Of all the issues members of the GLBTQ community deal with, discussing the topic of gender-reassignment and transgendered people can be one of the most difficult to navigate.
Gender-reassignment surgery creates perhaps more psychological and theological discussions than any other issue in our community. No matter how good we become at understanding and practicing tolerance to others different than us, we all get caught with unresolved issues, things we haven’t quite wrapped our minds around – at least not yet – and this is usually at the top of the list.
As Christians we accept the bible as a source of authority, and we know we are all created in the Divine Image of God (Gen. 1:27). That seems to work fine for gays, lesbians, and straight people, but when considering a person who has completed gender-reassignment surgery, we often get stuck on that passage. How does being “created in the image of God” relate to someone who alters a basic component of that image: their gender? Like other issues, this particular area challenges us to read Sacred Scripture not just with our minds but with our hearts.
This concept that we are made in the image of God is a powerful one. It has the ability to heal, to restore balance, to provide perspective. But, as I once learned, it also can inadvertently be used to hurt. I personally found it to be very comforting to me when I was trying to balance my sexuality and spirituality in my early teens. But later in ministry when I spoke on the topic, three women of the parish approached me after Liturgy was over and asked to talk. They looked nervous, and that’s usually not a good sign. One of the women, more blunt than the others, finally spoke. “We have a problem. We don’t know if you like us or not. You are always kind and welcoming, and you treat us as well as anyone else, and we are comfortable in our faith again. But then you turn around and tell us we are all going to hell.” I was in complete shock. “When did I ever say you were going to hell?” She said, “every time we see you. Any time you tell us that we are created in God’s image, it reminds those of us who have had the surgery that we are going to hell.”
Now things started to click, and after a very lengthy discussion I learned that that phrase in particular has been used against the transgendered community by closed-minded people to prove that they are ungodly. I never realized that, and once we talked and I made it clear that having the surgery did not void the fact that they were made in the image of God, things got smoothed over between us.
So let’s clear up some things.
A Theological Perspective
To begin with, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? Is the Bible to be taken literally in our interpretation of this passage? Does God, in fact, have two arms, two legs, two eyes, and stand about 5 foot 7 inches tall? And if God created us exactly how God wanted us, does that mean we cannot dye our hair? Can we have liposuction or cosmetic surgery? And what about an organ transplant? Are we defying the will of God by not dying when we choose to allow a surgeon to remove a ruptured appendix? I believe you see my point. Can you imagine Saint Peter at the pearly gates saying to someone, “I’m sorry, but you cannot come in. If our Father had wanted you to have red hair, he would have given it to you, not put it in a bottle.” Surely, it must be referring to something other than our outward appearance.
Many of my peers have accused me of over-simplifying this question of gender re-assignment. To their credit, I state that I am a simple priest and friar, not a Scripture Scholar, and it is a simple argument I make. But being simple does not make it any less relevant or accurate. The Gospel of John, for example, is written in the simplest of form. But that simply-written Gospel contains some of the highest revelations about the nature of Christ and creation. In its pure simplicity, it focuses on the relationships Jesus had with people, showing his true humanity in that he was loving, tired, hungry, sad – experiencing the wide range of human emotions and experiences. And in that simplicity, the profound truth is evident only for those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear. So also with this issue: in simplicity can be found great truth.
God does not make mistakes. On that, we all generally agree. So how can a man or woman be born into the body of the wrong sex? If we accept that it does in fact happen, then by definition it cannot be a mistake. It is not punishment for the sins of their parents nor for sins the individuals may commit in the future. Christ himself told us that the man was not born blind for the sins of his parents but for the Glory of God. What does that mean? It means if being born in the body of the opposite sex is how we were created, then the ability to surgically correct it brings Glory to God.
From my twenty-six years in ministry I am convinced that our sexual identity is not a choice; the only choice involved is how we live with who we are. So being born into the body of the opposite sex is not a choice, but choosing to have gender re-assignment surgery is an exercise of our free will. And in that sense, the choice to become more fully who God created us to be can actually be viewed as an act of worship.
In a larger, unified view of the universe, God supports science and science supports God. There is no artificial separation. Science to this day cannot explain a miracle, but through science many lives have been saved by God inspiring the minds and hands of doctors and scientists. I believe God created man, and science is God’s extension to updating and caring for all of us on this earth. In other words, the work of science continues God’s creation on this earth. For centuries men and women have been born in the wrong bodies. They have had to cope with this as best they could within the norms of society and the time period in which they lived. But now, the ability to surgically alter our bodies to conform to our created inner reality is an extension of that creation process by human hands. The corrective surgery – restoring wholeness – is man’s participation in creation, just as God intended.
