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Want to Support Queer and Trans People? Fix Your Churches.

Protecting our rights and dignity at a more fundamental level than “getting out the vote”

Members of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations of the Bay Area attend the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

For World Mental Health Day on October 10, I decided to stop reading any story that had the name of our 45th president in the headline. My outrage at the amount of violence and injustice in the world had reached a level where hearing any more news about the latest hate spewed by the current presidential administration would only cause me unnecessary grief. Reading liberals repeatedly urging people to vote for Democrats as a response —with the inevitable associated shaming of progressive third-party voters and abstainers — did not help either.

I just needed a break from the onslaught, and short of avoiding news coverage and social media altogether, this was my chosen method of self-care. I knew I couldn’t avoid reading about current events for long, though. My self-imposed news break ended when the New York Times reported this week that the current administration was planning to legally deny the existence of sex and gender variance. Members of the trans, non-binary, and intersex communities and our allies immediately condemned this latest attack on our rights and dignity.

At first I refused to read the news report, and just suggested that friends and allies share stories written by and about trans folks. I offered my own profile from the New York Times “Transgender Today” column (published in 2015), posting on Facebook that my story might be of historical interest if I got hauled off to a concentration camp (which I don’t see as a far-fetched scenario, sadly). But later I did read the NYT story about the trans-antagonistic memo, as well as various reactions to it (particularly those written by trans people), as I felt it was important to be informed about exactly what was being proposed.

Here’s the thing: I respect other trans, non-binary, and intersex people reacting to this aggravating and genuinely frightening news in whatever way feels appropriate to them. But I am not going to respond by urging people to get out the vote (though I certainly don’t oppose voting, and will be voting next month as I have in virtually every election since I first became eligible in 1988). Instead, I am going to focus on what I see as a major source of the oppression of queer and trans people: Religious bigotry.

Though I don’t write about this as much as other topics, I am an avowed atheist. I have been for over 30 years, since the age of 16, when I came to realize that God was made in man’s image and not the other way around. However, I am not an anti-theist; I do not oppose others believing in and/or worshiping whichever gods they wish, and do not actively avoid the company of religious people. I sing in a queer chorus that rehearses in a queer Christian church, and also sing in a trans/genderqueer/intersex chorus that’s led by a rabbi (who is himself trans and intersex).

For years I have marched and rallied alongside people of many faiths in support of LGBT rights. So I know that supporting queer and trans people is not in opposition to having religious faith, even for Christians. But I also know that many countering accusations of religious bigotry with cries of “NotAllChristians” are not doing enough to oppose the bigotry and oppression that is present in their own places of worship.

To put it plainly: If your church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other religious institution does not openly and enthusiastically welcome and support queer and trans people, and you are not actively working to reform it, you are a willing participant in our oppression. If you’re unsure of what open and enthusiastic support means, have a look at this checklist:

  • Does your religious organization ordain women? Lesbians? Bisexuals? Gay men? Openly trans people?
  • Is celibacy a requirement for the ordination of people in any of the above categories?
  • Does your religious organization have leaders at all levels in any of the above categories?
  • Does your religious organization teach that sex and/or gender is determined by God, strictly binary, and immutable?
  • Does your religious organization use conversion therapy to “cure” queer or trans people of “deviance”?
  • Does your religious organization preach that queer or trans people are sinners, but should still be loved because one should “hate the sin, not the sinner”?
  • Does your religious organization perform same-sex marriage ceremonies?
  • Does your religious organization have groups or events specifically for queer and trans people?
  • Does your place of worship have gender-neutral restrooms?
  • Do your religious leaders address your congregants with gender-neutral language that does not assume everyone is either a woman or a man?

This is an incomplete and informal checklist, with no scoring. The point is that there’s a lot more to supporting the LGBTQ community than simply not threatening us with eternal damnation and hellfire. In particular, if your leaders are all straight, cisgender men, your church cannot possibly be serving the best interests of all people, much less trans folks.

Some people reading the above might object that they don’t necessarily agree with everything their church teaches, but choose to remain because they have a long-standing affiliation or need the support of that community. Here’s the thing: If you are a free-living adult who believes that God has granted you free will, you have the ability to choose a different religious community. I’ll reiterate: If your church discriminates against queer and trans people, and you are not actively working to reform it, you are not an ally. Either fix your church or find a better one.

You might question how reforming the churches would impact trans-antagonistic legislation. As I’ve pointed out before, the separation of church and state in the U.S. is a laughable fiction. Religious institutions get tax breaks, “In God We Trust” is printed on our currency, and Congress opens sessions with prayer. It’s not just evangelicals giving funding and votes to Republicans that is the problem.

Regardless, many religious believers feel that God is above all human law, so it doesn’t matter what laws are on the books if they conflict with the believer’s interpretation of scripture. They might see it as their religious duty to exclude, attack, or even kill queer or trans people, just for being ourselves. No law on Earth will deter them if they feel that God is on their side, and as belief in God is taken for granted by the vast majority of the U.S. population, their defense will more likely be met with sympathy than ridicule or condemnation.

I’m certainly not implying that atheists are not also responsible for queer and trans oppression; most prominent atheists in the U.S. are cishet white men, some of whom are extremely bigoted. But bigotry backed by religious institutions enjoys widespread and historical support in this country. Allies who are religiously affiliated need to actively oppose these teachings, not merely ignore or make excuses for those they might find inconvenient or uncomfortable.

While I do harbor a lot of resentment over the centuries of oppression queer and trans people have endured in the name of religion, my agenda is not to demolish the churches or turn everyone into an atheist. I simply want religious people to take accountability for the ongoing harm enacted by their institutions, and do something about it. If you are embarrassed by the structure or teachings of your church, don’t continue to lend support in silence. Either fix it or leave it.