Room to breathe and ask my own questions with finn schneider

Welcome to our LGBT podcast and in our new episode we’re talking with dr. finn schneider (they/them) about Bless Me, Ultima. It is a coming-of-age novel by Rudolfo Anaya. For finn it saved their life three (!) different times and we’ll talk all about them, especially as the novel created a space to explore their spirituality in a new and meaningful way.  As finn told us, “It created some room metaphorically for me to breathe into this my own questions around spirituality.”

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J.P.: On today’s episode…

finn: I think the second time it saved my life, it created some room metaphorically for me to breathe into my own questions around spirituality.

J.P.: I’m talking with Dr. finn schneider about Bless Me, Ultima. It is a coming of age novel by Rudolfo Anaya. For finn, it saved their life three different times and we’ll talk about them, especially as the novel created that space to explore their spirituality in a new and meaningful way. And we’re going to jump right into the conversation. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

J.P.: So easy question. Well actually for some folks, not so easy. What was your favorite book growing up?

finn: That’s actually hard for me because I had a lot of favorite books. The one book that comes to mind that I think I read at least nine times as a child was Hatchet by Gary Paulson which is the story of a young man who’s plane crashes in the wilderness. He has to figure out how to survive on his own.

J.P.: I think I remember that book. I think I’ve read that book. Oh I haven’t heard that one in a while. I love that. I’m gonna have to go look it up again. I love going back and reading the books that I read as a kid. So Hatchet I’m gonna write that down.

finn: I was also a big fan of James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. That was probably a close second.

J.P.: That was my jam. I loved that book. We did a staged reading not like a full-on play of James and the Giant Peach. I really wanted to be James. We did a staged reading and it was really fun. Did you grow up in a reading household?

finn: I did. My parents were teachers and so from a pretty early age, there was a lot of reading. One of my favorite memories as a kid is my mom would take my older sister out to the library and we would just sit on the floor and she would read to us from the Bobbsey Twins which was a very white normative story of these twin girls. The memories of engaging with those books together with my mom and my sister was really special. That same sister and I, in the summer, one of the games we would play was library so we would take all of our books and create little card catalogs for them. This was back in the day when there were actual card catalogs and we would have little stamps and we would practice checking books out for fun. So yes, I definitely came from a reading family.

J.P.: I love that! These days, what books are you into reading?

finn: Oh that is such a good question! A year ago I finished my PHD and so I spent 5 years reading a lot of nonfiction. I spent a lot of time just deeply immersed in lots of theory; lots of research articles; lots of really dense reading related to race and whiteness in particular. That’s what I was looking at for my dissertation topic was white educators’ efforts at anti-racism and so now that I’m done with that schooling era of my life, I’m really enjoying fiction.

I had a phase where I would only read Octavia Butler. Last summer I did a lot of reading of her work which was fun for me because I had not read her work before or other Queer authors who write in the fiction, fantasy genre. More recently, I’ve gotten into reading Nonfiction, lots of Theological texts, which has been really a kind of a new experience and exploration for me. I’m increasingly interested in philosophy and in particular, Theological sorts of texts.

J.P.: The reason I asked the question is during Covid, I totally got into comic books and I was like craving Wican and Hulkling which is one of the most predominant Gay relationship in Marvel and you’re tackling theological, philosophical texts! I’m curious. How did you move from Octavia to that genre?

finn: I think after I was liberated of being done with school and having to read in a particular genre or particular topic area, I had the opportunity to ask myself what I was really interested in. It was at a time in my life when I was re-exploring questions of faith and spirituality and in some relationships with people who have been a part of my life for a long time but kind of reconnecting around questions of faith and spirituality. In particular one of those people is my friend Kathy. She’s an 84 year old catholic nun. We meet every other Saturday for coffee. She was actually a professor of mine as an undergraduate student at the College of St. Scholastica. Of course, she’s retired now. I started asking her a lot of questions about faith and spirituality and her experience being a nun since she was nineteen years old. It kind of quickly turned to questions of Theology. She actually invited me to read books with her and discuss That’s what we’re doing every two weeks when we get together. We’re just talking about theology and reading Theological texts.

