On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

150601-caitlyn-jenner-jsw-1240p_f905633d5cc73c24b5c0da7bc2ade414.nbcnews-fp-1200-800The Internet is awash with reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s photos in Vanity Fair magazine. Some thoughtful stuff, and plenty that’s predictably… less than thoughtful. I write this post with some trepidation, because there’s still much for me to learn, and I hope those who have walked this road will offer correction with a generous spirit, for it’s in that spirit that I write this. This tip sheet from GLAAD is helpful.

I had the opportunity to provide pastoral support to someone as she made a male-to-female transition. Her story is hers to tell, but this is a little of mine as I walked with her. (She was not on the membership rolls of any church I served. I say that to protect her identity and so people don’t go wondering and digging. I’ll call her Jade.)

I felt this person’s anguish as we met over a period of months. It seems hard enough to be gay or lesbian, to go against society’s default expectations and perhaps one’s upbringing, to experience discrimination and sometimes harassment. But to be transgender–for one’s body not to conform to what one knows so deeply to be true of oneself–seems a particularly tough burden. Violence against transgender people is proportionally high. For many (though not all) transgender people, the answer is surgery, or as I learned, surgeries. And of course, these procedures are expensive and very involved, and thus out of reach for many people.

The person I met with asked me over and over again, “Am I a mistake? Does God make mistakes?” As someone who tries to be not only a straight ally, but a straight Christian ally, these questions felt important and agonizing. I read up on Christian resources for transgender people, and we talked a lot about Jesus’ ministry with society’s “misfits and outcasts.” We read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which to me is a clear sign that grace is a gift offered to sexual minorities too. Mainly I told her that the God I believe in loves us all unconditionally and wants shalom–wholeness–for us all.

The first time we met, when she was still contemplating a physical transition and what it might mean, I prayed for her by name—her female name. When she raised her head her eyes were filled with tears. “I am Jade. That’s who I am.”

I’ll be honest. It didn’t feel comfortable—I previously knew this person by a male name. But it was right. And this is what we do as pastors, isn’t it? It’s not about our own comfort. It’s about naming the grace of God that we are all living toward. It’s about claiming the abundant life that Jesus promises.

And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. Loved ones don’t always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam’s apple. I’m talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I’m talking about the way she carried herself. I’m talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

Maybe, maybe, my prayer in which I invoked her new name was a gift to her. But that last meeting we had was a gift to me, because I saw wholeness and transformation in the flesh. I still don’t understand being transgender. Is it a quirk of evolutionary biology? But I don’t have to understand it. My job is to point to abundant life, and then to celebrate as Jade and others seek to embody it.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a saying, “Happy, joyous and free.” The gospel isn’t the gospel unless it moves us toward happy, joyous and free. That’s all I know.

22 thoughts on “On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

  1. Kristin

    LOVE this phrase, “point to abundant life and celebrate it.” As a clergywoman who has also had interactions with transgender individuals, this helps so much. Thank you for your words.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      It’s very good but hard work, because abundant life comes at a cost sometimes. Not everyone gets on board when someone makes a transition. So it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, is it? But the cost of not embracing who one is can be so much greater.

      Reply
  2. Cynthia

    Thanks MaryAnn for your helpful and thoughtful piece. One of my neighbors transitioned when I was in high school. He was in his 70’s and it was an amazing journey as he became a woman and finally felt free. And now one of the young adults I know is transitioning. This article is helping me find words to be a pastor on this road.

    Reply
  3. Mamala

    I’m so glad that young clergy is addressing this issue and helping people become happy, joyous and free. I hope also (and I know that you do) that you don’t forget the families of trans as they are having to “grieve” over the loss of their husband, father, sister, aunt (etc.) before they can fully celebrate the wife, mother, brother and uncle (etc.) they have become.

    Reply
  4. Susan O

    I’ve been thinking on this quite a bit the last few days. In my first call out of seminary, an employee’s spouse transitioned. I did not know the spouse well, other than a handful of social events, but spent a great deal of time with the employee and her children who mourned so deeply all that they were losing, but loved deeply enough to not wish it otherwise. That was an amazing grace.

    Reply
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  7. Caroline

    Adding my thanks for your willingness to stretch yourself to be with others in this way. Grateful too for your willingness to post about it.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer M

      LJ Lee,

      Some months ago I read an article regarding Paul McHugh, clearly detailing his bias against transgender individuals. Unfortunately, I did not save the link, but If you read the comments section Zoe Brain noted a couple. I will quote here in case the linked article is removed…

      Zoe Brain said
      “1) Dr McHugh’s views differ markedly from those of the American Medical
      Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of
      Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Psychiatric Society, the American Public
      Health Association, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and
      indeed every other professional medical organisation. This should have been at least
      mentioned.
      2) Until recently, he was the Vatican’s advisor on sexual matters, and is on record as
      saying that there is no pedophilia problem in the Church, all the victims are lying. To
      portray him as anything other than extremely partisan is lying by omission.
      3) He proudly boasts that it was his intention to shut down the gender centre in Johns
      Hopkins before he even joined it. On religious grounds. See his article “Psychiatric
      Misadventures”. “

      Reply
  8. anne

    love the way you bring us into the process of your thinking—even in the midst of that thinking.

    thanks and blessings,
    a

    Reply
  9. Eleanor Burns

    What a wonderful and moving post. Especially the following:

    “And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. Loved ones don’t always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam’s apple. I’m talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I’m talking about the way she carried herself. I’m talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”

    Whatever one’s beliefs on the rights and wrongs of transgenderism / gender reassignment, to dismiss the lived experience of people such as Jade to bolster one’s ideology is the slippery slope to inhumanity and evil, however righteous one’s beliefs seem. To acknowledge that experience, however challenging, is to put oneself in the shoes of our Saviour (as he wanted us to) and to see people as people, rather than units of a tribe, a nation, or a system.

    Reply
  10. Joni

    I appreciate this article. As a transgender I have had very negative experiences with people who claim to be Christians. During my transitioning I was asked by a Pastor not to attend his church unless I look more like the gender I was born even though I had in formed him of my gender identity prior to going to his church. I had already been attending that church for about nine months. The Pastor said he did not want to explain to a youth in the church that was asking about me why I look feminine. There are a lot of churches & Christian people that better beware of Matthew 18:5+6.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Of the many emails and messages I’ve received since writing this piece, the ones from transgender people are the most precious to me. I’m so sorry for how this pastor treated you in the name of Christ. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s just wrong.

      Reply
  11. Sheryl Taylor

    Everything you write inspires me. THIS entry is deeply profound. Thank you, and God bless your ministry.

    Reply

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