04/02/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Where We Are the Future

Ariyoshi Rita via Getty Images

Lately I've found myself thinking more and more about an issue that I ignored and had assumed I would always ignore: that of the relationship between transgender people and religious communities.

You see, for a long time I told myself I wanted nothing to do with any religion. Most of the time, when people asked about my faith, I'd say I didn't have any (unless, of course, I grunted, "It's none of your fucking business!"). It's a lot easier to say you don't believe in a supreme being or power, or anything beyond this physical world, than to get into arguments about what it is, isn't or might be, or why I don't subscribe to someone else's belief.

Even so, I couldn't help but notice that more than a few trans people are involved with religious communities. Some, like Eva-Genevieve Scarborough and Joanne Priznivalli, write about their experiences on their blogs. Outwardly I expressed astonishment that any trans person would want to be a participating member of a church, synagogue or other organization, let alone study or train to be a cleric. I told myself that such people are misguided at best. Sometimes I wondered whether they suffer from advanced cases of Stockholm syndrome. What else could explain their desire to identify with institutions and individuals who, very often, tell them that they are vile sinners or that they simply don't exist?

One thing I could not fail to notice was that they -- and even some trans people who aren't overtly religious -- often describe themselves as male or female "in spirit," and their processes of coming out and transitioning from living in accordance with the gender they were assigned at birth to living as their true selves as a "spiritual" experience.

Yes, those words, "spirit" and "spiritual," come up a lot. I've even used them to to describe my own journey. In fact, on the night after my surgery, I had a very long, detailed and intense dream that, for me, could not have been evidence of anything else.

Perhaps my perceptions were colored by the fact that most of the support groups I attended, and most of the trans-related activities in which I participated, involved people who were beginning their transitions -- or simply exploring the possibility of doing so -- in the middle of their lives, or even later. Not a single one of them spoke of their wishes merely in terms of changing their body parts; they all spoke of making their corporeal forms more reflective of their "true selves" or "spirits." I have come to believe that if you have reached a certain age before embarking upon the requisite counseling and medical treatments, you really can't see your change in any other way.

(To those of you who are young -- say, under 40 -- I hope I don't seem condescending. If you really understand your identity and why you want to change your body to reflect it, you are more mature than most other people. On the other hand, I have seen very young people who see the transition only in terms of hormones and surgeries. They will say or do whatever they think they must -- including sex work -- to get them. The consequences are often tragic.)

Anyway, I realize now that the revulsion I expressed at religious institutions was, in part, a response to my own earlier experiences with them. I grew up as a Roman Catholic and spent several years in a school affiliated with the church. I was even an altar boy! Although the Roman Catholic Church was, and is, repressive, and although I had some rather unpleasant (to say the least) experiences with priests and nuns, I have to admit that I received a better education than I might've otherwise had. And, truth be told, for all of the bigotry that's part of the church's doctrine, I was safer there as a sensitive and possibly effeminate boy than I was on, say, sports teams or ROTC (both of which I would later participate in). And, as Richard Rodriguez points out in A Hunger of Memory, there is less socioeconomic class prejudice in the church than in other parts of society. Growing up in blue-collar Brooklyn, I was aware of that fact, even if I couldn't articulate it.

And now, it seems, there are some religious leaders -- and their followers -- who actually understand that following the precepts of their faith means treating trans people as they would other people. Love thy neighbor -- whether trans or cis -- as thyself. Thou shalt not kill -- whatever the identity of the person.

Perhaps even more to the point, some are starting to realize that if their faith communities are to have any future at all -- let alone carry out their missions -- they must include people of all identities. Actually, it goes deeper than that, as Joy Ladin points out: Judaism, of which she is an adherent, as well as Christianity, Islam and other faiths, cannot continue to confine themselves to the gender binary. It's not just a matter of the survival of religious institutions; it's a matter of allowing all people to participate in life as fully realized beings. That, as I learned during my own transition, means understanding the spiritual dimension -- no, the spiritual reality -- of a person's identity.