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.


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

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