J.P.: I love that. How great to have that circle also to come back around to your undergrad. What are your reading habits? Do you read on a Kindle? Does it need to be a book in your hand? Do you read before bed or first thing in the morning?.

finn: I love this question because for me, it really is ritualistic. Call me a Luddite but I just cannot get down with reading digitally. I’ve tried and I really need a book in my hands. Part of that is that I really like to write in text. I know for some people that’s a huge, no-no, but for me, there’s something so exciting about engaging with the text in that way. In fact, one of my dream book clubs is actually an asynchronous book club where there’s just one physical copy of the text and one person reads it and notates it and then passes it along to the next person and then they read it and then they respond to the one person’s notations. Then it just keeps going and then eventually it comes back to the person who read it and they get to see how everyone else engaged with their engagement with the text. That’s one of my long-term dreams. I really prefer to read actual books. Obviously if it’s a library book, then I’m not notating it. I do have a tendency to read books of my own that I love over and over and over again. I like to be able to remember where I was or what I was thinking about the last time I had read that text. It tends to be true for me even if I fall asleep. I try to read at night as I’m getting ready to go to sleep. Oftentimes, I won’t make it very far because I fall asleep quickly. Now that I’m done being a Doctoral student, I have more time to leisure read. I read all kinds of times throughout the day. I really like to read outside in the summer if I can. I also am someone who needs to be very quiet when I read. I’ve always been envious of people who can go to a coffee shop or something like that and read because I just have a really hard time focusing if there is background noise. It tends to be something I do like when I’m in a quiet, introspective sort of space.

J.P.: Love that. I really love this book club idea. I want to put a call out to the world and be like how do we make that book club happen? I’m trying to think of the size of the book that we would need! That is a really compelling idea. That needs to happen. I would be a part of that book club.

finn: Well maybe we only need two people to really have a club so there you go. Are you someone who is willing to write in the text because that’s the important question.

J.P.: That’s true. In school, yes I was a margin writer. Weirdly though if I bought a used book and someone had done that, I curse them mainly because then I couldn’t do it myself and I also didn’t like feeling like, no, you got the wrong thing. I don’t think this paragraph means what you think it means!

finn: Or if it was a textbook for school my class was laughing their ass off because I was the person who highlighted the entire page! That may have defeated the purpose perhaps, but….

J.P.: If it’s a book that I can tell in the first 20 pages that I’m like no, no because I’m a lot like you, I want to reread books. I can tell this is one I’m gonna reread a lot. But if it was part of a. Book Club, that would be interesting to see what someone else pulled out of it and how I would respond to that. I think that’s a very compelling idea to do it that way. Also sometimes in book clubs, you just want to listen. You kind of feel like you have to be compelled to say something profound or whatever and I’m thinking this way I could just chill, read, respond.

finn: I feel like it’s an introvert’s dream for a book club basically.

J.P.: It really is. So you’re done with it. Congratulations with your Doctorate and your current job is at the University of Minnesota?

finn: .I’m currently the interim Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life which is our LGBT resource center. However, that’s only true for six more days. As of June 1, I’ll be starting a new role, still at the University Of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus. I’ll be the Director of the Student Conflict Resolution Center which is our Ombuds office. So a big change ahead for me. I am really excited. I have done conflict resolution work in the past. I actually worked in that office as a graduate student part time.

J.P.: What’s that work going to be like?

finn: I’m kind of returning to ombud’s work. I’ve been in higher education my entire career, in a lot of different roles and one thing I really appreciate about conflict resolution work is that it centers on a lot of creative problem solving and still focuses on working alongside primarily students but also whomever they might be in conflict with. Sometimes that’s faculty and sometimes it’s staff. Oftentimes conflict is really difficult for people and so there’s this certain opportunity to accompany people during difficult times and the way that ombuds work the philosophy of ombuds work is that it’s all informal. This is not an HR process or compliance-based process.

