United Methodists Creating Trans Friendly Spaces in the Greater Chicago area

Much of the media buzz after the United Methodist Church's (UMC) quadrennial General Conference (May 2012) focused on the UMC vote of 39% to 61% against changing long-contested language in the church's Book of Discipline that calls homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." In addition, they defeated a petition that would acknowledge that faithful United Methodists disagree on the role of LGBT people in the church.

However, as I noted in The Revealer, conservatives were unsuccessful in adding transgender people to their "incompatible" list, but moderates did add gender identity as a protected group in its “hate crimes” section. David Weekley, author of In From the Wilderness—Sherman: She-r-man and one of two transgender UMC clergy persons, noted that the UMC did not support his petition for a study of gender identity, nor did they address other issues relating to LGBT persons such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT clergy persons. At present, transgender clergy can serve in the UMC assuming that like Weekley, they marry someone of the opposite sex.

While UMC may have closed down all conversations regarding human sexuality at their last conference, this conversation continues. The Chicago based Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for the full participation of all people in the UMC, recently launched a transgender extension ministry (TEM). The Extension Ministries of RMN are geared toward specific groups of people who are interested in working together for a more inclusive church.

On October 19, 2012, the RMN brought together about 15 UMC trans leaders and allies who had been meeting informally over conference calls. Alex McNeill, who served as the meeting facilitator for this in-person gathering, commented on the energy in the room. "I think people were really excited to be together after mostly meeting over the phone as they explore what it means for there to be an official extension ministry for transgender people. As a collective group, they feel they have the power to make things happen."

Their goals include more formal meeting times, board representation at RMN, and education around transgender issues. In particular, they want to find ways they can be more visible both within the Reconciling Ministries Network, as well as the larger UMC church. A major challenge moving forward will be navigating how they can assume a more public role in light of the ongoing discrimination faced by gay and lesbian UMC clergy. Also, they discussed issues around spouses and partners of transgender people, a topic seldom addressed even in transgender circles. Weekley's spouse Deborah wrote a piece for the 2012 Transgender Day of Remembrance about her experiences for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) blog. Over the next few months, TEM will be sketching how to begin implementing their goals.

Those looking to connect with TEM can check out the materials and contact information on their website.

In addition to connecting with RMN and learning about their formal work with the transgender community, I also spoke with two UMC churches in the Chicago area who include transgender youth as a component of their family and youth programming. These churches represent a growing movement of UMC congregations who choose to take a stand to welcome all by granting equal rights to everyone even when this radical inclusion goes against formal Methodist polity.

The Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, Pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church, explains how this historic church situated in Chicago's Boystown created a welcoming space with their mission statement, which reads: "We welcome all persons—celebrating the human family's God-given diversity of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and physical or mental capacity. We also welcome persons of all social and economic classes and faith backgrounds." She noted how when the congregation says this statement every week during the service, someone hears this statement for the first time and realizes they're talking about them. In 2011, they invited the Rev. Weekley to speak to them for National Coming Out Day about his spiritual journey as a trans mans as a way to educate their congregation about the specific needs of trans people. McCullen Parr notes that their weekly Saturday youth lounge attracts a number of trans youths of color. One of these youths told McCullen Parr that she comes to the weekly youth lounge because, "I know I'm at home now."

Within the larger community, Broadway UMC worked with the Lakeview Action Coalition to get the Chicago police to adopt a Transgender General Order in September 2012. This order is intended to protect trans people who do not have an ID that matches their current gender or chose not to go through the complications of obtaining an ID that will not match their gender identity. Chicago represented one of the last cities to implement this order. While the order has been adopted by CPD, it is not perfect, says McCullen Parr. "We had hoped for an order that more fully understands the complexity and diversity within the trans community itself – CPD was not willing to wait to make the order perfect; however, we are hopeful that officer training will make a difference." Currently, the Lakeview Action Coalition is trying to implement an education and training program about transgender issues for officers.

For those who consider transgender ministries as primarily an urban outreach, United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights, a suburban congregation of about 1,000 people situated 23 miles out of Chicago, now includes a transgender ministry as part of their family ministry programming. The Rev. Bonnie Beckonchrist, Lead Pastor and National Board Chair for the RMN, recounted how this ministry began when they had a staff member who had a gender nonconforming child. They raised money to send Lorena and her family to attend Gender Spectrum's national conference. This organization provides education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens. Following this conference, Lorena began a support and empowerment group called Pinwheels that has grown to eleven people. This group works with schools and other local resources to create safe spaces for trans children and youth. For example, they connected with Transformations, a retail store that specializes in clothing, shoes, and make-up to help trans people explore their gender expressions.

Beckonchrist recommends that those looking to start a similar ministry need to do the necessary preparations in order to make their guests feel welcome. For example, the trans community views the establishment of gender neutral bathrooms as a critical sign they have entered a space that is sensitive to the needs of those who are outside of the male/female binary. Their church building did not have any unisex bathrooms in their church until a recent renovation when they established two gender free bathrooms that they marked as family bathrooms. Also, she noted how people need to really examine their own preparedness to ensure that the congregation is willing to welcome transgender people as full partners who can participate in all aspects of the church.

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