The Truth in Transgender: Will the Episcopal Church Amend Its Rules?

The Episcopal Church was not the first denomination to ordain women or lesbians and gays, or to name them to senior leadership positions. And while the denomination has recently moved toward the blessing of same-gender relationships, the practice was formally affirmed in the Unitarian Universalist church almost thirty years ago. All of which is to say that the Episcopal Church has not been entirely in the vanguard on these issues.

Still, it has been highly visible—a visibility that has been heightened by the public rancor associated with debates over sexuality and gender, the ensuing defection of conservative parishes, and related litigation over real estate and other assets held by a Church that was granted considerable property prior to the American Revolution. As a result, an atmosphere of family squabbling has sometimes defined the Episcopal Church in the popular imagination.

But it might be argued that all this Episcopal-Anglican wrangling has allowed for a vicarious processing of perspectives on gender equality, human sexuality, and religious inclusion by those in other churches and religious groups with nothing immediately at stake. The larger culture, to its betterment I would suggest, has used the ongoing debates in the Episcopal Church to think through the nest of nettlesome issues at the intersection of biblical teaching, religious tradition, human reason, and experience with regard to women, lesbians, and gays.

Gene Robinson, that is, may well be the Ellen DeGeneres of contemporary American religion.

Why Add the “T” to “LGB”?

As the Episcopal Church prepares for its 77th triennial General Convention in Indianapolis next month, transgender Episcopalians and their allies are preparing to challenge the denomination’s commitment to the full inclusion of all God’s people—without consideration of “race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disabilities or age”—in discernment for lay or ordained ministry in the Church. The italicized language is a proposed addition to the current canons of the Episcopal Church, which were previously amended to include sexual orientation as a characteristic that could not be considered as an impediment to ministry. The new language was proposed at the 2009 General Convention, and was passed by majorities of lay and ordained deputies. However, Episcopal bishops amended the proposed new canonical language to remove reference to gender identity specifically, preferring broader language that would ensure access to all the ministries of the Church by “all baptized persons.” Members of the trans community and their advocates persuaded deputies that the bishops’ revised language obscured the challenges faced by transgender Episcopalians, and the amendment was defeated.

“I think there was a tremendous amount of confusion the first time around,” says Louise Emerson Brooks, a media consultant and communications director for the Episcopal LGBT advocacy group Integrity USA, of the failure of the 2009 resolution. “There was a clear need for education among the bishops and the delegates in general on what it means to be transgender and why it matters that they are not prevented from serving the Church in any ministry, lay or ordained.”

“I have to confess,” continues Brooks,

“that I was one of those people who used to say, ‘Why do we have to put the T with the LGB?’ I thought it was a different issue. I thought it was confusing. I thought it was polarizing. I thought we should just separate the issues, take on one battle at a time.”

A seminar by the advocacy group Trans Episcopal changed Brooks’ understanding of the issues, and Brooks channeled her own learning experience into Voices of Witness: Out of the Box, a documentary that tells the story of trans women and men now serving in ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. 

The immediate goal of the film, a copy of which will be sent to every Episcopal bishop and deputy in advance of General Convention, is to ground discussion of the resolution that “gender identity and expression” be explicitly named in the Church’s canons as characteristics that cannot be cited as reasons for exclusion from consideration for ministry. As the testimony of transgender priests, deacons, and lay ministers in the video attests (including commentary from bishops Gene Robinson, Ian Douglas, and Chet Talton), transgender people have not been universally excluded from ministry. But the revised language would ensure that ministry is a formal possibility in every Episcopal diocese, sending a powerful message of acceptance and inclusion across and well beyond the denomination.

Inclusion Fatigue?

The Right Reverend Mary Gray-Reeves, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, and chair of the Legislative Committee that will review the resolution and decide whether to recommend it to the larger voting body, agrees that further education on the experience of trans women and men in the world and in the Church is critical.

“There really is a tremendous need for education and understanding,” she says. “People just don’t know what transgender is.”

Until the understanding gap is bridged across the Church, however, she’s not convinced that new language on gender identity and expression will be approved. Although Gray-Reeves says that she, herself, would “absolutely” ordain a qualified transgender person, “I really just think most people [at the Convention] will feel like they’re not equipped to make and defend a decision about language supporting transgender people in ministry. In most of the country, away from the coasts, this is a very complex issue.” 

