Allyson Robinson is an ordained Baptist minister. But until a few years ago, she lived life as a man.
Robinson had struggled with her transgender identity all of her life, growing up as a little boy who longed for dresses. “I grew up in my mom’s closet,” she said.
“For most of my life that was just something I did. It was not who I was. And I understood it as something that was wrong. Then that wrongness became a sin. God was clearly displeased with my need to express myself in feminine ways.”
Robinson tried to suppress this desire. She married, had kids and went to divinity school.
As a man, Robinson pastored a Baptist church in a small town in Central Texas. “We were in the kind of place where a pastor’s coming out, it would have been on the front page of the local paper,” she said. Robinson said that those congregants, nice and well-meaning as they were, would not have been comfortable with a transgender pastor. She worried about how the community’s reaction would affect her children. So when she made the decision to become a woman, she quietly resigned.
A False Dichotomy
The Human Rights Campaign estimates that transsexuals represent approximately .25 to 1 percent of the US population. That number does not include the transgender people who haven’t undergone sex reassignment surgery (a process many people call “the transition”), so the number of transgender-identified people is likely much higher. The term “transgender” encompasses anyone with a gender identity that is different from his or her birth sex. A transgender person could be someone who just cross-dresses from time to time in private; someone who identifies as gender-queer (that is, neither male nor female); someone who is just taking hormones but not undergoing any surgical modifications; or someone who is undergoing or will undergo full sex reassignment surgery, including genital modification. Such differences vary according to socioeconomic status, age, and cultural context, but, in general, transgender people are sprinkled across every color and creed.
Transgender people, though, are much less likely to take part in an organized religion than non-transgender people, according to researchers. In their article “Understanding Spirituality and Religiosity in the Transgender Community: Implications for Aging,” authors Jeremy Kidd and Tarynn Witten posit a reason:
“The tendency not to identify with a formal religion may reflect an affirmation of one’s own dignity that these religions fail to honor, an expression of protest against certain religious tenets, and/or a refusal to align oneself with institutions contributing to the marginalization of gender and sexual minorities. The difference in religious identification appears to reflect thoughts and feelings toward religious institutions more than it does spiritual behavior or beliefs.”
But the idea of transgender Christianity still carries shock value for many; in conservative Christian circles and radical LGBT circles alike. Pauline Park, one of the founders of a transgender group called the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, says that people often feel it’s one or the other—LGBTs vs. Christians.
“In other words, if you’re for LGBT rights, you must be an atheist and have nothing whatsoever to do with organized religion, and you’re probably inclined to want to burn down the nearest church. Conversely, if you are a person of faith, that means you are an evangelical Christian and all religion says that homosexuality and transgender are sins and there’s no disputing that. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy, because neither are true.”
What is true, though, is that there is often tension between these camps, real or imagined. Asher Kolieboi is an organizer with SoulForce, a group that works to fight religious bias against LGBT people. It’s a bias he has experienced firsthand. Kolieboi, who is tall and broad with long dreadlocks, was always manly—even as a little girl. But when he decided to transition, his Pentecostal family had no vocabulary to understand his decision to alter his body. They saw it as a rejection of God’s divine plan. “‘That’s not God’s plan, and that’s not God’s plan for you, and it’s definitely not God’s plan for the way society is suppose to run,’” they said. “So not only was I doing something that’s not natural, but, of course, it’s an abomination.”
Just about everyone who is transgender has a similar story about an awkward conversation, a sense of disapproval, the cold shoulder, or a little reference to hell. Many transgender people end up leaving these churches, their families, and their expectations.
Man and Woman, Separate and Distinct
There are churches that have accepted transgender parishioners and clergy. Consider the Baltimore case of Drew Phoenix, a minister with a United Methodist Church. His congregation accepted and supported his decision to transition. And, of course, there are many LGBT-friendly churches out there that have been open to transgender people for decades.
But many of the other larger denominations have not and probably will not anytime soon. The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest denominations in the United States, has taken a strong stance against LGBT rights as a whole. And the Catholic Church, one of the world’s largest religious institutions, has been outspoken specifically about the transgender issue.
Shortly before Christmas in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech to the Curia (the administrative arm of the Catholic Church) that our gender was a gift from the creator and denounced those who would try to change it. “It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation,” he said, “the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God.” In other words, he threw down a transgender gauntlet.
For the Pope and many others, it all comes down to a literal reading of the Bible’s book of Genesis which says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” They say that means God created man and woman, separate and distinct.
Mark Yarhouse is director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, a conservative Christian university that was founded by the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson. Over the years, Yarhouse has counseled adults and children who believed they might be transgender, and his institute has just finished a preliminary study on transgender Christians. He said he was impressed by how difficult their lives often seemed to be.
“Often a person is completely isolated because it’s so rare. They don’t have like-minded or many other people in that local church community to support them and encourage them,” said Yarhouse.
”I think conservative churches often have a very clear idea of how a person should resolve this, and they often place more of an emphasis on resolving it in accordance with your birth sex rather than your psychological experience of your gender identity. And I think that, often, transgender people are trying to decide just that—how do I resolve this?”
Allyson Robinson, an ordained Baptist minister, spent more than a decade praying for her own resolution. She pleaded, “God make me strong enough to resist this temptation.” But nothing happened.
