Saturday, 28 November 2015

Q&A: 8 questions with a trans Christian (who's been to seminary)

So I recently got connected with Austen on Twitter and thought I'd feature him here on my blog so all you loyal readers can get educated on what it means to be trans and Christian.

Here we go!



1) Tell us a bit about yourself.

Well, my name is Austen, and I'm many things--a brother, a son, a boyfriend, a lifelong student, a lover of herbal tea--but lately my two definitive qualities have been my faith and my gender identity. I'm transgender, and I'm also a Christian, and even though some people think those two labels don't mix, I find that my faith journey and my experience as a trans man are intricately connected. I graduated from seminary with a Master's degree in Biblical Studies about two years ago (specializing in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), and for the past year I've been using much of what I learned to create YouTube videos on being trans and Christian.


2) How and at what age did you meet Jesus?

I was raised Christian, and my parents took me and my siblings to nondenominational churches until I was about ten years old, so I don't remember a time when I didn't know who Jesus was. I grew up going to church every Sunday, and going to AWANA group on Wednesday nights, where I learned to memorize Bible verses. Both of my parents were pretty religious when I was young, so faith development was a big part of my childhood. 

When I was about ten years old, though, I had a bit of a falling-out with God, and with the idea of Christianity, and I decided I didn't want to be a Christian anymore. That lasted until I was about 14, when, thanks to many wonderful teachers and mentors who sat with me and helped me ask hard questions, I was able to reevaluate my faith and study it a little bit more. I'd say I was about 15 when I re-met God, and began to think of faith as something that was real and relevant to my life, and not just something that required going through the motions.

It felt a bit like I kept trying to get away from God, but God kept pulling me back and telling me that I was good enough, and wanted, and loved. Finally, when I was twenty-two, I decided to be baptized. I realized that in the end, it's not about us choosing God--it's about God having chosen us--and all we can do is respond with gratitude and love for God and for our neighbor.


3) When did you realize you were trans, and how did you realize it?

Looking back, I can pinpoint moments all through my life that point to my being trans, but because I spent most of my life not knowing that transgender people existed, it took me a long time to figure it out. There wasn't any huge, watershed moment for me when I suddenly just knew. It was more like the knowledge crept up on me slowly, over time, until I couldn't deny it anymore. 

It's really hard for any of us to explain exactly what it feels like to be our gender, because it's so different for every person, and what might be true for one man in America may not be true for one man in Taiwan or Zimbabwe or El Salvador. How can we know that what makes us feel masculine or feminine or neutral is the same feeling someone else has? 

In the end, I realized I was trans because I realized that the gender identity most people experience as "male" was what I had always experienced inside myself, but that gender identity conflicted with the gender I was assigned at birth based on my physical characteristics. Because my inner gendered feelings and my desire to express those feelings conflicted with what other people expected of me based on my body, I had a lot of what we call "dysphoria"--a feeling of deep anxiety, dissonance, and distress. Once I faced those feelings, it didn't take long to realize that the word "transgender" summed up what I was experiencing.


4) What do you hope the average Christian would know about being trans?

I hope that people know, first and foremost, that trans people are not rejecting their faith or rejecting God by expressing their gender identity. Transitioning and coming out as transgender are not things that people do to make a statement, or to be difficult, or to follow a trend. Coming out and transitioning often feels like the last thing that people want to do, because it's very difficult, but we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. 

I would remind Christians of key Bible passages--that God makes all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17), that God erases the boundaries that divide us (Galatians 3:28), and that in Jesus God has always welcomed those who don't fit perfectly into society, including people with different experiences of sex and gender (Matthew 19:12). I would remind Christians that transgender people are not an "issue"--we are people who are loved by God, just like you, and we have feelings and hopes and dreams and fears, just like you. I hope we can all learn to treat each other as siblings in Christ, and not as insiders or outsiders.


5) How do you reconcile your gender identity with your faith?

I actually just made a video about this question! 

Check it out here:




6) Do you think that there are biblical gender roles? How can people who don't conform to gender roles reconcile this?

I do think that there are gender roles seen pretty prominently in the Bible, but I think the question is which gender roles are specific to the times and places in the Bible, and which ones are meant to be universal? Some conservative organizations try to argue that things like male leadership and female subordination are universal constants that are seen in the Bible and therefore should always be true. I would argue that in both the Old and New Testaments we tend to see men in leadership and women in subordinate positions because the societies of the time were incredibly patriarchal, but that doesn't mean that it should always be that way. 

