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Called Out and Unbound - A Sermon for All Saints Day

Austen HartkeComment

Many thanks to Augsburg University in Sioux Falls, SD for asking me to deliver this sermon in chapel on October 29th, 2018. Before the Gospel reading we heard a poem from October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, by Leslea Newman.

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Good morning, everyone.

Today’s readings feel especially heavy, don’t they? And in fact, this week has felt heavy. First we heard about the attempted bombings, and thankfully no one was hurt. But then we heard about how, when a white man in Kentucky was stopped from entering a historically Black church, he instead entered a nearby grocery store and shot two Black patrons. We’ve heard about a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs and opening fire on a synagogue in Pittsburgh killing eleven worshippers. And we’ve remembered the horror of Matthew Shepherd’s murder as he was finally laid to rest at the National Cathedral. The world has been too much to carry.

And today we hear the story of Lazarus’ death. Lazarus, who was one of Jesus’ best friends, but when Jesus is told earlier in chapter 11 that his friend is sick, he doesn’t go to see him. Instead, we’re told in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” So you can’t really blame Mary for what she says when Jesus finally shows up. She’s grieving, and you can hear the anger and the sorrow in her voice when she confronts the person who could have spared everyone all this suffering. Mary calls him out, in front of everyone, asking the question that we also ask in times like these. God, why did you let this happen?

In theology there’s a word for asking this kind of question. When we ask the question “How can a good God allow truly awful things to happen,” we’re practicing something called theodicy. This question has always perplexed people in monotheistic religions, because if you believe in one God, and if you believe everything in existence comes from that one God, and is ruled by that one God, then that God also has to have some responsibility for the way things are. Within Christianity we’ve come up with many different possible answers. For instance, some Christians believe that bad things happen because humans have free will, which means that we’re allowed to choose the terrible thing rather than the good thing, and in order to keep that free will God has to let us make our own mistakes. Some Christians believe that evil has to exist in the world as a sort of divine balancing act—like you have to have the Devil if you’re going to have God, or you have to have Hell if you’re going to have Heaven. Other Christians believe that God allows short term suffering because in the long term the end result will be good, and this idea is often tied to a belief that God will allow someone to suffer in order to get them to repent and act in a kinder or more virtuous way.

In modern Jewish traditions, there’s been a resistance to practicing theodicy at all. In the years following the Shoah, also known as the Holocaust, it became clear that it just wasn’t possible to explain away the unimaginable horrors that the Jewish people experienced at the hands of the Nazis. No justification could ever be good enough. No defense could ever make it make sense. But many Jewish scholars looked to scripture to help them understand how to go on, even without any satisfying answers. Theologians like David Blumenthal have suggested that we might take a cue from the story of Job, who was afflicted with all kinds of suffering for what seemed like no reason. In that story, Job is constantly in conversation with God, sometimes in a trusting way, but at other times in a sad or frustrated or hopeless way. Blumenthal and others argued that in the end, the reason for suffering isn’t as important as the continuing relationship between people and God, and that it’s okay if that relationship includes us being angry and sad and frustrated with God. Blumenthal calls it “a theology of protest.”

Because of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue this week, I was especially aware of the negative way Jewish people show up in our reading. In the book of John, particularly, Jewish people are blamed for just about everything that goes wrong for Jesus, and Christians have used these texts to bolster anti-Semitism. Martin Luther himself, who we remember on Reformation Day on November 1st, wrote some terrible anti-Semitic papers towards the end of his life which were used as part of Nazi propaganda during World War 2. As Christians, and as Lutherans, this is an awful part of our heritage that we don’t know how to deal with, but unless we grapple with it we allow that shadow to keep growing.

What I appreciate most about the Jewish way of approaching this question of evil is that it focuses on our relationship with God throughout the suffering we experience. Because when it comes right down to it, none of the two dozen theoretical reasons WHY mean very much in the moment when you’re experiencing sorrow. Words don’t matter in that moment. In that moment, we react like both Mary and Jesus. We yell, we cry, we crumple to the ground, we hold the people close to us. When Jesus sees Mary’s tears, we’re told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” which in the Greek is actually even more upsetting, because the words for being greatly disturbed are the same words people would use to describe a horse shuddering and rearing in fear, and the words for being deeply moved are used conjure up images of turbulent waters, of lighting storms and hurricane seas. This is how it felt to face the loss of the person they loved so much—this is how it feels to witness death.

But Jesus doesn’t get angry with Mary for asking the question, and Jesus doesn’t get mad at her for weeping. Throughout this storm of emotion, Jesus is there, experiencing it alongside the people suffering most. Jesus is crying too.

The true power of this companionship, of Jesus as Emmanuel, as God-With-Us, really hits me when I think about people like Matthew Shepherd. Like Matthew, Jesus experienced torture at the hands of the people who killed him. Like Jesus, Matthew was tied to a piece of wood and murdered. Because God knew that experience personally, God was with Matthew in every single moment. God is there in the hopeless places, reminding us that there is no such thing. God was there, reminding Matthew that death is not the end.

And I think it’s easier for us to put these pieces together in Matthew’s case, because it happened 20 years ago, and because it happened to a white, cisgender boy who was well loved by so many. But friends, the same terrible thing Matthew experienced is still happening to transgender women of color all over the world. So far this year at least 22 transgender people have been murdered in the US, including Ciara Carter, who was tortured and killed just this month, but these deaths go unreported. As a society, we’ve decided that transgender people—trans women of color specifically—are not important enough to warrant our attention or our protection. But the same could have been said of a poor wandering preacher in Galilee two thousand years ago who was killed for being himself.

It’s not until Jesus and Mary go to meet Martha at the tomb that we begin to see any possibility for hope in this story. Up until this point this could be the story of any funeral you or I might have been to. But then, Jesus tells Martha that they should remove the stone in front of the tomb, and after a moment’s hesitation, they do it. Jesus prays, and we’re reminded again of the constant companionship of God when he says “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me.” Again, God is present, listening, experiencing alongside the people.

And then the miraculous happens. Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out!” and if there was ever a scarier or more joyful coming out party I’d be surprised! I wonder sometimes about whether any of Lazarus’ friends and family were too freaked out to be happy about seeing him. Sometimes when LGBTQ+ people come out, even in supportive families, it takes a while to get used to a new reality that nobody had planned for. I wonder if the same thing happened for Lazarus—if any of his family members had finally accepted his death now that three days had gone by, and if they felt thrown off by this change in the program.

But Jesus doesn’t give everyone time to get used to the idea—he calls Lazarus’ friends and family to action. Lazarus is still wrapped in the linen he was buried in, and that won’t do, for someone called into life and freedom and joy! Jesus calls out to the people and says “Unbind him and let him go!” And you can imagine the crowd reacting in all different kinds of ways—some like Mary and Martha running forward and gently but excitedly unwinding the cloth from their brother’s arms and legs, and others trying to budge up close to see if Lazarus looks the same or totally different now, and a few people in the back looking freaked out and wondering if maybe they should go start running a bath or get something for him to eat. Everyone is invited to the task of freeing the person that God called out.

And that’s the kind of community that I believe we’re called to be as the people of God, and as Christians who believe in the communion of ALL saints. We are a community made up of straight, cisgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, queer, intersex, and Two Spirit people from throughout time and across space who are called to both come out and to unbind each other. We are called to be who God made us to be, and to make the world safer for our siblings to be who THEY are called to be.

And there will be times when we don’t get it right, because as Luther observed, we are both 100% sinner and 100% saint. There will be days when we are grieving, and when we are angrily asking God for answers, and when we prioritize our practical, everyday concerns over life and freedom, like Martha did when she said rolling away the tombstone probably wasn’t a good idea. On days like that, we might make bad choices, and we might do things that hurt each other, intentionally or not. But even in those times, God does not abandon us or give up on us. Jesus weeps with us, but Jesus also rejoices with us when the bandages are finally unwound and we can breathe again.

