Keynote Speech before Reconciling Ministries Network Transgender Community Outreach Event, May 18, 2001
Sisters and brothers, friends, honored guests — good evening! I’m delighted and honored to be here with you tonight. I consider this gathering to be a highly significant event, and it’s great to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you. I do wish that there were more people here, but I’m very pleased that YOU have come. It often seems that those who most need to attend events such as this one rarely do. Transgender folks need to hear words of encouragement and affirmation, and those who oppose us need to see our faces. They need to be confronted with the truth and the dignity of our transgender lives. In any case, welcome-I am happy that you have chosen to be here tonight.
You’ve been sitting for awhile. And so, if you’re able, let’s stand up, stretch, shake out your arms and hands, and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Say hi to the person next to you-we’re all family here tonight.
Thank you, and please be seated. Now, I invite you to sit up straight, feet flat on the floor, rest your hands in your lap, breathe deeply, and let’s begin. First, let me say that I don’t plan to offer any new or deeply profound insights into the nature of the transgender phenomenon tonight. But we do have some important issues to address. The fact that we are here together right now means that the spiritual concerns and issues of trans people are beginning to be taken seriously, at least in some quarters, and I find that encouraging. I hope you do, too. One blessed day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, our religious institutions, along with the rest of society, will begin to realize and accept the fact that being differently gendered is not a “choice,” a “preference,” or a “lifestyle”: it is an orientation, a way of being in the world, and a remarkable gift from our loving Creator.
I invite you to join me in considering what it means to heal the wounds that have been inflicted upon the transgender spirit, and what our religious institutions, particularly the Christian church, might do in helping to bring about that healing. This is important stuff. It touches the lives of many people, and I take these concerns very seriously.
Even as we talk about the Christian church, I’m aware that not everyone here tonight may be Christian. I want to be as inclusive as possible in my remarks, because I believe that the important issue of trans spirituality reaches far beyond our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, or our temples — it goes right to the heart of who we are as human beings. And the heart knows or cares little for specific religious belief systems — our hearts are how we get in touch with our Creator, with our spirits, and with each other.
Okay, so we’re transgender. What does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, it means that we’re society’s mirrors: we hold gender up for examination and for reflection. That’s a significant, even pivotal, social task, and we are uniquely suited for it. We help define what gender is for our culture, and what it is not. And, whatever our religious beliefs may be, I am convinced that transpeople are also called and gifted by God. We are on this earth to be the embodiments of a prophetic message to the world, and part of that message is this: there are many healthy ways to live as human beings in relationship with our Creator and with each other. Bigotry, disrespect, narrow-mindedness, and lovelessness are not among them.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves. For the most part, it’s still considered socially acceptable to bash us. We’re fair game for the right-wingers, the fear-mongers, and the self-appointed guardians of morality. We’re different, and everyone knows that anything different is always to be met with fear and loathing, right?
That’s why transpeople can’t look to the more conservative elements of our religious organizations for spiritual healing. Nor can we look there for the justice that we need and deserve, at least not at this moment in history. So, we must turn our focus elsewhere: first, to our God, the source of all healing power. Secondly, deep within ourselves to the considerable strength and courage that we may not even know we possess. And third, we need to look to each other and to our allies for support in this very real struggle.
I want to take a moment to recognize our non-transgender family members, friends, and allies. Thank God, their numbers are growing. Good people of conscience are beginning to realize the injustices that exist, especially within the Christian church and our other religious institutions, and they’re coming to join with us in solidarity. I’d like to ask everyone here who is NOT transgender to stand, if you’re able. You represent a strong, highly significant hope for us, and we are grateful. We appreciate your presence here tonight — you are critical to our lives and to our hope for making progress. We respect and honor you for your importance to us.
