What Transgender People Teach Us About God, And Our Humanity

by Sharon Groves

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human.” – Russell D. Moore, On Faith, Aug. 15

There are certainly more egregious quotes from Moore’s recent essay, but to focus on them would miss the larger point—that there is no “transgender question.” The question is about how people of faith continue to grow in their understanding of our transgender brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, teachers and pastors. And this is a growth that, make no mistake, Mr. Moore wants to shut down.

In order to grow, one must leave the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ framework behind.

Mr. Moore relies on this narrow, tired and, frankly, dangerous argument to denounce transgender experience as sinful. Now I don’t think Mr. Moore or the Southern Baptist convention lacks caring or compassion. In fact, I work Southern Baptists in our shared efforts to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in faith communities and beyond.

But Moore’s argument is dangerous because it discourages a curiosity about the actual lived experiences of trans people. He is shutting down any deeper conversation and, in the process, dampening our understanding of how the spark of the divine exists in all of us.

What would happen if rather than depicting transgender people as “fac[ing] a long road of learning what it means to live as God created them to be, as male or female,” we actually took seriously the question of what it means to be human and, more expansively, what it means to live into our full humanity? What if rather than saying that biology is destiny we actually explored the ways in which we all experience our own gender identities and expressions?

What if we learned about the lived experiences of our transgender peers?

I remember riding my bike with my brother on a family outing as a child. It was hot and I took off my shirt. My mother’s face turned beet red as she loudly declared, “Little girls do not take their shirts off.” I was 11-years-old.  Just the year before, I ran around impervious to such rules. No one cared. It was then that I learned gender had rules with consequences. I think often of that moment when I think of my transgender friends and colleagues.

My friend and colleague Jay Brown, a transgender man, remembers going to bed each night as a 5-year-old child. He remembers clenching his little hands and praying that he would wake up the boy on the outside that he felt on the inside. He remembers keeping that secret because, even at 5, he knew there’d be consequences.

I would wager to say we all had such moments when our gender identities were defined not by our biology, but by the dictates of our culture—whether or not we are transgender.

The core teachings of Christianity are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. 

We cannot love God fully if we do not do the work of trying to understand who God is for each of us. When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing—from Augustine to Thomas Merton—there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God. We cannot love God if we don’t try to glean how God works in our lives.

Similarly, we cannot really love our neighbors if we cast off all curiosity about who they are and their experience of life in the world. And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves – about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors.

The variation of transgender experience has much to teach us. I was struck that in Moore’s piece he didn’t reference the experience of one transgender person.  He is missing an enormous diversity both in the experiences of faith and of gender identity and expression.

Experiences like that of Joy Ladin, a friend who transitioned while she was teaching at an Yeshiva University, or like Rev. David Weekley, a United Methodist minister who became one of the first openly transgender clergy members after coming out to his congregation about his transition decades prior. These experiences of faith and gender are different again from Rev. Megan Rohrer, an openly gay Lutheran pastor, whose own gender non-conformity provides a unique understanding of those on the margins, many of whom are the homeless community she pastors to in San Francisco.

To live our lives with true compassion and caring, we need to move beyond slogans and ask the deeper questions about gender and the diversity of experiences.  

But to do that, one must ask the right question and be open to a multitude of answers.

Originally published by the Washington Post; Image via flickr user jenny downing