We’re not all “brothers and sisters”

When I talk about gendered language I’m not only referring to calling a crowd of people “guys” or a waiter addressing a table of people as “ladies.”  Those instances hardly make a dent any longer.  What really gets to me is specifically gendered language in places where we are supposed to know better or, at least, supposed to be working on it.  Gendered language that people think is inclusive without really looking into it.

You know, like church?  Our churches.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith communities that we are so, rightfully, proud of.  The churches where so many of us have “gender identity and expression” in our mission statements and have supported transgender rights legislation from city-wide right up to the national level, and where we stress over and over that all are welcome.  We ask you to come as you are and then, if you’re somewhere outside the gender binary, you’re ignored.

Transgender identities can be complicated and confusing and often they get oversimplified in an effort to give a quick explanation to somebody.  Phrases like “born in the wrong body” and “really a boy/girl” are used to sum up all that is the trans experience.  Those phrases do work for a lot of people who identify as trans; there are some people who truly have known since they were very small children that they are definitely the “other” gender than the one they were assigned.  There are also quite a lot of folks out there for whom there is no “other” gender.  They know they aren’t male but they aren’t totally female, either.  I talked about this life in the middle-ground of gender before.

When an assembled body of people is referred to as “ladies and gentleman,” or “men and women” or anything along those lines there is a group of people you’re ignoring.  When you sing “brothers and sisters” or “oh, fathers/mothers let’s go down,” or do a reading that calls on “men” to do one thing while “women” do another you are ignoring all of the “me’s” out there.  You’re ignoring my existence.  I don’t think it’s intentional but I do think it’s something that needs to change.

Today this came up during a service that was supposed to pay homage to the Iowa Sisterhood and the Bread and Roses strike.  That’s great!  There are women out there who have made amazing contributions to our world; women who have banded together and created real, valuable change.  It is necessary that we recognize their perseverance to succeed in a world that did not want to include them.  It is necessary to see their successes as one step in a more gender-inclusive world.  But, when we celebrate these successes, can we please not do it in a way that makes those of us who are neither men nor women invisible?  We need to take the spirit of their message, or the essence of what they were seeking, and expand that beyond the binary we’ve been taught.  These women were fighting against a world that tried, and often succeeded, in making them invisible.  Trans people are doing the same thing, but with smaller numbers and a less united “what we’re fighting for” message in many cases.

In the UU world trans people are accepted on paper and, often, if they fit in enough with one of two genders they are welcomed in practice (for the most part).  There are a lot of trans people I know who would be perfectly fine standing and claiming their identity as female or male, and that’s great, and I’m thrilled those people are supported by their communities.

I am not male.  I am not female.  I use the pronouns he/him/his because they force people to recognize me as not-a-female.  If there was a more readily accepted and useable gender neutral example I’d happily adopt it.  But there’s not, so I don’t.  But just because those are the pronouns I use does not mean I’m your “brother” or a “man” or one of the “guys.”  There is no side for me to pick in these songs, or these readings, or rituals.  There’s no “middle” or “other” so I’m left out entirely.

So what do I think you should you do?  Just recognize our experience.

How?  Oh I’m SO glad you asked!

  1. Look at a reading and see if you feel comfortable adapting it to make it more inclusive.  If you can’t change the words then make an   acknowledgement that it’s not entirely inclusive.  “Though the author refers to “women and men” we take this reading in the spirit of affirming all genders.”
  2. Look for hymns that affirm all people, and adapt if necessary.  One of my favorite replacements for the phrase “brothers and sisters” is “siblings in spirit.”  This, too, is a quick fix.  “In the chorus of ‘We’ll Build a Land’ we will sing “siblings in spirit” rather than “brothers and sisters” to better welcome all into our worship.”
  3. Remember trans folks on Mother’s/Father’s Day.  Many trans people have interesting and complicated relationships with parenting, whether or not they are parents themselves.  Again, you don’t have to do away with services, just an affirmation is fine.  You don’t get something pre-scripted here; I’d prefer you wrote it yourself, from your heart.
  4. It’s okay to mess up; it’s not okay to pretend you didn’t mess up.  Acknowledge and learn from criticism, complaints, hurt feelings, and difficult feedback.
  5. Don’t ask men to sing one part and women to sing another.  I don’t care if it messes with your choir director’s mind.  Find another way to classify voices.  “Higher voices, sing __, lower voices, sing __.”
  6. Lastly, stop referring to the kids as “boys and girls.”  There are miniature versions of me, too.  We get just as annoyed and we’re often less articulate when we’re smaller.  Call them children, call them kids, call them young people.

