Transgender Spirituality and Activism

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

by Vanessa Sheridan

It doesn?t take a rocket scientist to
see that many obstacles confront trans people as we work toward achieving greater acceptance, respect, and legitimate civil and human rights within
society. For example, it?s a fact that along with gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons, the spiritual lives and concerns of the transgendered have traditionally been relegated to the back burner or, even worse, to the trash heap by most mainstream religious denominations. It?s sad to be marginalized by society, but it?s even more troubling when it occurs
within the paradigm of religion, an institution that is supposedly built around the ideas of love and acceptance.
Various conservative factions operating within organized religion have continually and unfairly rejected those of
us with ?different? gender and sexual
orientations, behaviors, and appearances. That rejection has historically been based upon misunderstanding, fear of the unknown, faulty and/or prejudicial
interpretations of scripture, misguided social mores, and inaccurate cultural
perceptions/expectations of gender and sexuality.
The radical religious right continues to work vigorously and loudly to deny religious, political, civil, and human rights to GLBT folks through various ongoing and highly insidious campaigns of public misinformation, myths, and lies. We are perceived as ?other,? and are therefore easily categorized as bad, sinful, evil, sick, or perverted. ?The intimidating power of prejudice demands silence and invisibility, the hallmarks of our oppression as transgender people.? Stirring up popular opinion against us has unfortunately proven to be a highly effective maneuver, one calculated to increase
animosity, prejudice, and persecution toward anyone who doesn?t fit the radical right?s narrow definition of acceptability. (The parallels to Hitler?s successful propaganda campaigns against Jews, Gypsies, gays, and other ?non-Aryan? or ?sub-human? minorities are striking and extremely relevant.)


Addressing these gravely profound injustices from a spiritual perspective
is absolutely necessary for all people who care about justice. It?s necessary because any movement toward personal freedom and autonomy, human and civil rights, and legitimate legal standing can?t be truly effective unless it?s firmly grounded
in spirituality. (I?m not talking about
religion here, per se?religion is merely
a human invention. I?m talking about spirituality, a recognition of ourselves as spiritual beings who have been lovingly and wonderfully created as such, and who are capable of transcendent thought, word, and action.) Can you imagine Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela without a deep spiritual foundation from which they could draw strength, wisdom, conviction, motivation, direction, and guidance? Surely they wouldn?t have gotten very far if they had ignored or trivialized the spiritual component of their efforts.

Of course, some of us simply don?t understand or appreciate the reasons
for becoming involved in politics or social activism. Such folks consider activism to be a nuisance, confusing, overwhelming, beyond their capacity, too time-consuming, or just too much trouble. It?s been my observation that until one?s life is directly affected by some particular outside force such as oppression in various forms, a person has relatively little motivation to become socially or politically involved. Trans people have a long, proud legacy of social and political activism?read Leslie Feinberg?s Transgender Warriors if you doubt that
in the slightest. We can draw upon a remarkable history of incredible courage in the face of systemic oppression.

But Why Me?

?But,? you may be asking, ?why should I become politically or socially active? I?m no one special?what could I possibly have to offer, and why should I get involved?? Here are just a few reasons:

- Because of Brandon Teena, who
was shot to death in a farmhouse
in Nebraska.

- Because of Tyra Hunter, the pre-operative transsexual woman who was mocked, laughed at, and denied emergency medical treatment just before her death on a Washington D.C. sidewalk because she still had
a penis.
- Because of Dana Rivers, the transsexual teacher who was dismissed from her job simply because of
who she is.

- Because in forty-eight states our people can be victims of housing, medical, and employment discrimination, and there are no laws on the books to protect their civil rights.
- Because the unfair, rigid gender expectations of an ignorant culture are causing families to splinter, parents to disown their children, and loving relationships to end.
- Because the climate of intolerance and hatred fostered by the radical religious right has helped to bring about tragically high rates of
depression, anxiety disorders,
familial alienation, chemical abuse, depression, and suicide among GLBT people.
- Because hate-motivated violence, state-sanctioned rejection, rigid notions of gender identity and
gender expression, and the abusive withholding of information from children and youth that they need
to understand themselves is the norm rather than the exception in our culture.
- Because many of our beautiful transgendered young people are convinced they?ll never be loved
or accepted, and because suicide is the leading cause of death among those young people.
- Because if we don?t stand up, speak out, and work for justice, the next one to feel the wrath and the power of a bigoted right-wing ideology could very easily be you.