The radical religious right, bless their pointed little heads, remains trapped in the perceived religious security of a bygone era. The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes of Harvard University calls this mindset, “Nostalgia with an attitude.” These folks apparently have little interest in sharing or living out God’s unconditional love for all people. Neither are they interested in being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light of 21st century scientific and theological understanding. These people need our prayers and, as difficult as it may sometimes be, you and I must do all we can to LOVE them into the realm of justice. Now, that’s a tall order, I freely admit-but it’s what God would have us do.
Perhaps we can all take some solace in the New Testament story, found in Luke, chapter 18, verses 1-8, of the woman who goes before the unjust judge. In this narrative, Jesus tells the woman not to lose heart, to keep praying, and to continue going back before the judge until she finally receives the justice she seeks. That’s what she did, and eventually she got what she wanted and deserved. And that’s what you and I must be about: continued prayer for guidance, direction, and strength; remaining optimistic and never giving up; and working unceasingly for justice on behalf of all people.
You see, God’s people are not necessarily called to be “right” or “correct.” We are called to be faithful-faithful to God’s ultimate, transcendent law of love so that we may seek justice for the wounded and the oppressed among us. Our real task, as the useful cliché reminds us, is to comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.
Now, let’s talk about healing for the transgender spirit. What should that healing look like? What forms should it take, and what actions are necessary? Here’s what I believe: we are desperately in need of a healing of attitudes, a healing from hurts, a healing of minds and spirits and emotions that have been battered and scarred, and a healing of broken relationships. We’re also in need of healing that can take place on both sides of this equation. Let me explain what I mean by that.
First, differently gendered people are in need of healing from the pain and negativity that has been forced upon us by the social institution of religion, and perhaps especially by the religion of Christianity, for so many centuries.
And, just as importantly, the Christian church, along with the rest of society, needs to be healed of its sick, unfounded prejudice and misguided bigotry toward the transgender. Reconciliation can only take place where there is repentance, honesty, mutuality, respect and integrity, and my prayer is that people will be brought together through God’s spirit of love so that the church can be more healthy, whole, and inclusive. You see, this now becomes a test of our character, and we who call ourselves people of faith must be prepared to meet that test head-on.
Of course, a necessary piece of this healing process for transpeople involves putting ourselves on the line, even though that probably sounds unfair after all we’ve been through at the hands of religion. By this I mean we need to come out to as many people as we can, because when we who literally `live the life’ are willing to speak out, we become effective advocates for ourselves and for other differently gendered persons. And, perhaps most importantly, we put a human face on the issue, making it harder for others to ignore us. That’s how we can begin to build bridges of respect and understanding with the church-but we must always build those bridges with a strong sense of dignity and legitimate pride in who we are. We are NOT unworthy people, and we must demonstrate that in all we do.
I’d like to quote some words from David Whyte, who is a remarkable poet and speaker. I believe them to be highly appropriate for us here tonight:
“I do believe in dignity and the preservation of personal honor. I believe in dignity, not in dignity’s old shadow of puffery and self-importance, but in its power to keep us true to our own spirit. With dignity comes honesty and an unwillingness to sell yourself short, to temporize or collude in a cowardly way that may preserve our jobs but not our honor. There are certain things we should not do, lines we should not cross, conversations to which we should not descend, money we should not earn however easily it may come, things we should not allow ourselves to be called in public.”
Now let’s shift our attention to the other side of this equation: what is the role of the church in all this? First of all, the church has a direct, God-given responsibility to love and to reach out to all people. It’s time for people of faith to begin taking that responsibility seriously. The people of God cannot afford to be selective or exclusive about whom we will and will not accept. Let me give you an example of why that is so.
We’ll call her Linda, which is not her real name. I want to share a letter that she sent to me. Back in 1993 I wrote a short little book called The Cross and the Crossdresser, and this letter was written in direct response to that book. Linda’s letter has helped me to better understand how God sometimes works through us in the lives of people we may never even meet. Linda’s words come from the darkest place in the human soul, and I still get chills every time I read them:
I’m writing to thank you for your book, The Cross and the Crossdresser. I also want to tell you about what’s happened to me because of reading it.