Email me if you want to hash something out privately.  Andy.Leigh.Coate-at-gmail-dot-com.

We’ll build a land where siblings in spirit united by God may then create peace… see, totally works.


Thanks to Rev. Sean Dennison and others for help in sussing this out in my mind.


41 Comments to “We’re not all “brothers and sisters””

  1. Thanks for taking me through your thoughts and experience on this, Andy. As a worship leader, I appreciate the practical suggestions.
    And BTW, I loved your story tonight at the CLF service about leading group singing at Occupy! Such a powerful tool! I think there’s some folks (in CA?) working on getting Occupy appropriate songs out there.
    Hope your next chip experience is a positive one.

  2. The issue of inclusive language remains a steep growing edge for most communities of faith, and I’m glad to see that the dialogue around this important issue is gaining greater clarity. Despite the platitudes I hear all the time about “man” and “mankind” as terms that really refer to everyone, as a woman I always feel profoundly excluded by this kind of language. I imagine it is similarly frustrating for trans folks to hear “brothers and sisters” and the other phrases you mention. Thanks for your willingness to speak from your own experience, and to provide not just criticism but tangible ways congregations can actually work on this.

    I do wonder, however, about the ease with which we UUs change words to hymns, sacred texts, and other works for use in worship. In light of how much of our unsavory history UUs have conveniently “forgotten,” and the countless Christian hymns in our grey hymnal that have been irresponsibly stripped of their original theological message, sometimes I think our efforts at inclusivity can actually aid our congregations in glossing over or avoiding the uncomfortable parts of our history and heritage. To what extent do the words and works of our ancestors in faith (and people who weren’t Unitarian or Universalist) belong to us? To what extent do we have the right to change their original words, words which reflect their own lived experience, yearnings, cultural limitations, and faults? These aren’t questions meant to try and prevent improving the inclusivity of our worship language, but I think they are questions that we ought to consider seriously when making changes to the music, liturgy, and sacred poetry that is our shared inheritance.

    Respectful adaptations (with permission when applicable and with acknowledgment always) can and certainly ought to be made from time to time so that the language of our worship is as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and so that it isn’t irrelevant on our tongues and in our ears and hearts. But I also think there is great value and authenticity in sometimes engaging with the very human limitations and assumptions of our forebears, especially as a way to consider what about us future generations might wish to edit out of their worship.

    Great post, great dialogue.


    • So. I’m not a minister. You know that, I know that, and I want to make that really clear when I post this. I’m not a minister and I haven’t studied these things and, most importantly, I’ve never tried to guide a congregation though change and growth and make them jump out of their comfort zone on a Sunday morning for more than a minute or so. I’ve not really had to deal with the reactions from a congregation being forced to grow.

      What I have had to deal with is being excluded, unintentionally, and people then not understanding that exclusion. I’ve had to deal with explaining to people for years what the hell the “gender binary” was and, furthermore, what I meant when i said that I lived outside of it. And I had the benefit of an amazing minister when I lived in Maine who talked me through a lot of this stuff about feeling excluded. I felt loved and I felt able to speak out (you can thank that minister for this blog).

      So all of those caveats and explanations in place, here’s what I have for you.

      The first is the obvious one. We’ve already changed a lot. That’s not an excuse to continue doing it in and of itself. As we grow as a culture more aware of misappropriation it’s necessary to apologize for what our ancestors did, even when not malintentioned, but also to not perpetuate those mistakes ourselves. But it does speak to the idea that our hymnal, as is, is sacred and cannot be touched. Some of those hymns have been just destroyed (See: Joy to the World.)

      And then we get into assuming intentions. What were the intentions of our liberal religious forbears? Were they to exclude trans people? Or women? Or were, more often, these things just not at all on the radar and, therefore, not included in hymns? Is changing words to produce a culture of radical inclusivity against the intentions of our U/U ancestors? I don’t think so, in most cases. Are the words, in and of themselves, sacred, or is intention rather than the exactness of the language? Even our hymnal says it – Singing the LIVING TRADITION. Our tradition is alive and, frankly, things are are living evolve and change and adapt to their surroundings. We, too, must change and adapt our beautiful, vibrant religion to match our surroundings. 200 years ago our surroundings didn’t include the idea of women in ministry and 50 years ago our surroundings didn’t include the possibility of trans people participating AS trans people in the full lives of our congregations and those things have blessedly changed. We need to change, too.

