In Transition: Religious, familial acceptance are important factors for transition

Photo credit: Karyn Simpson

By Molly Atchison | Opinion Editor

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a four-part series about gender transition and the issues surrounding it. For the personal safety of some of the individuals mentioned below, last names have been omitted.

“When I was a child, I went to church every Saturday — which is the Sabbath day in the Seventh Day Adventist church.” McLennan County junior Jessica said.

Jessica, a transgender student attending Baylor University, went through several stages of self-reflection as she began to consider publicly representing herself as a woman and starting the transition process. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Jessica grew up in a conservative home, adhering to the “Sola Scriptura” doctrine that the Seventh Day Adventists accept.

According to the official Seventh Day Adventist website, Sola Scriptura is the belief that the Bible is the “only standard of faith and practice for Christians.” One of the fundamental aspects of this is that the Sabbath is celebrated on Saturday and is a day strictly for rest.

“Since most Seventh Day Adventists recognize the Sabbath from sundown on Friday night to sundown Saturday night, we would usually spend the entire day with the congregation,” Jessica said.

The closeness of the community fostered strong religious ties for Jessica and encouraged her spiritual growth.

From the time Jessica was little, she believed there was something that distinguished her from the rest of her community.

“I always identified as a girl, but I kept it to myself out of fear of rejection or extreme disciplinary actions.” Jessica said.

Concern over acceptance, both in a family and religious environment, is a concern for many transgender individuals.

Familial acceptance is an integral part of a transgender person’s confidence and health later in their life, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, but religion also plays a role in a transgender person’s transition process.

For many pastors, priests and other religious leaders, the transgender rights debate is just one of many difficult topics to address with a congregation. Joshua Carney, the head pastor at University Baptist Church in Waco, is one of many leaders trying to determine how to learn from the ever-changing social atmosphere and explain it to their listeners.

“In my experience, the best way to address issues that are fraught is by being honest. Being honest about how we feel need not be interpreted as hate even if there is disagreement. On all the issues in my life that I have evolved in my understanding, I have done so because people who disagreed with me continued to listen and treat me with dignity even though they thought I was wrong. That patience and endurance, which I interpreted as a kind of love, did as much to change my mind as did reasoned arguments.” he said.

However, while it may be easy for a pastor to word their sermons to respect their audience’s point of view, it can be difficult for the everyday Christian to do the same.

“For the conservative church, I think this means being intentional about the language that is used. One way to honor people you disagree with is by educating yourself on the vernacular that those we disagree with would prefer to shape discourse. Another way to honor people we disagree with is to advocate for them in all the ways that affirm their humanity even if one finds their lifestyle objectionable. As an analog, I offer this example. One could be supportive of civil unions even if one were opposed to same sex marriage within the church. To transgender individuals, I would humbly ask for patience. There are communities of faith whose love includes acceptance and affirmation of transgender individuals. I would encourage transgender folks to find those communities and commit to praying for other churches that don’t agree with them while they wait and to keep the conversation going,” Carney said.

Throughout her life, Jessica followed the doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventists, which included little use of electronics and television consumption.

After finding out that surgery was an option from a TV show about three years ago, Jessica took a year in which she separated herself from her church community and consulted Scripture for help in deciding whether to begin the transition process.

“As conservative as Seventh Day Adventists are, we have an interesting view on science — we do believe in using science in order to understand it, and we do allow the use of medicine for healing purposes,” Jessica said.

Since surgery is deemed acceptable in her church, Jessica decided that getting the sex-reassignment surgery and the precursory hormone treatments would be religiously acceptable. The Seventh Day Adventists released a statement on Oct. 17, 2012, that they were not able to make a definitive statement on the issue of transgender rights and are still debating the issue at this time.

After going through a year of deep contemplation and Scriptural immersion, Jessica came to the conclusion that, based on her personal beliefs and the Seventh Day Adventist teachings she learned from, her identity as a transgender individual was not inherently against her values, and she thus began her transition process.

After making this decision, she has decided not to return to the Seventh Day Adventist community and instead began to attend different churches around Waco. Jessica was thrilled to say that she has found a welcoming community at all but one of the six congregations she has visited.

Across the world, there are varying views on the issue of transgender individuals and their place in society. There are some religions and cultures, such as the Islamic faith, where the conversation surrounding the LGBT community is virtually non-existent.

“Homosexuality is very much private, and in some places in the Muslim and Arab world, it is so condemned that they stone people still for homosexuality and transgenderism,” said Middle Eastern studies professor, William Baker.

Baker also mentioned that in some places in the Middle East, especially Israel, the LGBT community has more respect and is openly discussed.

There are other religions such as Christianity that have diverse communities with varying opinions on the topic — from the Westboro Baptist Church, who, according to its website openly pickets at public locations opposing the LGBT community, claiming that “God hates ‘Trannys’,” to postmodern Christians such as Baptist Pastor Chris Glaser, who states on his website that he is a homosexual and preaches about religious acceptance of the gay and transgender communities.

Baylor University chaplain and dean of spiritual life, Dr. Burt Burleson said he encourages students to always think intuitively about social issues.

“There is not one Christian view on any social issue, really. So thinking deeply as God’s people will always be important,” Burleson said.

As she moves through her transition, Jessica said she not only reflects on her process but also on her time at Baylor.

“Even if I could have gotten a full-ride to another school, I would still choose Baylor. Baylor has a community that are loving and friendly. It’s just Baylor,” Jessica said. “I want Baylor to continue being the caring community where all students, no matter what their identity may be, can learn and grow.”