Crossing Over- Liberating the Transgendered. Christian, by Vanesssa Sheridan. The Pilgrim Press, ISBN 0-82981446-9.

First published in Triple Echo v. 4 no. 1, 2002.

crossovr1Early in her book Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian Vanessa Sheridan addresses the question of why transgendered people should bother staying in a church that ostracizes, censures and oppresses them. For her, the answer is personal and a sign of her faith. She sees the tremendous potential for good within the Church and she wants to see justice and love win. Well, I do too. Unfortunately, I only have a short time on this planet, and I find the courts are quicker at delivering justice than the Church is.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agree with Sheridan’s assertion that “a soulless movement is ultimately doomed to failure”, even if she and I don’t exactly agree on the religious particulars. When I became aware that my religion didn’t approve of people like me, I had no problem whatsoever dumping my religion. It was a bit of an eye opener then to read some of the case histories Sheridan includes in this book of trans people who are so conflicted by who they are and what their faith thinks of them that they are almost suicidal. Plainly, it’s important that some transgendered folk are willing to take on the thankless task of reforming organized Christianity.

While Sheridan encourages trans Christians not to hate their oppressors, and delivers her criticisms of the church in a respectful manner, her major point is bold, to say the least. She claims the Church is heretical for not respecting the diversity of God’s creation. It “is idolatrous and heretical to make gender-based social mores or expectations more important than the well-being of a person made in God’s image.”

While she admits that a literal interpretation of the Bible “does not appear to lend the transgendered much sympathy”, she also contends that there are many passages that support us. The Bible, she says, is our book too, and should not be co-opted by our oppressors.

The message to transgendered people here is twofold. First, that you must learn to accept your gender orientation as a gift from God. “Part of our responsibility includes recognizing and affirming the reality of the gender gift itself, rather than denying or rejecting it.” Jesus was always on the side of the oppressed, and he is on our side too. The second part of the equation, however, is that he expects us to be a part of our own liberation. Sheridan’s thesis here is that we have a duty and a responsibility to help others “overcome their prejudices and bigotries so that legitimate progress toward understanding, acceptance and mutual respect may become genuine reality.”

I rather like this message. She is taking a Christ-like view of the people who hate and oppress us. These people are damaged by their own fears and they need our help to overcome their disability.

Of course, many of these people aren’t interested in the things we have to teach them, and Sheridan’s Church might be similarly hostile to her proposals for reform. She calls on the Church to repent for its sins against gender diverse people, and much as I may agree with her, I still find myself saying, “Yeah, right, that’ll be the day.”

Sheridan makes many empowering observations for the transgendered Christian, but these observations stem more from a personal relationship with Jesus than they do from a relationship with her Church. In fact, she says that the Church’s greatest failing is its inability to accept its own transgendered nature. She asserts that “Jesus manifested many behaviors and characteristics that could easily be considered ‘transgendered”.

This is not an original observation, of course, but one well worth repeating, if only because the Church always takes such great pains to conceal the fact. Early images of Christ were distinctly feminine, one of the most famous being a marble statuette from about 370-380, now in the Museo delle Terme in Rome, that depicted a seated Christ wearing a short sleeved tunic and with women’s breasts.

From the eleventh to the sixteenth century, as the Church solidified its dominance, it assumed control of the image of Jesus. The pagan iconography disappeared and was replaced by a new Christ. He became bearded, stern looking and more manly.
Despite this attempt to masculinize Christ and the prohibition against women becoming priests, the Christian priesthood is still full of feminine imagery: the skirts, and the celibacy, which is equivalent to a kind of self-castration. Laurence Senelick says that the “delicate balance required of the Christian priest in bearing the signs of effeminacy without being stigmatized as an effeminate is not easy to achieve. Hence the patristic over-reaction to transgender masquerade and the Church’s intolerance of other forms of cross-dressing.”

Sheridan accepts this transgender Christ and bases her transgender liberation theology on the example of Jesus’ life. She quotes Marcus Borg, who claims that Jesus’ “teachings and behavior reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself. Indeed, that’s the best explanation for why he was killed.”

The main points of a transgender liberation theology are to free gender variant people from institutionalized social and religious oppression; transform the second class status of trans people to one of acceptance and respect within mainstream society; recognize the spiritual and emotional well being of trans people; and pursue justice, peace and happiness for trans people.

Liberation theology concerns itself with the study of God as a proactive agent in the lives of persons who struggle to be set free from oppression. Liberation theology’s primary tenet is that God, rather than being neutral, is always on the side of the oppressed. In “liberation theology” God is viewed as the liberator of the oppressed. Oppression in any form is seen as a “sin”. Resistance to oppression – the struggle against sin – thus becomes God’s will for our lives.

Even if you do not believe that Jesus was God (as I don’t), this is a powerful message. It gives meaning to our struggle as trans people. And how can one not take courage from the idea that Jesus would have been on our side? The challenge for those transgendered people who wish to remain in the Church is to convince other Christians of that.

The title Crossing Over refers to the story of the Israelites escaping the Pharaoh’s armies by crossing over the parted waters of the Red Sea. To this day, “crossing over” remains a common theme of hope and inspiration for oppressed faith communities. That it has a second more literal meaning for trans people makes this an especially apt title for a small book that delivers a message of hope for conflicted transgendered Christians.