      The question of non-U/U hymns gets trickier. Do we have the right to change and adapt things we didn’t write (we being those who came before us of and with our tradition). Maybe not. But if that’s the case then why are we singing things that no longer fit who we are as this LIVED religion? If we don’t have the rights to adapt aspects of liturgy to fit who we are and what we are about NOW then maybe it’s time to retire those parts, with respect to what they have given us, and the acknowledgement that they have done their duty.

  3. Andy, is there a non-gendered word with more emotional force than “sibling”? I don’t have one.

    • At General Assembly this year, during the youth and young adult combined worship service, we sang “Rising up.” The youth who stood up to lead us said “We changed the lyrics a little because we wanted to include transgender people.”

      The lyrics were

      Rising up
      Like a phoenix from the fire
      So siblings in spirit
      spread you wings and fly higher

      It was such an amazingly powerful moment of feeling intentionally included. I like “siblings in spirit.” If you’d like to brainstorm for another inclusive term you are free to, but I like siblings in spirit. So that’s what I’ll use.

    • Andy,
      I was one of the youth leaders who led the combined youth and young adult worship service (I was also the one who led that song). I’m so glad you felt included! I also really loved the article you wrote. I am now sharing this with my fellow UU’s.
      Hope to see you at GA 2012!
      -Elissa, Sr. Worship coordinator of the youth caucus 2012

  4. Amen to this post! I was one of the other youth who helped out with the lyric change, and I am so glad to see that this issue is being discussed! Our church’s chalice lighting contains the phrases “brothers and sisters” and “men and women,” but I’ve started saying “siblings” and “people,” and have encouraged others to do the same!

    -Leigh, Youth Chaplain to the Youth Caucus at GA 2011

  5. I’m 36* (plus 30), and I somewhat resent the idea that we’re a cohort more in need of nudging than others. I’m a sexual freedom activist, a civil libertarian, and a UU for almost 50 years. I’m on the UU’s for Polyamory Awareness Board and the Interweave board. I am all for rejecting the binary.

    And I’ll tell you what lyrics bug ME: the “God” ones. When I sing “We’ll build a land” I sing “inspired by love” instead of “anointed by God”. I also try to be mindful of the thinking of the native American woman on a panel at GA who felt the hymn was Eurocentric and ignored the fact that there already was “a land” here before Columbus.

    At the last GA I was often saddened and felt excluded because the obvious efforts to include queer families under the umbrella of “family” did not reach so far as polyamorous families like mine.

    All that said, I’m grateful for the heads-up of this post. More work to do!

    • Valerie – with any generalization there comes the unspoken fact that it’s a generalization and that there are people who do not fit in it. The “over 35” thing was because UUism has “young adulthood” ending at 35. I was more saying, “let’s work on the adults.” The young adults I have met, from Maine to Boston to Los Angeles to DC and nationally at SEAT (sexuality education and advocacy training) and at GA has been open to who I am, and to my suggestions. To making things more gender neutral. A perfect example is what is talked about in the comments here – We sang “Rising Up” with altered lyrics and I didn’t have to play any part in that change. Furthermore it looks like it was two youth who decided it was more welcoming *without the knowledge* of whether there would be trans folks there to whom it mattered. I’ve never had an experience like that with older UU communities. They are occasionally willing to change (and always willing to say they are willing to change) but the catalyst has been me in those instances.

      God language doesn’t bug me, and I don’t think it’s the same issue. We were founded and are deeply rooted in two protestant traditions. My friend Jake, a minister in TN, calls me a “radical traditionalist.” That may seem funny or ironic considering what I”m calling on people to do, but I read the trans-inclusion as broadening our faith, letting us live up to who we truly want to, and can, be, and expanding to be more real and relevant. Cutting out God language across the board limits the theology of so many in our congregations. “God” does not need to be read or sung or spoken as “patriarchal dude with thunderbolt in sky” and, I assume, is not read as that by many UUs at all. But God is a huge part of our theological past and present and I think that’s beautiful. I’m so glad you’ve found a way to make the theo-centric language work for you by simply not singing what you find objectionable but, really, I think it’s actually a separate issue.

      I encourage you to speak with the Right Relations team at General Assembly next year when you feel that you are not being fairly or accurately represented by the inclusion efforts of our association.

