Religion, spirituality, and transsexuality

This page discusses the most personal of decisions and deeply-held beliefs. I don't claim to be all-encompassing here, but it's a pretty good starting point for those tackling this difficult issue. While I have tried to be respectful, there's a good chance I have offended someone with this article. Please let me know so I can remedy that if possible.


Introduction

Religious faith has inspired some of the greatest accomplishments in human history. Conversely, it has also been misused to perpetrate some of the most horrific acts in human history.

In the same way, a belief system can be a very important source of strength, hope, and fellowship for some transsexuals. It has also caused a great deal of misery for others.

Some of us were raised in faiths that condemned our actions as immoral or wrong. Like the similar pressure we receive from society, it often makes us try to be someone we aren't. The problem with religious pressure is that the stakes are higher. Society's disapproval is nothing compared to jeopardizing one's soul, some feel. I believe transition is about living more truthfully, but many of us set up a massive deception to hide our feelings from others. Sometimes, we even deceive ourselves. When this deception is caused by religious pressure, it can create an emotionally wrenching and devastating dilemma when one realizes she has to transition.

One of the things you'll need to work on early in transition is reconciling your transsexual feelings with your beliefs. It's a part of self-acceptance. Occasionally, this is not possible, but if it's important to you, there are ways to find acceptance within most belief systems, and there are certainly transsexuals who share your faith who can lend you guidance and support.

Much of this writing centers on Christianity, since I am well-versed in the Bible and had a Christian upbringing. I also assume most readers have had some sort of Christian background. I have links covering other religions, although that information is not as complete as I wish.


Judaeo-Christianity and transsexuality

Leslie Feinberg, in the must-read Transgender Warriors, makes a very important point that the Hebrews are not to blame for the origins of trans oppression. Leslie points out correctly that the real problem was the patriarchal class division that occurs when any culture begins to produce enough surplus to accumulate wealth. However, as with most religions, the Hebrews sought to codify and enforce laws that maintained the priestly class as designated keepers of much of the surplus. Rules also sought to maintain the status of the wealthy. This meant vilifying other belief systems that posed a threat to the Hebrew status quo. This is certainly widespread, but the Hebrews were among the first to put it in writing that's survived.

One cannot deny that the rules written in Hebrew Scriptures have been used ever since to justify hatred of transgender people. Hebrew thought permeated Christian thought, which permeated Western thought. The Bible is probably the most influential literary work ever written. As with the passages below, it's important to put Hebrew anti-trans motivations in context, but it's clear that the Bible has been misused as one of the most damaging weapons against the transgender.

Know thine enemy

Probably the most intolerant religious group regarding transsexuality in America is fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. They are certainly the largest. Many of the more fundamentalist sects believe in their literal interpretation of the Bible. They feel the Bible's eternal truths, as they interpret them, back them up in saying transsexuals are an abomination in God's eyes.

Religious groups like Americans for Truth About Homosexuality make it their full-time mission to oppose transsexual activism and other things they see as morally corrupt. These people are heavily funded, large in number, and politically connected. I believe these groups are the gravest direct threat to transgender rights we face.

However, it doesn't take much looking to see that their condemnations of transsexuals do not follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. I've included examples that expose their hypocrisy and hatred below.


Passages from Scripture

Many Jews and Christians look to the Torah and/or Bible for guidance. Keep in mind that these Scriptures were compiled over almost 2,000 years. Think of how much different the world is since the time of Christ, and you'll get an idea of the kind of time the Bible spans. Because of the radical differences in their dates of origins and authorial intent, there are many places where the Bible contradicts itself. See the section below on eunuchs for a good example.

Unfortunately, this often makes it possible for both sides to find passages that echo their sentiments. As Shakespeare writes in Merchant of Venice, "The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." Scripture passages are in red, important comments are in purple.

The best thing to try to do when someone quotes a Bible passage out of context is to try to put it back, both in that chapter's context, and in historical context. Allow me an example:

Deuteronomy 22:5

I call this the cross-dressing rule, though it could be broadly interpreted to include transsexuals. They weren't throwing the term "transsexual" around four millennia ago.

