Honoring transgender persons

“As I approached puberty when I was 11 or 12,  I had this sense that I was not fully female. And in puberty I visualized myself as a male but was then told by my good and well-intending Christian friends that that was a delusion. And, of course, going further into conservative Christianity really enforced that. They  would tell me these are only illusions and you should burn it away and you should submit yourself to God’s ways as the Bible says.  So for more than 20 years I had these recurring dreams, sometimes nightmares, where I was trying to turn myself into a male.  I tried suppressing the internal force to become male but it just kept coming back. I told myself, ‘Oh, this is sin, this is sin, you have to kill it, you have to kill it.’ So it was  kind of like self-flagellation because it’s not something you can remove from your spirit.  So I hit that point, and as with most things that we would rather push away we  distract ourselves with other things, right? That’s why entertainment is such a large industry in this world!

“After really slowing down and being in that quiet space where God exists, where my relationship with God is, this whole buried issue came flooding out. Everything that I had suppressed about my transgender identity was also layered on by my sexual preference. So, how I identify is that I’m transgender male, maybe gender fluid, but those are, as you know, convenient rules and buckets. In terms of sexual orientation, I’m attracted to men. Because of this layering of gender identity and sexual orientation,  I never figured it out when I was growing up as a teenager. Back then, gender identity and sexual orientation were seen as one. It was only somewhere between the 10 years when I wasn’t reading any of the literature that science started teasing apart these two. So when the self-identification finally happened, certain things broke loose. I had to give the self-identification time in order to grapple with my spiritual journey with God because my indoctrination was saying that this was wrong. ‘This is what you rejected many years ago so why is it that we’re entertaining it now? Is that because you have stopped believing in Jesus Christ?’  

I spent time in quiet meditation with God with words from the Bible and there was one evening I remember quite clearly.  I was jogging.  I was just listening to see whether God would speak. Then a question appeared in my head with clarity:  Do you love your children? (I have two kids.) I felt that was such a strange question and I said, ‘Of course! I love them and there’s not anything they need to do to be better and they don’t even need to do anything. They just are and I just love them.’  Then the revelation came to me that that is the way it is. ‘I am with you’ as well as ‘God is with us.’ There is really nothing we need to do. All those are human expectations, societal expectations and  truly everyone is a beloved by  God.  And that was the tipping point for me for accepting my own identity. 

Then I took some time because I needed to be sure before sharing with my partner. At that time, we had been together for 15 years.  We had a very good conversation.  I think that he took it as well as I could expect anyone to take it.  Of course, it did shake up his world a bit because he identifies as a heterosexual male.  It changed certain things in our relationship but I would say that we hold a lot of common values and principles and one is that family comes first.  Not just the kids, but also our parents. What is the best family social unit that will best support everybody and each other? So that has always been our way of working through our differences.”

 

DANIEL’S REFLECTION:

I met Rain Khoo when he went by his past name, Elaine.  Rain is a transgender male and gay (attracted to men).  Rain and I are friends from Procter & Gamble. He was an outstanding designer and we worked together on P&G’s future of marketing project.  I  deeply admire him and his journey. He has taught me about the love of God and the love of self.  Rain refers to “Elaine” as his “past name” although some transgender individuals call their birth name their “dead name.”  I love what Rain said about embracing the entirety of his life:

“I’m comfortable with you sharing about my past name ‘Elaine’. Personally, I don’t believe in hiding anything away. Not because hiding away is associated with being ashamed of the past, but because hiding away the past is a rejection of self. If we can’t accept the whole of the past, it is difficult to move into the future.”

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the spiritual issues for people who identify as transgender and what the spiritual issues are for those of us who are cisgendered (people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex) as we work to include and honor the journey of the transgender person.  I realize that many people who read this article have never met a transgender person and wonder how to embrace them spiritually in a way that honors them.  

