Last week when I watched videos of the prayer breakfast that Equality Maryland sponsored for pro-equality faith leaders, I realized that although it’s probably happened before, it was the first time the I’d seen clergy making public statements in support of gender identity and expression anti-discrimination legislation. I wanted to hear more from these folks about what motivates their allyship so I invited several to share their thoughts with us. Below are my conversations with just a small subset of Maryland’s faith leaders who are allies of the trans community: Rabbi Sarah Meytin (Reform Judaism), Rev. Lisa Ward (Unitarian Universalist), Dr. Dana Beyer (Orthodox Judaism) and Rev. Jill McCrory (Baptist).
These four represent a wide variety of faith traditions and life experiences yet easily find common ground on the issue of equality and dignity for trans folk. Seeing such different paths lead to the same place is a great reminder that equality and dignity for all people are universal concepts.
Note on the current bill: It should be clear from the responses of these faith leaders that their dedication to justice for trans people runs much deeper than any particular bill. They’re in it for the duration. I think it would be a mistake to transfer anger about the content of the current bill onto allies who have stepped forward in good faith to lend their support.
Rabbi Sarah Meytin is a lesbian ally of transfolk who lives in Montgomery County.
Tell me about your observations as a preschool teacher.
It’s so powerful as a preschool teacher to see how important this legislation is. I see these little boys in particular who go through this phase of loving to dress up and be pretty. Then they start getting shut down by the girls in the class who say dresses are only for girls, pink is only for girls. And of course they get those messages from outside also, like at the store “oh no, that’s the girl’s section, come over here to the ugly boys clothes.”
Most boys start moving away from it around the age of four or so. But for the boys who don’t, or for the ones who really strongly identify with pretty and girly things — pink is their favorite color, they really like fairies, they want to dress in pretty tutus — it’s really challenging. To know that these kids are going into a world where someone’s going to say it’s not o.k. for you to be who you are, and more than that I’m going to make your life a living hell because I don’t “get it”? Heart wrenching. These are innocent little kids who want to wear a pink dress, and so what? It kills me.
It’s not to say that all the little boys who like pink and frilly dresses are trans. But for those who will be, it’s heart wrenching to think that the world is going to tell them that they can’t be who they are. To be constantly told from the age of 2 or 3 that you’re not normal, there’s something that’s different or off or wrong about you, gets internalized.
Why would we do that to another human being? Why would we create that depression, that self-hatred, that fear, that anger that gets internalized because we have a problem with the fact that a little boy likes a dress, regardless of their gender identity?
In what way is your advocacy for justice for transgender people informed by your religious beliefs?
I feel very strongly that Judaism looks first and foremost at the dignity of every individual. These laws and protections have everything to do with guaranteeing the dignity of other human beings in our community. My entire career has been working at the intersection of Judaism and social justice. For me both marriage equality and gender identity anti-discrimination work are justice issues.
I believe that God loves all of God’s children, and God wants us to try to find a way to create the most just and loving world we can. And God cries when we do things that deny the dignity or worth of a fellow human being.
Rev. Lisa Ward is a straight ally of transfolk living in Harford County.
What moved you to support the gender identity bill?
Injustice for anyone is injustice for all of us. It’s very important to treat each person equally, especially in the eyes of the law. Any kind of discrimination that impedes a person’s ability to live a full life is something we need to address and stop.
You testified last year for the gender identity anti-discrimination bill. What was that like?
It’s very exciting. For gender identity, it’s a concept that not everyone is ready to fully address and is confusing for a lot of people. If people have discomfort around gay, lesbian or bisexual issues, transgender is really sort of the cutting edge.
If people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around it I think it’s because we are trained in binary thinking: male/female, good/bad. This is opening up the spectrum of identity that can shake people’s foundations. So when you’re testifying in front of the legislature, I feel…I don’t feel discouraged because I know we’re going to keep talking about it until it gets done. But I do feel that it has further to go than say marriage equality, for example.
We have further to go in getting people to understand what gender identity is?
Yes, although I think that most people don’t want discrimination. I think if you concentrate on anti-discrimination, then that can be understood. Getting to a point of tolerance is possible through anti-discrimination, but when we want to get deeper into acceptance and understanding and dwelling with one another and not judging, that has a ways to go I think.
What’s your experience been speaking with your legislators on this issue?
A few years ago Human Rights Campaign had a whole conference on gender identity anti-discrimination, and we went to see one of our Delegates from the county. I was surprised by her lack of knowledge of the issue, that she didn’t think there was any discrimination for transgender people! It just wasn’t on her radar screen.
That’s one thing that happens in more rural areas like where I serve. You can’t see difference although there are transgender folk out here, but there’s less intimate knowledge of in some ways, and transgender definitely. So it was like starting from “A” with that Delegate. It really surprised me when she said there was no discrimination. At least we got it on her radar.
Delegates try and vote for their constituency and they care about their constituents, but they also care about keeping their jobs. They care more about majority opinions often even though they try not to. So for something like this, when you’re coming in with a minority opinion it’s difficult to get them behind it.