Robinson tried to understand why God had not answered her prayers. She tried to interpret God’s silence theologically and came up with a few options: 1. The God that she had been praying to didn’t exist; 2. God wasn’t who she thought he was. He wasn’t compassionate, and he didn’t care about her suffering; 3. God was causing this suffering for his own glory; 4. God was causing the suffering to keep Robinson humble.
None of those explanations were satisfactory. But one day, she had a revelation. She, said, “the reason God had not fixed me was because I was not broken.”
When Mark Yarhouse embarked on his study of transgender Christians, he said he didn’t know what he was going to find. He contacted people through a transgender Christian internet group and found people in churches across the country. “I was impressed by their personal faith and their efforts to sort of find a home for their Christianity, for their own Christian identity,” he said.
Some had found a way to look at the Bible and find themselves in it. And not in the abomination, sin and hellfire scriptures, either.
Justin Tanis writes in his book, Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith, about a sense that his transgender identity was a calling, on par with the call to ministry. “Rather than simply being a fluke, an oddity, or a source of shame, gender variance comes to be seen as part of our God-given identities,” he writes. “Even more than that, it becomes our spiritual responsibility to explore fully the nature that God has given to us.” He says that thinking of being transgender in this way allows transgender people to be a part of God’s plan, not exceptions to it.
The Metropolitan Community Church of New York City is a gay-affirming church tucked into an area of Hell’s Kitchen, just past the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The Gender People group, founded more than a decade ago to give transgender people a safe place to talk, meets at the church every Sunday in a makeshift library on the second floor. Moshay Moses, a transwoman with warm brown skin and a curly, honey-blond bob, said when she and some other people started the group they had a vision. Here, there should be no talk of drugs or passing or surgery. Here, they would be doing “spiritual surgery” to break down those negative walls of Jericho that have kept them from recognizing themselves as spiritual beings.
On a sunny summer day she held court before a small audience, including me, of exactly five. The topic was less coherent, more episodic, and loosely about the importance of metaphysics. “We take from the Bible that God is neither male or female, but spirit,” said Moses. One woman who didn’t identify as transgender so much as just androgynous, talked about her acute depression and how she wakes up every morning and wants to die. The conversation turned from there to talk about wholeness as a person and the wonders of God’s love. One guy got up and left abruptly; and another person fell asleep. At the end, they all seemed satisfied, though.
I asked one participant, a tall transwoman about why she comes to the group. She said, “I finally found a place where I can talk about my spirituality—as a transgender person.” Because, here at Gender People, their transgender identity isn’t something to apologize for or something they need to justify; it is, according to Moses, a gift, a blessing, and its own salvation.
A Biblical Magic Trip
Actor Peterson Toscano was inspired by what he calls the secret history of transgender people in the Bible. He started workshopping a play on the topic almost two years ago. He named it Transfigurations, a reference to the metamorphosis of Jesus to a being with a visible divine radiance. Toscano describes the play as “a biblical magic trip.” It’s a one-man show that explores the stories people of indeterminate gender, of Joseph and his girl-like ways (remember his coat of many colors?), and of Deborah and her man-like ones.
In Toscano’s play, he includes two sketches with eunuchs. In one of them, he tells the biblical story of the Ethiopian eunuch who Philip converts on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In the Old Testament there is a prohibition against eunuchs entering places of worship. But Philip baptizes the eunuch, showing him that the religion of Jesus is more inclusive of outcasts. Toscano’s narrator, recounting the meeting, says that baptism is “a sign to show we died to our old lives, and we are free to live more as ourselves.”
Toscano said he started out doing the play in queer-friendly places; LGBT centers, Metropolitan Community Churches. “I didn’t think that anyone would be interested in this,” he said. “You know, sure, trans-spiritual people… that’s like 25 people.” But later he moved to other places—churches with little old ladies and populations of evangelical Christians. What he found surprised him.
He said the audiences always seem to be moved. “I’ll almost hear weeping during the show,” Toscano said.
So, he asked himself, what is it about this story about transgender people that moves the straight and the gay and the many in between? He said he thinks these transgender stories touch some universal part of people. The part that looks in the mirror and sometimes has trouble recognizing the person there. The part that worries about gaining weight or getting older. The part that is worried about change. And transgender people embody change; they are people who have been bold enough to change everything about themselves.
“All Things Come of Thee”
Lynn Walker is a transgender priest in the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America. In photos, she sports her priest’s collar, but in her day-to-day work at a transitional housing program for transgender sex workers, she’s all jeans, T-shirts, and blond hair pushed back. She says she doesn’t push her religion on anybody. Just like she doesn’t mention her transgendered status unless she wants to.
Walker looks at it this way. Being transgender is not a sin or a pathology; it’s about variety. “Based on science, this is uncommon, but normal and natural,” she said. “Somewhere in the Book of Job, it say all things come of thee, oh Lord.” Walker said that yes, transgender people take advantage of scientific advancements to change their bodies. But she doesn’t see why that should be wrong or controversial or an abomination in the eyes of God. “If science is a gift from God,” she asked. “Why don’t we listen?”
Walker says she often wishes transgender people could encounter less religious persecution out there; that they could walk into a random church and not be afraid of how people might react. “If more trans-people were involved in faith communities, then faith communities would normalize the experience,” she said. Walker used to run workshops at the LGBT center in New York City and she once, years and years ago, tried to start a spirituality group. The first week, two people showed up. The next week, there was only one other person. Eventually she gave up. But, these days, she’s more hopeful. Maybe in five or ten more years, she said, it won’t even be an event to see a transgender person in a church—or even leading it.