Being Transgender: From Punchline to Mainline
By: Candace Chellew-Hodge
When it comes to transgender people and their issues, the media tends to portray them as either prostitutes or punch lines.
Author and speaker Vanessa Sheridan believes being they are neither. Instead, for her, being transgender is a gift.
"There was a time I thought it was a curse and if there were a bottle of pills you could take to get rid of being transgender, I would have swallowed the whole bottle. Now, being what I've been through and seeing the improvements in society for transgender people, I wouldn't take those pills," Sheridan told Whosoever during a recent interview. "There's nothing wrong or sick or evil about being transgender. There is something wrong with society's misconceptions about what it means to be transgender, and that's what I'm trying to address."
Sheridan is addressing those issues on two fronts: spiritual and corporate.
Sheridan, raised in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist home in the Southeastern United States, has written three books on being transgender and Christian. Her first book, Cross Purposes and her subsequent book Crossing Over address the issues transgender people face as they grapple with reconciling their spirituality and gender identity. Her latest book, Transgender Journeys, was written with the preeminent transgender scholar Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.
Each book is intended to light the path to God for transgender believers who find themselves attacked or challenged by the church. Unlike gay, lesbian and bisexual believers, transgender people are often not working on issues of sexual orientation - but gender identity. This produces a different challenge for transgender people when it comes to religion.
"Transgender people are gender transgressors and that is apparently a major sin in this culture. That is where people base their identity and they need some black and white standards in their world. One that we adhere to is there are males and females and the twain shall not meet. Transgender people turn that premise upside down and it makes people anxious and fearful. When people are afraid they strike out and try to punish those who are making them afraid," Sheridan said.
Like gay, lesbian and bisexual people, transgender people do face some biblical opposition - particularly from Deuteronomy 22:5:
A woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God. (NASB)
"While that particular scripture passage may have referred to a specific group of people in a specific time and place for a specific reason I'm not sure it applies to folks who identify as transgender in today's society. Using the Old Testament to clobber transgender folks is not fair or accurate. I think we can look past it and focus more on the biblical message of God's inclusive love for everyone," said Sheridan.
Sheridan believes that it is "important to create resources and educate people about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity so people can make more informed decisions based on facts and not fear."
After three spiritually based books, Sheridan is expanding her educational efforts concerning transgender people. She has moved from the spiritual realm to the workplace. Sheridan has launched a new venture, traveling the country training workers at companies in diversity issues. Some of the companies she works with have implemented policies for transgender employees or are looking into such policies.
"Social change often happens in the workplace. When women first entered the workplace it was a big deal, now they are mostly accepted. Same thing is true with African-Americans and others who went to work as equals in modern day corporate America," she said.
She notes that in 2000 only three Fortune 500 companies had equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies that included transgender protections. Now, there are 150 companies with such policies.
"I feel like I'm uniquely positioned to help corporate America craft guidelines and provide training to be more aware of the transgender phenomenon and how it impacts them."
So far, Sheridan has found her corporate audiences to be receptive. She has not been openly criticized or felt uncomfortable with her audiences.
"Occasionally there is a person who has a religious or moral concern and I respect that. I'm not there to tell them what to think or believe. What I'm there to do is help the people of the organization understand that management has put a policy into place about workplace behavior. So, I focus on behavior and not belief. I believe that mitigates a lot of the negative vibes or comments that could come about," Sheridan explained.
Sheridan is cautiously optimistic about the future for transgender people both in the workplace and in the church. There's been remarkable progress made over the past 15 to 20 years. Twelve states have legal protections for transgender people and more and more companies are recognizing their transgender employees and customers.
"Much remains to be done and I feel a sense of urgency to make a difference while I can," she said.
Sheridan is writing a book about transgender issues in the workplace. Something she hopes will be a "corporate bible" of sorts for CEOs and other managers. She hopes her efforts will open the doors of corporate America to more transgender employees and customers.
As for the church, she hopes for progress there as well, but still sees much work to be done.
"It is against everything that I know about the model Jesus gave us to exclude people from the love of God. Until the church is able to wrap its collective brain around that concept and open its arms wide and say our doors are open to everybody no matter what, we need to keep working," she said.
For more information about Vanessa Sheridan, visit her Web site at vanessasheridan.com.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.
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