On November 20th the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition’s executive director Gunner Scott and forty leaders from transgender state, local, national, and international organizations met with Mr. John Berry, Director of the US Office of Personnel Management and the highest ranking openly gay person in the Obama administration, along with Mr. Gautam Raghavan, Associate Director in Office of Public Engagement, and other White House staff. This historic meeting was to mark the 14th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and discuss ways in which the President’s administration, transgender leaders and allies can work together to ensure dignity, equality, and justice for transgender youth, adults, and our families.
This annual event, which tends to be overlooked by the larger gay and lesbian community, has grown from a candlelight vigil held in Alston, MA following the murder of local transsexual rocker Rita Hester in 1998 to a global phenomenon. As reported by Transgender Europe, 265 people were killed over this past year as a direct result of their trans status.
Four years ago, the transgender community expanded this annual memorial into Transgender Awareness Week, eight days of events designed to lift up the gifts of the trans community as they remember those killed that year as a direct result of transphobic violence. As an example of the types of programming offered during this week, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition’s website of scheduled events includes film screenings, health care seminars, lectures and TDOR observances across the state; Fenway Health premiered their video contribution to the I AM: Trans People Speak video series. Anyone with internet access can participate in the Unitarian Universalists’ 2nd Annual TDOR Interfaith Virtual Vigil.
While the largest TDOR events, including those in MA, remain secular, a growing number of churches and even cathedrals chose to open their doors to this community that tends to be invisible in even pro-gay faith based settings. Many faith communities in MA hold TDOR services, and the Boston TDOR has usually been hosted and formally welcomed by a church. On November 18, 2012, they held their third annual event at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul (Episcopal), with a welcome from the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE, stories from the Boston area trans community and a vigil where the names of were read of those trans people who were murdered both in Massachusetts and around the world because of who they are.
For those organizations who are already welcoming to gay and lesbian people and would like to make their spaces more welcoming to the trans community, TRUUsT (Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together) offers these suggestions: 1) use language that includes all transgender people; 2) educate yourself and others about transgender experiences; and 3) advocate for the affirmation and advancement of transgender religious leaders. Also, GLAAD published a list of resources for those covering TDOR.
A key sign to the trans community that they have entered into a safe space is the presence of gender neutral bathrooms. While this may appear to be a trivial issue to those who fall within the gender binary, trans people report being harassed and shamed when they try to use a public restroom. This is particularly troublesome for transwomen who all too often get demonized as predators looking to attack women in bathroom stalls when in fact they are just women needing to use the facilities. Along those lines, those who provide shelters, showers for the homeless and other such services and want to include trans youth and adults need to explore how they can create spaces that can accommodate those whose state issued identification may not match their current gender identity and expression.
Proper terminology is also key. For example, many allies don’t know the distinction between “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” In a nutshell, sexual orientation pertains to the sex(es) one feels a sexual attraction toward. Some people identify as asexual, which includes those who experience no sexual attraction at all as well as a range of other experiences. “Gender identity” references the internal sense of one’s own gender. “Gender expression” is how one enacts that gender identity in the world.
“Transgender” emerged as an umbrella term coined in 1960s by Virginia Prince that encompasses everyone whose gender identity does not coincide with the specific sex assigned to them at birth. As The Sylvia Rivera Project points out, not everyone who fits the above description self-identifies as “transgender.” If you’re unsure of a person’s gender, you can ask them about their “preferred pronouns,” and then use these pronouns (he, she or a gender neutral pronoun such as ze) when you reference this person.
Here are a few more terms to know:
Cisgender, those people whose gender identity and expression coincide with the sex they were assigned to at birth.
Cross-dressers (called “transvestites” in the UK), connotes mostly men who chose to dress in the clothing stereotypically associated with the opposite sex of a given culture.
Unlike drag queens and drag kings, who tend to be gay men and lesbian women putting on a performance, most male cross dressers tend to be heterosexual who wear their dresses as part of their gender expression. Women who don masculine clothing and mannerisms tend to be seen as adapting to the traditional male led power structures, though sometimes they can get called derogatory terms that call their sexual orientation into question.
Gender fluid, a descriptive term applied to those whose gender expression shifts.
Genderqueer, a political term for those who do break the rules by refusing to define their gender.
Gender-nonconforming, a less politicized term for those who do not see themselves as conforming to either gender.
Intersex, a word used to describe people who have sexual characteristics of both sexes. While there are some similarities in terms of the need for medical care and gender non-discrimination, intersex people often get lumped in with the transgender community instead of being seen as a separate category with their own unique set of needs and issues.
Transexuals, the medical term for people who transition from one gender to another.
These definitions remain fluid as the trans community, like the LGBT community, does not speak with one unified voice. These broad guidelines can begin a conversation but ultimately, one should use the terms preferred by each individual trans person. Also, keep in mind that conversations about gender, especially when it concerns one’s medical and sexual history, are often inappropriate in public and semi-private settings. As a rule of thumb, refrain from asking a trans person any question that you would find intrusive if the same question was directed toward you.
For an ongoing overview of trans and faith issues, log on to Transfaith Online. One can also find vibrant discussions both at denominational blogs like Transepiscopal, as well as individual blogs such as Anarchist Reverend and Sherman’s Wilderness. Over at The Revealer and The Washington Post’s “On Faith” Column, I offer summaries of some of the trans specific measures adopted by a number of mainline denominations.
Also, some guidelines geared for the media that can be helpful to anyone looking to help give the trans community their voice include Trans Media Watch (This guide is UK based so some of the legal terminology is not applicable elsewhere) and “International Transgender Day of Remembrance: Getting the Story, In their Own Words.”
A version of this article tailored for faith communities was posted at Believe Out Loud.