“Trans Memos and a Pastor’s Response” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper

Last Wednesday, I was invited to be a part of the interfaith panel held here at UBC hosted by Texas Freedom Network and the Transgender Education Network of Texas.  The panel was titled “Uniting Our Communities and Countering Hate” and I don’t know if the discussion could have come at a more appropriate time. Earlier this week, news broke that the Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as biologically determined by genitalia at birth. This would undermine and dismiss an increasing population of people who identify as transgender, non-binary, or gender-queer. A move like this reduces protections for people who are already severely at risk and find themselves on the margins.  The statistics of violent crimes against trans people are astounding (just to scratch the surface of the staggering statistics for the trans community). A move like this will just further ostracize an already vulnerable community.

In light of this news, I thought I would share my prepared answers from the panel discussion from last week, as they seem more timely than ever.  As we seek to be faithful messages of love and peace, we must remember that Jesus’ work was always to include the outcasts, heal the wounded, and to welcome the stranger–  all while engaging the powers-that-be in direct non-violent confrontation and protest at the injustices he saw.

Proclaiming justice from the rooftops, I sign off with love for you all, dear friends:

Stephanie Cooper
Associate Pastor
  1. More often than not, transgender people are ostracized for sharing their personal stories. Their friends, family, and support circles cite their religion as the reason for ending their relationships with trans folks. How do you respond to individuals who say their “sincerely held religious beliefs” are the reasons why they must disown trans people?

Often, arguing with people who use the Bible or vague blanket religious claims to dismiss, oppress, or ostracize a group of people doesn’t typically get you very far.  We can argue Bible passages all day long and play Bible tit-for-tat, but usually, people who use the Bible as a weapon aren’t interested in expanding their circle of inclusion.

We can argue about the Bible’s cultural norms, cultural context, the Bible as a historical document (about a group of people seeking after the Holy), but when it comes down to it, if for you the Bible is the literal, infallible, inerrant word of God, it will back up whatever cultural norm and context you want it to back up.  

So these arguments seem like a waste of everyone’s energy and time.  Hearts and minds are not changed through arguing, but they are changed through relationships. It is through my interaction with another person– getting to know them, eating meals with them, and engaging them– that our lives intertwine and it becomes harder to demonize the “other”.

So it is a damn shame when relationships are cut off because of someone’s unwillingness to engage the “other” because of some religious belief.  And often times, it is not safe for marginalized people to have these conversations themselves because of othering and folks’ unwillingness to engage.  Often times, marginalized people are dismissed before they are even given the chance to speak.  We obviously do not want to take away voice, but in situations where walls are built, those who find that privilege has placed us on the inside of those walls (be it because of our race, gender, religious affiliation, class, gender identity) have the responsibility to speak truth to power.

We all have a responsibility to recognize our circle of connection and the complex privileges we have in different circles and leverage ourselves in those various spaces to speak truth to power.  It’s there that we can offer a different narrative to someone who may have been closed off to the direct voice of the marginalized.

Hearts and minds will not change through Biblical argument.  It is through experience that people shift a little bit: through empathy and through genuine vulnerability.

  1. Cultural bigotry, discrimination, and violence against the trans community are seeing an alarming uptick in numbers. Do you believe non-affirming faith-based communities play a significant role in these negative attitudes towards trans people?

Absolutely.  People have a tendency to use religion and faith to justify their own cultural sense of “normal.” Unfortunately, the tactic and the polarization that has been seen in recent years is to other those who are “different” from us.  It’s caused all of us, conservative and liberal alike, to pull back into our communities and spaces that are comfortable and are perceived as safe. And from that space, some use it as a place to demean and undermine the very lives of people.  As the prophet Todd Snider reminds us, “When you’re pointin’ at someone else, no body’s looking at you.”