  • A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.

Hebrew law was codified by priests who believed these laws were based on the received word of God, and that Hebrews were God's chosen people. This attitude is often a recipe for disaster-- any time someone thinks they have a divine right to do something, you probably won't be able to convince them otherwise without considerable effort.

Of Hebrew law, the Ten Commandments are best-known. However, Deuteronomic code discusses a vast number of rules and rituals to be followed.

Many of the Hebrew laws, including the cross-dressing rule, are about separation. When Hebrew marauders attacked and killed the agrarian inhabitants of Palestine and took their cities and virgins, they took great pains to make sure that their own culture and hierarchy was not polluted by the displaced inhabitants or their new forcibly converted wives.

The Hebrews were especially horrified by the polytheistic worship of the people they conquered, so their laws were especially strict regarding the LORD. For instance, the first four of the Ten Commandments:

  1. Worship no gods before me
  2. No graven images
  3. Don't take my name in vain
  4. Observe the Sabbath

Several Palestinian pagan sects involved worship where priests would crossdress in sex-changing rituals. Thus, for Hebrew priests-- cross-dressing idolatrous polytheists bad, monotheists good. And never the twain shall meet.

I believe that the current Western obsession with separation/distinction of sexes has its literary roots in ancient Hebrew law.

Mosaic law in context

Much of the Deuteronomic code is not followed these days, because many of the laws are ridiculous by current moral standards. Still, those with a political agenda, whether pro or con on an issue, often pick and choose passages that back up their claims, ignoring the fact that the passages appear amidst a lot of other stuff that seems ridiculous today.

Take a look at the miscellaneous rules which follow Deuteronomy 22:5--

  • A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.
  • Don't take a mother bird from her nest.
  • Put a rail around your roof so no one falls off.
  • Don't plant crops with vines.
  • Don't hitch oxen and donkeys together.
  • Don't wear cloth combined of wool and linen.
  • Sew tassels on four corners of clothes.
  • If a man marries a girl, but later doesn't want her and claims she wasn't a virgin, her parents are to bring blood stained wedding sheet to the leaders, who are to beat him and make him give 500 silver pieces to the father, and he can't divorce her. If the husband's claims are true, she's to be stoned to death at the entrance to her father's house.
  • Men who have sex with others' fiancees are to be killed along with the fiancee. However, if it happens in the country, you should just kill the man, since no one could have heard the woman cry out.
  • Raping single girls requires payment of 50 silver pieces to her father and marriage with no divorce.
  • No sex with any of father's wives.

Being forced to marry your rapist, polygamy, stoning people to death... not exactly civilized by modern standards. Just as strange today is sewing tassels on your clothes or putting a rail around your roof.

As I mentioned earlier, the Hebrews were deeply invested in distinction and separation. Their dietary laws are about categories, and most unclean animals do not fit into an acceptable category. For instance, Jews can't mix dairy and meat. Rules against pork are because pigs have cloven hooves but don't chew a cud, thus are not neatly categorized. Only water creatures with fins and scales may be eaten-- no shrimp or frogs, etc.

Biblical scholars have commented that the laws above about mixing crops, livestock and fabrics are manifestation of this fierce urge to maintain distinctions. Think of other common phrases from the Bible: separate the sheep from the goats, or the wheat from the chaff...

The Hebrews were heavily invested in maintaining a distinction between their beliefs and the beliefs of those they conquered. This meant in part a very distinct separation of sexes.

However, there are numerous passages about people who blur these distinctions: eunuchs.


Eunuchs

Eunuchs are people assigned males at birth who have later been castrated. Technically, transsexuals fit that narrow definition, although eunuchs generally lived as men after castration. This custom appeared throughout Asia and peaked during the Byzantine Empire. The practice was used for servants in royal households and to a lesser extent, in harems. Many ancient religious rituals involved genital modification, including the Hebrew practice of circumcision.

