God is transgender. The bible says so in the first 27 verses.
Genesis 1:27 “So God created human beings in God’s own image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.”
If man was created in the image of God, and woman was created in the image of the same God – God must be transgender, right? This comparison might be silly to some and outright offensive to others, but my vocation of faith + justice + HIV/AIDS calls for me to draw these types of parallels to contextualize 2000 year old sacred text for a 2015 reality. And reality is, trans-lives matter because they too are created in God’s image – perhaps the most accurate re-imagination of a creator that produces both man and woman.
This line of thinking is a far cry from where I began on the subject; I have HIV/AIDS to thank for that. This virus has taught me many lessons, and as a matter of faith it’s taught me the theology of inclusion. After all, HIV/AIDS overwhelmingly impacts “the least of these”: the poor, substance abusers, sex workers, same gender loving men, women, people of color, and transgender people; everyone the living word – Jesus Christ – demands that we love, care for, extend grace to, and include. Yet many of them continue to be left behind in the public discourse of “lives that matter,” especially transgender people.
It has been said that it’s difficult to marginalize someone whose name you know; who’s story you know; who’s struggle you know. It’s hard to hate someone who you are in relationship with. I believe this to be true not just in interacting with key populations for HIV infection, including transgenders people, but true in reconciling race relations in this country starting with state sanctioned violence against brown and black men and women.
The foundation for the civil unrest we saw and continue to see in Ferguson, is that a majority white police department is policing a majority black community. The history of housing segregation in this country proves that people of likeness in race and class often live in community together either by choice or systemic force. Therefore, in places like Ferguson and others in the United States, there are no organic relationships between law enforcement officers and citizens who only interact in moments of conflict and distress.
The Detroit Police Department’s latest spin on “Midnight Basketball” is their attempt to reconcile this disparity in a city where violence is high in African American communities and diversity is low in positions of authority; instead of opening gyms for youth to engage in safe activity during “high crime hours” with one another, Detroit police officers play basketball with the youth, whereas the traditional model for Midnight Basketball has been to facilitate healthy competition between the youth themselves, with at least 2 law enforcement officers present for security. This places urban adversaries in community with one another, changing the dynamic of the relationship, where their first potential encounter isn’t a crime scene. You are much less likely to fear for your life or shoot dead someone whose name you know. We have relationships to thank for that. Relationships make black lives matter.
Relationships make trans-lives matter.
Before the age of 25, I’d never been in relationship with a transgender person. I could neither call one by name nor did I have a need or desire to. In fact I was still trying to figure out where I stood on homosexuality, beyond my basic indifference rooted in “it doesn’t affect my life at all so what do I care?” “Transsexuals” (what I would have referred to transgender people before I had better language in my inclusion tool box.) weren’t even on my radar.
Then I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina where I would volunteer with the Fundacion Huesped – Argentina’s principal AIDS foundation – clinically and socially accompanying people hospitalized with HIV and AIDS. Suddenly I was thrust into a society where transgender people were everywhere in plain sight. They lived in the same downtown apartment complex I lived in. They walked the downtown streets at night providing sexual service for survival. They were my patients. But they were also my colleagues. The Fundacion Huesped welcomed the volunteer services of trans-persons, as many of the people living with HIV were trans-women.
I remember the first time I met “Mona.” Analyzing her as she approached me, as if she were one of my research experiments, I hadn’t yet decided how I would greet her, because I hadn’t yet decided if she was in fact a “her”. Mind you, in Argentina a proper informal greeting is to kiss one another, cheek-to-cheek, regardless of gender – so it didn’t really matter what her gender was for the sake of greetings. I just hadn’t decided if I was comfortable getting cheeky with a “ladyboy”. So in all of my uncertainty and personal insecurity I extended my lanky arm for a handshake. Mona bypassed my hand to come in for the real thing and there was nothing I could do about it. And that was the beginning of an unlikely relationship that led to awareness, empathy, and compassion on my part. Suddenly trans-lives mattered to me.
I learned so much from Mona over the course of my 10 months with the foundation. She talked openly about life as a trans-woman in Latin America. She lamented over the friends she’d lost along the way, mostly from HIV/AIDS but some from violence rooted in transphobia. She even talked about being raised Roman Catholic, as majority in Latin America were – but no longer identifying with a faith that condemned her own identity. Yet by my observation, in 2009 Argentina was still more inclusive of same-gender loving and transgender people in civil society than the United States, accomplishing in 2010 what it would take the U.S. five more years to do – legalizing same-gender marriage. Nevertheless, the Church remained the legislation’s biggest opponent.
