KATHY: I'm gonna tell you about my grandfather, my father's father.
KATHY: I didn't know him that well because he was fairly old when I became a sentient being.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Okay.
KATHY: By the time he retired he was a general in the Army, but this is back when he was a soldier. And he was with his horse, they were assigned horses, and he got lost in a snowstorm. And it got so bad and so dire that he had to kill his horse and live off his horse and basically like hide in the carcass of the horse.
TOBIN: Wait. Wait w-w-w-w-w-wait.
TOBIN: This is the story line to Empire Strikes Back. You do realize?
KATHY: So I learned about Empire Strikes Back way later in life.
KATHY: By that I mean like a few years.
KATHY: And I thought to myself, "Man, that story definitely came from my grandfather. They stole something from him."
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Somebody's grandfather out there is a professor of archaeology who's really good with a whip and who's devastatingly handsome, and they're like "God damn it, George Lucas. You just take and you take and you take."
[THEME MUSIC IN]
VOX 1: From NYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSC ENDS]
TOBIN: So there's this thing that drives me a little crazy about my family sometimes.
KATHY: Okay, what is it?
TOBIN: It's that I feel trapped by love?
TOBIN: I'm serious! Hear me out.
KATHY: Okay, okay.
TOBIN: So there's this big part of my extended family that is very religious and we totally disagree, largely because, you know, they see being gay as a sin. And I do not for obvious reasons.
TOBIN: And like if I were dealing with any other people I would just walk away, ya know? Like I would never speak to them again.
TOBIN: But because they're family and I love them, the love for them forces me to try and engage.
TOBIN: And I think this is a thing that a lot of queer folks have, this weird dynamic with family where they're trying to bring together all these contradictions to understand each other and that can sometimes be really difficult.
LEWIS: Because I’m a transsexual, people often ask me: is your family cool with it?
TOBIN: Figuring out how you navigate all those contradictions is something Lewis Wallace thinks about all the time. He's a radio producer and magazine editor in North Carolina, and he's also trans.
LEWIS: I think they’re expecting a yes or no answer, because these things are seen as a binary. It's either you're transphobic or NOT, you're homophobic or NOT. But I think the reality is, it’s often not that simple. Take for example...my grandmother.
SARAH: I’m Sarah Graydon McCrory and we’re in my cottage, at Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community in South Carolina.
TOBIN: You gotta love that specificity.
[TOBIN & KATHY LAUGH]
LEWIS: Yes very Southern. You give your full name when you introduce yourself to my grandmother, Sarah. She's 96. We’ve never really called her Grandma. Everyone in my family just calls her Sarah.
[LIGHT PERCUSSIVE MUSIC IN]
LEWIS: Sarah's happy place, her joy in life is college basketball. Her team of course is The University of South Carolina Gamecocks. She hasn’t missed a mens’ or a womens' home game for years. She's been going to the mens' since 1948.
KATHY: That's amazing!
TOBIN: So many games! [ALL LAUGH]
KATHY: And, will you describe her to us, what does Sarah look like?
LEWIS: She’s about 5 feet tall. She has this long white hair that’s always up in a perfect bun. And she has kinda these eagle eyes, blue like mine, and she just LOOKS at you. So she can be a little bit intimidating.
LEWIS: Here’s a story that's very typical Sarah McCrory. She lives in this Episcopal nursing home where almost all the other residents are quite conservative.
SARAH: One day at lunch a lady started giving the Republican story about welfare.
LEWIS: That means they were calling low-income people lazy.
SARAH: It made me so mad I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Would you please shut up!” because what she was saying is all wrong. [CHUCKLES] And the man across the table from me said, "If I had a knife I’d stab you and kill you right now, Sarah McCrory. You shut up"! [LAUGHS] That’s the worst confrontation I’ve had.
LEWIS: And this is here in Still Hopes?
SARAH: Oh yeah, absolutely.
TOBIN: She's not messing around.
LEWIS: Yeah she's pretty tough and she tends to kind of just push limits. As somebody else who tends to push limits, I really look up to her. But Sarah will say herself that she’s also deeply conflicted. She can obviously be super progressive as you hear, but she can also be really old-fashioned. One of the things she struggles with a lot...is me.
