There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.
Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.
Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.
Take it from me: it’s existential.
Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.
Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us.
We’d also each overcome considerable trauma, hardship, exclusion, bigotry, and even violence along that path. We were hardly “done”; society often isn’t kind to transgender persons even long after they have settled into their authentic identity. We still get hate mail. We don’t get hired. Many laws discriminate against us. We’re excluded from public toilets. But there we were, in Baltimore, and we each felt a call to support our communities – transgender and gender non-conforming people – at different stages of their life journeys, through widely differing experiences of trauma, dysfunction, and violence. The stories we shared described what a vulnerable yet resilient community we are. A precious community of human beings.
For me, the image is stark. Our respective journeys seem to wind along a steep and perilous cliff edge, with society blocking our attempts to move away from that edge and onto safer ground. Some of us don’t make it; we each have memories of persons in our community who went over that cliff edge. Most of us become really good at “balancing”, and we find a path along that edge that is just wide enough. Over the past eight years most of us have found that path to be getting gradually wider and much safer; with great relief we’ve moved away from that mortal edge. We’ve found space, and rest, and welcome. In many places we’ve blended into the larger society, and many of us have been accepted to the point where we can just get on with our lives (which, after all, isn’t asking that much from society). Some of us have even started to feel a little hopeful – while never forgetting how vulnerable our existence remains as transgender persons.
For us, everything changed on November 8th. And as people of faith, to whom others turn to for comfort, strength, support, and guidance, we are struggling. Yesterday was not an easy day.
One of the leading and most articulate voices among transgender activists, Jennifer Boylan, summarized our predicament well in her New York Times op-ed of December 2nd. People around the country – including many Democrats – are now blaming Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss on the Party’s attention on “boutique” issues such as transgender rights. We’re at risk of being thrown under the bus, as the false dichotomy emerges that America either needs jobs for working class folk, or freedom for transgender persons to use a toilet. Under such a dichotomy, we all know that cisgender political decision-makers will be sorely tempted to sacrifice the human dignity claims of the tiny transgender minority. We know what society and politics can do to us.
Transgender rights – and people – have been thrown under the bus before by strong liberal voices – even by strong, liberal, gay voices. Openly gay former Congressman Barney Frank brazenly traded us away in 2007 when he sought passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) legislation. Congressman Frank made a political determination that incorporating gender identity issues was a bridge too far, and he therefore removed coverage of gender identity from the draft bill. His efforts at exclusionary revision still failed to achieve passage of that revised bill – but as recently as late 2014 he still stood by his 2007 decision. We’re expendable…it’s a political decision, after all.
Except for us. For us, it’s existential. We’re on that cliff edge, the path is suddenly getting much narrower. It’s a long way down.
We have a pretty good idea that the incoming Trump Administration will barely give our dignity claims a second thought. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has an appalling record on LGBTQ issues, and with appointees such as Steven Bannon and Jeff Sessions our prospects are certainly bleak. For those in our community who are the most vulnerable of all – transgender youth – the principled protections unflinchingly offered by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Obama Administration are about to be shredded into oblivion. As transgender persons, we’ll need solidarity and strong allies now more than ever. We’re determined to get through this, but we have no illusions that this will be easy. We’re being pushed – hard – right back to that edge.
For faith leaders, the irony of all of this was not lost on us yesterday. After all, much of the groundswell of anti-transgender political sentiments that were made manifest in votes cast for Donald Trump and Mike Pence were self-righteously justified by homophobic and transphobic assertions of religious faith. There are many religious congregations that hold us in contempt, or worse. As transgender persons of faith we’re feeling hugely outnumbered by those whose faith convictions exclude or revile us.
The United States is a secular republic, so what about the Constitution? The Founding Fathers were not exactly on top of transgender issues, and in American democracy in the age of Trump and Pence, the largely vague or loosely interpreted Constitutional protections on our dignity offer only a weak shield. If the Supreme Court goes the way it is likely to go under Trump appointees, even that weak shield may soon be gone.
In all of this, it doesn’t seem to help to remind people that the Christian faith is supposed to be based on someone who was the ultimate example of love and inclusion. Most faith traditions, at their core, have space for us if our gender identity claims were only understood for what they are: existential claims of authenticity. We just want – need – to be ourselves.
Don’t forget – this isn’t only about faith and inclusion here in America. Much of the world – including not only political leaders but also leaders in religion and society at large in many countries – have watched the Obama Administration stand up strongly for the human dignity and universal rights of LGBTQ Americans and even foreigners. Our diplomatic and foreign assistance institutions have been unambiguous in the message that we – transgender and gender non-conforming persons of all nationalities – are still human beings. We still deserve to have our dignity and human rights respected.
As people of faith, we go much further. We – transgender and gender non-conforming persons – have a much more audacious claim. We deserve to be loved.