She continues:

“You know, the American Psychiatric Association still classifies being transgender or transsexual as a ‘disorder.’ Whether we agree with that or not, and even though ‘treatment’ means things like helping a person to feel like they’re in the right body with hormones or surgery, that kind of thing is going to deter people from wanting to approve the resolution without having done a lot more thinking through it.”

It is this “thinking through” that has helped the Episcopal Church to move forward, albeit more slowly than those most directly affected would naturally wish, on the ordination of lesbian and gay clergy, the election of gay and lesbian bishops, and the development of a formal liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships that Gray-Reeves expects will easily be approved at this year’s convention.

It has also modeled a process—however messy, contentious, and often deeply painful—of coming to a practical consensus on difficult issues that have been an important resource to the wider culture as support for employment, housing, medical, adoption, marriage equality, and other civil rights for lesbians and gays has grown over the last few decades.

This same process from ignorance to tolerance to acceptance to inclusion for lesbians and gays in all ministries and the full spiritual life of the Church, however, may slow progress on the adoption of this new language. “It’s not that we have ‘inclusion fatigue,’” says Gray-Reeves. “It’s that the Church as a system can only absorb so much change at any one time.” She explains:

“At the last convention, there was discussion about looking the theology of marriage, and it didn’t make it through… We were already on board with studying same-sex relationship blessings and resolutions related to compassionate pastoral care for lesbians and gays. So, it was not because [studying the theology of marriage] was terribly controversial. It was just more than we could handle in our dioceses. And the transgender piece could get caught in that practical reality again.” 

In supporting what she sees as “the next leg of the inclusion journey” for the Church, Gray-Reeves argues for more of the advance work that was central to the slow success of the movement toward full inclusion of lesbians and gays. “I would love to see a resolution that suggests that we study in all of our dioceses what it means to be transgender,” she suggests.

“Because if you ask the Church to go from zero to sixty on new language without presenting the challenge of studying it, and providing resources to people, convention after convention it’s just not going to pass. I’d like to see us being more strategic in getting the Church to really learn about transgender people so they can be supportive.”

Practical and Prophetic

Transgender people in the Church and their growing community of allies would likely demur, seeing the needs of transgender women and men as well within the practical concerns that the church is called to address. Out of the Box director Douglas Hunter, a heterosexual, married father of three children, who happens also to be a practicing Mormon, shares Gray-Reeves’ concern for education and awareness. “I think it’s always a great time to get to learn about other people, to expand the boundaries of your own compassion,” he says. “There’s no ‘bad time’ to try to increase awareness and understanding.”

However, he also sees the day-to-day reality of transgender experience as making an additional practical call on Christians. “It’s my personal understanding of biblical ethics that Christ calls us to reach out to others who don’t fit in,” he explains, “those who are poorly understood, who are subject to violence and domination within our culture.” He continues:

“One thing we know about transgender people is that it’s so risky and dangerous just to be who they are. So, as Christians, we have to address the impact these misunderstandings and institutional policies and biases have on people’s lives day-to-day. Transgender folks, as they walk down the street today, in major cities, in America, are at risk for significant violence. The Episcopal Church has an opportunity to help lift that burden.”

If past experience is any indicator, Bishop Gray-Reeves is almost certainly right that the delegates to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will likely put the brakes on any decisive changes to the Church’s rules for participation for ministry. But one hopes that it will also be the case that the Church will demonstrate the capacity to apply much of the learning and understanding it gained in the long march toward full inclusion for lesbians and gays to a more timely affirmation of the lives and ministries of other marginalized groups.

As The Reverend Carolyn Woodall, a transgender woman and a recently ordained deacon from the Diocese of San Joaquin who is featured in the film puts it,

“There comes a time in history when you’re called to make things happen. It’s not a matter of generating controversy. It’s a matter of all of us being fully who we are. It’s just that simple. Now is the time to act on that in the Church—to make a serious attempt to imitate Christ.”

If the Episcopal Church decides to clearly articulate its intention that all aspects of participation in the life of the Church—including ordained ministry—are open to transgender persons, it will be the first mainline Protestant denomination to do so. Transgender Episcopalians and their advocates have expressed confidence that, procedural wrangling on all sides of the matter notwithstanding, the resolution will pass at the July convention.

[The fourth paragraph of this article was amended by the author to clarify the proceedings at the 2009 convention. —Eds.]