I’ve spent the last months trying and failing to remember the name of a children’s book I read two decades ago while teaching at a preschool. At the end of the book a little boy mentions that in his next life he would like to be reincarnated as a girl. Gender wasn’t a theme in the book, and the comment wasn’t part of the book’s larger message. It was a simple side note, a child thinking, “I love being a boy in this life, and I bet I’d love being a girl in the next.”
I taught for five years and the children cherished the book, though they had varying reactions to the idea of returning as a different gender. No way! some of them would blush, falling over themselves with laughter. But most of the kids thought it would be pretty neat. They discussed it as if being a boy was pie, being a girl was cake. Each sweet. Just different ways to taste the world.
As I watch half the country rage about the rights of my beloved trans and nonbinary community, I can’t help but wonder what would be different about the gender conversation if more people contemplated the topic in relation to mortality.
Especially the folks who are staunchly insisting: “This is what your body is, so this is who you are.” The fact that this phrase is most commonly spoken by people who religiously believe this life is nothing compared to the eternal afterlife confuses me. “You are not your body, but while you are here on earth you better be absolutely defined by your body’s parts, or you’ll burn in an eternal firestorm in hell.” Yikes. Do these folks expect to bring their gender with them to the other side? If I paint my nails pink right now, will they still be pink when I walk through the pearly gates?
As a young child, before I’d heard anyone talk about such a thing, I thought of myself as a mix of a boy and a girl. Tomboy was how I described myself back then. Though it’s not a beloved phrase today, I liked it because it was the only word I had until 2004 when my girlfriend at the time asked me if I was genderqueer. I’d never heard the term, but hearing it I thought: Oh my goodness yes! I later wrote in a poem, “I explain my gender by saying I am happiest on the road, when I’m not here or there, but in between, the yellow line running down the center of it all like a sunbeam.” Why does it bother people so much that I’m a sunbeam? Why on earth does that stir so much rage in so many?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my relationship to my gender changed, but in ways that were so outwardly subtle I’m the only one who’s noticed. I’ve spent a large majority of this year actively getting to know the me who is eternal, the me who will survive my body. Because of this, where I once felt genderful, I now feel something closer to genderless, and it’s a wildly expansive feeling. Each time I’m present with it, I feel eternal, cherished, and held to the warm chest of infinity.
I value conversations about seeing people in their full humanity, but it recently hit me that to see someone in their full humanity isn’t actually seeing them in full. We are infinite beings having a brief human experience. That means we are having brief experiences with gender as well. In an ideal world, that brevity would be a catalyst for having fun with gender, celebrating the endless creative ways an individual might paint the canvas of who they are. In an ideal world, no one would ever think about tearing the brush out of someone else’s hand.
Years ago, I flew home to Maine when I got news that my grandmother was near the end of her life. I had recently come out of the closet and had just shaved my head. The sight of me was startling to almost everyone in my rural hometown, but my grandma saw me and smiled, saying only, ‘And-re-ah-ah,” adding a syllable to my name to make the love last longer.
Mortality turns 20/20 vision into infinity/infinity vision. The judgments we cling to now are not ones we cling to when things get real. And there’s nothing more real than our final hours––the windows of the heart thrown open to the truth that love is all there is.
It is loving to choose to see both ourselves and others through an infinite lens. It is loving to honor every individual’s right to paint the canvas of themselves in the brief time they are here. It is loving to ask who someone is, rather than telling them who you think they are. No matter how rigid our judgements are now, in the end—it will be so easy to let people be. Why not let people be, right now?
I'd love to hear about some of the beautiful ways you have been painting the canvas of YOU. Please share in the comments, and thank you so much for being here.
Andrea Sunbeam Gibson 🖤
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