I live in the state with the famous “bathroom law” (HB 2) that the North Carolina Legislature, dominated by Republican extremists, passed in a one-day special session last Spring. Because it required people to use public bathroom facilities according to “the gender assigned to them at birth,” it nonsensically required people who look like men to use women’s restrooms and vice-versa. Perhaps because of its vicious ignorance it inspired large numbers of North Carolinians to study the Transgender reality more deeply. The Reconciling Conversations Group at our United Methodist Church here decided to do just that.
This Fall we were both educated and inspired by a group of Transgender women and men gathered together by Tranzmission, an organization in Asheville engaged in education, advocacy, and support for Transgender people. I want to tell you about the impact it made on me, one of over 50 people who attended some or all of the five sessions.
At the heart of our experience were simply the stories of the Transgender people who spoke with us. Laced with humor, photos, and printed handouts, their presentations led us beyond our own world of experience into theirs. What is it like to feel, from a very early age, that your own sense of who you are doesn’t fit the body you were born with? What does it mean to try to hide that “real self” in order to find the approval you so desperately crave as a child and young person? How do you deal with the impulse to end this existential split with suicide, drugs, or mental illness? What does it mean to find a person or a community that accepts you as you want to be? How does it feel to undergo the medical and surgical regimens to gain a body that fits your heart and mind? What happens when parents and families ostracize you or, as sometimes happens, accept you as their beloved child or sibling? Welcome to the journeys taken by Transgender persons.
No institution in our society has been more intolerant of people on this journey than the Church and other religious groups. And yet, again and again, it was sheer dogged faith that gave many of them the strength and grace to become who they really are. It was often a faith community that provided the love and confirmation we all need to blossom from the seed inside us. And so our conversations were not just about the individual experiences of Transgender people, they were about how faith communities can widen their embrace both to give encouragement and to receive the testimonies of those with a different story of body, self, and transformation.
In these conversations, hearing these stories, we realized once again that faith and understanding begins with an encounter with a real person who tells us their story. As a prelude to the celebration of God’s coming among us as “Immanuel,” we were experiencing a kind of Christmas revelation. No amount of statistics or scientific information can replace this encounter.
As with Gay and Lesbian people, we “cis gender” people learned that all of us have known Transgender people, but we have not recognized them because we haven’t heard their story. They have shared our families, our public lavatories, our churches, civic groups, and schools, but we have never been able to break the silence to listen to each other. Fear has silenced testimony, prejudice has darkened understanding. For most of us this was the first time we had ever had this chance to break the silence, deepen understanding, receive the gift of other people’s courage, grace, and laughter. We got some sense of how our feet might feel in their moccasins.
For many of us “straight” people, the world of Gay and Lesbian inclusion was familiar ground. The arduous path of the Transgender person was a new exploration. But both of these perspectives still worked with what we call a “binary” understanding of gender. One is either male or female, if not in anatomy then in psyche. However, these conversations were also opening the door to a more unsettling awareness that our sexuality and gender identity is spread out on a spectrum or is simply variable. We are in the body and in the world in a range of ways. In each configuration we are capable of great love or great hatred, great empathy and great loneliness. The life of the spirit is not confined to the way our bodies are made or our sexual identity or relationships take form. What the language of faith is saying is that our relationship with God the Creator is a matter of grace and spirit.
We are now struggling in the religious world between those communities and beliefs that limit the life of the spirit and of faith to a particular understanding of our biology and those that take as their starting point the life of the spirit as we seek relationship with the One who is our origin, sustenance, and end. These conversations were, as one of our participants said, a walk “on Holy Ground,” where we could sense this underlying fact of faith. I hope you, your religious community, or whatever group you belong to, can have this experience too. Here are some resources to get started. If you’ve already started this journey or been on it for a long time, let us know here!
http://transequality.org (Source for latest and most extensive survey of Transgender life in the US, from 2015)
www.rmnetwork.org (Website of the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church. Go to “Resources”>Transgender.)