At worship we celebrated the 10th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility, which occurs annually on March 31st, and celebrates transgender people and raises awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide. The holiday was founded by U.S.-based transgender activist Rachel Crandall in 2009, as a reaction to the lack of LGBTQ+ holidays celebrating transgender people, and with frustration that the only well-known transgender-centered holiday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance which mourned the murders of transgender people, but did not acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community.
We were joined by LGBTQ+ guest speakers for today’s Open & Affirming session, who also worshiped with us: Angie Combs (They/them/theirs), who identifies as genderqueer transgender and is an Elder and Interim Communications Director at Cairn Christian Church in Lafayette, Colorado; Tom Lemke (he/him/his), who identifies as a cisgender gay man and is a former member of South Broadway Christian Church now attending Mission Gathering, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) new church start in Thornton.
In addition, we were joined by Sarah Scott (She/Her/Hers), who has identified as a cisgender Lesbian since her early 20s, and grew up in the Evergreen Christian Church. In joining our conversation, Sarah shared thoughtful insights from her identities and experiences, and so I've included her voice in this post as well.
We began our time together by lighting the red, orange, yellow, and green candles to invite Christ into the space and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and read the corresponding section of the Rainbow Christ Prayer: "Green is for love, the heart of spirit. Transgressive Outlaw Christ, you are our Heart, breaking rules out of love. In a world obsessed with purity, you touch the sick and eat with outcasts. Free us from conformity and grant us the grace of deviance. With the green stripe in the rainbow, fill our hearts with untamed compassion for all beings.”
Our guest speakers shared parts of their personal faith and LGBTQ+ identity journeys, and engaged questions from the congregation and pastors. Below I’ve drafted a summary of our collective conversation. In a couple of places, I’ve added a few additional resources to support our learning. I invited Angie, Tom, and Sarah to review a draft of this blog post prior to publishing to make sure their voices and experiences of the conversation are accurately represented. We are grateful for Angie, Tom, and Sarah, and for the genuine love and honesty they shared with us as we journey through the Open and Affirming (O&A) process.
What does an O&A church feel and look like?
Tom: Most importantly, an O&A church is genuinely welcoming. Today, when I arrived at ECC, I was warmly embraced, and this is my first time here. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You were genuinely happy to see me, eager to meet me, and glad I was joining you. Many people came up to meet me with smiles, and greeted me with handshakes and hugs.
If you want to know what an O&A church feels like, this was it today: the Transgender Flag on the altar, the gender inclusive language in the bulletin and music with a note about why you use inclusive language, the sermon. And most importantly, the authenticity and practice of your faith is a reflection of your belief in being Open and Affirming. When you walk into an O&A church, you can just feel it.
What else can we do, what changes could we make to be fully inclusive?
Tom: You’ve got the most important part of genuine welcome. One additional thing you could do is to make all the bathrooms signs gender inclusive. This way transgender and non-gender binary people will know they are welcome and won’t have to question whether it is safe for them to go to the bathroom here, or wonder which bathrooms are for their use.
Angie: As a transgender person, when I see gender binary bathroom signs (male and female), I’m not sure if I’m included. And it goes beyond inclusion, it is also about safety. There are not enough publicly available gender inclusive bathrooms, which is a real health and safety issue in the transgender community.
One time a small child saw my legs, which I don’t shave, and asked her mom why there was a man in the women’s bathroom. I waited in the bathroom stall for 20 minutes, until I knew both the mother and child had left the restroom, and that their family had enough time to leave the rest stop entirely. Imagine if that child’s father was outside of the bathroom and heard his daughter ask why there was a man in the bathroom? It is the kind of question that can lead to violent confrontation and a threat to my safety. I have to think about these things just to go to the bathroom, especially if I am travelling alone.
The step beyond affirming LGBTQ+ in the church, is to celebrate us. Affirming and celebrating LGBTQ+ individuals and families in the church, can include:
Can you explain more about why pronouns are important to you personally, your faith, and your understanding of and relationship to God?
Angie: Pronouns are directly linked to my identity. I understand that we all have to learn and practice new habits, like using they/their/theirs pronouns for an individual, and sometimes make mistakes. It doesn’t bother me as long as someone is trying. However, when you tell someone your pronouns are they/their/theirs, and they intentionally misgender you, and refuse to use your pronouns, they are putting me in their box, that doesn’t fit me. It teaches me that I can no longer trust them. Because if I can’t trust them with my identity, how can I trust them with anything else.
I like to use this example to help people understand the use of they/their/theirs pronouns for individuals, or in the singular sense grammatically. What do you say when you find someone’s phone, wallet, or purse? You say, “Someone lost their phone. Did someone lose their wallet? I found their purse, whose is it?” We actually know how to use “their” in singular form, we do it all the time, we just don’t realize it. Now we need to practice applying the singular use of “their” to people we meet and know, whose gender pronouns are they/their/theirs.
For many people, it is a privilege that you don’t have to think about your gender identity. When your sex at birth and your gender identity align into a male or female binary, you fit within social norms. When your sex at birth and your gender identity don’t align, and/or you don’t fit within a male-female gender binary, but rather somewhere on the gender spectrum, or continuum, then you don’t fit within social norms. This means you’re regularly confronted by others trying to fit you into a male-female gender binary or into the dominant culture.
Tom: Some LGBTQ+ individuals also struggle with internalized homophobia, because we’ve been taught throughout our lives in various contexts (family, church, school, work, etc.) that our identity(ies) is/are not right, that something is wrong with us. This is why some LGBTQ+ individuals hide their identities, or “come out” later in life. I was married to a woman and had two children, and after years of marriage, of what I thought was a good marriage, my wife confronted me about our marriage. I had internalized homophobic teachings and suppressed who I really was.
I’m a gay man, and now I truly believe that I am beloved by God. Because of my life experience and identity, and that of other people in my family, like my son who identifies as bisexual, and my friends, I understand a wide continuum of gender identities. For me, God is not a he or a she, God is they, God is inclusive of all of our gender identities, of all of us, God’s beloved.
How is being an O&A designated church different for a church that seems to have been practicing LGBTQ+ inclusion already?
Sarah: I grew up in this church and always felt accepted. Part of that included that the church welcomed preachers who I knew were LGBTQ+, even if that wasn’t public at the time. And also, an abundant faith and theology is inclusive, and it is time to say that you are inclusive publicly, otherwise you and your church are living in a scarcity model and faith.
Angie: I graduated from seminary with a Master’s of Divinity (MDiv) three years ago. I haven’t started the ordination process, because I don’t know if any church will hire me, a transgender person, to be their pastor. When I first moved to Denver, there were only three O&A churches in our denomination and they all had settled leadership that didn’t look like it would be changing any time soon. Over the past several years more churches have become O&A in our denomination, which gives me hope.
I’m also not sure if I want to be the first transgender clergy person in our denomination. I don’t know of and don’t have transgender colleagues in our denomination, and I’m not sure I want to go through what means to be the first.
I don’t take communion at churches that don’t have an O&A designation or clear statement, because I don’t know if they really do welcome me to Christ’s table.
Sarah: When I see a religious institution in a community, I assume it is not a safe place for me as a Lesbian. So visible evidence that your church is O&A is important.
How do we make sure LGBTQ+ people know they are welcomed and affirmed at our church?
Visible evidence is important, here are some ideas:
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Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher
Minister of Prophetic Formation at Juniper Formation. Currently working with Evergreen Christian Church to rebirth their ministry as more missional, inclusive, and community engaged. Join us on our Open & Affirming journey.