You Are a Unicorn!: The Gifts of
Being Rare & Wondrous
May 26, 2019, First Universalist Church of Auburn, Maine
When I was growing up, I was wild for unicorns.
I drew them on every surface, even though to this day I’m still hopeless at drawing animals. I read books and stories about them, I wanted a unicorn companion, and of course—since I was no slouch in the trendy school supplies department in third grade—my Trapper Keeper was filled with folders bearing eye-searing neon illustrations of unicorns by Lisa Frank. As a kid who always felt a little different from other kids, there was something special about unicorns. They had so many qualities I wanted—they were peaceful, graceful, beautiful, and they commanded attention and love. They were rare and unusual, and it was okay that they didn’t fit in. Sure, I liked horses okay—but why be obsessed with horses when you could have unicorns?
Many years later, when I learned I was—in fact, that I had just become—a unicorn, it was at one of the few times in life when one would definitely hope to be told that no… you’re just a horse after all.
Last fall, I was admitted to the hospital with a very common ailment, and I needed a surgical procedure to fix it. I was expecting to be sent home from the hospital the following day after the surgery, with medicine to take care of minor discomfort. This surgery, after all, was one of the most common procedures performed at most hospitals, second only to appendectomies. On the day I was meant to be discharged, that was when I was told something seemed unusual with my lab numbers.
My hopes of going home that day evaporated, and I spent two more days in the hospital getting diagnostic tests done. The tests revealed that during my surgery, I had experienced a rare injury, and I would immediately need a second, more invasive, more dangerous surgery to repair what had gone wrong. This result is so rare, I was told, that the majority of surgeons never see a case of it during their career. Although surgeons are required to warn their patients about this risk, in practice the odds of this happening are estimated at a fraction of half a percent.
I had long had dreams of achieving unicornhood, but a medical setting was the worst possible time to learn that I was, at long last, a rare and unusual beast. Being a unicorn, it turns out, isn’t all glitter and rainbows.
I’ve since recovered from that second surgery. My health is fine right now, and I’m grateful for the care I received and for the communities—here included—that supported me through what could have been a far worse and far scarier time without help. But to look at me now, you would never know that this had happened. Unless I made a point of telling you about this, it would be easy to mistake me for a horse.
Some of you—especially those of you around my age—might have distant memories of an animated movie from the early 1980s, drawn in that same odd and uncanny Rankin-Bass style as the animated Hobbit movie. It was called The Last Unicorn. Because of the obvious presence of a unicorn, it was a favorite of mine as a child, and when I got older I read the novel of the same name that provided the basis for the movie. In the story, an immortal unicorn living in solitude learns that she may be the last of her kind. She wonders whether others like her—other hidden unicorns—might be together and waiting for her, and so she embarks on a quest to find the beings she belongs to. Because most humans in her world have never seen a creature like her before, she is often mistaken for a common horse, and her true magical and rare nature is hidden from eyes clouded by cynicism. It’s only with the help of those who are able to see her for what she truly is, that she can succeed in her quest and regain her sense of self.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a horse. All of us are horses—that is to say, we are part of a majority—in some respects and in some spaces. Occasionally—such as when waiting for medical test results—being a horse is easier, more desirable. Less scary, sometimes. It’s comforting to be one horse among many other horses. When we’re horses, we know company is never far, and that wherever we go, there’s likely to be someone who understands us.
But when we instead start to occupy that rare and wonderful and unique space that belongs to the unicorn, those guarantees aren’t so certain—and we risk either sticking out like a sore thumb in a way that could be dangerous to us, or else not being seen or recognized for who we really are. As Laura Hershey has told us, this experience can “park [us] forever on the outside, [our] differentness once and for all revealed, dangerous.” On her quest, the Last Unicorn must be transformed into a human to hide herself from threats, but in that new and unfamiliar form, she is in danger of losing sight of her powerful, liberated identity. Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, a Black, queer Buddhist practitioner, has written about watching the movie when she was young, and seeing herself in the character of the unicorn. She says,
“my six-year-old self identified with [the unicorn’s] isolation and trembled at the moment she had to leave the safety of her forest to begin her journey to find and eventually free others like her held captive somewhere far away. Those who saw her for who she was could see her power was immeasureable, a thing of hope and healing, but to most she appeared a thing to be hunted, domesticated, traded, and controlled—dispossessed of her ability to wander far. Her journey to free the others required her transformation. It wasn’t a strategy she chose, but rather one that chose her…[I]n order to survive she had to accept the new forms she found herself inhabiting. Watching that movie in the same classroom where earlier that year I’d been reprimanded and forcibly punished for [flirting with another Black girl] on the playground…somehow clued me in, if only subconsciously, to the kinds of transformation my own coming into being queer might require should I attempt to embrace my new form, desire, damage, doubt, and all.”
