Transgender Day of Remembrance

Written by Paula Williams, Q Christian Fellowship Board Member

November 20 marks an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in the United States.

In 2018, 22 transgender individuals have been murdered in the United States this year. Almost all have been young transgender women of color. Globally, between Oct. 2017 and September 2018, there are 369 cases of reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people (TransRespect.org). This constitutes an increase of 44 cases over the prior year and an increase of 74 over two years prior (TransRespect.org).

Under the current political climate within the U.S., violence against the transgender population has been on the increase. When federal employees in the U.S. are instructed to stop enforcing existing regulations protecting the rights of transgender workers, you know we have a problem. When legislation has been proposed seeking that the United States should only recognize the gender listed on one’s birth certificate, we have a problem. And when irresponsible political rhetoric causes increased violence, we have more than a problem. We have a travesty.

I am a transgender woman of privilege, with opportunities for employment, influence and friendship. I have a supportive family. I have been able to travel freely with very little concern for my safety beyond that experienced by any female. But with the escalating rhetoric against transgender people, I am more frightened than at any time since I transitioned. I can only imagine how difficult it is for transgender women and men of color.

The problem goes deeper than the violence done to the transgender community by outsiders. The atmosphere created by the religious right and the current political climate has wounded transgender people deep within their own souls. Did you know that the most common reason for post transition suicidal ideation is the internalization of transphobia?

We are not immune to the messages of our culture, casting us as a population that should be legislated out of existence. We know rhetoric is not empty. As we’ve seen with the bombers and shooters who have recently targeted politicians on the left and sexual and racial minorities, words incite violence.

Those words also burrow deep within our own psyches. When there are blatant attempts to legislate us out of existence, no wonder so many transgender people internalize those words in ways that can be dangerous to our own wellbeing.

Last week I learned from a tribe member that the Ojibwa people have seven gender identifiers. Many other Native American tribes have five. All of them celebrate and revere those they call "Two Spirit" people. I find it fascinating that those who never heard the story of Jesus are more like Jesus than the Christians who have sold their souls for political power.

During this week of remembrance, we pray for the many who have lost their lives in 2018, and we pray that all Americans, and especially evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, will learn to follow our better angels and stop the violence against all transgender people.

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Week 8 Devotional: NEVER UNCLEAN

Never Unclean

My partner and I sat across the table from my father at our favorite restaurant. We had just finished breakfast. My father counted down from 3 and told us to smile. He snapped a photo with his new camera. It was the first photo that my father took of us. More than that, it was the first time my father made a gesture that acknowledged I was in a relationship with another man.

My father and mother have been pastors most of my life. They have lived their lives steeped in the tenants of the Assemblies of God, preaching to the largely Hispanic/Latinx congregations they’ve started over the years. It was in this context that my coming out led us into awful and often angry debates surrounding the cause of homosexuality and the “choices” I did or did not have in the matter.

Our arduous and painful debates affirmed my early understanding of my parents’ sexual ethics, particularly around homosexuality. I knew where they stood theologically. According to my resentment-based assessment, they had written off my sinful soul some time ago.

Angrily, I had made my assumption because it was customary to hear my parents preach anti-LGBTQ sermons promoting the perception that anyone in the LGBTQ+ community was a deviant and unwelcome in their place of worship. Their position of the early 2000s felt static. And after all those years, even after coming out, I assumed it was still the same.

It was not until a recent phone call with my parents—inspired by Q Christian’s side-by-side dialogue—that I got to talk about my fear during those sermons and the months before and after my coming out. As I told them about how I planned on them kicking me out of the church, family, and our home, my mother gasped in disbelief. In response to those memories, both my mother and father repeated more times than I could count, “You are inherently valuable and I love you because you are my son.”

My assumptions of my worth and their theological positions had been off-kilter, after all. Our story mimics one we read about in Acts 10.

God had taken two men with differing religious backgrounds, Peter and an Italian named Cornelius, on a similar journey.

