By Becky Garrison
From Religion Dispatches
When people discuss the rights of lesbians and gays in contemporary U.S. culture, and across religious denominations, the acronym "LGBT" is used as a shorthand: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. But are transgender people really being taken into account? What's the state of the struggle, where transpeople are concerned?
"Am I still your child, God?"
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco recounts how this gay-positive church struggled with how to welcome a very attractive transvestite man who walked through their doors in the mid 1980s. Some straight men in the congregation felt odd when they learned the woman they'd felt attracted to was a man, while some women did not want to share the bathroom with a male—even though she dressed like a female. After a month or so this person ended up leaving the community because at this time, the church could not create a welcoming space for those on the outer fringes of the LGBT community. By the time distinguished evolutionary biologist and transwoman Joan Roughgarden came to St. Gregory's around 2002, the community had learned enough that she could call this church her home.
When the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Priest and Lead Organizer for The Crossing in Boston tries to engage the church on this issue, she finds that the liberal churches tend to be silent on transgender issues, while the more conservative churches shout that transgender people are living “a lifestyle choice” that is patently “wrong,” “evil” and “an abomination.” She says the balance needs to shift.
Whenever religious leaders deny people their basic human rights using Christianity as their justification, then we need to stand up and make our presence known that we affirm all people as created and growing into the unique image of God.
Spellers says she feels sure that, if Jesus returned today, he'd be hanging out with transsexuals. “You don't have to stretch the Gospel to get to this place. We do this because Jesus was there first. Even atheists see this Jesus and comment that we're not the kind of Christian they can write off.”
Spellers states they didn’t get involved around transgender inclusion and advocacy because they were looking for the radical welcome edge. Rather, their outreach efforts were a pastoral response to the transgendered people who joined The Crossing community. Out of about 75 people who are part of their congregation, she estimates that about a half dozen are transgendered. “If we love those who are part of our community then we need to go out and stand by them and create more inclusive communities and start the conversation,” Spellers adds.
The community told its story in a recent documentary titled The Crossing, which was shown at the 2010 Boston LGBT Film Festival. Ideally, this film coupled with a facilitation guide and trained discussion facilitators (all of them members of The Crossing community) can begin to address the misperceptions about transgendered people, such as the notion that they “chose” to live this “alternative lifestyle” or that they don't desire rich spiritual lives. Spellers hears transgendered people asking the most honest and heartrending questions about religion, like: “Who did God make me to be?” “How can I live with integrity?” and “Am I still your child, God?” Journeying with this community has deepened her own prayer life and her understanding of the links between sexual and spiritual identity.
A Transgender Civil Rights bill?
The media attention surrounding the US Episcopal Church's decision to ordain gays and lesbians to any order and bless same-sex unions overshadowed the church’s efforts to affirm transgendered people. The Episcopal Church’s passage of Resolution “D012, Support of Transgender Civil Rights” at General Convention 2009 was designed to give ecclesiological support to efforts such as the Diocese of Massachusetts advocacy campaign to pass a Transgender Civil Rights bill, which would extend nondiscrimination protection based on gender preference. This bill has remained in committee for three years—though Spellers noted that efforts by The Crossing with leaders from the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) and the Interfaith Coalition for Transgendered Equality (ICTE) have prevented this bill from being killed outright.
A November 2009 survey jointly conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that ninety-seven percent (97%) of their sample reports being mistreated or harassed at work, and nearly half (47%) lost their jobs, were denied a promotion, or denied a job as a direct result of being transgender.
Despite these alarming statistics, the Human Rights Campaign does not view transgendered issues to be a part of their action campaign for lesbian and gay rights. RD contributor and pastor Dan Schultz preaches against those who claim to be for LGBT rights but focus solely on issues pertinent to gays and lesbians — such as same sex weddings and ordinations.
Look, this is really simple. Either you accept the entire span of the LGBT community, or you don’t. More to the point, perhaps, either you spend the time getting to know the LGBT (or LGBTQQ+ community, as they say), or you don’t. You can’t say, “Well, gays and lesbians are okay, but transgendered people are weird and threatening and not deserving of protection.” The fact is that gender reassignment surgery is an accepted medical practice and legal in the United States. Scruples don’t count in making the law. So either demonstrate the legitimate policy interest in denying transgendered folk equal protection under the law, or admit that you’re caving in to moralistic bigotry. You can’t have it both ways.
The Rev. Paul Fromberg, Rector of St. Gregory’s of Nyssa offers additional insights:
The reason why trans/intersex folks have been included in the big LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, Questioning, Intersex and Allies) tent has more to do with queer theory than it has to do with sexual orientation per se. Trans folks are our people because they are treated with the same blunt tool of control and oppression that all queer folk have been treated. Intersex is a more subtle inclusion in the tent, and one that is still evolving as a part of the movement. There is clearly some plain old sexism involved in why a few gay men aren't interested in trans people (of whom most are male-to-female trans). They question why a perfectly normal man would ever want to be a woman.
Connecting on a human-to-human level
The Rev. Winnie Varghese, Priest in Charge at NYC's St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery says that one of St. Mark’s gifts is to create a non-judging space that’s become a haven for artists and others in the community. They do outreach to the kids who attend Harvey Milk school, teaching LGBT youth to use art for self-expression. And they offer single-stall unisex bathrooms that allow transgendered people to use the facilities without trouble.
Varghese offers a different perspective noting that in some feminist circles, a female who transitions into a male is perceived as caving in to the patriarchal narrative. In these settings, straight women often find themselves ostracized as well because sisterhood becomes defined based on gender attraction.
The “Christian” ideal to conform to a m/f biological gender as defined by Genesis 2 informed seminars on transgender issues that Brad Sargent prepared while working as a resource/publications specialist for the ex-gay organization Exodus International. These seminars, most led by former TG/TS folk who had come to accept their birth gender, were geared to give hope to those struggling with their gender identity and seeking change to live a “biblical lifestyle,” which constituted heterosexual marriage or celibacy.
Andrew Marin, founder of evangelical-based The Marin Foundation has been working for over ten years to build a bridge between the religious and GLBT communities through scientific research, as well as biblical and social education. In his work, he distinguishes between dignifying someone’s humanity and affirming something that might not line up in a particular worldview. He adds that for either the GLBT or evangelical communities to try to force ‘the other’ to accept a theological or political perspective they don’t believe in actually represents a mob mentality. Marin distinguishes between a cultural version of reconciliation that ascribes to the innate need of having to share a common set of “right beliefs” in order to be in fellowship, with a biblical reconciliation that seeks to connect on a human to human level.
RD blogger Candace Chellew-Hodge counters this concept of reconciliation proclaiming “there is no sides when it comes to say civil rights and the KKK, there is but one side on this issue. Do we recognize people as having an inherent dignity as being part of our shared humanity?” Spellers concurs, “Part of the Anglican way of being Christian is to embrace all of life. My eyes have been tuned to see a sacramental universe and watch for Christ everywhere including in music and spaces and people that other folks have run from because they think God would never show up in those ways.”
While Varghese feels comfortable framing this debate using human rights terminology, she states that other progressives indicate a need to frame this debate using theological language. Phyllis Trible, professor of biblical studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and other biblical scholars offer an analysis the Creation story (Genesis 1) that defines that the original ‘earth creature (ha-adam)’ is not a man, nor a woman, possibly not even sexual but a human being.” Such a holistic interpretation allows for the Christian community to explore what it means to embrace those who fall outside of the narrowly defined Adam and Eve story.