by Becky Garrison

Despite the recent rise of murders motivated by a bias against LGBT people along side increasing anti-gay measures in states such as North Carolina, the growing body of anti-discrimination laws focusing on sexual orientation afford many gay and lesbian individuals the opportunity to live their lives authentically. The same cannot be said for transgender individuals. Few laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity protect this community and allow them to express who they are in public. Because of this, trying to estimate the exact number of people who self-identify as trans-sexual remains a challenge for researchers, health providers and others working with this community.

At the 11th annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, the largest trans specific health conference in the world, 2,400 participants converged to explore in a safe environment the health and well-being of transgender people, communities and allies. This year there was a strong interest in spiritual health, with over 50 spiritual activities available including interfaith workshops, film screenings, worship services, meditation/yoga and exhibition booths.

T Forward, a new initiative announced as a component of TransFaith Online‘s Interfaith Working Group, will serve as a hub for religious leaders working with transgender people and communities to share stories and to advocate for “secular” legislation. Those religious leaders present T Forward’s launching session reflected on the disconnect between national church policy that affirms those who are gender nonconforming and how local congregations implement–or ignore–these nonbinding resolutions.

Still one found advances in transgender rights transpiring in several mainline denominations. According to Transepiscopal, the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention passed 4 out of 5 resolutions focusing on transgender issues. In particular, the Episcopal Church changed their forms so one can enter a non-binary gender and instituted hiring practices that prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity. They anticipate that 12 to 15 people from the 80 to 100 members of Transepiscopal will attend the forthcoming 2012 General Convention this July in Indianapolis.

Transepiscopal also collaborated with IntegrityUSA an Episcopal LGBT advocacy organization, to create “Out of the Box,” a documentary that tells the story of transgender people of faith. This documentary joins a small collection of transgender and faith documentaries, including the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) film “Call me Malcolm” and “Two Spirits.”

Within the past year, Lutherans Concerned/North America, a group working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their church and congregations, created an affinity group titled TransLutherans. While the United Methodist Church stated at their recent convention that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” they were unsuccessful in adding transgender people to their “incompatible” list.

A session titled “Encountering Sacred Texts” opened up possibilities for healthy engagement with  Judeo-Christian sacred texts, with an emphasis on how transgender people might bring their whole selves to the process. Joy Ladin, the only openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish Institution (she teaches at Stern, Yeshiva University’s women’s college) and Shannon Kearns, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary who was ordained a deacon in the North American Old Catholic Church at this conference, chose not to follow in the liberal tradition of debunking the clobber tests in the Leviticus and Pauline corpus. Instead, they introduced new ways to view scripture from a non-binary position by bringing in positive stories of trans people.  Along those lines, leaders with the Jewish LGBT group Keshet initiated conversations about ways congregations and synagogues can create worship spaces and celebrations that welcome the transgender community.

Despite these advances, the majority of transgender individuals will most likely remain under the radar until laws shift, granting those who fall outside the gender binary basic rights such as housing, employment and physical safety.  For now, many feel they need to remain stealth in order to feel safe. And they need to keep talking about their faiths.