It’s really trying to find solutions that work as well as possible and to give people as many options as possible. So it’s a very different sort of work than what I have been doing in the Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life and I’ve really appreciated this work. I love to be able to squarely focus on advocating for intersectional justice through frameworks of gender and sexuality and that’s a specialty that will still carry forward no matter what position I have. Those kinds of commitments to justice are important. So I think it’s a great learning opportunity for me. I feel like it aligns with my professional aspirations and also with my skill sets around thinking about critical approaches and restorative process approaches to engaging conflict generatively.

J.P.: I love that. So, finn, what is the book that saved your life?

finn: I’ve been anticipating this question and thinking about how I’m going to answer The book is called Bless me Altima by Ruolfo Anaya and I’m happy to talk about why, what, or how this book saved my life. But I want to let you pose that question in whatever way you have imagined it!

J.P.: Describe the book for our readers who haven’t read it yet.

finn: Sure. Many would call this a coming of age story. It follows a young boy whose name is Antonio and when the novel begins, Antonio is nine. He lives in a very small town in Mexico in the 1940’s. He’s the youngest of nine children. He has three older brothers who when the story starts are all at war and then he has five older sisters. He’s the youngest boy. In this family, there’s a lot of difference between his mom’s family of origin and his dad’s family of origin and that’s one of the big sources of internal conflict for our young protagonist. I would say that the themes of the story are really looking at big questions: big, existential and philosophical questions. How do we reconcile really different value systems in our lives? How do we think about the way that our culture and our ancestry and our values that come with those family traditions impact who we want to be in the world and how others might make expectations of us? None of the things that really draws me into this text is that it engages pretty explicitly deep questions of spirituality and faith. But in a very non-dogmatic way, Antonio is in a catholic family and I also came up in a catholic family and was raised catholic. Once I became an adult, I really kind of dissociated with christianity particularly with catholicism but really with organized religion generally. I spent most of my adulthood feeling a strong sense of spirituality but a big disdain for organized religion. A lot of that came out of my own woundedness as a Queer person who was raised catholic and one of the things I love with the story is that Antonio is grappling with some of these very questions. He’s coming up in the catholic family but he has this other very embodied sense of spirituality and that really comes through in the book in his relationship with this elder, Ultima is her name. She is a corera which in the tradition of this story is a healer. She’s also a shaman as some might call her. She has magic right? So she uses. modes of healing that would be outside of a christian framework. She’s very misunderstood by the townspeople in the story yet Antonio has this beautiful relationship with her that really shapes his own questions and his own wondering and wandering. I would describe it as a very rich and very beautifully narratively written coming of age story that engages deep themes in really I think poignant but also relatable ways.

J.P.: I love that every guest interprets the word saved differently in the question. So for you, what does saved mean? How did this book save you?

finn: I’m gonna answer this in three parts because I am reading this book right now for the third time and each time that I’ve read it, it saved me in a different way. So I’m gonna start with the first time I read it which was actually the summer of 2017. I had just finished my first year of being a doctoral student and I was feeling incredibly incompetent and in over my head and wanting to quit and having a lot of self-doubt. I remember the day I turned in my final paper of the semester. I just collapsed in my bed and said I need to read some fiction. I need some candy, like some brain candy right? That’s what I was thinking so I looked in my bookshelf and I had dozens of books I had never read before but I just randomly pulled one off. And what’s so interesting about this story is I had had this book in that position for 4 years at that point had never read it. It was gifted to me by a friend who was getting ready to leave Minnesota to move out of state and she was just getting rid of a bunch of stuff and she’s like I picked this book out for you and I had never heard of it and at the time. I wasn’t that interested so it just sat on my shelf. It moved to California with me and then it moved back to Minnesota and I just pulled that book off the shelf on this day in 2017 and I started reading it and immediately from the first several pages, I was very taken in by the character of Antonio. As soon as I met Ultima who in the story is not his. Grandmother biologically or familiarly but they have very much this grandchild grandparent relationship. I immediately started thinking about my own grandmother. and my own experience as a young child in a relationship with my grandmother. So I think the first time this book saved my life, it helped me lift myself out of a lot of imposter syndrome; a lot of fear; a lot of inferiority complex that being a doctoral student instills in you and it reminded me that there is great beauty in engaging with works of fiction.

