The Power of a Tshirt
(this is the beginning of a series of posts on the Wild Goose Festival)
Many of the conversations started the same way, “What’s that asterisk on your shirt mean?” It was an easy in. The least (potentially) loaded part of the shirt to ask a question about. And so I would begin to explain: It’s the boolean search. If you enter part of a word (in this case trans) and follow it with an asterisk the search engine will return items wherein anything follows that term (in this case transgender, transsexual, etc.). It’s a way for the shirts to emphasize and celebrate the multiplicity of identities within the trans* community.
Then there were the responses:
* That’s really cool, where can I get one of those shirts?
* Huh. Well, thanks for being here.
* Are you trans?
There was the woman who burst into tears because her child is transitioning and she doesn’t know what to do, the people who wanted to know more about what the “legalize” part of the shirt meant, there were the folks who smiled at us but didn’t talk to us and the ones who looked at us strangely and then walked away.
Everywhere we went (there were three of us wearing the shirts and the other two have their own stories to tell) people wanted to talk, to ask questions, to tell their stories. There were folks who thought we were with some organization in particular and folks who thought there were more than three of us (apparently we managed to get around).
I wanted to attend this festival to “queer things up”. I wanted to be visible. To let people know that trans* voices should be included in our conversations. I wanted to let other queer people know that they were not alone. I wanted to be a buffer in that if someone needed to express their displeasure about queer people they could aim it at me. I would be able to take it and hopefully it would keep them from expressing their displeasure to someone who might not have been able to take it.
You might wonder what kind of activism can possibly happen just by wearing a tshirt; what kind of ministry is brought about by wearing a bold statement across your chest? I’m here to tell you that powerful things happened throughout the festival. There was a bringing together of queer attendees who knew they had people who were safe. There were the folks who were challenged to change because they met someone they liked who happened to be queer.
I know I’ve written before about not wanting to be out, but in this place I saw the power of a life lived loudly. Things were shifted in conversations because people were willing to be visible and out and loud. I also recognize, though, that in this space I wasn’t worried for my safety, there were several of us wearing the shirts (who are fierce allies and so I knew that if things got hairy I would have backup), and this was one weekend. From the moment the I put on the shirt on Thursday until the moment I left the festival on Sunday morning I went from one conversation to another almost non-stop. There’s no way I could sustain that kind of dialogue forever. But it did bring up for me that people are hungry for this conversation. People want to know; they want to know how to be good allies, they want to know how to love their trans* brothers and sisters. They want to understand.
I’m sure there were also folks there who were frustrated by us. Annoyed that we kept bringing up that “sexuality issue”. Annoyed that we were vocal and visible. I’m sure others thought we were just advertising shirts or trying to make some kind of bold statement (that last one might be true). Some may have thought that we were just trying to stir things up. There may have been some who wanted us to go away, who thought we didn’t belong there, who wished we would just shut up (even though we didn’t speak from stages or even in group sessions, our shirts were continually having conversations). But I don’t feel bad about making people uncomfortable nor do I feel badly about asking people to question or to taking up space. These are conversations that need to be had whether people are ready for them or not. People are hurting inside of our churches, not just outside. Trans* people are in our communities of faith and they are often being asked to be silent and told not to take up space. They are often being told they are sick and diseased and being excluded from church leadership. It’s time we stop worrying about making people uncomfortable.
That is the power of a tshirt. That is the power of a person risking asking a question. That is the power of an honest and straightforward response. I hope that people were moved along in their journeys this weekend. I know that I definitely was.
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