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Learning about Gender Identity and Connecting with our Trans* Neighbors

Learning about Gender Identity and Connecting with our Trans* Neighbors

This summer at Gethsemane and the Garden, we are learning about gender identity and examining the ways our faith community can be welcoming to people who identity as trans* or genderqueer. 

At synod assembly in May, our own James Urton co-sponsored a resolution encouraging congregations to learn about and build relationships with transgender people. You can read the resolution that James co-sponsored here.

Below, James reflects on his motivations for sponsoring this resolution and his hopes for our learning:

Breath by breath

As a child, I went through a ritual before I would enter any church building. Breathing deeply, I would methodically bury key parts of my identity, pressing the remaining fragments into a form that could pass for a young man in church. I prepared vague replies for questions about my life — hollow answers that, though evasive, were also sufficiently polite to deflect further inquiry. Spine thus steeled, I was ready for church.

No one taught me this bizarre ritual. Over time, I gleaned that it was necessary to avoid discomfort at church — for myself, my family and my fellow churchgoers. After all, I am a gay man and a scientist; and even years before I embraced either identity, I realized that the church struggles with those branches of the human condition.

Since I come from “churched” stock, I relied on my ritual often. My ancestors include pious deacons, revival singers and organists. A chapel in one sleepy Arkansas town is named for my grandparents. Mom is a Presbyterian elder and dad was a choir director. My sister and I attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school in three Protestant denominations, and later attended the same ELCA-affiliated college. Growing up, I served frequently as a church musician.

I was also awed by the natural world. I ravenously devoured details about our insides and outer space. But by the age I could recite dinosaur facts while compiling entries in my hurricane journal, I also knew that church was not a place for the scientific feast. Of course, churches are not classrooms. They should no more teach science than accounting, painting or history. But I noticed that churches easily integrated accountants, painters and historians. The same wasn’t true for scientists. Questions about science’s place in Christian faith earned me firm admonishment from evangelicals and uncomfortable silence from moderates and progressives. So breath by breath, I buried the budding scientist within before opening the church door.

With each inhale and exhale, I also hid my sexuality. Growing up, I often felt a little different from other boys. Sports bored me. Sometimes, I would act “girly,” earning quizzical looks from acquaintances, relatives and even people at church. When I hit puberty and realized that I was attracted to men, my parents embraced my full self, assuring me that their love and support are eternal and unconditional.

But as I opened up to my parents, sister and friends, I closed myself off from church. It was an anxious time for gay and lesbian people. About a year after I came out, two men tortured a gay man named Matthew Shepard and left him tied to a fence. He died four days after my 18th birthday. I had hoped that the Christian communities in my life would be places where I could share my anxieties and find loving acceptance. But just as with my quirky affinity for science, evangelical circles offered reproach, while moderates and progressives served up pregnant silence. The church simply did not know what to do with gay people. After a distant relative attempted suicide over this same issue, I counted my blessings, abandoned my rituals and left church altogether.

Thankfully, much has changed. Today many congregations march in gay pride parades and hold seminars with scientists. Clergy and lay leaders support gay people, and are more adept at addressing the intricate interplay between Christian faith and scientific fact. People like me no longer need to feel like we’re on the outside looking in, or wall ourselves off from Christians even as we walk and worship among them.

But barriers persist for another group of people who are misunderstood and maligned. The taboo topics from my youth — science and sexual orientation — have been replaced by gender identity. Transgender individuals struggle for love, understanding and acceptance in our society. Churches by and large have not provided refuge and support; many are indifferent, and some are outright hostile to the transgender community.

In May, I gathered with lay members and clergy from every ELCA congregation in northwestern Washington for an annual meeting. Thus assembled, we overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on congregations to educate themselves on transgender issues and dismantle all barriers separating them from their transgender neighbors. I helped draft and support this resolution because I know how it feels to be on the outside looking in. I know how to split off key parts of myself and repress them, breath by breath. I do not want our transgender neighbors to go through a similar alienation. I want us to dismantle barriers and embrace the whole human family in all of its glorious diversity.

After all, walls have no place in God’s house.

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