Maybe that sounds like a really obvious statement, but I think after being immersed in PHD school for two semesters I had forgotten that reading things that are not necessarily light in the sense that they’re not substantive but they’re not heavy theories. There’s a lot of joy in that and there’s a lot that can be learned in that. So the one time it saved my life I would say it refilled my spirit and it reminded me that there are things that are important other than writing academic research papers and other than jumping through all of these hoops to sort of prove my competence or demonstrate that I was worthy of being in this rigorous graduate program. The other thing is it brought a lot of joy into my life and it inspired a tattoo so I actually got a tattoo after the second time I read the book, on my arm. It’s aligned from the novel and it says ‘she taught me to listen to the mystery of the groaning earth.’ This is Anton Mio talking about Ultima because part of what she did in teaching him and mentoring him about what it means to be a moral person what it means to be a healer is she would walk him around and teach him the names of different plants that had healing qualities, plants and trees and things like this so she brought him into a close relationship with the earth which is something that my own grandmother did for me so the next time I read it that’s kind of how it saved me and got me out of the the doldroms of graduate school life. The second time I read it was actually the summer before I defended my dissertation. So the summer of 2020 and of course we were in the pandemic. It was also a summer when I had a major hip surgery and my ability to be active and move around in the world which is something that was important to me was taken away from me literally for six weeks I couldn’t even walk I was not weight bearing and just really struggling in many ways. Feeling this emptiness and feeling this spiritual stirring of wanting something bigger in my life than what was there at the time but not really knowing what that was and not even knowing where to start or how to ask those questions. Something that’s true for me is I have a lot of my own internalized fear or shame around talking about spirituality as a Queer person because I know many Queer people for a very valid reasons have a lot of disdain for organized religion. Even in my social circles and my friend groups, it’s not something I talked about a lot but it’s certainly something I was feeling and struggling with. It felt like it was missing so when I read this book the second time, I was really taken in by all of the spiritual themes in all of the ways that Antonio, the protagonist, is very courageously exploring these deep questions of the meaning of life that he has. He grapples with and struggles with the catholicness of his upbringing on one side, of his lineage and then this amazing elder in his life, Ultima, who is an Indigenous healer and trying to reconcile what is the right path for me compared to the expectations of his mother that he become a priest. He is not really sure if he wants to become a priest. That felt really resonant for me at that time in my life. One thing I love about how Antonio navigates these questions and all of these tensions is that he doesn’t seek easy answers and this is why I understand this book as a Queer text to my knowledge. The author is not Queer. None of the characters are Queer in the sense that we would think of identity. But I think it is a Queer text in the way that it is written.

It sits in places of paradox and it sits in places of ambiguity and that to me felt like it created space right? There was this in between-ness that Antonio is willing to live in where he’s not succumbing to the pressure to be this or that but literally living quite in between this and that. His relationship with Ultima right who is this elder woman and he is a seven year old boy at this point is also I think very queer in many ways. It’s not a typical kind of relationship that we we would expect perhaps in our society, in our head around to Hetero-normative society.

