Transgender People and the Church's Transformative Mission
Transgender People and the Church’s Transformative Mission
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The 2009 General Convention of The Episcopal Church is justly known for its landmark passage of resolutions (D025& and C056) that moved the church into a new, more open era with regard to same-gender couples and the episcopate. Less noted is the Convention’s unprecedented recognition of the “T” in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).
The 76th Convention passed four resolutions lifting up the lives and ministries of transgender people both within and outside the church (D012, D090, D032, and C048). Two (D012 and C048) put The Episcopal Church on record in support of transgender equality at the federal, state and municipal levels. Two more called upon the church to make facets of its own life more accessible to gender minorities—to design its forms to be open to a wider variety of gender designations than simply male or female (D090) and to hire its lay employees without regard to gender identity or expression (D032).
Through committee hearings, deputy testimonies, writings, informal conversations and the presence of transgender people at Anaheim and beyond, the church has begun to bear witness to the human dignity of a deeply stigmatized, yet strongly resilient population.1
This summer, a team of transgender Episcopalians and allies look forward to continuing the conversation where it left off in 2009. Resolution D002— “Affirming Access to Discernment Process for Ministry”— would add “gender identity and expression” to the other demographic categories enumerated in Title 3.1.2 and another resolution would make the same change to Title 1.17.5, which concerns the rights of the laity.
When a resolution to amend Title 3.1.2 first came to General Convention in 2006, it never emerged from committee. In 2009, both Houses engaged in substantial discussion of the resolution (then C061 forwarded by the Diocese of Massachusetts), marking the very first time transgender-themed legislation had ever come to the floor of Convention. But although the House of Deputies passed it by a substantial margin (75% among laity and 66% among clergy), the House of Bishops amended it so significantly that the House of Deputies determined not to concur, knowing that this would necessitate the resolution’s resubmission in three years.2
Rather than adding specific protections for transgender people to the canons, the bishops voted to strike all demographic categories, simply directing dioceses to “make provision for the ministry of all baptized persons.” It is tempting to think that if we remove specific mention of groups that have historically been the targets of discrimination, as this amendment sought to do, we can erase the distinctions among us and make it unnecessary to discuss differences that make us uneasy.
But even though naming and discussing difference has proved daunting to us as a Church over the years, it need not serve simply as a source of stumbling or of distraction. It can be a part of our rebirth and new life that accompanies our membership in Christ’s body.
Many transgender Christians know this quite well. I have many times encountered transgender people who tell their own lives as stories of salvation history. Many, including myself, are people for whom the mystery of faith finally helped us claim our selves, our souls and bodies, as vessels of reconciliation. In many ways the transgender community reminds me of the wild olive shoot (Romans 11:17-24) with which Paul describes Gentile entrance into the larger trunk of God’s Promise—a people engrafted into God’s heart.
When we open our hearts to consider what is at stake theologically in the full incorporation of trans people into the church, we find some of the same theological questions about sex, gender and sexuality that we have grappled with for decades as we have debated the place of gay and lesbian people in the church. During that time, we have slowly moved beyond rigid notions of sexual/gender “complementarity.”3 In short, we have come to accept that God made us in more varieties than typical “masculine” males and “feminine” females who are to be paired only in “opposite” gender couples.
Many people now think we are created as part of a sexual/gender spectrum, which can include people who marry people of the “opposite” sex; people who do not marry, including celibate religious; women who never give birth, by choice or necessity; people whose expressions of gender exceed the norms of their cultures; people born with a combination of female and male bodily traits4; gay, lesbian or bisexual people; and transgender people.
This continuum—more nuanced than simply male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—helps us see human beings as part of creation in all its variety and ambiguity. Like Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, we can view human beings as both a “bond” of a wonderfully variegated creation and an agent, or workshop5, of creation's transformation into the heart of God. Humans were created last, reasoned the patristic theologians, and we were given the gift of gathering the whole together and lifting it up so that all creation might be transfigured by the Creator.
When we stumbled in our feeble attempts to fulfill that vocation, Christ came into our midst and became the “fresh institution” of creation, transfigured us in his image, and bound creation to himself—even the parts of creation that we do not always understand and that sometimes make us uneasy. It is through this transforming power of Christ that I, and many transgender people like me, find our true identity as children of God..
My hope, and that of many people with whom I minister, is that this summer we will embrace transgender Christians as agents of transformation and add “gender identity and expression” to our nondiscrimination canons. As the church seeks ever more urgently to restore God’s creation through reconciliation, I pray that we will see this decision as part of the transformative community we long to be.
--The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is the Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University and a lecturer at Harvard University
What Words Should I Use?
Gender identity is a term used to describe a person’s internal sense of being a man or a woman (a boy or a girl), or something more complex. For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own internal sense of gender identity do not match.
Gender expression refers to how one manifests one’s gender identity. This can include clothing, haircuts, makeup, mannerisms, speech patterns, and more. Typically, transgender people seek to make their gender expression reflect their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex.
Because many people now understand gender to be a continuum of identity and expression rather than the two fixed, opposite categories of male and female, there are several terms that transgender people use to describe themselves. If you don’t know which terms an individual prefers, it’s fine to ask:
Transgender An umbrella adjective for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.
Transsexual A term that originated in the medical and psychological communities for people for people who transition from female to male or vice versa.
Transvestite This term is now considered to be derogatory.
Transition Altering one’s birth sex is not a one-step process; it is a complex process that occurs over a long period of time. Transition may include some or all of the following personal, legal and medical adjustments: telling one's family, friends and/or co-workers; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; one or more forms of surgery.
Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) Refers to surgical alteration, and is only one small part of medical transition (see Transition above). This term is preferred over “sex change operation.” Not all transgender people choose to or can afford to have SRS.
Sexual orientation Describes an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to another person. Gender identity and expression are not synonymous with sexual orientation. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay or bisexual.
--adapted from the GLAAD media reference guide
1. For statistics on the impact of discrimination and hate crimes on transgender people, see especially the 2011 study Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality: http://www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/ntds ↩
2. The legislative history of C061 is online in the Archives of the Episcopal Church at http://tinyurl.com/8x3o25c↩
3. These notions of complementarity have been critiqued by Tobias Haller, “True Union” in the series of blog posts archived on the Chicago Consultation website, and published in Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same Sexuality (Seabury, 2009); Eugene Rogers, “Same-Sex Complementarity: A Theology of Marriage” in Christian Century, May 11, 2011. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-04/same-sex-complementarity↩
4. This population is termed intersex or, as some members of the community prefer, people with Disorders of Sexual Development (DSD).↩
5. Maximus the Confessor, 41st Ambigua ad Johanem.↩