Rev. Mykal Slack, recently featured on Believe Out Loud, is a trans-identified clergy person who describes himself as a "Bridge Builder, Worship Leader and Diversity Trainer." I sat down with Rev. Slack for some tea in Boston where he serves as a Residency Manager in order to glean his insights on creating radically welcoming spaces for trans and gender nonconforming people.
What have you learned from your ministry that can help pastors provide safe space for trans and gender nonconforming people?
The seeds for my minstry were planted at Vision of Hope MCC in Lancaster County, PA. The congregation was trans friendly in a way that the wider community was not, so the church became a very open and safe place for gender nonconforming (GNC) people to openly express all of who they were, and I had found a place wherein I could learn and grow and find my new voice (figuratively and literally!). If ministers want to offer a similar safe space for trans and GNC people who aren’t able to fully be themselves out in the world, it's really important that they are attentive to the particular needs that arise from those experiences.
Three particular things come to mind in terms of personal engagement. First, talk to folks who are trans and GNC and ask us if we have particular needs around space, congregational awareness and ongoing support. Gender-neutral bathrooms are a great place to start, and the needs and responses aren’t going to be the same for every person who lives outside the gender binary. It’s always good to ask, and it's a chance to start the conversation.
Second, when there are church meetings for various ministries, open the doors of the church at least an hour before you expect folks to arrive, and advertise that you’re doing so and why. This gives a person a chance to change into clothing and settle into ways of being that are more comfortable for them than how they may feel forced to dress and be out in the world.
Third, some trans people will have particular needs around privacy outside of the church setting, especially in communities that lack protections against housing, employment and public accommodations discrimination. Be sure to ask your congregants what would be the best way to approach them in public. What name and pronouns do they want people to use when they’re spoken to outside the church setting? Within the congregation, at meetings and other events, the best practice is to pay attention to how folks are referring to themselves in those settings. If you’re not sure, ask, or open meeting by inviting folks to introduce themselves with their names and preferred gender pronouns.
These are not always going to be easy avenues to take, but we wade through difficulty when it’s worth doing, and ensuring that trans and GNC folks find a safe and supportive spiritual home is absolutely worth the occasional discomfort when you consider how uncomfortable it often is for many of us trans and GNC folks on a regular and consistent basis.
How can faith communities who already welcome gays and lesbians extend the same welcome to trans people?
More than anything else, churches can educate themselves about trans issues. I’ve heard more than a few stories over the years of faith communities in which their lesbian and gay members were downright hostile to trans people. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that lesbian and gay folks are impacted by the misinformed binary system of gender just as much as anyone else.
Many of us, without new and more comprehensive information, begin with the idea that one’s gender, of which there are only supposed to be two, by the way, is determined by genitalia alone. This kind of misinformation can lead to just as much gender bias in the choir loft as it can in the restroom, and it’s not fair to people who just want to be supported in their faith communities.
As faith communities who are already welcoming to lesbian and gay people begin to educate themselves, there are particular ways we can do our own work. Folks can refer to organizations like TransFaith, a national nonprofit that’s led by transgender people and focused on issues of faith and spirituality, or the Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), a national social justice organization that promotes the interests of trans people of color and cares about mobilizing faith communities of every shape and size around issues affecting all of us, regardless of ethnicity.
I’m the spiritual outreach director for TPOCC, and I’m always eager to hear from and support the efforts of pastors, current or would-be congregants and lay leaders who care about building a community that is not just inclusive but celebratory of trans people’s lives. MCC offers a TransFormative Church Ministry Program that has a plethora of educational, liturgical and outreach resources for communities wanting to engage trans inclusion in a deeper way.
Communities of faith, especially the ones who are less familiar with trans issues, can reach out and partner with another local church or community organization more familiar with the observance to host a Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) service. Check out this listing of observances being held all over the United States and the world each year. Believe Out Loud and Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life, also have great TDOR resources.
Along those lines, how else can faith leaders educate themselves about the issues pertinent to the trans community?
They can participate as an observer at conferences like the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference and regional Transgender Faith and Action Network events. When attending these gatherings, it's important for any clergy person to have a deep awareness of the terrible impact particular structures of power and theological perspective in churches have had on people in trans and queer communities. How you enter into these spaces will inform the outcome as many trans people will wonder what your agenda might be.
The key here is to be completely open to what you might learn. Say something like "I'm the Rev. So-and-So and I don't know anything about your experience as a trans person. What can you tell me that I might need to know as a person of faith who wants to be supportive?" As faith communities who are already welcoming to lesbian and gay people begin to educate themselves, there are particular ways we can do our own work.
There are also a number of print resources available. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the following:
- GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary, by Joan Nestle
- Transgender 101, by Nicholas M. Teich
- My Gender Workbook, by Kate Bornstein
- Freeing Ourselves: A Guide to Health and Self Love for Brown Bois, by The Brown Boi Project
- Trans-gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith, by Rev. Justin Tanis
These print resources do not speak to every experience and some of the language may be dated, but they can be a good start.
You recently facilitated a discussion with the Humanist Community at Harvard. What is the value of your doing a workshop on LGBTQ inclusivity with the Harvard humanists?
Essentially, the value is the same as it would be in any specifically Christian or multi-faith context. The Humanist Community at Harvard, as well as other similar communities sprouting up all over the country, provides an invaluable space to folks for whom notions of God and Spirit do not resonate. It would be ill-advised and a bit silly, in my opinion, for any of us Christian-identified folk to presume that wherever God is not invoked, community can’t be built and sustained in beautiful and healthy ways. Quite the opposite is true. Greg Epstein and the leadership of the Humanist Community are wonderful people who care deeply about building a community in which every person who walks through the doors is able to both recognize the value of their presence and feel the impact of the support they’ll receive.
So when we talked about what it means to be intentional about making room for different lived experiences and how important it is to grow comfortable with sometimes being uncomfortable with those differences, I know they took those messages to heart in some of the same ways any other caring group of people would. And I believe they’ll make any changes necessary to reflect those messages. I respect who they are and what they’re doing, and it was a pleasure to be able to spend some time with them sharing and learning together. This is the work of 4LYFE Ministries, to Live Your Faith Everyday and to strive for deeper connection among people across difference…coming together to grow together.