Today is Coming Out Day, which is short for Coming Out of the Closet day. I have quite mixed feelings and thoughts about it as a day. As someone who tends not to see things in black and white, or even shades of grey, but in the full spectrum of the rainbow, my mind considers many factors. This post reflects my own thoughts and musings regarding the day. You will find that each person who identifies as LGBTQ* has their own feelings and opinions on it. I do not speak for them, even if we share some of the same opinions.
This post is my contribution to the Queer Theology Synchroblog 2013. The topic for this year’s synchroblog is “Queer Creation” and is rather open ended in terms of what it covers. In this post I am speaking from a Canadian Anglican perspective and this reflects my own views, observations and experiences.
For me queer theology is also very much a practical theology that we are creating as we learn, grow and experience faith in our own ways. On a very practical level my own view of faith and theology changed as I went through my transitions. When I began my transition one of the people I went to for support was the priest at the church I attend. It has become clear to me over the past four plus years that support for those who come out as trans, lesbian, gay, bi etc. is very ad hoc in the Anglican Church and is highly dependent on which church one is a member of. It’s also my impression that this is the case in other denominations and faith traditions. In many cases faith communities do harm, often irreparable harm, to those who come out in their communities.
So, what does this mean from the perspective of one who is studying theology and is concerned about the pastoral care that people receive?
First and foremost it comes down to education. Education for clergy, education for those providing pastoral care, and education for our faith communities. What does this education look like? It begins by providing a space that encourages people to open their minds, hearts and spirits to something new. While many Anglican churches see themselves as being open and accepting to those who are gay and lesbian, many are still struggling with the issue of what to do with gay and lesbian people who are part of the church. For these communities and people it is important to begin to work with them where they are at. Recognise that they are struggling with these issues and people within the communities are at different stages in their understanding, and have varying degrees of openness to learning about the issues.
When the issue of those who are trans comes up we are starting from a point that is noticeably lagging when compared to gay and lesbian issues. Thanks to increasing coverage in mainstream media of trans issues many people have some awareness, but it is in a secular context and not a faith context. What does this mean in a faith context? What does it look like? To discuss, and hopefully answer part of these questions, I am going to use my own experience transitioning as my primary example with some reference to what I’ve heard from others. It is my opinion that these observations and needs are not limited to one community, denomination or faith. There are lessons to be learned by all.
When I had my epiphany and began my transition my marriage also ended. This is not uncommon for those of us who are older when we realize that we really do need to transition and that it isn’t a choice. The priest at church was, naturally, my primary pastoral support. I had also been a member of the church community for less than six months and had only been in Ottawa for the same length of time. I did not know many people outside of work, and I had not yet begun to get to know people at church as I was still getting used to both Ottawa and the church community. The support I received from the parish priest was quite good. They were helpful in terms of my feelings toward God and affirming that it was okay to be angry with God. With regard to the church community I ended up mostly not attending on Sunday mornings. I isolated myself from the community and the only contact I had was with the priest. I do not recall any other contact from the community to find out how I was doing, even though I know that there were some who knew my marriage had broken up, but not necessarily why.
What would I like to have seen in order to make this time easier and more manageable for me during this part of my transition? What would the church community need in order to be more open to the needs of its trans members?
Firstly, more pastoral support than just from the parish priest, and in the case of some communities support from the priest may also be inadequate to non-existent. In order for this to happen we need to create educational tools for the pastoral care team to gain the knowledge and resources to work with trans people. There will be many issues that arise that are common to people in other situations as well as issues that are unique to the trans experience. Care must also be given to the friends and family of the person transitioning. This may include the trans person’s spouse and children. There are resources available to assist with these things, but as with most resources for pastoral care it is necessary to tweak them and alter them for use in particular settings, denominations and communities.
Secondly, some sort of support network for the person transitioning, as well as a support network for the families and friends of those transitioning. This may take different forms and needs to be a living structure that meets the needs of those transitioning. It should also include a wider list of resources outside one’s parish, particularly others who can provide knowledgeable support. This is probably one of the most difficult things to implement on a practical level. I don’t have a quick answer to this, and am certainly open to suggestions on what has worked in other contexts.
