Genderbread-2.1I teach a Sexual Ethics course for undergraduates at my school, and each time I teach the course I invite a guest speaker to talk to the students about what it means to be transgender and how Christians can be more inclusive of transgender people and sensitive to the needs of the transgender community. In addition to sharing her personal story (albeit in an abbreviated version), Jackie (pseudonym) explains key terms to students and also gives some concrete suggestions for how church communities can be more welcoming. My students are eager to learn from Jackie’s experiences and always express their appreciation to Jackie. I’ve noticed that students convey their appreciation of this material to me in course evaluations and many say that these kinds of experiences enable them to understand in more detail some of the intimate, thorny, complex issues that Christians face in the “real world.”

Jackie has given me her permission to bring her presentation to a wider audience through this blog post. When she comes to USD, she tells my students that transgender people are a relatively hidden subculture of society; knowing more about their life experiences and the barriers they face will make serving this underserved community more possible and more rewarding for the religious community. Jackie is a nurse and social worker; she grew up Catholic and now attends an Episcopal Church. She is actively involved in the transgender community advocating for their needs. She is particularly concerned with outreach to Christians so that they can bring healing and compassionate messages to transgender community members.

Jackie believes that it would be helpful if more Christians were aware of the following key terms:

  • Sex refers to biological differences between male and female.
  • Gender commonly refers to socially constructed characteristics of a particular sex, commonly referred to as feminine or masculine.  (Jackie flags this and notes that “transgender folks really mess with this assumption.”)
  • Sexual orientation is a description based on attractions: to whom you are attracted, who you fall in love with; the terms straight (or heterosexual), lesbian, gay (or homosexual), and bisexual refer to sexual orientation.
  • Gender Identity is a person’s own identification as male, female, Transgender, or other. Gender identity is the internal sense of being male, female, or something in between. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others. It is separate from sexual orientation.
  • Jackie quipped that “sex is between the legs and gender identity is between the ears” –to give students a sense of the difference. The Genderbread Person graphic above, which can be found here, represents this distinction visually.
  • A drag queen is a male-bodied person who performs as an exaggeratedly feminine character in an elaborate costume usually for entertainment purposes.
  • A drag king is a female-bodied person who adopts an exaggeratedly masculine character in an elaborate costume usually for entertainment purposes.
  • Trans-men are transgender or transsexual people who were assigned to the female gender at birth (or, in cases of intersexuality, later) and who feel that this is not an accurate or complete description of themselves. They have a male gender identity and/or present themselves as men and desire to live in a male gender role.
  • Trans-women are transgender or transsexual people who were assigned to the male gender at birth (or in cases of intersexuality, later) and who feel that this is not an accurate or complete description of themselves. They have a female gender identity and/or present themselves as women and desire to live in a female gender role.
  • Transition is the process of ceasing to live in one gender role and starting to live in another, and it can involve: wearing clothing seen as gender appropriate, changing your name, taking hormone therapy drugs, and/or surgical modifications/enhancements.
  • Non-op refers to a person who does not want to have surgical modifications of any kind or cannot for medical, financial or other reasons.
  • Pre-op refers to a person who has a desire for surgical modification and has yet to acquire it or may be in the process.
  • Post-op refers to a person who has had surgical modifications to align their body with their gender identity.

Cultural Competency

Jackie suggests the following tips for how to be sensitive when meeting people from the transgender community.

  • Refer to the person by the pronoun  appropriate to their presented gender.  (In other words if they identify and present as male, refer to them as he, if they identify and present as female, as she.) Ask what each person prefers if you are not sure. (“How would you like me to refer to you? What pronoun should I use?”). Once you know, be as consistent as possible. Jackie says that it is ok if you forget or slip up once in a while. It is possible to train yourself to be gender neutral if you know that you have or will have issues addressing a transgender member as the desired (presented) gender.
  • Be courteous and treat the transgender member as you would any other member of the group.
  • Never use the word “it” when referring to someone who is transgender, either in his or her presence or to others when they are not present.  To do so is incredibly insulting and disrespectful.
  • Create gender neutral (unisex) restrooms. Grant restroom access according to a person’s full-time gender presentation. Permit a member access to the bathroom that corresponds to their gender presentation, regardless of what stage that individual is in terms of his/her transition process.
  • Provide your libraries with reading material that reflect the GLBTQ (gay,lesbian,bisexual,transgender, queer,questioning) community.
  • Provide periodic trans-sensitivity trainings to staff membership as well as your parish/college leadership.
  • Be aware that some transgender individuals may use names that do not match their gender presentation (especially if the person has not legally changed name or other documents).
  • Also, some transgender individuals may not present themselves in their traditional gender norm. Once again it is ok to ask.