LEWIS: To understand my grandmother Sarah, it helps to understand the world she grew up in. She was born in 1922, in Columbia, South Carolina. She was a debutante, naturally. She married an Air Force guy, my Grandpa Mac. And during the war, she went to law school. She was the only woman in her class.
SARAH: Well, I grew up, and my mother and father and all my family trained me that a woman could do anything that a man could do, and I really thought when I was young that I could be governor of South Carolina or even President of the United States. [LAUGHS] I really did, wasn’t that arrogant? But I did. But I didn’t come across any prejudice against females, girls and women, until after World War II. And then it was huge and women were not supposed to do anything. They were supposed to stay in the kitchen and stuff like that, you know?
LEWIS: And then, was it a big change for you and you know, people came back and you got married, how different was that life for you?
SARAH: Well I slid backwards from being a potential lawyer and working in a law office, I became the typical mother. I had five children and raised them and I loved what I was doing but it was different. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, you know?
LEWIS: Like most upper-middle-class white people Columbia, South Carolina, Sarah grew up in a house full of Black servants. She says she didn’t even know some of their names.
SARAH: That’s just the way it was, Blacks were truly just invisible.
LEWIS: She says actually the first time she interacted with a Black person who wasn’t a servant was in a college dorm and she was afraid to use the same shower. Which is a pretty painful story to hear, it feels shameful. But, over time, something changed for Sarah. That started in 1963.
[TV SWITCHES ON]
SARAH: Bull Connor came on the TV and started shooting down Black children with a hose and putting dogs on em and all.
[TV CHANNEL SWITCHES]
[CLIP] BULL CONNOR: You’ve got to keep the white and the Black separate!
[TV CHANNEL SWITCHES]
[PROTEST NOISES, WOMAN SCREAMING]
LEWIS: That's when Black people stopped being invisible to Sarah. She got really into Civil Rights. [PROTEST NOISES FADE] She created a free child care program for Black kids in Columbia. She was on a national committee for anti-racism in the Episcopal Church. And because public spaces were still segregated, she joined this secret dining club for Black and white residents in Columbia. Sarah’s also been a big supporter of gay marriage in her church, which is a huge deal, because it’s an issue that’s literally split the Episcopal Church in half.
LEWIS: And all that has always made me feel connected to her. Sarah grew up in the racist Deep South, but she saw that what she'd been taught was wrong and then she took steps over time to try to change it. I’ve always had that same drive. I circulated my first petition at age 10. When I was 14, I got kicked out of high school for organizing a protest with other queer kids. So I relate to Sarah’s outsiderness. She’s always struck me as being OF the place she was born and raised, but also APART from it. And so to me, there’s a sort of queerness to her life experience, even if she wouldn’t call it that.
LEWIS: And the thing is, she really would not call it that. A few years ago she was at this national convention for her church, and some friends took her out...
SARAH: They took me to this…gay bar. And I didn’t know what was going on and I said, "There sure are a lot of men here." And they just died laughing they were so tickled that I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. [CHUCKLES]
LEWIS: And what'd you think of it?
SARAH: Horrified. I was horrified.
LEWIS: Horrified by being surrounded by gay people.
SARAH: I’m sorry to reveal this awful side of me, but I’m still horrified.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
LEWIS: And this is the thing that I'm struggling to understand about Sarah. For all the ways that she tries to be accepting, she's still pretty bigoted. She fought for civil rights, but...
SARAH: I still find myself looking askance when I see a Black and white couple.
LEWIS: She supports the idea of queer and trans people, but...
SARAH: Well, it’s like you and transgender. I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s just a turmoil inside me all the time.
LEWIS: "Me and transgender" isn’t something we’ve talked about much. There was this one time, when I showed up to visit her, I had these new tattoos of ravens on my arm. And literally the first thing she said was, "I hate your tattoos, almost as much as I hate you being a boy."
SARAH: Homosexual was not a word when I was growing up, we didn’t know that word, there was no such word. We giggled about people who were queer and what that meant was they acted prissy and acted kinda silly, you know. But I didn’t know anything about homosexuality at all until after I was long married. And as for transgender I never even heard of it.
LEWIS: How do you live with like, how do you hold believing one thing politically but then having a feeling like that inside yourself?
SARAH: It’s terrible. I don’t like it one bit. I wish I could get rid of all those old timey feelings but I can’t.