In Stand and Be Counted, a book by David Crosby and David Bender, Crosby relates a story told to him by his friend and fellow activist, Harry Belafonte. This is an account of a single event during the civil rights movement of the sixties, and it eloquently illustrates the power of ordinary people coming together in unity to work for a just cause. I?m deeply moved by this story and I want to quote it here:
We did a concert with Dr. (Martin Luther) King at the University of Maryland in their big field house and thousands of people showed up. Dr. King was delivering his speech and there was a redneck sheriff who was part of the state police force there. And when I walked in to the holding area for the artists, I saw him watching us with a scathing look on his face. I saw how unyielding he was. And then at the end of the event, after Dr. King?s speech and Mahalia Jackson?s magnificent singing, I went back to the holding pen and there was that same sheriff. And he stood, and tears came into his eyes and he started to make a remark and couldn?t. He just turned and walked away. The next morning, as we were leaving to go on to our next stop, the attendant at the desk gave me an envelope. And in this envelope, which felt very heavy, there was a note and with the note were six bullets. That same trooper?I still have the letter?wrote this: ?I give you the bullets from my weapon because I know they will never be used. I have found a force far greater than any I have ever imagined. What you all did with song and what Dr. King did with words showed me that the gun is not the only way and I will resign from such a role and find something to do with my life that will make a difference.? And it showed the wisdom of what Dr. King had always said, ?Judge not your enemy even though he may do deeds of evil, for somewhere in him there may be something redemptive. It is up to you to find that redemptive place and bring him to your cause.?

?I have found a force far greater than any I have ever imagined...??just reading that statement gives me gooseflesh. You know very well what force that sheriff was describing: it is the awesome power of love doing justice. That force is stronger than bullets, stronger than the all the money and the power of the radical religious right, stronger than bigotry, stronger than prejudice, stronger than hatred, stronger than the lies of our enemies, and it is what will ultimately allow trans people to win the struggle for civil and human rights that should be ours in the first place.

A long-time feminist axiom says,
?The personal is political.? This means that anything that affects you personally is going to have political overtones and ramifications of some kind. If you?re transgendered, or if you love or care about someone who is transgendered, then you?d better become active and informed or you?re in danger of being swept away by the increasingly fervent tide of right-wing religious fanaticism.
I don?t mean to be an alarmist (I hate it when people run around trying to be Chicken Little) but, as the saying goes, ?The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.? One thing?s for certain: no one ever achieved any rights by standing around and waiting for them to be delivered. Don?t fool yourself?our socio-cultural institutions are never going to give us
our rights unless we work for them
and demand them. If we sit back and
do nothing then that?s exactly what we?ll get: nothing.

Doing Justice

If the transgender community is ever going to achieve the civil/human rights and the justice we deserve, we must understand that we will only do so by operating continuously from a platform of strong spiritual practice and belief. Please hear this clearly: I?m not at all
suggesting that everyone must become
a Christian or adopt any specific spiritual belief system. (I?ll leave that to the members of the radical religious right, a relatively small but spiritually arrogant and highly vocal faction who successfully have co-opted the name Christian for their own bigoted and exclusive ends.)

However, our transgender spirituality, in whatever positive form we choose, must always be at the core of any social and legal efforts we make on our own behalf. If we don?t do that we risk losing the moral center, the very soul, of our movement?and any movement without a soul or a moral center is ultimately doomed to failure because its motivations are flawed. It will rot from within.
The African-American civil rights effort achieved its successes in the sixties because it was firmly entrenched in what was right and good. Its participants were willing to accept the consequences of their actions because they knew their cause was just. Those were some incredibly brave but very frightened people; they stood up to their persecutors and still took action because they knew and believed it was right. (My definition of real courage is doing what is right even when you?re scared to death. Just ask any trans person who comes out for the first time?very few non-GLBT folks can understand or comprehend the awesome bravery that such a step requires.)

The civil rights movement leaned heavily upon the spiritual roots of the Black church, Black theology, the ideology of nonviolence, and the teachings of Jesus, such as ?Love your enemies,? ?Do good to those who despitefully use you,? and ?If someone smites you on one cheek, turn to him your other also.? (Of course, Jesus never really gave us instructions on what to do after we run out of cheeks to be smitten. I guess that?s still up to us.) We must learn to adopt similar tactics of love and nonviolence if we
are to be successful in achieving our human/civil rights. (Check out the Rev. Mel White?s SoulForce website for more information.)

In the Name of Love

As much as some might prefer it, we simply can?t wait or depend upon our religious institutions to do much for us. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
?In spite of the noble affirmations of Christianity, the church has often lagged behind in its concern for social justice and too often has been content to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. It has often been so absorbed in a future good ?over yonder? that it
forgot the present evils ?down here.??

Jesus never uttered a word about transgenderism or homosexuality in
the scriptures, but He always encouraged others to continue working and struggling for what was right, just, and good. His teachings were about using the ultimate power of love to overcome hatred, and that?s exactly what transgendered people need to do if we are to success-fully rise above the prejudice, bigotry, and lies of the forces arrayed against us. We will accomplish that goal only by meeting our enemies with love, with a concern for our shared human worth, and with a moral force so powerful that it will eventually force the purveyors of hate to give up and blow away. Remember, nothing?NOTHING?can withstand the power of consistent, ongoing love.

