Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Faith Communities & Trans Demands

As part of the ACLU-Missouri's Transgender Education and Advocacy Program and the launch of the Trans Ally Toolkit, trans activists and organizers in Springfield were invited to join Jay-Marie Hill in hosting a Trans Demands event focused on Faith Spaces. It was a beautiful experience to join with others in planning the event, which took place on October 7, 2018. You can read more about the event at the Springfield News-Leader. As a former minister in a conservative Christian denomination, I was asked to speak to my experiences as a genderqueer person. Below is the main text of what I shared, lightly edited. 


CN: Bullying, suicide, gender and sexuality antagonsims

Here at the beginning, I want you to know that I am wonderfully happy about my gender and sexuality. I love – I really love – being genderqueer. I love belonging to the transgender family. I’ll be focusing on painful and difficult experiences this afternoon as we continue to call faith spaces to accountability, but I don’t want there to be any confusion. There is so much joy in my life. There are so many incredible, beautiful, fantastic people I’ve met and you are so important to me, and to our community. I am so grateful for the time and life we’ve shared together. I am so grateful for you. The joy and life and love we share are why I am willing to stand here and assert our humanity and speak what religious folk often call “a hard word.” I am angry, to be sure; but I am angry because all this suffering is unnecessary and cruel, and I am so exhausted from feeling and seeing my transgender siblings suffer so much. I hope that, in the anger, you also can hear this love. 

I’d also like to be honest in acknowledging that I am mainly addressing conservative Christian individuals, institutions, and cultures today. For one, this is the community whose abuse I personally have experienced, and I can speak from that experience. Second, 35% of folks in Greene County identified as evangelical protestants in 2010. That’s 96,521 people, as compared to, for example, 308 Muslims or 29 Theravadin Buddhists. (http://www.city-data.com/county/religion/Greene-County-MO.html ) This is our local religious context. 

I am, as I said, a genderqueer, bisexual, demisexual, queer person. I was assigned male at birth, but from my earliest memories, categories like male, boy, and man didn’t fit. Body parts weren’t quite right, and gender roles and expectations were completely wrong. One of my most vivid childhood memories, when I was about 8, was a triumphant proclamation welling inside me that “I will never be a man!” 

But inner and outer worlds are too often different places. I gradually learned when it was safe to be myself, when to hide, and when to play along. I loved dolls, playing house, and gardens and cooking; but it was clear to me, through sideways glances and jokes, that this was not acceptable. At church and school, it was important to the boys that I understood that I was considered weak. But they didn’t know the toughness being born in me. I could stare them in the eye and then go home to embroider with my grandma. 

Unfortunately, those weren’t my only experiences, and it was the religious bullying that cut even more deeply. Growing up in one of our many religiously and culturally conservative faith traditions, I learned very deep lessons about how evil and disgusting everyone thought I was, especially after I started puberty and discovered I was also bisexual. For almost three decades, I learned to live with the contradictions between myself and my religious heritage only by developing a deep self-loathing. 

For most of my life, I wasn't in the closet in the strict sense. I was careful when I talked about gender and sexuality, because it was intensely private and because those topics were generally not discussed at all in my social circles. There are still many people from my past who would probably be surprised to find out about my gender and sexual identities. But it has not been a closely guarded secret and I’ve acknowledged it openly from time to time, including the time that’s become my most embarrassing moment in my life. It happened when a friend of mine invited me to go to a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community at what is now Missouri State University, with the express intent of praying for and converting them to our religious views. At the close of the event, I stood on a chair and announced to everyone that I was a bisexual but that I knew it was a sin and that God’s grace meant I did not have to act on it. My internalized oppression was in full view. 

It’s terribly embarrassing to remember, and I would regret it, except the wonderful folk from the gay and lesbian support group on campus invited me to start coming to their meetings. It was the first time in my life that I got to spend time with people in a community that I hadn’t yet understood I desperately needed. So if this reflection happens to reach anyone who was at that meeting in the spring of 1995, or at the GALA meetings afterward, I want to apologize first and thank you second. You welcomed me and my internalized oppression, and your welcome helped heal my heart. I won’t ever forget you, even though I have forgotten your names. 

But it took a long time to heal, and it was easier to change my socio-political positions than it was to change my relationship with my own body. I always had to hedge my identities with disclaimers about how I knew all of this was sinful and I was resisting. It wasn’t until around 2005 when I came to deeply, emotionally understand that not only was I genderqueer and bisexual, I was not a terrible person for being so. I left my childhood denomination in the spring of 2007, and the freedom I felt to celebrate, rather than demonize, my gender and sexuality was wonderful and healing. 

So here’s my first demand: Recognize that the wounds that trans and gender-expansive folk have suffered may make it necessary for them to change their religious activities and associations, and that sometimes includes leaving your community. Support them in what is best for their well-being. 

There was no way I could heal from those wounds, inflicted in the name of Jesus, without leaving the oppressive structures and cultures of my childhood denomination behind. I tried. I tried for years. I am often surprised I managed to survive. Some of these denominations have even made their trans-antagonism official, as one national resolution in 2014 from a prominent denomination shows. Using words like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ to mask deeply trans-antagonistic, hateful convictions, they piled up proof texts and doctrinal statements to declare that gender variance and transgender identity are the result of sin. Their commitment to “receive them into church membership” was dependent on a person first agreeing their gender identity was sinful and repenting of that sin. The resolution finished with a resounding and arrogant proclamation that they would “continue to oppose steadfastly all efforts by any governing official or body to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy” and “oppose all cultural efforts to validate claims to transgender identity.” (https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-transgender-identity/ )

This is an example of what we do NOT mean by being a Trans Ally. This is my second demand: Stop disguising bigotry with words like love and compassion. If you cannot whole-heartedly affirm a trans or gender-expansive person’s identity, be honest about it, for our own safety. Bigotry is not love, no matter how you spin it. 

