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by Robyn Shanor

Within the church, as well as the larger society, transgender persons are often grouped with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Churches struggling with questions of inclusion surrounding sexual orientation will find many similarities in the concerns raised by those of us whoa re transgendered. But it's also important to be aware of the differences.

First, churches must recognize that gender identity is completely seperate from sexual orientation. The fact that a person is transgendered does not imply anything about sexual orientation. Although some transgendered persons are gay, many are not.

The struggle for acceptance within church and society is common to both gay and transgendered Christians. yet for gays and lesbians, the issue centers on the expressions of their sexuality. In the face of this, a gay Christian can choose to be open or covert about his or her sexual behavior.

Yet transgendered folks experience the entirety of who we are -- body, soul, and social role -- to be in conflict with societal and church expectations. From an early age, we are told that we are not who we perceive ourselves to be, who we know we are. In many ways, our very existence seems in conflict with "reality" itself. Since one's gender role is so relentlessly defined and reinforced by others, it may take years for us to even realize what we are experiencing.

Like many who are gay or lesbian, transgendered people often spend years in self-denial and suppression, struggling to fit in and be "normal." These efforts to fit into assigned gender roles often include marriage at an early age. Trans people tend to choose careers that enforce traditional roles: many males end up in the military or law enforcement; females often seek to be the perfect housewife. usually, it is all a desperate attempt to fit in and find acceptance.

In my case, I sought salvation through a career in Christian minsitry. As a late teen, I found that the deepest expressions of Christianity -- caring, serving, giving, sharing -- connected with the feminine side of me that was breaking through.

I was encouraged by those close to me to attend seminary, and I'm grateful now for that experience. But I found that I gradually lost my sense of self and spirituality, even as I strove to become "God's man."

I worked for a short time as a pastor, then served for nine years as an active-duty military chaplain where I was quite successful in letting the army "make a man out of me." But I longed for a place where I could be myself as an expressive, creative, spiritual human being. I began to crumble as I struggled in desperation to find the "real me" before God.

Many with gender identity issues spend their whole life in denial, living according to externally imposed definitions of self. Some choose suicide rather than a lifetime of role imprisonment. The all-too-common experience of rejection by one's closest social supports -- such as parents, friends, siblings, churches -- leads many transgendered persons to abandon their faith.


In many ways the church's struggle around the acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people has prepared it for a more liberating approach toward those in itse midst who are transgendered. Yet the changes in the church that may be required to allow transgendered people to "come out" and be honest with themselves (and before God)  may be different, even for congregations that have opened their doors to gay and lesbian members.

I have heard more than once of a transgendered person who decides to attend church en femme, only to have gay and lesbian members of the congregation complain that this person is going to destroy all the progress they've made within the church! These folks fail to realize that their efforts to educate and gain acceptance have prepared the congregation for the greater challenge trans people can pose.

On the other hand, despite their own experience of rejection within the church, many transgendered persons are non-accepting of gays. This is usually based on a traditional understanding of Scriptures that were once understood to condemn gay sexual practices. Even transgendered people who have come to terms with God around their own identity may hold a very conservative understanding of biblical material thought to address homosexuality.

Furthermore, the common experience of not fitting in can complicate relationships between gay and transgendered Christians. For example, many trans and gay men share similarities in social presentation that cause them to be labeled as effeminate. Some transgendered males are frequently assumed to be gay because of similar self-expressions, body language, and interests. While these experiences can lead to mutual understanding, they may also ccontribute to a gay-shy attitude among some trans people.

The gay and lesbian Christian community has the experienec and background to understand the trans community better than any other, and vica versa. Transgendered and gay Christians share much in common -- our struggles with identity, our coming out, our faith, and our fight for acceptance among families, society, and churches.

We have much to learn about each other, as well as much to contribute to each other -- and to the wider church. Understanding and tolerating our differences is important, not only because we share the same God, but because we share similar challenges as we all strive to embody who God has created each of us to be.

©2001 Robyn Shanor. Originally published in The Other Side magazine, May-June 2001, Vol. 37, No. 3. 

If anyone knows how to contact Robyn Shanor, please contact me.  Thanks!

This article is one of four available in the study guide, The Other Side on Transgender.  You may be interested in reviewing the others as well.