You know for this issue I have really grown a lot and learned a lot. Even though I’ve been an advocate for a long time in general for LGBT, in terms of transgender it’s new for me. I’d say its several years new. I can still remember some of the eye-opening things. I never felt like I was prejudiced, but I definitely had stereotypes.
What provided the breakthrough for you?
Having a transgender congregant, then forming a friendship with someone I’d asked to come up and talk about transgender issues. She’s a very good spokesperson, Ann Arno. We did a dialog sermon together, and that really opened eyes.
As you said allies need to do this work because it’s so exhausting to be transgender and than have to fight for your own rights. That can be very exhausting.
The best thing is for people to meet transgender folk and see that indeed they are human beings. I think transgender folk are a gift to our awareness of being, a gift to our understanding more deeply the spectrum of being and to help us break out of our binary.
Any parting thoughts?
Even if the anti-discrimination bill gets passed — and again more people are against discrimination so it could pass — I wouldn’t say we’re out in the clear. There needs to be a lot more cultural work to really authentically welcome transgender folk.
Dr. Dana Beyer is a transsexual woman living in Montgomery County. Although Dana isn’t clergy she knows the Torah well, most of it by heart having read it in synagogue for 50 years. She offers valuable first-hand experience and scholarship to illuminate the intersection of Orthodox Judaism and gender identity.
Is Orthodox Judaism trans-friendly?
The Jewish community with the exception of a good portion of the Orthodox is very supportive of equality. The interesting thing though is that the Orthodox community is not very accepting of homosexuality, but they are much more accepting of transsexualism. I knew this back in the 1970s when Israel’s leading bioethecist who was a rabbi by the name of Waldenberg came out with his responsum, which is the way Jewish law is promulgated, and stated that he wouldn’t proactively come out and say that gender reassignment surgery is a good thing to do but if it’s been done than welcome to the community, and you’re a woman.
It’s hard to argue with him because he was the expert. He was the sage. We don’t have a pope, so anybody can claim that their own rabbi is their local wise man per se (or woman now but in the Orthodox community it’s wise man), but this guy was the leading community bioethecist. He lived in Israel and he said this so it was sort of like, ok he told me when I was a kid that you’re not as perverted as you thought you were. That made a huge difference in my life and it’s something I use when I speak to Jews and say that before the Reformed, before the Reconstructionists, before the Conservatives even began to deal with this issue, Rabbi Waldenberg came out using Orthodox legal logic and said it’s ok to be trans.
That makes a huge difference, and so when I transitioned my rabbi didn’t give me any problems at all. I just said well here are the texts and he said that’s fine. It’s very important that the rabbi is not going to get up there and start thundering “and a man shall not lie with a man…”. You know it doesn’t even say that actually in Leviticus.
What about others in the congregation? Were there any problems?
People on a religious basis, no not at all. Only on a personal basis. Some people were squeamish and other people were standoffish and others embraced me. You know what it’s like, it’s any group of folks they have different experiences.
By now it’s been 8 years. There’s not a person that has a problem at all. Some of the men had a hard time hugging me at the beginning, kissing me at the beginning. Well after 6 months that was all past.
I transitioned in place, so they new me before. I was a value to the community and they knew I would be afterwords. Which I tell people is really the best way to go about it. It’s ironic that in the past the way to deal with it was to leave town, leave your family, revise your history, go stealth and start all over. But when you do that, you don’t have value to that community. You have to prove yourself to a new community.
If you do it in place, people know you. If they like you before you transition, the odds are they’re going to like you better afterwords. Because they know who you are, they know what you do. Then your identity isn’t as important. It’s like family – we know who this person is but are they going to be different or are they the same person? And once it’s all done they go, well you know you’re really different, but you’re still the same. Except you’re not angry any more, you don’t have the cloud over you any more.
And so they get it, but they don’t know that they’re going to get it because they haven’t experienced it before. That’s the problem with Americans, they don’t know many trans people.
Are Rabbi Waldenberg’s views still respected by Orthodox Jews today?
Yes. Obviously Jewish history goes back a long way. The Greeks knew a lot about intersex. And then the Jews who lived alongside the Greeks during the Hellenistic era learned a lot of the Greek science about it and then promulgated that in the Talmud. The rabbis spoke about not only animal intersex but they certainly knew about human intersex. There are a bunch of categories of human intersex individuals and the rabbis recognize it. They weren’t afraid to talk about it.
But back in the 19th century in Germany, those pages were removed from the Talmud in those printed editions. Because that’s when the Germans pathologized sexuality. They did it for trans people and they did it for homosexuals. So that was removed because the Jews who were doing that were part of the era where sexuality was something we’re not going to talk about.
It’s only been recently that it’s been put back. So generations were raised without even knowing this stuff existed. And now we know that 2,000 years ago our sages were aware of this stuff. And they were pretty liberal about it too. They understood that human beings are made this way and that it wasn’t that God made an error and you need to be condemned and thrown out of the community.
Sometimes our ancestors were a lot smarter than we are today, and sometimes not. But you go through these cycles and you can’t simply accept what is as if its always been that way. Often you’ve got to be willing to dig.