In the Anglican context the first step, in my opinion, is to actually engage in open conversations about trans issues both in the church. Currently it feels like it’s mostly okay to be trans, but discussing what that means for one’s faith and spirituality is off-limits. Likewise talking about one’s past and life prior to transition. This is an unspoken rule that feels very present. Yes, these are uncomfortable topics for many people. At the same time the message that is sent to trans people and other LGBT people when they are not permitted to discuss their experiences is that we do not count. We are not really members of the community.
It is when these discussions and education begins to happen that we will be creating a real queer and inclusive practical theology within our church communities and enrich the life of the church.
An important event took place for trans people studying to be religious leaders from August 22nd to August 25, 2013, the event was Trans*Formation: A Retreat for Transgender Students Training for Religious Leadership held at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton Wisconsin and was organized by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion. In many ways this was a way for us to come in from the wilderness that is the isolation of being trans people in seminary and training to be religious leaders. A recurring theme that came up during discussions was that we all feel our isolation to varying degrees. There was also recognition of the isolation that those who are genderqueer and trans women face in particular. As one person said, they had no idea there were other trans people who felt a call to ordained ministry.
The retreat consisted of two days of formal programming with evenings and travel days providing time for participants to get to know each other in an informal setting. The formal agenda was such that the participants had the opportunity to get to know each other, their backgrounds, current place in their journeys and where their journeys are leading. Participants also shared stories that were very personal and moving. There was also discussion about an ongoing curriculum and future retreats for trans people studying to be religious leaders. Participants were asked a number of questions regarding what should be included in a curriculum, challenges and barriers to becoming religious leaders, as well as what the ideal would look like. Overall there was a general consensus that participants were just getting to know each other and really starting to discuss various issues in an in-depth way when the retreat ended and it was time to leave.
This retreat was, hopefully, just the first of many to bring trans religious leaders and those training to be religious leaders out of the wilderness and into a diverse community of mutual support, education and fun.
This weekend I am attending Trans*Formation: A Retreat for Transgender Students Training for Religious Leadership being held at Holy Wisdom Monestary just outside of Middleton, Wisconsin. The site asking for people to apply to attend the retreat says, “Join other transgender-identified students for spiritual renewal, community building, and personal growth”. When I saw the description of the retreat I knew that it was important for me to apply to attend the retreat. All too often it is expected that our primary identity is that of a trans person and that we don’t have a religious or spiritual identity and that when we do have a religious or spiritual identity that we don’t discuss it in trans, queer or LGBT communities. On the other side of the coin, in many faith communities we are expected to keep our discussion of our trans identities to the surface level only, or not discuss it at all. It is supposed to be separate from our faith. There are a growing number of us who are rejecting this dichotomy and openly embracing both of these aspects of our identities. Further, we are feeling a call to taking on leadership roles, including ordained ministry, in our faiths and responding to this call.
My own experience being in seminary is, in part, one of being alone. I am currently the only openly trans person in the programme. As far as I know there are no other openly trans people in studying and in discernment towards ordained ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada. (I would love to be wrong about this) Further, there aren’t all that many trans people in ordained ministry generally. This retreat is an opportunity for trans people studying to be religious leaders in a variety of faiths to get together to explore and discuss our faiths, experiences and challenges that we face. Like me, most of the other people attending this retreat are also the only trans person in their seminary or program of study. This retreat has sent a message to those who are here, as well as those who are not here, that there are other trans people studying to be religious leaders, or are already in leadership positions in their faith communities. For those of us currently studying establishing connections with others who are on a similar journey is important. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the challenges that people face when they transition from one gender to another, or into a non-binary, is that we often have to be our own advocates during transition. We are usually representing ourselves to doctors, psychologists, our employers, faith communities, families, friends and in many other situations. Often this also means that we are required to be educating the people we are dealing with. When we are going for changes in documents, health care, accommodation at school and work we are also in the position of having to educate those we are needing the accommodation from. All of this is on top of the stress and challenges we have in ourselves during our transitions. This leaves little energy for wider community activism and education.
