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Embracing Transgender Equality, Inside and Outside Religious Communities

I sincerely hope that the interfaith movement work can begin to focus on LGBT issues beyond marriage equality, such as building congregations that treat people of all genders equally, including transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
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While I was marching in DC's Capital Pride this year, a trans ally watching the parade tried handing me a sticker that said "God Made Me Trans." As an atheist transgender woman, the gracious gesture simultaneously warmed my heart and stirred up a sense of outrage at the assumption that I needed a higher power to validate my gender identity. I told them, no, I can't take the sticker, and yet they kept thrusting it at me, trying to stick it on me like a game of pin the tail on the donkey. But the parade was moving forward, and rather than engaging them in a more productive dialogue about how their religious values mirrored many of my humanist values, I took the easy way out and quickly ducked away back into my contingent in the parade.

The LGBT movement has in the last few years made enormous strides in utilizing interfaith grassroots organizing to build support for marriage equality amongst religious communities and to make religious congregations more welcoming to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. For example, The United for Marriage Coalition, which held rallies and events around the country during the Supreme Court hearings in March on Proposition Eight and the Defense of Marriage Act, included numerous religious voices. Many of the events the United for Marriage Coalition has planned for the upcoming "Decision Day" will be held in places of worship.

My experience at Capital Pride, however, is just one example of the way non-religious LGBT individuals often feel conflicted about these interfaith efforts. Not all LGBT people needs a God in order to love themselves, or to believe, to quote Lady Gaga, "God makes no were born this way." Even though we know anecdotally that many LGBT people are atheists and that there is a strong bias against atheists in our culture, the push for faith-based work has left me feeling like atheists have been forgotten in the LGBT movement's work to build a more just and equal society. While I have been overjoyed to see many LGBT advocates stand side-by-side with religious minorities including Muslims to defend them from discrimination, rarely have I seen LGBT advocates speak out against anti-atheist discrimination. For example, while the LGBT movement has been very active -- and partially successful -- in mobilizing to end the anti-gay policies of the Boy Scouts of America(BSA), I've seen few LGBT advocates actively work to also end the BSA's anti-atheist policies.

For example, I have a transgender colleague from my Alma Mater, Swarthmore College, who converted to Judaism from Methodism after finding it better matched his spiritual and ethical values, and is hoping to study to become a Rabbi. While his prospective synagogue embraced him with open arms as they guided him through the conversion process, he had a harrowing experience when he chose to participate in the ritual process of immersing in a ritual bath known as a mikveh as part of his conversion. The tradition involves stripping completely naked while someone keeps watch to make sure that every part of you is submerged, and the only mikveh available required that this watcher be of the same gender. Luckily, a transgender friend who is currently studying to be a rabbi returned from a year abroad just in time to participate in the ritual with him.

However, many transgender people are not so lucky, and I have heard countless stories from transgender people who were rejected by religious congregations. One Catholic trans woman I befriended recently had devoted her life's work ministering to prisoners and youth, and when she came out to her priests privately, they said they supported her transition. However, when she came out publicly, her parish stripped away all of her ministries, and she is now working to re-build them independently. A gay transgender man I met had spent decades as a devout Baptist, but when he came out as trans he was publicly shamed, humiliated and thrown out of the congregation his family was part of. He then joined another congregation who accepted him as a gay man, but once they found out he was transgender, he was again publicly shamed and rejected.

I grew up in a Catholic family, and I was so inspired by the priests at my parish that I volunteered for years as altar server, and even considered becoming a priest myself. I did not come to understand myself as transgender until after I had embraced a non-theistic worldview, and I didn't simply "fall out of" my faith because of my gender -- it was only after years of reflection and study that I became a secular humanist. Yet regardless, growing up I felt a great amount of spiritual and emotional turmoil trying to reconcile my gender with Catholic doctrine that made me feel ashamed for desiring things like being able to wear a dress (although one perk of being an altar boy was the cool robes). To this day, I still value many of the lessons Catholicism taught me, such as the importance of forgiveness and love. And while I strongly disagree with the official stance of the Catholic Church on issues including reproductive rights and LGBT rights, I still often point out to people how progressive most Catholics in the United States actually are, including those I grew up with.

This week, as we wait for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage equality, I am proud to stand in solidarity with all of the religious and non-religious advocates who have helped bring us to this moment. That said, I sincerely hope that the interfaith movement work can begin to focus on LGBT issues beyond marriage equality, such as building congregations that treat people of all genders equally, including transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. There is much work to be done inside and outside of religious communities to build a just society where people of all genders and of all faiths, or no faith, are embraced as whole individuals worthy of respect and love, and I personally am exhilarated to take part in that work. I hope you will join me.

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