Friday, July 6, 2012

On Being a Good Transgender Ally

By Becky Garrison

Often when I find myself in conversations with progressive people of faith, the subject invariably turns to LGBT rights. Pretty soon we all find ourselves in a contest to outdo each other by trotting out our various accomplishments on behalf of LGBT folks to prove just how gay-friendly we can be. Thanks to some LGBT activists, I've become attuned to the hypocrisy of well-intentioned folks speaking about LGBT issues without actively bringing those who are part of this community into the conversation.

In this spirit, I'd like to present an email exchange I recently had with Shannon T.L. Kearns, a Deacon in the North American Old Catholic Church and theologian at

Why did you choose to get ordained in a convention center conference room at the 2012 Philadelphia Trans-health Conference ( instead of a church?

I chose to get ordained at this conference because I see ordination as something the community does. It's the community saying "We recognize that this person is called to be a minister and we honor that." The trans* community is my community. It made sense to do the ordination as a part of the transgender health conference. It was also about being a public witness to a community that has so often been hurt or rejected by the church: To stand up and say "Here is a church that welcomes you and that ordains trans* people." It was a powerful statement.

What steps do religious leaders need to take if they want to move from affirming LGBT folks to being an ally?

It has to move beyond just saying that you support gay people or gay marriage. We really need you to work in solidarity with us. We need you to be working to make churches places that welcome trans* folks. Work on issues other than just gay marriage; issues like non-discrimination acts, police brutality, prison issues, etc.

Being an ally is about so much more than speech: It's about what you do. It's where you give your money, the people that you support, the people you listen to.

Being an ally is also about education and listening to queer people telling their stories and telling you what they need. It's not about allies doing work for us or speaking for us, but working with us to make change happen.

What are some practical suggestions for those who want to make religious spaces and communities more trans inclusive?

One of the biggest things I tell churches and other religious groups is to figure out your bathroom situation. It sounds so simple, but it is the source of great anxiety for a lot of trans* folks. Do you have a gender neutral restroom available? If not, can you make your restrooms gender neutral? It says a lot about your community if you have safe bathrooms available and visible for folks.

Other suggestions: If someone tells you their name, use it. Make it a habit to allow people to tell you what pronouns they prefer and then respect those pronouns. If your church has a welcome statement that is printed in the bulletin make sure it includes both gender identity and gender expression. If you have an LGBT group, make sure that people actually know something about trans* folks and that the programming includes issues that are important to trans* folks.

Describe the role that you see allies playing at the Philadelphia Trans-Health conference.

I think the Philly conference is a great place for allies to go and learn. It's a place where they can attend workshops and get some of their questions answered. It's a place where they can learn more about what it means to be trans* and to move through the world as a trans* person. It's also a really wonderful place to experience a lot of the diversity of the trans* community and to see a lot of joy.

I often get asked a lot of questions about being trans* and about my transition process. While I sometimes don't mind answering those questions, it does get exhausting. If more allies would take the opportunity to go to places that are open to the public (like the Philly conference) or to avail themselves of materials that explain the trans* experience it would free trans* folks up to move the conversation past the 101 and to do other important work.

Image via Becky Garrison: Deacon Shannon T.L. Kearns and Archbishop Michael Seneco.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.


  1. Huge thanks to you both for sharing this very instructive conversation. Can you recommend any good online or resources for readers who might not be familiar with some of the terminology used in the article (specifically the use of the asterisk along with trans*)? Thanks again!

  2. Hi! The asterisk behind trans is a boolean search term: It's what you enter when you want to bring up whatever follows. So with trans* it's inclusive of trangender, transsexual, transmasculine, transfeminine, etc. etc. etc.

    I've also compiled a page with a bunch of different resources here:

  3. Thank you thank you thank you for this conversation.

  4. And this also from Shannon re what NOT to ask a trans* person ...


  5. Great piece. Thanks for sharing!