Twenty-four years ago, First Church Berkeley voted to become a church not just open to, but affirming of LGBTQ+ persons. The LGBTQ+ community was welcomed to church, invited into leadership, ordained, and married in religious ceremonies long before marriage equality was legal. In 2015, we added “gender identity and expression” to our Open and Affirming statement as we came into greater awareness of the need to explicitly welcome and include transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks.
The rainbow flag was an easy one for us to plant, an extension of our progressive theology that the Bible is the inspired but not the literal word of God. Jesus offered no words against LGBTQ+ individuals but had plenty to say about not judging one another. We believe that God is still speaking; homophobia and transphobia are ancient heresies that deny the message of Jesus’ inclusive love and make Christianity hypocritical. Especially at this time of rising violence against trans and nonbinary people, it is imperative that communities of faith act as safe and welcoming spaces for these vulnerable folk who are also made in the image of God.
In the Biblical Creation story, God created humankind as companions for God, and for each other, “male and female God created them,” Genesis reports. From the beginning, the Bible says, we were made different from each other. But in a New Testament letter, circulated after Jesus’ earthly ministry ended, Galatians refutes this: “There is no longer male and female: we are One in Christ Jesus.” According to this passage, Gender became obsolete, and were never necessary to begin with.
As a Christian religious leader, I believe that gender non-conforming folks have always existed, just as babies born intersex have. I wonder if Christians haven’t been misreading that line from Genesis, in that God actually created every one of us both “male and female.”
I believe that trans folks are far more numerous than any of us would imagine; that the few brave souls who are publicly out are paving the way for the everyone to be able to express their gender freely and without judgment.
And most of all, I believe that trans folks are the Biblical fulfillment of this call that humanity may be One. Our embrace of a world in which gender is fluid and nonbinary would functionally bring sexism, sexual assault, patriarchy and toxic masculinity to a crashing halt. This revolution-in-being would bless and benefit every single human being God has made.
Today, we have a number of trans folks in our “motley pew,” as one of our trans members has dubbed us, and also in our worship leadership. Last November, one of them, Bree Elle, led a moving Trans Day of Remembrance service where we spoke aloud the names of those killed all the world over for the transgression of being born into a body that doesn’t match their spirit, and having the audacity to live their true gender publicly. The following Sunday ze preached a stunning sermon to applause on Trans Day of Resilience. Public worship that includes trans and nonbinary leaders and themes, and vocal public witness on trans rights can do so much to change culture, especially when it comes from people of faith.
I’m so encouraged not just by the brave, beautiful and spiritually mature trans folks in my church, but all kinds of folks in my church who go to an uncomfortable edge to learn this new way of kin-dom. They are learning about pronouns. They are agitating politically for policies that support the civil rights of trans folks that the current Congress and White House are eroding. One new member is leading the way to housing and sponsoring a woman from last year’s trans migrant caravan who is currently in detention awaiting an asylum hearing. He told me, “as a gay white man with citizenship and a steady income, I feel some responsibility to use my privilege for the betterment of another queer person who is encountering so much more struggle and suffering.”
Our wonderful city is like my church in many ways. We skew left, and we want to get it right. We sometimes get defensive when we are called out on where we still make mistakes and need to learn. We’re pretty good at queer and trans issues, especially compared to much of the rest of the nation–but we can do better.
If you are a person of faith whose religious tradition decries LGBTQ+ people, revisit your sacred texts, and read more progressive theologians for another perspective. Whether you are religious or not, when you encounter a genderqueer person in public, smile and make eye contact. Ask them their name and pronouns, remember and use them. Normalize saying your pronouns and asking everybody, in fact, their pronouns, no matter what setting you are in.
If you see a trans person being mistreated, step in to support, help de-escalate the situation, and befriend them. Don’t put them in the position of having to defend themselves against ignorant, belittling or threatening talk–do the heavy lifting for them. It will cost you so little. And take it from me: it will earn you so much, in kin-dom and blessing.
Reverend Molly Baskette is a Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley United Church of Christ.