“But the message of Jesus was not exclusion, it was inclusion. Jesus said ‘come to me.’ There were no asterisks,” said Nicole Garcia in a Huffington Post article about the welcome transgender people experience in communities of faith. “How can we exclude anybody from the church?” Garcia, a featured preacher at MLP’s upcoming national conference, was one of three faith leaders interviewed for the piece.
United Methodist minister David Weekley said that while churches have begun to accept transgender people in the clergy, widespread acceptance is still a challenge. “The problem is, so often, even if the policy is open, for transgender people to actually be called to a church or have an opportunity to serve is a different story. Transgender people are just newer on the radar, and for a lot of us who transitioned years ago, we were told by the folks we worked with not to share our story.” Rev. David Weekley came out as transgender to his congregation four years ago. “The room went silent. There was a lot of support, but a lot of push back. There were attempts to bring charges in the denomination, to have my ordination revoked.”
“Most of the time when we go into a congregation, we have the experience of being the first one,” said Chris Paige (see photo above), Executive Director of Transfaith, a nonprofit focused on faith and spirituality issues in the transgender community. Confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Paige is an ordained elder at Tabernacle United Church, a joint PC(USA) and UCC congregation.
“The trans experience is still little-understood in the general community and even more so at times in churches and spiritual spaces,” said Chris Paige, a Lawrenceville, N.J.-based transgender activist who runs Transfaith, a nonprofit led by transgender people that focuses on faith and spirituality issues. “Most of the time when we go into a congregation, we have the experience of being the first one. Even in congregations that say they accept transgender people, it doesn’t mean they have ever met a trans person.”
It’s hard to say how many transgender people there are among religious groups, and many religious surveys do not specifically count transgender people, while surveys on the transgender communities don’t always track religion. The Pew Research Center, for example, released a survey this month on LGBT spirituality that found that 51 percent of LGBT people have a religion and 17 percent of them say religion is “very important,” yet a spokeswoman said the organization did not have a breakdown of data for transgender people.
Meanwhile, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which is conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality and tracks education, employment, housing and other demographics on transgender Americans, does not look at religious experience.
But Paige, who is the sole paid employee of Transfaith and helps organize spirituality workshops and trainings at transgender conferences, contends that transgender communities are more spiritual or religious than many people imagine. Paige’s group aims to help find homes for those who are spiritually lost or rejected.
“Some of the fundamental religious questions — ‘Who am I? How do I fit into the world?’ — those are very familiar questions that people ask on a journey of gender exploration,” said Paige, who is a member of a combined United Church of Christ and Presbyterian (USA) church and also practices Buddhism-influenced meditation.
“There is such an intersection between being trans and religious. Not everyone puts it in religious terms, but some people they express it with meditation, their relationship to nature, yoga,” Paige, 41, said. Transfaith is currently working on a project to train clergy to offer spiritual counseling to transgender people — a skill many pastors have increasingly sought to help gay, lesbian and bisexual congregants.
Welcome for transgender people is beginning to advance on many fronts.
At the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church that met in July 2012, the House of Deputies overwhelmingly voted to allow the ordination of transgender people.
The American Psychiatric Association board of trustees made history in December 2012 by voting to no longer classify transgender and gender non-conforming identity as a mental disorder. The DSM-5 diagnoses transgender people with “Gender Dysphoria,” a term communicating the emotional distress that can result from “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.” This opened the door to affirmative treatment and transition care without stigma.
Cameron Partridge, one of just seven openly transgender clergy in the Episcopal Church, was appointed as chaplain at Boston University in January 2013. The appointment made him the first transgender chaplain at a major university. Partridge received Master of Divinity and Doctor of Theology degrees from Harvard Divinity School.
How welcoming is your Church to transgender people?
More Light Presbyterians has prepared a guide, Top 10 Ways to Welcome Transgender People to Church (pdf), to help your community of faith create a welcoming place for the transgender community. We also have a Transgender Resources page with more in-depth resources.