Learning from Jackie’s Story

Jackie grew up in a small town and knew she was loved from an early age. She was raised by two caring and supportive grandparents. She says, “I had support. My grandparents gave me support even though they did not always understand me. I was a strange kid. I knew from the time I was seven years old that I was different. But it took me some time to figure out how I was different.” Why as a young boy did Jackie not feel right? She says it is hard to explain, but she was not interested in the things that seemed to interest boys. She never felt like she fit in anywhere, and socializing at school was difficult. But home was always a safe place. This sense of safety was present also in Jackie’s college years. It was the support of friends, a tutor, and a professor who gave her the courage to begin her transition. Jackie, after some time of living as a woman, fell in love with a man with whom she had a twenty year relationship, raising seven children. After he passed away, she was surprised when she fell in love again, and this time her partner was a woman. Jackie, who identifies as a trans-woman, has been in a nine year relationship with her partner, who identifies as lesbian. Jackie has been active in various Christian churches throughout her life. Jackie’s grandparents were Catholic and had a deep faith. “They knew what unconditional love is all about,” Jackie says, and that’s the kind of parent she has tried to be. “No conditions means no conditions,” Jackie tells us. “It doesn’t mean you say, I will love you if you are this way, or I will love you when you do this. No, it means I love you for who you are no matter what you do. I love you no matter what.” Jackie continues: “I am grateful for the support I have received in my religious tradition. I know that God loves me, that I am unique, and that I am called to serve others. I hope to continue to make Christianity safe for all transgender people.” Jackie then tells us about the problem of violence, stigma, and shame felt by many in the transgender community. According to a recent study, people who identify as transgender were 28% more likely to experience physical violence than those who are gender normative. Discrimination and social exclusion can have long term damaging effects for transgender people, and these effects range from higher rates of depression, homelessness, and even suicide.

Listening and Learning: Reflections on the Drag Show

Each time I hear Jackie’s personal story, I realize that Catholic parishes and Catholic institutions (like hospitals and universities) have a long way to go before all transgendered people will feel welcomed and included. I’m proud that at the University of San Diego we are trying to raise awareness of these issues in events like last night’s PRIDE’s Celebration of Gender Expression Supreme Drag Superstar. The drag show is fun as well as educational, and it helps students on my campus think more concretely and creatively about sexuality, gender, inclusion, and justice. It has generated a lot of buzz over the past three years, including some uncharitable comments on news sites and blogs, but in a packed auditorium last night students clapped and cheered as acts like Boyband and Madame Heelshurt danced and lip-synched to pop songs. Serious reflections on gender non-conformity and social justice, as well as on rates of sexual violence, raised awareness among our student body. A transgender college student told us about his life story. There were definitely serious moments. Overall the performances were loud and fun and I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of how the event was empowering both for performers and student organizers as well as for those in attendance.

For those who find such an event to be inconsistent with the Catholic identity of the university, I would suggest that to be church in our world today means engaging with the full reality of human experiences. It is a problem that so few people are aware of the terminology and basic facts about diverse expressions of gender identity. Many reactions to the drag show falsely assumed that all of the performers are transsexual. And some claim that such shows are a scandal, in the technical sense (of leading another into sin or cooperating with evil).

A drag show is not necessarily meant to be a forum for theological discourse. But it could provide a venue for self-reflection on how each of us “performs” our gender identity every day. For example, reflect on what you are wearing right now, or your posture, or your given name. What do these say about you and how you perform your identity. When did you first know your gender identity or your sexual orientation? Did you have to “come out” to friends and family? Perhaps for most readers, this idea would be foreign. I never had to “come out” as heterosexual or straight. So to learn about what this process is like for others–how it can be a source of both pain and deep inner freedom–I need to ask. I need to listen. I need to engage in dialogue. And maybe I can learn something by going to a drag show and thinking about what makes me laugh, what makes me uncomfortable, and/or what makes me think twice about my own shoes or facial hair or make-up.

As we thoughtfully reflect on the experiences of others whose gender identity is similar or different from our own, we learn more about the diversity of God’s creation. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium: “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God” (no. 272). The pope reminds us that “A Church which goes forth is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others.” (no. 46). What powerful words in this context– What would it mean to have the doors of the church open to the transgender community? What would it mean to walk with students who are questioning their gender identity? I went to the drag show to support my students. It was fun and not itself courageous on my part. But if the drag show helps GLBTQ students and their allies at my school to know that they are loved, supported, and included in this community, then we are doing something good and something special.

I believe we need a much deeper theo-ethical engagement on these issues. The natural law tradition of Catholic theology invites us to reflect on human experience in order to draw norms about what promotes human flourishing; yet theologians sometimes collapse or confuse sex and gender, or we fail to include the life experiences of GLBTQ persons in our methodologies. A notable exception is Michael O’Sullivan’s book How Roman Catholic Theology Can Transform Male Violence Against Women (Edwin Mellen, 2010), which is very sensitive to the problems of a gender binary and  tries to be much more precise in his analysis of what he calls “biosocial-gender violence.” O’Sullivan explains: “The emerging milieu, especially when it is linked to the pressures for change from the wider culture, offers new opportunities to theologians to be agents of cultural and religious progress in their time. However, it has to be said that both Catholic Church leaders and theologians have been slow to build on the steps that [should be taken]. This is hardly surprising, given the ignorance, bias, and denial that derive from a long entrenched tradition.” (363) We may think we have a long way to go, but a framework of listening and learning from the experiences of others will help us achieve much. This theology of accompaniment, like the drag show, can be a fun learning experience. And we can realize together that in the eyes of God each one of us is fabulous.