I think the second time it saved my life it created some room, metaphorically, for me to breathe into this my own questions around spirituality. Now the third time I’m actually reading it with my friend Sister Kathy. We’re reading this book right now theologically. She isn’t an ordained catholic woman, she’s a sister. One of the things that’s really fascinating for me is to see what she picks up in here from a theological perspective and then of course as someone who’s not classically trained in theology. What is speaking to me reading it for a third time with someone whom I’m in this very loving relationship, who I understand as a mentor and as someone who is filled with wisdom, she has revealed all of these different layers of meaning for me. I think the way that it’s saving my life right now because we’re in the midst of it is that I have very recently actually rejoined having a faith practice. So I’ve become a member of a faith community and that was a big struggle for me to kind of come back to organized religion. I felt a lot of nervousness around that but reading this text right now has actually helped me to see with a lot of clarity that where I’m at right now is that this is the place for me to exist in right now and that I can exist in the paradoxes of how I have both been harmed by organized religion and now I am actually seeking out a faith community as a site of healing and connection. I can live in that tension and that need to reconcile it. I would say it’s saving my life right now and that there’s this continued development of faith formation experience and that I get to share that with this amazing, incredible, elder friend of mine. That feels really special too.


J.P.: After this quick break, I’ll ask finn about their faith tradition as a site of healing from the harms they experienced within the church. More on the flipside of this break.

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J.P.: There is a pretty standard lived experience that most Queer people who have religion and it too often results in harm, spiritual harm, emotional harm, and sometimes even physical harm. For many, this drives folx away from their faith for the rest of their lives. But finn’s story goes a step further because of Bless, Me Ultima. Because of it, they can ask what does it mean not to live in the wound the church caused? Here’s more of my conversation with finn.

J.P.: You were just talking about a site of healing and not necessarily having to reconcile to live with ambiguity. Tell me more about that.

finn: Sure, so ambiguity generally as it relates to the faith and spirituality part for me.

J.P.: There was harm and now you’re seeing your new faith tradition is a side of healing. Can you unpack that as much as you’re willing to what that harm was like for you?

finn: Definitely. At the time I was very active in the catholic church. I did not have an awareness of my own Queerness I didn’t come out. I came out as a Lesbian when I was 21 and by then I had sort of already left catholicism. But there were a lot of very clear messages growing up in the catholic church about homosexuality being a sin and that people who engage in homosexuality were abominations right? There was very clear messaging around that. I do think that’s part of why it took me longer, however, we want to measure when people come out. It took me until my early 20s to recognize that I am a Queer person and then even longer to recognize that I am a Trans person. So I think those sort of messages of shame never completely go away. When an entire system is set up to lead me to believe that there is something inherently wrong with my personhood, it’s really hard to ever imagine wanting to step into that kind of organized space again. Even if it’s an entirely different faith tradition. I mean the catholic church is full of lots of hierarchy and patriarchy and other really obviously problematic and harmful forms of oppression and abuse. Fortunately I didn’t experience any of that as a child. But I also felt very disconnected from my faith. It didn’t feel alive for me. It felt compulsory when I got confirmed. It was largely because that was what was expected of people when they were in ninth grade. By the time I got to college and was thinking more independently and more critically, I was certainly interested and had a strong sense of faith but I was no longer feeling like that was satisfied or I was being invited to grow and expand through attending mass or engaging in catholic practices. That’s when I largely fell away so the harm I would say was a lot of really harmful messages around Queerness around even women and women’s roles compared to men’s and where power rested. I think a lot of catholics joke about this but the catholic guilt and the catholic shame is profound. There’s a lot of if you’re not okay, if you do XY and Z thing and it’s pretty much everything that makes us human. That was the harm.

That’s what I talk about is this feeling that there was something wrong with me as a person and then when I talk about the ambiguity, what I mean is finding a faith tradition that has an entirely different theological underpinning. Unlike catholicism which embraces or believes in this idea of original sin and that we’re all born flawed and that it’s through our faith practice that we can be saved, the tradition that I’m now engaged with, unitarian universalism, has a very different starting point. It starts with the inherent dignity and worth of every human which is an entirely different entry point rather than like we’re all born insane! It also is a pluralistic tradition in the sense that not everyone who would call themselves the unitarian universalist would even call themselves a religious person. They might call themselves an atheist or an agnostic. They might call themselves a pagan. They might be jewish right? So there’s this really expansive engagement with faith and faith formation. It’s a covenantal tradition so there is no singular doctrine or dogma that brings people together. There is not a core belief as much as there is a commitment and agreement to be in relationship with you and with each other across our differences.

