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Whose Stories of Doubting and Questioning Do We Hear?

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Recently, I wrote about a friend who is doubting the god in which she had always believed. That got me thinking about a book I read early in my gender affirmation process: She’s Not There.

Jennifer Boylan’s account of growing up as a closeted (as nearly all of us were) transgender and her route to self-realization is skillfully written and therefore, mostly engaging. But there was something about it that I didn’t quite trust. I’m not just talking about the normal biases we all have in telling our own, or any other, stories. Rather, I realized, that she seemed not to realize that her transition, while not easy, was still smoother than most, aided by privilege she probably didn’t realize she had when she lived as James.

She grew up, if not affluent, then at least comfortably upper middle class. All of her education took place in secular private schools. And, by the time she wrote She’s Not There, she—as James—had become an acclaimed novelist and tenured professor in a liberal arts college where most students come from backgrounds like her own.

Now, to be fair, her level of privilege pales in comparison to what Bruce Jenner had before—and, to a great degree, has enjoyed since—becoming Caitlyn. She has become a kind of transgender Tucker Carlson and, thus, for much of the political right (excluding, of course, the highly religious and pure-and-simple haters), their idea of what a trans person “should be” or, worse, “really is.” Likewise, Ms. Boylan seems to have settled into a career as a transgender Maureen Dowd, presenting gender issues to her mostly educated center-left readers without challenging them to ask any really difficult questions about themselves.  So, for her audience, she has become the “representative” trans woman, just as Caitlyn Jenner has become for hers.

What I’ve come to realize, as a transgender woman from a working-class background, is whose stories are not only told, but paid attention to. Yes, as a white male who usually “passed” as heterosexual (I am bi but most of my relationships have been with women), I had a level of privilege not afforded to others.  But even within the white male milieu, I was, at best, in a lower-to-middle-rung, socially and economically, and my status has probably dropped since starting my “transition.”

A similar phenomenon, if not controls, then at least influences, the world of atheists, agnostics, questioners, and those who may believe but don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. Some have asked, on this blog and in other venues, why there seem to be so few atheists who aren’t white and well-educated. Now, I haven’t been able to find any surveys or other research that classified non-believers or non-religious people by race or socioeconomic class. But I would venture this guess: the stories we hear are mainly of those who dissected, if you will, the sacred texts and traditions of the churches or other religious institutions in which they grew up. 

Being able to deconstruct, if you will, those books and customs, means not only being intimately familiar with them, but also having the means—whether they are dialectical tools or simply the time—to do so.  For most, that means having a rigorous formal education, whether in those texts and traditions themselves, and in the analytical skills to take them apart, but also in the rhetorical modes to express them.

Most people who have such skills—and, again, the time (this can’t be overemphasized) to do so come from relatively privileged backgrounds. There are exceptions, of course, such as Bruce, but even though he didn’t attend some prestigious seminary or divinity school, nonetheless had enough of a background in the Bible—and, most important, has an inquiring mind—to ask, what, exactly, he had been preaching from the time he was fifteen until he was fifty. 

Everything I’ve just said, I suppose, relates to what Cicero said: Victor imperatus. The winner dictates or, as Churchill said, writes the histories. The “victors” I’ve described aren’t, of course, triumphant generals, but folks who are perhaps even more powerful: the ones who dominate the popular as well as the intellectual discourse. 

I have come to believe that what I’ve described—in the transgender as well as the non-theistic communities—is a reason why we really don’t know whether the “vast middle” of the United States, monolithically loves “God and Guns,” as Barack Obama famously said, or perhaps harbors more non-believers, doubters or questioners than we realize. While I don’t doubt that there is more religious fervor in folks who live outside of the coastal and Beltway “bubbles,” and I have to ask whether we have been blind to those—a minority, to be sure—who don’t express their questions or doubts openly, whether because of the ostracism they could face in their own communities, or simply because they know they can’t or won’t be heard. 

My friend is one of them. Although she lives in the same “blue” city as I do, and her upbringing was like mine, she didn’t have the opportunity or inclination to learn formal methods (which is to say, those that are recognized by the socio-intellectual establishment) of inquiry and came from a church and community that enforced a belief based on texts she was discouraged from reading. She has come to question, late in her life (assuming, of course, that she doesn’t break some record for longevity), beliefs she has long held. 

In brief, I think that while the source of her questions and doubts is different from some of ours, it is no less valid—and deserves to be heard, just as the experiences of a trans person of color who was kicked out of their home (or ran away from said home after continuous bullying) are as vital to understanding us, individually and as a community, as those of a white upper-middle class trans person who becomes a tenured professor—or a commentator on Fox News.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Some people also simply do not want to tell their story. They want to live a life as free from their past as possible. I know someone who does not refer to herself as a transwoman – indeed, she was unfairly outed at work by a vendor who knew her prior (we “fired” that vendor for outing her). I know another person going through transition now, and they talk about how happy they are becoming who they’re meant to be, but they don’t want to discuss anything else about their situation. They shouldn’t have to if they don’t want to.

    Those of us who have deconstructed or are going through the process are all in different situations. Fortunately, I had the education, curiosity, and access to a library which helped me! Several months ago, I met a well-off family from Iran who are atheists, but they can’t be open about that in their country (even to certain family members) – they were THRILLED to meet US atheists and compare notes! And when I visited UAE Several months ago, we saw many people who have limited resources or ability to escape religion – or to be open about being LGBTQ. Some of us have tremendous privilege – others do not.

    Who can wrote a book, or be a guest on a podcast, or write or be a source in an article? Not everyone! MJ is right , there are thousands of stories we will never hear. It’s nice that Bruce shares his stories and allows us to share here.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Obstacle—It’s true that not all trans people or non-believers want to be known as such, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t tell everyone about my gender identity or non-belief. And I don’t think anyone should be forced to share his or story. It is important, however, to know that not everyone’s stories fit into the narratives crafted by those with the means (whether materially or in terms of time or temperament) to tell theirs. What I could, perhaps, have made clearer is that knowing such “non-standard” narratives exist, if not the names of those who live them.

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Bruce Gerencser