Christian Attitudes to Transgender People Are Changing

Despite much opposition, trans people are increasingly being welcomed within our churches. And not just welcomed, but asked to take a lead; that is accepted and authorized as ministers, pastors, priests -- as those entrusted to teach and lead and guide and care.
12/04/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2016
Rainbow flags proudly displayed at the church of ascention in manhattan on 5th avenue.
Rainbow flags proudly displayed at the church of ascention in manhattan on 5th avenue.

God made man and woman: separate, opposite and at least, in some ways, some of the time, equal. That is often thought of as the Christian view. But, despite much opposition, trans people are increasingly being welcomed within our churches. And not just welcomed, but asked to take a lead; that is accepted and authorized as ministers, pastors, priests -- as those entrusted to teach and lead and guide and care.

I recently undertook a mapping exercise of Christian churches across the US and Europe to support a project considering the legal rights of transgender and transsexual persons in a global context. And, speaking as a sociologist (activists, very naturally, would take a different view), there has been a surprising amount of change over the last decade. An increasing number of the larger mainstream Protestant denominations now accept and welcome transgender Christians in their congregations and in roles of leadership, and conduct marriages involving transgender people.

The first transgender minister in the USA, Sky Anderson, was ordained back in 1979 with the pioneering, one might say prophetic, Metropolitan Community Church. Now that change is coming into the mainstream of American (Protestant) Christianity, with transgender Christians accepted as ministers in the United Church of Christ in 2003, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 2009, The Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2010 and The Episcopal Church in 2012.

Back across the pond, the Lutheran churches, especially in Scandinavia have led the way with the Church of Sweden permitting the ordination of transgender (and LGB) clergy in 2006. Now many European churches have transgender clergy and marriage. In some cases the impetus for change has been Equality legislation, but change in practice has also been prompted by individual cases. The Church of England, for example, has not formally discussed the issues affecting transgender Christians in its synod, but the first priest to transition, the Revd. Carol Stone (who very sadly died last year) did so back in 2001 with the strong backing of her bishop, Barry Rogerson.

Of course not everyone is in agreement: denominations who count their membership in the millions, and especially those tied to the state of national identity will inevitably have people with very different opinion, as on every other issue. The fact that change is happening at the rate it is within Churches, which as community associations must tend to the needs of all their members, is what makes the speed of these recent developments surprising.

Strong opposition and open hostility also remain common. Indeed the overwhelming majority of the 2.1 billion Christians in the world belong to churches, which are officially unsympathetic to the claims of transgender people. Such churches are driven to interpret and condemn transgenderism as a psychic or moral disorder because of the way in which they understand (or many would argue misunderstand) the significance of gender difference. They include denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, which in 2014 provided a clear statement of their opposition to transgender identity. It also includes Pope Francis, radical in so many ways, yet on matters of gender very firmly anchored to the worldview of his predecessors. But of course 'on the ground,' as with so many other issues, lay Catholics have different and often dissenting views. And despite his views on gender, the Pope is clearly someone who values the voice of the people; who is prepared to listen.

Jesus taught his disciples to be skeptical of the wealthy, the powerful and the religious of the day. He taught them, and us, to look beyond, to rethink our ideas of who belongs and to recognize, to truly see those on the margins. His radical challenge is for every generation, and transgender Christian leaders are increasingly able to be the ones who give voice to that vision.