Reporter in Transition
I became interested in exploring transgender issues in part because, as a single, straight woman who pursued a male-dominated career path, I found that once I hit 35 that I no longer fit into the alleged norms for “godly womanhood.” Even in many progressive church circles, it seems that everyone is married (if they’re legally allowed to do so). While this type of queerness is different from the trans experience, I’m finding much fruit in exploring the ways in which many of us experience sexuality and gender at an angle to expectations.
When I began reporting on trans people and faith communities for Religion Dispatches and the Guardian, I quickly I realized just how little I knew. In an effort to educate myself, I decided to join over 1,900 trans people and allies at the 2011 Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, the largest trans-specific health conference in the world, then celebrating its 10th anniversary. Chris Paige of TransFaith Online, who served as one of the key organizers behind the event, proved instrumental in helping me navigate my way into an unfamiliar subculture.
Upon entering the exhibit hall, I found myself surrounded by rows upon rows of condoms, reminiscent of a gay pride rally circa 1985. This scene brought to mind the recent exhibit I saw at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco that documented the progression of gay and lesbian rights in the 20th century. Before the 1970 Stonewall Rebellion, even respectable mainstream media outlets defined “homosexuals” solely by their sex acts and called gays and lesbian names that today would be designated as hate speech. So, many of those brave souls who chose to go public understandably responded to this coverage by focusing on their sexuality. Only later, as gays and lesbians became more visible over the decades, did the media begin to portray them as neighbors, family members, friends, and co-workers. Hence this year’s LGBT Philly Pride Parade and Festival seemed akin to any other family-oriented festival, with vendors offering products like adoption services, animal rescue vans, and insurance. Out with the leather, in with gay-friendly leisure travel.
Such a cultural shift has yet to happen for the trans community. What few trans-related stories I can find tend to focus far more on the subjects’ sex lives when compared to similar reporting of those who self-identify as cisgender (a term that refers to someone whose gender identity coincides with their sex at birth). As Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and Sonny and author of Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, noted during an audience Q&A at the conference, “We live in a patriarchal binary society. Any type of gender nonconformity scares the shit out of people.”
The findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report paints a bleak picture of the how this fear of the other translates into victimizing trans people:
- The 6,450 US-based transgender and gender non-conforming participants who took part in the study were nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 a year compared to the general population. So much for the myth advanced by progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, and Shane Claiborne that one can advocate for anti-poverty measures while ignoring LGBT rights.
- A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population.
- Discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire sample, yet the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating.
A seminar highlighting trans activists and scholars from Europe, South Africa, and Uganda illuminated the difficulties in obtaining the accurate statistics needed to properly asses global human rights violations committed against trans people. Dr. Jan Simon Hutta, researcher for Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, a project of Transgender Europe, reported on their ongoing efforts to map occurrences of specific acts of violence against the trans community. Presently, they have over 600 reports of murder since 2009. Many more go unreported. Often, the victim is not identified as trans either because the researchers don’t know a given language or because the crime reports simply don’t have a place to mention it. Some countries classify anyone who is trans as “homosexual” and have laws against any gender non-conforming behavior, such as so-called anti-cross-dressing laws. These laws are mostly in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, where there is no visible cross-dresser community like in Western countries. The targets of these laws are usually trans women, perceived incorrectly to be men wearing women’s clothes.
Julius Kaggwa of SIPD, an organization promoting human rights and social support in Uganda, reflected how in his country anything not seen as heterosexual is viewed as homosexual. Since trans people are nearly invisible, they have no statistics on how many Ugandans would be classified as trans, adding that some of the gay people outed there are in fact trans. Moving forward, he hopes that the international outrage that prevented the kill-the-gays bill from becoming law will persist and put pressure on Ugandan society to change.
Liesl Theron, founder of Gender DynamiX, reported on some of the concerns facing trans people in South Africa. Access to health care remains a major obstacle because few surgeons in that country can do trans surgeries. Other issues include difficulties in changing one’s sex on legal documents such as passports and birth certificates.
