Trans Lives and Religion — The Revealer

Dear Revealer readers,

In 2014, Black transgender actress Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” For Time, Cox’s role on the popular show Orange is the New Black represented a seismic cultural shift where, for the first time, stories about a Black transgender woman entered millions of Americans’ homes through their televisions and computer screens. The accompanying article suggested that transgender Americans would become increasingly common in mainstream media and politics. Time, as it turns out, was right. But more attention did not translate into greater equality.

Revealer Editor, Brett Krutzsch

The following year, 2015, witnessed a barrage of anti-trans legislation. The most common were “bathroom bills,” laws that were designed to force people to use restrooms that corresponded with their assigned birth sex. Most of these bills appeared in state and municipal legislatures soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-gender couples have the constitutional right to marry. Following that decision, groups that had opposed gay marriage quickly turned their attention to a more vulnerable portion of the LGBTQ community and portrayed transgender Americans as threats to the country’s children.

As right-wing groups drafted anti-trans legislation, a roster of figures toured evangelical and conservative Christian churches to stoke fears about transgender Americans. Speaking at the National Religious Broadcaster’s convention in 2015, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee derided transgender people and mocked their opposition to the bathroom bills. He told the televised crowd, “I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’” The crowd roared with laughter, failing to see Huckabee’s statement as the description of a sex crime. They also missed, and were not told, that when it comes to public spaces, transgender people are exponentially more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators (in no small part because of rhetoric like Huckabee’s running freely in conservative Christian churches that portrays transgender individuals as sex criminals).

In the years since 2015, transgender Americans, as Time predicted, have appeared in greater frequency throughout mainstream media. But anti-trans bills have proliferated, and 2022 has seen more anti-trans legislation than any year in history. The newest form of this gender terrorism has been the targeting of transgender kids who have supportive families. In Texas and elsewhere, state governments have decreed that helping transgender youth access gender-affirming healthcare poses a danger and warrants investigation by Family and Protective Services.

Given the multiple attacks on transgender people in state legislatures, school boards, and in public places across the country, I felt strongly that the Revealer’s 2022 special issue should address these concerted assaults and illuminate more robust stories about transgender Americans that rarely get media attention. I am, therefore, enormously pleased to share with you the Revealer’s special issue on trans lives and religion.

The special issue breaks down binaries – not only of gender, but also of religion. Too often the stories people read about religion and transgender Americans involve religious oppression. Those are important stories, to be sure, that raise awareness of the traumas transgender individuals endure at the hands of religious people, and that spotlight religious institutions’ influence on anti-trans legislation. But those are not the only stories about trans people and religion. Transgender and nonbinary individuals have been forging new paths within religious communities and transforming religious traditions in the process. These, too, are narratives the world needs to know.

Our special issue on trans lives and religion opens with stories of trans people reclaiming their religious traditions and creating spaces specifically for trans and nonbinary individuals. The issue begins with Katrina Thompson’s “Breaking Down Gender Binaries, Building Muslim Community,” where she profiles transgender and nonbinary Muslims who have built trans and queer-inclusive Muslim spaces in the United States and Canada. Next, in “Many Paths to Freedom: Trans Buddhism in the United States,” Ray Buckner explores how transgender Buddhist teachers are transforming Buddhist practices by taking trans people’s existence as their starting point for new insights on Buddhist teachings. Then, in “Virtual Communities are Critical Lifelines for Transgender Sikhs,” Harmeet Kamboj investigates how trans and nonbinary Sikhs have used social media to form communities that offer important connections and opportunities to reassess Sikh teachings about gender.

The next two articles in our special issue toggle between the present and the past to show how people have lived outside of the gender binary for centuries. In “Two-Spirit Indigenous Peoples Building on Legacies of Gender Variance,” Abel Gomez writes about Two-Spirit Native Americans and First Nations peoples and how, prior to European colonialism, many indigenous nations revered those who were neither male nor female. Then, in “Turning to the Talmud to Find Gender Diversity that Speaks to Today,” Max Strassfeld shares how the rabbis of the Talmud, writing during the first six centuries of the common era, identified eight gender categories and codified those gender possibilities within Jewish law.

Our final two articles focus on today’s anti-trans politics. In “Beloved Transgender Children and Holy Resistance,” Justin Sabia-Tanis shares what Christians and other religious people should do to support transgender equality. Then, in “For We Were Strangers: Trans Refugees and Moral Panics” Gillian Frank considers how legislation that targets transgender teens mirrors some earlier anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation, in turn offering a roadmap on how to respond to this wave of anti-trans bills.

The issue also features the newest episode of the Revealer podcast: “Gender Diversity in Islam and Judaism.” Katrina Thompson joins us to discuss how transgender and nonbinary Muslims are creating supportive spaces for trans and queer Muslims. And Max Strassfeld joins us to chat about the rabbis’ eight gender categories in the Talmud and what their awareness of bodily gendered diversity can tell us about transgender politics today. You can listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

As the articles and podcast episode in this issue demonstrate, transgender individuals are refusing to let anti-trans bigots monopolize their religious traditions. Instead, they are claiming space that is more inclusive for everyone. I hope the articles in this issue find their way to many different communities, including transgender people who are curious about religious possibilities, educators who want their students to know more about trans people and their experiences, religious leaders who want their communities to welcome trans and nonbinary individuals, and everyone who, during this time of anti-trans hostility and legislation, needs more stories about transgender people who are thriving and transforming and our world for the better.

Brett Krutzsch, Ph.D.

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