Transgender and Christian: Finding Identity

Religion Dispatches, CA, USA

Transgender and Christian: Finding Identity

By Jori Lewis

September 3, 2009


The idea of transgender Christianity shocks people on both sides of
the divide: conservative religious reject any kind of gender variance
and the LGBT community can be suspicious of organized religion. In all
of this, trans-Christians are forging a new spirituality.

Allyson Robinson is an ordained Baptist minister. But until a few
years ago, she lived life as a man.

Robinson had struggled with her transgender identity all of her life,
growing up as a little boy who longed for dresses. “I grew up in my
mom’s closet," she said.

   “For most of my life that was just something I did. It was not who
I was. And I understood it as something that was wrong. Then that
wrongness became a sin. God was clearly displeased with my need to
express myself in feminine ways.”

Robinson tried to suppress this desire. She married, had kids and went
to divinity school.

As a man, Robinson pastored a Baptist church in a small town in
Central Texas. “We were in the kind of place where a pastor’s coming
out, it would have been on the front page of the local paper,” she
said. Robinson said that those congregants, nice and well-meaning as
they were, would not have been comfortable with a transgender pastor.
She worried about how the community’s reaction would affect her
children. So when she made the decision to become a woman, she quietly
resigned.

A False Dichotomy

The Human Rights Campaign <http://www.hrc.org/> estimates that
transsexuals represent approximately .25 to 1 percent of the US
population. That number does not include the transgender people who
haven’t undergone sex reassignment surgery (a process many people call
“the transition”), so the number of transgender-identified people is
likely much higher. The term “transgender” encompasses anyone with a
gender identity that is different from his or her birth sex. A
transgender person could be someone who just cross-dresses from time
to time in private; someone who identifies as gender-queer (that is,
neither male nor female); someone who is just taking hormones but not
undergoing any surgical modifications; or someone who is undergoing or
will undergo full sex reassignment surgery, including genital
modification. Such differences vary according to socioeconomic status,
age, and cultural context, but, in general, transgender people are
sprinkled across every color and creed.

Transgender people, though, are much less likely to take part in an
organized religion than non-transgender people, according to
researchers. In their article “Understanding Spirituality and
Religiosity in the Transgender Community: Implications for Aging
<http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a903772558~db=all~jumptype=rss>
,” authors Jeremy Kidd and Tarynn Witten posit a reason:

   “The tendency not to identify with a formal religion may reflect
an affirmation of one’s own dignity that these religions fail to
honor, an expression of protest against certain religious tenets,
and/or a refusal to align oneself with institutions contributing to
the marginalization of gender and sexual minorities. The difference in
religious identification appears to reflect thoughts and feelings
toward religious institutions more than it does spiritual behavior or
beliefs.”

But the idea of transgender Christianity still carries shock value for
many; in conservative Christian circles and radical LGBT circles
alike. Pauline Park, one of the founders of a transgender group called
the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy
<http://www.nyagra.com/> , says that people often feel it's one or the
other—LGBTs vs. Christians.

   “In other words, if you’re for LGBT rights, you must be an atheist
and have nothing whatsoever to do with organized religion, and you’re
probably inclined to want to burn down the nearest church. Conversely,
if you are a person of faith, that means you are an evangelical
Christian and all religion says that homosexuality and transgender are
sins and there’s no disputing that. Of course, that’s a false
dichotomy, because neither are true.”

What is true, though, is that there is often tension between these
camps, real or imagined. Asher Kolieboi is an organizer with
SoulForce, a group that works to fight religious bias against LGBT
people. It’s a bias he has experienced firsthand. Kolieboi, who is
tall and broad with long dreadlocks, was always manly—even as a little
girl. But when he decided to transition, his Pentecostal family had no
vocabulary to understand his decision to alter his body. They saw it
as a rejection of God’s divine plan. “‘That’s not God’s plan, and
that’s not God’s plan for you, and it’s definitely not God’s plan for
the way society is suppose to run,'” they said. “So not only was I
doing something that’s not natural, but, of course, it’s an
abomination.”

