I grew up Southern Baptist, but I left the church when I entered college because I could not reconcile the unconditional love of God with the narrow and exclusive theology of my childhood denomination.
On Tuesday, this exclusion surfaced once again when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning transgender people.
Vivian Taylor, the executive director of Integrity USA, the national LGBTQ organization for the Episcopal Church, shared her perspective with Believe Out Loud this week in anticipation of the the vote. As a fellow former Southern Baptist, I found her description of “soul freedom,” a foundational tenant of the Baptist faith, to be an apt way to enter this conversation.
In addition, Vivian affirms the complexity of gender identity and the need to enter into respectful dialogue around what is becoming, thankfully, a national conversation.
As a partner of a trans-identified person and an ally to trans and gender non-conforming people, I am grateful to colleagues, friends, and loved ones for sharing their journeys of gender identity and transition with me. Our stories are sacred, and I have gained much insight as a participant in conversations with individuals like Vivian, who continues to identify as a Christian, as well as many, many folks who have been too hurt by religious doctrine to continue their journey within the Christian community.
These conversations give me insight into the experiences of my friends, but they also reveal something about my identity and my faith, too.
By listening, I have learned that our experiences of gender are complex and unique. I have learned to examine my own gender identity, and I have grown to claim my gender proudly as a queer femme-identified cisgender female.
By listening, I have heard from transgender and gender non-conforming individuals who fear walking into our churches. I have heard how religious dogma can obscure the truth of God’s expansive love.
By listening, I have heard stories of acceptance and love, and I have begun to learn how our churches can be safer spaces for trans and gender non-conforming individuals.
By listening, I have learned that gender identity is a sacred gift from God.
In fact, this is a point on which the Southern Baptists and I agree. The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, which is quoted in Tuesday's resolution, proclaims that the “gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation.”
It pains me to know that the denomination of my childhood has taken the sacred truth and twisted it to condemn trans and gender non-conforming individuals, who have done nothing to provoke such hatred but live outside limited human expectations of what gender "should" be.
Additionally, it is maddening to know that much of this bigotry stems from a foundational desire to maintain strict and oppressive gender roles, which still prohibit women from leading churches in the Southern Baptist traditions.
The reality is, neither gender identity nor gender roles are as simple as the Southern Baptists would like us to believe.
I learned when I entered college that my childhood denomination was not the best at processing complexity, and that is precisely part of the reason I could not stay. At 23 years of age, this lesson crystallized further when I realized that the one option I was presented growing up—heterosexuality—left no room for the reality of my sexual orientation.
Instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to gender identity, the Southern Baptists would do well to stop and to listen to their trans and gender non-conforming neighbors.
Instead of condemning, why not enter into a conversation? Why not learn from the experiences of individuals? Why not celebrate the diversity of our unique experiences?
Because for me, this diversity of human experience is exactly what excites me about God.
How incredible must our God be to create humans with such care and complexity? Surely our diverse experiences of gender point to the vastness and creativity of a God beyond the limits of human imagination. Surely this means that the love of God is deeper and wider than we could ever fathom.
And surely, most surely, we as Christians are called to extend this love beyond the borders of our differences.
Photo via flickr user Leland Francisco