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Open Letter to our Allies: About What We Really Need From You

March 23, 2017

Content Warning: Suicide, Anti-Trans Violence, Religious Abuse, Grief and Despair


For these things I weep, for water streams from my eyes,
because respite is out of reach to restore my soul,
my children are desolate because the enemy overcame us. (Lm. 1:16) 


This verse from the Book of Lamentations captures the pain that so many trans people feel at the oppression of others.

Many trans people have left the religious traditions they come from because of abuse at the hands of religious leaders and members of communities of faith. From reparative therapy to exorcism, from ex-communication to words like “pervert” or “abomination,” many transgender people have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually punished under the guise of religious authority for telling the truth about our lived experience.

These acts add to the feeling of isolation and the feeling of being a burden--two of the biggest reasons behind a trans person attempting to end their own life. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, well over 40% of trans people have attempted suicide at least once, as compared to the roughly 5% of the general population. The research shows that this extremely high rate is primarily due to stresses caused by other people.

Operators with the Trans Lifeline hear the stories and the pain. We help these conflicted callers by creating a safe space to voice their pain, their fears, their injuries. Sometimes we offer remedies, but the biggest thing is presence; creating a space for callers to vocalize that which they are prevented from saying in other places.

A number of trans clergy and other trans spiritual leaders who work with Trans Lifeline are doing this as sacred work. We never “preach” and don’t engage spiritual concerns unless specifically asked by our callers. To do so would be to commit the very assault we lament.

Religious people concerned with transgender justice need to understand this context before they engage with transgender communities through prayer modalities.

From Confucius to the Quran, most religious traditions teach the Golden Rule in some form, which means putting yourself into the other’s shoes before taking action. “Praying for" trans people can be well intended, but send a dangerous message. The very idea of prayer can be experienced as another form of assault and spiritual trauma that reinforces internalized shame.

Transfaith together with representatives of Trans Lifeline
call on faith leaders who care about transgender people
to reach out in love to transgender people
and ask how you can best serve our communities,
before you start to pray “for” us. 

This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with transgender death. Recent weeks have had transgender leaders asked to co-sign on campaigns, both faith based and secular, that are more than willing to use transgender death as a talking point -- without ever taking the time to lament the loss those lives mean in our communities.

Meanwhile, many of us are marking the anniversary of Blake Brockington’s death in North Carolina, just two years ago today. We are still reeling from Jaquarrius, Cierra, Chyna who were killed just a few weeks ago in Louisiana. As we were preparing this letter, Alphonza Watson was gunned down in Baltimore.  And there are so many more names we could list.

Transgender communities are hurting. We know that people of faith have tremendous experience when it comes to supporting others in times of tragedy. Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear from Trans Lifeline callers or even transgender friends on social media, “Nobody cares if we live or die,” while the public dialogue about transgender issues has been overwhelmingly focused on Gavin Grimm and the string of anti-trans legislation sweeping the country.

So today, like every day, volunteers at Trans Lifeline are on the phone working with some of those people. As trans people, we wish we could fix it. We believe that our allies want to help, too. But there is no short list of action items to resolve all of the challenges we face.

Like Jesus in the garden before his death, we’re facing brutal violence under an occupying empire, and there’s no quick fix.

 

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
Stay here and keep watch with me” (Mt. 26.38).

 

That was Jesus’ request. Challenging the Empire is important work. Still that wasn’t Jesus’ request as he faced his brutal death in anguish, sweating blood (Luke 22.44). He asked for those around him to bear witness and be in community.

We’re afraid. We’re grieving murdered friends and friends bullied to suicide. Don’t make us continue to face this dark night of terror alone. Even Jesus’ friends couldn’t do it. It’s a messier, less satisfying ask: Stay awake with us. Be present.

In the rush to defend us against dangerous politicians, please don’t lose sight of the very people you say you care about. Like Jesus, we ask those close to us to pray with us. Not for us. Not about us.

This letter emerged from partnership and dialogue among representatives of Transfaith and Trans Lifeline in response to the current climate. It is in part a specific response to the well-meaning efforts of the National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice, but also emerges out of the experiences numerous transgender leaders have had trying to work with well-meaning secular campaigns for transgender justice.

You can sign up in the Transfaith Memorial Garden to receive prompt alerts about tragedies impacting transgender communities. This emergent partnership among grassroots transgender leaders is first and foremost about remembering the lives of our lost loved ones, but it will also seek to bridge the gap between supportive faith communities and grassroots transgender communities during times of tragedy.


 
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