The Spirituality of Gender Identity

Susan McIntyre hails from Des Moines, Iowa. Until her recent dismissal, she worked as a housekeeper and part-time counselor for the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Student Center at Drake University. Susan is a devout Catholic convert who holds the values of her faith close to her heart and worships on a regular basis. So why would the Bishop of Des Moines fire this Catholic woman?

The answer: Susan McIntyre was born Jim Ford. She is transgender.

While there’s growing acceptance of lesbians and gays in many faith traditions, there is less familiarity—and acceptance—of transgender individuals. Many religious institutions believe that those who are transgender live in defiance of God’s law and should not be included in the faith community.

This picture is beginning to change. Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, and various Quaker groups openly allow transgender worshippers in their congregations. Certain Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), Ecumenical Catholic Church, United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community Church, and the Unitarian Church openly accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

Critics may charge that such faith communities represent liberal politicized distortions of their traditions and sacred texts. But a closer examination of such texts reveals a more complex and nuanced picture—and, in some cases, acceptance of transgender individuals.

For instance, the Christian Bible explains differences between types of “eunuchs,” or castrated men. The Book of Matthew states that there are “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs,” (Matthew 19:12) or chosen to change their sexual anatomy, and that they should be “received,” or accepted. Further, in Acts, the Apostle Philip baptizes a eunuch, telling him that as long as he “believe[s] with all [his] heart” (Acts 8:37), there is no reason he cannot be baptized.

More important than texts, however, are the core religious principles of compassion, love, and acceptance. As Rev. Dr. Ted Jennings, a professor and former acting dean of the Chicago Theological Seminary, says, “While the fact of transgendering may make some folks uncomfortable, Christian faith and faithfulness is not dependent on gender in any way… In short, there is no problem in principle either in doctrine or in Biblical texts for the full acceptance of trans folk in Christianity.”

There is a reason physicians consider sex reassignment surgeries for people who are transgender to be legitimate, noncosmetic surgery. The American Medical Association House of Delegates proclaimed in 2008 that denying patients with gender identity disorder with otherwise insured treatment constitutes discrimination. The AMA also explicitly supports “public and private health insurance coverage for treatment for gender identity disorder as recommended by the patient’s physician.”

Transgender people and those in the process of transitioning are simply practicing a virtue religious leaders have extolled for centuries: They are being faithful to who they are. For faith communities to turn away their transgender brothers and sisters amounts to a denial of this spirit.

McIntyre’s tale illustrates the fact that transgender people play active roles in our churches, communities, and society at large. Her story also illustrates the magnitude of the ongoing fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and human rights.

Advocates with the National Center for Transgender Equality will be coming to Washington, D.C. on March 14 – 16 to urge Congress to pass legislation that makes it illegal for employers to force their employees to choose between their human nature and their financial livelihood. If they succeed, an employer could judge someone like McIntyre only on the basis of her professional skills and merits. Perhaps one day her diocese will do the same.

Sy Mukherjee is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. He is a sophomore at Dartmouth College.