Every so often we hear stories in the media about someone who had an accident or illness that has left them with a disability, often a severe one. These get branded as human interest stories, especially when the wider community comes together to support the person with various forms of aid. What I’ve noticed about these stories is an intersection with the stories of trans people. The media seems to feel that it has a right to know all of the details about the person’s situation, medical history etc – all in the interest of informing the public, of course. We see the same thing in how stories about trans people are covered. Further, there are interviews with people, sometimes experts, sometimes people who have gone through a similar experience, who talk about what the person who is the focus of the story is dealing with. I find that when I hear or read these stories that it causes me to pause and I feel uncomfortable with the story. So, I asked myself, “why am I feeling this?”
In this, part 4 of my series “What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community” I am going to shift the discussion and look at how we welcome people who are new to faith. This topic is the result of a number of discussions I’ve had as well as a post I saw recently, “You’ve got to be kidding me”, that reflects on going to church from an outsider’s perspective. For the purposes of this discussion when I refer to people who are new to faith I am including those who may have been brought up in a faith tradition, but their experience of that tradition is in the distant past, or so irregular that for all practical purposes it is new to them. For Christians this would be someone who has attended at Christmas and Easter, possibly not every year. We also have many people who have been brought up with no faith tradition and thus have no clue what to expect when they enter a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or any other faith setting. They may or may not have done research prior to attending a service. So, how can we make them feel welcome?
This is the third part of my series on what constitutes a welcoming community. In this instalment I’m going to be talking about the importance of being welcoming to those who are already part of the community.
It might be easy to say, “oh, they’re already coming regularly, they know they’re welcome here!” My answer to that is, “really? Does every person who comes regularly know that? Have you asked everyone?” One of the interesting things about being welcoming to people already in one’s community is that it will naturally lead to a community also being inclusive. Further, when we are welcoming of those already in our midst those who are new will also pick up on it. People also pick up on it when we are not welcoming of people in our own community.
This post is the second part of a series that looks at what constitutes a welcoming faith community. There will be some overlap with my post Tolerance, Acceptance, Inclusion as all three ideas do relate to how welcoming a community is. The first part of the series is “What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community? Part 1: Visiting other communities”
In this post I’m going to present some ideas around what welcoming means for one who is seeking a community to be part of. As I mentioned in Part 1, I am drawing on my own perspective, experiences as well as many discussions over the years and reading various perspectives on what constitutes a welcoming community.
This post is the first part of what will be a series that looks at what constitutes a welcoming faith community. There will be some overlap with my post Tolerance, Acceptance, Inclusion as all three ideas do relate to how welcoming a community is.
When looking at communities, and especially many faith communities, they often bill themselves as a “welcoming community”. Most, if not all, of the communities that make this statement believe that they are welcoming. In a cursory review of a number of faith community web sites most that I looked at included, somewhere on the site, a statement that they are a welcoming community. This raises the question: What do we mean when we say we are a welcoming community? It is when we ask this question that we can start to unpack the meaning both as perceived by the community and the person who is either planning to, or already is participating. In this discussion I am going to provide examples and thoughts from my own experiences plus observations and reflections that come from many discussions and interactions with a wide variety of people.
First, I am going to look at this from the perspective of one who is visiting an area and looking to attend church. This is a position I found myself in while I was visiting Boston in July. Being somewhat technically inclined (or as some might put it, myself included, a geek / nerd) the first place I went was the Internet. As I am a member of The Anglican Church I decided that I wanted to attend an Episcopal church. I had various criteria for a church that related to my travel schedule, but I also was looking for other things. Ideally, I wanted to attend a church that sees itself as being progressive and open to LGBT people. As a feminist woman who is also transsexual and lesbian I wanted to be reasonably sure I would feel comfortable, after all it was a vacation. So using a combination of search engines and the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts web site I was able to narrow down my selections.
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