It?s easy to hate our enemies. Any
fool can do that?the radical religious right does it to us all the time. Dr. King?s message reminds us that it takes great strength of character to oppose hatred through loving, peaceful action that leads to justice for all people. It?s difficult, but it is the right and only way to achieve
our objectives.

We must remember, too, that violence is never the answer. Given enough time, justice in the name of love will always overcome the purveyors of violence and hatred. Crosby and Bender write, ?Almost nobody believed that Martin Luther King could effect significant change on civil rights in this country, especially without using violence as part of his strategy.

And nobody ever believed that a little man named Gandhi wrapped in a bedsheet would be able to stop the entire British empire in India. Stop it in its tracks, cold.? Yet that?s exactly what
happened because of the power of love doing justice?and that?s what can
happen for GLBT people, too, if we?re strong in our resolve to stand firm and
be counted, to stand up for what?s right, and to do justice in the name of love.

The Power of Community

We must do this work and embrace this struggle not as individuals but as a community, striving to form strong, effective coalitions with other groups and individuals who care passionately about justice and about doing what is good. Transgendered people have much more in common with other oppressed groups than we don?t: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, people of color, women, the mentally and physically challenged, the poor, the aged, all struggle with issues of marginalization and oppression in various forms. We need to emphasize our similarities even as we celebrate our differences, and we must certainly come together in unity over issues that threaten the peace, freedom, and security of any person or group of good will.

A sense of community is crucial in this struggle, because isolation kills. ?Divide and conquer? is an age-old
strategy that the radical religious right would love to use against us, and we must not allow such tactics to keep
us from forming and maintaining supportive community. None of us can do this by ourselves?we need and have to learn to depend upon each other. Remember, Ben Franklin said, ?We
must all hang together or we?ll all hang separately.? Nothing would please the radical religious right more than to see GLBT people completely eliminated from society, so we are challenged to employ the tactics of love, nonviolence, inclusive community, coalition, awareness, and intelligence as we struggle against this threat to our freedoms.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young German Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis just before the
end of World War II. He was a perceived threat to the tyranny of Nazism, just as GLBT people are currently perceived as a threat to the social order by the rightist socio-religious powers-that-be. (We?re dangerous all right, but only insofar as we threaten their theocratic agenda of exclusivity and enforced conformity of thought, behavior, and appearance.) Before his death, Bonhoeffer spoke these words to his students in the underground resistance seminary: ?Evil demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a
person is, the more destructive will be
the power of evil over him, the more
disastrous his isolation... Evil shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of
a pious community.? Many of our sisters and brothers have learned this, much to their dismay.
The numbers of GLBT persons who are disenchanted and disgusted with
their shabby treatment and oppression
at the hands of religion and social ultra-conservatism are increasing rapidly. We need to pull together, not pull apart.

And So the Struggle Continues...

In summation, here are some points to remember:

- The radical socio-religious right actively hates GLBT people. It is working overtime to discriminate against and even eliminate us if
possible. (For instance, a little- known but highly influential radical right-wing religious group, the Reconstructionists, led by R. J. Rushdoony, calls for conveniently selective interpretation of various biblical passages, including the death penalty for GLBT persons.) You owe it to yourself and your community to find out about threats such as this. Don?t be unaware of these
dangerous and deadly ideologies: check up on them for yourself.
- Political and social activism is always the true calling of people who love justice. Do what you can, where you can, when you can. Every action done for justice, no matter how small, matters significantly.
n Any successful movement toward liberation absolutely must seek and maintain a strong spiritual essence
at its core.
- Love is a moral force that can
eventually overcome anything,
even religious or social persecution. We must be steadfast, remaining non-violent while always retaining our commitment to telling the truth about our lives and doing acts of
justice in the name of love.
- We owe it to ourselves and to our transgendered sisters and brothers
to form an inclusive, embracing, cohesive, justice-loving community, one that acts in cooperation with others as we struggle toward the goal of achieving religious, political, legal, human and civil rights for all people everywhere.
- We shouldn?t be naive about this: things won?t change overnight, so
we have to commit ourselves to hanging in there and staying for
the long haul. We have to be unflaggingly persistent, or our efforts will be in vain; but, if we commit to working unceasingly for justice on behalf of all, we will win. We will win not because we are stronger or richer or have more clout, but because we only want our inalienable human (and not special) rights. Tt

Vanessa Sheridan is a transgendered author,
speaker, educator, seminary student, filmmaker,
musician, composer, and concerned spiritual activist. She may be contacted at or at P.O. Box 11771, St. Paul, Minnesota 55111-0771.