I wanted to understand how large a population the transgender community is and I found some helpful statistics from Samantha McLaren in her LinkedIn Talent Blog:

“There are an estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States today, representing about 0.6% of the adult population. In the United Kingdom, a recent survey found that 13% of the country’s LGBTQ+ community identified as transgender. And a recent study of teenagers in Minnesota found that 2.7% identify as transgender, genderqueer, or gender fluid (more on those terms later) or are unsure of their gender identification.  Unfortunately, these individuals often face serious discrimination at work or during the hiring process. A 2018 survey of transgender and nonbinary Britains found that over 50% hide their identity at work for fear of discrimination, while a 2015 report found that transgender residents of California were three times as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the adult population. There is currently no federal law in the US protecting people from employment discrimination on the basis of their gender identity or expression.”

Searching online, I also found these very stark statistics about transgender mental health:

“The National Center for Transgender Equality‘s 2015 transgender survey in the United States found higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempt rates in the transgender community. Results indicated that 40% of the transgender individuals surveyed had attempted suicide in their lifetime, a rate nearly nine times higher than the rates for the general U.S. population.” (Source: Wikipedia)

So as I reflect on Rain and his journey, there are multiple truths about the spiritual journey of transgender people that I feel called to embrace:

  1. Gender expression and  gender identity are different from sexual orientation. 
  2. Many cultures recognize many more genders than just female and male.
  3. Many LGBTQ youth are at risk and excluded from religion, especially transgender youth. 
  4. Gender is part of how each individual sees themselves as God sees them. 
  5. It is the right of each individual to name themselves and how they identify with their gender.

 

Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression vs. Sexual Orientation

Interviewing Rain gave me an opportunity to research  gender identity versus gender expression and how both differ from sexual orientation:

“Gender Identity, unlike biological sex—which is assigned by others based on physical characteristics—gender identity refers to our internalized, deeply felt sense of being male, female, both, or neither. It can be different from the biological sex we were assigned at birth. Society is beginning to recognize that there are more than two categories of gender identity and is creating newly defined terms to reflect these normal variations of gender. Because gender identity is internal and personally defined, it is not visible to others—it is determined by the individual alone. Most of us have an early sense of our gender identity, and we may begin voicing this between the ages of two and four. This is not the only time a person’s sense of gender identity deepens or solidifies; it may occur at other developmental stages, such as early adolescence or young adulthood. It may remain stable over time, or it may change. Sometimes, social pressures force an individual to stifle their gender identity until later in life – even though that person has experienced that identity since childhood. In contrast to gender identity, gender expression is external and is what society perceives. It encompasses everything that communicates our gender to others: clothing, hairstyles, body language, mannerisms, how we speak, how we play, and our social interactions and roles. Most people have some blend of masculine and feminine qualities that comprise their gender expression, and this expression can also vary depending on the social context.”  (Source:  Welcoming Resources.org A Transgender Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions.)

 

Many Gender Identities 

Debra Kolodny, Rabbi of Portland’s UnShul identifies as non-binary and they were very helpful in my exploration of transgender spirituality.  Rabbi Kolodny shared a compilation of traditional Jewish holy texts that show an ease and acceptance of androgyny and multiple genders. This awareness begins, interestingly enough, in the beginning—in Genesis, when God created humanity. The grammar of the text makes clear that the first human being, Adam, was both male and female:

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים | אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם

“God created the Adam in God’s image; in the image of God [God] created him—male and female [God] created them.” —Genesis 1:27

“This is no 21st  century interpretation,” says Rabbi Kolodny. In Midrash Rabbah 8:1, we read that the first human was androgynous. 

Said Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar: “When the The Holy Blessed One, created the first Adam, [God] created him [an] androgynos. That is [what it means] when [the following] is written: ‘male and female [God] created them’…”Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Rabbi Kolodny also guided me to the six different genders described in the Mishna Torah (the commentaries on the Torah) which further legitimize that many genders have been recognized for millennia:

“Zachar: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.

