In the Trenches with the HRC, Working for Transgender Inclusion

Becky Garrison wrote in her otherwise fine piece, “Beyond Adam and Eve: Christians Reach Out to the Transgender Community,” that “the Human Rights Campaign does not view transgendered issues to be a part of their action campaign for lesbian and gay rights.”

As a transgender woman working in the trenches for transgender people since 1994, and as a pastor with the Presbyterian Church USA, I would like to offer a correction to Garrison’s misleading statement about the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). I am a member of HRC’s Religion Council, a much sought after transgender trainer and a writer for their outstanding curriculum, Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities. I know quite a bit about the real commitment HRC has to trans issues and am eager to invite readers of Religion Dispatches to join HRC in its robust advocacy for justice on behalf of transgender persons.

On the legislative front, HRC is a strong advocate for an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that includes gender identity. HRC has also worked with Congressional offices to introduce inclusive non-discrimination legislation covering students (Student Non Discrimination Act, H.R. 4530/S. 3390), credit (Freedom from Discrimination in Credit Act, H.R. 4376), and housing (Fair & Inclusive Housing Rights Act, H.R. 4820; Housing Non Discrimination Act, H.R. 4828). HRC has also advocated for administrative action in the Obama Administration, successfully pushing for updated nondiscrimination statements to include gender identity and clear statements in government publications and employment materials that gender identity is protected under civil service law.

In our workplaces HRC has been working for years with US corporations to promote fair and just treatment of transgender employees. Recently they have developed the first of its kind research project: Trans-inclusive Health Insurance Research Initiative (THIRI), designed to remove barriers to health insurance coverage for people who are transgender and putting an end to benefits discrimination against transgender people.

The work I’m most directly involved with is HRC’s groundbreaking effort to bring transgender awareness to congregations around the country. HRC’s Religion and Faith Program’s curriculum, Gender Identity in Our Faith Communities, for which I have had the privilege to be one of the 12 transgender and allied writers, is a spiritually engaging guide designed to introduce congregations to the issues faced by the transgender community. Far from a static document living behind a veil on their website, HRC’s Religion and Faith program has deployed their curriculum in 40 faith communities where legislators have been supportive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual protections but not transgender protections.

The Religion and Faith program understands that our faith voices can be a powerful force in our work for transgender justice. On issues of gender identity and sexual orientation, congressional leaders often look to clergy and strong faith leaders to guide their deliberation on key legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. This is why in 2009 HRC’s Religion and Faith Program brought clergy and lay leaders who had taken part in the Gender Identity trainings to Washington DC to speak about our experience as part of their Clergy Call for Justice and Equality. We did not hail from the obvious liberal bastions were you may expect to see such trainings, but from places like Alton Illinois, Jackson Mississippi, and Boise Idaho—places where transgender education rarely makes it into a congregation’s adult education program. Currently trainings are planned for Cherry Hill, New Jersey , Richmond Virginia, and Stockton, California, among other locations.

I am honored to be a part of this bold work for transgender justice and invite you to join HRC in 2011 for their next Clergy Call for Justice and Equality where clergy willing to speak out for transgender equality will have another opportunity to make history.

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The Rev. Erin K. Swenson, Th.M., Ph.D., was ordained as Eric Karl Swenson in 1973 by the Presbytery of Atlanta, which was then a part of the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. Twenty-three years later, after completing a gender transition from male to female, that ordination was sustained by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, PCUSA, making Swenson the first known mainstream Protestant minister to transition from male to female while remaining in ordained office. Swenson continues to practice active ministry as a pastoral psychotherapist in Atlanta's Midtown section, working primarily with individuals and families with gender identity issues. She is past Co-moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians, an organization devoted to the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and has served as chair of the Health Ministries Committee and the Committee on Inclusion of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. In 1999 Swenson co-founded the Southern Association for Gender Education Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to educating institutions of higher learning, medical associations and practices and faith groups about diversity in gender expression and the place of gender in modern life. Swenson travels nationally presenting to conferences, churches, organizations, seminaries and universities.