      • Be careful though, there are a large number of UUs that are in fact atheist and may not want to hear God mentioned in any way in a song!
        You’ve brought up what has been and always will be a constant struggle not only in your church but also in our society as a whole. There will always be those that feel un-included or left out, there will always be those that feel not enough attention is being paid to them by the rest of the group, and there will always be those that feel that they are being excluded to make someone else feel included. I think the important thing to recognize is the struggle itself. Your church and yourself fully realize that it’s a struggle, but you are doing what you can to include everyone, and that is going to make people love you, question you, laugh at you, and fight with you. Don’t be discouraged, use the information you get back to your advantage. Good luck 🙂

  6. I’m an over 36 and I don’t think I know any trans-gender people. However, I remember very well in the fight against racist language how we relied on the black community to relate their feelings to words then in common parlance: it is all very well to know you shouldn’t say a but it helps to know that you can say b. It was easier with anti-sexist language because I am a woman. This debate needs to be made known so that people like me who don’t have any friends to say to me “I wish you wouldn’t say that’ to know that there is an issue and make people in general aware of some of the options outlined in this correspondence. Get nudging.

  7. One of the things that makes me sad about the discourse that feminism began in our movement (and beyond) is that it didn’t challenge the gender binary, it emphasized it. From my (trans) perspective, my life of moving across that binary and yours, of living beyond it, are beautiful, powerful extensions of feminism. But for so many, feminism seems to have more deeply inscribed the gender binary in their minds and lives. I understand this, but it is still a frustration and disappointment.

    Over the course of my journey, it has been those most deeply involved in feminism that have had the hardest time understanding and being compassionate about my life. I’ve been accused of “going over to the enemy.” I’ve been dismissed with, “Fine. You’re really a MAN then–I can feel the MALE energy.” I’ve been told that my gender identity is just a sign of internalized misogyny. But very rarely have I heard what I believe and what I long to hear acknowledged publicly: Gender essentialism of any kind is wrong–the freedom to discover and name one’s own gender identity is as feminist as the freedom to define what kind of “man” or “woman” one will be.

    Of course, I’m not saying every feminist has a hard time with trans identity. I AM saying that the way feminism most often played out in our congregations (Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, the formation of Women’s groups and then Men’s groups, etc…) makes it harder for people to get unstuck from the binary and often means that trans identity makes them really anxious. I have heard (more than once) “What if one of THEM wants to come to our group?” Again, not everywhere–I’ve seen some women’s groups welcome trans women with truly open hearts–but enough to notice the pattern.

    Hymn lyrics are one of the places this gets played out. It’s a rare thing to find people who want to reinstitute language where “man” is supposed to mean everyone. But every time the idea of changing lyrics to include those of us who feel excluded by the limits of the binary, there is an outcry that we’ve already changed them too much. And interestingly, the argument very quickly gets coopted to one about how terrible it is that we’ve excluded God. Funny, I think God would be okay with “siblings in spirit.” 😉


  8. I think this just shows that it is time for new music. I think music and lyrics are ever evolving, but a song shouldn’t be changed to suit the new times, a whole new song should be written instead. By changing lyrics to songs, you might be removing pieces that are important or sacred to those who love that song for a different reason than you. Is there anything wrong with being a mother, or a father, or a sister and a brother??? By removing those titles you might be taking away someones joy in the aknowledgement of what they define themselves as. I think it’s time for new songs with new lyrics, to add inclusivesness, and unity to all definitions of gender and family, but it is not time to change lyrics to traditional songs that still hold meaning and value with those in your church.

    • To me that sounds an awful lot like “trans people can’t have tradition.” That may not be the intention, but it’s how it came across to me.

      • It just means we need to start a new tradition, a new time of equality and inclusion, but we can’t just cover up the past because there are still some people that it’s important to, like those who helped create it and those who joined at the time because of it. There does need to be a new direction; new songs, new views, refreshed definitions, to help create a new tradtion for the future. By creating new traditions to include a whole new generation of followers, we’re adding another piece to the timeline without erasing anything before it that still holds value to an older generation.

  9. I see your point, and yet I question some of the substitutions suggested. English is a very limited language. It is not like languages which have dozens of words for snow or love. A single word is used for a ton of things. For instance, “brotherhood” is used to refer to a sense of fellowship that is not just a fellowship of men. (This one came up when I was in a coed “fraternity” that had Brotherhood as one of its principles. We were 3/4 women and the question came up: is “brotherhood” not the best word here? The thing was, the principle was experienced and shared within our community as a fellowshipping, not as a community of men, and none of us wanted to change it – including all of the women. So, how does this relate here? I don’t think “Sibling” carries the same intimacy of meaning as sister or brother in the English language. In fact, when I was growing up, sibling was often used in a DEROGATORY sense as in she is my Sister, but he is ONLY my sibling. Sibling might be used because you did not know a person well enough to know if they had any or how many or anything else about them. Sibling = stranger but blood or marriage related.