Nekevah: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.

Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. In the Talmud, the androgynos is understood as someone who both has a penis as well as some female sex traits. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st – 8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd – 16th Centuries CE).

Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. In the Talmud the tumtum has indeterminate genitals. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics at puberty or later. A saris is considered male, but has no penis or a very small penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). This status is also known as a eunuch. 156 references in Mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

According to Genesis 1:27 (above) and all of the commentators on this verse, all human beings are essentially created in the image of God whether we are female, male, intersex or something else. Jewish sages also believed that God does not make mistakes. Consequently, if an individual was born intersex, they were believed to have been created exactly as God intended. Notably, this is quite distinct from the approach of modern Western medicine, which deems intersex people to be errors of nature that need to be corrected.”

(Source:  Keshet For LGBTQ Equality In Jewish Life:  Gender Diversity In Sacred Jewish Texts By Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Dev Noily)

Rain also shared with me his favorite New Testament texts in support of many gender identities and how God uses us all, including the other-gendered:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Source:  Galatians 3:28 English Standard Version)

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him (a Ethiopian eunuch) the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” (Source:  Acts 8:26-40 English Standard Version)

 

LGBTQ Youth Are At Risk and Excluded From Religion, Especially Transgender Youth 

Faith  can be an important part of trans people’s live but it often isn’t because today’s faith communities don’t embrace how transgender people see themselves.  I was moved by these statistics in the publication, “A Roadmap to Inclusion:  Supporting Trans People of Faith”:

Stonewall Research found that one in four trans people of faith (25 per cent) aren’t open about who they are in their faith community. Just one in four LGBT people of faith (25 per cent) think their faith community is welcoming of trans people. Half of BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) LGBT people (51 per cent) face discrimination within the LGBT community.” (Author:  Shaan Surat R Knan)

While not specifically about transgender, I found this data from the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies In Religion also very compelling about all LGBTQ youth and how religion is pushing them away and how these youth become even more vulnerable:

A recent Human Rights Campaign survey of over 10,000 youth, the largest of its kind, revealed that only 28% of LGBTQ youth regularly attend church or religious services, compared to 58% of their non-LGBTQ peers. This survey also showed LGBTQ youth are half as likely as their non-LGBTQ peers to participate in a church or religious youth group. Six percent of LGBTQ youth reported “religion leading to lack of acceptance” as the most difficult problem facing them in their life. The youth in this study reported feeling more socially isolated, less likely to have an adult they can talk to, and are more than twice as likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs than their non-LGBTQ peers due to isolation and discrimination.  The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2013 outlining best practices for physicians in supporting LGBTQ youth, based on the mounting evidence that this support is absolutely necessary to allow LGBTQ young people to live full and healthy lives.  Religiously-based anti-LGBTQ messages proliferate in the media, and young LGBTQ people are often led to believe that they must choose between their deeply-held gender identity, sexual orientation, and their spirituality.  Mounting research evidence suggests that family acceptance and community support for LGBTQ people greatly reduces their risk for suicide, homelessness, and substance abuse.” (Source:  Kelsey Pacha, Transitioning to Inclusion: Embracing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth in Faith Communities)

 

Why are Many Congregations So Excluding of Transgender Individuals?

The reason for this exclusion of LGBTQ and especially transgender individuals from religious community life is because individual identity which is all about change and growth is at odds with many of the functions of community which are about stability:

“In her memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, Dr. Joy Ladin writes, ‘We all have to become ourselves – not just once, by growing from childhood into adulthood, but throughout our lives.’ As a Jewish woman who is transgender, Ladin finds a tension between that constant evolution and established faith structures. ‘Religious communities,’ she says, ‘are about stability, which is in tension between that constant evolution and established faith structures. ‘Religious communities,’ she says, “are about stability, which is in tension with spiritual traditions of changing and shedding.”  A professor at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, Ladin stresses the power of the individual experience. ‘All religions have to do with the individual growing into a fuller relationship with God,’ she says. ‘God knows you’re already the person you need to become, even if you don’t know that yet. But, you can’t separate that experience from the community.’ (Source:  Human Rights Campaign, Coming Home To Judaism & To Self)