Just about everyone who is transgender has a similar story about an
awkward conversation, a sense of disapproval, the cold shoulder, or a
little reference to hell. Many transgender people end up leaving these
churches, their families, and their expectations.

Man and Woman, Separate and Distinct

There are churches that have accepted transgender parishioners and
clergy. Consider the Baltimore case of Drew Phoenix, a minister with a
United Methodist Church. His congregation accepted and supported his
decision to transition. And, of course, there are many LGBT-friendly
churches out there that have been open to transgender people for
decades.

But many of the other larger denominations have not and probably will
not anytime soon. The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest
denominations in the United States, has taken a strong stance against
LGBT rights as a whole. And the Catholic Church, one of the world’s
largest religious institutions, has been outspoken specifically about
the transgender issue.

Shortly before Christmas in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech
to the Curia (the administrative arm of the Catholic Church) that our
gender was a gift from the creator and denounced those who would try
to change it. “It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of
listening to the language of creation,” he said, “the devaluation of
which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the
destruction of the same work of God.” In other words, he threw down a
transgender gauntlet.

For the Pope and many others, it all comes down to a literal reading
of the Bible’s book of Genesis which says, “So God created man in his
own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created
he them.” They say that means God created man and woman, separate and
distinct.

Mark Yarhouse is director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual
Identity at Regent University, a conservative Christian university
that was founded by the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson. Over the years,
Yarhouse has counseled adults and children who believed they might be
transgender, and his institute has just finished a preliminary study
on transgender Christians. He said he was impressed by how difficult
their lives often seemed to be.

“Often a person is completely isolated because it’s so rare. They
don’t have like-minded or many other people in that local church
community to support them and encourage them,” said Yarhouse.

   “I think conservative churches often have a very clear idea of how
a person should resolve this, and they often place more of an emphasis
on resolving it in accordance with your birth sex rather than your
psychological experience of your gender identity. And I think that,
often, transgender people are trying to decide just that—how do I
resolve this?”

Spiritual Surgery

Allyson Robinson, an ordained Baptist minister, spent more than a
decade praying for her own resolution. She pleaded, “God make me
strong enough to resist this temptation.” But nothing happened.

Robinson tried to understand why God had not answered her prayers. She
tried to interpret God’s silence theologically and came up with a few
options: 1. The God that she had been praying to didn’t exist; 2. God
wasn’t who she thought he was. He wasn’t compassionate, and he didn’t
care about her suffering; 3. God was causing this suffering for his
own glory; 4. God was causing the suffering to keep Robinson humble.

None of those explanations were satisfactory. But one day, she had a
revelation. She, said, “the reason God had not fixed me was because I
was not broken.”

When Mark Yarhouse embarked on his study of transgender Christians, he
said he didn’t know what he was going to find. He contacted people
through a transgender Christian internet group and found people in
churches across the country. “I was impressed by their personal faith
and their efforts to sort of find a home for their Christianity, for
their own Christian identity,” he said.

Some had found a way to look at the Bible and find themselves in it.
And not in the abomination, sin and hellfire scriptures, either.

Justin Tanis writes in his book, Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry
and Communities of Faith, about a sense that his transgender identity
was a calling, on par with the call to ministry. “Rather than simply
being a fluke, an oddity, or a source of shame, gender variance comes
to be seen as part of our God-given identities,” he writes. “Even more
than that, it becomes our spiritual responsibility to explore fully
the nature that God has given to us.” He says that thinking of being
transgender in this way allows transgender people to be a part of
God’s plan, not exceptions to it.

The Metropolitan Community Church of New York City is a gay-affirming
church tucked into an area of Hell’s Kitchen, just past the entrance
to the Lincoln Tunnel. The Gender People group, founded more than a
decade ago to give transgender people a safe place to talk, meets at
the church every Sunday in a makeshift library on the second floor.
Moshay Moses, a transwoman with warm brown skin and a curly,
honey-blond bob, said when she and some other people started the group
they had a vision. Here, there should be no talk of drugs or passing
or surgery. Here, they would be doing “spiritual surgery” to break
down those negative walls of Jericho that have kept them from
recognizing themselves as spiritual beings.

