About nine months after returning from Iraq, I began dating my first real boyfriend.
He was gorgeous, a grad student at UNC. He used male pronouns and presented as a guy, and identified as genderqueer. We shared a lot of nerdy interests, and it was generally a lot of fun to hang out with him.
One night I was over at his house. He had cooked me a nice curry dinner, and afterward we were hanging out in his living room. Every flat surface – couches, coffee table, easy chair – was covered with history books and paper. He was a TA that semester and was grading assignments for a class and working on his thesis. I was sitting next to him on the floor listening to a Home Brewed Theology podcast and playing the old PC game Duke Nukem 3D on my phone.
It struck me that my being where I was that night was the result of a long series of choices. Not choosing to be trans, to be queer, but choosing how to react to my being trans.
One of the things about being a soldier is the lack of freedom. There are only so many ways you are allowed to be. You cede control about how you dress, where you live, what you do to the military. You censor yourself, careful to discuss some subjects only as jokes, You put up a shield.
In the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011 I was coming out in a couple of ways. I was coming out as trans, but I was also just coming out of the military. And living out, or “living” as some folks know it, is rather different than coming out. Coming out can be big and dramatic and emotional. Coming out is this thing, this door, this gate that you are driven to by the reality of your being, this inescapable event necessary to coming to a honest, whole existence in a world which often does not fully honor or value your existence.
Just living your life, well, you are the one who gets to figure out which of a wide variety of options suits you best.
I was lucky enough to testify before a committee of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in the summer of 2012 when the it was considering adding transgender nondiscrimination to the church’s canon law. During the discussion of full trans inclusion in the House of Bishops, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, the Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, claimed that the church was giving itself over to the “tyranny of personal preference,” the idea that, so long as it wasn’t hurting anyone, people were free to make their own choices. (This is a fellow who’s also attacked the “indiscriminate inclusivity” of the Episcopal Church. It’s almost like we worship a radical boundary crosser, a preacher of freedom who showed love for all no matter their station or origin. Wacky.)
I was thrilled by my denomination’s bold stance on trans inclusion and nondiscrimination, but still, Bishop Lawrence’s phrase has stuck with me:
“The tyranny of personal preference.”
A few months before the end of our tour in Iraq, a friend of mine reenlisted. The thing was, all he’d ever done was complain about the military, how deployments kept him away from his family. He reenlisted knowing he’d be headed for Afghanistan fairly soon after returning to from his current deployment. When I asked him why he had done it, he joked, “Well, it saves me time picking out cloths every morning.”
And, to a degree, that’s a reality. Limited options can be comforting. It can feel like freedom not having to put energy into making decisions.
If there’s no one right path to go down, you are forced into putting effort into discernment, into quietly, thoughtfully making the wisest decisions possible.
In the same way that once you leave the Army you leave your uniform, you realize that there is no uniform for life.
So how do we make our choices?
In my religious tradition we remember Jesus saying “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I think that loving God is inextricably bound up in loving others, in caring for the whole world and working to avoid doing harm.
I don't necessarily know what's right in every case, but I'm deeply thankful to have this life to figure it out.
Viv Taylor graduated from UNC, served as a chaplain’s assistant in Iraq and wrote about the experience as Sam Taylor for The Chapel Hill News from 2010-12. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org