7 Things the Largest-Ever Survey of Transgender People Tells Us About Our Churches

By Austen Hartke 12-09-2016

This week the National Center for Transgender Equality released the findings from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey — the largest survey examining the experience of transgender people in the United States ever completed. The survey examined the experiences of nearly 28,000 people who identify as transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, or who use another term beneath the transgender umbrella.

The people who chose to take part in this landmark survey answered questions about everything from experience with harassment in bathrooms, to level of acceptance from family members, to interactions with law enforcement, to party affiliation and employment status. Although only seven questions on the survey directly address religion and engagement with faith communities, the data presented in the final report can help America’s churches live into their calling as true sanctuaries. People of God, are you listening?

1. Most trans people have experienced life in a community of faith.

Some Christians might be surprised to learn that they have a transgender person in their congregation, either because their sibling in Christ was not out, or not visibly trans. As it turns out, though, 66 percent of the survey respondents said that they had been part of a faith community at some point in their life. This percentage includes people from all religious backgrounds, so the fraction that identifies specifically as Christian will be somewhat less than two-thirds, but still — this is an unexpected majority. Also noteworthy is the fact that, of all racial groups, black trans people are the most likely to have been part of a faith community.

2. Trans people are afraid of religious rejection.

It’s hard to worship when you’re constantly watching your back. Trans people in churches that are non-affirming or that haven’t taken a stand on LGBTQ+ inclusion often have to pray with one eye open, wondering if and when they’ll be outed, and what consequences they’ll have to face for trying to understand the identity God gave them. We now know that 39 percent of transgender people who have been part of a faith community have left because of the fear of rejection.

3. Trans people have a pretty good reason to be afraid.

For those who might suggest that all of this fear is unfounded, or at least blown out of proportion, we have to keep in mind that among trans people currently in faith communities, nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) experienced a direct rejection. Six percent of the people surveyed reported that they’d been asked to meet with a spiritual leader who could reportedly stop them from being trans; 6 percent said they had been asked by a community member to seek psychological or medical help to stop them from being trans, and 5 percent were asked to stop coming to services entirely. These kinds of direct rejections were seen most among Asian-identified respondents, 40 percent of whom reported these experiences.

4. Trans people are actively leaving churches because of this rejection.

If Christians should be able to agree on one thing when it comes to the body of Christ, you’d think it would be that we shouldn’t be rejecting our own members. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” right? And yet, 19 percent of the transgender people of faith who have been part of a religious community have left because they were actively rejected. Many trans folks stay, despite poor treatment and even spiritual abuse, because, as for many of us, the church is their family. Still, it’s difficult to stay where you’re not wanted. Nearly one in five trans people decides it’s better to leave, and we lose their presence, their spiritual gifts, and their unique perspectives and experiences. Once again, people of color experience this rejection more frequently, and larger numbers of Native and black trans people report leaving their faith communities.

5. Trans people are coming back to churches that affirm them.

Once bitten, twice shy, right? Well, not so for all transgender people of faith who have endured so much, and of whom the Apostle Paul might have been speaking when he said “endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:4). As it turns out, 42 percent of the transgender folks who have been rejected by a faith community have found a new one that welcomes them as they are. It is important to note, though, that the new community may not be within the same religious tradition. The study also found that Latinx and Asian respondents had the hardest time finding a new, supportive community.

6. Nineteen percent of transgender people are actively involved in a faith community.

Not only are trans people joining churches that support them — they’re currently involved. About 1 in 5 trans people surveyed said that they had been involved in their faith community within the past year, and 60 percent said that they were part of a community where leaders or other members knew they were transgender. Any LGBTQ+ Christian will tell you that it’s much easier to show up on Sunday, to lead small groups, to answer phones in the office, and to help set up the Nativity scene when you can bring your whole self to worship.

7. Trans-affirming churches are practicing what they preach.

Depending on where you live in the United States, it may be difficult to find a church that voices a specific and enthusiastic welcome to transgender people. The good news is that the churches that are doing this work seem to be doing it well. A full 96 percent of the transgender people currently involved in a faith community said that they had experienced some form of affirmation — that might include personal support for their trans identity, or it might mean a theological affirmation of their acceptance and belonging. Regardless, this statistic shows us that Christians are more than capable of bringing the Good News to people in ways that they can actually experience as good news.

So, now that we know more about transgender people of faith and their needs, hopes, and fears, how will we respond? Dare we ask ourselves that age-old question — what would Jesus do?

Austen Hartke is a writer, speaker, and creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian,” which seeks to understand and share parts of the Bible that relate to gender identity and the lives of transgender individuals. Austen is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, and is the winner of the 2010 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing from the same institution.

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