Trans Theology: Reclaiming Christian Identity and Community Space for Trans People
The intersection of gender identity, faith, and cultural heritage is a complex and often fraught one, particularly for trans individuals living in the American South. As a society and a culture, it’s important that we explore the ways trans people are often excluded from traditional religious spaces, and how this exclusion can lead to a sense of disconnection from one’s community and cultural heritage. However, some trans people like myself are working to reclaim our connection to Christianity in a variety of different ways: some of us are taking up space in traditionally conservative denominations, others are finding new affirming faith communities, and many are interpreting religious texts through a queer lens.
Many religious institutions, particularly those in the South, have historically been places of exclusion for LGBTQ+ individuals, with church teachings and cultural values often promoting rigid gender roles and heteronormativity – all while emphasizing sin and damnation for those not conforming to these rigid roles. These messages can be especially damaging for trans people, who may already be struggling to reconcile their gender identity with societal expectations.
As a transsexual woman and practicing Christian who has spent a significant portion of her life in the South, I am all too familiar with the ways in which religious institutions and people can be unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ individuals. I remember sitting in church as a child, feeling like an outsider as the preacher talked about the importance of traditional gender roles and the evils of homosexuality. Particularly painful for me was the fact that my grandmother was an extremely religiously conservative woman with a scathing tongue. I wanted her approval and her love, but only felt her disapproval and her rejection. Her religious convictions were the reason for her response: church leadership established a culture of poor biblical exegesis, little emphasis on pastoral care, and Christian elitism that fostered these harmful, unloving, and un-Christian views.
As I grew older and began to understand my own gender identity, I felt increasingly disconnected from my faith community and my cultural heritage. I struggled to reconcile my Christian upbringing with my own experiences as a trans person, and it wasn’t until I found affirming faith communities that I was able to start the process of healing and reconnecting with my roots.
Trans individuals seeking to reclaim their connection to Christianity and their cultural heritage often face significant obstacles. Many traditional Christian spaces overtly exclude trans individuals, making it difficult for them to find a sense of connection and belonging within their faith communities. This disconnection can be particularly acute for trans individuals with southern roots because church is a bastion of southern regional identity, where traditional gender roles and conservative values are often strongly emphasized. Of course, this type of “southern belonging” also excludes most people who don’t measure up to a Christian elitist worldview. The southern Christian ethos has historically demonstrated antisemitism, denied the humanity of Black people, and even questioned whether Native People had souls – so trans exclusion is no surprise. Nevertheless, this exclusion can have real consequences for trans people’s mental health and wellbeing, leading to feelings of isolation, disconnection, and even depression and anxiety.
For many trans individuals, this has resulted in walking away from Christianity altogether, an understandable response focusing on survival and wellbeing.The sad reality is that many people have experienced great pain inflicted by those whom they believe should have instead been acting as disciples of love. I and many others feel that the church has surely been a place of terrible betrayal to the principles of Jesus. And still, others leave the church simply disillusioned or unbound from belief, rejecting the various premises of Christianity/religion/divinity.
One of the ways such a betrayal has occurred is through the church’s emphasis on sexual “sins,” targeting LGBTQ+ people with stinging rebukes that ravage individuals’ self worth, hope for the future, and desire to be a part of an organism greater than just themselves. I believe that this inability to adhere to Jesus’ simple distillation of the law in Matthew 22:36-40, where he teaches that the most important thing is loving God and neighbor, is perhaps the single greatest fault of the modern church. This great fault has led to the popular axiom “there’s no hate like Christian love,” often seen on Reddit, Twitter and entire blog threads.
Despite these challenges, however, many trans people are working to reclaim their connections to Christianity. This work is not easy, and often requires significant effort and courage, but it can be incredibly rewarding and healing. One of the key ways that trans people are reweaving their connection to Christianity is by taking up space in conservative evangelical Christian communities. By staking a claim within these spaces, we are creating change through longevity and continuity of trans and queer presences in the congregational body. It is important that we simply exist within these sometimes hostile spaces, but it is even more so when we actively engage with the community and work towards creating a more inclusive and affirming environment.
Another, less contentious and less dangerous, route many trans people pursue is by finding already affirming faith communities, which exist even in the South. These are religious institutions that explicitly welcome and affirm LGBTQ+ individuals, often through statements of inclusion or ministries specifically designed for LGBTQ+ people. Such churches may have rainbow flags outside their doors or include affirming language in their mission statements. These symbols of inclusion can be incredibly powerful for trans people who may have felt excluded or unwelcome in traditional religious spaces.
Perhaps the most pivotal way that trans people are reclaiming their connection to Christianity is by developing new work in queer theology. This means reading the Bible, for example, with an eye toward queer themes and interpretations, rather than simply accepting the traditional understanding of the text. For example, some scholars have argued that Jesus’ teachings on love and compassion can be read as affirming of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, even though traditional interpretations may suggest otherwise. By interpreting religious texts in this way, trans people are able to find meaning and connection in their faith, even in the face of exclusion and rejection. This is cardinal because it creates cultural clashes, which precipitate positive changes and more holistic takes on doctrinal and ecclesiastical life.
Of course, this work is not without its challenges. Trans people who attempt to reclaim their connection to Christianity in this way may face pushback or even outright hostility from more conservative religious communities. They may also struggle with feelings of guilt or shame, particularly if they have been taught that their gender identity is a sin or a moral failing. However, for many trans people, the rewards of this work are worth the effort.
For me personally, finding affirming faith communities and interpreting religious texts through a queer lens have been essential in my journey as a transgender person. Through this work, I have been able to reclaim my connection to Christianity and my cultural heritage, while also affirming my gender identity and my place in the LGBTQ+ community. As a trans person, I am deeply committed to the process of reclaiming Christianity for the trans community. Through my work and advocacy, I hope to create a more inclusive and affirming space within Christianity for all individuals, regardless of their gender identity or cultural heritage.
As a public theologian, I am also engaged in broader activism and advocacy work aimed at advancing the rights and visibility of trans individuals. I believe that advocacy work is essential to creating systemic change and improving the lives of trans individuals. This includes advocating for policies and laws that protect the rights of trans individuals, speaking out against discrimination and violence directed towards trans individuals, or working to increase visibility and representation of trans individuals within broader society.
The intersection of gender identity, faith, and cultural heritage is a complex and often fraught one, and presents unique challenges for trans individuals living in the American South. However, despite the significant barriers to inclusion and affirmation that exist in many religious spaces, trans people are finding ways to reclaim their connection to Christianity and their cultural heritage through finding affirming faith communities and interpreting religious texts through a queer lens. This work is not without its challenges, but it is also incredibly rewarding and healing – healing for the individual, for the broader LGBTQ+ community, for Christian culture and for the church as a body.
Featured image caption: Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.
C. is a public theologian, writer and advocate interested in economic justice, prison/criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction and government/cultural criticism. She was, to the best of her knowledge, the first transsexual woman to undergo formation and study history/theology with the Third Order of Carmelites. She has completed graduate degrees in Systematic and Historical Theology, and is a Certificated Paralegal and Human Rights Consultant. When she isn't reading or writing, she's usually snacking.