My first exposure to the trans community came when I was 14 and on my first major international trip with family across Asia, ending in Thailand. My parents had heard how much drag shows were renowned in Thailand so they got tickets to a local show. Drag performers can be people of any gender or orientation, but as is common in Thailand, some of the performers in the show we saw were transgender women, or kathoey.
Despite the misleading messages of many recent bills across the U.S. that claim all-ages drag shows target or sexualize children, my experience at the drag show was uplifting, not tramautizing. I mostly remember being blown away by the performers’ talent and poise.
Bills targeting drag performances are just one part of an alarming surge of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the U.S., especially bills that target transgender or nonbinary people, most intensely targeting trans youth. So far this year, 70 anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been enacted across the U.S. In recent years, at least 20 states have banned or limited transgender student athletes’ sports participation and at least 18 states have enacted laws or policies that bar various forms of gender-affirming medical care for minors. For politicians like Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, these bills are designed to rally a voting base by stoking moral panic; for transgender people, especially transgender kids and their families, these laws can be a matter of life and death. Given the ways Christians have been (and often continue to be) at the forefront of movements that harm LGBTQ+ people, we need an equally active movement of Christians to support the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ people, including transgender youth.
I wasn’t always a vocal champion or ally of transgender people. After watching that drag show, I confess that trans people were largely “out of sight, out of mind” for me until a decade later when I got involved in the global HIV/AIDS movement. In 2000, I attended the Interntional AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa; not only was the trans community present at the conference, they were bold and outspoken in ensuring their lives and dignity were unmissable. As I got deeper into HIV/AIDS activism, I got to know the stories of many transgender people, which helped me overcome my own discomfort and prejudice. As an activist, I advocated for the full humanity and rights of transgender people; as a Christian, I grew to see transgender people as an essential part of the Beloved Community, challenging and inspiring us to “live out the bold, inclusive love of Jesus.”
A bolder Christian witness in support of trans rights is especially necessary given that so much anti-trans rhetoric and legislation in the U.S. is allegedly being done in the name of Christian faith or justified by the weaponization of scripture. Christians groups, including the Alliance to Defend Freedom and the Family Research Council, have helped lead the multimillion-dollar political strategy targeting LGBTQ+ rights through “parents’ rights” bills. For example, Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, depicted gender transition as “a blatant attempt to undermine the very order of creation.” In Oklahoma, state Sen. David Bullard cited the gospel of Matthew to introduce what he calls “the Millstone Act” — a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide gender transition procedures to anyone under the age of 26. The act’s name alludes to Matthew 18:6, which says anyone causing a child to sin should be drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around their neck.
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, captures the overriding ethic that should guide our thoughts and actions as Christians: “The reality is, the Bible leaves a lot to interpretation,” she wrote in an opinion article for Newsweek. “It’s easy to cherry-pick sentences and warp them for a political agenda. There are also plenty of passages that Christians clearly reject like, amusingly, warnings to not wear clothing with two types of material. And there are other morally abhorrent passages that are fiercely rejected, like those supporting enslavement and condoning violence against women. Ultimately, when we look to the Bible for guidance, we have to look at its overarching lessons: love others. Treat our neighbors with respect. Show compassion.”
I know some Christians do not fully share my theological convictions about gender and sexuality, but on issues of human dignity and civil rights, the church should be firmly united: Transgender and nonbinary siblings are God’s children made in God’s very image and likeness. Prohibiting lifesaving medical care, tolerating discrimination, or denying someone the ability to use their name is wrong; you cannot deny people those rights because you disagree with their beliefs about gender or sexuality. Christians should be standing in the breach in defense of the full humanity, dignity, and rights of their trans siblings.
One hopeful trend is the way that interfaith coalitions have come together in many communities — including Knoxville, Tenn., Madison, Wisc., and Pasadena, Calif. — to show their support for trans and non-binary people and denounce the hateful legislation that targets them. And many Christians across the country, from Louisville, Ken. to Edmonds, Wash., are doing their part to stand in that breach, insisting that trans kids are made in the very image and likeness of God just like everyone else, and deserve to be treated as such. They are responding to hate in their communities and states with steadfast love, modeling Paul’s instruction to “overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).”
Some Christian denominations are likewise doing important work to uphold transgender and nonbinary dignity and rights. For example, the United Church of Christ has published a pastoral letter “addressing the attacks on people of transgender or nonbinary experience across the United States,” and put forward a helpful set of talking points that anyone can use to explain why their faith leads them to defend transgender and nonbinary dignity and rights. In March, nearly 30 groups of Catholic nuns representing more than 6,000 people signed onto a statement calling people to push back against anti-transgender legislation, saying, “As members of the body of Christ, we cannot be whole without the full inclusion of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive individuals.”
It’s encouraging to me that so many LGBTQ+ Christians and straight allies are working together to model the love of Jesus toward their trans siblings in large and small ways, and it’s worth taking the occasion of Pride month to highlight some of those positive examples. It is my hope that these examples will inspire greater courage from people who aspire to be trans allies but have yet to speak up or take action. After all, James reminds us that “faith without works is dead.” During this Pride month and beyond, my hope is that our faith will come alive in acts of love to defend the dignity and rights of trans youth and our LGBTQ+ siblings.