Transgender or transexual individuals--people who seek to change their gender--are becoming more visible and more vocal. Earlier this month, it was revealed former male Olympian athlete Bruce Jenner is transitioning to female. Transgender actress Laverne Cox of the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," appeared last year on the the cover of Time magazine.
But transgender citizens still face deep cultural hurdles, especially when it comes to organized religion. After grappling for decades with how to minister to gays, faith communities now face a new moral frontier. WGLT's Judy Valente has more.
Growing up in McLean County, surrounded by loving family, Jordan Becker says he often felt painfully alone.
"I was very scared I would never find someone who understood I felt like a male trapped inside a female body. I remember lying in bed one night wondering why God hated me. Why was He putting me through all this?"
Those sentiments are common among transgender people like Becker, a 25-year-old fitness trainer who has drastically altered his once feminine appearance through male hormone treatments and surgery. Laura Thor of Littleton, Colorado is a therapist with a divinity degree who specializes in helping the transgender.
"It's deeply painful for people to feel that they have to live their whole lives in secret, meaning they dress everyday as the person they cannot identify with and get called that everyday and are expected to live a social role."
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 41% of transgender individuals report having suicidal thoughts compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. They have double the unemployment rate. And, nearly 60% report being rejected by their families.
"Most of the time you get only stared at and you might get cat calls that are not very friendly or you might be a victim of a hate crime, all because you walked out the door that morning."
Thor says the nearly 500 patients she's counseled in the past 20 years come from all walks of life.
"Clergy, physicians, politicians, school teachers, truck drivers, actors, artists, registered nurses, laborers..."
Her interest in helping transgender people stems from her own experience - her first husband, also a therapist, announced after several years of marriage that he wanted to become a woman. It was something he felt he should do from childhood, but was afraid to admit it.
"He was a Catholic altar boy, went to Catholic schools, he wasn't going to say anything about it, he just prayed a lot and hoped it would take care of itself."
The Williams Institute research center at UCLA estimates there are about 700,000 transgender Americans. In the past decade, they have won incremental victories, like the right to change their gender on Social Security cards and driver's licenses, to use uni-sex bathrooms and obtain insurance coverage for hormone treatments, and in some cases, even sex changes. One area where they remain largely at the margins is in organized religion.
In Denial of Who We Are
"They are condemned, judged by society and by organized religion."
Sister Monica, a Catholic nun, has spent 16 years giving spiritual direction to transgender people of faith.
"They're told they're going straight to hell to think that they need to change their gender, even to think that way is sinful. They can't think that way."
Monica asked us not to use her last name or identify her religious order because her work isn't sanctioned by the Catholic hierarchy.
"What I try to communicate to them, my mantra is, to give praise and glory to God, to be in right relationship with God, is to honor the truth of the person I am in order to be the fully human being God made us to be. God did not make us to live in denial of who we are."
In His Image
The Catholic Church has not issued a detailed teaching on transgender issues, as it has on homosexuality. But church officials have said sex change procedures don't alter a person's gender in the eyes of the church. It's also a difficult issue for many Protestant churches. Scott Boerkel is pastor of the religiously conservative East White Oak Bible Church in rural Carlock.
"There is an understanding of what the Bible says about what it means to be made in the image of God. God says He made us in His image, 'in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them,' and so there is a sense of created order that involves the complementarian nature of gender."
Boerkel says seeking to change one's given sex is a reflection of what he calls the "brokenness" that entered the world when Adam and Eve decided to place their own desires above God's commandments.
"We live in a day when we really believe in the autonomy of the individual. To be able to say I can determine who I am, what I am going to be, that's certainly the philosophy du jour. The question I have is, can we trust our hearts? The Bible says the heart's deceitful. We deceive ourselves."
(Judy:) Could it be that God created some variation on male and female so we could become more compassionate people?
"I see no evidence of that in Scripture. It's a compelling argument from the stand point of human autonomy. Do we decide what's true on the basis of what we wish it to be, or do we decide what's true on the basis of the facts we observe and what God revealed of himself. I believe the Bible is God's revelation about himself, about the world and how it's wired."
A Different Answer
Boerkel says he nevertheless has compassion for people who feel trapped in the wrong body. And if a transgender person walked into his church...
"I would welcome them very warmly. My heart is broken when I think about the bullying and how people are treated sometimes by people who have the name of Christian, and I simply want to say I may have a different answer for you to the question of what is wrong and I certainly have a different idea of what the solution is, but I do want you to know I care about you. You are valuable."
Kristen Haley believes gender is part of a spectrum than goes beyond anatomy.
"I believe God has a non-gender specific nature. Our nature, our gender is a physiological mechanism for procreation. It's how we create our children. The spiritual side of our being, our souls is something that transcends that."
Like the father in the fictional amazonPrime series, "Transparent," Haley began transitioning from male to female while married and the father of four children. Today she, the pronoun Haley prefers, is active in a Catholic parish. But when Haley attends church, she removes the woman's wig she usually wears, and appears to the congregation as Chris, a man.
"When I talked to my pastor about this he acknowledged that there's not a lot of writing or teaching or doctrinal position of the Catholic Church on this. He personally doesn't have a problem with it. He asked questions about whether I've had homosexual relationships because I think that's at the root of it. I responded, no."
Haley's pastor did tell him he thought it would be quote "less disruptive" to the parish if Haley didn't show up at church wearing women's clothes.
"He thinks it would be easier for me and the parish if I don't transition publicly."
But does Haley feel God made a mistake with her original male gender?
"I have been mad at Him for making me. I remember laying in bed and praying I would magically wake up and be female, I used to pray diligently and of course it never happened. Instead of hating that, in time I've come to the realization I am who I am. I'm a spiritual person, a faithful person. I acknowledge God's place in my life and I don't think I'm living in sin."
Sister Monica, the Catholic spiritual director, agrees.
"The transgender community has a great, great deal to teach the rest of us that we're missing out on because we are too afraid to accept diversity. Many of them know what it is like to live on the gender divide. They know what it is to live with male privilege and as a second class citizen as a woman. They know how that affects them in their personal lives, their family lives and their professional lives."
"He's Using Me for Something"
Jordan Becker, the personal trainer, says he's come a long way from the nights he lie in bed thinking God hates him.
"It was like a revelation that almost hit me in the face. God doesn't hate me. He's using me for something. This is part of a bigger picture."
Kristen Haley says she wonders if being transgender isn't God's way of working through her.
"I don't know where this is going. When I pass away and hopefully someday I'll be in eternity with him, I hope I've not disappointed him. I mean he's my 'dad.' I would like him to say, 'good job Chris,' and welcome me with open arms."
The question is whether faith communities here on earth can do the same.
Transgender in Cultures
Writings about transgender people date back to ancient Greece. In some religious traditions, transgender individuals are accorded special status. Hindus, for example, recognize a "third sex" that includes people with both male and female natures. In one ancient ritual, Hindus would ask third sex people to bless their newborns. In the Native American culture, transgender people are viewed as doubly blessed because it is believed they possess the spirit of both a man and a woman.