By Ruth Bramham,
At the end of October 2014, Affirm Council member Ruth Bramhan attended a multi-faith transgender conference at the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Below are her reflections on the weekend:
On Thursday afternoon, October 30th, we all gathered for the opening reception and welcome. For some of us it was like old home week, meeting friends and acquaintances not seen for at least two years (the last conference was November 2012).
The Pacific School of Religion campus is located on what is known locally as Bible Hill. To reach it from downtown you must hike about a mile up a very steep hill that rises close to 500 feet – most of it in the last quarter mile! Yes I got plenty of exercise! The view from the campus courtyard is spectacular, looking directly west across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The hope of the conference this year was to attract representatives from as wide a cross-section of faith communities as possible. However, attendance was from main line Christian churches – Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Reform Methodist, Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian, plus local independent congregations. There were no Catholic presence or evangelical Christian denominations. There was quite a strong Jewish presence and several who identified as Buddhist, Pagan or Wiccan.
Both Friday and Saturday sessions opened with presentations from the Executive Directors of two mainline US churches – Friday: M to F Vivian Taylor from Integrity USA; and Saturday: F to M Alex McNeill from More Light Presbyterians. This represents a break-through for trans people – the first time a trans person has been appointed to leadership positions in church GLBT organisations!
The rest of both days were taken up with a wide variety of workshops including:
Trans* studies – scholars exploring the connections between gender identity, sexuality and religion throughout biblical times and its impact on current attitudes towards perceived “sexual” deviance and taboos.
Trans* Ally Training – Aimed to build on knowledge and resources for non-trans, cis-gendered and gender queer individuals to become better allies and supporters of trans* folk.
Ancient & Modern Jewish Gender Outlaws – researching the Torah for gender stories beyond the binary. How Judaism impacts the idea of gender identity, dependent on culture, both traditional and modern.
Trans* Youth Inclusivity – How faith communities can welcome and affirm trans* and gender variant youth within their religious educations and youth ministry programs. This was a pilot workshop to introduce a new guide “Transitioning to Inclusion”, which will be available shortly through the CLGS.
The Saturday Keynote speaker was Nicole Santamaria a trans* activist from El Salvador. She works with Colectivo Alejandria. She spoke about the horrors faced by trans* folk in Central America and in particular how the police target, arrest and beat trans*folk with seeming impunity. Nicole is actually intersex, something she discovered after moving to Costa Rica. On returning to El Salvador she was raped and hospitalised after being beaten up and left for dead. The hospital was very supportive, enabling her fully recover and begin a therapy program. However, it took her three years to win the confidence of local trans* women.
Nicole’s “privileged” upbringing was a barrier as she was not seen as one of “them” – not a prostitute, despite being disfigured and disowned by her father. Discrimination is rampant. There are no jobs, no legal protection, and thus trans* women are forced into prostitution. Nicole is an inspiration to us all. She has recently received international recognition for her work and is a 2014 International Fellow in the “iLEAP” program, which you can find out more about here: http://ileap.org
Reflecting on the conference, I noticed that we still have much work to do to break down the barriers that still exist in most religions barring trans* folk from participating in their denominations and local congregations. I feel so privileged to be a member of the United Church of Canada, gladly welcomed and embraced by my congregation and able to participate fully in all its activities.
Ruth Bramham is a Director for Affirm United, a member of the General Council Racial Justice/Gender Justice Advisory Committee and a Chair for the Social Justice Group at Cummer Avenue United Church.