In December, the New York Times ran an article outlining all the ways the Trump administration has rolled back transgender rights, from rescinding rules that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice to restricting transgender troops. Just last week the South Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill that would criminalize physicians who provide transgender youth with surgeries or hormones to assist in transitioning. Yet we know that transgender people, especially transgender youth, are at great risk of violence, suicide, homelessness and poverty because of rejection, discrimination, and misinformation.
If the church is to fulfill its mission to love and care for all people, Christians and congregations need to understand and welcome transgender people.
Many Christians may not know transgender people or have much information about transgender issues beyond headlines in the news. For many, gender identity may be a difficult and confusing topic. In this essay, we want to introduce core concepts of gender identity to provide basic knowledge about transgender people. We also want to tell a story – Brenda’s story as a transwoman – to offer one concrete example of a transgender life. (Brenda’s story is just that; it is her story, and in no way presumes to be the story of any other transgender person.) Thirdly, we want to make suggestions for ways churches can become more welcoming places for transgender people.
Here are some key terms for understanding gender identity. The list is by no means comprehensive, and people who do not fit within the gender binary have many, many more ways of describing their gender identities. But this list is a good start for a basic vocabulary of gender identity.
While many people talk about sex as biological and gender as social, actually both are an interplay between bodies and psyches that always exists within specific cultures that create categories in which to sort people. Not all cultures sort people into only two binary categories of male and female. For example, the Bugis of Indonesia recognize five distinct genders. The Zapotec people of Oaxaca, Mexico identify three genders.
Perhaps most helpful is thinking about gender as a spectrum along which people exist and may move. Better yet, we can imagine that there are as many genders as there are people.
In societies, gender as a social category teaches us how to act (based on our gender) and how to treat others (based on our perception of their gender). Importantly, gender as a category helps maintain hierarchies that value some people over others. Experiments show us that in the United States, if the same baby is dressed in blue or pink, people will treat the child differently based on which color the baby is wearing.
Gender assignment: Because the dominant culture in the U.S. recognizes only two sexes, when a baby is born we assign that child a gender based on our perceptions of anatomical reproductive and sexual traits. “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” is a question about body parts, but those body parts always carry social meaning. So, a baby is given a gender based on body parts within a culture that recognizes only two possibilities. However, that assigned gender may or may not fit who that baby is.
Gender identity: Each of us also has an individual experience and sense of ourselves that may or may not line up with the gender we were assigned at birth. Gender identity is how we experience and understand ourselves, regardless of gender assignment.
Gender Expression: Our gender expression is the gender we present to the world through our clothing, hairstyle, ways we walk and sit, the activities we choose to do, the pronouns we use. (Again, our gender expression may or may not align with our gender identity or gender assignment.)
Cis-Gender: A person whose gender identity and expression align with the gender assigned at birth.
Transgender: An umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity does not align with the gender assigned at birth and with the social expectations of that assignment. Transgender may include people who fully transition from one gender to another or people who identify as gender diverse in other ways, such as non-binary or gender non-conforming.
Transitioning: The process of changing one’s gender characteristics to match one’s gender identity. This may include dressing as another gender or having gender affirmation surgery to bring one’s physical characteristics in line with one’s gender identity.
Non-binary: A spectrum of gender identities that do not fall fully into either female or male.
Gender non-conforming: Performing or expressing traits that do not align with socially expected female or male behaviors.
My story is my own and may not reflect the experience of other transwomen. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I had no term that described who I was. When I was born, the doctor looked at my genitals and assigned “M” to my birth certificate. From that point on, my parents, teachers, friends and the rest of society assigned a masculine gender to me.
But that is not the identity that I had for myself, an identity as ingrained into my being as my blue eyes and right-handedness. Body parts did not fit my identity, and I wanted any body parts assigned at birth as male just to go away. But they didn’t, and so I believed that my parents and society had to be correct. That meant I was wrong, but I did not know how to fix it.
Expressing femininity at a very early age was not met with approval, while expressing masculinity was. The divide between my gender as I experienced it and how I had to portray it to others deepened through the years; but acting “like a boy” was necessary to receive positive reinforcement from every person in my life. Doing what society demanded of me by expressing masculinity led me, at a very early age, to live two lives – the one that everyone else wanted to see me live and the deeply hidden life that was truly me but would never be revealed to anyone else. Or at least not for 50 years.
When I was an adult, depression led me to a therapist who recognized the depression as an outcome of society’s rejection of my gender identity. I moved forward with transitioning to be a woman, so that the two lives I had been living could finally be the one that was consistent with who I was from the beginning, as much as my still blue eyes and my still right-handedness.
For people whose gender assignment, gender identity and gender expression pretty well line up (or people who don’t spend their time studying gender), this conversation about gender diversity may seem terribly confusing, even unsettling. But at the end of the day, no one has to understand something or someone fully to treat people well. As followers of Jesus, our concern is to love others as we love ourselves and to treat others as we wish to be treated, with respect and welcome, whether we understand gender diversity or not.
Biblical and theological understandings
With the transgender community’s increasing visibility, many Christians have opted to resort to condemnation and rejection of trans and non-binary people. They argue that God created humans as male and female and that those categories are unchangeable and inherently tied to biology.
Other Christians, however, note that even the Bible itself includes gender diverse people. Eunuchs play important roles in the Bible, and queer biblical scholars have pointed to them as examples of gender diversity. Jesus himself said, “there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12, KJV). Queer interpreters note that here Jesus may be recognizing diverse categories of gender and sexual identity.
Furthermore, the Bible tells us that humans are created in the image of God, male and female. If male and female are the nature of God, can we then not think of God as the One who encompasses all gender, the God who crosses genders? Trans means “across,” “beyond,” “through,” “changing thoroughly,” “transverse,” “on the other side of.” The transcendent God is the one who crosses over, the one who moves beyond and across boundaries.
