Religious communities are places where we gather to tell our stories within the context of a Divine narrative – the story of God. In theory, we can show up with every part of who we are at our churches, synagogues and mosques – beloved creations of a God who loves us more than we could possibly understand. And when we create these kinds of sanctuaries, we learn to live in community with people who understand themselves and us as such.
People of faith believe that communities like that can change the world. Sounds great, right?
Most of us want to say that our religious communities are places like this, but the truth is that members of the transgender community often do not feel this kind of safety and welcome – often and maybe even especially in communities of faith.
Statistics tell us that in the United States approximately one person in 100 does not identify with the binary gender they were assigned at birth. That means it’s statistically very likely there is someone in the orbit of your faith community who is a member of the transgender community; it might even be a family member who is too afraid to tell you.
“It’s statistically very likely there is someone in the orbit of your faith community who is a member of the transgender community; it might even be a family member who is too afraid to tell you.”
Think about your own faith community: could a person of transgender experience show up and join in with every part of who they are, celebrated for their story as part of the Divine narrative?
A Divine narrative – the story of God – by its very definition defies our complete understanding, so as people of faith we have to do the humble work of admitting that we are not always aware of holiness even when it is right in front of us. Genesis 28:16 reads, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said ‘Surely God is in this place and I did not know!’” In Hebrew, the last letter of the first four words spells “community.” Perhaps that reference invites us, within our own faith communities, to look toward those whom society places last and to amplify those voices if our aim is really to create holy community, a reflection of God’s love for the world.
When you can’t find acceptance or even just visibility in a community of people who claim to worship the Divine when they gather it’s easy to mistake the opinions and actions of people for the judgment of God. And, as we know, the results of that can be devastating. Nearly 50 percent of transgender people who do not find acceptance and affirmation by those close to them attempt to end their own lives, God forbid. Religious communities, in our inability and unwillingness to see and affirm transgender people, number among those who contribute to the pain, suffering and death of this community.
“Religious communities, in our inability and unwillingness to see and affirm transgender people, number among those who contribute to the pain, suffering and death of this community. This is not what God intended.”
This is not what God intended; it is not approved, endorsed, allowed or supported by the will of the Divine.
In fact, as our society begins to make advances in understanding and supporting the transgender experience, religious communities must become leaders in creating spaces where transgender people openly and gladly tell their stories and are celebrated as the beautiful parts of God’s creation that they are.
Congregations, it’s past time to open your doors and your hearts to your transgender neighbors.
And, clergy, it’s up to us to lead the way.
Our congregation is blessed with a family whose 11-year-old daughter recently transitioned. We’ve walked with them, and her, through this painful and beautiful process. As this family endured all the challenges of adjusting at school and among friends and family, one more transition loomed on the immediate horizon. That fall Sally would prepare to participate in her first Christmas pageant as her true self. She had played many roles before, but this year would be different.
The criteria for playing Mary, a central character in the play, was pretty rigorous. The child in the role of Mary had to commit to regular and frequent rehearsals; she had to agree to memorize all the lines – no scripts allowed; and she had to be a member of the oldest children’s class in the Sunday school. The one child who qualified and wanted the part most was Sally, our transgender child.
It was critically important that we see and affirm her by casting her in this role, and we did. That decision sent an important message to the congregation and an important message to Sally and her family: when we say that all people are seen and welcomed in this community, we mean it.
I was asked by a young couple to officiate their wedding and help with assigning the various honors. Between the time they invited me to officiate and the date of the wedding, the flower girl transitioned to a boy and still wanted to keep that role in the wedding. I met with the couple and asked, “How do you feel about having a flower boy?” They were thrilled, so I took him to buy his first suit.
The couple helped that boy feel seen and affirmed, and their decision sent a message to the whole community that the identities and life cycle events of all people are holy.
When we people of faith tell the story of creation, we share a narrative of the Divine modeling limitless diversity in all its beauty and calling it good. Those of us who tend sacred spaces, tell sacred stories and nurture sacred community should be the first to honor the stories and identities of transgender people in our communities. We do that best when we reach out a hand and say clearly for all to hear, “I see you. God loves you. You are welcome here. Come in and tell your story.”
March 31 is the international Transgender Day of Visibility, founded in 2009. The congregations we serve are planning programming to help their communities engage this conversation. To learn about upcoming events in their communities, visit Riverside’s God and Gender Identity page and the Trans Jews are Here: A Convening page on Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s website.
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