Transgender Christian leaders have a message for President Donald Trump’s administration, following reports that it plans to drastically narrow the legal definition of gender.
Even though the administration is moving to stop recognizing the existence of transgender and nonbinary people, there’s nothing it could do that would erase trans people’s inherent worth, the faith leaders told HuffPost.
“No government entity or leader can take or excise or erase the depth of worth that Transgender people are and embody,” the Rev. Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a queer Latinx activist and founder of the Activist Theology Project, told HuffPost in an email. “My religious tradition teaches that I am made in the image of God and of sacred worth.”
Progressive activists have responded with anger and protests to news that the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to establish a legal definition of gender that would roll back advances made by the Obama administration. The proposed definition, first reported by The New York Times, would treat gender as a biological and unchangeable condition assigned at birth.
In effect, the definition would exclude America’s estimated 1.4 million transgender or nonbinary citizens from federal civil rights protections. Disputes over a person’s gender would have to be clarified with genetic testing, the Times reported.
The government’s proposed definition would realign its understanding of gender with the theology of conservative evangelical Christians, who have long been some of Trump’s staunchest supporters.
The Rev. M Barclay, director of the Christian ministry enfleshed, said they are deeply troubled about the proposal ― but not especially surprised, given the administration’s previous discriminatory actions toward the trans community.
Not only does the proposed definition threaten to snatch away trans Americans’ access to crucial resources and rights, these political moves against the community also leave deep emotional wounds, Barclay, who is based in Iowa and uses gender-neutral pronouns, told HuffPost.
“The spiritual trauma of being perpetually told who we are isn’t real, that others shouldn’t believe us or support us, and that our well-being isn’t of collective significance is doing so much damage,” they said.
Alex Patchin McNeill, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group More Light Presbyterians, said the first thing he thought of when he heard the news was the violence that trans people often experience.
Twenty-two trans people have been killed in the U.S. this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Research also indicates that transgender people experience high rates of poverty and attempted suicide. The 2012 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that a staggering 41 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals reported having attempted suicide, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.
McNeill said that the proposed policy stands in stark contrast to the biblical command to love one’s neighbor.
“This proposed change not only presents an inaccurate understanding of gender identity, it is also dehumanizing and unnecessarily cruel,” he told HuffPost. “I wish Trump’s conservative supporters actually followed the Bible.”
On Monday, Dr. Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s most vocal evangelical allies, reiterated his belief that gender is binary, tweeting that “nowhere in the Constitution is the government granted the power to ‘define human beings.’”
Barclay, a former conservative evangelical, said they remember what it’s like to say things that they once believed were rooted in love but now recognize as harmful. Barclay’s spiritual journey eventually led them to become the first openly nonbinary deacon ordained in the United Methodist Church, the country’s second largest Protestant denomination.
Looking back, Barclay said they regret taking hard stances on issues that affected other people’s lives before listening to and learning from those affected.
“I really regret that and I would invite those who are open to it to consider reaching out to someone who has come to love and accept someone else who is trans, listen to their journey, be humble in processing new information, and then pray over it,” they said.
Gender-diverse people have existed throughout time and on every continent, and we’re part of your church families as well. Austen Hartke
Austen Hartke, an LGBTQ+ faith educator and author from St. Paul, Minnesota, believes the problem is that many conservative evangelicals argue about trans identities as if they were theoretical, theological issues, rather than something real that profoundly shapes people’s lives.
“Most conservative Christians I speak with have never actually gone out of their way to meet a trans person and hear their particular story, and so once they’re actually faced with the reality of having a nonbinary family member or a genderqueer coworker they have to rethink things a little,” Hartke told HuffPost in an email. “The main thing I wish non-affirming religious folks understood is that gender-diverse people have existed throughout time and on every continent, and we’re part of your church families as well.”
Trans Christian leaders often point to Biblical stories about eunuchs as examples of gender diversity in the Bible. Eunuchs are typically understood to have been men in antiquity who underwent castration.
“We’re even told in Galatians 3:28 that gender is not something that can separate us from God, and that it shouldn’t be used as a metric to separate us from our community as the Body of Christ,” he said.
Christian scriptures indicate that after Jesus’ resurrection, “an Ethiopian Eunuch is the first person to be baptized in the book of Acts, signaling that nothing is to stand in the way of that person receiving the Holy Spirit,” McNeill said. “I wish our country could follow this example and stop placing barriers on transgender people’s ability to live fully and authentically as who they were created to be.”
Myles Markham is a Georgia-based activist with the Reformation Project, an organization that promotes LGBTQ people’s inclusion in Christian spaces by reforming church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Myles said the Bible has regularly been used by some Christians to cast people out of the church. He hopes the Trump administration’s proposed policy will compel faith leaders to explore what the Bible actually teaches about gender diversity and who should be welcomed into the Christian fold.
“A deeper and perhaps more faithful reading of the text results in an overwhelmingly inclusive and therefore counter-cultural message about who belongs,” he said in an email. “Christianity at it’s best [sic] preaches good news, and if it’s not good news for everyone it isn’t truly good news for anyone.”
The five trans Christian leaders who spoke to HuffPost all believe the figure at the heart of the faith would be on their side.
“Like us, [Jesus] was well acquainted with being misunderstood, afflicted, and suffering,” Myles said. “And rather than passively enduring state sanctioned violence, [he] resisted.”
Barclay said they believed that because all human bodies are made in God’s image, anything that harms the lives and bodies of transgender, intersex or gender-nonconforming people also harms God.
“The God of my tradition is a liberator of the oppressed and a healer of destruction,” Barclay said. “The gender of any given person is far less important to God than the systems and prejudices that keep any of us from thriving.”
This article has been amended to include Henderson-Espinoza’s honorifics.
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