The story of Lazarus has a special place in my heart, because I remember that feeling pretty vividly myself. Three years ago I was blessed to be able to have surgery that gave me this incredibly flat and handsome chest you see before you today. Prior to having surgery I’d been wearing these tight compression shirts for quite a while, and they were starting to give me back and rib pain, but not wearing them made me feel even worse mentally. Being constricted like that is terrible, especially for people who have allergies or asthma or any other kind of breathing problem. A week after surgery I went in to the doctor’s office to have the bandages removed, and I finally got to see my chest for the first time. Getting to take that first deep breath in felt like heaven. It felt like coming back to life. It felt like finally stepping out of the grave after hearing God call my name.

That is the life we’re called to, friends. That is the kind of resurrection we can experience now, working together, and with God’s help. And it’s just a taste of the kind of resurrection we’ll know one day in a larger kingdom. There, with Lazarus and Martha and Mary, and Matthew and Ciara and Marsha P. and Sylvia and so many others—that’s where we’ll all be welcome. All of us. All saints.

Amen.

How Christians Are Harming Transgender Inmates

Austen HartkeComment
 Image via Emmanuel Huybrechts  on Flickr

Image via Emmanuel Huybrechts on Flickr

“Out of sight, out of mind.” For many of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today, this idiom is a stark reality. For transgender inmates, who only experience the negative side of visibility, the situation has gotten even worse.

Two weeks ago the Federal Bureau of Prisons released a revised edition of the Transgender Offenders Manuel that rolls back protections for transgender inmates in federal facilities. This manual was originally written to protect trans people by making it possible to house them according to their gender identity. Major revisions, however, recommend that prison officials use “biological sex as the initial determination” for housing designation, and state that transfer to “a facility of the inmate’s identified gender would be appropriate only in rare cases.”

In order to understand why this change is such a big deal, we have to look back at why the Transgender Offenders Manual was written in the first place. During the last year of the Obama Administration, organizations like The National Prison Rape Elimination Act Resource Center began speaking up for transgender prisoners. They found that one in three transgender inmates experience sexual victimization while incarcerated, and confirmed the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey report that the rate of sexual assault for transgender prisoners is five to six times higher than the country’s average.

In response to these horrific numbers, new guidance was put forward that required prison officials to decide on housing for a transgender inmate on a case-by-case basis, rather than ruling immediately based on the inmate’s genitalia. For many trans inmates, placing them in housing with others who shared their gender identity reduced the risk of sexual violence.

But not long after this Prison Rape Elimination Act guidance was adopted, three cisgender women in a prison in Fort Worth, Texas began a lawsuit, alleging that the presence of trans women in their facility put them in danger. While it may be possible that this is a rare case in which a trans inmate really does pose a danger to others, suspicions rose when the Alliance Defending Freedom immediately backed the lawsuit.

 The ADF, a conservative Christian organization categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, sports a powerful public policy branch called the Family Research Council, which has been behind many of the recent “bathroom bills,” as well as the reversal of Justice Department guidance on protection for transgender students in public schools.

The head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, who was chosen last Tuesday to lead the White House’s U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has been an advisor to the Trump Administration and was one of the architects behind the “transgender military ban.” After the Fort Worth lawsuit came to a close, the ADF used the case settlement to prompt the change in the Bureau of Prisons manual.

Interestingly enough, the three women who originated the lawsuit did not like the results, and removed themselves from the case, claiming “ADF lawyers have completely violated their ethical responsibilities to the 3 initial Plaintiffs in this case by putting their loyalties to one of the Defendants, Attorney General Sessions, over the interest of their clients.” This prioritization of partisan results makes it much harder to believe that the ADF and the Family Research Council care about the safety of women in prison.

Fear-mongers profit by dividing us, but what if the question is not “Who deserves to be safer in our prisons—cisgender women or transgender women?” but instead, “How do we reform a criminal justice system so that all people can be safe?”

When Christians observe institutional violence or a lack of attention to justice from the state, Dietrich Bonheoffer suggested that we have several options. One option is to care for those who have been crushed—those who have been wrongly accused, who have been held without a trial, those who have been the victims of racial profiling, those who can’t afford bail to go home and care for their families. Another option, Bonheoffer says, is “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”

 Christian ministries have been a part of the prison reform movement for decades, and Barna polls like the one conducted by the Prison Fellowship tell us that 89% of practicing Christians agreed with the statement, “It’s important that prison conditions are safe and humane, specifically because I believe every person has intrinsic value and worth.” Our belief that every single person bears the image of God within them informs the actions we must take to support each other.

But Evangelical ministries like the Prison Fellowship are nowhere to be found when it comes to fighting for safe and humane conditions for transgender people, and other LGBQ+ populations who experience higher rates of arrest and incarceration because of homophobic and transphobic biases. Somehow, the faith which imagines Jesus as the one we visit in prison becomes less appealing when the actual person behind bars is a trans woman.

So what kind of accountability do LGBTQ-affirming Christians have to fight for the rights of incarcerated transgender people today? Will we allow organizations like the ADF and the Family Research Council to determine public policy in the name of Christianity?

Will we let our incarcerated transgender siblings be out of sight and out of mind? I hope not. Instead, let us “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3).

"Reconciling" - A Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

Austen Hartke1 Comment

[This is my first sermon! Special thanks to the good folks at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington, MN for asking me to be their preacher during their celebration of Reconciling in Christ Sunday. For an audio version of the service that included this sermon, click here.]

Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


Well! Today’s Gospel text is a bit different from last week’s, isn’t it? Just last Sunday Jesus was calling us the salt of the earth, and the light on a hill, and the week before that he was dolling out blessings left and right like Oprah! But today we hear Jesus dig deep into the law, and it’s almost like he’s making up for all those nice things he said at the beginning of his sermon on the mount with an equal number of new rules and requirements. Those of you, like me, who tend to be a little skeptical, are probably thinking, “well, that just figures. Here I thought Jesus was inviting me into his family and calling me all these nice things, but now I just have another laundry list of things to do and not do.” And not only is Jesus upholding the old laws like “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery,” but he’s also making them infinitely more difficult to keep.

Let’s be honest—at first glance, this is a scary text, full of divorce and dismemberment and other things that we’d really rather not think about. As the kid of two divorced parents who have both remarried, it's a little uncomfortable. This is a text all about The Law.

For queer- and LGBT-identified folks like myself, this concept of The Law—with a capitol L—can be a frightening thing in and of itself. Oftentimes when I go to speak with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer folks in secular spaces, I get asked why on earth I went to seminary to learn about the Old Testament. They say things like, “Isn’t that part of the Bible filled with the stuff those street preachers scream at us?” and “why would you want to spend time reading about that angry Old Testament God??” And right after I explain the Marcion heresy to them [ha ha, that's a seminarian joke], I always tell them that it’s because I find so much life and love and hope and freedom in the Hebrew Scriptures, and I don’t want LGBTQ folks to miss out on it just because there’s some difficult stuff in there too!

Today our text from Deuteronomy explains that the whole point of the Law—the whole point of the rules for humanity that God lays out in the first five books of the Bible—is so that we can choose life. And Deuteronomy isn’t talking about everlasting life, or life after death, or anything like that. It’s talking about right-now, here, on-this-planet, with-each-other kind of life. God wants to give us life, and the best way to do that, is, surprisingly, to command us not to kill each other. Who’dve thought?

