Rev. Dr. Justin Tanis is an ordained Christian minister in the Metropolitan Community Church. He is also transgender, and he is the author of a book titled Transgendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith.
In it Rev. Tanis writes: “We tend to create God in our own image. If we ourselves are uncomfortable with gender variation, then we say that God is uncomfortable with it.”
Rev. Tanis’ words are sadly prophetic after what transpired in Houston last week.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, would have provided legal protections for people against discrimination. HERO offered protections not just for LGBT people, but also for 13 different categories of people already protected under federal law, including race, disability, military status, and national origin.
But somehow, HERO was overturned by popular vote. This popular vote was mostly informed by Christian pulpits and motivated by Christian churches.
Mayor Annise Parker said in what was deemed a concession speech: “This isn’t misinformation. This is a calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little understood minority.”
Do you know what the lie was?
The lie was that transgender persons are criminal men wearing dresses, and that if HERO were not overturned, these men in women’s dresses would be free to go into women’s restrooms and commit crimes of sexual assault and pedophilia against our women.
Signs against HERO read, “No men in women’s bathrooms,” and suddenly that was what an ordinance to protect people from discrimination became all about.
Well, if a few Christian churches felt it necessary to talk about that from their pulpits and to make that their mission, then maybe we should be concerned about bathrooms, too. So, the title of this blog is: “Where would Jesus go to the bathroom?”
This is important apparently. Where would Jesus use the bathroom?
I did some research—consulted books and blogs on biblical archeology; spoke with a colleague who is now a professor of religious studies—and here’s what I discovered.
The Israelites who followed the guidelines for a war camp found in the 23rd chapter of Deuteronomy could not use the bathroom on the premises of their camp. The idea was that Yahweh—God—walks through your camp, and you don’t want God to step in what you leave behind; so, leave the residence to use the bathroom.
This also applies to the Temple. According to the Talmud, you don’t go to the bathroom in the Temple. Instead, you are to go outside the Temple and face away from the Temple to go number one, and face toward the Temple to go number two.
But where would Jesus actually go to the bathroom?
When I traveled to Turkey and went to Ephesus, I saw Greek-designed marble-top toilets that were used in ancient times. Authority figures could even have servants go warm the marble seat up for them before they themselves would use it, and then the elites all went to the bathroom together.
However, these toilets were not available to the commoner. And Jesus was not elite. Jesus was homeless. So, we’re still unclear about where he and his disciples would go for a bathroom break.
Unfortunately, we can only speculate about the answer to this question because the gospels mention Jesus using the bathroom the same amount of times as they mention Jesus laughing or talking about homosexuality: none.
So, where is a devoted person of faith to go in order to find Christian instruction for bathroom use?
Justin Tanis writes, “The bathroom issue is one of the most frequent questions that congregations ask me to address when they are seeking to be inclusive of transgender persons. Some in the transgender community have joked that our rallying cry should be, ‘Let my people pee.’”
Maybe this sounds kind of funny, but have you ever thought about what it would be like if every time you went out in public you didn’t have a place to use the bathroom, or that every time you did go into a bathroom you were uncomfortable or even afraid for your safety?
This is the experience of so many of our transgender neighbors, and in Houston, that experience is worsened because a campaign informed by Christian pulpits and motivated by Christian churches demonized transgender people.
The orphan, the widow, and the stranger were the overlooked, vulnerable, marginalized ones that the society of God’s people were mandated to care for, to protect, to not discriminate against.
Who are the overlooked, vulnerable, marginalized ones in our midst today?
According to Time Magazine, Transgender people are four times more likely than the general population to report living in extreme poverty, making less than $10,000 per year, a situation that sometimes pushes these dear ones to enter the dangerous trade of sex work.
Nearly 80% of transgender people report experiencing harassment at school when they were young. As adults, some report being physically assaulted on trains and buses, and in retail stores and restaurants.
The largest study on trans people in the U.S. surveyed more than 6,400 individuals and found that 15% of black trans people and 16% of Latino/Latina trans people have been physically assaulted at work. One in five trans people experience homelessness—and 38% of black trans people and 29% of Latino/Latina trans people have been refused a home or apartment due to bias.
And then there’s hate crimes motivated by transphobia.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 16 of at least 20 LGBT people murdered in 2014 in the U.S. were people of color; 11 were transgender women, and 10 were transgender women of color. And as of this month, 23 trans women have been killed in the United States.
Meanwhile, Christian churches, the ones who are mandated by the law of God’s love to protect those most overlooked, vulnerable, and marginalized in society, are making it their mission to make a little understood minority that much more misunderstood.
As a follower of Christ and a witness to the Gospel, I’m tired of Christian churches and our pulpits being known for stirring hate campaigns and marginalizing the most vulnerable children of God in the society we all share.
As Christians, we need to be less about protecting our supposed values and more about protecting the most vulnerable neighbors in our midst.
We Christians need to make the news not for spearheading a campaign that overturns protections for those most discriminated against in our society, but for building a plowshares movement that holds the institutional powers that be accountable any time they forget or refuse to acknowledge our marginalized neighbor.
As Christians we need to show up on social media newsfeeds not for being offended at Starbucks introducing a design for their cups that includes various religious holidays, but for standing up with and for our Muslim neighbors and our Jewish neighbors who are overlooked, misunderstood, and ostracized for practicing their sacred traditions and just being who they are during the holiday season.
As Christians we need to not sit idly by when anyone’s human rights come up for a popular vote, but instead we need to give all that we have to assuring that the daily intimidation of psychological violence toward our transgender neighbor ends.
So, where would Jesus go to the bathroom?
Turns out, this is a very important question.
Adapted from a sermon delivered at Friends Congregational Church (UCC) in College Station, Texas, on November 8, 2015; Photo via flickr user Lauren Manning