Stop Dehumanizing Transgender Christians - by Angel Collie ‘14 M.Div.
Tattooed on my left arm is an anatomically correct heart with my interpretation of a God-shaped hole in it. It represents a time in my life when everything I’d been raised to believe came crashing down, and the connection I’d always known with God got ripped away.
It represents a time when I was called off the altar in the middle of prayer and told I was making a mockery of the church with my piercings and “homosexual” colors. I was told God hated my “sin,” after which I publicly endured a litany of biblical passages about how I was sick, sinful, and an abomination. It was the darkest time of depression in my life, when I wondered what was the point of living knowing I’d disappointed God, my church, and my family. Sadly, my story isn’t unique. In fact in some details it is mild compared to the violence others have suffered in the name of faith.
Regarding the full welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) people, the Christian church as a whole has an abysmal track record. Granted, hostility exists on both sides: Religiously inspired hatred has often been matched with disdain towards congregational life from queer and trans communities. At times, it is just as hard to be Christian in queer and trans communities as it is to be queer in some Christian congregations.
But the responsibility for repairing the harm is on the church, I believe. The church must find a way to commit itself to practices that undo years of pain perpetuated by homophobia and transphobia. This spiritual violence has real consequences. In many cases churches have encouraged the tearing apart of families, excommunicated faithful followers, or remained silent when human rights were under attack. Theological death-dealing has led far too many to conclude suicide was the only option after the wounding experience of being shunned from their faith and families.
Repairing the harm won’t come easy. But those who have caused pain have a duty to explore faithfully what kind of costly or uncomfortable learning is necessary to dismantle the heteronormative, cisnormative, patriarchal trappings – the presumption of heterosexual and cisgender superiority or prerogatives – that damage the church as a whole. When it positions itself as a stumbling block for LGBTQIA folks, the church diminishes everyone’s proximity to oneness in Christ.
It’s rarely simple, but churches looking to make lasting change must adopt a both/and approach – big-picture efforts to deconstruct the systemic power structures of heterosexism and cissexism while also altering the day-to-day practices that cause distress to LGBTQIA folks in the congregational setting. The temptation is to skip this difficult work and just put a rainbow sticker at the front entrance.
But before displaying that decal on the door, one starting place is to challenge the ways compulsive heterosexuality and gender are reinforced by genderexclusive Bible studies, retreats, call and responses, song parts, restrooms, sermons, and sacraments. How often in prayers and liturgies are “brothers and sisters” lifted up, rendering non-binary and gender nonconforming folks invisible? A holistic shift is needed to create a culture of inclusion in the life of the congregation.
New Connections to God
The words a community uses in prayer say a lot about who the congregation intends to lift up. One way to reform the language is to refer to God not only in masculine or feminine terms but in the many names that are gender non-specific: Parent, Creator, the Divine, God, among others. The point is not to take God the Father or Mother God away from those who find comfort in those images but to expand the language so more individuals can connect with God and see themselves reflected in their creator.
Likewise we can alter the ways we refer to one another in worship. Gender non-specific language can act as a crucial point of inclusion in our stories, liturgies, prayers, and greetings: Words like siblings, friends, family, members, and children affirm relationships without evoking a gendered expectation. Hearing such gender non-specific words will help us find a place of “fitting in.” It is important that queer and trans people see themselves included in the sermons, stories, pictures, on the website, and in publicity materials. Going up for communion, people often have the dismaying experience of someone blessing them with the wrong pronouns. That small but significant failure to see fully the person in front of you turns a potential moment for oneness in Christ into another site of rejection. If in doubt it is always better to ask someone their pronoun or don’t use pronouns at all rather than assume.
Turning to music, in some churches it is traditional for the call and responses to be divided by gender. Consider separating or designating parts by the location of people in the room or by voice – for example, bass, tenor, soprano, and alto. This is also more inclusive of churchgoers whose voices for whatever reason may not fit within the range expected of them based on their gender identity, and it helps keep anyone from feeling alienated or ashamed.
Many congregations will divide the church for small-group and ministry purposes – men’s prayer breakfast, women’s auxiliary meetings, men’s and women’s retreats. These are meaningful spaces of personal spiritual development. But they can be very alienating for transgender and gender nonconforming folks who do not fit either or wouldn’t be welcomed in the space most affirming for them. If such divisions must be made, it is important to allow people to choose the group most fitting to them and how they identify. Even the slight shift to saying the “prayer breakfast for male-identified and aligned folks” can work to maintain a sense of community and signal belonging for transgender, non-binary and masculine-of-center individuals.
A word about restrooms: It is helpful to provide single-stall gender non-specific bathrooms as an option for those uncomfortable with men’s and women’s restrooms as the only options. Many gender nonconforming folks have no safe place to go and are forced to choose denying themselves or putting themselves in harm’s way. Gender nonspecific restrooms not only send a message of welcome but provide a space for people who may have a caretaker or children of another gender.
People Made Visible
It is strong testimony for a church to make queer and transgender people visible in all elements of worship and leadership. In doing so, this might call many church bodies to undertake a review of their most sacred guiding documents, since many bylaws and constitutions systemically exclude individuals with marginalized sexual orientations and gender expressions. Empowering queer and transgender folks is important not only for the individuals involved. It’s decisive that others see us active across the church, enriching the life of the body of Christ.
Even if some of these steps seem too radical for where you are now, just agreeing to stop causing harm can go a long way. It’s important to start somewhere. The very future of the church depends on addressing the truth that when any of us experience the dehumanizing effects of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, cissexism, or classism, the whole of the body of Christ is dehumanized.
The metaphorical God-shaped hole in my heart caused by the spiritual violence in the name of God could only be healed by radical welcome into a community of people who loved and worshipped God and gave me permission to do the same – because of and not despite of all of my identities. Such is my prayer for the future of the church, and for everyone in it.
Angel Collie ’14 M.Div. is assistant director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University. He also serves on the board of the Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte and is co-faculty for the Transgender Seminarians Leadership Cohort.