The first chapter of Daniel shows that he and the Chaldean king's chief eunuch were close. Some have gone as far as to say Daniel himself was a eunuch, but that's not clear. An even more tendentious stretch is that Daniel was gay. Another eunuch, Ebedmelech, saved Jeremiah after he'd been put in a well by his enemies (Jeremiah 38:7).

Eunuchs get a bad rap early on in Scripture, but in later Jewish and Christian writings, they are allowed to join those groups in worship.

Deuteronomy 23.1

Immediately following the above miscellaneous rules in Deuteronomy, there's specific mention of eunuchs.

  • He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.

Hmm. That doesn't sound good (the rule or the injury).

Also out of the club are pagan temple prostitutes and Israel's political enemies, among others. This chapter also tells how to deal with wet dreams and how to bury your excrement while camping. Again, put it back into context...

Remember, circumcision = genital modification

The rule probably applied to those who modified their genitals as part of pagan ritual. Like 22.5, it is about transgender practices by non-Hebrews. Of course, the Hebrew version of genital modification was OK, and some say this is because circumcision didn't usually interfere with reproduction. Anything that negates reproduction interferes with the system by which wealth is passed on-- a big no-no.

And let's not forget castrati

Further, remember that eunuchs known as castrati were highly respected singers in European cathedrals. Their full-throated soprano voices were considered an appropriate and inspirational form of praise to God.

However...

Isaiah 56:4-5

In contradiction to the rules against eunuchs in Deuteronomy stands this passage from Isaiah:

  • "For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off."

"Shall not be cut off??" Who says the Bible doesn't have much humor! That's a pretty bad pun! This passage is especially useful for transsexuals, since it appears in the Old Testament along with the Deuteronomy passage.

Acts 8:26-39

This is the story of the evangelist Philip (not the apostle), who meets a devout Ethiopian eunuch. Philip offers to interpret a passage the eunuch was reading at the time. The passage was Isaiah 53:7-8, often interpreted as a prophecy of Christ's coming. Philip takes this chance to tell the eunuch about Jesus Christ, and the eunuch asks to be baptized. This eunuch is traditionally held to be the person who brought Christianity to northern Africa.

The point of this is that even eunuchs can be baptized as Christians or join in God's worship, in contradiction with Deuteronomy 23:1 and in keeping with Isaiah 56:4-5. In fact, eunuchs have been doing the work of the church since the time of Christ.

Matthew 19:12

This passage has Jesus speaking directly about eunuchs:

  • For there are some eunuchs, who were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, who were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

Many interpretations of this passage have arisen. Some believe it is a discussion of voluntary celibacy, but the fact that Christ mentions people born that way indicates to me a birth condition. Some have also interpreted this to mean gays, which doesn't seem out of the question. However, I think the most literal interpretation would include intersexed (born that way) and transsexual persons (made that way). Regardless of interpretation, the main point is that anyone able to receive the Kingdom of Heaven may do so.

Mark 9:43-47

This passage has Jesus speaking directly about altering one's body:

  • If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.

Many interpretations of this passage have arisen as well. While it is rarely taken as a literal exhortation, it does seem to say that your bodily form does not matter, and that altering it will not exclude you from entering heaven.


Your body is a temple

I Corinthians 5:19

The "your body is God's temple" argument is used for everything from suicide to poor eating habits.

  • If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you yourselves are his temple.

For transsexuals, this argument often manifests itself as, "If God had wanted you to be a woman, he would have made you that way." This argument is easily countered by asking if this applies to any sort of medical intervention, from wearing corrective lenses, to taking aspirin, to other surgeries.


God and discrimination

1 Samuel 16:7

In this passage, the lowly shepherd David is anointed king of Israel. Samuel assumes the LORD will choose one of David's many handsome brothers, but the LORD says to Samuel:

  • ...I do not judge as man judges. Man looks at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.

Acts 10:34

This appears in the story of the first Gentile converted to Christianity.

  • Peter began to speak: "I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Whoever fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him...

The original context was race, but a broader interpretation seems valid.

