Being visibly trans or gender non-conforming in the world means you have the privilege of dealing with a lot of people’s feelings about your presence more than you care to. Folks often want to tell you how they feel about your clothing choices, the way you are “successfully” or “unsuccessfully” portraying your gender and more frequently than not, you get to hear all the sticky stuff they’ve internalized about your trans body and their faith.
I used to joke with my mother that Evangelists on the street would see me and be tripping over each other, because converting a visibly queer person into their very conservative brand of Christianity would mean they get an automatic +100 points and a free ticket into heaven. My mother never found those jokes to be funny, and really, neither did I.
The point is, that every day in this body, I have a million and one people trying to convince me that I am going to Hell if I don’t shape up and get with the cis-stem. This is why affirming ministries are so important.
For trans and gender non-conforming people, our very existence in a transphobic world often causes us to be at the mercy of a plethora of spiritual abuse. Unfortunately, when it comes to seeking support, “affirming ministry” can be a very vague term that often means nothing more than a change in signage.
What I want to accomplish today, is to have a look at what it means to be a congregation that is wholly affirming of trans people.
The majority of affirming congregations I have been to have assured me, again and again how loved I was by God. Now, out of the dozens of affirming ministries I have been to that tacked that “T” onto their pro-LGBT mission, how many could back up their support of me with a theology that affirmed me as a trans person? How many of them did that research? How many of them kept hammering away about sexual orientation, gays & lesbians, but never found it in their heart (or vernacular) to talk about gender identity or even knew the difference?
It is these interactions that keep many trans folks from feeling included in their faith communities, finding a church home or even coming out to their congregations. Below, I have constructed a series of things to keep in mind what it means to create a trans-inclusive ministry.
1. Assume that because your congregation is stellar with LGB issues, that I feel safe as a trans person attending.
2. Trivialize my specific journey as a trans person by simplifying gender into the ways that you as a cis-person are also a bit gender non-conforming, “’Cause you know, gender is a social construct and my best friend was a tomboy growing up and blah blah blah…” I don’t want to be rude and cut you off, but I have seen so many cis people completely pass over the difficulties faced by trans people by watering it down in this way. Please don’t let me have that same experience at church.
3. Ask me for my continued grace when it comes to you learning the right ways to address me as a trans person. I as a trans person am always asked for grace when a wrong pronoun or name is slipped out, or when something transphobic stings across my face.
I am asking that in our faith communities, can I have a refuge? Am I welcome to let all of myself into your spiritual space and be filled there? Can I too be allowed that same freedom? If a congregation has intentionally said they seek to be affirmed, then we must not be stagnant in our understanding of trans people.
4. Look to defend yourself/your congregation with reasons as to why you are not transphobic. Instead, accept that we live in a society that affirms non-trans bodies and seeks to dismantle your participation in those practices.
1. Critically think about the ways trans identities are affirmed, ignored and/or excluded within your congregation’s shared theology. If someone asked you right now what the Bible says about trans people, could you answer that question? Or does your theology in this regard merely include vague references to God’s all affirming love rather than giving specific examples?
There are many theologians that have been seeking to answer these questions; take some time to research them.
2. Ensure that trans initiatives are led by trans people. I’ve observed many a Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) event, talk, or conference about trans bodies in which trans people were not trusted enough to be the primary givers of information. We would never accept an all-white leadership educating the congregation about what it means to be black; why are we so okay with cis people being the perceived leaders on this front?
3. Invite trans people to speak from the pulpit and/or take on leadership positions on days when the topic is not trans specific. Instead of waiting until TDOR to talk about including trans people, we could…include trans people.
4. Have the members of your congregation and clergy trained on how to identify and address transphobic language and/or practices.
5. If your congregation has a men’s and/or women’s ministry, ask if it is inclusive of trans folks that identify within those labels. Consider what a space would look like for trans folks within your congregation that do not identify as either men or women. They also need a space. What does that look like for you all?
6. Be intentional with your language in regards to gender. For example, try using the language of “siblings” versus “brothers and sisters.”
7. Examine whether or not the rites of passage ceremonies your congregation participates in are trans inclusive. Consider creating some rites of passage ceremonies that may be trans specific as folks come into their identities. For example, could there be a naming ceremony for folks that want to renew their connection to faith with their chosen name?
8. Make sure your congregation has in place a set of steps to keep yourselves accountable. Have a trans inclusion task force, or invite a group like Trans Faith to come help you figure out what an appropriate evaluation might look like.
Image via flickr user mdavidford