These kinds of statements both reflect and empower the terrible ways LGBTQIA+ folk are treated, and these kinds of attitudes and harmful opinions, misguided and unscientific as they are, contribute to the mental and emotional anguish I described earlier. I want to be clear: the religious tradition of my childhood systematically taught me to hate and reject my self, and I faithfully and painfully did so for almost three decades of my life. But many people are trapped even longer, and many do not survive at all. The bigotry that religious folk justify under the guise of religious freedom has real world consequences. And it is directly connected to the harm we endure spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and, more times than people are usually comfortable talking about, physically and sexually. 

This is my third demand: Start being honest about the pain this kind of bigotry has caused in people’s lives. Don’t hide behind claims that you or your church are exceptional. Religious institutions have actively endangered our lives, and we need to know that you recognize that and can be honest about it. 

By way of example, we can look at just a few of the statistics from the Human Rights Coalition’s 2012 survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified young people (ages 13-17).

  • 42% of LGBT youth say their community does not accept them.
  • LGBT youth as twice as likely “to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved at.”
  • 22% of non-LGBT youth named “class, exams and grades” as their biggest problems, while 26% of LGBT youth named “not feeling accepted by their family, trouble at school/bullying, and a fear to be out/open” as their biggest problems.
  • 92% “hear negative messages about being LGBT.”
  • Not surprisingly, then, 73% said they were “more honest about themselves online than in the real world.” (http://www.hrc.org/youth-report/view-and-share-statistics )

And the September 2017 report on the U.S. Transgender Survey documented that, within the transgender community, 35% of heterosexual, 37% of gay and lesbian, 41% of bisexual, and 51% of pansexual respondents “reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime”. (http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/A%20Closer%20Look%20Bisexual%20Transgender.pdf )

These impacts provide some context for understanding the horrible reality in our LGBTQIA+ communities’ experience of suicide. According to statistics collected by the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight youth, and those from “highly rejecting families” are 8.4 times as likely to make an attempt as those from families that accept them. And each time an LGBTQ person experiences “physical or verbal harassment or abuse,” the chances of self-harm increase “2.5 times on average.” Transgender folk are especially vulnerable, and 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide. (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide )

When you consider how committed U.S. religious institutions have been to demonizing, dehumanizing, and shaming us, it is an inescapable conclusion that these institutions are directly contributing to our terrible suffering (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-lgbq-religion-suicide/religious-faith-linked-to-suicidal-behavior-in-lgbq-adults-idUSKBN1HK2MA ). These teachings are, as one of my friends has put it, “a Sunday School lesson with a casualty count.” So let me repeat myself: the bigotry that trans-, homo-, and bi- antagonistic folk justify under the guise of religious freedom has real world consequences. And it is connected to the harm LGBTQIA+ folk endure spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and, more times than people are usually comfortable talking about, physically and sexually. 

My stories, your stories, and these statistics all reveal how dangerous this world can be for us, with Queer and Trans People of Color most at risk. But these stories don’t define us, and we live our lives as a witness to what a difference qualities like hospitality, affirmation, kindness, and celebration can make in allowing us to thrive as human beings. When I left my childhood denomination’s toxic soup of racism, sexism, and sexuality and gender antagonisms, behind me, it became a lot simpler to be an ethical, moral, compassionate person. And when I stumbled upon communities who purposely welcomed and affirmed me, it brought healing I never expected to receive. 

But I’ve also shared these stories to invite us to reflect on the growth we have left to do. Even at places that welcome me, it is often not completely clear how unguarded I can be, how much of myself I can share with others. The wounds that my previous religious experiences left are still tender, even after more than a decade later. I am careful because I don’t want to risk the well-being that I had to fight so long to finally reach. And I realize that I still have work to do, and I suspect most of you do, too. 

There are programs now, like the one we are celebrating here today, that can help guide a group through some of this process, and we’ve made some real progress in some areas. But our progress is being matched with resistance, often violent resistance. I hear it in the news and social media. I feel it personally, and I hear it in the stories shared at our local support groups. Like other systems of oppression, trans-antagonism is sustained by deep, interwoven cultural patterns that we are often unaware even exist. So here is my final demand, especially for allies: Don’t let first steps be final steps. However we choose to be a place where trans and gender-expansive folk truly belong, the process is ongoing.

This is not something a person, let alone a church or institution, can take for granted. Most of us have not done the hard work of getting to all that internalized dominance and internalized oppression, and it comes out in subtle nonverbal cues, in the ways we talk to each other, in the jokes we tell, in the decisions we make, in leftovers in our thinking. And because religions have often been committed to oppressive opinions about sexuality and gender, it means we have extra work to do to get this right. But we have to do it. All of us have to leave behind the horrid and oppressive policies, ideas, and attitudes we have about sex, gender, and sexuality, for good, and for the good of us all. 

Don’t wait for another memorial service. Don't wait to support us until you need to grieve another murder or suicide. Don’t stay silent when others display their trans-antagonism. Don’t put off reading that memoir by a trans activist. Advocate for us to lead safe, spiritual lives, now. Encourage and empower us to be leaders, now. Provide resources and learning opportunities to educate and empower allies, now. Include us in your stories, liturgies, and rituals, now. Love us, now. Without waiting, without excuse, without letting another week go by. Now.