Jonathan Blitzer writes in the New Yorker:
“Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, after a hard-fought campaign in which President Cristina Kirchner clashed openly with the Church. “There was euphoria over the gay-marriage law,” Lohana Berkins, the founder of the Association for Transvestite and Transexual Identity, and one of the architects of the law, told me; the victory created momentum for a gender-identity law, mostly by weakening the Church’s hold over social issues. “It was a manner of breaking the abusive power of the Catholic Church and reactive elements of society, and this changed the sensibility of the country,” Berkins said. “It wasn’t just some legal advance—it put into question big issues.””
The article entitled, “Latin America’s Transgender-Rights Leaders” goes on to explain how the passing of same-gender marriage legislation in Argentina paved the way for a gender identity law to pass with much less resistance. The law permits citizens to change their gender on identity documents without first undergoing gender-reassignment surgery or obtaining permission from a medical professional – conditions which remain requirements for the same right in most other places in the world. It’s believed that both the church and conservatives had exhausted so much of their political capital denying same-gender marriage that they acquiesced to a gender identity law that only was applicable to a very small sect of the population and didn’t compromise “traditional family values” or involve abortion – two issues the church has had a firm grasp on. Therefore, today in Argentina the state will pay for your gender-reassignment surgery, but abortions are still illegal.
This is a huge legislative victory for Mona and other trans-persons in Argentina and the world, as many other countries are modeling the Argentinian process of achieving state sanctioned inclusion. However there remains the desire for trans-people of God to be accepted by the faiths they believe in that don’t believe in them. Even Pope Francis, Argentina native and perhaps the most liberal Pontiff ever on traditionally controversial issues, likens transgender people to nuclear weapons, saying both do not “recognize the order of creation” in the book entitled, “The Economy Kills”.
“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” the pope says. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation. With this attitude, man commits a new sin against God the Creator.” –Pope Francis
But what if God is transgender? Creator of both man and woman in God’s own image – would tran-lives matter then? My elders always taught me to be kind, and gracious, and welcoming to everyone I encounter, especially those who society has pushed to the margins, because one of them just might be God. God incarnate says in the gospel of Matthew that, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Have we forsaken our Lord by failing to greet transgender people with kindness, grace, and welcome? What if we could identify the Holy Spirit within our two-spirit trans brothers and sisters? What happens when we embrace trans-stories as our stories enveloped by God’s story?
I believe the outcome would be trans-formative. HIV rates among trans-women of nearly 30% would decrease and those living with the disease would no longer have to decide between antiretroviral therapy that keeps them alive versus hormone therapy necessary to appear more acceptable to society in the body they identify with, also keeping them alive – safe from the harm of transphobic violence. Homicides of transgender people in 2015 would not have already exceeded the number of homicides in all of 2014 with 4 months still to go in the year.
When trans-stories intersect with our stories and God’s story then we begin to rightfully recognize the intersectionality of racism, classism, and sexism with the transgender reality. Suddenly #blacklivesmatter is not just about police brutality against black and brown bodies but also the assault of HIV and AIDS on black trans-women who have the highest percentage of new HIV positive test results in the United States. Or the fact that 13 of the 19 transgender people killed in 2015 were black, prompting the hashtag #blacktranslivesmatter; if we include all people of color, the total increases to 17 of the 19 homicides.
Suddenly #sayhername is not just about gendered violence against women, particularly women of color, but the transgendered violence against trans-women, particularly women of color; of the 19 transgender people killed in 2015 all were trans-women.
Suddenly the feminist, womanist, mujerista movement doesn’t just extend to women and allies, but to trans-women who desperately need allies for more inclusive gender identity laws; and suddenly the number of transgender deaths would increase to include the countless trans-women who are killed and misgendered by authorities who use their male birth names instead of the names they truly identify with – further minimizing the reality of transphobic violence.
While the intersection of the transgender experience and pop culture has helped to bring trans-lives into the living rooms of households locally and abroad, the Caitlyn Jenners and LaVerne Coxs of the world enjoy a certain social status afforded to them by their celebrity; a privilege that most transgender people do not enjoy. Therefore we must not mistake the success of a varied few as the victory in the #translivesmatter movement.
It’s good that pop culture has begun to recognize trans-lives, but it’s not good enough. It’s better when government acknowledges that trans-lives matter; Hubert H. Humphrey, the 38th Vice-president of the United States once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. It’s better when government develops a conscience and passes inclusive legislation for excluded communities as Argentina has done. But it’s best when our moral authority, the church, identifies the numerous trans-lives living in the shadows of society as God-filled lives that matter. Then and only then will trans-lives be lives realized.
So ask yourself, what if God is transgender?