This issue of faith communities welcoming transgender individuals is a critical issue.  One of the resources I found while preparing this reflection is, “Transformative inclusion: a resource guide for transgender welcome in congregations Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion” which stated this so beautifully:

A congregation that is truly inclusive encourages congregants to live and grow in their own identities. Gender expression for many people is a long process of searching for wholeness. It is a beautiful gift to support a person while they are in the process of becoming themselves. People often come to faith communities when they are vulnerable and searching. It is the responsibility and the calling of the faith community to nurture those who seek spiritual wholeness; for trans people, finding gender confirmation is often an important element in becoming spiritually whole. At the same time, it is important to note that not every trans person is seeking spiritual affirmation related to gender. Particularly those who have identified as trans or gender non-conforming for a long time might not see this as an issue for discussion in the faith community. It is equally important to support their need for privacy. There is no one magic formula that creates inclusion. As faith communities we must follow the lead of those we seek to include and allow them to define the level of importance that gender identity has for their own spiritual paths.” 

 

God Sees Us As The Whole Person We Are (Including Our Chosen Gender Identity and Expression)

I believe in a Higher Power today that encompasses the sacredness of all creation.  And, for me, that Higher Power sees me and each of us in our fullness without the distortion of ego or personality or even gender as assigned by others.  This was so beautifully reinforced to me when I read this quote from Rain published on EquallyBeloved.com:

This is a moment where the lightbulb went on for me as a trans man, that our acceptance of ourselves as trans, and transition is part of our Salvation, experienced through enlightenment of a situation or ourselves. When we accepted ourselves, we went from being blind to ourselves, to seeing ourselves as God sees us (in part). From being the walking dead, to being truly alive. From being crippled by our dysphoria to wellness.  When I just completed my surgery and I was looking at my new chest for the first time, I had an immense sense of relief, and a weight that was lifted off my shoulders. Coupled with that, was a knowledge that God would not condemn me for doing the surgery, and a quietly bubbling happiness. I was puzzled for weeks why my subconscious was so clear in reconciling my faith with the lifting of the dysphoria when I could not recall any Bible passages. It was the sense of restorative healing that made God’s hand clear to me. When I read this passage on Salvation as physical deliverance, I realize that it was indeed God.  ‘Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’” (Philippians 2:12-13). 

 

The Power To Name Ourselves and Other Things  

As I consider the transgender members of humanity, I think about the power of naming things and, especially, the power to name and rename ourselves.  While some may see transgender rights as being  all about bathrooms, I see it as the right of each individual to declare his/her/their identity both in gender and in name.  A 2012 research survey of 129 transgender youths found that those who were able to use their chosen names reported fewer depressive symptoms and less suicidal behavior. I love this reflection about the power of naming by Rabbi Andrew David:

“God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, this biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. 

‘And Adonai God formed out of the earth (ha-adamah) all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts;’ 

(The Jewish tradition, in particular) teaches that through our own choices and actions, each of us can name and rename ourselves. By doing so, each of us can bring honor to God, to the bestowers of our names, and to ourselves.  In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by his father and mother; one is the name people call him; and one is the name he acquires for himself. The best one is the one he acquires for himself. (Tanchuma, Vayak’heil 1)”

(Source:  My Jewish Learning The Power Of A Name: The Power Of NamingRABBI ANDREW DAVIDS (The Union for Reform Judaism)

 

One of the more important ways that the power of naming impacts transgender individuals is through the use of what third  person pronouns we use to refer to each person.  You may have heard people share when introducing themselves or as part of their email signature to “state their pronouns.”  In an environment that respects transgender , it is appropriate to ask someone what pronouns they use and to share the ones you use:  

