Transgender Faithful

“When a church is trans-affirming, transgender Christians can show up as themselves, unapologetically” [1]

The mission of the Catholic Church to be Christ for the world and the Lasallian zeal to ensure a good and holy education for everyone compel us at Saint Mary’s College to be especially mindful of marginalized humanity. One of the most marginalized groups historically has been the trans population, folks who have come now into greater notice and therefore into greater hope and danger. The Catholic Church has a lot to learn as trans people gain more societal recognition and strive for acceptance. We would do well to listen to the voices of trans faithful who seek to integrate their gender identity with their baptismal vows. Recently the National Catholic Reporter gave notice of a trans Christian author’s book, Austen Hartke, Transforming: The Bible & Lives of Transgender Christians (Louisville: 2018). It is a timely read for Catholic campuses seeking to be safe and nourishing places for trans people.

 The author offers fresh and authentic readings of many passages from the Scriptures. Three especially standout. The first is the creation story from Genesis. God’s creation of dualities has important meaning but does not exclude categories that go beyond. So for example, the creation of day and night does not exclude the existence of dawn and dusk. Dualities have a purpose but are not the sum total of God’s creative reality. There are genders that go beyond male and female and they are good. When the author turns to the creation of humanity made in the image and likeness of God, he reads the passage with the Holy Trinity in mind. Being in the image of God means being relational, by which he means being compassionate and generous with all.

Michelangelo, Dawn and Dusk, Florence, Medici Chapel, 1524-1531

Isaiah, 56:1-8 addresses the time after the return from the Babylonian Exile. The prophet’s words are of special meaning in our day as they give succor to those who fear being forgotten or fear being separated and kept out of God’s family (p. 90). Eunuchs (reminding the author of trans people) and foreigners, alike, are welcomed.

“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, / who choose the things that please me / and hold fast my covenant, / I will give, in my house and within my walls, / a monument and a name…. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, / to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, / and to be his servants…. these I will bring to my holy mountain, / and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

The prophetic welcome given to these marginalized folk is life-giving. Hartke concludes, “To know that you belong to a God who gathers the outcasts and who commands doors to open before those sitting outside the gates: this is the kind of love that leads to liberation” (99). The benefits of such a welcome have a ripple effect for the good of all. “When trans people are accepted into church communities, and especially when they’re put into positions of leadership, they can untangle knots and understand things that other people may not be as quick to perceive” (102). Hartke mines the Scriptures for other readings pertaining to eunuchs, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, finding in all of them a healing message for trans faithful.

Menologion of St. Basil, Vatican City, Codex Vaticanus graecus 1613, fol. 107, 10th-11th century.

The message that recovery of the lost or the outcast heals the entire community is in the third passage of note, that of the Good Shepherd. How long have people been rejected or ignored, who did not conform to genders assigned at birth or to the gender binary? Hartke sees Jesus reaching out and lifting up trans people, like the Good Shepherd of the Gospels. Their restoration in faith also heals the community. “When Jesus goes after that lost sheep, what he’s telling the flock—what he’s telling us—is that we’re not complete without each other” (168).

Towards the end of the book, the author directs his attention directly to trans persons to give them steps for self-care. Here he draws from the ancient traditions of Christian spiritual life as he counsels his readers to take up the psalms, remember the Sabbath rest in their own lives, and find a dialogue partner.

Some additional strengths of the book include the author’s care to provide a respectful vocabulary for transgender concerns and the refreshing courtesy to allow views that he does not hold to speak for themselves. Hartke also provides practical ideas for making our communities safe and affirming places for trans people. This is a passionate and joyful exploration rendered without polemics. Written as a Christian affirmation of transgendered lives, it can serve also as a bridge to allow cisgender folk to enter the world of their transgender siblings. While not all at the College are ready to name their personal pronouns when interacting with others, everyone can help make the campus a dignity-affirming and welcoming place for trans people, who after all have been here all along.

The Good Shepherd, University of Bethlehem Chapel, Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority, ca. 1960

[1] p. 109

photo credits:
Wikimedia Commons & Brother Charles


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