My name is Linda, and I’m a crossdresser. I live in New Jersey, and have been a Christian all my life. I’ve never been able to understand why I need to crossdress. I’ve asked God about it, but have received no answers. All I know is that it’s hard to be a Christian who struggles with these things. The desire has never gone away even though I’ve tried to hold it back.
I’ve been hurting deeply because my pastor has told me that crossdressing is a terrible sin. I went to him for help in trying to sort out what all this meant spiritually. He quoted from the Bible and told me that wearing women’s clothing makes me an abomination, someone who is unacceptable to God. I’m supposed to stop dressing, repent of my sin, ask God’s forgiveness, ask for forgiveness from my church, and never crossdress again.
Vanessa, I’ve tried to stop crossdressing many times. I’m able to quit for a short period, but the overwhelming need to be Linda always comes back. I’m convinced that I’ll never be able to give it up completely and that, sin or not, it’s a part of who I am. So, I’ve struggled very hard with this issue for a long time. I’ve been torn apart with guilt and with shame, and the stress has even made me physically ill.
Last night I decided that I couldn’t deal with all this deep pain anymore. I had ordered your book and I wanted to read it, but I was in so much emotional pain that I wasn’t even sure I could concentrate. I felt that I just had to be Linda for awhile, even if it DID make me a an abomination and a sinner, so I got dressed up and sat down on the couch in my living room.
As I sat there I was holding your book in one hand — –and a gun in the other. I’d made up my mind that I was going to blow my brains out because I just couldn’t stand the pain and the guilt any longer. And if I was going to die, I was at least going to do it in the clothes that I loved.
I opened your book and began to read that God loves me just the way I am. You wrote that God doesn’t care about what we wear on the outside of our bodies: God has more important concerns. God cares about our hearts and our spirits. You said it was not a problem for God if I wanted to crossdress because God knows what my soul needs. And you wrote that nothing could ever separate me from God’s love-not my pastor, not any teaching or doctrine, not my church, or anything else.
As I continued to read, I started to cry heavily. I had to stop reading for awhile and wipe the tears from my face. Finally, I decided to put down the gun so I could wipe my eyes and turn the pages more easily. When I finished your book I sat there for a long time looking at the gun. I cried some more, and then prayed to God to help me make a decision. Amazingly, God did so. I’ve never known such a feeling of peace, inner calm, and certainty of God’s love for me as I did in that moment. I put down your book, took the gun and emptied the bullets, and then put the gun away. I have decided to leave my old church and to look for another church home. I need to find someplace where I can worship God and be accepted for the person that I am, not for who someone else thinks I should be. Thank you, Vanessa, for writing your book and for making a difference for me. I’m going to live.
Your sister in Christ,
Nothing I can say here tonight could be as articulate or powerful as Linda’s words. She went right up to the edge of the abyss and looked over it, but God’s loving presence gave her the strength to step back and decide to live. And the world is a richer place today because people like Linda — and like each one of you — are in it.
I don’t know everyone who’s here tonight. You may or may not be Christian, and that’s your business. It’s certainly none of mine. And frankly, your belief system shouldn’t matter in terms of how the Christian church ought to be treating and respecting you as a person. What DOES matter is that the church has an obligation to love you as a human being, to take your concerns seriously because God loves you, and to view you as infinitely worthy because you’re created in the very image of God.
I believe there are four specific things the church must do if it is to be effective in dealing with the spiritual concerns of transpersons:
1. Christianity must become open to education about the transgender community. Otherwise, we’re all just spinning our wheels and preaching to the choir. This means that differently gendered people and the church have to dialogue and interact. We’ve GOT to talk to each other openly, even if it’s painful or messy-and it will be — so we can make progress toward greater acceptance.
2. The church must make a conscious decision to love and accept transgender people completely, without reservation or limitation. Why? Because God does. If you want to follow God, then you have to emulate God. If the church is to do that, it has no viable option other than to extend love and acceptance to transgender persons-because that’s what God does.
