I thought it might be helpful to share with you the reading and homily that I will use in a transgender visibility and remembrance service later today.
Reading: 1 Corinthians 11: 17-22 NKJV
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. 19 For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. 20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
Scripture opens with God calling and humanity naming. God calls ha-adam – the human into being. A marvellous, almost mythical, creature whose name arises out of ha-adamah – the dust, the dirt, red messy earth. God calls the creature to discern its identity through naming. First, the animals. It is almost like a fantastic divine game. I wonder if the human tried to think of the silliest names possible or the most serious, best-fitting ones. The game didn’t work out. Ha-adam was still the odd one out. Nothing quite like the human existed… Yet.
Here comes the first instance of re-creation. The human shows God a gap, something missing, and God fills it. God doesn’t fill it by creating an opposite to the human, though, but by separating something out of it. By operating on it to pull out its anima, its yang, its other half so that the human might recognise itself. Only at this point does the human finally name himself ish, in reaction to his mirror image ishah. I wonder when human naming turned to human labelling…
It might seem odd that I am starting my talk in service of transgender visibility and rememberance by referencing one of the passages of Scripture that is frequently used to argue against the validity of transgender identities but, in Hebrew, this is a beautiful passage that describes my reality. Being trans isn’t about an individual identity or decision, it is about experiencing creation, meeting and listening to those around us, finding those who mirror us and working out who God calls us to be.
Callings are multiple. I have brown hair, a stripe in the top of my right iris. I was born in Edinburgh. Those are all facts. I can’t escape them. But I have as many callings as facts. I was called to play the harp, to complete a music degree, to meet and marry Jo, to transition gender, to befriend some amazing people, to ‘walk the way’ and follow Christ, to train for ministry of word and sacraments… My callings are many – I am sure that yours are too.
I am also called to be open and honest about all of my callings, all of my identities, all of the complexity which God has created and continues to create in me. And that is not easy. Ironically, it is sometimes more difficult to come out as a Christian than as a trans person. You see, the church has not, in the past, treated me and others like me well. The Nashville statement posits my identity as sinful and errant, as something which must be fixed. Many of my friends and family feel that, by training for ministry, I am betraying my truth as a member of the LGBT community.
Knowing this, how can I be called to ministry? Well, the same way that each one of us is called; by the grace and love of God. It has only become easier to ‘come out’ as a Christian as I have started to ‘come out’ again as a transgender person. I am called to be trans, to be a member of the LGBT community as much as I am called to be Christian, to be a member of the Church. My calling is, in part, to witness to the goodness of genuine identity and the need for the Church to welcome, engage with, and genuinely understand and cherish diversity. My calling to transition was – and is – very much in conversation with God and with Scripture, taken one step at a time, following the Spirit’s lead and slowly learning who God intended me to be.
Turning to Acts, we find a more positive mention of gender non-conformity: when Philip is sent away from his planned route, and meets with the Ethiopian Eunuch he is asked two questions. Firstly; ‘How can I understand what Scripture says if no-one teaches me?’ and, secondly, ‘Here is a river, what is there to stop me being baptised?’ If the church here on earth is to grow and to thrive and to genuinely be the collective of rebels and peacemakers that God calls us to be, we must answer these questions. We must be willing to explain what we know of God to those who are outside of our bubble, and to allow all to experience genuine love, acceptance, welcome and community.
So, the visibility of those who do not conform to gender is important for the life and mission of the church, but where does this meet trans rememberence. As I read through the list of names for this year’s rememberance, I was shocked at the number of people who have been murdered this year simply for identifying or presenting as transgender. There are over 200 individuals. There are disproportionate number from Latin America, particularly amongst those who identify as people. This is not just a trans issue, this is a complex, intersectional violence which touches the reality of all of those who are marginalised and oppressed by Western concepts of decency.
Shockingly, many of the deaths, particularly in the middle east, were at the hands of the authorities, after an individual had been convicted of cross-dressing. Many of the deaths included genital mutilation, sexual violence or facial disfigurement. Do not allow yourself to ignore the facts: these people were killed specifically because they were trans. 54 individuals were recorded as ‘name unknown’. What does that signify? It tells us that 54 people who were murdered in the last year were not identified by anything other than the mismatch between their genitals and the gendered expectations of society.
And, in case we risk blaming this on ‘other countries’, other ‘people’, us Westerners and our churches are complicit in the violence. Many of my trans friends, myself included, have been assaulted due to their gender presentation. The vast majority of the perpetrators of anti-transgender hate crime cite religious motives. In the past fortnight, Christian commentators have had a huge voice in the media, voicing horrific transphobia in response to acceptance of trans young people. This very year a young transman committed suicide and, in his last written words, blamed his school for not allowing him to use his correct name. What are we doing to our young people?
This is where Paul comes in: ‘Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you’. Paul critiques the church for celebrating the ritual of communion in an over-zealous, over-joyous, over-enthusiastic manner whilst shutting out the needs of those who are hungry and thirsty, shut outside of the church walls and gates. Do you hear the parallels? We don’t want to be here, talking about the deaths of people who we don’t know, who perhaps we don’t understand, when we could just be getting on with being Christian… right? In fact, some will have stayed away from this service for that very reason, seeing our mourning and our protestations as innappropriate. Unneccessary.
But this, this right here is Church. What would Jesus do? Would he turn our trans siblings away or would he welcome them and protest against all that oppress or marginalise their experiences in life and death? This day might have personal relevance to you. If you are mourning today, if you have been hurt by others because of gender, if you feel that you cannot fully express who you are, I am here for you and with you. I am mourning, I am hurt, I am, to some extent, hidden. But if you are none of those things, and are still here, I commend you. Thankyou for sharing our mourning and our hurt. Thankyou for your committment to bringing trans lives and deaths out of the shadow. We are not condemned for eating and drinking, for praising and worshipping God, but, if we fall silent when we hear of the hurts of God’s people, we cease to be the Church. Amen.
(Some of this homily is extracted from an article I wrote for the November 2017 issue of Reform Magazine)