Why Trans* Rights Should Matter to the Church

My coming to faith and my coming to consciousness about gender identity have strangely run in tandem. I came out as bisexual in 1995 at the age of 19, but felt somewhat unsettled by the “T” in our LGBT alphabet soup; I had a difficult enough time understanding how I could be attracted to persons other than women, so wrapping my head around “being born in the wrong body” was just too much. I had no frame of reference, so I defaulted to the comfortable binary of “us” and “them.” Over the years, as I was sometimes not fully accepted by some gay men (who thought I only had one foot out of the closet) or by certain heterosexual women (who felt distrustful of me because of my open attraction to men), I began to understand what it was like to be an outsider, even within a community of outsiders. I befriended trans* persons who also felt the sting of ostracism from the community. In developing deep relationships with trans* persons, I began to realize that I had internalized a lot of cultural assumptions about gender, especially as it relates to sexuality: we are either male or female, gay or straight, butch or femme, top or bottom. Even the term “bisexual” reflects an “either this or that” approach. (From more information, read my fellow MLP blogger Donna Riley’s excellent piece “Bisexuality 201.”)

Similarly, being raised as an atheist, it took the suicide of my schizophrenic brother—and my own version of a Damascus Road experience—to realize that Christian identity can be much different from what our culture portrays.  It took me some years to realize that not all Christians are literalists; not all followers of Christ are homophobic; not all church communities will cast you out of the vineyard if you believe in a woman’s right to choose, if you regard all persons as made in God’s image, or if you dare question the authority of Scripture. Not all communities are like this, but finding those that are not can sometimes take a good deal of work. From the ages of twenty six to thirty one, I searched for a spiritual home, finally finding a church community filled with people who were giving God—and organized religion—one last chance, a place where the phrase “not that kind of Christian” did not need to be spoken because it was simply understood. I found a community that nurtured my call, and supported me all the way through ordination. After a long journey, I am blessed to be a UCC pastor serving a More Light PC (USA) congregation in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

But not everything is hallelujahs and amens. In Ohio, it is still legal to fire a person because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Amazingly, I see more and more people in the State—people who still have rather conservative social views in other areas—coming around regarding the inclusion of GLB persons. Sadly, though, I sense the same sort of cultural uncertainty about trans* persons as I personally felt in my early twenties. I know empowered, forthright trans* and gender-fluid persons who are willing to educate and inform, but I also know of their fatigue. I know that they feel as though their gender identity is almost always guaranteed to be a topic of conversation (replete with rude, invasive questions) nearly every day. As a person who has a seemingly endless supply of privilege (I’m White, Christian, male, educated, and in a “traditional” relationship, as I’m married to a woman), I feel called to use my voice to help bring change to those areas in which I wield influence.

Inclusion of trans* individuals and couples is central to following the Gospel. Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:28 that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). While we should not use this passage to dismiss the gender identity of any person, we should see that God is directing us to see what unifies us as persons. The call to Christian life is a call to see that all are created by and called to fullness of life by God. Further, we confess that God creates human persons in God’s image: “male and female God [elohim] made them.” The Hebrew word elohim is fluid, being used both to designate singular or plural and male or female (see, for example, 1 Kings 11:5). It does not seem too great of a stretch to think that God’s own image can include a person who has one set of sex organs and another gender identity; it is does not seem too much to think of God as being intersex, a reality that will unsettle many, given the recent discussions regarding Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ self-described girlfriend (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/michael-phelps-scandal-portrayal-intersex-people.) And, at the risk of sounding too bold, it may be time for us to consider that if God is to have any gender identity at all, God most certainly is gender-fluid.

In the end, the interesting theological questions take a back seat to the very real, immediate, and pressing need for the Church to be present in the suffering of trans* persons. We are called by God to address issues of injustice, to affirm the inherent dignity of all created in God’s image, and to be a people of hospitality and radical love. Conversations about trans* inclusivity are difficult, and require education and patience, but it is essential that we who are allies engage and don’t leave the task solely to our trans* siblings. For tips on how to be an ally, see GLAAD’s excellent resource: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies


This Advent, let us challenge ourselves to think about how to make room in our own inns; let us acknowledge that the Holy Family is not typical, but is unusual: a woman who has not been touched by a man; a human father ready to adopt a child not of his seed; and a child who will grow up with a sense of having two dads. This is not a Hallmark card; this is the tough reality of family being complicated. God is in the business of bringing people together, of challenging us to love in radical ways. Advent and Christmas can be an especially lonely time for trans* persons, so the need for loving, affirming, and supportive church communities are legion. Let us enter into the fullness of congregational life, flinging open our doors and calling in all persons made in God’s image, and knowing that the blessings come with seeing God more clearly when we do so.  

 

The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice, GLBT rights, and multifaith dialogue. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.

 

Featured Holiday Image: Courtesy of www.pdxqcenter.org

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