I will never forget the day my friend Aaron* asked me if God loved him. It was a few weeks before our high school graduation and signs of spring had finally begun to break through the deep freeze of the Chicago winter. Driving down Lake Shore Drive on our way to school that morning, I could tell Aaron’s mood was somber and reflective. We went to a gifted school full of nerds and oddballs like us. Common high school stereotypes did not apply. The stars of our powerhouse basketball team were as likely to end up at prestigious schools like Northwestern as the captain of the chess team. Against this diverse backdrop, Aaron still stood out. Tall and slender, he was fond of wearing lace gloves and tight Michael Jackson T-shirts. His presentation was what I would later learn is termed “gender non-conforming.”
Even at a high school with the first LGBTQ Pride club in the state, Aaron was relentlessly mocked and harassed. He was made to feel other and isolated because of his presentation. Against the odds, Aaron flourished. Days before our drive to school, Aaron was accepted to the college of his dreams. He would be moving to a large city on the East Coast where I hoped that he would finally feel free.
His question about God’s love for him caught me by surprise. We never talked about religion. I was, admittedly, the “churchy” one in my group of friends — president of the Junior Usher Board and active in my church youth ministry. Yet even at the age of 17, devoid of theological training, I understood the core inquiry at the root of the question: Could this Christian God that I proclaimed loved us all so much accept Aaron even when so many of this God’s “followers” did not? It was the mid-2000s and ostracizing the LGBTQ community had become political catnip for elected officials wanting the favor of socially conservative Christian communities.
My answer to Aaron that day was an unequivocal, “Yes.” I did not have the precise language to express why at the time. But what my gut instinct told me then laid the groundwork for what I still believe now. I have no desire to serve a God whose love is conditional and whose judgment is based upon the social anxieties of human beings. That is not the God I know. It is not the gospel I preach. My God is the god of my ancestors. My God accompanies those who are the marginalized and ostracized. My God knew us as we are before we were formed in our mother’s womb.
What I did not know in high school is that Aaron is Erin, a transgender woman. Today, she is living as the women she is and always was. She is bold, adventurous, hilarious, and warm. She is a beacon of strength and courage for all those who share space with her. I have learned more about my God by knowing her as one who is crafted in God’s image.
These days I find myself thinking about Erin often, as laws proclaiming to defend religious liberty seek to render her and her peers invisible in the public square. Exiling them from public restrooms in North Carolina. Allowing employment discrimination in Mississippi. In Tennessee, the state I now call home, the governor will decide in coming days whether to veto a law that allows mental health counselors right to deny services to those whose existence contradicts the counselor’s “sincerely held beliefs.” In each case, it is abundantly clear that these laws are meant to target and isolate members of the LGBTQ community. I have no doubt that they will be challenged in the courts and rightly overturned over time. Indeed the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is currently hearing a challenge to discriminatory bathroom policies by a transgender teen in Virginia.
As a clergywoman, I find myself most troubled by the fact the sponsors of these laws often do so in the name of protecting Christianity. Is our Christianity so fragile that it must dictate where people pee? Is it so dogmatic that it must deny people access to vital mental health services that may just save their lives? I am tired of my faith tradition being hijacked as an excuse to justify the fears and, in some cases, outright bigotry of others. Let us never forget that “sincerely held religious beliefs” were also used to justify racial segregation and the terror of the Klu Klux Klan. “Sincerely held religious beliefs” — when left unchecked, when directed against each other — have brought about war and genocide both domestically and abroad. Do we really want to continue down this road and again tarnish the name of our faith in the process?
Erin’s question from high school is strikingly relevant today for the Christian community today. Does our God love her? If so, our course of action is clear. I implore my brothers and sisters in Christ to speak up and out. We cannot allow such outright discrimination to continue in our name. We cannot stand idly by while the humanity of our neighbors is being put on trial. To remain complacent is to deny the witness of Christ whose gospel implores us to stand in the gap for those at the margins. May we find the courage to live into his example.
*The names in this piece have been changed to protect the privacy of my friend.