Jesus himself treated women and men equally, and there are multiple examples of people in the Bible breaking out of gender roles. In the end, many theologians today agree that the things that we're commanded to do and be as Christians have almost nothing to do with whether we're male or female or both or neither. Our gender does not determine whether we should care for the poor, or love our neighbor, or worship God. There is much more than unites us all as siblings in Christ than there are things that divide us based on gender expression.


7) Do you ever feel uncomfortable in church, or excluded from the community, because you're trans?

When I was a teenager I often felt really uncomfortable in my church groups because I was out to my friends and family as bisexual, but nobody in my church knew. Everything I heard from the media and from conservative pundits told me that Christians believed that I was bad and going to hell for being bisexual, and this made me afraid to talk to anyone at my church about it, just in case they thought so too. My fear of being kicked out, though it was probably unfounded, made me afraid, and made me distance myself from my faith community.

This fear of rejection because of my sexuality was one of the big things that caused me to back away from Christianity as a young teen. Because of this experience, I've found it really important that churches that are welcoming to LGBT folks make that fact known somehow, because once people know that church can be a safe space, it allows them to open up to others, and to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

I've never experienced discomfort in a church community because of my trans identity, but that's just because ever since going through the experience of coming out as bisexual as a teenager, I've always made a point to attend LGBT-affirming churches. Once we can exist in a community that will hold us safely, we can let go of our fear and love and worship the way we're created to.


8) Is queer theology all about breaking down binaries and boundaries? And if so, are there any boundaries which should be maintained?

I think queer theology, as a field, is still very much in the developing stages, and while the deconstruction of boundaries is definitely a part of it, I'm not sure I would use that as it's major definition. I recently read "Radical Love," which is Patrick Cheng's primer on queer theology, and he talked a lot about this kind of deconstruction, so I definitely understand the inclusion of these ideas as a primary aspect. If I were going to highlight primary characteristics of queer theology, though, I think I'd say that it focuses on the recognition of the socially constructed nature of things like sexuality and gender, and that it attempts to bring to the center voices that have previously only been on the margins of faith communities.

My personal feeling is that binaries should indeed be deconstructed, or at least scrutinized, because often those binaries are false. For instance, we might want to say that all humans are divided into male or female--creating a binary--but people who are intersex and transgender show that this binary is a false one. Having said that, though, I don't think all boundaries should be deconstructed. There are definitely many boundaries that have to do with sexuality and gender that need to be recognized and respected--such as any sexual boundary between two people who are not in equal places of social power, like an adult and a child, or a pastor and a congregant. There are some boundaries that we, as a society, put in place because it protects those who may be hurt or abused, and that must be respected absolutely.

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And there you have it. I hope you've benefited much reading this and if you'd like to check out his YouTube videos on being trans and Christian or would like to follow him on his blog or twitter, you can click on the links down below:


YouTube: Trans and Christian videos

Twitter: @AustenLionheart

Blog: LionheartA blog by Austen Hartke


Thursday, 26 November 2015

Q&A: Growing up gay in a Christian household

Benjamin* is a gay Christian who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. 


1. What was your introduction to Christianity like?

I come from a Christian household and grew up in Sunday school. In secondary school, I was exposed to philosophy and started reading up on other religions. This was an important point in my life. Some people might use the term “backsliding” to describe me at that point. But after some exploration, Christianity made the most sense to me. Faith to me isn’t just intellectual, it is an emotional experience as well.


2. At what age did you realise you were gay?

Naturally at around 10 - 13. There was no eureka moment, it was a gradual process.


3. How did you deal with it?

I was tormented by it. Being Christian. It was arduous. But I’m much more comfortable with myself right now and am still a Christian.


4. How did you decide to come out to your parents?

(As this was a rather sensitive question, Benjamin declined to answer this question.)


5. How do you integrate your sexuality with your faith?

The sexual act is the sin itself. It’s incompatible with what I believe in. Emotional and companionship is fine.

Something important I’d to point out is this: Although it’s not in the 10 Commandments, it’s still a sin. Just like gossip, hypocrisy and lying. Not having sex with another man is not more grave than lying.

Abortion and divorce are sins too although they are legal. There are therefore then loopholes in the argument against gay marriage. Christians cannot and should not prescribe our brand on faith onto secular society.


6. How was it like growing up gay in a Christian household?

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Getting to know God. I am thankful for upbringing because it led me to know God.


7. What would you say to encourage a closeted gay teenager living in a conservative Christian home?

Always come back to prayer. Only trust God’s voice because Christians are unnecessarily unable to discern the point where human agenda intrudes into human conviction.


*Not his real name

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Second empat perkataan

I am crying. Reading. Weeping. 
Relinquishing, I am grieving. 

Right now, calmer; writing, typing. 
Breathing slowly, tears stop, thinking. 

