THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF BEING TRANSGENDER
“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 them 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 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 family social unit that will best support everybody and each other? So that has always been our way of working through our differences.”
I met Rain Khoo when he went by his past name, Elaine. Rain refers to “Elaine” as his “past name,” although some transgender individuals call their birth name their “dead name.” A transgender male, and gay (attracted to men), Rain and I met when we worked at Procter & Gamble. He was an outstanding designer on P&G’s Future of Marketing project. My deep admiration for him and his journey is based on what he taught me about the love of God and the love of self. In his full interview, I loved 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.”
Because of Rain’s life experiences, I spent time thinking about and researching the spiritual issues for transgender people, as well as what the spiritual issues are for those of us who are cisgender. (Cisgender people are those whose gender identity corresponds with the sex identified at their birth.) To inspire others to honor the journeys of transgender people is my goal.
The first question I asked was about population statistics for the transgender community. In the United States, I learned that in 2020, there were 1,382,700 people who identified as transgender. Issues of gender identity and gender expression are now able to be addressed with less shame and fear than ever before in history, yet there is still a lot of education that needs to occur before anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and “+” as in aromantic, pansexual, demigirl, etc.) can enjoy a world where they are accepted and appreciated in all the ways that they are human.
A nonprofit, The Trevor Project, is doing a lot to educate people about the fluid qualities of sexuality and gender orientation. The Trevor Project’s mission is “…to end suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning young people.” Sexuality is tied to mental health even for cisgender people. But for those who are transgender, the statistics are stark.
A study done in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 40 percent of transgender individuals had attempted suicide.
These are the truths about the spiritual journeys 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+ youths are at risk of depression and suicide.
4 . LGBTQ+ people are often excluded from religious communities.
5 . Gender is part of how each individual sees themselves as God sees them.
6 . It is the right of each individual to name themselves according to how they identify with their gender.
7. It is the right of every person to know that their gender identity is life-affirming.
Because I had questions about the contrasts between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation after my interview with Rain, I suspected that most other people do, too. I obtained some answers from “TransAction: A Transgender Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions.” Biological sex is identified for a person at birth and is based on the physical appearance of their genitalia. Gender identity is based on internal feelings about being male or female, or, something in between or outside those two main conditions. Feelings of gender identity may arise during early childhood, or at any other developmental stage of a person’s life. How a person expresses gender (whether they feel free or restricted in the manners in which they speak, wear their hair, dress, play, and interact with others) is based on the ways others perceive them. Social pressures, such as the “rules” based on a family’s or community’s past expectations, or by religious belief and practice, are what forces a person to stifle gender identity.
I believe that everyone should have an understanding of the definitions of these, and other, terms related to gender identity and expression: sexual orientation, queer, cishet, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, intersex, agender, gender neutral, aromantic, gender questioning, asexual, pansexual, transgender. And, everyone should know and not use certain terms that may be heard as offensive, such as “sexual preference,” “homophobia,” and “transsexual.”
Debra Kolodny, rabbi of Portland’s UnShul, identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun “they.” As I continued to explore transgender spirituality, Rabbi Kolodny shared a compilation of traditional Jewish holy texts that show an acceptance of androgyny and multiple genders. For example, in the Book of Bereishit (Genesis) 1:27, the story of when God created humanity, the grammar of the text makes clear that the first human being, Adam, was both male and female
“God created the Adam in God’s image; in the image of God [God] created him—male and female [God] created them.”
“This is no 21st century interpretation,” Rabbi Kolodny said. “In Midrash Rabbah 8:1 [commentary, c. 400 CE], 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.”
Rabbi Kolodny guided me to the six different genders described in the Mishneh Torah (commentaries on the Torah taken from Keshet For LGBTQ+ Equality In Jewish Life’s Gender Diversity In Sacred Jewish Texts, by Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Dev Noily) which further legitimize that many genders have been recognized for millenia:
“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 Mishnah 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 Mishnah 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 Mishnah 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 Mishnah 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.”