But for anyone who’s ever experienced rejection, for any reason, rules like the ones Jesus lays out here in Matthew 5 can still seem terrifying. Instead of seeing a list of things that can help us choose life together, you may see a whole list of different ways that you can get yourself kicked out of God’s family. Ask any gay or transgender person what their experience is with the word “sin,” and you can guarantee that they’ll have more stories to tell about the way that word has been used to describe their very existence than stories about its use in reference to things like stealing or lying or adultery. We get skittish about the concept of sin because it feels like the prelude to a blow. Scripture, the concept of sin, the kind of “tough love” that goes around pointing out all the ways you don’t measure up—these things have been used against LGBTQ people for so long it’s honestly a miracle we’re still here. And I’m not using that word facetiously, either—I consider it one of the greatest miracles that God has not allowed the Church to ruin love and grace and faith for many of us.

But what if what Jesus is presenting here is not a threat, with dire consequences if you put a toe out of line? What if it’s not a list of rules to follow, and instead more of an instructional video on life together? Let’s take a look at an example. First, Jesus says, “don’t get angry at your siblings, don’t insult them, and don’t use harmful and disparaging words against them. It’s just as bad as physically harming them.” Well, unfortunately, based on the way we’ve all been talking and thinking about each other over the past election season and throughout the last few months, we’ve all failed pretty miserably at this command. If this were strictly a list of demands and consequences, we’d all be in pretty bad shape.

But the good news is that Jesus knows us, and so what we see in the very next verse is instructions for what happens when you DO fail at following the plan. Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift.”

So for those of us who are nervous about being kicked out, know that this isn’t a one-strike-and-you’re-out system—this is Jesus understanding human nature in deep and sometimes uncomfortable ways, and showing us that we can try again.

For those of us who have long been a part of a church that’s complicit in harming others, though—we need to hear this as a call to action. Jesus is saying that we need to do the hard work of reconciliation with our siblings before we try to “get right with God,” as the saying goes.

So what does it look like to work for reconciliation? How, for instance, can Christians reconcile with the LGBTQ people who we’ve hurt? Well, the first step is to listen. Here’s what it looks like to be hurt by the church—how it feels to be hurt by the people you thought loved you. It looks like my friend H., who said that she once asked a question about being gay in her youth group, and was then told by the leader to leave the room, and to call her mom to come pick her up immediately. The next week the pastor of the church mailed her parents pamphlets full of hellfire and suggestions for conversion therapy. She never went back.

Being hurt by the church looks like the death of Leelah Alcorn, who was sent to faith-based conversion therapy to try to “cure” her of her gender identity before finally becoming so sure that the world couldn’t let her live, that she walked out in front of a truck on the freeway. That pain was less than the pain of living surrounded by parents and a faith community who tell you that they love you, but hate your sin, which is just another way of saying, “I love the you I think you should be, but I hate the you you are.”

How can we possibly reconcile with each other when pain and destruction and death like this stands in the way? Well, thankfully, we believe in a risen Christ who not only suffers with us in the darkest places--who was with H and with Leelah in the midst of their pain--but who also brings life out of death. Pain is not the last word.

Reconciling with our LGBTQ siblings means listening, and then it means confessing what we’ve done wrong, as individuals, and as Christian communities. We take responsibility for the things we did intentionally and the things we had control over, and we at least acknowledge the existence of the things that were unintentional. Then, we ask for forgiveness—not expecting it immediately, but doing the hard work of humbling ourselves and allowing another person to show us God’s grace in human form.

Then, we roll up our sleeves, because it’s time to start changing things. Reconciling to and with each other means not just stopping the bleeding in the body of Christ, but bandaging each other up, paying for hospital care, and moving together through physical therapy. 

So, let’s get down to some examples. My name is Austen, and I’m a transgender man, which means that when I was born the doctor took one look at me and said, “It’s a girl!” and then it took me about twenty years to get back to everybody and say “aaaactually, not so much.” My experience in the church includes hearing sermons about the evils of homosexuality as a kid, which convinced me that my also being bisexual was essentially a “go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars” card. I spent a lot of years in youth group, just waiting for someone to find out and give me the final kick. I lost my faith there for a while.

But no matter where I went, it seemed like God was following me, caring for me, standing with me when things were the hardest, and I couldn’t ignore that, even though I really, really wanted to. I began searching scripture for a way to understand this kind God, who seemed to love me not in spite of my sexuality and my gender identity, but because those things were a part of me. I found passages in the Bible like Isaiah 56:1-8, which tells eunuchs, people who were outside of the boundaries of sex and gender in their time, that they are welcome in God’s house, and that God gives them a special blessing. I found a church that accepted me for everything I am, and believes that I bring something essential to Christian witness. I began bringing my whole self to worship, rather than spending my time praying with one eye open, wondering who was going to find out that I didn’t belong.

And let me tell you—when you bring your whole self into God’s house, you quickly find yourself wrapped up in the reconciling work that got you there in the first place. You get caught up in GOD’S reconciling work. God starts stirring up holy trouble in you, and calling you to stand with all kinds of other oppressed people—people who wrestle daily with racism and sexism and ableism and xenophobia. Becoming reconciled with one sibling leads to work for reconciliation with everyone else!

Now days I give thanks all the time for my life as a bisexual, transgender Christian, because those very labels which I was taught were a liability have turned out to be the greatest gift. I’m not saying that they’ve been EASY gifts to receive, but I have come to find myself in the midst of a life full of blessing that I’m called to pass on to others.

The churches that I have belonged to in my adult life have practiced reconciliation seriously—not just in name, by becoming part of an official program, though that’s a really great start. They’ve practiced reconciliation by listening, by confessing where they’ve done wrong, by asking for forgiveness, by committing themselves to learning about LGBTQ identities and experiences, and by enacting new policies like asking people’s pronouns and training pastors and youth leaders in active allyship. They’ve recognized me as an integral member of the body of Christ, and like Paul says, "the hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you." We don’t get to decide who belongs in God’s family—only God gets to decide that, and if scripture is any indication, God calls the people we LEAST want to share the table with.

So as you, Transfiguration Lutheran Church, celebrate Reconciling in Christ Sunday today, let’s remember that this vow to work for full LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation is one you’ve made to each other, and to God. Let’s let our yes be a true yes, okay? Not a yes we say once a year and then forget about, but a yes that says “I’m going to do the hard and beautiful work of lifting up my siblings every day of the year, and making sure they can bring their whole selves safely into this community.” Let’s let our yes be yes within these walls, and throughout the rest of our country and our world. Let’s let our yes to each other be a yes in the streets and in the voting booth and around our family tables. And then, hand in hand, we can come offer our thanksgiving for this beautiful life together before God.

Amen.

A Ritual for Renaming and Remembrance of Baptism

Austen Hartke1 Comment
 Imagine via Håkan Dahlström  on Flickr

Imagine via Håkan Dahlström on Flickr

This past Sunday I experienced an unusual and extraordinary blessing--my church renamed me.

As part of my transition, I wanted a way to mark and appreciate the gift of my birth name, and then formally accept the gift of my new name, all while surrounded by the family of my birth and the family I've chosen. Not many trans folks have a church that supports them and celebrates with them during transition, and I realize how blessed I am. And while I'm incredibly thankful, I'm also sad that these kinds of blessings aren't common practice for welcoming and inclusive churches. Christians, let's add to our repertoire a bit! Let's celebrate the changes in the lives of trans folks just like we celebrate new births, marriages, confirmations, graduations, retirement, and all other transitional moments!

The liturgy I put together for my renaming and remembrance of baptism is below, with a couple of personal sections edited. Many thanks to Justin Tanis and Nadia Bolz-Weber for their examples.


Renaming Ceremony and Remembrance of Baptism for Austen Hartke
April 10th, 2016

Presider:
Holy One of Blessing, in baptism you bring us to new life in Jesus Christ and you name us Beloved. We give you thanks for the constant renewal of that life and love in us. We gather together today to affirm and celebrate the new name of one of your children. Be with us, strengthen us, and uphold us all in the gifts and promises of our baptism.