How strange to be reading, weeping;
BrenĂ© Brown's book simply stunning. 

Now I'm sleepy, headed to bed
Lying down now, what's left unsaid?

My first empat perkataan

Monday, 23 November 2015

Transgender Day of Remembrance at FCC


So I attended the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) Special Service at Free Community Church yesterday. To my knowledge, it is the only church in Singapore that observed TDOR and I went in the hope of gaining a better understanding of my trans brothers and sisters in Christ, and just to learn more about the experience of being trans in general.

The service started by us singing a couple of songs, and then Pastor Miak led us to observe a minute of silence for the 90 trans people that were killed worldwide. Seemed like the bulk of them were living in America and Brazil.

Then they collected an offering and showed a video on the life of an intersex person living in Hong Kong. At this point in time I was feeling rather confused because an intersex person is very much different from a trans person and there wasn't much of an explanation for that video. Nevertheless, it proved to be interesting and I just assumed they just wanted to raise awareness of those born intersex.

(On a separate note, I'm reading a very educational book on the topic titled, "Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and the Intersex in the Image of God" by Megan DeFranza and will be a doing a book review once I'm done with that. So watch this space!)

Then, they invited a panel of 6 people up on stage.

Well, although the panel didn't disappoint, I was a little underwhelmed, yet still gained much from it.

They had a panel of 5 people, 2 transmen, Christopher Khor and Mich Chow, 2 transwomen, Tricia Leong and Sherry Sherqueshaa and one gender neutral person, Alex. The facilitator was Pauline Ong and I must say she really did a good job.

So they started by sharing their stories about growing up trans (and gender neutral) in Singapore, the challenges they faced and a significant milestone in their lives. After that was done, Pauline asked a couple of questions and then they opened up the floor for a Q&A session.

Someone asked a good question of how, if they are unsure, to approach a person to ask for their preferred pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers etc.). Because if the person were cis-gender (not trans) wouldn't they be offended?

The answer, though not satisfactory, was this: Ask everyone you meet their preferred pronouns.

Another person asked about the use of public toilets and I was surprised to hear that some of them simply do not use public toilets at all. Wow. I never knew. It's a pretty tough life man. Thankfully, there are handicapped toilets which were made to good use.

I had a question, 3 in fact, but because I took so long to think of them, they ran out of time and I couldn't ask the questions.

What I wanted to ask was:

1. What abuse, if any, have you suffered from the Church or from Christians?
2. If so, how would you hope can be done about it?
3. If you are Christian, how do you reconcile your gender identity and your faith?

The third was actually the most burning question and I was surprised that it was not asked or addressed at all by any one of them, FCC being a church and all. But I suppose the focus was probably not on that and more on raising awareness of the struggles on trans people in general.

Well, it is good that a church actually organises a TDOR service and I hope more do, but it seems to me at the moment that in this country we are facing two extremes. One, radical inclusiveness, and the other, blatant disregard. Both have their pros and cons, but as I have said before in a previous post,

"In the silence of the church, people look to the world for guidance."

And on this note, I shall end.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Romans 1, Psalm 37, and a blog post

Been reading Romans 1 quite a bit as I spent time with God and I felt Him urge me to read it. As a result, I feel like I'm gravitating toward Side B more than ever before.

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Today at church, I felt very strongly that God was telling me to stay in this church, in this spiritual family I was planted in regardless of whatever happened and whoever wanted to push me out.

All this as the preacher (Phil Pringle) was talking about Psalm 37:3-5 which is reproduced below:

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.

Delight yourself also in the LORD,
And He shall give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him,
And He shall bring it to pass.

Which is great advice. Thank you Lord. But it made me wonder if I was imagining things or if it was truly the voice of God. Which you will find is a running theme in my blog. Anyway, I'm prepared, so I'll try to stay rooted in this church that I have find myself planted in. Come hell or high water. And hopefully this blog post will serve to remind me of this day in which the Lord has spoken to me.

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Just chanced upon a blog by some guy on Twitter and it was such a word in season reading a post by him. The main takeaway was that we are to put Christ in place of our infatuations. Considering that I've had 7 major crushes in 5 years, I think it's quite appropriate for me. Like the author said, if we are willing to spend 3 hours getting to know a crush, what more Jesus, who should be our One True Love.

Thank you Kenji for writing that post 3 years ago. It really resonates.

And thank you God.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Coming full circle

I first heard Vicky Beeching speak this January and it seems appropriate that after going through a whirlwind of a year where I've felt disordered, had a crisis of faith, developed a new crush (which has since largely died down), that I would come back and listen to Vicky Beeching speak again at a keynote at The Reformation Project conference held recently at Kansas.