LEWIS: But Sarah's always surprising me. We went to a basketball game together recently and she kept proudly introducing me to everyone. “This is my grandson Lewis Wallace!” And people were like “He’s so pretty, too pretty to be a boy!” There's some definite gender confusion. But Sarah was, as usual, completely impervious to anyone’s judgement.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
LEWIS: I mean, I just think a lot of people, if they are uncomfortable with something like that, they just don’t…they’re just against it, you know? Politically. And it seems like you’ve taken a stance that your church should be accepting and gay people should be able to get married. Why?
SARAH: I don’t know, I just know that the God that I worship accepts everybody, as they are, not as he wishes they would be but as they are. I’m certain of that. And that’s the way I wanna be too, although I’m not certain of that.
LEWIS: In her apartment at the nursing home next to her chair, Sarah has this poster. It’s a photo of a Black woman with natural hair, and then some text underneath.
SARAH: We commit to the task of reconciling race one day at a time, because we follow the one who rightly orders love, who holds all things together and who promises authentic reconciliation that God alone can accomplish. I just thought that was...that’s one of the things I’m primarily interested in, is justice.
LEWIS: But for Sarah, living her beliefs means living in contradiction. She hates that I’m a boy, but she tries to accept me. Even in a single conversation, you can hear her shifting back and forth.
SARAH: Well tell me about you, I hear you have a new...partner, shall we say?
LEWIS: Yeah, they’re named Cole. And they use they pronouns, um, as a way to be gender neutral. It’s a gender neutral pronoun. So they just go by they. They live in Boston. They do work that I think you'd be interested in... [VOICE FADES OUT]
LEWIS: So as I’m talking, Sarah’s face is totally frozen. Those eagle eyes looking at me but just no reaction. So I keep going about Cole, about what they do for work, and that their granddad was an Episcopal priest. And Sarah is just totally silent.
LEWIS: I know you don’t want to talk about this, but what bothers you about it?
SARAH: Well, I think it’s unnatural. I don’t think it’s the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t know. [SIPS TEA] I don’t know. But surely God knew what she was doing when...I don't know.
SARAH: [TAKES A DEEP BREATH] This is kinda painful talking about all this stuff.
LEWIS: How come?
SARAH: I don’t know! I don’t like to think about it. [LAUGHS]
LEWIS: But then, if you felt that way, what made you decide so early on to support racial equality and gender equality and stuff?
SARAH: I knew it was right. I knew that it was right. And I know that it is right for you to be who you are.
[IN THE BACKGROUND, A DOOR OPENS]
SARAH: Hey Raven, come in!
LEWIS: At this point, my mom and aunt come by, and I think Sarah is relieved. But she’s also eager to tell them about our conversation.
SARAH: On some of the issues I’ve moved forward. What now, what were they? Racism, feminism, a little bit on sexuality, I’m accepting gays and lesbians now. But I haven’t gotten there, I do not accept transgender.
RAVEN: You don’t accept it or you don’t understand it?
RAVEN: Okay. You accept Lewis!
SARAH: I know it, I love Lewis. But I wish she wasn’t transgender. He. It. They. [LAUGHS]
ALICE: They! You know the they word.
SARAH: Yeah! I know the they word!
LEWIS: Well I taught her about they. I don’t know if you were picking it up. But...
SARAH: I picked it up. I picked it up.
LEWIS: You just didn’t say anything. [CHUCKLES NERVOUSLY]
SARAH: No. [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC FADES IN]
LEWIS: Recently, Sarah’s been in the hospital. At one point, she was on really strong painkillers and my mom said she was hallucinating and talking in her sleep. She kept saying, "I’m preachin, I’m preachin." When she woke up, she said she’d had powerful visions. But she couldn’t remember much.
SARAH: One thing that it illustrated to me was, we do not have adequate language to cover everything we need to say or do or talk about.
LEWIS: A lot of Christians believe that flesh separates us from God. Living in a body, means you are living a contradiction, living with sin or the risk of sin. And of course, a lot of that has been used against people like me. But I wonder about it. I wonder sometimes if feeling conflicted, in battle with ourselves, is just a part of being alive, being stuck in a body. And Sarah’s right, there are no words for some of those things that we need to say or do, for the distance between the world we’re in and the world we believe in. Everything is about striving. I look at Sarah in that hospital bed. She has her hair down, she looks beautiful, witchy. And I wonder if she’s getting closer to being free of it all.