    To me “sibling” in spirit does not AT ALL carry a meaning of community. In fact it makes me a little bit excluded to be referred to as a sibling instead of a brother or sister.

    Yet, I understand and sympathize with the reason… YET I would say to make light of it and say it is easy to change it is to ignore the richness of a single word in English… so many words may have gender but encompass more than just gender. If you can change it without changing the meaning that is carried with the original word, great! but perhaps there is a way to be inclusive without excluding that some of us do have gender, some of us have gender that was not our body gender, and some of us have none at all. Not just eliminating gender entirely? For a transgender who goes from man to woman it is often very important to hear themselves called “she.” It is empowering (or so I am told by my friend).

    I just don’t think eliminating gender makes things more inclusive… rather it ignores diversity… we are not all the same. We are not monochrome… some of us have gender that our bodies were born with, some with a different gender and some with something else. I was born female. I identify as female, but I am more comfortable with tons of activities and ways of living that are labeled “male.” I am most comfortable in pants, and I have no patience for pink, fluffy frilly things. I would probably identify as a “sister” but I was also ok with being “sisters and brothers united in Brotherhood.”

    Anyway, if you have to get rid of “sisters and brothers” and you are trying to communicate a sense of connection as in “sisters and brothers in spirit,” can you please NOT use the disconnecting “sibling” and try something like “FAMILY in spirit”? Don’t throw out the meaning with the gender… maybe… please?

    • I’m not quite sure what power you think it is that I have. I can’t make anybody do anything. I’m not a minister, I don’t run worship very often, and I have very little influence in my own congregation and almost none outside of it.

      If you don’t want to work towards trans-inclusiveness in this way that’s fine. I hope you’ll do it in another way. And I hope you’ll truly look into why you’re so hesitant to changing your language.

    • I want to particularly point out this sentence of your comment:

      “For a transgender who goes from man to woman it is often very important to hear themselves called ‘she.’ It is empowering (or so I am told by my friend).”

      First, there are no “transgenders,” only “transgender people.” It is dehumanizing to be identified only by one’s gender history, and not also as a human being.

      Second, even as you acknowledge that it is important to use an individual’s preferred pronoun, you neglect to actually do so—you said “themselves” rather than “herself.”

      Maybe you have some reservations concerning trans peoples’ dignity. That’s not surprising—it’s what our culture encourages. I hope you will have the fortitude to work through those reservations. Once you do that you’ll be better prepared to participate in this kind of conversation.

  10. Tori, there is inherently *nothing* wrong with being a mother or a father or a sister or a brother – if that fits the specific gender identity of the individual to whom you are referring. The issue becomes when such a gender-specific term is used to broadly reference a larger group, not all of whom may be that gender-specific themselves. Plus, I seriously do not think that it takes anything away from anyone’s own self-definition or relishing of their role if they are referred to as a “parent” versus a “mother” or a “father.” It’s a change of term that, unless it’s pointed out, is rarely even noticed. I disagree that these terms are considered so cherished and sacred that they cannot handle the evolution. It is not “the new times” that are being “suited,” it is our recognition of those who are and have always been ALREADY IN OUR PEWS.

    When we sing hymns or perform readings, we are demonstrating a unification of our community and a confirmation of the beliefs we share in common. To not be as fully inclusive in that language as our current awareness expands is actually doing our faith tradition a disservice.

    (oh, and, p.s.: I’m almost 50 and a trans activist. Let’s not work so hard to make other people inclusive while being exclusive ourselves, m’kay? Some old people “get it,” too – we just don’t get as much influence over other GA services as you might with the youth and young adult service. Still, youth and you ng adults don’t have the market cornered on the activism of radical inclusion.)

  11. Sure, siblings doesn’t give me the same emotional connection as other words, but hell, words like family…I’m not all that close WITH my family. I’m by far closer to the folks in my UU congregation.

    Your point is totally valid and has caused me to think about my own vernacular and how mindful I need to be. Thanks.