I listened to the one hour talk last night when I had a bout of insomnia and was encouraged and inspired once again.

She shared her life story yet again, and then talked about Tribes, Trauma and Trust and that's what I'd like to dwell upon here.

1. Tribes

Vicky mentioned that for many of us, we might have been pushed out of our church family or ministry but that there is a new tribe forming that are for us and with us - LGBT+ Christians and their allies.

We all yearn to belong and it is difficult when one's tribe rejects you.

I know that first hand. And yet, it is not the end of the world. There are people who are for you, I have been at the receiving end of much love and support from so many that I've come out to. And I'm very grateful for that. It took a healthy load of discernment, a fair bit of vulnerability coupled with a dash of risk-taking for me to get to this place.

I've found my own tribe and I hope to enable others to find theirs too. (Attending LGBT+ conferences are a great way to do so and I'm happy that I'm going for the GCN Conference this coming January in 2016!)


2. Trauma

Physically, emotionally or mentally, many of us are suffering. It would be inauthentic if we do not remove the masks on our faces. We need to address these issues and not be afraid to do so.

I'm happy to report that I decided to start seeing a clinical psychologist in an effort to manage my bipolar mood swings a bit better and also a counsellor at Oogachaga to deal with the tension living as a gay Christian. I have benefitted very much from seeing them both and blog about my journey in hopes of starting conversations about mental health issues that are still very much a taboo even in a first world country like mine.


3. Trust

She finally talked about trusting the voice of God. That has been a big part of the struggle for me. I know that God loves me as I am and have often heard from Him that having a partner is fine by Him. But I doubt myself and let the voices of other Christians drown out the voice of God.

In that YouTube video last night, I was reminded to put my trust in God. I am first and foremost a child of God and I really do identify as that above identifying as gay. As a child, I know my Father has my best interests at heart and is with me every step of the way.



Thank you Vicky for speaking and I pray one day we might be able to connect if I ever pop by UK!


If you've got an hour to spare, why not check out the video here, I'm sure you'll be very blessed by it (it helps that she's got quite a sense of humour too):

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Beef lovers, chicken lovers and vegetarians

On Planet E, there were some beef lovers and chicken lovers.

The chicken lovers were in the majority and they sure enjoyed their chicken. They had quite a variety of them - organic, kampong, free-range, factory-farmed and so on. Prepared in a variety of ways, the chicken lovers had them grilled, barbecued, fried, steamed, stewed, stir-fried and more. They loved their chicken and made sure everyone knew it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all featured chicken. Chicken was advertised in media of every sort - newspapers, magazines, on billboards and even in irritating embedded ads in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Then there were a minority who were beef lovers. Like the chicken lovers, they had them grilled, barbecued, fried, steamed, stewed, stir-fried and more. They loved the taste of beef and couldn’t get enough of it. Some of them, for religious reasons, ate chicken instead. They were beef lovers but could not bear to eat the meat of a cow. So instead, they consumed chicken. But they’d prefer beef over chicken any time. The beef lovers respected their decision although some said that they were denying their true selves and encouraged them to embrace their beef loving side instead. But they could not, in good conscience, do so and decided to live their lives eating chicken even though they were born beef lovers. 

Others, though loving beef, tried chicken in order to conform to the majority. After all, it was easier to be part of the crowd without having to explain why they preferred beef. Some tried and liked it, others didn’t. The latter went back to consuming beef. Perhaps the former really were chicken-beef lovers instead of pure beef lovers. No matter. To each his or her own.

Finally, there were the vegetarians. Neither beef nor chicken lovers, they consumed vegetables instead. They were surrounded by beef and chicken lovers who occasionally tried to convince them to join them. But they just liked the taste of vegetables.


The end.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Perhaps

Had cell group meeting today and had so many thoughts. I'll just randomly ramble on one of them...

As Pauline mentioned how as a young Christian she'd be struck be certain verses and would meditate on them, I found myself coming back to 4 words in Romans 1, The Message translation.

"All lust, no love."

When I read that a couple of months ago, I pondered upon it for a long while before texting a couple of my friends this:

"What is lust?"

And had a variety of responses, some of which were rather thought-provoking (that shall be a blog post for another day).

Perhaps the people Paul were referring to were consumed with lust. Perhaps their problem wasn't sex with people of the same gender, but that it was devoid of love. That may sound a bit far out for some conservative Christians, but I think it's a very valid interpretation.

And so I wondered...

On Podcasts

Recently I started listening to a couple of podcasts. The first was Kevin Garcia's " A Tiny Revolution ", the next w...