When I think about that ambiguity, I’m both acknowledging that I still have hesitation about being involved in any organized faith tradition and still trying to do the hard work of healing that woundedness that I carry as it relates to organized religion. I see what becomes possible. I think about it in zones of possibility. What becomes possible if I can both acknowledge but not live in that harm right? So it’s like both within and beyond that woundedness. There’s a certain tenderness of that wounded and woundedness. That’s important that I don’t want to lose. There’s also so much more growth and opportunity for further development and further relationship building and further connection with holy mystery or the divine or however someone might want to name their idea of what is bigger than them. If they believe that I only can live in that woundedness, then there’s so many more limitations to how I can understand that which is bigger than me and be in relationship all other beings so that ambiguous space is something that is exciting for me to explore. What becomes possible if I don’t just live in that woundedness.

J.P.: What do you find is becoming possible for you?

finn: Oh that’s a great question. This is the thing that I’m so stuck with right now and this is really a tricky thing for me to even say aloud because it’s hard to make the words come out of my mouth. As much as I dissociated myself with catholicism and christianity writ large and as I study theology and really kind of zoom out and look at what different theological traditions can offer, what I think I’m coming back to is that some of what makes christian theology christian is really compelling to me. Now that it’s something that I’m actively choosing versus being channeled or funneled into, I wonder the joke I have right now is am I actually christian after all of these years of really the vehemently denying that I am not christian? It’s just a curiosity and that’s something that I wouldn’t have actually been able to seriously engage that question for myself two years ago because I had such a strong gut reaction to like no, I am not Christian. Being christian means x y and z and I think the realization for me was that I was doing the exact thing that I feel upset about when people do it to me right? which is a sort of boxing in or pre-judging right? Making assumptions about a particular identity or experience or belief system and really simplifying it and consolidating it in a way that is just not realistic. That’s one thing that’s happening for me right now is I’m seriously asking myself about this idea of what is christianity and what is it about that word or that label that is so difficult for me to apply to myself?

I think another thing that’s happening for me is that I am building new friendships and new relationships and new connections with people for whom asking these sort of big questions. what I would call faith formation questions is really important to them. The kinds of conversations that they want to have in the world are the kinds of conversations I want to have and not to say that talking about the the newest viral video on Tiktok isn’t important. Yes that that kind of stuff is important too but I have found particularly after being a PHD student that the kinds of conversations I want to have and the depth of conversation I want to have it’s not something I can find just anywhere. It’s coming up on a year now that I’ve been engaged with this unitarian universalist church every single time I interact with people who are part of this faith community we’re talking about things that feel like they’re important to me and to this community and so that is something else that is becoming more possible is having those substantive, thought-provoking, challenging conversations that make me want to be a different person in the world and more fully live into my values and more fully be in relationship with people who share those values.

J.P.: Do you have an Ultima figure in your life?

finn: Oh my gosh, that is such a good question. Many of my best friends are women in their late 60s to mid 80s many of whom are Lesbians. Sister Kathy who I was talking about earlier is definitely an Ultima figure for me. When I was taking classes at The College of St. Scholastica, where I did my undergrad, I somehow randomly got into a class with her. Then I took every other class that she offered even though she taught Interreligious Studies and I was not a religious studies major or minor. I just loved her teaching so much and then I ended up getting a minor in women’s studies because many of the courses she taught were cross listed with the women’s studies minor. I took all of her courses and she really was one of the people who helped me understand there is a lot of faith traditions beyond christianity and catholicism and maybe that sounds obvious but I grew up in a really small town where you were either catholic or a Lutheran. Those were the options. I did not come up in a religiously pluralistic space. So. she was definitely someone who early in my young adult code developed or had a profound impact on my understanding of life in general and in particular, spirituality. Another person in my life who was like an Ultima figure is my dear friend Trish. Tricia is also a Lesbian in her late 60s and she was one of the people I first came out to when I was coming out as a Lesbian at the age of 21. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota and she still lives up there. I go and see her at least every six weeks but she is not someone probably who would call herself religious at all. But she does have a deep sense of connectedness to the earth and that is exactly how I so mostly experience my spirituality: to be outside. I like feeling connected to plants. I like to be in the woods. We do things like that together and when I am with her I feel this profound sense of peace and calmness. She’s one of the most wise people I’ve ever interacted with and has been with me for many years now. we’ve been friends for more than 15 years and she’s been supporting me through my own questioning of my gender. That was a hard dynamic for us.

