Gender Sovereignty: A Spiritual Declaration of Independence from the Gender Wars

Gender transition and the social backlash against it -- particularly by conservative Christian groups and radical trans-exclusionary feminist activists -- has caused some trans people so much pain that suicide seems the only way out. The trans peer all-volunteer crisis phone line Trans Lifeline, founded in response to a trans suicide rate nine times that of the national average, gets many from both trans youth and their parents as well as those gender "gatekeepers" who would like to shut down this volunteer community service. The much larger struggle with the "male-female" either/or gender binary and those who don't fit it (including those who aren't trans or intersex) has been framed many ways -- "gender outlaw,""gender performance," "gender transgressing," and "gender policing.." Gender as battleground is inherent to these frameworks, and someone or something inevitably loses or is lost when battles are waged. Families in conflict, teens homeless or suicidal: Must this be the way gender struggle is engaged?

Instead of framing gender as an act, as a choice between "either/or," what if we were to embrace spiritual and physical wholeness -- as we do in yoga (shakti/shiva) and taoism (yin/yang) as a way of being "both/and," authentically whole, fully present, seeking balance moment by moment rather than once and for all -- a path open to and inclusive of all human beings?

"You are not a colony, you have sovereignty over yourself," teaches Zen Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn. We choose to live in freedom when we refuse to let other people or events colonize and dehumanize us. To proclaim our own grace and dignity as human beings when others treat us as less than human is an act of revolution, a declaration of independence.

Every day, even as I work with evangelical Christian families of suicidal teens who are struggling with their assigned gender and sometimes with the teens themselves, I remember this Buddhist teaching. Yes, the Christian tradition actually provides some of its own answers to the problems of transphobia: Jesus frequently warned his fellow Jewish believers not to judge others, reminding them and us that only God is equipped to judge human beings since God alone has both perfect knowledge and perfect compassion to do so (Matthew 7.1-3, Mark 4.24, Luke 6.38; Romans 12.19, Deuteronomy 32.35, et al.). Jesus also taught that we are to love all people with God's own perfect unconditional love, even our enemies (those whom we hate or fear, so for cisgender Christians this would include trans and intersex people and for heterosexual Christians those who are gay, lesbian, bi, or pansexual, Matthew 5.43-48).

Clearly the message isn't getting through: Though I remind evangelical Christians of this unconditional grace as the foundation of Christian life and faith, and other faithful Christians such as those of Gay Christian Network (with whom I recently joined to form a peaceful "wall of love," responding to Westboro Baptist protestors' infamous hate speech with songs like "Jesus loves you" and "They will know we are Christians by our love"), parents and teens struggling with gender identity issues hear far more ignorant fear-based gender messaging in their own faith communities than the voices of grace, reason and love can correct fast enough.Some evangelical families have had trans teens attempt suicide - some of them successfully.Praying for their teen's gender conformity and embedded in communities that actively preach conformity to human-constructed binary gender norms with damnation for those who can't fit them, these families are sometimes unable to process new views of gender quickly enough to save their teen's life.

If the unconditional love one would think a parent would have for a child instinctively is not enough, and the unconditional love evangelical Christians claim to believe God has for all people is not enough, then let us declare a spiritual revolution and claim our sovereignty as trans people. Let us throw off the shackles of gender imperialism. We are not colonies: No outside power has a right to declare our gender, to plant a flag of "M" or "F" and presume to claim us as such. "Your smile proves that you are not a colony, that you have sovereignty over yourself," Nhat Hahn teaches. Voices of hate and fear in many religious communities and families still bully LGBTQIA people back into hiding ("reparative therapy") which will never make us what we are not (cisgender or heterosexual) but only forces us to "bear false witness" (lying about and hiding who we really are in violation of the ninth commandment Exodus 20.16). To internalize such homophobia and transphobia is to allow ourselves be colonized. May each gender-questioning person and each family member who loves them instead proclaim our true spiritual freedom to live in grace, truth, and dignity!