“This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased,” read the banner that hung from the chapel’s ceiling at the seminary where I was teaching. A transgender student stepped up and took his place at the podium underneath it. To him, this was a familiar place—he had read and prayed there many times. But this turned out to be a special moment, something different. As he stood, an electric wave of recognition ran through the congregation as they saw the importance of this moment: the powerful image of a transgender person above whose head read the Holy Spirit’s blessing of Jesus: “This is my beloved child.”
For more than thirty years, I have been a queer and trans activist, advocate, minister, and theologian; in that time, I’ve affirmed that to be known and loved by God is the birthright of every person—indeed of all creation. The declaration that a transgender person is God’s “beloved child’ is a radical theological statement only against the backdrop of a conservative religious bias against those outside of the gender binary. That is, it should be a normative idea: God’s love is for all people. And yet it becomes a statement of liberation, even defiance, in this era. I have witnessed the profound power that comes when we truly know ourselves to be treasured, holy, and beloved people. This knowledge can be a tremendous source of healing and even protection against the destructive forces of transphobia and homophobia. Understanding the truth that we are God’s beloved children reveals the falsehood of religious rejection. We need that knowledge of our sacredness, especially as transgender rights come under attack.
Over the past few years, the United States has seen an alarming number of state and local bills that intend to restrict transgender people from accessing public accommodations, legal and healthcare services, and more. Many, but not all, of these bills focus on restricting the lives of non-binary and transgender youth. Not only is the sheer number of anti-LGBTQ bills rising—from 41 in 2018 to 238 in the first quarter of 2022—but the percentage of these bills that focus directly on gender identity has also steadily increased. Many have been defeated, died in committee, or been vetoed, but some have become law.
In the proposed and passed state legislation, transgender and non-binary people are set to lose access to public restrooms and locker rooms, be excluded from organized sports, and have our contributions and histories erased from classroom conversations. Some policies prevent transgender patients, their families, and their doctors from following necessary and best-practice medical care. Instead, these healthcare decisions will be made by politicians without any training or knowledge of the subject. Other bills make it more challenging to change names and gender markers on legal documents, which exposes transgender people to discrimination in all arenas, especially housing, employment, education, and travel. When a group is singled out for exclusion from public spaces and services, or deliberately exposed to discrimination through state actions, it poses a serious danger to society by sending a message to the broader public and to members of that group that it is acceptable to treat them as less than others and not on equal footing as human beings.
Research shows that when people are demonized or excluded based on demographic categories, it becomes significantly easier to increase stigmatization, marginalization, and violence. Consider, for example, the work of Professor Erwin Staub, whose research focuses on genocide. He points out that horrific events of violence often begin with small acts of dehumanization. It is at those early stages that bystanders’ objections are most effective in ending the discrimination. When people ignore the mistreatment of others, society as a whole finds it easier to engage in or condone violent behavior against that group. It is, therefore, imperative to object to attempts to enshrine prejudice and exclusion into law. To be clear: I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of genocide—although transgender people, especially trans people of color, face devastating rates of discrimination and violence; but rather, we are at a point when it is ethically and urgently necessary to protect the wellbeing of non-binary and transgender people.
Anti-transgender bills are already doing harm to our society and to those most impacted by them. When Texas officials labelled gender-affirming care as child abuse and called for the public to report parents who supported such care, it had significant adverse effects on youth and families in the state. These were compounded by additional actions by the Texas legislature banning transgender youth from participating in sports teams congruent with their gender identity. The Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth, reported a 150% increase in calls from Texas during this period. Similarly, as I write this, Florida is considering a ban on all gender affirming care for minors after enacting a new law barring teachers from speaking about gender identity and sexual orientation. Each additional bill compounds the pressure on young people. Given that these bans on medical care are the polar opposite of the guidance from groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, it defies credibility when politicians argue that these laws are needed to protect adolescents’ health.
Attempts to legislate transgender and non-binary people away from public view—either because we make some people uncomfortable or because it is an effective wedge issue in our deeply partisan times—leads to the constriction of lives and souls. When non-binary and transgender people must restrict our movements so as not to enter forbidden spaces, or live with the knowledge that we are not allowed to participate in organized sports or have our existence mentioned in classrooms, our world becomes smaller and more fraught with danger. These limitations stifle the spirit and even lead to death for those who internalize the stigma and hatred.
As people of faith, we recognize that the freedom to express our truest and deepest selves is vital to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. For those of us from religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions that affirm the worth, dignity, and sacredness of all people, the escalating assaults on transgender and non-binary people’s rights should be deeply alarming. Our values call us to stand against state-sanctioned stigmatization. Transgender and non-binary people deserve the right to use public facilities, to participate in social activities and athletics, and to receive competent, compassionate healthcare simply because we are human beings and are worthy of all these things.