KATHY: That's Lewis Wallace and his grandmother, Sarah McCrory. Nancy will be back in a minute.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
[THEME MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Kathy, can I nerd out about something for a second?
TOBIN: I love it when queer people take something and just like claim it as their own.
KATHY: A hundred percent.
TOBIN: So, stick with me here. Picture it: 1700s New England. [CHUCKLES]
KATHY: Oh my god, where is this going?
TOBIN: So back then there was this style of singing called Sacred Harp and it's really cool because it's written in this way that even if you didn't have musical training, you could read it and sing and be part of church services.
KATHY: And how do queer people come in here?
TOBIN: So flash forward to today. Sacred Harp's still a thing.
TOBIN: And there's a group in Providence, Rhode Island and you know they've got their sort of run of the mill sweater vest-wearing middle-aged singers. But they also have this contingent of like younger queer punky singers who've totally made a home in this group. And one of them is this singer named Anne, who identifies as trans-feminine. And they use Sacred Harp singing to explore this connection between their voice and their gender identity.
ANNE: When you're walking up to a building where people are singing Sacred Harp, it's almost always distinctly audible from the parking lot or down the street.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC STARTS]
ANNE: And I just love that moment where the door swings open and all of the sudden everything is so much louder.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC CRESCENDOS]
ANNE: At a Sacred Harp singing, the singers are arranged in what’s called a hollow square. The music is all written in four part harmony so the rows for the parts all sit facing one another. Traditionally, the bass section is all male-assigned people and the alto section is all female-assigned. As a trans person, I’ve been singing bass for all of these years and it's definitely where my voice sits and it’s a great part and I love it, but it's been feeling more and more strange spending all my time in a section that’s all men, which I'm not.
[SACRED HARP SONG ENDS]
ANNE: So this is page 229, it's called Irwinton. At this point here, the trebles and basses are both singing a Fa which is a triangle, altos are singing a La, and the tenors are on a Sol. And those four pitches together are what makes the chord.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC STARTS]
ANNE: The bass and alto parts share a corner of the square and for a long time that corner had been my favorite place to sit just because I love listening to the alto part. And I realized at a certain point that sitting at that corner made it really easy to cheat a little bit and angle my head a little more to the left so as not to distract the basses sitting next to me, but to test the limits of what I could do.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC CONTINUES]
ANNE: I've never been good at practicing in solitude. Even when no one's there I just have this feeling that someone's listening and judging. And that’s why learning to sing this music and learning to sing in a large group of people, all of whom were very loud, changed everything for me.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC ENDS]
ANNE: To sing alto I absolutely have to sing from my chest instead of from my throat. And it's very dependent on how my voice is doing on a certain day, how hydrated I am, whether I'm going to be able to sound good as an alto. It's also kind of a conundrum because the only way that I can get the high notes to sound is when I sing at the top of my lugs. But when it sounds bad, I sound bad at the top of my lungs. Sometimes I just can't work up the nerve to squawk loudly. And if I can't be brave enough to push hard in the way my voice needs me to, then it's just disheartening.
[CONDUCTOR SPEAKING INDISTINCTLY]
PERSON: Uh 229?
[SACRED HARP MUSIC STARTS]
ANNE: Like, I guess, not to stretch the metaphor but even the way that it's vocally exhausting to sing alto feels very true to that experience, because it's exhausting getting dressed in the morning and thinking what are the people on the street going to see when I walk by today?
[SACRED HARP MUSIC CONTINUES]
ANNE: But when I can sing like an alto, it feels like divisions of gender just vanish and I'm not imitating the altos, I'm not a parody of an alto, I'm just one of many people who are singing alto together.
[SACRED HARP MUSIC CRESCENDOS, THEN FADES OUT]
TOBIN: This story came to us from radio producer Liza Yeager.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: Alright, credits time.
TOBIN: You can find us all the places: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. We're @NancyPodcast.
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
KATHY: Sound designer...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Elisabeth Dee!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I'm Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Uh...here we go, here we go, here we go.
TOBIN: Magic. One take.
TOBIN: One. Take.
KATHY: Why do you have to say that?
TOBIN: It's like a challenge to myself.
TOBIN: It's like, I might not do something for my own approval but I'll damn well do it for competition.
KATHY: Just when I have you figured out, you throw a curveball.