Cornelius prayed to God and gave gifts to the Jewish people in his community. After being heard by God, God orders Cornelius to send for a man named Peter—a man who was a devout Jew. About the same time Cornelius is getting his instructions from God, Peter has a vision where he is instructed to eat animals that were considered to be unclean according to Jewish law. Like any God-fearing Jew, Peter, in his vision, refuses to eat the animals. God speaks to him once more: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). Peter has no clue what this vision is designed to teach him.

The next day Peter meets Cornelius’ men and they travel back to the Italian community of Caesarea, where Cornelius and others assembled to hear from Peter. Upon arrival and out of confusion, Peter inquires as to why he’s been summoned by God. Cornelius tells him how he had been praying and giving gifts, and that he had received the instruction from God. Cornelius was vulnerable in sharing his story in front of Peter. Because of Cornelius’ honesty, Peter realized the true meaning of his vision.

We read in Acts 10:34, “Opening his mouth, Peter said: ‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.’” Both Cornelius and Peter’s vulnerabilities and actions were necessary for the two of them to see one another differently.

Both of them had learned the message my parents reaffirmed on our phone call: We belong in God’s family because we are all inherently valuable.

What I find more interesting is that God used two members of different faith backgrounds, in the ancient text and in the present day, to convince one another, through a series of circumstances, visions, and acts of faith, that all are inherently valuable: I feel loved because my parents looked past my identity and beliefs and cherished my inherent value. I love them, not for what they believe, but because they play an irreplaceable role in my life.

It wasn’t our commonalities that compelled us to believe in God’s expansive love; it was our differences. Let us not call anything unclean that God has made holy, not even one another.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  1. Have you embraced your inherent value?

  2.  How might God be calling you to see something as clean even when it seems unholy, either about yourself or your neighbor?

  3. How might you need to embrace the inherent value of another, even if they are your theological, political, or social opposite?

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Week 7 Devotional- AN ALABASTER MOMENT

An Alabaster Moment

I walked into a room of men who had recently been released from prison. I was an intern working at a court-ordered treatment facility. My classes as a seminarian were filled with lessons on the beauties of vulnerability. Seeing emotional openness through rose-colored lenses, I assumed the men in my group would hold similar views.

I opened up our group discussion with a very simple question: “What does vulnerability mean to you?”

At the time, I was shocked by their responses. They characterized vulnerability as weakness and something to avoid. They told me about all the measures they had taken to avoid vulnerability. They needed to remain protective at all times.

As I listened to their tales smattered with the stains of abandonment, rejection, and pain, I quickly learned that vulnerability in an unsafe environment can be lethal. Emotionally, many of them had been imprisoned long before their sentence began.

True, many of us have never been inside a jail cell—but maybe we are emotionally imprisoned just the same.

Those of us in the LGBTQ+ community and our allies have experienced the pangs and tragedies of vulnerability gone wrong. We have been rejected by families and religious spaces. Choosing authenticity has often meant choosing isolation and hyper-vigilance. Vulnerability, for many reasons, has become a practice to avoid.

In safe spaces and with trustworthy people, however, the process of vulnerability can be rather life-giving. I often rehearse a line that has changed my approach to relationships: Trust the process of vulnerability. This mantra of sorts not only helps me adjust my emotional posture when I’d rather bask in the temporary power of pride, but it has also become a way of life.

Vulnerability comes in two distinct forms. One receives from the world. This is the type of vulnerability that requires humility to learn and be teachable. Receiving feedback, taking criticism, and being called out by those wiser than me are the moments when trusting the process of vulnerability is the hardest, but ultimately incredibly rewarding.

The other type of vulnerability gives to the world. We use this type of vulnerability to share our stories, our pain, and our insecurities. Emotional vulnerability creates connectedness, relational intimacy, and experiences of being known.