Community: Amen

 Hymn: #798 in ELW “Will You Come and Follow Me”

Presider: Hear now the promises and commands of God, given through Isaiah—

Thus says the Lord:
    Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
    and my deliverance be revealed.
Happy is the mortal who does this,
    the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
    and refrains from doing any evil.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.

[Presider and participants gather at the front]

Presider: Today we remember the name given to this child of God at birth—the name Alison. Alison’s parents gave their child the gift of a name, the gift of life, and the gift of love. We honor their gifts, and we give thanks that while names change, and children grow and transform, love endures.
Today we gather to acknowledge a new name—a name which signifies all that Alison has always been, is now, and is still becoming.
Presider: By what name shall you now be known?

Austen: My name is Austen.

Presider: Is there anything you would like to tell us about your new name?

Austen: [Explains meaning of chosen name.]

Presider: Let us welcome Austen into the community of faith.

Community: Welcome, Austen!

Presider: Austen, bear this name in the Name of Christ. Share it in the name of Mercy. Offer it in the name of Justice.
Let us pray. Loving God, we pray for your servant Austen, with thanks for the journey and awakening that have brought him to this moment, for his place amongst your people, and for his gifts and calling to serve you.

[Presider dips into baptismal font and makes the sign of the cross on Austen’s forehead]

Presider: Holy one, remember Austen’s baptism. Stir up in him again the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.

Austen: Amen.

Presider: O God, in renaming your servants Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Peter, and Paul, you gave them new lives and new tasks, new love and new hope.  We now hold before you our sibling Austen Hartke.  Bless him with a new measure of grace as he takes this new name.  Write him again in your heart and on your palm.  And grant that we also may take on the name of our brother Christ, whose true name is Love, and in whom, with you and the Spirit we pray. 

Community: Amen. 

Hymn: #793 in ELW “Be Thou My Vision”

It's All Connected

Austen HartkeComment
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson & Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.

Today is February eighth--just barely into the second month of the year--and we've already learned of the murder of two transgender people here in the United States in 2016. It's almost certain that there have been more, since trans people are often misidentified after death, and are therefore not reported accurately. And in the grand scheme of things, when Brazil has now reported over 48 murders of transgender people in this new year, maybe two people in the United States doesn't seem like much. But these two people were individuals--irreplaceable, unique, with lives and dreams and histories all their own. 

Monica Loera was a Latina woman living in Texas, who loved Beyonce, Madonna, and the Dallas Cowboys. It was discovered, after her death, that she had never changed her legal name or gender marker, which led authorities to report her death under the wrong name and pronouns, despite her obviously female gender expression. (Other trans women from Austin, TX have spoken out since Monica's death, giving voice to the fact that, without disposable income and paid leave, it's almost impossible to change those legal documents.) It has also been reported by Monica's roommate that she was engaged in sex work in the area, and that the man who shot and killed her on her own doorstep was probably a client. 

When I look at this story through a wider lens, this is what I see: a transgender woman of color, marginalized by her identity in at least three different ways, who couldn't afford to update her legal documents and was likely struggling to make ends meet--and who was probably forced into sex work because of those circumstances--was shot with a gun by a white man. I see issues of race, class, transphobia, lack of protection for sex workers, and gun violence.

When I learned about the murder of Kayden Clarke by police in Arizona, I cried. Kayden loved dogs, and had a service dog of his own named Samson, who often helped him as he volunteered at HALO, his local animal rescue. Kayden lived with Asperger's syndrome, a kind of autism, and he reported in a frustrated Youtube video in January that his doctor refused to refer him to a gender specialist for hormone treatment until his Asperger's was "fixed," causing Kayden incredible distress. On February fourth, police were called to his home by a friend who was worried he might try to hurt himself. Upon finding Kayden with a kitchen knife, two police officers shot him.

Again, seeing Kayden's story laid out in news clippings makes it easier to see the social issues involved--the state of mental healthcare, access to medical care for trans people, underlying transphobia, and police brutality and use of force.

It's important to note the ways that these issues intersect in the lives and deaths of Monica and Kayden, because our own lives are wrapped up in these same struggles. When we talk about how Black Lives Matter, we talk about the way individual and institutional white supremacy has given one group of people the literal power of life and death over another group. Monica Loera was not black, but she was killed by a white man with a gun, the way so many other people of color have been killed. And when we talk about police training and the increasing militarization of law enforcement, we might remember the way police shot Kayden Clarke without first attempting to use any other means of deescalation. 

I may not know what it's like to be forced into sex work just to pay rent and buy groceries, but I do know the desperation of falling asleep at night wondering if I'll ever get a job, because my legal name and my gender expression didn't match at the interview. Who knows what I might have had to do if I hadn't had a loving family as my safety net. And I may not know what it's like to live on the autism spectrum, but I too had to deal with health professionals who wanted to see an improvement in my anxiety disorder before they would proscribe me the hormones that allowed me to live life as myself.

The point here is that we cannot be single issue activists. Those of us who are trans can not only fight for trans rights while ignoring the rights of people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who have been incarcerated, or people who live in poverty. Those of us who are not trans, but who deal with mental health issues, or the effects of sexism or racism, or who worry about the state of gun control in our country, cannot be blind to trans issues. These issues ARE our issues. And we cannot fight for justice simply because we think we should, or because we feel like we're called to help those who are "less fortunate." We must fight because we realize that we are all bound up together. Because we realize that none of us are free until we're all free.

We must fight because there will never be another Monica in the world, and there will never be another Kayden. We must remember the dead, and fight like hell for the living.

On Biblical Gender Roles in the Progressive Camp

Austen Hartke1 Comment

Having gotten a little bit tired of the same old "women can't lead" and "men need to quit being pansies and start cracking skulls" rhetoric of much of conservative Christianity, it was with quite a bit of excitement that I recently picked up two books on biblical gender roles that I thought might share a different perspective. Over the last couple of weeks I read both Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women by Sarah Bessey and Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood by Nate Pyle, and thankfully neither one argued for the positions stated above. As a trans person and a biblical scholar, my fascination with the concept of biblical gender roles is both personal and professional. I hoped, in opening these books, that I would find not only thought-provoking study, but also (and seems like a lot to ask, I know) some theology of gender that might include me.

I began with Sarah Bessey's book on biblical womanhood, which is part autobiography, part come-to-Jesus talk about the way women have been shoved to the back of the line when it comes to church leadership and church history. Jesus Feminist does a great job of interweaving Bessey's identity as wife and mother with the stories of others who don't share those callings, and she makes sure to remind the reader several times that limiting the definition of "woman" to those who get married and care for children erases the dreams, struggles, and lives of many others who do indeed share Bessey's gender identity. Bessey's trip to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 made her reevaluate many of her previous ideas about the universality of both gender roles and American Christianity, but it only strengthened her belief in the universality of the Gospel. She says that she learned that "If [biblical womanhood] can’t be enjoyed by a woman in Haiti, or even by the woman hailed in Scripture, the same way it can by a middle-class woman in Canada, then biblical womanhood must be more than this.”

I found Bessey's candor and strength inspiring as she declared her support for women all over the world, bringing attention to issues like infant mortality in Haiti, acid attacks on women in Afghanistan, and the risk of rape and abuse of women worldwide. She says towards the end of her book that "until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist." 

There were parts of Jesus Feminist, like that very line above, that made me want to stand up and cheer. I have a lot of respect for the vulnerability Bessey displayed in telling us so much about her personal story, and I agreed with her on almost every point when it came to her serious critiques of the kind of biblical womanhood that has been put forward by conservative complimentarians. At the same time, though, I wondered whether Bessey would make a seat around her bonfire for trans women. The language used to talk about gender throughout the book was fairly standard, and Bessey didn't specifically mention women whose gender or sexuality falls outside that norm. It's true that silence is not a condemnation, but neither is it an invitation, and I had hoped to find something that might speak to all women, regardless of their gender designated at birth.