Galatians 3:28

Another catch-all comeback! If someone starts spouting Scripture to justify hating transsexuals, lay this one on them:

  • ...there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

John 3:16

Of course, nothing beats a passage that's really familiar...

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosover believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Sounds like that covers pretty much any believer, huh? Thanks to that rainbow wig guy who popularized the verse, even if a lot of sports fans don't know what he was referring to.

If someone throws a Scripture passage at you, and you want my thoughts regarding a comeback, send me a note and I'll dissect the passage in question.


Progressive religious denominations

A lot of transsexual people have been able to find comfort and support within progressive ministries. Unitarian (uua.org), Episcopalian and Quaker churches seem to lead the way in respecting transsexual members. However, even larger mainstream Christian sects like Presbyterians and Methodists have been known to be OK. Many times it is on an individual basis, and there is certainly no doctrinal guarantee from these groups. The New Thought denominations are often progressive as well and include Unity (unity.org), Divine Science (tigerseyedowsing.com/ds), and United Centers for Spiritual Living (unitedcentersforspiritualliving.org)


Other religions and transsexualism

Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about transsexual issues as they pertain to other major religions. If you have something to add, I'd be happy to do so.

For information on paganism and transgender issues, check out Pollychrome's pantheon.

Another interesting site is Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater (gallae.com). The Gallae were transgender priestesses of the Mediterranean Goddess cults.

See also The Temple of Cybele.


Native American beliefs

Again, I recommend Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors for an excellent overview of transgenderism in Native American cultures, as well as transgender prevalence in world history.

In many of these cultures, those who dressed as the opposite sex were not only tolerated, but highly respected. In some, they were considered spiritual leaders.

One concern...

I have a very uneasy feeling whenever non-Native American people appropriate elements of these cultures as their own. This has become popular in a few different trends like the New Age and Men's Movements. Since our culture was responsible for the genocide of many Native American cultures, we must be very careful not to plunder their sacred history in a self-serving way.

I feel that picking and choosing pieces of a culture, and taking ideas and concepts we like out of context can be considered extremely disrespectful to that culture, as bad as picking through a sacred burial mound for things we like or want. It's one thing to proudly claim Native American transgenderism as part of our history (which I do), but to claim we ourselves have these spiritual powers without a full knowledge of those cultures could be construed as insensitive and arrogant.

If you feel that Native American beliefs best describe your own spirit, that's great! I would just caution anyone who feels this way to try to maintain a spirit of respect for these cultures.


A thought to ponder

Sometimes I see people state that transsexuals have a spiritual gift. Like all matters of faith, this can be really good and really bad. This belief can be empowering and validating, but I always have concerns when people make claims of spiritual superiority or privilege.

I follow no faith and do not consider myself to be either blessed or cursed with transsexuality. I do not believe in any higher power, and to be lumped in with transsexuals who do is inaccurate and stereotypical. I do not think I have two spirits, or one for that matter. I try to follow a moral code loosely based on my religious upbringing, and I understand and respect how important religion is for many people.

So, if you feel your transsexualism is a spiritual gift, I hope you'll consider saying "I feel I have a gift" rather than "Transsexuals feel we have a gift."


Thoughts from readers

As people send me interesting comments, I'll add them. Emphasis is mine.

Dawn writes:

The whole process of self discovery has led me to question my faith more than once. Why would God do this (Gender dysphoria) to anyone? Why God...? is of course the eternal question. The answer of faith is that God has done nothing "to" us only for us. Our roads and journeys are unique and we work out our lives or not depending upon our faith.

...Our salvation and the answers to our struggles for meaning lie not in the words of the past, but in the lives of the saints to be, in our tomorrows, our dreams and our reconciliation of dreams to life.