  12. So, I think it’s really easy to hide behind vernacular and/or etymology in defense of transphobia (or any other form of oppression for that matter), but the issue is actually pretty clear; brother/sister, mother/father, man/woman language is exclusive. Period. To say that “sibling” does not carry a “meaning of community” is vague, first of all, and seems to miss the mark entirely. I’m sorry if you don’t feel that sibling is a strong enough word, but guess what…meanings and interpretations of words can CHANGE. Queer used to mean odd/strange, and then it was an insult, and now it’s used as empowerment and community defining. So, who’s to say we can’t change the meaning of sibling to make it feel more community-based. Although, I feel like it’s a pretty good substitute as well.

    I’d also like to point out that the people who seem to take issue with Andy’s suggestion do not (unless I am mistaken) identify as trans. In fact, most of you MADE SURE WE KNEW you were not trans. It goes back to Dorothy’s point. I don’t think cis-folks have the right to tell trans-folks how they should feel. “Well you shouldn’t feel excluded. ‘Brothers and sisters’ makes me feel more comfortable because it’s a tradition, so you have no right to feel excluded by it.” It’s fine if cis-folks “feel comfortable” being a brother/sister united in brotherhood, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. Lets recognize our privilege, people!

  13. I used to be bothered by the fact that some of the hymns in Singing the Living Tradition had been changed from the “traditional” lyrics. I later found out that even the “traditional” lyrics were only traditional *within* our own tradition! One Christian hymn might appear in slightly different ways in the Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, and UU hymnals.

    I think there’s a false analogy being drawn here between inclusion or not of the word “God” in hymns, and the “brothers and sisters” language. The use of a hymn from a theist tradition that uses the word God (or a theist sermon that uses the word) is not an exclusion of non-theists, it’s an *inclusion* of theists. There are Sundays when we have sermons on humanist themes with humanist hymns like Spirit of Life. There are sermons on earth-centered traditions where we sing chants about the Goddess or the holiness of nature. You can’t highlight every possible theology in a single worship service; it’s up to ministers and worship associates to find the right balance for their congregation. An atheist has no more right to demand that the word “God” not be used than I have to demand that every reading be about Jesus. We have to look at it from an INclusive perspective, because if everyone focused on feeling EXcluded by a particular Sunday’s theme, our commitment to pluralism would mean nothing.

    In a similar way, as a cis-man, I didn’t feel excluded by a sermon about the contributions of the Iowa Sisterhood and the role of women in the Bread and Roses strike — we were lifting up a particular story of a particular people in a particular worship. I was inspired and learned a lot, but I know I can’t begin to understand how the women in the congregation felt to hear from a woman minister about the contributions of these women. It wasn’t INTENDED to be ‘my’ story that day; there will be other days for other stories that resonate with me. I didn’t hear Andy objecting to any of that.

    But when someone is saying (or singing) “brothers and sisters,” “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen,” they’re NOT generally implying, “Here is a special time when we lift up the contributions of people who identify within the gender binary; there will be other times when we also lift up trans and genderqueer contributions and struggles.” Usually when people say those words, they are INTENDING they are addressing and including everyone present. I don’t think Andy is questioning that the speaker *intends* to include him with such a phrase, so defending the words by saying they are *intended* to include him misses the point. It’s the very fact that the words DO intend to include him — and completely fail to do so — that makes their use in that way so problematic.

  14. On the idea of trans people not being included in tradition- it’s a pretty new idea, so there just isn’t a lot of tradition built up. We can all share our tradition of being human, but not gender tradition.

    I also am looking for a better word than sibling. It conjures up “sibling rivalry” for me, nothing good.

    • It’s not a “new idea.” As long as there have been humans there have been trans people. It’s only now that we’re even getting to a place where it’s starting to be accepted.

  15. Love this, and really appreciate it. One exception: changing the lyrics of a copyrighted song is both unethical and, if written down, illegal. I would encourage folks who are concerned about such things to engage the writer of the hymn text so that changes come from them rather than become adopted by the community without input from the writer. That just leads to broken relationship and deepens the opportunity for wounding.

    • And that, my friends, is how movements die.

      With discussions of copyright law.

    • I get it. The writers of these songs are proud of them and the are exactly what they were meant to be. I get that.

      But by and large I wasn’t even referring to more recent songs; songs where we CAN engage with the original author because they do things like “comment on blog posts” and “live in the 21st century.” So many of the songs we sing ALREADY had their words changed from being androcentric to being binary. We’re just taking one more step. A lot of hymns are just part of the oral tradition that somebody slapped a name on to for print purposes and many, many others have authors who are long dead.

