Transgender Religious Summit Breaks New Ground First-of-its-kind conference held January 19-21, 2007 in Berkeley
BERKELEY, CA - The first conference to be held on transgender issues at a Christian seminary wrapped up on Sunday afternoon. The conference was held at the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) and co-sponsored by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in Washington D.C. and PSR's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS). Attending the conference were more than transgender leaders and their allies from the United States and Canada. Participants represented many different faith traditions, although Christian and Jewish denominational leaders had the highest representation.
Topics discussed included denominational policy, outreach to transgender communities, transgender religious leadership, public policy, and issues of theology and worship. Among the presenters were Rev. Justin Tanis, program director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Rev. Erin Swenson, transgender minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Cameron Partridge, an Episcopal priest and doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, Donna Cartwright, member of the Oasis commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, and Reuben Zellman, a rabbinical student from Oakland, CA.
Common themes which came up for discussion throughout the conference included the following:
- Education - Participants expressed the need for greater education for faith communities about transgender issues. Many faith communities are unaware of transgender members in their midst, and either suffer from ignorance or outright intolerance in attempting to minister to them. Many conference attendees expressed the frustration of having to go through a lengthy education process before being able to receive the benefits and support of faith communities. One participant stated it this way, "You go to your minister for pastoral care and tell them you're transgender and you end up having to do pastoral care for the minister."
- Many at the conference disagreed with the common portrayal of being transgender as a medical issue. Although issues of adequate and informed health care are of great importance to transgender communities, gender expression is primarily an issue of identity. Conference attendees expressed that the diversity of transgender people included those who have reconstructive surgery and those who don't, those who take hormones to change body chemistry and gender characteristics and those who don't, those who identify as one gender, two genders, or no gender. Most would not define their sexual orientation as gay or lesbian. They stressed the importance of accepting individuals based on their own experience and needs. "Once you get out there and people get to know you, you're no longer an issue, you're a person," said Monica Cross, a seminary student from Hampton, VA.
- Leadership - A common thought expressed was that leadership for transgender people involves a radical commitment to being themselves; a willingness to express openly and patiently educate others about their gender identity regardless of situation. "The progress we have made in society and public policy over the last few years has not just been because of the work of people like me," said Mara Keisling of her position as a public advocate for transgender rights, "It has happened because of the thousands of people like you who have had the courage to come out and educate your families, faith communities, and elected representatives about who you are."
- Religious discrimination- Outright discrimination from religious leaders was a major concern for conference attendees. Rev. Justin Tanis outlined some of the religious right's discriminatory statements about transgender people, including their false claims that transgender people can be "cured" of non-conforming gender expression. The objections of right-wing religious leaders were discussed as a significant roadblock to public legislation protecting the rights of transgender people. "Whenever you have a media account of a legislature considering a non-discrimination policy for transgender people, there's always fifty people to speak out in favor and one against, and the one against always has "Reverend" in front of their name," said Rabbi Levi Alter. "Well we're all reverends here, so where are we? We need to let them know that we [ordained transgender religious leaders and allies] aren't just a fringe voice. We are leaders who have the support of our denominations."
Pacific School of Religion student Jakob Hero expressed his personal approach to facing religious intolerance of transgender people this way, "I try not to argue with people who say you can't be transgender and Christian, I just try to embody the love of Jesus Christ that is central to my faith."
Many mainline denominations have argued extensively about the place of gay and lesbian people in their religious communities, but transgender issues remain below the radar. An exception to this rule was conference presenter Rev. Erin Swenson, who's clergy credentials were debated and eventually upheld by her Presbytery (local religious body) in Atlanta, Georgia after she transitioned from male to female. Rev. Swenson suggested that transgender people have the potential to change the debate on issues of sexual relationships by helping religious bodies re-examine the issue of gender. "We need to change the whole debate on gender. We live in a gender fascist society and people don't know how much they're suffering. Those of us who don't live on one side or the other [of society's gender divide] need to be raising this issue."
Theology, Worship, and Resources - Throughout the conference, attendees discussed the need for theologians and scholars to develop new ways of looking at gender in religious traditions. Several attendees expressed that Judaism and Christianity have elements that undermine traditional expressions and roles of gender, and that these traditions have been muted through discrimination. The attendees spoke of a need to develop liturgies that recognize the wide diversity of gender in human and spiritual experience, and theological and scriptural studies that demonstrate the value of questioning inflexible concepts of gender.
Rev. Swenson expressed the spiritual value of transgender people this way,
"Transgender people of faith have a valuable perspective on our national obsession with gender. They have struggled with the unreasonable demands for conformity inherent in our collective life, yet have been able to discover a place of personal integrity. They have come to understand the balance between divine creation and the ongoing responsibility that each of us has for our own self-creation. In a world where we seem to have lost the capacity to understand and affirm each other, the thread of transgender experience offers a valuable resource for transcending our differences, gendered and otherwise."
The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (www.clgs.org) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (www.nctequality.org). Invitations are being extended to leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Pagan communities. The conference is not open to the public. The Concert featuring Tracy Rice on Saturday, January 20, 2007 is open to the public.
The National Center for Transgender Equality is a national social justice organization devoted to ending discrimination and violence against transgender people through education and advocacy on national issues of importance to transgender people. By empowering transgender people and our allies to educate and influence policymakers and others, NCTE facilitates a strong and clear voice for transgender equality in our nation's capital and around the country.
Founded in 1999, The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion is the first seminary-based center for the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the nation. The Center works to transform faith communities and the wider society by taking a leading role in shaping a new public discourse on religion and sexuality through education, research, community building, and advocacy.