Kevin Devine's Bubblegum was one of my favorite albums of fall 2013. It's the dashboard-drumming kind of catchy with lyrics that perfectly balance poignancy and bite. At a show a few weeks after the album's release, Devine started the opening notes of the song "Private First Class" with a correction. Private Manning, the subject of the song, had just asked to be referred to as Chelsea Manning and with feminine pronouns. Accordingly, Devine replaces every "he" with "she" and "his" with "her" when he performs the song live.The crowd stumbled a bit with the lyrical change at first, but now I can't sing the song without enunciating the feminine pronouns and being conscious of their weight.
I was fortunate enough to see Devine again a few weeks ago, and he still upheld Manning's wishes. Nobody bristled at the pronoun switch this time. Fewer people were singing along, but it was because of the venue change--the crowd had packed the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, and there's something about pews that hushes people. I happen to have grown up in a very open-minded Unitarian congregation, but my mixed-religious family background has made me plenty familiar with the feeling of being out of place in churches and temples. I can't speak for their experience, but I've also watched several friends struggle to choose between religion and identity--either leaving or being cast out of a congregation after coming out, or keeping their LGBTQ identity hidden so as to keep ties with a church.
Maybe we find ourselves at odd with these places because bodies and churches often get treated the same way - as temples of worship that we don't always feel are under our own control. We know how they're supposed to work because we've been told stories since we were little, but neither ever quite fits those imaginary ideals. And people change them. Any place of worship goes through shifts as new generations outgrow Sunday school or other equivalents, or when a new leader preaches a different interpretation of the message you've always been told. And we change and grow and get hurt by the people we come in contact with, too, especially those we care about and feel tied to. Faith and lust and fear and hope can all send our pulses racing, and they all become much more difficult to navigate than books of rules and words of hymns always told us.
That night, in that church, we were packed into pews with a diverse array of people--gay, straight, people alone, people with friends, people with tattoos, people with whiskey in paper sacks, people with crosses and stars and amulets around their neck in a nod to something more. But everyone was there for the same reason: the music. We all had that in common, and it was music that allowed us to talk about respecting a transgender woman we had never met in a church that most of us didn't belong to. The sound was full and loud as it rose through the rafters and reverberated in our chests. There were no programs or hymnals or prayer books, but we felt our way through the lyrics by heart.