A Choir Without Compassion

The year was 2004, and I was a newly transitioned trans woman, integrating my identity with the world and working out all the needed nuances and social cues. As I built a new life, one of the first things I wanted to do was join a church -- particularly one that had a good music ministry. I thought of one near me, where the music program would be especially appealing. I also knew the place was conservative and my gender transition might give them trouble, but I naively figured that with some "don't ask don't tell," I would be fine.

Little did I know I was in for one of my life's most exhilarating times -- only to be followed two years later by a soul-crushing disaster (read on). As painful as this whiplash was, it taught me a lot -- enough so that it was almost worth what I had to go through. I want to share the lessons I've learned. I could simply list those and stop, but at the risk of writing a longer piece, I'll finish my story first. Besides the context it provides, its positive side motivates me to try new things; maybe it will for others as well. And, of course, it's all completely true, unbelievable as it seems even to me at times.

So I went to the music director and offered my services as a pianist. To my surprise, he responded by saying that the choir needed members, so could I sing there? I felt trepidation -- and also supreme excitement. Me, singing in a choir? I had never done that before, and "singing" for me had never been more than croaking out a few primitive grunts. But every so often, I'm up for a challenge, and this was one of those times. At my first practice, we stood by a piano and tested my voice -- which, conveniently enough, fell right in alto range. With that, eagerly I went to join the other women in the choir's alto section. I sang, cautiously, the first Sunday, and then with increasing confidence for the Sundays after that. I was excited by my new ability. In the succeeding weeks, I hired a vocal coach and worked further at it. Our choir did weekly services, and concerts for special events. This was a big privilege -- and lots of fun. The music was wonderful -- ranging from spirituals to classical to modern.

Hiding one's identity gets old after a while, and so after a year -- at which point I was getting compliments from my music director and others -- I thought perhaps I could share my gender history with a minister who I felt I could trust. Big mistake -- but I didn't know that until it was too late. My minister reacted with disbelief at the news, as if I had claimed I was an alien emerging from a spaceship. What are you doing here, his eyes seemed to flash at me. It was clear that he was struggling with how to react. I was a valued choir member, but my trans history didn't fit his world view. We continued talking to each other for months, but it was never the same. I could feel the tension. Probably at that point, I should have taken the hint and moved on. But I had felt generally accepted by then, and I hated to give up the music ministry.

One fateful day, my cell phone buzzed ominously, and the call came. It was my "friend" the minister: Get out, and do not come back next Sunday in the choir. Your presence at the church is causing a lot of trouble. You can't be serious -- I love my choir and have been here more than two years. Yes, I am serious, step aside NOW. But we have a classical music performance three days from now, and they need alto voices, and I've worked hard to get ready. I don't care, step aside, I'll tell the music director that you won't be there. We're doing this to ensure the purity of the church. Wait, this seems wrong, what about my side of things? Silence.

And with that, my choir career screeched to a halt. Though I felt awful, I resolved to be more careful in the future. I gingerly probed the wreckage with a few questions. I learned that the minister had shared my trans history with senior leadership, and in response they ordered him to expel me. So in fairness, it wasn't entirely his fault. But that didn't stop me from feeling misery. Maybe this was needless -- it was just a choir, after all, and it should have been easy to just take it as another hit from life and move on. But what bothered me -- a new and naïve trans woman -- was that an organization that was supposed to do good could instead boldly inflict hurt.

So as I recall all this -- years later -- what have I learned? Quite a lot.

Ultimately, churches are not primarily religious or spiritual organizations. They are businesses and will do whatever it takes to survive as such. Churches, like any business, do focus on the bottom line. Many will probably adhere to their stated religious principles when convenient, but in a conflict between that and the bottom line, the latter may win discouragingly often. In my case, the church had preached compassion from the pulpit countless times, but they probably worried that if my trans status became widely known, congregational donors -- especially conservative ones -- would object, and withhold money. Hence my choir expulsion.

Churches often do not process information or reason logically. This is especially true regarding trans issues. Some of it is ignorance and some is outright hostility. Humaneness is tossed aside, and irrational thought and outdated beliefs are clung to like security blankets. Regarding "the purity of the church" that motivated my minister's action, are they investigating the personal lives of all the other choir members too? They're not? So how then can they guarantee so-called "purity" without a full-scale witch hunt? It's totally illogical, but sadly, it's common behavior.

Radical religious conservatism is very bad. Really. If you wouldn't mix toxins with your favorite drink, then don't mix a trans or gay identity with the kind of radicalism that I faced. The result will be about as predictable -- and as devastating. The exterior of radicalism can seem pleasant, but the interior is corrosive. Like a snarling angry beast, it can't be reasoned with, befriended or tamed. It must be avoided entirely -- or countered with legal, humane activism through the right channels -- as many are already doing.

Churches often neglect their responsibility to help others in need and make the world a kinder place. I am not a biblical scholar, and my purpose here is not to argue theology anyway -- though many churches do seem to ignore the historical and language translation contexts for the biblical verses that they use to demean gay and trans people. Instead, I argue on purely a humanistic basis. It seems to me that churches need to use their considerable power and influence to help those who are different or hurting in some way, and to leave the world a better place than they found it. They benefit from considerable largesse -- tax exemptions, donations, and so on -- and owe something back in return. Of course many churches do a lot of good. But mine could have taken the same effort needed to shake me from my choir seat, and used it instead to help someone in need. Isn't that a better use of time and resources?

The friends we make in churches will often not stick with us or support us if something goes wrong. Only one church friend reached out to me to find out what happened and to offer support. My other "friends" vanished like snowballs in July. My choir director turned his back on me too. I felt truly alone. I think the reason stems from the posturing, superficiality, and "towing the line" needed to adhere to a church of this nature. This does not lend itself easily to the deep friendships where people really care for each other.

My story has a sort of happy ending -- I found other choirs eventually, and had many happy opportunities to sing again, in more receptive environments. But in a way, the damage was done. It is hard to recover the depth of trust and goodwill that I once had. Trans individuals often have the same desire for a spiritual life as other people, and there certainly are accepting churches out there, some of which would originally have been a better choice for me. But sadly, I must still advise heeding the lessons I learned, and generally being cautious with religious organizations. Otherwise, the Choir Without Compassion that I experienced might earn itself an encore performance.


This post is part of HuffPost's Journey Beyond the Binary blog series, an editorial effort to bring diverse trans and gender non-conforming voices to the HuffPost Blog during and after Pride month. As the LGBTQIA community celebrates great strides forward this June, it's important to acknowledge the struggles still pertinent to trans and gender variant members of the community. Please email any pitches to beyondbinary@huffingtonpost.com