriage to physician Robert William Hooper, and her friendship with Margaret Fuller, and her relationship to famous men like William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr. However, there is a book-length biography of her daughter, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Natalie Dykstra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) which offers a brief but insightful biography of Ellen (see pp. 3-15).

Ellen’s father was a sea captain and co-owner of a large merchant trading firm; her mother was the daughter of a judge. At age fourteen, Ellen’s beloved older brother died in a tragic accident, an event that completely unhinged her mother, who in her grief was no longer care for Ellen and her other children. Ellen, as the second oldest child, wound up being mother to her younger siblings. At age 25, she was married to Robert Hooper in King’s Chapel, Boston, by Rev. Ephraim Peabody. Peabody said it was “one of the happy marriages,” and Dykstra writes, “Robert’s caution and his more retiring nature might have seemed dull to Caroline Sturgis [Ellen’s sister] and Margaret Fuller but appealing to Ellen, promising ballast after a tumultuous childhood.” She and Robert settled in Boston, living close to her father’s mansion, and close to her sister Anne who had married Robert’s brother, Sam. In 1839, Ellen and her sisters Caroline and Anne were part of the first of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.” Ellen lived close to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Transcendentalist bookstore where the “Conversations” were held. Further connections to Transcendentalism came after both of the Hooper families joined James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, when it was founded in 1841.

Although many other Transcendentalists became active in various social justice causes, such as abolition, Ellen followed her duty in another direction; according to Dykstra, “Ellen’s husband and three children were the heart of her life.” This makes sense, given Ellen’s experience of her own mother, who had in grief over the death of one child abandoned all her other children. After her third child and favorite child, Clover, was born in 1843, Ellen’s tuberculosis again grew worse. Ellen died in 1848, when Clover was only five years old, and before her death Ellen must have wondered and worried about what would happen to her children after she died. Who would be a mother to them, once she was dead? She found no easy religious or spiritual answer to such a difficult question. Ephraim Peabody, minister of King’s Chapel, who officiated at her funeral, wrote that in her last year of life she had become “almost a mystic.”

I’ll close with one final poem, which is undated, but perhaps came from the end of Ellen’s life:

One about To Die

Oh, melancholy liberty
Of one about to die —
When friends, with a sad smile,
And aching heart the while,
Every caprice allow,
Nor deem it worth while now
To check the restless will
Which death so soon shall still.

Christmas Eve

It was a strange Christmas Eve. We did the usual Christmas Eve candlelight service in the Main Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) — but the only people there were Amy, the senior minister; Paul, the camera operator; and me. The music all had to be pre-recorded, and I set up my laptop next to my lectern (Amy and I each had our own lectern, about twenty feet apart from each other) so that I could join the Zoom call and be able to hear the music. The strangest part was not being able to see anyone: the whole point of Christmas Eve for me is seeing being able to see people, including the young adults who come back to Silicon Valley for the holidays.

Yes, it was a strange Christmas Eve.

But something that happened in the afternoon made the rest of the day bearable. I was taking a break from checking email, and walked out to the edge of UUCPA’s campus to look down into Adobe Creek, which is routed into a large concrete channel for the last mile or two before it reaches the Bay. By fall, there’s always sediment that has accumulated during the summer, when not much water flows through the channel. This year, there was a luxuriant growth of what was probably water cress, and the last rain had been enough to cut some winding channels through the greenery, without washing everything down stream. The usual Mallards were paddling around, and then I noticed a Snowy Egret crouched behind a thicket of greenery; it lashed out with its bill, and appeared to spear something from the water.

I know Snowy Egrets are good at finding food anywhere, but I was a little bit surprised to see one in that particular urban channelized stream. There must have been enough prey to make it worth the bird’s time and effort; it’s a fairly sterile environment, so perhaps it was finding organisms washed down from upstream. Whatever drew it there, it certainly gave me a lift to see it.

Diversity

Because I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, I’m spending more time than usual looking at and photographing various organisms. I’m astonished at the diversity of organisms that I saw this week within a 45 minute drive of our house. I managed to see organisms from four kingdoms — plants, animals, fungi, and Chromista (which includes brown algae). Going down one taxonomic level, I saw organisms from over a dozen different phyla (for animals) or divisions (for the other three kingdoms).

This represents an astonishing evolutionary diversity: green algae, red algae, vascular plants; sac fungi and allies, mushrooms and allies; brown algae; sea anemones and allies, molluscs, sea stars and allies, arthropods, ringed worms, flatworms, chordates. And I saw eight of these taxonomic groupings within a five minute walk from my desk.

I have a tendency to focus on flowering plants and vertebrates, while ignoring other organisms. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself how much biological diversity is in my own back yard.

Ochre Sea Star (sea stars and allies), Sea Lettuce (green algae), Surf Grass (vascular plant), and unidentified red algae at Pescadero State Beach on Friday — that’s four phyla/divisions in one photograph.

Field journal

I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, with a curriculum developed by the University of California, and offered through a local environmental nonprofit, Grassroots Ecology. One of the ongoing assignments is to keep a field journal of observations of the natural world.

Keeping a field journal feels like a kind of spiritual practice to me. It’s a way to keep connected with the non-human organisms around us, and helps me pay attention to the abiotic components on which life depends. It forces me to get away from the computer and get outdoors, which is something I need to do more of. And it’s very calming, probably because I stop thinking about myself, and think about something larger than myself.

