As a pastor, I am always happy when one of my congregants represents our church in the community. Recently, a congregant was attending a community event and was approached by someone she did not know. This person said to my congregant, in a gossipy stage whisper, “I knew your pastor when he was a she.” My congregant was taken aback by this, not because my trans status was a surprise to her, but because of the way the comment was delivered. It was as if this information was intended to undermine something fundamental about my ability to serve Christ and to serve my faith community – or perhaps undermine the work of our entire faith community.
One of the peculiar things about being a faith leader who is also a trans person is that people frequently attempt to “out” me to my own congregation. This can only have the negative impact that’s intended, if people believe that a trans identity is shameful and, therefore, should always be hidden. If we take away the shame, then transphobic comments lose their power. March 31st is Trans Day of Visibility and, in honor of this, I encourage my trans and nonbinary siblings to speak your truth and to tell your stories. I also encourage cisgender people to take this opportunity to truly listen to the trans people in your life, paying particular attention to the parameters and boundaries that trans people set in telling their own stories.
As trans people claim our right to our own truth, I believe that we could benefit from the demystification of the notion of “before.” This means that we get to control the narrative. We get to choose how much of our story is shared, how it is shared, and who has access to this information. Sometimes well-meaning allies and friends overshare their knowledge about the histories of the trans people in their lives. Some people believe that they have – and are entitled to – information and details about trans lives, such as birth names and information about medical status.
While there is no one-size-fits-all guide to being supportive of trans people, there are some guidelines that can prove helpful in supporting trans and nonbinary people. Before speaking of someone else’s trans status, first think about whether you have permission. Then, before speaking, also check your motivation. To stand in solidarity with trans people means having a commitment to constant awareness about the line between visibility and privacy. Sometimes old friends or acquaintances are titillated by the social appeal of having known a person before they came out.
Many trans and nonbinary people change their names and their pronouns at some point in their lives; some do not. Many have medical procedures and take hormones, but some do not. These details are not always intended to be public information. The intention of our words matters but the impact matters even more. We can mean well, but if our words are harmful, then harm is done.
The person who voiced the conspiratorial whisper about the history of my pronouns did not, in fact, ever know me as “a she.” But even if this person had, does it matter? Am I any less of a pastor, teacher, or community leader because I was born and raised with gender expectations—and pronouns—that did not match my true identity? Should I live a life of fear or shame because there are people in this world who once knew me by a different name? Let’s be aware of the ways our words shape people’s understanding about human worth.
On this Trans Day of Visibility, I encourage cisgender people to speak up when you hear trans people being spoken about in harmful ways. I encourage you to educate people whenever you can and, if they refuse to learn, I encourage you to shut down the harmful language altogether. If you are a faith leader, a teacher, or anyone who is given a public forum in which to speak, please invite trans people into your pulpits, your classrooms, and other venues. Reach out to the trans people in your life, particularly trans women of color, find out if they want you to hand them the microphone. Let them know that their voices, their stories, and their visibility matters. Lastly, if you are a trans person, I encourage you to speak your truth. You and your journey are a gift from the Divine!
Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw, MDiv, MA | Senior Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Tampa | Coordinator, CLGS Transgender Roundtable