On a sunny summer day she held court before a small audience,
including me, of exactly five. The topic was less coherent, more
episodic, and loosely about the importance of metaphysics. “We take
from the Bible that God is neither male or female, but spirit,” said
Moses. One woman who didn’t identify as transgender so much as just
androgynous, talked about her acute depression and how she wakes up
every morning and wants to die. The conversation turned from there to
talk about wholeness as a person and the wonders of God’s love. One
guy got up and left abruptly; and another person fell asleep. At the
end, they all seemed satisfied, though.

I asked one participant, a tall transwoman about why she comes to the
group. She said, “I finally found a place where I can talk about my
spirituality—as a transgender person.” Because, here at Gender People,
their transgender identity isn’t something to apologize for or
something they need to justify; it is, according to Moses, a gift, a
blessing, and its own salvation.

A Biblical Magic Trip

Actor Peterson Toscano was inspired by what he calls the secret
history of transgender people in the Bible. He started workshopping a
play on the topic almost two years ago. He named it Transfigurations,
a reference to the metamorphosis of Jesus to a being with a visible
divine radiance. Toscano describes the play as “a biblical magic
trip.” It’s a one-man show that explores the stories people of
indeterminate gender, of Joseph and his girl-like ways (remember his
coat of many colors?), and of Deborah and her man-like ones.

In Toscano’s play, he includes two sketches with eunuchs. In one of
them, he tells the biblical story of the Ethiopian eunuch who Philip
converts on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In the Old Testament
there is a prohibition against eunuchs entering places of worship. But
Philip baptizes the eunuch, showing him that the religion of Jesus is
more inclusive of outcasts. Toscano’s narrator, recounting the
meeting, says that baptism is “a sign to show we died to our old
lives, and we are free to live more as ourselves.”

Toscano said he started out doing the play in queer-friendly places;
LGBT centers, Metropolitan Community Churches. “I didn’t think that
anyone would be interested in this,” he said. “You know, sure,
trans-spiritual people… that’s like 25 people.” But later he moved
to other places—churches with little old ladies and populations of
evangelical Christians. What he found surprised him.

He said the audiences always seem to be moved. “I’ll almost hear
weeping during the show,” Toscano said.

So, he asked himself, what is it about this story about transgender
people that moves the straight and the gay and the many in between? He
said he thinks these transgender stories touch some universal part of
people. The part that looks in the mirror and sometimes has trouble
recognizing the person there. The part that worries about gaining
weight or getting older. The part that is worried about change. And
transgender people embody change; they are people who have been bold
enough to change everything about themselves.

“All Things Come of Thee”

Lynn Walker is a transgender priest in the Orthodox-Catholic Church of
America. In photos, she sports her priest’s collar, but in her
day-to-day work at a transitional housing program for transgender sex
workers, she’s all jeans, T-shirts, and blond hair pushed back. She
says she doesn’t push her religion on anybody. Just like she doesn’t
mention her transgendered status unless she wants to.

Walker looks at it this way. Being transgender is not a sin or a
pathology; it’s about variety. “Based on science, this is uncommon,
but normal and natural,” she said. “Somewhere in the Book of Job, it
say all things come of thee, oh Lord.” Walker said that yes,
transgender people take advantage of scientific advancements to change
their bodies. But she doesn’t see why that should be wrong or
controversial or an abomination in the eyes of God. “If science is a
gift from God,” she asked. “Why don’t we listen?”

Walker says she often wishes transgender people could encounter less
religious persecution out there; that they could walk into a random
church and not be afraid of how people might react. “If more
trans-people were involved in faith communities, then faith
communities would normalize the experience,” she said. Walker used to
run workshops at the LGBT center in New York City and she once, years
and years ago, tried to start a spirituality group. The first week,
two people showed up. The next week, there was only one other person.
Eventually she gave up. But, these days, she’s more hopeful. Maybe in
five or ten more years, she said, it won’t even be an event to see a
transgender person in a church—or even leading it.

© 2009 Religion Dispatches. All rights reserved.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/1803/transgender_and_christian:_finding_identity

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