Through the presentations of statistics like these, I kept asking myself how people whose sexuality doesn’t don’t fit into “traditional” cultural norms can get treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to others. The work of Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, helped me start to see an answer. In the span of an hour, she offered the highlights of an in-depth workshop titled “Opening the Door to the Inclusion of Transgender People.” Those looking to create trans-friendly spaces would do well to explore this document in depth.
Prior to coming to this conference, I picked up a copy of Nick Krieger’s Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender from Beacon Press. (Shameless plug: Beacon also published the latest Killing the Buddha anthology, Believer, Beware.) Watching Nick read from this moving and humorous memoir about his fight to inhabit both and neither gender, I became acutely aware of the need for people to self-identify as they wish. For example, some transsexuals who have transitioned no longer self-identify as transgender, as they now see themselves as a cisgender male or female of transsexual history. Hence, I have begun to use the term “trans” when talking about the broader community and, then, to ask those I am interviewing how they would like for me to identify them. With multiple designations for gender one cannot make any blanket assumptions here. In a recent posting for Patheos’s progressive portal, I reflected on how assuming that any man with feminine qualities prefers the “homosexual” lifestyle, or infering that those who favor the potentially homoerotic sport of mixed martial arts, might be strugggling against the sin of homosexuality leads to a dangerous and even deadly climate of bullying directed toward those who are gender variant and gender non-conforming.
The plenary “Say My Name,” led by theatrical performance activist Peterson Toscano, highlighted the significance of allowing people to name themselves and choose their preferred pronoun. The “Say My Name” Toolkit provides a range of religious and non-religious naming ceremonies that signify change has taken place.
David Weekley, the only out-transgender clergy serving the United Methodist Church, spoke about the importance this conference’s spiritual track. “So many in the TLGBQ community only see religious folk as negative and condemnatory,” he said, so “I believe it is highly significant that not only is there a huge number of workshops for every type of spirituality—which grows in attendance each year—but most of the leaders are themselves transgender.” Notice that in his comments, Weekly chose to switch the typical “LGBTQ” acronym by putting the “T” first. I noticed that a number of others at this conference did likewise, citing the lack of attention paid to trans-inclusion by LGBTQ advocacy organizations. During her presentation, Allyson Robinson, Associate Director of Diversity for the Human Rights Campaign, spoke of the challenges present in promoting awareness of transgender issues.
While sitting in on a number of seminars focusing on faith and transgender, I was struck by the depth of conversations about how to create spaces that will welcome all who are created “very good” in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26). I came away from these sessions with a plethora of resources to aid in this exploration of what communities of faith can bring to this discussion. Here’s a sampling of what I discovered:
- Keshet is a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews and straight allies from all denominations and Jewish backgrounds.
- TransTorah represents a place for people of all genders to fully access and transform Jewish tradition, and helps Jewish communities to be welcoming sanctuaries for people of all genders.
- Human Rights Campaign’s “Out in Season—Transgender Encounter in a Church Year” is a collection of over 175 conversations about the Bible, featuring 100 diverse scholars and pastors from over 11 different denominations.
- Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology is a book put out by Church Publishing (the US Episcopal Church’s publishing arm) that provides an easily accessible introduction to queer theology.
- In From the Wilderness, by David Weekley, tells his story of transition 36 years ago, his work as an ordained elder in the United Methodist church since 1982, and his experiences as a husband and father. He was ordained six years after he transitioned, and feels certain that, had they known of his history, they would not have ordained him. This book is also a challenge to the church and to self-identified Christians who continue to hold discriminatory policies and abusive attitudes towards TLGBQ persons. Since coming out in August of 2009, he was demoted to a minimum-wage clergy position where he still serves the church today.
Throughout the conference, one found a number of programs geared for children of trans families and youth who self-identify as trans, as well as seminars for partners of trans individuals. In particular, the conference offered cutting-edge medical information to make transition easier and safer for transsexual children and youth, material that Weekley would have appreciated when he was a child.
As the conference moves into its 11th year, I’m reminded of how much needs to be done in order to grant the trans community even the most basic civil rights. For example, even though New York State recently legalized same-sex marriage, its senate failed to pass the GENDA (Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act), which would have given the trans community the same basic civil rights granted to gays and lesbians via the passage of SONDA (the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act) in 2002.
The struggle continues.
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).