Simon the Pharisee and the woman who washed Jesus’; feet in Luke 7 demonstrate both of these types of vulnerability. Simon is critiqued by Jesus. He has not been the best host and Jesus compares him to a sinner. Simon stands exposed and takes a lesson from Jesus.

The woman, who seems to have admired Jesus a great deal, washes his feet with her tears, kisses his feet, and even rubs them with perfume from her alabaster jar. Taking a position of utter humility, she shares her affection for Jesus with a bold and sincere demonstration. I call it an alabaster moment.

Just like the woman’s alabaster jar that held the perfume poured upon Jesus’; feet, the process of vulnerability holds something precious.

Once we find ourselves exposed, whether to learn or to share, we have to trust that the openness is for our betterment. We have to push through the initial fear long enough to see vulnerability soften our pride, soothe our fears, and create safety. We begin to notice that vulnerability actually heals wounds, inspires trust, and creates intimacy. And when I am open and honest, it liberates another to do and be the same. Vulnerability breeds vulnerability.

It is true that, in an unsafe environment, vulnerability can lead to an emotionally, spiritually, or relationally lethal situation. But, in a safe and trustworthy environment, vulnerability produces life.

Sharing our stories and learning from the variety of perspectives we find at Q Christian Fellowship gives us the opportunity to trust the process of vulnerability. Walking side by side with all our stories, ranging from Side A to Side B and beyond, requires pushing past our assumptions and fears, our pride and comfort zones. It requires learning from each others history and wisdom, but also begs for your bold and sincere demonstrations of openness.

We welcome your stories.

The Side B story belongs. Side B community member, you are our sibling. Your wisdom is cherished and your perspective is honored.

The Side A story belongs. Side A community member, you are our sibling. Your wisdom is cherished and your perspective is honored.

If your position doesn’t fit neatly in Side A or Side B, your story belongs. You are our sibling. Your wisdom is cherished and your perspective is honored.

If you’ve never heard of these terms before, your story belongs. You are our sibling. Your wisdom is cherished and your perspective is honored.

May we take bold and sincere steps to learn from one another and strengthen our community as beloved children of God, side by side. Practicing Love Undivided is our opportunity for another great alabaster moment. We all hold something precious. Let us share.

Questions for this week's devotional:

  1. In what areas of life might you take measures to guard yourself from vulnerability?

  2. How might another grow from and find safety in your demonstrations of vulnerability? In other words, how might your story be a gift to another?

  3. Is there an area where you are hungry to have more vulnerability? If so, where?

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Week 6 Supplement- Erasing Otherness

David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019. The book will be made available for purchase on Amazon.

No matter where we exist in society, each of us is susceptible to diminishing the other. I was reminded of this one day while I was walking home from the gym and passed a dead bird on the sidewalk. It was a baby bird, not quite a fledgling, that looked as if it had fallen out of its nest. One leg was crooked, and there were a couple of flies on it. I cringed, stepped past the carcass, and muttered one word to myself: gross.

I walked half a block, stopped, and turned around. I’m not sure why. Maybe I figured I would kick it away from the sidewalk or find a piece of cardboard to scoop it into a nearby trash can. When I returned, the bird was still there, motionless, accumulating more flies. I bent over and, on a hunch, blew softly on it. The bird moved. It fluttered its fuzzy wings and kicked its little legs, even the one that looked broken. It shook the flies off itself and opened its beak, gasping for air.

In that moment, my whole perception of the bird shifted. It was not something disgusting to be kicked aside or thrown in the trash. It was a creature that was injured and in pain, a creature desperate for help. Far from being gross, it was something to be sheltered and protected. With one little breath, the bird went from being a thing to being a being.

How did my attitude toward the bird turn so suddenly? What caused the shift? The bird hadn’t changed; only my perception of it had. The difference: I saw the life in it.

How often do we fail to see the life in other people? We do it with staggering frequency, every time we distance people from us by classifying them as other. On a macro level, we treat people as other when they are from a different country, or ethnicity, or religion, or region, or college, or political party. On a micro level, we dismiss individuals because they are weird, or poor, or ugly, or fat, or differently abled. It’s easy to categorize people; we’ve been doing it since we were children choosing tables in the cafeteria at lunch.

