Episcopal Church adopts trans-inclusive policies
by Chuck Colbert
They were a party of eight, four transgender women, two transmen, a gay man, and straight woman ally. They told friends, "We're going to Anaheim," not too far away from Disneyland.
They were also change agents. By the end of their church's triennial gathering last month this band of sisters and brothers made Episcopalian history with the advent of trans-inclusive action and convention-floor testimony from a 19-year-old man believed to be the first openly transgender deputy.
"Members of TransEpiscopal made an incredible difference by giving incarnational witness to the "T" in LGBT and – in the process – moving the Episcopal Church further toward its goal of being a truly inclusive and welcoming church," said the Reverend Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.
Russell is president of Integrity, the denomination's LGBT advocacy group.
Dedicated to spiritual enrichment and empowerment, TransEpiscopal ( http://blog.transepiscopal.com/) serves as a support and advocacy group for the denomination's transgender members and significant others, families, friends, and allies.
Altogether, the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held July 8-17, adopted four resolutions. Two of them support enactment of civil sector anti-discrimination and hate crimes legislation protecting transgender people at local, state, and federal levels.
Voting in separate legislative bodies, the House of Delegates and the House of Bishops, convention deputies – lay persons, clergy and bishops – also adopted two other resolutions, one adding "gender identity and expression" to its non-discrimination policy for hiring lay employees and another calling for the revision of church paper and electronic forms to allow a wider range of gender identifications.
Bishop Marc Handley Andrus of the California Episcopal Diocese, an outspoken advocate against Proposition 8 last year, enthusiastically supported all four trans-inclusive resolutions.
A fifth resolution, an effort to add "gender identity and expression" to the church's non-discrimination canons, or church laws, passed in one house and was amended in another house by striking various categories – for instance, race, age, and ethnicity, among others – and substituting "all people."
That move "puts us back to square one in explaining 'all really means all' to those who want to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, etc, etc, etc.," explained Russell. "So we opted to let the resolution die by not bringing it back to the floor of the first house for concurrence."
"Anyway," she added, "we'll come back around that one next time out. I am convinced that by doing the education in the next three years, it will get passed in both houses."
Nonetheless, the trans-inclusive steps already taken are a remarkable turnaround from the last triennial gathering.
"We're taking the 'T' out of LGBT and letting it stand alone," said Dante Tavolaro, a convention deputy and college student from Lincoln, Rhode Island. Three years ago, an effort failed to bring even one resolution out of committee, he explained.
This time, however, Tavolaro, along with straight ally Sarah Lawton and Massachusetts state Representative Byron Rushing, successfully co-authored two resolutions, both of which were adopted. Tavolaro even testified in favor of trans inclusion at a committee hearing, as well as on the floor of the House of Deputies.
"For the church to take [trans-inclusion] on in such a supportive way gives me hope that the church I love so much has in a very clear way said that it does care about me and what those in the larger society think and say," he said.
For secular society, Tavolaro added, "The church sends to the LGBT community such a wonderful message that we are an inclusive church, not perfect, but we're trying hard."
A self-described "overall church geek," Tavolaro has served in Episcopal parishes in music, youth, and acolyte ministries. This summer he is a staff member for vacation Bible school. Tavolaro is also considering – "discerning" in church language – a vocational call to the priesthood.
Not the first
Comparatively speaking, the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, is not the first to advance trans-inclusive denominational policy. And yet, with the adoption of four transgender resolutions in Anaheim, the Episcopal Church, often considered a denominational bellwether, is now the largest American church to go officially pro-trans.
For a church "most people think of as the closest to mainstream Protestantism," said national transgender activist and Episcopalian Donna Cartwright of Baltimore, the Anaheim convention is a significant development for the transgender community.
"It tells [us] that our stories and journeys can be honored in a religious way," said Cartwright, who was part of the eight-person group in Anaheim. "The body that grappled with sexual orientation is now doing so with gender identity. There is a path for all of us to full acceptance in the body of Christ."
By comparison, the United Church of Christ at its 2003 General Synod passed a lengthy resolution in support of transgender people. In 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations adopted two trans-inclusive resolutions at its General Assembly.
Two years ago, Reform Judaism included several prayers for sanctifying the sex-change process in its publication "Kalanu," (Hebrew for "all of us.") First published in 1996, the original version of "Kalanu" was a 150-page collection of texts and resources for gay and lesbian inclusion. The 2007 update is comprehensively expanded, including liturgy for same-sex union ceremonies, a divorce document for same-sex couples, and a prayer for coming out.
Meanwhile, back in Anaheim, the power of personal story – its ability to transform abstract concepts like gender identity and expression into concrete human reality – seemed to win over hearts and minds.
"What blew me away," said the Reverend Cameron Partridge, a transgender priest and TransEpiscopal leader, "was how many people came out of the woodwork. More people are connected to the transgender community than one might imagine."
As Partridge, originally from the Bay Area, now serving as vicar of a Boston parish, explained further, "When we brought up the [resolutions] people stepped forward to say, 'My neighbor is trans, or my son or daughter is.' In other cases, and random places, people came forward and told me, 'I am so glad that you testified at that committee hearing. I would never have thought about [transgender concerns] before.'"
In sum, Cameron, another among the party of eight, added, "People were amazing."
For straight ally and convention deputy Lawton, gender identity and expression is all in the family. Her sister is a transgender woman, and Lawton spoke to delegates from the convention floor for two minutes, telling some of her sister's story.
"When someone comes out transgender in a family," Lawton said recently during a telephone interview, everyone "goes through a process. I know that my parish church was helpful to me in my own transition because you have to go through this as a family."
St. John's the Evangelist, located in San Francisco's Mission District, Lawton went on to say, "offered me as well as my sister pastoral support. I know how helpful that was. I rejoice in how much progress we made at this convention through education and visibility, and in raising our voices in welcome."