When I first started disidentifying as a woman, that was a rift in our relationship and that was something we really had to work through and something about Trish that makes me think of her as an Ultima figure in my life is her sheer love for me was enough to help us get through that. She was curious and she was caring and so we were able to have those really hard conversations across generations and across gender identity and across different worlds right? When she came out in her 20s as a Lesbian, it was a different world than when I came out in my 20s as a Lesbian. When I think about the deep and beautiful and complex relationship between Antonio and Ultima, that is something that I think about with Trish. Then the last person I’ll talk about is actually one um, one of my grandmothers who is deceased. She died when I was in high school. Louise K Ruber Schneider is her married name. She’s my dad’s mom. One of the reasons I got this tattoo on my arm was that she taught me to listen to the mystery of the groaning earth. When I was probably Antonio’s age, my grandma would take me out into the woods behind her house and tell me the names of trees and teach me the names of plants and we would go on nature walks together and before I even really had an understanding of how much that meant to me or how much that would mean to me, I have these very vivid memories of spending time with her in the woods. She was catholic and I remember going to mass with her as well and I could tell that her faith was a really big part of her life. When she passed, I was a teenager and I always regret that I didn’t spend more time with her before she passed away. When I look back I feel a lot of remorse and sometimes I wonder if she had had the chance to meet me, who I am now as this Queer person and Trans person, what would she think of me? Sometimes I feel really sad that she, because of her catholic background, would really struggle with that. But then I think about this book and I think about the relationship between Ultima and Antonio and how Ultima is able to see Antonio for exactly who he is. She sees his complexity, his deep thirst for knowledge and they almost, in this unspoken way, know and see each other. I guess there’s a part of me that feels that even though she’s no longer living in this realm that my grandma knows and sees me exactly as I am today and loves me and that’s something that this book has helped me to find some healing around. Because, spoiler alert, Ultima does die at the end. *There is a part of the story that invites in through grief. Grief is like the channel but it invites in this like deep sense of healing and what it means to love and be in relationship with someone even when they are no longer alive. That makes me think of my grandma as well.

J.P.: I don’t know if reconnecting is the right word, but in connecting to your new faith tradition, what is changed in how you understand yourself as a Queer person or as a Trans person?

finn: This is such a good question. One of my new faith traditions starts with inherent dignity and worth. That’s makes me feel like I can show up whether it’s on Sunday or Wednesday or whatever day of the week. Maybe I’m just having coffee with someone fully and completely as myself. That feels like a really low bar sometimes but it is in the context of organized faith actually not a low bar right?

J.P.: It’s the highest bar.

finn: For so many people who are Queer and or Trans, there’s so few places, organized faith spaces I feel that are genuinely willing to be like it is okay. It’s okay, if you’re Gay but you can’t be married. One thing that I’m finding is I can just breathe. Another thing that I really appreciate is that there are other openly Queer and Trans folks at this particular church that I’m a part of and there are people who want to talk about theology and about questions of faith and spirituality and justice through Queer frameworks. I didn’t even know Queer theology was a thing until I started attending this church and now, there are Queer theologians who are writing about God through very Queer frameworks and who are writing about things like BDSM and kink as manifestations of Queer theology! A lot of the really Puritan or WASPy traditions that we might think of as being very sort of narrow things to say about sex and sexuality writ large, but they are challenging those and actually looking at faith and the divine as ways to understand pleasure and connection and all of these things. I feel like Queerness is a subjectivity right and is all about challenging norms and pushing back against norms. Bringing that into a faith context is one of the things I love about being a unitarian universalist. We’re a covenantal community so our commitment is to that being in conversation and in dialogue and when we come into difficult conversations with a particular commitment to seeing each other in our fullness and in our inherent worth, it allows us to have really complicated conversations with nuance and with care. I think a great example of this is four months into my time at this church I was asked to join a planning committee for a retreat that the church was planning that was specifically going to be looking at the intersections of faith and gender through a non-binary framework.