Some non-binary/genderqueer people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns. Usage of singular ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ is the most common; and zesiehirco, and ey are used as well. Some others prefer the conventional gender-specific pronouns ‘her’ or ‘him’, prefer to be referred to alternately as ‘he’ and ‘she’, or prefer to use only their name and not use pronouns at all. Many prefer additional neutral language, such as the title ‘Mx.’ instead of Mr. or Ms.” (Source:  Wikipedia)

 

What Can We, As Cis-Gendered People, Do to Support Transgender Individuals?

I came across this excellent list of what we can do to support transgender people in our communities, especially faith communities:

  • Our faith already teaches us the most important way to respond:  by treating others as we would want to be treated by them. Treating transgender people with respect and compassion, just as you would any other person, is incredibly important. When other people see you act this way, it sends an important message about what you believe and how you feel people should be treated. Regardless of how you feel about someone, the bottom line of our faith says that we should treat others fairly and kindly.
  • Stand up and speak out if you see a transgender person being subjected to bullying, harassment, violence, or discrimination. No one should be targeted because of who they are. If people around you express fear or other negative emotions about transgender people, let them know that you’ve learned the facts that transgender people present no danger to you or your family. 
  • Support laws in your state and on the federal level that work to end discrimination against transgender people, including children and youth. It is vital that we resist efforts to erode or overturn these laws. 
  • Work to end racial injustice and inequity. Transgender people of color face higher levels of discrimination and violence when they are targeted for their race and their gender identity. 
  • Address violence. Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, continue to be murdered at an alarming rate. Work with community leaders and public officials to decrease violence in your area. Be willing to offer space for survivors of violence, including holding vigils and memorials for those who have been killed. Sometimes victims’ families have difficulty finding a religious space in which to hold a funeral; offer comfort at this most painful time by stepping up. 
  • Continue to improve your community and include transgender people in your advocacy for fairer housing, quality education, safe shelters, and other needs that people have. If your community supports programs for the homeless, ask if transgender people are welcomed and safe at the facility. 
  • Let transgender people and families with transgender children and youth know that your community of faith is a place where they are welcome to worship and fellowship. 

(Source:  Trans-Action:  A Transgender Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions.  National Gay & Lesbian Task Force)

 

The Journey For Each Person Is Different

I’ve come to understand that every transgender person’s journey is different.  Each person’s pronouns are different and it is appropriate to ask the pronouns they prefer.  I have also learned that each person’s desire or ability to have gender affirming surgery or to take hormones is different and that it is inappropriate to ask and irrelevant to me honoring them as a transgender person.  I believe the best way to conclude this reflection is with Rain’s own words:

“We are Christians, we are Muslims, we are Hindus, we are believers and non-believers too. Being transgender is not a lifestyle choice, and for the believing, all that we ask is to live a life worthy of the one given to us, without encumbrance from societal discrimination, overt or otherwise. Everyone’s got their baggage, but being transgender need not be one.” 

Thank you Rain Khoo for the blessing you are in the world:  The blessing of your authentic life, your love of humanity and your deep faith.  Thank you for what your journey has taught me.

 

Note:  

As a resource for all of us, I want to provide a link here to Samantha McLaren’s 5/20/19 article in the Linked In Talent Blog:  “15 Gender Identity Terms You Need to Know to Build an Inclusive Workplace” where you will find definitions for each of these terms that are important for transgender equality.

  1. Gender Identity
  2. Gender Expression
  3. Sexual Orientation
  4. Queer
  5. Cisgender
  6. Cishet
  7. Nonbinary
  8. Genderqueer
  9. Transgender
  10. Gender nonconforming
  11. Genderfluid
  12. Intersex
  13. Agender / Gender-Neutral
  14. Gender Questioning
  15. Gender Transition