Rain shared with me his favorite New Testament texts in support of many gender identities:
“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” (Galatians 3:28 ESV).
“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him 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” (Acts 8:35-39 ESV).
Faith can be an important part of transgender people’s live but it often isn’t because many faith communities don’t embrace how they see themselves. When organized religion pushes them away (there are many anti-LGBTQ+ messages from religious organizations in the media) transgender youth become even more vulnerable. The reason for this exclusion of LGBTQ+, and especially transgender individuals, from inclusion in religious communities is because individual identity (which is all about change and growth) is at odds with tenets that desire sameness and stability.
Joy (formerly Jay) Ladin, Ph.D. is a professor at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. In an extraordinary memoir titled, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, Ladin describes her gender transition in conjunction with her belief in God. She believes that religion assists a person to grow into a relationship with God, and her story is about the ebb and flow of her faith during the sacrifices and decisions she made in order to live her truth. This causes me to reflect that not enough is being done in religious communities to welcome transgender individuals, to allow them freedom to grow, and, to afford them the twin courtesies of love without judgment and privacy regarding their sexual practices.
As for me, I believe in a Higher Power that encompasses the sacredness of all creation that sees me and each of us in our fullness without the distortion of ego, personality, or even gender, as assigned by others. My belief was reinforced when
I read a blog post Rain wrote.
Here is a portion of it:
“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 KJV).”
The transgender members of humanity teach us about the power of naming things, especially the power to identify and rename ourselves. While some may see transgender rights as being about restroom choice, I see it as the right of each individual to declare his/her/their identity in gender and in name.
One power of naming transgender individuals may use is the third person pronouns: they, their, them. In situations that respect gender and gender-neutrality, people are asked to “state their pronouns” where all pronouns, including ze, sie, hir, co, ey, she, her, he, him are welcome. The use of Mx. is an appropriate substitute for Ms. or Mr.
In addition to respect for all pronouns and titles, I researched what cisgender people can do to support transgender people in our communities, especially faith communities. The list below, from: “TransAction: A Transgender Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions,” has been paraphrased:
1 . Faith teaches the most important way to respond is by treating others as you want to be treated. Set an example. Regardless of how you feel about someone, faith’s bottom line says that you should treat others in fairness and with kindness.
2 . Stand up and speak out when you see a transgender person being subjected to bullying, harassment, violence, or discrimination. No one should be judged to be a target for violence. If people around you express fear or suspicion about transgender people, let them know you believe transgender people present no danger and should be given respect.
3 . Support laws and policies that end discrimination against transgender people, especially children and youth.
4. Work to promote racial justice and gender equity. Transgender people of color face higher levels of discrimination and violence due to both race and gender identity.
5 . Address violence by knowing it happens and standing against it. Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, are often murdered. Work with community leaders and public officials to decrease violence in your community. Offer space for survivors of violence by holding vigils and memorials for those who have been killed. When victims’ families have difficulty finding a religious space in which to hold a funeral, give assistance.
6 . As you improve your community by demonstrating openheartedness, include transgender people in your advocacy for fairer housing options, quality education, safe shelters, and other human needs. Check that your community supports programs for the homeless, and ask that transgender people be welcomed and kept safe.
7. Let transgender people and families with transgender children and youth know that your community of faith is a place where they are welcome to participate in worship and fellowship.
I believe it is important for everyone to educate themselves about gender. I’ve come to understand that each transgender person’s life journey is different. Each person’s choice of pronouns are different; it is appropriate to ask for the pronouns they prefer. A person’s desire or ability to have gender affirming surgery or to take hormones is a matter of privacy. It is inappropriate for me to ask; my purpose is only to honor and respect them.
In Rain’s 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 blessings you deliver to the world—of your authentic life, your love of humanity, and your deep faith. Thank you for what your journey has taught me.