They were wanting to invite people of all gender identities to come together for one Saturday and talk about what is gender? What is gender identity? How does that impact the way you understand faith? How does that impact the way you practice your faith towards this goal of making the congregation a more truly gender expansive space. Being a part of that planning team which was almost all Queer people and thorough Trans folks was really profound for me because once you start centering Queerness and Transness in a conversation about faith, it’s an entirely different conversation. That carried over into the retreat where we were probably about one third LGBTQ people and ⅔ of the people were across age spans. Many were 50 plus but there were several of us who were in our 20s and 30 s. The opportunities that were open for conversation and not this sort of tokenizing, teach me about all of the terms kind of a conversation but more profound and deeper conversation reminding everybody that they have a gender identity. Not just the Queer and Trans people are the ones who have genders and what does that mean and how do we think about faith and understand that everything that we do including our faith, our faith practice. including our theology is all impacted by gender all of the time in ways that many of us don’t. recognize. That commitment to being in those, not always easy or comfortable conversations together was really special and really profound. I think one tangible or concrete thing that this new being a part of the Gay community has helped me to do is feel less afraid or even unwilling to talk about Queerness and Transness with people, because I’ll be really honest, sometimes I just don’t want to because it’s exhausting. It feels tokenizing and that’s also what I do for my job and so I don’t want to do that in my spare time. I remember when they asked me to be on this planning committee because one of the first things I said is I do this work professionally.

I’m happy to help plan the day. I don’t want to facilitate anything. Don’t ask me to lead a training or a gender one on one. I just want to be a participant. I did not have to do any of the sessions. That was sort of a knee-jerk reaction coming from this place of I don’t want to have to explain my own life experience in a way to justify my humanity. I’m done doing that at age 37. What I found is that sometimes those are actually where the most profiling conversations actually can happen. When I’m talking to someone who is really open and curious and well-intentioned but maybe doesn’t have the terminology or they’ve never talked to a Trans person, there can be a mutuality right? If we’re in a faith context where people are committed to being honest and to being present to difficult conversation that is definitely not there if I’m just like leading the workshop with other people at the University. I think that has also been a gift for me. It has helped me to let go of my own feelings of I only want to talk about these things with Queer and Trans people because if they’re comfortable, and step into some of these more uncomfortable conversations that actually, really are incredibly generative.


J.P.: I’m so grateful for my conversation with finn.

They recently published an article, they call the Missing Chapter. In it, they explored what does anti-racist practice look like in the classroom when the teachers are Queer and white-bodied. You can find it in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol 35, issue 4. They also have a book chapter coming out in the forthcoming Narrating the Insider Outsider Paradox as LGBTQ Educators in Higher Education and Student Affairs. It is available from Routledge this week, November 18. I’m including the link to purchase it in the show notes.

And when finn is not writing or working at the University, they are a new homeowner on one of the many, many lakes in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. They’re spending a lot of quality walking time on that lake with his dog Sprout.

Also, if you are a student at the University of Minnesota, the Student Conflict Resolution Center is available to assist students in resolving campus-based problems or concerns. You can connect with the Center by visiting or you can email them at

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And in the meantime, stay tuned to this space every Tuesday for new episodes of This Queer Book Saved My Life!, 7 Minutes in Book Heaven, or our cross over episodes. And next Tuesday we have a brand-new episode of 7 Minutes in Book Heaven with Dr. Nyri Bakkalian about her new novel Confluence: A Person-Shaped Story.

Until then, see you Queers and allies in the bookstores!