At a meeting of the Worship Associates last month, Dennis Adams said something that caught my attention. You’ve seen Dennis around the church. In addition to being a worship associate, he sometimes dresses up as Poindexter the Clown, and always carries a supply of balloons that he can inflate and twist into toy animals on the spot, in the likely event that children gather around him. He is accompanied by his dog, Nugget. During a discussion about “community,” Dennis said: “When I come into any group, I always assume that I’m the outlier.”
This struck me because I realized that like a lot of people, I strive to be an “inlier”—to look and act pretty much like the group norm. I wondered what it must feel like to assume you are always the outlier—the one who’s different.
Dennis’ words came back to me when I was at the UU General Assembly in New Orleans in June. It was a huge gathering—more than 4,000 people. I realized that a lot of people looked like me—older white people with sensible clothes and shoes. You could almost pick us out in the crowded sidewalks around the convention center. But there were far greater numbers of others—people wearing wild and creative clothing, signs, hairdos, hats, buttons. And there were a lot of young people, people of color, people celebrating variations of their UU faith, including UU pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.
And perhaps most of all, I saw many UUs who have left behind the strict classifications of Male and Female. Some dispense with pronouns such as he and she, if they don’t seem to fit. At present, our language can only approximate the terms needed by these folks for self-identification, but in the meantime, they make do with “them” and “their” rather than “his” and “her.”
Being in community with these people make me remember—with some
—a young man who was a worship associate in this congregation in 1979. I had just met him and we were sitting on this chancel together when he asked me to switch chairs with him because the upholstered one didn’t allow his feet to touch the floor. But it wasn’t until he gave his first reflection that we realized his short stature was the least of the hurdles he dealt with on a daily basis. He told us that he had been born and raised as a girl and that his family was strongly resistant to his transition to being a man.
Shortly after that, in an unspeakable tragedy, this young man was killed by a drunk driver going in the wrong direction on the freeway. The newspaper version of the crash only revealed that a young woman with an unfamiliar first name was killed in an accident. To the police, to the emergency personnel, and to the family, this man still carried the female identity he was born with.
He had been scheduled to give a reflection at this lectern on the Sunday after he died, and had already submitted the text to the co-senior minister at the time, John Marsh. So, after extinguishing a candle and informing us about the young man’s death, John read the reflection himself. It thanked our congregation—especially the gay community within it—for according him dignity and friendship in his transition to a new life. He was so excited about his future. Hearing his words was almost unbearably sad. Soon thereafter, the congregation held a memorial service in which we used his chosen first name and his preferred pronouns—he and him.
If he had lived long enough, he might have been relieved and thrilled to attend this year’s UU gathering in New Orleans, where indeed the outliers of all stripes outnumbered the inliers. And the celebration and joy were all around.