“The transgender experience deserves and requires its own focus,” writes Rev. Chris Glaser in his introduction to Gender Identity & Our Faith Communities (2009), a faith-based curriculum from the Human Rights Campaign. “Though it is appropriate to link [all] LGBT experience because all of us endure discrimination and abuse for not fitting society’s gender expectations, the transgender experience may be lost in the complexities of the broader conversation.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that up to 3 million people in the U.S. identify as transgender. This diverse population includes individuals whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the cultural norm for their particular biological sex. In simpler terms, a biological male who identifies as female and a biological female who identifies as male may both consider themselves to be transgender.
Other trans-persons call themselves “third gender” or “gender queer,” because they identify with no specific gender. Not all transgender people are transsexuals, and not all transsexuals have undergone sex-reassignment surgery (or want to). The transgender population also includes persons with intersex conditions, such as external genitalia not easily classified as male or female, variant development of internal reproductive organs or variations in sex chromosomes.
Transgender issues – like transgender people – are diverse, complex and evolving. What’s certain is that the transgender experience is distinct from the lesbian, gay and bisexual experience. That’s because transgender issues have to do with gender identity rather than sexual orientation. Transgender people may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual or asexual, but that is beside the point. What’s special about transgender people is their self-understanding and self-expression when it comes to gender – i.e., how they understand themselves as masculine, feminine or transgender. (See the Definitions section of this guide for more information on gender and gender identity.)
“This is a spiritual issue because it is the way in which we physically embody the spiritual truths within us,” writes the theologian Justin Tanis. “That we reflect outwardly that which is inwardly true for us is a matter of integrity. The spirit calls us away from self-hatred into an appreciation of the wonderful creation that we are.”
Given the lack of understanding of trans issues, transgender people often feel ostracized, even within the LGBT community. Discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, inadequate health care, depression and high-risk behaviors are experienced disproportionately by the trans population:
A two-year study in the District of Columbia found that one-third of the transgender population was unemployed and another third was earning less than $10,000 per year.
Xavier, J.M. The Washington, DC Transgender Needs Assessment Survey Final Report for Phase Two. Washington, DC: Administration for HIV/AIDS of the District of Columbia, 2000
Nondiscrimination laws and hate-crime protections that include sexual orientation often exclude gender identity and expression.
Medical insurance policies typically do not cover hormonal and surgical therapies, forcing many transgender persons to turn to illegal medications and harmful street procedures when they cannot afford appropriate medical care.
Homeless shelters, typically segregated by gender, can be unwelcome, even dangerous environments for trans people.
“Perhaps the most common emotional companion to gender identity differences is shame,” writes Rev. Erin Swenson, a Presbyterian minister and transwoman. “Attempts to deal with shame lead to many other problems, like substance abuse or severe depression. And shame interferes with avenues to treatment.”
The pastoral needs of transgender congregants might involve any of these issues. But among their first concerns may be whether they feel at home in your faith community. Simple accommodations – the use of non-gendered language, availability of a gender-neutral restroom, naming transgender concerns in prayers and sermons – are important ways of expressing welcome to transgender persons.