Trans 101 for Faith Communities

November 20th marks the 14th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). This event has grown from a candlelight vigil held in Alston, MA following the murder of local transsexual rocker Rita Hester in 1998 to a global phenomenon. As reported by Transgender Europe, 265 people were killed over this past year as a direct result of their trans status.

While the largest TDOR events remain secular, a growing number of churches and even cathedrals are opening their doors to the transgender community, which tends to be invisible in even pro-gay faith based settings. Find out more and honor TDOR this year.

Here are three resources available to faith communities who would like to make their spaces more welcoming to the trans community:

  • transACTION - A Transgender Curriculum For Churches and Religious Institutions, a three session study guide that prepares LGBT allies to make their spaces more welcoming to the trans community. Click here to download via the Institute for Welcoming Resources.
  • Made in God's Image: A Resource for Dialogue about Gender Diversity by Ann Thompson Cook answers basic questions about gender variance as well as transgender and intersex people and their experiences. Click here to order from Many Voices.
  • Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities: A Congregational Guide for Transgender Advocacy is a detailed guide from HRC including biblical analysis and commentary, personal essays, audio files, and liturgy for use in your congregation. Click here to download from HRC.

When in doubt, TRUUsT (Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together) offers these guiding principles: 1) use language that includes all transgender people; 2) educate yourself and others about transgender experiences; and 3) advocate for the affirmation and advancement of transgender religious leaders.

A key sign to the trans community that they have entered into a safe space is the presence of gender neutral bathrooms. While this may appear to be a trivial issue to those who fall within the gender binary, trans people report being harassed and shamed when they try to use a public restroom. This is particularly troublesome for transwomen who all too often get demonized as predators looking to attack women in bathroom stalls when in fact they are just women needing to use the facilities.

Along those lines, those who provide shelters, showers for the homeless and other such services and want to include trans youth and adults need to explore how they can create spaces that can accommodate those whose state issued identification may not match their current gender identity and expression.

Proper terminology is also key. For example, many allies don’t know the distinction between “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” In a nutshell, sexual orientation pertains to the sex(es) one feels a sexual attraction toward. Some people identify as asexual, which includes those who experience no sexual attraction at all as well as a range of other experiences.

“Gender identity” references the internal sense of one’s own gender. “Gender expression” is how one enacts their gender identity in the world.

“Transgender” emerged as an umbrella term coined in 1960s by Virginia Prince that encompasses everyone who does not define themselves as the specific sex assigned to them at birth.

“Cisgender” describes people whose gender identity and expression coincide with the specific sex assigned to them at birth.

As the Sylvia Rivera Project points out, not everyone who fits the above description self-identifies as “transgender.” Hence one needs to ask the person how they self-identify and to then use that given term, as well as that person's preferred choice of pronoun (he, she or a gender neutral pronoun such as ze).

Over at The Revealer and the Washington Post's "On Faith" column, I offer a summary of some of the trans specific measures adopted by a number of mainline denominations. (Future posts will delve more into how these developments are lived out in the lives of trans clergy and lay leaders.)

For an ongoing overview of trans and faith issues, log on to Transfaith Online. One can also find vibrant discussions both at denominational blogs like Transepiscopal, as well as individual blogs such as Anarchist Reverend and Sherman's Wilderness.

Some of the more common terms found under the transgender umbrella include:

  • Cross-dressers (called "transvestites" in the UK), connotes mostly men who chose to dress in the clothing stereotypically associated with the opposite sex of a given culture. Unlike drag queens and drag kings, who tend to be gay men and lesbian women putting on a performance, most male cross dressers tend to be heterosexual who wear their dresses as part of their gender expression. Women who don masculine clothing and mannerisms tend to be seen as adapting to the traditional male led power structures, though sometimes they can get called derogatory terms that call their sexual orientation into question;
  • Gender fluid, a descriptive term applied to those whose gender expression shifts.
  • Genderqueer, a broad term encompassing those whose gender identity challenges the traditional gender binary, such as a person who is neither male nor female. This is also a political term for those who break the rules by refusing to define their gender.
  • Intersex, a word used to describe people who have sexual characteristics of both sexes. While there are some similarities in terms of the need for medical care and gender non-discrimination, intersex people often get lumped in with the transgender community instead of being seen as a separate category with their own unique set of needs and issues.
  • Trans*, an umbrella term used primarily on the internet, the asterisk signifies it includes individuals who are genderqueer, intersex, or otherwise outside the gender binary. Without the asterisk, the term traditionally includes trans men and trans women.
  • Transexuals, the medical term for people who transition from one gender to another.

These definitions remain fluid as the trans community, like the LGB community, does not speak with one unified voice. These broad guidelines can begin a conversation but ultimately, one should use the terms preferred by each individual trans person.

Further trans specific educational resources can be found at the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Psychological Association. Also, some guidelines geared for the media that can be helpful to anyone looking to help give the trans community their voice include Trans Media Watch (this guide is UK based so some of the legal terminology is not applicable elsewhere) and "International Transgender Day of Remembrance: Getting the Story, In their Own Words."

This report was supported by a 2012 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life. The Knight Grants are a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Program in Media and Religion.

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