Trigger warning: discussions of transphobia, violence, and suicide.
Last week, a friend sent me a news report about an attack on transgender activist Candice Rose Milligan, who lives in Toledo, Ohio. She has been released from the hospital following two surgeries, including one to wire her jaw closed until it heals. It was broken as the result of being kicked and punched in the head and face by three men during the attack.
Thankfully, Toledo Councilman Jack Ford is calling for a federal investigation, and he stated, “No one at any time should be subjected to violent assault and battery. We all should speak up on this now so further violence is abated.”
Yes, we should all speak up now so further violence is abated.
In Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan, we are asked this question: “Who is my neighbor?” While this parable has challenged many types of prejudices based on race, ethnicity, gender, interfaith, and even sexual orientation, I want us to lift up another community that needs to be seen and understood as neighbor: the transgender community.
My faith is grounded in a relationship with God through Jesus from the time of my earliest childhood memories; I know the bullying and cruel experiences contained within my life are part of what has expanded my compassion towards and understanding of others.
As a transgender man, I also know that I have a much different perspective on gender and the effects that our gender-based society has on the development of children. I understand these as gifts in my ministry, and have been amazed at the many ways God has used this part of my life to reach out to others.
I also need to acknowledge there has been much bullying, abuse, and violence experienced by myself and by many in the transgender community, and this violence testifies to the need for us to read “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” from a different perspective today.
Tomorrow, November 20, marks the 15th Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance.
This memorial began as a community response to the murder of Rita Hester in November 1998. Every November 20, rituals are held in many nations and cities honoring and remembering the victims of brutal transphobic violence over the past year. One part of these rituals is the reading of names.
I have participated in the reading of names many times, and each year it has exceeded two hundred. These are only the known and defined victims of transgender violence: it does not include the deaths that go unreported or unacknowledged, nor does it include the many suicides in which gender identity played a major part.
I have lost a number of transgender friends and acquaintances to suicide over the years, including most recently, a friend of my church community. Statistically, more than 44% of those who identify as transgender report having considered or attempted suicide at least once in their lives. This is why in addition to the names read due to acts of violence, I believe we need to include the names of those driven to such a point of despair that they feel their only option is to take their own lives.
In the midst of violence, transgender people are routinely denied the same legal protections afforded to their cisgender peers.
On November 12, 2014, Dade County, Florida, “won” a victory against transgender people when the county voted to not include transgender persons among those protected under current protections for race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
This means that in Dade County, as in so many other places throughout this nation, transgender people may be fired, discriminated against in housing, health insurance, health care, denied employment, or otherwise treated unjustly and inhumanely. These are all conditions that contribute to the high rates of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, lack of health care, depression and violence reported by members of the transgender community.
Currently, only 18 states and the District of Columbia ban employment and housing discrimination based on gender identity. Only 8 states and the District of Columbia prohibit transgender exclusions in health insurance, which means insurance issuers outside these states can deny or limit healthcare coverage based on gender identity.
This Transgender Day of Remembrance, we will read the names of 268 transgender people who have been victims of violence in the past year.
There has been some progress in some places since I was a child. I am so hopeful when I read about camps for transgender children and their families, places where these young people can write, sing, and dance about what it means to grow-up with the awareness of a transgender identity. Such opportunities were not to be found in the 1950’s and 60’s.
My parents were relieved when I told them about the Gender Identity Clinic I had located, and they supported me as I moved through the process. Still, when I think about those days, and the existence of such places as camps and support groups in schools and communities; while it is hopeful, it is also tempered by the increasing number of acts of violence, reported and unreported, against transgender people.
Camps, conferences, and conclaves of safety do not translate into safe spaces in society, as the TDOR statistics this year illustrate. And while figures such as Laverne Cox and television shows such as “Transparent” offer some positive transgender role models about transgender people (all transgender women, by the way), such media attention also contains within it the seeds for negative pushback.
Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan is about faith-based acts of compassion towards others.
This parable speaks particularly about compassion toward those that the most religiously self-righteous deplore and harm. In this parable, Jesus teaches us what it means to be a good neighbor.
As Christians, anything we can do to preserve life, empower dignity, and offer respect is appropriate and an act of neighborly love. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to be and act as a place of welcome and safety for our transgender neighbors, family members, and friends.
This Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us prayerfully think together about what it means to be a neighbor among and within the transgender community. We can take a beginning stop this week. Tomorrow, find a TDOR service to attend to learn more about the ongoing violence against transgender people. Then continue to educate yourself about the transgender community and speak out against discrimination and violence against our transgender neighbors.
Let us remember our commitments not only today, but tomorrow, the next day, and in days, weeks, and years to come.
And let us pray together for our transgender neighbors, known and unknown.
Adapted from sermon delivered November 16, 2014 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.