Well, he’s a Mennonite, she said.
I nodded like an asshole for a bit then I said wait, okay, so what does that really mean?
Zeke snickered – not like, tittered or giggled, she snickered, loudly, and it was weird – and she said oh boy, it means a lot of things…(from Not Bleak p. 140)
The stories in Casey Plett’s, A Safe Girl to Love (Topside, 2014) are not primarily about what it means to be a Mennonite. The stories are portraits of young trans women and only two of them are Mennonite. They’re not even very Mennonite. They’re outsiders of a sort — the first story’s protagonist having been a “Christmas and Easter” Church attendee, the second story told by a non-Mennonite who befriends and accompanies a young formerly Mennonite trans woman on her visit to her Mennonite grandfather in Manitoba.
I couldn’t tell, on reading these stories, which particular faction of the Mennonite Church Plett had experience with. I hate that because, you know, I like to know these things. I knew from her name and bio that she was Mennonite by lineage and from Manitoba. Beyond that, the stories offered little to go on. There were no accounts of the mode of baptism used or the practice of Church discipline to offer up hints to the canny Mennonite who knows their Sommerfelder from their Bergthaler Mennonites. And, despite our variation in terms of LGBTQ intolerance/tolerance/acceptance/full caring inclusion in the Church, her portrayal of the Mennonites who interacted with the young trans women in the stories could really have been descriptions of Mennonites in even the most liberal of Churches.
Though I like to engage directly with the text, in this case, because I was stumped, I resorted to tweeting Casey and simply asking. Turns out she’s half Mennonite Brethren and half Evangelical Mennonite Conference. The latter is the one that was formerly known as the Kleine Gemeinde and, as that is so much more fun to say, I generally insist on continuing to call it this. The former is that branch of the Church that split from the others in Russia over the fun being had at the sausage parties. These are both on the more evangelical and socially conservative end of the Mennonite spectrum.
But, like I said, it doesn’t really matter. The Mennos portrayed in A Safe Girl to Love share a lot with all of us.
The first story of the collection, Other Women, features a young trans woman named Sophie returning home for Christmas, visiting her Mennonite grandparents and extended family as per Christmas tradition and attending a Church service. It’s not the focus of the story; the whole Mennonites-at-Christmas scene takes up only 7 of the 32 pages in the story.
But all seven pages were polite. Really, really polite. When the disapproving Mennonite relatives refused to share Christmas with Sophie, they made up a polite excuse. When Sophie’s twelve-year old cousin asked a veiled question about her sex life, he did so politely. Even Sophie herself politely apologized to her grandfather for correcting him when he used her old, male, name while speaking the prayer.
We are nothing if not polite.
We have a certain willful blindness to diversity
The Mennonites in the other short story to feature them, Not Bleak, are also polite. In this story, the narrator is Carla, a trans woman who describes herself as looking “like a fat dude with tits.” She meets another trans woman, Zeke, who was raised as a Mennonite boy in Morden, Manitoba. Zeke asks and Carla agrees to pose as Zeke’s girlfriend on a return visit to Zeke’s grandfather. Zeke will pose as the boy he once was.
There, politeness blends in with a willful blindness to diversity. Carla is astonished that Zeke’s grandfather and this grandfather’s cousin accept her as Zeke’s girlfriend without question, that she “passes” as a woman. Zeke explains his Mennonite elders’ reaction by stating that “they don’t even know it’s possible” and elaborates later by saying “if I say you’re my girlfriend, to them you’re a cis girl full stop, and they’ll just think oh, Ezekiel has a weird-looking girlfriend.”
Knowing Mennos as I do, I also have no difficulty in believing the reaction of the two older men. I don’t hate them for it. It isn’t stupidity or even narrow-mindedness. It’s a lifelong habit of taking people at face value. Zeke presented as a boy and so his elders took her as such; Carla presented as a girl and they accepted her as that. It would have been both impolite and disrespectful for them to have thought otherwise.
It’s a problem, of course – this blindness to diversity – even if it comes from a place of integrity. And not just because it makes us the perfect marks for con artists.
We don’t expect others to live like us
I loved the Mennonite characters in this story – both Zeke and her grandfather. Zeke is by far the most complicated Mennonite literary character I have read (I can’t even begin to decipher the meaning of her being a namesake of an Old Testament prophet) and the grandfather embodies two of our better qualities as a people – trust, and an ability to restrain from judging others.
We don’t see the grandfather’s non-judgemental attitude coming out in an openness to gender diversity (he’s not given that chance). Instead, we see it in his approach to consumerism and technology. Austere in his own habits, Zeke explains that the old man would not have cared about Carla’s cellphone or i-vibes and the conversation almost becomes theological.
I’m never sure what to make of it, Zeke said thoughtfully. On the one hand, it’s great you’re not gumming up others with your bullshit. That’s good. On the other hand, if you really believe this certain thing is a sin, isn’t it almost selfish to to think God would be concerned with your soul but nobody else’s?
I dunno, I said. Sorry, I’ve only been to Church like ten time in my whole life.
Me, I don’t see it like that. It’s true that there has long been a tension between separatism and evangelism in the Mennonite Church and this question may be at the heart of it. Among the less evangelical branches, this grandfather’s apparent unconcern about others’ sins is not selfishness but humility, an awareness that he cannot know that his understanding of sin is generalizable beyond himself. It’s a recognition that one person’s (or even one people’s) spiritual path is not like another’s and coffee pots and watches are only sins for some of us.
There might be a moral ambiguity about all that — this story is rife with moral ambiguity — but I also think it is a beautiful thing. It is not easy to refrain from judging others and only the best among us achieve it. I don’t think it is coincidental that it is an old man who embodies this trait. This too, is a skill that requires practice. Perhaps it is utopian of me but as I read this story I felt that this man, of all the Mennonites in Zeke’s family, would have accepted and loved her as she was.
Yup. Maybe I’m a dreamer.
But I’m not the only one. In some parts of the Mennoverse, there is a utopian vision that imagines the Church as a place where young LGBTQ people can find support in a caring community that seeks to walk with them rather than change them, that listens without judging and that comforts when times are tough.
It’s a vision that’s not shared by all. And even where it is shared, I don’t know of it ever totally being realized. I don’t often hear voices among the LGBTQ members of the Church appreciating the unconditional support they received when they needed it most, even from those who wax eloquent about what they love about being part of the Mennoworld now. Well, I’ve actually heard one. Which isn’t much, but maybe one voice calling out in the wilderness is as prophetic as a pretty trans girl named Ezekiel.
Let’s toast that with a new cocktail inspired by Not Bleak.
A Safe Cocktail to Love
Carla, the narrator of Not Bleak, has a preference for Advocaat, a dutch liqueur often associated with Christmas. It’s a custardy beverage – a concoction of egg yolk and brandy. Despite a certain egg-nogginess to this, it is also true that custard pairs remarkably well with berries which are more in keeping with this time of the year.
This is a simple cocktail to make. It’s a bit of a rip-off of a Jack Torrance but with a Manitoba twist and strawberries. If you don’t have a well-stocked liquor store nearby or are feeling particularly Mennonite, feel free to make your own Advocaat.
I’m not usually a stickler for which kind of rye whiskey you use but in this case, I’m calling for a Manitoba-made rye to represent Zeke, her grandfather and all the lands around there that really are not bleak at all.
- 2 oz Advocaat
- 1 oz Northern Harvest rye whiskey
Measure the advocaat and rye into a shaker half full of ice. Shake well and strain into a small cocktail glass. Garnish with a strawberry.