For Syedullah, being a unicorn meant needing to hide the ways she stood out, in order to survive. She, a rare and wondrous being, understood herself to be under threat in a world that feared the power of her Blackness and her queerness.
Coming out the other side of this threat, however, is possible. Latina actress America Ferrera recently gave a TED Talk called “My identity is a superpower—not an obstacle.” She found that when she auditioned early in her career, she was regularly asked to read for roles that enforced demeaning stereotypes of Latina women. She says,
“these were the kinds of roles that existed for someone like me. Someone they looked at and saw as too brown, too fat, too poor, too unsophisticated…I worked my hardest to overcome all the things that people said were wrong with me. I stayed out of the sun so that my skin wouldn't get too brown, I straightened my curls into submission. I constantly tried to lose weight, I bought fancier and more expensive clothes. All so that when people looked at me, they wouldn't see a too fat, too brown, too poor Latina. They would see what I was capable of. And maybe they would give me a chance.
And in an ironic twist of fate, when I finally did get a role that would make all my dreams come true, it was a role that required me to be exactly who I was…I have witnessed the power our voices have when they can access presence in the culture…I am just one of millions of people who have been told that in order to fulfill my dreams, in order to contribute my talents to the world I have to resist the truth of who I am. I for one, am ready to stop resisting and to start existing as my full and authentic self.”
For Ferrera, being a unicorn required her to resist the forces in culture that pressured her to change herself. Again, the world feared her brown skin, her fatness, her poverty. Syedullah learned that she must disguise her unicorn essence in order to survive, and Ferrera learned that she must claim that essence and refuse to be the beast of burden that others took her for.
We can learn so many lessons from both of these experiences—the places where they align and where they contradict. Both stories can be true at once, because identity—and the decisions about where and when we claim it—is complex. It isn’t only those of us who have racialized or LGBTQ identities who find ourselves in the “unicorn” position, though. Being a minority is something almost every person will experience at some point. You might be the only girl on a school team where everyone else is a boy. You might be the only person in an organization who needs a certain accommodation for your disability. You could be the only political liberal among your coworkers. You may even be silently grappling with a new facet of your identity that you didn’t know about before. Those of us who have intersecting minority identities might experience this more than others. This is one aspect of being a unicorn that can be isolating and lonely—that makes us want to find our people, to seek out others like us who might understand our experience. Like the Last Unicorn, we want to find those who have the ability to see us, free of preconceptions and stereotypes and prejudice.
How many of us, I wonder, first came through the doors of this sanctuary in search of others like us? Did we wonder whether we might be the only one, the last one, who could bear witness to the truth of our experience in this world?
I’m willing to bet the answer is “a lot of us.” In fact, I’m also willing to bet that right now, you—all of you—are surrounded by other unicorns, waiting for you to see them as they truly are.
Church, when done right, should be a place where unicorns can come, free of pretense and disguise, and be recognized for the rare and wondrous creatures we are. This is where we come to be seen, understood, and reminded that we are not the first—nor the last—of anything.
For those who exist on the margins, the experience of being a lone unicorn among horses is nothing new. But these voices can tell us eloquently and clearly what must be done to make our communities a safe haven for unicorns, where the disguises can be dropped, and we can be free to exist, to find our people. Are we being that safe haven for all, or are we still caught in these patterns of fear of difference? If our answer is that we still fear and disdain that which is Black, that which is queer, femme, brown, fat, or poor… then we are failing to do right by the unicorns in our midst. And all we need to do is remember the experience we all have within us of being the lone unicorn in a room full of horses to know how lonely, isolating, and unsafe that experience can be.
After my time in the hospital when so many unlikely things happened, I re-embraced my long-ago love of unicorns as a way to reclaim my power and identity. Rarity can be a dangerous gift, but it is a powerful one, and the experience of being rare in a culture that compels sameness can grant us the voice of wisdom. I may be rare in some ways, but I still matter, and I am not alone. Neither are you.
As the Last Unicorn is told in the story, “You can find your people if you are brave.”
May each of us be brave enough, wise enough, and strong enough to claim those things within us that are rare, precious, and wondrous.
Laura Hershey, "Telling," retrieved from https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/telling
Lama Rod Owens, Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D, & Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, 2016
America Ferrera, transcript of "My identity is a superpower -- not an obstacle," retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/america_ferrera_my_identity_is_a_superpower_not_an_obstacle/transcript