      I think this gets back to “trans people can’t have tradition that honors them.” Someone posted above that we can write our own music but changing the lyrics of other songs is morally reprehensible. I don’t see it that way. If the author is alive and well and willing to discuss this stuff then, hey, awesome! If they aren’t then does that mean I simply get to not lead any song I couldn’t get signed permission to change the lyrics to? Because some day, in my ministry, that’s going to be an issue.

      • Carolyn McDade, the writer of Come Build a Land, is alive and well. My guess is that she would be quite willing to engage in this conversation. And wouldn’t that be better than having her find out that people have changed her lyric with her permission?

        It’s not about being proud. It’s about honoring the creative process. As a composer myself, that process is my spiritual practice, and I would be very upset to find out that someone was changing my words to suit their needs without giving me the opportunity to be engaged in the work.

        Aside from the copyright issues, I’m much more concerned about the ethics of altering an artist’s creative/spiritual work. Just because it’s in our hymnal doesn’t mean it belongs to us.

        I want to be engaged in these questions, and am excited to see them bear fruit in my own work.

        I urge caution simply because UUs have a history of excising theological concepts from our hymnal that have fallen out of fashion, with blatant disregard for the theological identity of the author/composer for whom that expression was a deeply personal statement of faith. I certainly don’t have any illusion that my own work is somehow timeless, and I’d much prefer that people not sing my songs at all rather than hack the poetry to death once I’m gone.

        Sing a new song, quoth the psalmist. I think that’s about right.

      • Jason, per my comment above, I think you’re making a false comparison between a hymnal that is intended (but may fail) to be broadly inclusive of many traditions over time, and specific words that are intended (but may fail) to be inclusive of everyone at a specific moment. You’re also playing a little fast-and-loose with traditional hymns vs. modern hymns with living authors, and with excising theological ideas vs. excising kyriarchal language.

        The conversation about value judgments involved in deciding to remove some traditional hymns to make room for new ones, or to create a particular theological balance, or because of ideas that have “fallen out of fashion” is an important one to have. But it’s a *different* conversation than the one about the choice not to represent God as exclusively male, or as a “Lord” or “King”, with the implied reinforcement of patriarchy. Both are important conversations, but distinct ones.

        There’s another different, valuable conversation about how to be in right relations with both our living UU songwriters *and* all our congregants from historically marginalized backgrounds. With his blog post, Andrew opens that conversation, and I’m grateful, because he alerted me to things I hadn’t seen before.

        For my two cents on that particular conversation: There’s something in there, I think about the difference between a song used commercially and a song that’s being integrated into the life of a faith community. A faith community needs to weigh many more things (and, with all due respect, more important things) than the original intent of the author.

        The mission of my congregation includes things like “to create a multicultural, spirit-filled community that works for justice, fosters spiritual curiosity and faith formation, shares joy, heals brokenness, and celebrates the sacred in all.” Fulfilling our mission is inevitably in a natural tension with – for example – respecting the egos and intellectual property of white male songwriters who thought they were being all-inclusive the first time.

        That sounds a little mean, and I’m sorry for that. But reading your posts above, it seems like you’re asserting that respecting the songwriter is more important that fulfilling congregational mission. We’re blessed to have your great songs (and others’) but mission needs to come first. It’s not either/or, but we need to start with that in mind. Let’s stay at the table.

      • Hm. My apologies. I was wrong above about who opened what conversation. Andy did open the general conversation, but Jason did open the specific conversation about living authors with songs under copyright. I am grateful for that, too. I think what set off my alarm was the assertion that if the song is under copyright, our options are (a) use it exactly as-is, (b) petition the author for permission to change the lyrics and accept their decision as final, or (c) just not use the song at all.

        As I reflected on this, I was torn, in that I’ve also been a critic of cultural misappropriation of music. I don’t think it’s responsible to pick up something that has meaning to a group of people (particularly a historically marginalized group of people) and to change it however you want, to fit your audience (particularly if the audience is mostly of an identity that did the historical marginalizing.)

        But riding my bike home from work, I had a micro-insight. It’s not about changing it “however you want” or “to suit your needs”. It’s not about a matter of preference or comfort. I often say that UUs are not free to believe “whatever we want”, I say we are free to believe what we must. We are guided by our own souls – deep judgement, wisdom, prayer, responsibility, discipline, discernment, communion, and (like right now!) conversation and mutual challenge. When I talked above about the primacy of mission, I think that’s what I meant.