Nate Pyle's book Man Enough was next on the reading list, and though I was interested in a book on biblical womanhood, I have to say that I was downright invested in finding a book on biblical manhood that didn't start out by assuming men are sex-crazed war machines. Man Enough did not disappoint in this respect, and I was glad to see Pyle's assertion that "there is no one way to be a man. Masculinity, like humanness, is wide enough to include many different expressions of manhood.” Man Enough did several things very well--it responded to Mark Driscoll's Revelation-based theology of Jesus as conquering warrior; it broached the concept of an "anxious masculinity" that is constantly worried about social status, and it gave a textually-based defense of characteristics like gentleness and humility and joy which are associated with Jesus but aren't considered manly by our social standards. Pyle is strongest when he's talking about the Jesus we see in the Gospels, and how that model might change how we think about what it means to be a man. He points out that "if Jesus looks too feminine to us, maybe it says more about our understanding of masculinity than it does about a possible conspiracy to feminize the church and men.”

On the whole, though, Man Enough left me feeling underwhelmed, and at times frankly uncomfortable. Most of that discomfort sprang from Pyle's use of language. At first, I was glad to see this recognition:

"Even the fact that we refer to men and women as “opposite sexes” reveals the way we polarize our thoughts about men and women. If men and women are opposites, and men are powerful, then it follows that women are powerless. If women cry, then men do not. If men are strong, then women are weak.” 

The problem is that Pyle seems to forget this fact throughout most of the rest of the book. He constantly disparages the idea of being effeminate, saying that "Men live in fear of being seen as not-men. It isn’t necessarily a fear of being perceived of or thought of as a physical woman. We know there is a biological reality separating us from the opposite gender. No, we do not fear being women; we fear being likened to a woman. We fear being effeminate. Limp-wristed." He wonders, "is there room in the church for a man to be gentle in a way that is true to his personality without being seen as an effeminate version of a man?” This fear of being woman-like infers that to be a woman is to be lesser-than, and I was honestly surprised to find this sort of sentiment peppered throughout every chapter. 

Additionally, it was a little strange to find a sort of lack of consciousness about the power that men have in almost all societies. When discussing what men and women can learn from each other, Pyle says, "...Likewise, women need men to encourage them to take action in the world. Better yet, men would do well to remind women that they are powerful and that they can use that power to profoundly impact the world.” While I'm sure this came from a place of caring, and that Pyle was attempting to encourage men to encourage women, it just comes off as patronizing. The problem here is that glass ceilings and institutional patriarchal structures are keeping women from being able to take action, and keeping them from power. Telling women that they just need to believe is a little bit silly without first exhorting men, the people with more power, to give some up.

The last thing I'll critique about Man Enough is the choice to include this quote by Richard Rohr: "The contemporary experience of gangs, gender identity confusion, romanticization of war, aimless violence and homophobia will all grow unchecked, I predict, until boys are again mentored and formally taught by wise elders.” Though I agree with the conclusion Pyle was drawing here--that some kind of initiation into manhood is beneficial for young men--it's not true that the lack of it leads to confusion over gender identity. Suggesting that trans people just lack guidance in their lives belittles the incredible amount of soul searching, community building, and research that trans people must do just to survive. Though I really appreciated the expanded version of masculinity that Pyle championed in his book, based on passages like these I kind of doubt that a transgender man in Pyle's circle would feel man enough.

The biggest thing that both Jesus Feminist and Man Enough had in common was their belief that in the end our similarities as humans following Christ are more important than our gendered differences. Sarah Bessey's final word on the subject of biblical womanhood was as follows:

“And so of course we won’t define ‘biblical womanhood’ well using a list of chores or a job description, a schedule or an income level. After all, healthy God-glorifying homes look as different as the image bearers that entered into the covenant, and biblical doesn’t mean a baptized version of any culture, ancient or modern. No, I am a biblical woman because I love and move and have my being in the daily reality of being a follower of Jesus, living in the reality of being loved, in full trust of my Abba. I am a biblical woman because I follow in the footsteps of all the biblical women who came before me. Biblical womanhood isn’t so different from biblical personhood.”

Nate Pyle's conclusion regarding biblical manhood was very similar:

“The invitation isn’t about men becoming manlier, nor is it about women becoming more womanly; rather, Jesus is calling men and women to become more wholly human. Both men and women are called to imitate Christ and become like him. In Christ, we do not see the distinctions between men and women emphasized; rather, gender takes second place to imitating Christ. Both men and women are united with Christ and called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. This is why Paul writes that there is no longer male or female in Christ. He isn’t abolishing gender distinctions. He is simply pointing out that as both men and women are sanctified in Christ, they begin to exhibit similar Christlike characteristics.”

And right now, this is the niche where transgender Christians can fit most comfortably--as disciples of Jesus who seek to conform to His image, rather than the gendered images present in our culture. I hope that some day there will be a book about biblical gender roles that include people outside our current cultural binary, but for now, at least we all share a common text in scripture.

A Review of Mark Yarhouse's "Understanding Gender Dysphoria"

Austen Hartke4 Comments
 Photo by  Howard Lake  on Flickr

Photo by Howard Lake on Flickr

Since Caitlyn Jenner's official coming out on the front of Vanity Fair two months ago, more media attention has been focused on transgender issues than most of us ever thought possible. From The Atlantic to The New Yorker to Christianity Today to The Blaze--everyone wants a story and everyone wants to publish an opinion. In Christian circles, responses have run the gamut from absolute acceptance to vilifying denouncement, but one thing is sure--church communities are asking questions and formulating responses to something that wasn't on the radar for most ten years ago.

Into this fray jumps Christian psychologist Mark Yarhouse with his book "Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture." Dr. Yarhouse's book attempts to find a harmony in the midst of conflicting opinions by calling for an "integrated framework" that balances conservative evangelical biblical views with medical and psychological concepts of disability and the celebration of diversity found among those of us who work for social justice. Think that sounds like a lot to try to weave together? You'd be right.

And though there have been several reviews done of Dr. Yarhouse's book (I'd recommend this one for its thorough summary and critique), I have yet to see one written by a transgender Christian. Dr. Yarhouse says, when describing his preferred method of therapy: "Narrative therapy focuses on the role of socially constructed 'scripts' in a person’s life. What is perhaps most interesting about narrative approaches to therapy is that they are often used with marginalized groups whose 'story' has been written by a dominant culture. On a larger level, entire groups of people could have their story about themselves completely overtaken by a more dominant group's story about them." Unfortunately, I believe this is exactly what Dr. Yarhouse's book has done--it has created a narrative about the causes, effects, and meaning behind gender dysphoria that is palatable to conservative Christians, all the while ignoring the voices of transgender Christians themselves.

But before diving further into that particular critique, let's take a very brief look at the book itself:

  • Dr. Yarhouse's first chapter covers basic terminology and a short history of transgender people in the media, beginning with Christine Jorgensen. He also makes it a point to say that people who experience gender dysphoria (he dislikes using "transgender" as a descriptor) are not intentionally moving away from God or being willfully difficult.
  • The second section "A Christian Perspective on Gender Dysphoria" skims very briefly over biblical scholarship and theology, focusing primarily on 1 Corinth. 6:9-10; Deut. 22:5; Matt. 19:12 and Acts 8:26-39, and citing the Evangelical Alliance Policy Commission on Transexuality and Robert Gagnon as major sources. Next, we are introduced to Yarhouse's three frameworks for understanding gender dysphoria and transgender identities. The Integrity Framework is based in conservative evangelical belief in complementarity and the existence of only two genders/sexes. Yarhouse says "cross-gender identification is a concern in large part because it threatens the integrity of male-female distinctions.” The Disability Framework is based in conservative psychology that sees gender dysphoria as a mental illness. Here, “gender dysphoria is viewed as a result of living in a fallen world in which the condition—like so many mental health concerns—is a nonmoral reality… That nonmoral reality reflects one more dimension of human experience that is ‘not the way it’s supposed to be.’” Finally, the Diversity Framework “highlights transgender issues as reflecting an identity and culture to be celebrated as an expression of diversity.” Yarhouse breaks up the diversity framework into a “strong form” and a “weak form,” the former including those who would like to deconstruct gender norms entirely, and the latter including those who don’t want to get rid of gender norms but would like to make more room for those who don’t fit the norms easily. Yarhouse is clearly uncomfortable with the “strong” diversity framework, and is only slightly more tolerant of the weak form, but cites some of its benefits including it’s ability to give someone a sense of identity, community, and belonging.
  • In the third and fourth sections of the book, Yarhouse tries to summarize the possible causes of gender dysphoria and to give a sense of what gender dysphoria actually looks like in research and in the psychologist's office. Most of the research appears sound, with the exception of Blanchard's Typology, which is used liberally throughout the book, and will be discussed below. It is also worth noting that the only study on transgender Christians which is referenced in the entirety of this work is a study on MTF (male-to-female) transgender Christians undertaken by Yarhouse himself.
  • Section five talks about the prevention and treatment of gender dysphoria, in psychological terms, from childhood to adulthood. Yarhouse suggests several different ways of dealing with gender dysphoria in childhood, including the “wait and see” model which allows children to work things out on their own, while also mentioning harsher models that reward children for presenting and acting according to the norms of their assigned gender while keeping them away from anything associated with the “opposite” gender. Yarhouse states that his end goal is to encourage those who “experience gender identity conflicts to resolve the conflicts in keeping with their birth sex if possible” and only to manage gender identity conflicts “through the least invasive means (recognizing surgery as the most invasive step toward expression of one’s internal sense of identity).”
  • Finally, sections six and seven attempt to formulate a “Christian response” to people with gender dysphoria, first at individual and then institutional levels.

I'll admit, this was a difficult read for me. Though it's not surprising that a clinical psychologist would come to the conclusion that transgender identities are a form of mental illness or disability, it was still difficult to see the way that outcome informed the creation of initiatives for things like prevention and correction. Having said that, as I read through Dr. Yarhouse's book I found that I didn't so much take issue with his conclusion, as with the research that led to that conclusion. My major critiques of this work are as follows:

  1. Skewed Data - Dr. Yarhouse constantly prioritizes and uses data from and concerning MTF (male-to-female) transgender patients. This use of data might not have been a problem in and of itself, as it is a fact that there is more data available on MTF patients. The issue I take with the use of this data is that these studies on MTF patients are cited as generalizations to cover all transgender people equally, despite only representing one part of the community. It excludes FTM and non-binary transgender experiences, which are necessary for a complete analysis.
  2. The Blanchard Typology - Dr. Yarhouse relies heavily on the Blanchard Typology, which categorizes transgender people based not just on their gender experience, but also on their sexual attraction. Ray Blanchard, working in the 1980s, theorized that transgender people could be split into three groups. The first is the "male-to-female androphilic type," which includes MTF women who are attracted to men, who transition at a young age, and who recall childhood femininity. The second is the "male-to-female autogynephilic type," which Yarhouse says "is described more like a fetish. In this case proponents assert that the biological male finds the idea of himself as a woman sexually arousing." Blanchard says these individuals tend to transition at an older age, report more cross dressing and less childhood femininity. Blanchard's third type is simply called the "female-to-male" type, and includes all those assigned female at birth who identify as male, and who are attracted to women. As anyone who is LGBTQI or A can tell you, these types are so much hogwash in the face of the many different ways individuals experience their gender identity and their sexual orientation. The fact that a typology like this is used at all, which conflates gender identity and sexuality, which pushes trans men off to the side, and which categorizes trans women based on the age at which they decide to transition, is frankly amazing.
  3. Lacking in Theological Discourse - Despite designating a whole section to a theological understanding of gender identity and dysphoria, Dr. Yarhouse's book comes up decidedly short when it comes to showing the work. It seems as if Yarhouse is speaking primarily to conservative evangelicals, and so he supposes that they are all on the same page from the beginning--that page being titled "cross-gender identification is morally wrong." What we don't see here is any discussion of WHY this might be. What reasoning is given is based heavily on complementarity and the writing of Robert Gagnon, which can be easily answered with James Brownson's book "Bible, Gender, Sexuality."
  4. Lack of Support for "Least Invasive Means" Conclusion - Throughout the book Dr. Yarhouse voices his support for using the "least invasive means" for managing gender dysphoria. He would not encourage a patient to move forward with hormone therapy, for instance, if the trans person could "deal" with their dysphoria through wearing different clothing instead. For Yarhouse, surgery is the very, very last resort. But consider that Yarhouse quotes a study by Richard Carroll that says “It appears now that the majority of adults with gender dysphoria cannot, or will not, completely accept their given gender through psychological treatment.” And furthermore, he later references this series of studies: "One author reports that about three-fourths or more of those who complete sex-reassignment surgery report satisfaction with their new identity and only about 8 percent report poor outcomes with surgery. Others have reported that only about 2 percent actually regret sex-reassignment surgery with 4 percent expressing dissatisfaction with the surgical outcomes. A recent study that examined outcomes over a fifty-year period in Sweden (1960–2010) indicated a 2.2 percent rate of regret for both MtF and FtM transsexual persons." With the rate of regret so incredibly low, and with studies showing that psychological treatment only staves off the inevitable in the majority of cases, what basis is there for a bias against physical transition? I can only conclude that Dr. Yarhouse's reticence is based on his theological beliefs, which, as I noted above, were not well spelled out here.
  5. Lacking in Transgender Christian Voices - As I mentioned above, the only transgender Christian voices heard in Dr. Yarhouse's book came from his patients--those he saw in practice and the MTF individuals in a study which he himself conducted. This lack of voices is noticeable. At one point, in a story about a MTF patient named Ella who suffered from gender dysphoria, Dr. Yarhouse asks "Is it too much to say that it is in this context of suffering that both meaning and identity are found?” If this question was directed toward me, or any other trans Christian I know, we would be quick to point out that while suffering is inevitable in this life, there is a difference between unavoidable suffering and suffering caused by others because of a different system of beliefs. We cannot treat suffering caused by other people as if it's an "act of God" like a hurricane or an avalanche. Meaning and identity may be found through suffering, yes, but that doesn't justify the human actions that created that suffering. In the same way, when Dr. Yarhouse supposes that a trans person might experience a church that does not denounce them as "gracious and supportive," I have to wonder--what if he had actually asked a trans Christian how they would feel, instead of assuming? The trans people of faith I know ask more of a church community than just "please don't run me out the door." To us, a "gracious and supportive" church looks like a place where we are actively included, and not just tolerated, and I expect Dr. Yarhouse would know that had he given trans Christians the platform to speak for themselves.

Having said all that, I'll take one more minute to highlight a couple of the things I believe Dr. Yarhouse did right. Above all, I appreciate his desire to decrease the number of people who see gender dysphoria as willfully sinful, and to increase a sense of compassion among those who disagree. Even if I personally take issue with his conclusion (that gender dysphoria is a mental illness to be prevented), I appreciate that it draws people away from a harsher kind of condemnation. It's a step in the right direction, even if it is a small one. Additionally, I appreciate his recognition that "If Christians simply shout 'Integrity, integrity, integrity!' and 'Sacred, sacred, sacred!' in discussions about gender dysphoria, we will fail to appreciate ways in which these other frameworks inform how people who experience gender dysphoria navigate difficult and quite complex decisions throughout their lives. In the end, Christians who rely solely on the integrity framework may shore up borders within the local church, but we will actually fail to engage those within the broader culture who are watching these exchanges, and I suspect we will drive gender dysphoric persons away from Christ and away from Christian community.” Having made this observation, I hope that Dr. Yarhouse will find a way to incorporate transgender Christian voices into his future work, rather than holding the categories of "transgender people" and "Christians" in separate hands as if the two never meet.

