On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Looking at Gifts and Challenges
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a time set aside each year to remember those trans people who have been beaten and murdered because of their identities. It can also be a time to remember the gifts of trans people to church and society—especially their spiritual gifts.
The transgender experience is more intimately connected to divine reality than usually imagined says a scholar of gender and religion.
In an essay on the Huffington Post, Professor Susan M. Shaw of Oregon State University wrote that “the biblical witness itself proclaims that God is One who transcends gender. Trans means “across,” “beyond,” “through,” “changing thoroughly,” “transverse,” “on the other side of.” The transcendent God is the one who crosses over, the one who moves beyond and through boundaries. God encompasses all gender and is therefore trans-gender.” Shaw continued:
“Those humans who are transgender also reflect this crossing over, this moving beyond boundaries. They too are people created in God’s image, reflecting yet another aspect of God’s transcending and encompassing gender. Therefore, they are not outside God’s creation but are a reflection of the very diversity that is the being of God.”
This understanding would resonate with Julie Chovanes, a Catholic transgender woman and advocate, who was interviewed recently by NewsWorks. Chovanes, who is also an attorney, runs the Trans Resource Foundation, which offers legal and social services to transgender community in Philadelphia and provides professional training about trans people to the broader community. She sees herself as neither male nor female, but as transgender, and as a part of the diversity of God’s creation. But as a Catholic, Chovanes is disheartened by the Church’s response to her and the transgender community.
Many Christians see transgender persons as outside God’s creation, while at the same time preaching a message of love and opposing the bullying transgender persons often experience, according to Shaw. Shaw also noted that,
“[W]ithout irony, [these Christians] suppose that they can tell us something is wrong with transgender people and then assume they are not partly responsible for the climate that has led to . . . murders [and] all the other acts of violence against trans people that happen every day.”
Chovanes recited the statistics of such oppression:
“90 percent of us are harassed, mistreated or discriminated against on the job; 57 percent experience family rejection; 41 percent attempt suicide; 61 percent are victim of sexual assault; 64 percent are victim of sexual assault.”
Chovanes herself has experienced the misunderstanding and judgment of people who are not transgender. She personally felt rejected when Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia refused to allow a Catholic parish to let New Ways Ministry to hold a workshop on gender diversity in their facilities during the World Meeting of Families. Chovanes was a speaker at this event, which eventually took place in a nearby Methodist church.
Acts of violence can occur when a person or group is seen as the “Other.” According to Shaw:
“[t]he ‘Other’ is any of us who are outside the mythical norm (In the U.S., that includes those of us who are people of color, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, poor, immigrants, non-Christian). When the dominant culture constructs a group of people as ‘Other,’ it dehumanizes them, it makes them less than, and it provides justification for mistreatment.
Shaw believes the Gospel calls us to “embrace the Other,” a phrase she borrows from theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim. In her book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, Kim wrote that the power of the Spirit “opens our hearts to cross boards and embrace the Other.”
For people of faith in a God who transcends all, no one or group should be seen as the “Other.” As Shaw concluded:
“If God is the One who transcends, transgresses, transforms, the One who crosses over, then surely all of God’s people should be people who cross over — who cross over prejudices and stereotypes and bigotry — to embrace God’s transgender children as fully human, fully created by and loved by God, fully welcome in God’s family and in our churches.”
The City of Philadelphia gives witness to the welcoming approach advocated by Shaw. Chovanes refers to Philadelphia as the “best city in the world for trans people” and cites its anti-discrimination laws and the support of Philadelphia mayors past and present. Indeed, the “City of Brotherly Love” has much to teach the local and universal Catholic Church.
–Cynthia Nordone, New Ways Ministry
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