Today marks the annual observation of the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). In my experience both working with trans folks and identifying as trans myself, TDOR can be a complicated day for people in the trans community. On the one hand, it’s important to honor those lost to violence. On the other, the brutality of their deaths can be triggering for many. Seldom are the high rates of suicide among trans people, whether adults or youth, discussed as part of TDOR services. For many, TDOR leaves trans folks feeling like people are honored more for their deaths than for the remarkable lives they lived.
While the realities of violence and threats of violence against trans people are very real, any narrative that focuses solely on death threatens to erase the beauty and resilience that shines through when people live into who God has created them to be, especially in the midst of a world that continues to encourage them to be someone else.
One thing I didn’t know before seminary was how many stories in the Bible resonate with those of trans folks. One of my favorite of these stories is from John 20, when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ. Mary’s heartbreak over the death of Jesus is amplified when, upon arriving to clean his body, she instead finds an empty tomb. She is so lost in her grief that she doesn’t recognize the man who comes up to her is the resurrected Jesus. They exchange a few words, but it isn’t until Jesus says her name that she knows it his him. It is precisely when Jesus says “Mary” that she bears witness to the resurrection, and subsequently carries that message out to the world. For many trans people, the experience of claiming their name and being called by that name is a pivotal moment in the process of living into the fullness of their identity. Every time I hear the story of Mary and Jesus on that first Easter morning my mind is filled with images of people coming back to life when they are seen and called by their name.
I will confess that I don’t know what happened to Jesus’ body on that first Easter. However, I can assert that I have seen enough people come back to life to believe in resurrection. During my time working at Side by Side, I saw youth after youth come through the doors of the center afraid to make eye contact or to speak; many stumbled over their words as they asked permission to be addressed with their correct pronouns. I saw time and again what happens when a person is called by their name, when their pronouns are respected, and when they are given the space to claim their identity as their own. I have had the honor of bearing witness to the resurrection that happens when a person is truly seen.
In just under two weeks, we will begin the journey through Advent, a time of anticipation as we wait for the in-breaking of God manifested in the person of Jesus. Advent calls us to look around and see where God’s presence is needed, to wake up to the brokenness of the world and to see it for what it is so that we can understand the need for Christ.
As we look to Advent through the lens of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are challenged to wake up to the realities of systemic sexism and white supremacy, and the ways in which such evils are manifest in particular in violence against Trans Women of Color. We are further called to look at our own complicity in these systems, to understand that our unwillingness to speak and to act against such evils has a direct correlation to the continuation of death-dealing behaviors. Advent calls us to be honest with ourselves about our fears and our joys, to own up to the ways we have fallen short or are scared, AND to to see the ways we are connected to one another. It means recognizing how our humanity is tied to the humanity of the 23 trans people murdered in the last year in the United States as much as it tied to the people who murdered them. Advent calls us to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable, and to be encouraged by the belief that the same Spirit that resided in the person of Jesus also lives in us.
Looking around these days, it often seems like there is more death and decay than anything resembling life. We are delving into centuries of unhealed wounds that for too many generations have been ignored; and, it is particularly hard when we don’t know what or when the next tragedy will be, but it seems like we can’t go a week without one. In these difficult times, it’s helpful to remember we have a long and rich history to draw from, of saints or ancestors who’ve been erased or beat down and who have continued to rise up and to claim who they are in the face of a church or a government that claimed they did not exist. What would it be like if this Advent we were to tap into the Spirit who brings us back to life when we are willing to make the courageous step to see one another and let ourselves be seen as we truly are, and to know that God has called each of us by name, even if it isn’t the name we were given at birth?
As we move through this Transgender Day of Remembrance and into Advent, may we hold both the longing and expectation of God’s breaking into the world in tension – to clearly see the brokenness of the world while trusting that God is within and among us as we work to do something to change it. Last week, we created a Transgender Day of Remembrance worship service that we feel holds those things in tension. We offer as a resource for you to use throughout the year, not just around November 20.