On a different note, each one of us is a part of the body of Christ – whether in an unaltered physical body or not. As followers of Jesus, we should be practicing love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude to all people we meet. Jesus did not teach indifference, greed, hate or selfishness. Should we not be trying to follow the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves? After all, it is the greatest of all the commandments. Should we not be open and welcoming, expressing and sharing that love with everyone we meet, not just those we understand or approve of? Should not all our churches be open and welcoming to all God’s children?
As shepherds and servants of the Body of Christ, it is not our place to judge or approve of anyone – whatever we may think of gender-reassignment surgery or transgendered people.
So as Christians and Shepherds it helps if we bear some simple facts in mind:
1. Creation is made by God
2. God does not make mistakes
3. God granted humans the right to participate in the creation process, and medicine and surgery fall into this category
4. The divine image of God in us is not effected by any outward thing we may do to our bodies
5. The challenge of living in the GLBTQ / Christian community is a gift from God, never a punishment for sins, and is an opportunity to bring Glory to God
Some Practical Suggestions
From a practical viewpoint, here are a few things we as ministers can do to avoid some of those embarrassing blunders I have made in ministry:
1. If someone attends service or a function dressed in women’s clothes, be considerate and address them with feminine pronouns, whether or not they have actually had gender-reassignment surgery.
2. Be clear and up front in your policies, and make them a part of your safe sanctuary practices. For instance, relating to restrooms, you might say something like, “out of respect for everyone, please use the facilities that are marked for your plumbing, not your manner of dress.” We did this because our congregations are truly a mix of the GLBTQ and Straight communities. We found this was not only greatly appreciated by everyone, but also prevented issues from arising.
3. Develop a good friendship with a transgendered person who is not part of your congregation, even if you have to go on line to a chat group. Explain that you are a minister trying to find ways to better serve the transgendered community. Often someone not in your congregation will have the courage to say things or give advice that someone in your congregation might be uncomfortable about sharing.
4. If possible, get transgendered people involved in the board or committees of your church. Solicit their opinions, just like you would with the youth or the over 50, or any other subculture within the congregation.
5. Be welcoming but not patronizing. Make transgendered people feel as welcome as any other group without singling them out. In other words, do not treat them any different than any other group in the church. Otherwise, it will be obvious to everyone, and some people will be upset at what is perceived as preferential treatment. It will also often make the very people you are trying to help feel like they are so different or alien that they need special treatment.
6. Does your denomination, group, synod, or other church body welcome a transgendered person to all sacraments and rites? Are the powers that be in your organization willing to ordain or license a transgendered person who meets all of the rest of the requirements? If you cannot honestly answer yes to these questions, you may begin to appreciate the subtle forms of discrimination you may not have been aware of. Are you truly ministering to them completely? (This is not a judgment, just something to think about.)
7. And finally, don’t expect to ever fully get it. Like trying to explain to someone what it feels like to have “a call of God on your life”, no one who does not feel displaced in the wrong body will ever be able to fully understand what it is like to be a transgendered person. Our only real required response is to love.
With these thoughts in mind now, maybe it will be just a little bit easier for us to not only accept transgendered people as our brothers and sisters in Christ, but to also help bring peace to them and reconcile their Christian upbringing. Our efforts should result in helping people find or return to the Grace of God, by being loved, supported and nurtured by the Word of God and His followers. Can we not share with them some of these passages from Sacred Scripture in a positive and loving light?
Obviously, this topic is a complex one, but the best solutions are the simplest ones. These are just some of my thoughts and beliefs from things I discovered during my 26 years in ministering to the GLBTQ community, and trying humbly to help each of us balance who we are with the way we have been taught Sacred Scripture.
[box type=”bio”] Fr. A.J. Severns, CMHC, has been a priest and friar of the Congregation of the Most Holy Creator for over 26 years. The CMHC is an independent Orthodox Franciscan Missionary Order. For those 26 years he has been serving the GLBTQ and straight community as an openly gay man and priest. Fr. Severns teaches classes in spirituality and the Franciscan Gospel Vision, and has a partner of seven years. You may reach him through www.stfrancisabbey.org.