How Can Our Churches be Safe Havens for Transgender People?

“I stood in a crowd with you last night as we cried and cringed, applauded and gasped, embraced and turned away.” Janet Mock, a prominent transgender writer and activist, wrote these words in a letter to Islan Nettles, a trans woman who was murdered last week in Harlem, New York. In her letter, Mock reflects on the pain of attending a vigil for her sister Islan Nettles where transphobia was not named, the voices of transgender people were muted and where speakers eulogizing Nettles used “he” instead of respecting Nettles identity as a woman by using female pronouns.

Janet Mock’s letter eloquently captures how she and other transgender women attending the vigil felt while witnessing Islan Nettles’ transgender identity erased or denied by the official vigil speakers:

Love is what enabled me to walk out of Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem just a block from her attack and not be overcome by the rage of the entire proceeding, a proceeding that did not respect who Islan was – a young black trans woman – by failing to consult us, failing to take our pain and undeniable vulnerability into account, failing to allow us to be heard, failing to educate a grieving family about the necessity of pronouns, failing to correct cis folks who took up too much space and called Islan, therefore every trans woman in the crowd, out of her name.

We were told this vigil was focused on Islan’s family versus “political” issues like “transphobia” – as if the personal and political can be separated so effortlessly and cleanly. We are still vulnerable – just as Islan was – and that is not a political issue. That is truth, a truth that we are reminded of every time we step out of the comfort of our homes and are called out of our names, identities and bodies on our streets. And the organizers frankly ignored our truth and that pain paired with the grieving of a sister beaten to death at the tender age of 21 is unbearable.

The Huffington Post reports that shouts erupted from the crowd at the vigil after one of the advocates, Vaughn Taylor-Akutagawa, the leader of Gay Men of African Descent, referred to Nettles as “he.”

“She was a woman!” shouted Mariah Lopez, a transgender activist who was turned down as a speaker by the vigil organizers. “Gay Men Of African Descent shouldn’t be speaking for trans people, period.”

As followers of Christ, we believe the personal is prophetic; our individual and community actions around trans people reflects the depth of our love for all of God’s creation. The way we treat and respect transgender people directly reflects whether or not we believe transgender people are beloved creatures of God, made in God’s image.

Whenever we fail to name transphobia, misgender a trans person or fail to recognize or include trans voices, our individual actions strengthen the system of oppression that results in everyday and physical violence. Trans people face discrimination in finding a place to live, a place to work, medical care and even a safe restroom in a public place. Most disturbingly, many transgender people are murdered for honoring their creation and expressing their gender authentically, in other words, just for walking down the street daring to be themselves.

This month the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed “deep concern” about the violence and discrimination documented against the transgender community in the Americas in July.

During the month of July 2013, 23 murders were committed against trans persons and trans women or those perceived as such in Brazil (9), Colombia (2), Honduras (4), Jamaica (1), Mexico (2), Paraguay (1), Peru (2), the United States (1), and Venezuela (1). It is reported that most of these victims were less than 35 years of age, a majority of them being under 25. Also, the majority of these victims were shot, most of them multiple times.

This is a murder rate almost 50% higher than that of lesbian and gay people. 73.1% of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color.

What one thing can we do as individuals and communities of faith to create a safe haven for transgender people?

An important first step is to read MLP’s resource the Top 10 Ways to Welcome Transgender People to Church (pdf) and to use it to educate yourself and start a conversation with your pastor and session about creating a place of extravagant welcome for the transgender community. As Christians, we know the power that seemingly simple acts can have on the path towards justice. Whether striking up a conversation with a woman at a well, extending a hand of help to an injured traveler on the road, or honoring a transgender person’s identity through pronouns, we have the opportunity to demonstrate extravagant welcome in everyday moments. Taken together, our simple actions can affirm that all are a member of God’s creation.

IslanNettlesVigil
Vigil for Islan Nettles

 

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