I also pray for a day when books like this, which are heralded as the definitive guide to a group of people, may actually be written by someone from within that group. Remember that there are no voiceless people--only those we refuse to hear.

When Worlds Collide - Mental Illness Within the Trans Community

Austen Hartke1 Comment
 Photo by  Clint Mason

Photo by Clint Mason

So, it's possible that while you were reading last Wednesday's post on the difference between being transgender and having a mental illness, you stopped for a second and thought "but wait a minute! I'm transgender and I do struggle with a mental illness! How do I fit into this equation?"

Or perhaps you're not trans yourself, but you have a friend who has recently come out to you as transgender, and who has struggled with a mental illness in the past, and you wonder if the two may be connected. Maybe you're a parent, worried about your transgender child who deals with anxiety, or depression, or an eating disorder, and you're not sure which issue to address first.

While it's true that gender dysphoria itself is not a mental illness, we do need to recognize that, unfortunately, many trans folks do live with anxiety, depression, and/or eating disorders. Sometimes these issues are a direct result of the way trans folks are treated in their day-to-day life, and sometimes they're the mind's way of dealing with gender dysphoria prior to coming out and transitioning.

Social anxiety is possibly the most prevalent disorder found among transgender folks, with studies in 2005 and 2010 showing that 55% of transgender people experience high levels of anxiety, compared to only 6.8% of the cisgender population. The American Psychiatric Association's 2012 recommendation for access to care for transgender people helps us understand this huge disparity:

Being transgender or gender variant implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities; however, these individuals often experience discrimination due to a lack of civil rights protections for their gender identity or expression. Transgender and gender variant persons are frequently harassed and discriminated against when seeking housing or applying to jobs or schools, are often victims of violent hate crimes, and face challenges in marriage, adoption and parenting rights. Discrimination and lack of equal civil rights is damaging to the mental health of transgender and gender variant individuals.

Transgender people may find themselves living in constant fear of verbal or physical harassment. While a healthy mind can deal with this kind of pressure for short periods, over time this perpetual sense of danger is likely to develop into a debilitating form of social anxiety.

Depending on personality and genetics, some people are more prone to depression than anxiety, or may suffer from a combination of the two. A 2015 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that, of transgender people between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine, 50.6% were diagnosed with depression and 17.2% had attempted suicide. As we come to understand depression in the transgender community more accurately, it's become clear that the major cause is what's referred to as "minority stress;" that is, "stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization." The good news, then, is that as social relations and culture change over time, negative attitudes toward transgender people may be reduced, which will then reduce the stressors which trigger anxiety and depression.

Another fairly common disorder found in the transgender community revolves around food. Though, as we've already seen, gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia related to eating disorders are very different, it is possible to suffer from both at the same time. In a 2015 study of students at 223 different universities, it was found that "Transgender students were more than four times as likely to report an eating disorder diagnosis as cisgender heterosexual women," who are generally the focus of eating disorder studies. The reasoning behind this discrepancy is fairly straightforward--transgender women feel the same pressure to stay thin that cisgender women feel, while transgender men often realize that keeping a low body weight represses secondary sex characteristics and menstruation. For many trans teens who aren't allowed to transition, it may feel like disordered eating and excessive exercise are the only ways to make their body more masculine or feminine. 

It's not surprising, then, that alongside trans-inclusive mental healthcare, the ability to physically transition has had the most positive effect on trans folks suffering from anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Study after study has confirmed that access to hormone therapy has had a positive effect on the mental health of transgender patients. One 2012 study looked at a sample population wherein about two thirds had undergone hormone therapy, while the remaining third had not, and found that individuals who had not begun hormones experienced approximately 30% higher levels of anxiety and depression. Two more recent studies, one from 2013 and one from 2014, looked at a representative population of transgender people before hormone therapy, at one year on hormones, and then after any desired gender confirmation surgery. The results found an even greater reduction in disordered symptoms, especially in symptoms of anxiety, after the start of hormone therapy, and what's more, after twelve months on a hormone regimen, transgender patient's scores on symptom checklists resembled the scores of the general population! Additional studies focusing on levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, found that prior to hormone therapy trans people experienced higher perceived stress, while after twelve months of cross-sex hormones their cortisol levels came down and fell within the normal range.

So while it is true that the transgender community suffers from mental illness at a higher rate than their cisgender peers, we can take comfort from the knowledge that these disorders are understood, treatable, and above all, that they do not undermine our gender identities. Just because you may deal with depression does not mean your dysphoria is a moot point; just because you struggle with anxiety doesn't mean that your fear of harassment isn't real; just because you're recovering from an eating disorder doesn't mean you're not allowed to ask for help when it comes to gendered expectations surrounding body image. If we take nothing else from these studies--if we ignore the positive effects of trans-inclusive mental healthcare and access to hormone therapy--we must at least recognize that our mental illnesses don't render our gender identities insignificant. Let's hope that as more research is done we'll see positive advances in trans-inclusive treatment in the medical community, and continued movement towards legislation to protect LGBT folks from the social stigma that triggers these disorders.

Dysphoria and Dysmorphia: Understanding Identity and Mental Illness

Austen Hartke5 Comments
 Photo by  MeganLynnette

Photo by MeganLynnette

The argument goes something like this:

"You wouldn't help an anorexic person starve themselves--you wouldn't support their false perception about their body, because it's harmful to them. Just because an anorexic person may believe they're too heavy doesn't mean it's true. They're not seeing reality for what it is. It's just the same for transgender people--just because they believe they're a different gender doesn't mean it's true, and supporting that false perception is harmful."

Well friends, it's come time to talk about this categorization of trans identities as mental illness, and about the comparison between gender identity and eating disorders. This comparison has been drawn recently in several articles following the interview with Bruce Jenner, and unfortunately it's based in a misunderstanding of psychological diagnoses. I'm not a mental health professional, but I've found that coming to understand two similar-sounding Greek words, dysphoria and dysmorphia, has helped me understand the difference between identity and mental illness. Confusing these two concepts can lead to bias against transgender folks, and to lack of compassion for people suffering with eating disorders, so let's dive in and get our facts straight!

First of all, how are eating disorders and transgender identities categorized by mental health professionals?

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are part of a condition called "Body Dysmorphic Disorder." In short, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, is a disorder in which your perception of your body does not align with reality. People with BDD are caught up in a cycle of obsessive thoughts about one or more parts of their body which they believe to be noticeably flawed--the word "dysmorphia" itself means "malformation." Eating disorders fall under the BDD umbrella. Someone with an eating disorder, then, perceives a part or parts of their body to be overweight, and the obsession over that fact pushes them into a disordered relationship with food.

Transgender people, on the other hand, are diagnosed by the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) with gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is not a disorder, and is now recognized not as a condition, but as a symptom. The word "dysphoria" means a sense of restlessness, anxiety, dissonance, or distress, and is the linguistic opposite of a sense of euphoria. Trans people experience this sense of distress when they contemplate the difference between the reality of their body, and the way they believe their body should be in order to align with their sense of self.

So, to sum up, body dysmorphia causes someone to believe their body is a certain way, while gender dysphoria is a sense that the body should be a different way. People with BDD are not able to see the difference between the way their body is and the way other people see their body; transgender folks are uncomfortably able to see the way their body really is, and the way that reality conflicts with their internal experience of their gender.

So how are body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria treated?

That's the interesting thing--one of the reasons gender dysphoria has been declassified as a disorder is because of the way treatment works. In the case of a mental disorder, psychotherapy and medication are generally shown to be helpful, and this is the case for body dysmorphia. People who suffer from eating disorders benefit greatly by cognative and behavior therapy, and by the use of anti-anxiety and depression medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). People dealing with gender dysphoria, on the other hand, do not experience relief from the sense of dissonance when put on medication, and though therapy is often helpful, it does not cause the dysphoria to subside.

