What would Christians need to overcome to accept transgender people?

by Mariam Williams

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On an annual trip to Cincinnati over the holidays, a friend asked me if I had read any news about Leelah Alcorn. At that time, I had seen her name circulating on Twitter as a hashtag and had managed to catch the last 15 seconds or so of a television news story about her suicide. I returned to a Twitter search later that day and read CNN's report of why the 17-year-old girl was hit by a tractor-trailer while walking on Interstate 71 on Dec. 28.

Leelah was transgender, and her parents could not accept that she wanted to live her life as a girl. Even in Leelah's death, her parents remained resistant; throughout the story, Leelah's mother, Carla Alcorn, is quoted referring to her child as "Josh" and using male pronouns.

Most of the posts (such as this one and this one), open letters and tweets I've read since then offer support to transgender youth and plead, as Leelah did in her suicide note, for Christian parents to love, accept and support their children unconditionally and for Christians to educate themselves and end their condemnation of transgender people. While I support these calls for affirmation -- I spilled much online ink in 2014 demanding recognition of black humanity, so I'm not upset when people ask that the condemnation of someone's identity cease -- Leelah's death has prompted me to wonder what Christians would need to overcome within their own hearts and minds in order to accept transgender people.

By "accept," I mean love transgender people, stop calling their need to be a different gender a sin, and support their transition into becoming who they believe they are. Leelah said her mother "reacted extremely negatively" to her coming out as transgender and took her to Christian therapists, who called her "selfish and wrong" and told her she "should look to God for help." Judging by some comments in Parker Molloy's open letter to Leelah, those aren't uncommon reactions. But why be so harsh, so defensive? I think allegiance to "cherry-picked Bible verses" is too reductive an explanation. I'm starting to think Christian resistance to acceptance of transgender people has a lot to do with how we think of God.

See, in her suicide note, Leelah recounts her mother telling her that "God doesn't make mistakes." Humans are the imperfect ones. We're the ones who sin, who fall short, who make mistakes. But we worship an all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign God who sees us making mistakes but works our fallibility into his plan.

What if God can make a mistake? What if God is only slightly better at navigating life than we are? Maybe that gives me the go-ahead to let my child who was born male live life as female, but then who takes care of all the problems too big for me to handle? In other words, who's in control here? In whom can I put my trust? Christians struggle with doubt all the time. If God can make a mistake, the path of "what if" may be far too long for Christians whose faith is the foundation of their lives to handle.

Or we might have to entertain the idea that if God doesn't make mistakes, then maybe God is just cruel to some people. Leelah said she "felt like a girl trapped in a boy's body." An omnipotent God would assign a baby's sex while it's in the womb, and an omniscient God would know if that baby would grow up to hate its body, to feel as though the gender it had no part in choosing was a mistake. God would know the pain that would cause the child and his or her family. Why would God put anyone through that? Just to see how others would react? To test Christians' capacity to love everyone? How many people would be comfortable worshipping a God who uses people as pawns? How would God have to change for everyone to be accepted?

I don't write this to let off the hook Christians who are appalled by what they believe to be sin or those who pray God will change their transgender child "back to normal" to keep their son or daughter out of hell. The point is not to tell transgender and gay rights activists to be patient with issues that are killing people. I write this to demonstrate that some soul-searching is in order and to acknowledge that the change activists and allies seek is a big one. Even though it seems simple, a simple change can disrupt one's whole faith.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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