The American transgender community is becoming increasingly panic-stricken by the surge in anti-trans legislation and rhetoric sweeping the nation, a trans minister said during a webinar hosted by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
“All the trans folks I know are terrified. They are terrified not only to come out and begin transition for fear of reprisal, bullying or lack of access to care, but also those of us who have been out for years are now afraid, feeling we have to keep secrets,” said Erica Saunders, communications manager at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and one of the first openly trans women ordained in Baptist life.
Saunders and Donnie Anderson, an interim minister in the United Church of Christ and moderator of A Transgender Community for All, were the speakers for AWAB’s Aug. 8 “Trans and Terrified” virtual discussion. They provided an overview of legislation introduced in multiple states to discourage or deny gender-affirming care to trans youth and adults, and outlined actions churches can take to serve the embattled trans community.
The challenge facing the trans community is daunting, with at least 130 bills introduced in U.S. statehouses in the past year, Anderson said. “One approach is to simply ban all transgender health care and that no matter what age someone is, it’s banned. The targets of the punishments here are the health care and medical care and mental health providers. This would do everything from deny licenses to impose fines to even putting people in jail for providing health care to transgender individuals.”
Another tactic is to prohibit any adult other than the parent from discussing trans care or concepts with youth without first obtaining parental permission, she said. “The targets of this kind of approach are health care providers, teachers, librarians, pastors and youth workers. What they’re basically saying is if you are a teacher, you could lose your job. If you are working the cafeteria and a student talks to you, you could lose your job. If you work with children in any way, shape or form. You have an ethical dilemma coming your way.”
Anderson shared a portion of a May 2023 CBS News report about an Associated Press investigation that found much of the anti-trans legislation surfacing nationwide has been provided to conservative lawmakers by groups like the Family Research Council and Do No Harm, and that the goal is to grow wealth and political power rather than to safeguard the health of youth.
The legislation also typically promotes misconceptions and hysteria about gender-affirming care, Anderson said. “Based on what you hear, there is surgery going on all over the place. You get the idea that a 5-year-old comes and tells their mom or dad, ‘I’m not who you thought I was,’ and two months later surgery is being done. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The reality is that surgery is typically reserved for those age 18 and older, while children and youth receive intensive counseling before hormones and puberty blockers are ever employed, she said. “Generally speaking, for prepubescent children, there’s no medical intervention at all, just let’s watch the child make to sure they’ve got the support, and let’s keep an eye on what’s going on as they approach puberty.”
“The church is the single most oppressive force against LGBTQ people, and especially trans folks in the entire country.”
Sadly, conservative politicians aren’t the only source of angst for the U.S. transgender community, Anderson said. “Let’s be real for a minute. When you as a church say to trans folks and nonbinary folks that you want to help, many of them will withdraw. They do not trust the church. In my opinion, the church is the single most oppressive force against LGBTQ people, and especially trans folks in the entire country.”
When combined with the denial of gender-affirming care, that isolation is driving increases in suicide rates among transgender youth, she said. But the church has an opportunity to help counter those trends.
“Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel that the church was a great thing and that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. We can stop being the oppressive church and be the liberating church for all people the Gospels talk about. One of the great things the church can do is renaming ceremonies for (trans) students. A lot of churches have done this. There are other things you can do to support that church and that family to help them understand that God loves them.”
Saunders laid out additional actions, including listening “with openness to trans folks when we talk about our suffering and what we need. Resist cooperation with the structures that cause our hardship and suffering, and insist on our rights and the rights of everyone to those with power.”
Congregations can start small groups or Sunday school classes focused on trans issues and call attention to the community and its challenges in sermons and in corporate prayer, Saunders continued. Writing to legislators to oppose harmful bills or participating in vigils or protests also enable churches to oppose oppression. “A supportive witness from a community of faith goes a long way to countering this deceitful narrative that PAC’s have put out around the country.”
Congregations can connect with local LGBTQ community groups or national organizations to offer meeting spaces or mission funds, Saunders said. “If you know a trans person, hold our stories in your heart. Create the space for them to feel safe sharing with you. And then share your vulnerability with them too. This is the way that we all show up for each other’s healing and liberation.
“Don’t just welcome them in the door and save a seat for them on the back pew. Invite them to give testimony in worship or something smaller but still visible, like taking up an offering. Or, if this person is really involved, they can even be on the church council. Imagine that.”
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