For those of us who are Christian, we must take note that our conservative co-religionists are driving much of this bias and resulting legislation. They claim to represent the views of an entire faith and yet they do not. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only white evangelicals felt that there was too much acceptance of transgender people in American society. By contrast, the majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans felt society had not gone far enough in accepting transgender people. However, this is not simply a religious vs. unreligious divide. A strong plurality of Roman Catholics, Black Protestants, and white mainline Protestants reported in the same survey, in roughly equal numbers, that society’s acceptance of trans people had been “about right” or “had not gone far enough.” This is a valuable piece of truth about the sizeable number of Christians who support transgender equality. And while the Pew analysis was limited to Christians, other research shows similar findings across religious groups. People of faith who support transgender individuals must now step up and act. We must speak out against destructive anti-trans legislation and actions that fly in the face of our values.
While conservatives claim their anti-transgender sentiments are based on Biblical principles, the fact of the matter is that there are positive examples of gender differences in our sacred text. Take, for example, what the Bible says about eunuchs. Eunuchs are a fairly close parallel to non-binary and transgender people, as much as any ancient category can fit modern understandings. Jesus stated that there are different kinds of eunuchs, some created by God, some by human hands (Matthew 19: 11-12). One story in the Christian Bible tells us of an Ethiopian eunuch who is traveling along a wilderness road after attending a religious festival in Jerusalem. One of Jesus’ followers, Philip, appears to him and shares the Gospel with him. The eunuch asks to be baptized and Philip immediately does so. The center of this sacred story is the religious inclusion and affirmation of a Black man who lived outside of the bounds of normative gender; this should be the basis for Christian responses to transgender and non-binary people.
The prejudices of conservative Christianity fail to tell the whole story of how people of faith, including Christians, have responded to non-binary and transgender people. Several years ago, I met a chaplain who works at one of the European hospitals that has served the medical needs of transgender people since the late 1950s. The medical staff at the time—then exclusively Christian—followed a line of reasoning that began with the understanding that gender dysphoria causes suffering. As medical providers, they had the means to alleviate suffering. As those who follow Jesus, himself a healer, they knew they had a responsibility to lessen this pain. Offering appropriate medical care, therefore, became an ethical and spiritual obligation.
What if we took this same approach to those who would deny treatment to transgender youth? Rather than being the cause of increased suffering, people of faith can advocate for the most effective medical care and promote actions to ensure the wellbeing of non-binary and transgender children and adolescents.
Today, we recognize that gender differences themselves do not cause suffering; rather, trans and non-binary people suffer when we are rejected by our families and denied sufficient healthcare and equality under the law. In research that I have conducted with colleagues, we found a clear link between family support and increased wellbeing (shown in indices like decreased risk of suicide attempts, lower rates of homelessness and substance use to cope with discrimination, etc.).
I have seen this at work not only on spreadsheets of data, but also in the lives of real families. At a conference on pastoral care for transgender youth, one mother told me how, when her child expressed a different gender identity, she had diligently followed the advice of her evangelical pastor to discourage every act of gender transgression. She truly wanted what was best for her child. But after months and months of this, as she was ready to dole out yet another punishment, she looked into the eyes of her 10-year-old and saw nothing but defeat, resignation, and, she said, frankly, death. It was as if her child were no longer living. And in that moment, she had a life-changing revelation: as a mother, her job was to protect and nurture her child and that was what she was going to do, no matter what the pastor had said. She described a long and difficult road of rebuilding trust as a family, a path that was necessary, in her words, for her child to survive. Her faith was most fully expressed by caring for and loving her child exactly as that child is, rather than by her evangelical church’s teachings. That made all the difference, she said, between depression and flourishing for her child, who is now an engaging, active teenager getting ready for college. The family sought out a new church where their whole family was affirmed.
One of the most inspiring changes I have seen over the past thirty years is the emergence of supportive families. It gives me such hope for future generations when I see parents and grandparents who believe their children when they share their identities and fiercely protect the rights of those kids to go to school, play sports, encounter the world—to just be children. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I could not have imagined trusting any adult with the truth I knew about myself. How wonderful that, in some families today, kids are believed, affirmed, and valued as they are, gender differences and all—and that increases my resolve to ensure that every child has that experience and that right.
This truth telling, this affirmation, is a sacred story. At the end of the day, this is about souls finding the necessary freedom to express ourselves. It is a quest for joy, thriving, and self-knowledge. It is the right to understand ourselves as beloved children of God at the deepest and holiest level of our beings. We don’t need a banner over our heads to proclaim it, although that is lovely when it occurs. These words of affirmation are already written within our hearts.
Justin Sabia-Tanis is the director of the Social Transformation program and an assistant professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. A universalist Christian, he has served as an LGBTQ activist, educator, and pastor since the 1980s; he is ordained in the United Church of Christ.