HRC Seeking Trans-formation of Church and State

When Jesus walked the earth, he spent a lot of his time trying to explain himself. He was forever being misunderstood – not just by strangers, but by those closest to him – his disciples as well as his family.

Allyson Robinson can identify with Jesus’ dilemma. As a transgender woman, she is often misunderstood. Sometimes she can “pass” as a woman – with people never suspecting her past life. Other times, she’s not so lucky and she gets “read” – and misunderstood.

Robinson, writing in “Out in Season,” one of two new transgender resources from the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign, recounts two instructive events:

“A few months ago I was flying to another city for a meeting. I had been assigned the middle seat in a row of three, and had just finished stowing my carry-ons when a young family approached – a man, his pregnant wife, and a soon-to-be big brother about two-years-old. When I realized they had been assigned the seats to my right and left, I volunteered to move to another seat to give them some room to spread out and get comfortable. While I waited for the flight attendant to find me another seat, the harried young mother thanked me profusely.

‘Oh, it’s no trouble at all,’ I told her. ‘I know what it’s like to travel with kids.’

‘How many do you have?’ she asked.

“When I told her I have four, she looked me up and down. Honey, you look incredible! It took me just a moment to realize that she assumed I was my children’s biological mother, and that the truth of the matter – that I am a trans-woman and actually their biological father – was completely invisible to her.

“A couple of weeks ago I had a very different experience. On my way to work, I had just come up out of the subway and was walking the couple of blocks to my office when a man stopped me to ask a question. My answer didn’t satisfy him and he became angry and closed in on me – close enough to pick up some subtle cue that caused him to suspect I was transgender. He yelled loudly an accusation to that end, accompanied by epithets, as I was walking away, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment.”

Through Out in Season, Robinson, the associate director of diversity with HRC, along with other transgender writers, put the church calendar into a transgender perspective. One of the writers, Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson, said that while some believe there’s not much in Bible that relates to the transgender experience, there is a lot that does.

“We want Out in Season to be a place where transgender people of faith can go a see that there are valuable resources that are going to support them in their faith journeys and help them understand that they are valued and loved children of God. More than that I really want the entire church community – I mean church with a capital ‘C’ – to be able to look at this and begin to understand the marvelous, wonderful experience of what it is to be a transgender Christian.”

The writers began with the Advent season through Christmas and will next tackle Lent, Easter and Pentecost before moving into Ordinary Time in March 2009.

A second resource brings together church and state on transgender concerns. Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities: A Congregational Guide for Transgender Advocacy is a three-hour course that incorporates the personal stories of transgender people and their families with educational material to help people understand the legitimacy of gender identity issues.

“This curriculum gives people a better understanding of what’s behind gender identity,” Sharon Groves, the Deputy Director of HRC’s Religion and Faith Program explained. “It’s not an issue of choice, but is essentially who they are as people. Transgender people like lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, many have known their identity since childhood and they do not feel that they are in the appropriate gender. We need to understand what’s behind gender identity and understand their legitimate claims.”

Another motivation for the curriculum is to tap into a lobbying resource rarely used by progressives – people of faith. HRC wants those who go through the curriculum to specifically lobby for an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA.

ENDA was introduced to Congress back in April 2007 and it included a provision to protect transgender people. By September, that provision was stripped from the bill to make it more palatable to members of Congress concerned that including transgender people wouldn’t play with their constituents back home. That bill, which came to be known as the “non-inclusive” ENDA, passed the House two months later, but failed to pass in the Senate.

HRC became a pariah to many in the LGBT community after they supported the “non-inclusive” version of ENDA. They were accused of throwing transgender people under the bus in the name of political expediency. Even today, there are some LGBT people and organizations that won’t trust HRC or contribute to them for their perceived “betrayal” of transgender people.

Groves called the flap over ENDA, HRC’s “ordination.”

“We came to realize that no matter how people fall on HRC’s decision the one place we have common understanding is that more educational work is needed. And it needs to happen at the local level so that it would not be such a hard sell to members of Congress when ENDA comes up again,” she said.

HRC is encouraging congregations that use the curriculum to invite their member of Congress to attend the session. If they can’t get the representative to show, though, Groves said they hope pastors of the churches using the curriculum will attend HRC’s Clergy Call to Action in May and lobby their representative personally.

“If we can have people of faith speak on transgender issues from their faith perspective it’s a very powerful argument. It takes us away from the juggernaut that the religious right always seems to be able to claim that religion is antagonistic to LGBT people. If we can reclaim the moral ground, that’s very powerful,” Groves said. “So much of our work is about empowering ordinary people of faith and religious leaders to speak out on justice. Civil rights movement showed the power of the pulpit to shape public policy. Want to empower religious leaders to be a voice for change,” she said.

To access these new resources, go to the HRC’s Religion and Faith homepage.