        Said another way: The ultimate arbiter of how and when lyrics need to be changed is not U.S. Copyright Law… it’s God. Our conscience is informed by law, author’s intentions, the pain of our congregants, the histories and identities we bring, our love for each other… this is not an equation that can be solved algorithmically. It can only be done through prayer.

  16. I think we can acknowledge that English is a language poor in emotional, inclusive, non-gender binary words without being transphobic. Pointing out another challenge is not dismissing the the importance of the previous challenge. It is highlighting another issue: we don’t have the language to include what we want to yet. As inconvenient as it is, “sibling” sounds clinical. “Brother” does not, but it is also non-inclusive. Sibling may change in meaning, and that would be helpful. So two problems: Inclusion and aesthetics. Let’s not forget that people go to church for aesthetics too. There’s a reason there was such an uproar when the Vatican changed the the translation of their mass. The aesthetic of the previous work was written with different understandings that we have now. It’s not that aesthetics are more important than inclusion, but our faith is one that changes as it learns so how this issue is resolved may be a model for the next step forward – a political and identity issue that we may not be aware of yet.

    So, to take the brother/sister dichotomy, well, they are words lots of people relate too, whereas “sibling” may not be. Could the solution be an addition? Brothers and sisters and all siblings? All children of life? Kinfolk and family? Friendship and family? We’re looking for ungendered connection works to replace the pesky kin ones, right?

    I think we, UUs, need more creativity, frankly.


  17. Agree strongly – and although I kind of identify as female, I object to the assumption implicit in these kinds of rituals that women do certain kinds of things, and men do other kinds of things.

    Re the choir thing – I have met male altos and female tenors, so one cannot always assume that women are soprano and alto, and men are tenor and bass.

  18. I really appreciate this post and am just … baffled, I guess, at why so many people seem to think that the world “sibling” means so much less than “brother” or “sister”. How is it a less powerful or meaningful word when it means the same thing?? I can call my brother my sibling and change nothing about the rest of my sentence or story or meaning. This just really feels, to me, like a bit of a “I don’t want to change my language to stop hurting you, and you can’t make me!” tantrum. You’re right – no one can make you. But maybe you should think about why you are resisting so hard against something that is maybe a slight inconvenience to you and would make a world of a difference to a great lot of people.

  19. Hola! I’ve been reading your website for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the excellent work!

  20. Andy, I’m grateful for your willingness to raise these important issues. I recognize it takes tremendous fortitude to be a transgender Unitarian Universalist, all the more to educate one’s congregation and ministers on transgender awareness.

    I like your list of suggestions very much.

    As a songwriter, folksinger, and songleader, I adapt lyrics without hesitation. My recollection of copyright law is that it affords considerable room for arrangement and interpretation, including altering lyrics, provided the “fundamental character” of the work isn’t changed. In any case, making sure the hymns we sing treat everyone with respect is more important than the letter of the law.

    For sure we need to do something about “brothers and sisters.” As a songwriter and liturgist, I’m not excited by “siblings.” I’m not entirely sure why. I’d be glad to talk with you about it.

    To replace “sisters and brothers” in “We’ll Build a Land,” how about “neighbors and strangers”? Same meter, more vivid language, nice imperfect rhyme, evokes “love your neighbor” and “welcome the stranger,” contemplates border encounters of all kinds.

    More generally, perhaps we could welcome and celebrate “brothers, sisters, others—all our relations, all our kin.”

    Thank you, as always, Andy, for your courage, commitment, and insight. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  21. Interesting discussion. I always feel woefully under-informed about trans issues – I am in the UK and they have not crept into our Unitarian consciousness much. If I use wrong words, please call me out on it so I can learn and do better in future.

    I was thinking that it’s true that ‘siblings in spirit’ doesn’t yet sound as good as ‘brothers and sisters’. But then, I’m not sure people thought that aesthetically ‘humankind’ rolled the same way as ‘mankind’. And, perhaps, ‘siblings in spirit’ is not going to be a great choice. But that just means we need to be more creative in our use of English – not try and pretend that ‘brothers and sisters’ is as inclusive as lyricists and authors would like to think it is. Perhaps we could experiment with combinations including ‘kinfolk’, it’s such a lovely word.

    As for whether all hymns need to change. Well, ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ is still a popular hymn round here, even though it uses patriarchal language. But it would be difficult to change, because the word ‘mankind’ is in the first line / title and it’s so well known in wider religious circles than ours. So, I guess if there are any hymns which use ‘brothers and sisters’ (or other problematic language) so prominently then they might be worth changing. Everything else sees like fair game to me.

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