And I feel like it’s my job as a mouthpiece for this religious institution to offer a different narrative.  And we can’t be lukewarm about this either. It’s not just to say that “all are welcome” in some vague way.  A lot of churches and religious institutions have made this mistake (I’m looking at you, CBF), and those of us in the LGBTQ+ community know to watch out for those traps. We have to explicitly say at religious institutions: God loves trans, nonbinary, and gender queer folk. And that’s it. There are no “but’s” about it.   It’s our job to create safe spaces for people and to speak out about the injustices done to the trans community.  And it’s up to us to recognize that we all have our own cultural biases so that we can keep expanding our own circles of inclusion.  We must approach life with a posture of curiosity and always be open to learning new things about the world.

  1. Are there any religious texts, passages, or tenets you rely on to affirm full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions?

There are several that come to mind for me:

  • John 3:16:
    • God loved the world.  The whole world, not just Christians, not only those who believe a certain thing, not only those who have been baptized– but the world.
    • And then John 3:17 hits the nail on the head: God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it.  And when you can take the frame and shift it from “hell and condemnation and not-good-enough” to “life and wholeness for the whole world”, then we can live into a different narrative. It’s much easier to think that Jesus is just going to condemn some people than it is to work to create just and fair systems of inclusion.  But the latter is the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim.
  • God’s care throughout the Bible is always for those who find themselves on the margins of society and not in the concentrated power of the center, whether that power be religious, political, or social.  
  • John’s Gospel 13:34- “I give you a new commandment: to love one another.”  We are commanded to love the way that Jesus loves, and the gaze of Jesus is always with compassion on those who find themselves on the margins.
  • And when Jesus was asked “what is the greatest commandment,” he responds that it is to love God (as yourself) and love neighbor. And Jesus’ language (especially in the Greek) infers that these two are one in the same.  So we must ask ourselves what does it mean to love your neighbor? Is it to be nice and to wave when someone lets you out in traffic? Some may think that, but to me, that seems like a watered down version of the truth. “Love” is a selfless pouring out for the neighbor.  And so, who is our neighbor? Jesus doesn’t specify but the good Samaritan is his example of neighborly love. The one person who was truly neighbor in the story was the one who crossed the cultural norms of the day to give selflessly of themselves for a stranger who was perhaps even “enemy”.
  • All of the prophets speak to this idea that God is on the side of the oppressed.
  1. The saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” is often used by people of faith who are anti-trans, anti-non-binary.  This is often presented as a statement to minimize the humanity, authenticity, and sanity of people in trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary community.  How do you help people to understand that the creator has created all of us “special” to be who we are?

We live in a world of constructed binaries: white-black, rich-poor, heteronormative-“non”heteronormative (also, what’s normal?), male-female, human-”non”human, straight-gay, etc.  This is the construction that we all move within. It is the water we swim in. And within this construction, one side of the binary will always be the preferred or the “normal” and the other side will be seen as the “other”.  This is why women are still not paid the same as men nor are offered the same opportunities in the workplace. This is why “black sounding names” are less likely to get a job interview and why we think the rest of creation is here to serve us.  This constructed binary places one way as the standard and everything else falls in line below that standard into a hierarchy. We can sing that we are “One in the Spirit and one the Lord” all day, but as long as this constructed binary exists, we have work to do to deconstruct these “norms” and “standards” by which our conscious and subconscious play.

That is the difficult work of naming that “all are a beloved child of God.”  Not one person is more beloved than another, regardless of who you are, how you dress, how you express yourself, how you exist in the world.  All are beloved and so the justice work is to create a world where our systems reflect that inclusion for all people.

  1. What can each of us do as individuals to help ensure that our faith, our congregations, and the world are more welcoming and affirming of all gendered/non-gendered people?

Recognize the power structures that are at play in the world and recognize your spot in that. Leverage the resources you have to extend genuine neighbor-love to those who don’t have the space or pulpit or the culturally-granted-privilege that you might have. Use the resources you have to speak truth to power.  If that is money, then support organizations like TENT or TFN who are advocating for the lives of trans/non-binary/non-gendered. If its time you’ve got, organize. If it’s power and prestige, use your voice to speak truth to power.  Engage whatever resources you have to make a real difference.

I often like to remind people that Jesus turned tables over in the temple enraged at the injustice he saw.  It’s our job to see the possible in the impossible. To see the kingdom of God in the here and now and to work to bring about God’s dream for the world.

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