Transgender people reflect this crossing over. They, like cis-gender people, are created in God’s image.
In God’s community, prejudice and discrimination against transgender people have no place. All of God’s people are called to cross over, to transcend barriers that separate us. Transgender people are God’s children, and the church should be a place of welcome and embrace for people of all genders.
Because of fear I waited for 50 years to finally address the internal conflict caused by society’s narrow view of gender. At an early age, I feared being committed to a mental institution and electroshock therapy (it was the 1950s and 60s, and I had done my homework). I feared losing my family, losing my job and being harassed – or worse. The fear was paralyzing, and the boundaries around the two lives I led became more defined and impermeable.
I did not let anyone see my inner life because of the fear. And I had no model for transitioning successfully to relieve the fear. What if I had that model? What if I had support from society to be me – to allow this child to grow up to proclaim my gender and live a life loved by parents and society?
That was not the reality then. But it could be reality for someone today. Perhaps you could be a person who helps make that reality for someone.
Suggestions for churches
What can churches do to be more welcoming and inclusive of transgender people? Here are a few suggestions:
- If your church uses nametags, include pronouns on the nametags. For example:
- Have a statement of inclusion that mentions gender identity and expression and is included each week in the bulletin and on the church’s website. For example:
- “First Baptist Church welcomes people of every race, nationality, sexual identity, gender identity and expression, immigration status, physical and cognitive ability, and economic status.”
- Make sure your church facilities have gender inclusive bathrooms.
- Provide a support group for gender diverse people. Ensure the group is confidential, and screen those who come to ensure that people who might be discriminatory do not attend and further isolate participants.
- Use inclusive language. For example, rather than “brothers and sisters,” use “siblings”; rather than “mothers and fathers,” use “parents.” Learn to use “they” as singular.
- Ensure that church activities are gender inclusive. For example, make your “women’s Bible study” a Bible study “for all women and female/feminine-identifying people” or make your “men’s prayer group” a group for “all men and male/masculine-identifying people.” On the whole, however, try to avoid gender segregation. It only reinforces the idea of the gender binary and the stereotypes and hierarchies that go along with the binary.
- Support people who are transitioning. Many people lose family financial and emotional support when they come out as trans. Provide a resource for trans people who need someone to accompany them if they have gender affirmation surgery or create a fund to help trans people who need financial support for gender-affirming hormones, housing assistance and gender-affirming clothing.
- Educate your congregation and community about trans people and issues. Include trans people in this education. Educate people of all ages, making it clear to youth that there are adults who are like them regardless of their gender identity.
- Have educational and support materials available, visible and easily accessible in public spaces in the church.
- Include trans people in leadership and public roles.
- Commemorate and celebrate relevant events such as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, National Coming Out Day, Pride Month and LGBTQ History Month.
- Actively support trans people and issues in your community. For example, sponsor a booth at your local Pride Festival or join activists who are working against legislation that targets trans people.
- Remember the intersections. Gender is only one facet of experience. Make sure you recognize intersectionality in the church’s welcome of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people of every race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, age, ability, national origin and immigration status.
In this moment of such visible and harmful aggression against transgender people, the church has an important role to play as a loving, welcoming, inclusive and engaged community. As the people of God, we are called to embody God’s love in the world. And two ways we must do that are by creating places of care for transgender people in our churches and advocating for transgender people in our politics.
I attended a trans support group that was community (not church) based, but meetings were held at churches because they provided safe spaces. These groups put me in contact with other trans people I otherwise would never have met. I am still friends with some of them after more than 20 years.
These persons had many of the same fears that I had. Some had transitioned and showed me that it was possible. Others were still trying to figure out if transitioning was even possible for them given their family, place of employment and living arrangement.
These were the people I relied on; but, even with this support group, I transitioned largely alone – three significant surgeries, hormones, years of electrolysis, talking with family and employers, changing all legal documents and more. To have had someone by my side during these times would have made it less difficult.
Even after transitioning, I still had a poor self-image, a burden I had felt all my life. I was convinced that no one would ever love me again and that I would live alone the rest of my life. At the same time, I was content, knowing that I was now living as my authentic self. It took years for me to realize that there were people who could, would and did love me.
Transitioning is a process that can take years, and almost no one transitions without affecting others in some way. In my case, transitioning while working was euphoria punctuated by anxiety. It was euphoric because I was once and for all finally me, unencumbered by baggage imposed on me from society. It was anxiety-provoking because I did not know how co-workers would react. As it turned out, the vast majority were supportive and adapted to a new name, pronouns and appearance.
A few did not. When applying for new job opportunities to advance in my profession, I encountered discrimination in several cases. In some instances, the discrimination was explicit and clearly affected the hiring decision. In others, it was implicit in assumptions people made about my abilities to do the job as a transwoman.
Churches, and the support groups they provide, can be places where trans people (and others who are different) can safely share these acts of discrimination with others and receive the support that they need. Not to have that outlet and that safe space easily leads to a life of isolation and depression. A very high proportion of trans people contemplate and attempt suicide. Before I transitioned, I had thought often about taking my own life.
You and your church have opportunities to provide the support needed so that trans people do not feel isolated or depressed and can live a full life with all the joys that each of us deserves.
Transgender people are current targets of political and religious condemnation and rejection. Churches, however, have an opportunity to demonstrate Christian love and compassion by welcoming and affirming transgender people, just as they are. Just as God crosses over boundaries and borders, so should the church. Simple commitments and changes such as those suggested above can create a place where transgender people feel at home in the church and welcome as beloved siblings in God’s community.