But the more we wedge otherness between us and those we don’t like or understand, the less humanity we see in them. This sense of otherness is the great chasm that still divides the LGBTQ community and the conservative church. By casting out queer Christians and the people who love them, the church has created a duality of in and out, a dividing line between those who are following God and those who, presumably, are misled. And the more barriers we put between us and another, the harder it is to see the light of the other person’s spirit, the easier it is to see them as aberrant and abhorrent, and the easier it is to withhold our empathy.

What’s the most common reaction of a person who has never seen two men kiss? Gross. Growing up as a kid in the 1980s, I heard it a thousand times. Gross. Is the only explanation for this visceral reaction that the act of two men kissing is inherently sinful and wrong? Or could it be that church and culture have created so much distance between themselves and the others that they are too far away to recognize a simple expression of love as anything but gross? When we disassociate ourselves from people, they stop being beings and become things. They are dead birds, worthy of nothing but a trash bin.

This is why we see our relationship as one small contribution to a larger mission. As the number of LGBTQ marriages in the world grows, that foreignness people feel toward queer couples will start to diminish. Normalization, however, is only the first step. The hard work in healing the divide is in getting to know those who would reject us and showing them our humanity. Someone can’t be other when we’re doing life together. Someone can’t be gross when we’ve glimpsed the unfiltered, authentic humanity in them. This, of course, requires a willingness on both sides to see and be seen.

If only the church would look in the direction of LGBTQ people and watch them take a breath—see them kick and flutter, fighting for life in a hostile world. What a shift in perception the church would experience. Once we see the humanity in people, it’s impossible to dismiss them as things. No person could be gross, for each is a living, breathing reflection of God.

It’s important here to point out that progressive Christians also fall into the trap of labeling their conservative siblings as the other. Let us not extol ourselves as the nouveau righteous and dismiss those who for so long have dismissed us. If we hope for others to acknowledge our humanity, we must work to see theirs. Those on opposite ends of the theological spectrum or political aisle also flutter and kick in ways we may not see.

As for the actual bird, I contacted a local avian society and followed their instructions: I carefully scooped the bird into a box, then placed it beneath some shrubs for protection. The rest, they said, should be left to Mother Nature. The next time I passed that spot, the bird was gone. I wonder about it every time I go by, because I became invested in it—because for one moment in time we shared life together, and the heart doesn’t easily forget.

Excerpted from Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, © 2019 David and Constantino Khalaf. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. What thoughts and feelings come up when you think of the bird in the author’s story?

  2. Who in your life have you seen as "gross," sinful, or unworthy of your empathy? Have you felt that way about yourself?

  3. God sees the life and beauty in you at all times, even when you don’t recognize it yourself. In what ways can you begin to see yourself and others through God’s loving eyes?

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Week 6 Devotional- EMPATHY

I was about to explode with rage. My pride was on the line and I couldn’t let my partner at the time get away with mischaracterizing my behavior and intentions. I had to protect myself. We had been in this argument before. In fact, it was one of those arguments you repeat like a good Madonna song.

Needless to say, we were in a long-standing negotiation that looked more like a war zone than one of those conference rooms where deals are struck with handshakes and smiles. My immature tactics to pull him into deeper connectedness were shameful, and his resistance to my “controlling” tactics came across as selfishness. We were both hungry for something different.

In one of our heated arguments, I stepped away to cool down. Arguing had finally left me utterly sick and tired of feeling unheard. There had to be another way.

I replayed what he had been shouting for the last several months. It took me some time to imagine his emotional experiences of pleading and begging—especially when all he got in return were my demands, more of what I “needed.” In that quiet moment, as I sat on the edge of my bathtub, I could finally hear what he was saying. He wanted me to love the man he was, rather than force him into the man I thought he should become. Empathy allowed me to hear something other than my own voice. And when I apologized for not listening and insisting my needs be met first, I was able to recognize the damage I had created. In that moment, I think he had the same revelation. His apology came very soon thereafter.