Surgical modification is another form of treatment which has been used in cases of both body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria. Despite recent rumors to the contrary, surgical intervention has been shown to be incredibly effective at relieving gender dysphoria. Once trans people experience their body as they believe it should be, the anxiety and depression surrounding their body and their perception in society decreases almost immediately, and only 1-4% of people experience any sense of regret regarding surgery. The same cannot be said of people suffering from body dysmorphia who attempt surgery. Physical modifications have been shown to be entirely unhelpful in cases of BDD because the obsessive thoughts will always target a new part of the body, and disordered eating and behavior patterns will continue

So how can we support transgender people who deal with gender dysphoria, as well as folks who struggle with body dysmorphia and eating disorders?

Well, we start by doing our research, and by listening to people who struggle with these issues. The truth is, support may look very different in these two scenarios, but the love you give is the same. If you have a friend or family member who struggles with an eating disorder, read up on what they're going through over at the National Eating Disorder Association, and talk with them about seeking clinical help. If you have a friend or family member who has come out to you as transgender and who deals with gender dysphoria, the best thing you can do is affirm their identity and use the correct name and pronouns. Body dysmorphia may last a lifetime, though it can be treated so that it no longer actively interferes with someone's life. Gender dysphoria, on the other hand, effectively disappears once a trans person is allowed to physically transition. 

In no way is recognizing someone's trans identity the same thing as encouraging someone's eating disorder--these issues are distinct, and carry their own solutions. Let's work together to keep this faulty argument from being used to demean trans folks, or to marginalize people suffering from BDD. Our friends and neighbors deserve better.

Back (and Forth) to Basics

Austen HartkeComment
 Photo by Ariel Udel

Photo by Ariel Udel

A couple of days ago I had lunch with my dad at the local faux-English pub. As I dug into my beer-batter cod, we got talking about my upcoming trip to speak at the Reformation Project conference, and I told him that I wished he could be there. Not necessarily to see me speak, but to hear the way other Christians are wrestling with issues of LGBTQ inclusion. My dad laughed a little bit, and said that he thought the people who would attend this kind of conference would be "way over here," gesturing far to one side of the table, "and I'm back over here," sweeping his hand far in the opposite direction.* What he meant, I think, is that he has a hard time imagining himself on the same page as folks who ardently believe that gender identity and sexual orientation can be reconciled with the tenets of our faith. It's not that he doesn't believe it's possible, necessarily--he just senses that there's a canyon between where they stand and where he is now.

My dad is a great guy, and he's always been welcoming of my wonderful girlfriend, but despite this he still has a hard time believing that things like homosexuality are compatible with a biblical worldview. He's definitely not alone in this, and in fact it was his question ("how do you explain being transgender, theologically?") that planted the seed that grew into the Transgender and Christian project. There are so many people  out there (LGBTQ and otherwise) who are wondering the same thing--can you be gay, or trans, or asexual, etc. etc. and still believe in the importance of scripture and have a relationship with God and the church?

While the answer for those of us who have spent years learning and processing may be an unequivocal "YES," that kind of pat answer doesn't help those who are still struggling to understand. It's a bit like being back in high school math class--if you don't show your work on a problem, nobody knows if the answer means anything.

And I'll admit, with the latest influx of spiteful articles hosted on so called Christian sites after the Jenner interview, I've grown frustrated with the process of having to constantly defend my identity. There's a certain amount of wear-and-tear that's caused by facing people who insist that you're mentally ill and possibly dangerous. This frustration can quickly become an urge to shut down conversation--to refuse to continually attempt to educate people at a basic level--especially when it seems like nobody really wants to learn.

But like I said, it's incredibly difficult for folks to go from hateful to unsure to curious to accepting if we don't show them how we made it through that process ourselves. Yes, there may be a vocal faction of people who refuse to listen, but the vast majority of Christians, especially in mainline denominations, do have at least some desire to engage in conversation around LGBTQ issues. This need stems from the fact that more and more Americans now know someone gay, and I've found that at least one fourth of the comments on my Transgender and Christian videos are from straight, cisgender folks who've felt like they couldn't return to the church until there was some way to love both God and their queer sibling. People are hungry for conversation around these topics, but most don't know how to start.

We need queer Christians to step forward courageously and be willing to do the 101 work needed in these contexts. We need people who are willing to not only tell their story, but to also go through the basics like "what does transgender mean?" and "which terms are not okay, and why?" It is, in a sense, putting the burden of proof on the marginalized, to expect those of us who are queer and Christian to stand up, identify ourselves, and do the work, but what's the alternative? Either not having the conversation at all, or allowing others to speak for us.

So while I'm not advocating that we beat our heads against a brick wall trying to get the Matt Walshes of the world in our corner, I do pray that LGBTQ Christians will be given the courage, patience, and gentleness we'll need to work as educators for those with honest questions. I have a great hope that someday my dad will be able to sit in a room with other reconciling folks and feel like his doubts are as welcome as his love for his children. I hope he'll be able to engage in conversation without running up against suppositions that require a masters in gender theory.

In the meantime, I promise to do my best as a resource, even if it means acting as both Google search and Wikipedia entry for those who aren't as familiar with the internet (and as someone who spends a lot of time talking to church secretaries, let me assure you of this necessity). Not all of us are called to do this work--we need graduate professors as much as we need kindergarten teachers--but personally, I always need a reminder that this is where I choose to work:

In the early stages. In the grey morning light. Right before the light bulb goes on.

 

*Not true! In fact, the Reformation Project works to promote conversation between LGBTQ Christians and Christians who aren't sure how to talk about these issues. The conference will be attended by people who are curious, skeptical, and confused, as well as those who know where they stand.

Welcome!

Austen HartkeComment
  Photo by  Nana B Agyei  

Photo by Nana B Agyei 

Hello, world! It's Austen. 

Welcome to this new corner of the internet.

When I first started work on the Transgender and Christian web-series, I thought about framing it as a blog. I figured putting up one post per week analyzing and highlighting transgender experiences within Christianity would work best in long form. Who wouldn't want to read walls and walls of text on gender theory and Hebrew root words, right?

Good thing I talked myself out of that one.

Still, thirteen videos into the project, it's become clear that a written component would open up new opportunities, and so here we are! Let me tell you a little bit about my hopes for this space.

This is where I'm going to be blogging about issues related to gender identity and Christianity as they come up in the public consciousness, and as they come up personally in my life. During the time I spent working to understand my own gender identity, I found that while there were more than a handful of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christian bloggers, there was a severe lack of information about and stories from transgender Christians. I'm writing to add one more voice to this chorus.

This blog will also be the platform for a series of interviews I'm going to be soliciting from trans people of faith. And when I say "trans people of faith," I mean that in the broadest sense--I hope to speak with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist trans folks, as well as to trans folks in Christian denominations other than my own. My experience as a Christian does not represent all Christian experiences, just as my experience as a trans person does not represent the experience of all trans people, and I hope that by bringing together diverse voices we might come to understand how to better support each other.

So here are the nitty-gritty details:
As of right now, I'm not creating a set posting schedule--I'll post as often as someone with a full time job, one part-time side project, and a girlfriend and family is able. The goal is to have a new post up here once a week, but the Transgender and Christian videos will take priority, so you can be sure to always find me over at YouTube on Wednesdays.

And for those of you like myself who enjoy mission statements, this one's for you:
Above all, this blog is inspired by Brené  Brown's definition of the word courage, which she says "begins with the willingness to show up and let ourselves be seen." For transgender people, our ability to show up and be seen in the most literal sense is, at worst, dangerous, and at best, anxiety-producing. For me, the creation of this blog and of the Transgender and Christian series is an act of courage--an affirmation that says "I am here."

I hope you'll join me.