An agnostic reader writes:

If I were 'normal', I would not know love as I now do. I would not be who I am, or where I am. These are recurring things to keep in mind; each tiny step, each stage along the way, changes everything, and each can be tainted by ones' own thoughts of themselves, and the perception others have of them. As such, whether this is a gift from god, a challenge presented, or a mere flubbed up error with some DNA with no spiritual involvement whotsoever... it doesn't matter. I cherish it regardless. I have grown more due to this, and to be more accepting of myself for who I am, and have learned ways to change myself for when I am not appreciative of certain traits. Yes it's unnerving being expected to 'act' and 'think' a certain way which just doesn't quite... just doesn't fit right. But the benefits are many, despite the arduous road ahead in the eventual transition which must inevitably occur for myself.

I hope you will also send me your thoughts and feelings on this topic. You never know when something you express might inspire someone else!


Outstanding spiritual resources

I'd like to add a comment here: over the years I have had to remove several links from this section that were written by deeply conflicted people. Some later "detransitioned" or disavowed their past identity as transgender/transsexual. In fact, some of these deeply conflicted people later go on to work to rid their religion of choice of other transsexual/transgender members. I mention this as a warning-- some people are unable to reconcile their gender feelings with their religion, and end up choosing one or the other. In some cases, their religion is the winner, and the transgender women who have been brought into their confidence are the losers. Be careful, especially when dealing with people who seem especially preoccupied with religion. They may be working through far more serious issues than gender identity.

If you have found a link or a community of belief you'd like me to add, just send me a note!

transgender-focused resources

Emergence Ministries [archive] was dedicated to serving the spiritual and physical needs of the transgender community.

Jade Catherine Devlin (tgchristian.humanfish.net) maintains several Christian resources, including a transgender Christians email fellowship.

Becky Allison, M.D., has written extensively about her faith and transsexuality. At her site, I found a number of interesting pieces and links. Becky's seven years of contributions to the Grace & Lace Letter are very good. She has complied them

  • 1992-1994
    • Answered Prayers
    • One Day At A Time
    • Self Discovery
    • Strength Through Weakness
  • 1995-1998
    • Play It As It Lays
    • The Way We Weren't
    • Disclosure
    • Share It Or Bear It
    • Choices
    • I'm Not One Of Them
    • What have we to fear?

Also on Becky's site:

Lynn Montgomery wrote a nice piece on the Bible and Transsexuality which appeared in Insight.

Reverend Erin Swensen is a transsexual Presbyterian minister from Atlanta. This link contains the letter she wrote to successfully defend her continued ordination.

Lauren Rene Hotchkiss has a piece on crossdressing with some thoughts that pertain to transsexual issues (miracles-course.org).

Sequoia Blessed (sequoiablessed.info) has articles and video about the spiritual aspects of transition.

Grace & Lace Letter is an evangelical Christian publication for transgender persons. WARNING: Loud crappy music plays automatically. [via archive.org]

Mary Pearson has a Trans/Intersex Info page (ChristianGays.com).

Sue Long (members.tripod.com/~suelong) has a section on Judaism and being transsexual that includes a good essay by Beth Orens,

Leyla has put together a beautiful page for Muslim transsexuals. [via archive.org]

Be sure to check out Zoe's pages on Transsexualism and Eastern Christian Thought. (zoeshope.googlepages.com)

LGBT-focused sources

United Church of Christ (UCC) lists Open and Affirming (ONA) congregations: http://www.ucc.org/lgbt/

The Task Force (thetaskforce.org) has a useful section on faith and LGBT issues.

Whosoever (whosoever.org): An Online News Journal For Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and transgender Christians. The title is from John 3:16 (see above).

The Interfaith Working Group (iwgonline.org) maintains a excellent list of LGBT links.

Letter to Louise (godmademegay.com) by Rev. Bruce Lowe has been a comfort to many.

See the GLBT religion section of the Queer Resources Directory (qrd.org).

Paul Halsall (fordham.edu/halsall) has a page with good academic info on LGBT and Catholicisim (mostly gay).

The American Friends Service Committee (afsc.org/lgbt) is a Quaker organization listing LGBT resources.

Interweave Continental (interweavecontinental.org) is a group that consults with the UUA about Unitarian Universalism.

Christian Gays (christiangays.com) has a section on trans resources.