Kindness

Kindness has been neglected as a societal virtue in recent years. A popular catch-phrase tells us to practice random acts of kindness. While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in random acts of kindness, it’s also easy because it doesn’t require you to be kind all the time; you can just be kind when you feel like it. It is much more difficult to attempt to be kind most of the time.

Religions tell us to practice compassion, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But compassion and love have their roots in the ordinary care and respect we should show for others. We begin by caring for and respecting those closest to us: our households, our families, our children and parents. This includes care for our physical selves: parents provide food for their children to eat; members of households share in day-to-day tasks. Kindness begins with such physical needs, but it extends to a sense of respect for each other as humans. A sense of respect requires us to attempt to understand others: what are they thinking and feeling? — or if not to understand, then at least to appreciate.

Care and respect should be mutual: when care and respect are given, but not in turn received, it becomes difficult to keep on caring and respecting. Random kindness in intimate relationships does not suffice; kindness should permeate households, families, and the relations between parents and children. Indeed, kindness should originate within one’s self; if you regulate yourself with kindness, then you are more likely to be kind in your household. When those in your household are kind to each other, you will more likely be kind to others; your entire household will practice consistent acts of kindness.

Some people assume that kindness means things like cutting out paper hearts and giving them to people; or, when you’re stopped at a tollbooth, paying the toll of the vehicle behind you in line. But these acts, while well-intentioned, are not particularly kind. Kindness strengthens the web of interdependence that exists between us all, and that requires consistency in thought and word and deed. Thoughts and words do matter. I wish that all supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties would understand this. When supporters of the Democratic party refer to supporters of the Republicans as “Repugs” on their social media accounts, that is not consistent with kindness, and no number of random acts of kindness can really make up for it. When Republicans make similar comments about Democrats, once again, they are being unkind.

Unkindness weakens the bonds between us, the bonds which make us human. Unkindness makes us less than human. The Non-conformist minister Isaac Watts, who late in supposedly owned a pew in a Unitarian chapel, wrote in a poem for children:

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too.

To bark and bite and growl and fight makes us less than human. While I feel Isaac Watts maligns dogs, bears, and lions — they too can show care and respect to their offspring, and sometimes to larger groups — it is true that their social relationships do not extend as far as those of humans. Bears are fairly solitary, lions less so, and dogs are pack animals, and none of these species is as social as humankind. In a globalized world, you or I can connect with thousands, even millions of other people. In our widespread human connections, we can bark and bite and growl and fight, or we can be kind. Growling and fighting break human connections and lead to dissolution of society.

Confucius taught: “Recompense injury with justice, and kindness with kindess.” Kindness begets more kindness, crowding out injury, and helping justice to grow and flourish. Kindness, consistently cultivated — first for ourselves, then for our families and households, then more and more widely, eventually for all humankind — strengthens human bonds, and makes it possible for compassion and love to take root as well, and to shoot upwards towards the sun, and to flower, and to set fruit that will nourish us and allow each of us to thrive and grow ourselves.

Obligatory moon landing post

Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.

What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.

In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.

These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.

Memories

A few years before he died, my father sent me an outline of a talk he gave about his memories of serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War. On this seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, here’s an excerpt from that outline, focusing on D-Day:

“Robert Harper: WW 2, My Personal Story

“December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor attack during my senior year in high school…
February 1943: Received draft notice.
March 1943: Inducted into the Army Air Corp….
April 1943 to Sept 1943: Trained at Radio School at Scott Field, IL, as Radio Operator Mechanic.
October 1943: Assigned to 437th Troop Carrier Group, Fort Bragg, NC. Part of 53rd TC Wing….

February 1944 to March 1945: Stationed at Ramsbury airfield in England. Part of 9th TC Command, assigned from 9th AF to First Allied Airborne Army. I operated High Frequency DF Station to Communicate with and give radio bearings to radio operators on C47 aircraft during supply, evacuation, and airborne invasion missions. Each plane had a Command Radio used by the pilots within range of 50 miles. For longer distances a CW Morse code radio was used by the radio operator on the plane. The airbase HFDF station had been installed by the RAF and was quite accurate. (The American HFDF station we were issued when we moved to France looked more sophisticated but had poor accuracy.)…

Memories:
On D Day counting the planes returning from a mission to see how many were lost. The 437th flew 3 missions that day — twice towing gliders — once dropping paratroopers at St. Mer Iglese. There were many missions in the following days….
Listening to the rasping sound of approaching V-1 bombs waiting for them to either stop or keep going.
A 3 day leave spent in Edinburgh, with a stop in London where a V-2 rocket landed one block away.
Seeing walking wounded brought in by plane after Montgomery’s attempt to take a Rhine bridge….
The courage of the flight crews who knew that one rifle bullet could send a C47 down in flames.
The gross stupidity of the higher commands whose mistakes were compensated for by troops who won in spite of the odds….

Summary
I was incredibly lucky during that war. I did my assigned job, never heard a shot fired in anger, lost some friends, acquired a distaste for the military and war.”

The above is just an outline; presumably Dad added more details during the actual talk. One of the last conversations I had with Dad, a couple of days before he completely lost the ability to speak, was about the Second World War. At that time he said that even though he’d never heard a shot fired in anger, he thought he probably had some level of post-traumatic stress disorder from his service during the war. I tried to ask him then what events might have triggered PTSD, but he had lost enough control over his words that he was no longer able to tell me. It is unfortunate that he waited a little too long to talk about some things, but his generation talked very little about what they experienced during that war.

Bob Harper, 1943