Rev. Jill McCrory is a straight ally of trans folk living in Montgomery County. She just became the Chair of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
How does your faith inform your support for gender identity anti-discrimination legislation?
Although it certainly is about civil rights, I tend not to describe it that way in that I really think it’s about supporting all people. When we come over to the theological or the religious side of that conversation, for Christians — and I’m of the Baptist tradition — we’ve been taught to include all and that Christ sat at the table with all and welcomed all. So I really look at it as the inclusion of everyone and the fighting for people’s rights as people is not contrary to the gospel.
Jesus taught that we were to welcome all. Jesus didn’t set parameters as far as, gosh really anything. In fact He spoke in the opposite direction of if you’re too affluent and you’re too proud and you’re too pompous then you’re going off on the wrong track. If you’re being exclusive then you’re on the wrong track.
Now, did he speak about sexuality? No. But did he speak against any kind of sexuality? No. So I think the bigger picture is, what happens when we create a separate people or a separate group or a marginalized group? That could be around poverty, it could be around culture or race — it can be about anything when we separate a particular group of people out and say “you are not equal and not like the rest of us”.
So in whether we’re talking about marriage or inclusion in the church or employment practices, how can we we support separating a certain people out?
What’s been your experience speaking with your legislators on equality bills or working with others in your district to do the same?
I’m blessed to live in a very supportive district so my legislators aren’t an issue. At least on the Delegate’s side. But do I have an opportunity to talk to the opposition? Absolutely. I’ve testified before the Maryland House of Delegates and my experience with the legislature is that we have to put a personal face on this. We’re not talking about something that doesn’t affect actual people.
I think what we saw last week (at the first lobby day) when legislators were able to see families, parents and their children and grandchildren who said “we are people and what you’re doing is making decisions about our lives.” And I don’t know what the legislators expected to see, but this was a group of normal people! I mean really.
I’m wondering if it’s easier for gay people than transgender people to do that in every district because there seem to be more gay than transgender people.
I can’t speak for the transgender community because I’m not trensgender, so I don’t know. What you need to know about me is that I’m a straight ally. And just like the straight allies really need to speak out for the LGBT community, I think our gay and lesbian community needs to speak out for the transgender community as well. So we have to speak for one another until everyone is comfortable speaking.
This is the same thing that happened in D.C. when the marriage issue came up. There were clergy there that had worked together before on issues of poverty, so they had come together for each other in a different way. And then when the clergy reached out and said we need you now for this issue which is important to us, and the clergy where that wasn’t on their radar said since you helped us with poverty, we need to help you with this. And I think it’s the same thing with whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight ally, queer, questioning — whatever the letter is — we have to step into that space and help each other.
There may be a day when I need my LGBT brothers and sisters to come to my aid as a straight ally. And certainly in this environment I need that backing when I step out into that conservative Christian environment. Especially the Baptists. When I have to stand up to my fellow Baptists and say “there’s a different story here that you’re not hearing”. So we need each other.
How can LGBT people support you and other clergy stepping forward and taking heat for us?
It’s being willing to be there when that need is there. If I see a need in the community I’ll step up. If you see a need you step up. It may be that we’re both stepping up together for the transgender community, it may be that straight allies and transgender folk are stepping up — it’s the willingness that needs to be there.
Tell us a little bit about your experience being an ally in the Baptist church.
Seven years ago I thought I was the only Baptist that thought this way. I was in a Southern Baptist church, I was in seminary and I thought I was the only Baptist that had a liberal viewpoint on LGBT.
I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and I felt called to seminary but I’ve always been a part of the gay community. Not only that but I when I said I was called to preach they said I was mistaken because I was a woman.
So I started doing pulpit supply for a Metropolitan Community Church and couldn’t tell them. So I was closeted as a straight person, which I think was God showing me just a little bit, a little tiny taste because I don’t purport to know what it’s like to be closeted. But a little tiny taste of what it feels like to not be able to tell your church the truth.
So I would say “I’m preaching for a little non-denomination church up near Germantown”. ”Well what church?” ”Ah, it’s not important.” It was very important! This was where I learned to preach.
I didn’t know if I was safe. I didn’t know there was anybody else like me. Then I met the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, realized the we had several Baptist churches in the area that were welcoming and affirming, got involved and realized that there are all sorts of Baptists like me.
Ten years later I was ordained in the American Baptist church. The pastor of that Southern Baptist church who had told me that I was going to have to choose between ministry and those people when I told him I was not only called to preach but I was called to the LGBT community — he gave the invocation at my ordination. I had 10 officiating clergy at my ordination, and they were Baptist, Disciples of Christ, MCC, they were African-Americans, they were white – I had this cornucopia of people. And he said to me, I cannot in good conscience judge these people, having seen all these clergy who are obviously Christian. We change people’s minds maybe slowly — it took 10 years — through our actions and the kinds of things that we’re doing.
So yeah I was in a Southern Baptist church and couldn’t tell anybody what was going on, couldn’t tell them I was over at this MCC church, and it was years before I told people in that congregation “what you need to understand is I have this ministry”. Some people said oh my gosh I’ll pray for you, and some people said well, o.k.. We change one mind at a time.