3. The church must respect and encourage transpeople to live out their lives with spiritual integrity. And that DOES NOT mean trying to “heal us of our affliction” or forcing us into “repentance” for our transgenderism. Nor does it mean trying to “change us” through prayer or “reparative therapy,” or coercing us into giving up who and what we are so that others might be more comfortable around us. Neither does it mean taking scripture out of its historical and social contexts, and then using it as a weapon to bash us. It DOES mean treating us as equals, as peers, and as full, legitimate members of God’s inclusive family.
4. Finally, the church must become involved in social activism on behalf of trans persons. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a simple matter of justice, and because there is so much to be gained for everyone in terms of insight into the human condition and into the very character of our God. Now, I’m well aware that the right thing to do isn’t always the easy thing. And I also know that creating justice is often an unpopular thing to do. In fact, there is usually a price to be paid for taking a stand and committing acts of justice. But the price for not doing justice is even higher: the price is our very soul. And that’s too high. So, we must do what God is calling us to do: we are called to be lights of understanding, of respect, and of human diversity for the sake of all who need God’s liberation.
Hear me now and listen well: I’m tired of our people being treated as second-class citizens within the Body of Christ and within society. I’m tired of seeing our people being ignored by the church and our other religious bodies, implying that we’re nothing and that we don’t matter. That’s why you and I must begin refusing to lick up the crumbs that fall to the floor from God’s table of communion: we are entitled to sit in full equality at that table and to partake in the communal feast like everyone else. DON’T EVER SETTLE FOR ANYTHING LESS!
I don’t know about you, but I tend to get excited and energized when I think of the possibilities that lie before us. You and I are living in amazing times and, almost by default, we get to be in the forefront of a grassroots movement for gender and spiritual liberation, a movement that will literally change the church and the world for the better. We can make a profound difference. You and I are made in God’s image. We are God’s beloved trans people, and we have a right to be proud of who and what we are.
Some people think that the phrase “transgender pride” is an oxymoron. Now, I’m neither an ox nor a moron, but I’m here to tell you that we can take tremendous pride (not vanity or self-importance, hopefully, but a quiet, fulfilling sense of dignity and personal fulfillment) in being differently gendered. We are special and valuable to God and to the human race, whether we believe that or not. Tonight, I urge you to think about what “transgender pride” might mean for you. Every person in this room is a unique and infinitely precious creation, and I can tell you this much without reservation: you make me incredibly proud to call myself transgender. Please pray constantly for God’s guidance and wisdom, and resolve not to let a day go by without making God’s holy justice become a manifested reality in your life.
My prayer for us all is that God will gift us with strength for this struggle, because we know that life can be hard; with wisdom and discernment, because we so desperately need those qualities in these difficult and confusing times; with compassion, because others need it; with unity of purpose, so that together we may lovingly contribute our abilities to the righteous causes of peace and justice, thereby honoring and bringing glory to our God; and, finally, I pray that God will gift us with joy, because we were created to appreciate the abundant blessings of life in all their delightful diversity.
If we will but place our trust in the Creator of all things, the One in whose image we were so lovingly fashioned, then we may boldly envision and begin to build a new church, a new society, and a new world. We will become the co-creators of this bright, imaginative new social vision with our God, the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And when we do, that transformed society, that bright new world, and our very lives will be filled with holy, sacred, right relationships. This, then, is our blessed hope. It is our potential future as the people of God in this world, a human destiny where we will surely see and experience, as Shakespeare reminded us, more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Thank you, and may God bless you all.
Author, speaker and consultant Vanessa Sheridan’s books include Cross Purposes: On Being Christian and Crossgendered, Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian, Transgender in the Workplace: The Complete Guide to the New Authenticity for Employers and Gender-Diverse Professionals and The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace. She co-authored Transgender Journeys with the preeminent transgender scholar Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.