For us, empathy created a sense of vulnerability and safety that allowed us to plunge into deeper relational waters where greater understanding dwells: he pleaded for the freedom of authenticity, and I was begging for a deep sense of safety. Both of our needs were valid. Maybe what kept us fighting was actually our need to get the other to bow down. Whatever it was, we couldn’t see that we were both right. In the end, I was hungry for safety and he was hungry for authenticity; I wasn’t controlling, and he wasn’t selfish. There was more than one version of truth. We needed to listen and empathize with one another to figure that out. To be honest, what shocked me most was learning that empathy did not make me wrong; it created room for his truth to be respected. Empathy saved the day.

To me, Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the greatest catalysts of empathy we read in the Bible. The book of Philemon is rather personal, more so than any other letter of Paul’s in the Bible. And it is often credited as more rhetorically acrobatic than any of Paul’s other letters. Some might say the book of Philemon is a plea wherein Paul tries to lovingly compel his comrade, Philemon. Many scholars, however, would say that Paul’s position as a Rabbi who had great social power gives this letter a rather passive-aggressive, maybe even slightly manipulative tone. I would agree. Paul surely leveraged his privilege and used cunning language and emotional tactics to pressure Philemon.

Paul starts by characterizing his affections. Onesimus had become Paul’s very heart, a sentiment mothers echo when they tell her sons, “You are my heartbeat.” Later, Paul pens one of my favorite lines in this short, but pertinent, letter: “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (Philemon 1:17). Essentially, Paul asserts his power over Philemon, motivating Philemon with guilt more than sincerity. One of the more audacious uses of guilt we see is when Paul encourages Philemon to make a decision out of his “own free will” (Philemon 1:14).

Later in the letter, we read that Philemon may have banished Onesimus because of outstanding debts (which Paul offers to repay). Paul not only asks that Philemon welcome Onesium back, but that he also see Onesimus not as a slave, but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). Essentially, Paul asks that any disagreement with or wrongdoing committed by Onesimus be forgiven, and—because he is loved—that he be received as an equal. Cunningly, Paul binds Philemon’s moral autonomy.

We do not have an account of what actually happened when Onesimus appeared on Philemon’s door step. But if Onesimus showed up at my door after racking up a debt and Paul had written his letter to me, I might need to have another sit-down, come-to-Jesus moment on the edge of my bathtub. I would need to swallow some pride and rehearse what it would feel like to love Onesimus, just as Paul had. I would have to find the grace to forgive Paul’s guilt-ridden measures and Onesimus’ wrongdoings, but also the willingness to love again.

Empathy that changes lives, restores relationships, and honors the humanity of another is particularly hard, especially when we sit at the top of the “privileged” food chain. Genuine empathy does not, and cannot, maintain the binaries of relational dualism—right versus wrong, the “accurate” version of truth versus the “off-base.” The practice of empathy requires that we simply listen to understand another’s equally valid perspective. Empathy teaches us about the major contradictions that often appear in relationships and the spiritual formation process. As Christian sojourners, we must be prepared to embrace paradoxes, especially if we aim to live in healthy community.

Walking side by side will often require empathy because we all have conflicting—and sometimes competing—needs, wants, convictions, and comforts. What I need in one moment might very well contradict what my neighbor, partner, or parent needs at the very same moment. In relationships, we must find the empathy that helps us honor and respect all involved. Empathy isn’t easy, but it will change the course of your relationships. I promise.

Questions for this week’s devotional:

  1. How might empathy help your relationships transition and transform?

  2. Is there a situation in your life that could benefit from your empathy?

  3. How might you use empathy to support another, even if they challenge or disagree with you?

  4. How might empathy create space for another’s version of truth, a version of truth that might create more relational intimacy?

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