Trigger Warning: description of depression and suicide
Her name was Emily.
As a pastor, I was always happy to have someone new visit the congregation.
So I was particularly thrilled when Emily scheduled a meeting with me after visiting worship for the first time.
During our meeting, Emily shared that she identified as transgender woman, that her family had essentially disowned her, and that the conservative evangelical church of her upbringing would no longer welcome her. Emily had researched both the church and its pastor—me—thoroughly and knew that we offered LGBTQ Spirituality Groups and Transgender Support Groups, so she had high hopes that we would be a place of welcome.
For over a year, Emily and I met together and exchanged lengthy emails of theological and political depth.
Through it all, Emily continued to use male pronouns. She had much to lose. She was a well-respected doctor who could not imagine transitioning or being outed as transgender in the medical community where she served. When she received a fellowship to a prestigious and progressive medical institution far away from the hospital where she worked, Emily was confident that it could become a place to transition fully.
She moved away just before my child was born.
Our long theological emails ended, and I assumed Emily had found a place where she could thrive, authentically and fully herself.
After welcoming my child into the world, I received a gift of global children’s lullabies and a beautiful note from Emily. I think of her each night when I sing to my child.
After this, we remained connected only through social media. I never imagined how much Emily continued to struggle. This is one of the countless privileges of being cisgender, not having to think about the daily struggle of being trans in a transphobic world. Two years passed and I learned that Emily had committed suicide.
The bold, brave, brilliant woman who I falsely assumed was thriving was gone.
As a queer activist, I often think that I’m aware. I know the facts and figures. Over half the country allows gender identity discrimination. Trans women of color experience higher rates of police brutality. Trans women experience higher rates of sexual violence, homelessness, and employment discrimination. 72% of victims of anti-LGBT homicide are transgender women and 67% are trans women of color.
This year in my home state of North Carolina, politicians spent millions of taxpayer dollars to pass and uphold a law that regulates where trans people can use the bathroom. As a Christian pastor, I also know that trans people are disproportionately ostracized from their families of origin and faith communities, violently assaulted by bully pulpits throughout the world. All of these facts and figures were a lived reality throughout Emily’s life.
Even though I knew these facts and figures, this knowledge could do nothing to bring her back. As a pastor, I have experienced a number of congregants committing or trying to commit suicide. This was the first time when I washed in guilt, asking the oft-repeated question, “What could I have done differently?” How could I have loved more fully? Should I have stayed in better contact after Emily moved? How could I have been so clouded by my own privilege that I did not notice she was struggling?
Even after nearly a year, I cannot answer these questions.
As I say them aloud or write them, I weep and rage. I am angry. And I am angry at myself for my lack of awareness to what Emily must have been experiencing.
In a world where trans people are demeaned, excluded, exoticized, invalidated, legislated against, and killed—the courage it takes for trans people to live fully into who they are is worthy of respect and honor. I dare say it is a holy act.
I knew that I must find some way, not only to honor Emily’s life and witness, but to acknowledge the violence heaped upon trans women on a daily basis in our sexist, racist, transphobic society.
So, I knew that Emily would become one of my Holy Women Icons.
But I also know that the media, the church, and popular culture too often highlight trans voices after they are gone, that there is psychological, spiritual, and emotional violence done to trans bodies when we only portray them as dead and violated.
I felt strongly that, though I could call the icon Emily, that it would be too much for it to look like Emily. She is not here for me to ask her permission. Too many trans women are not here for us to ask.
Each trans woman is unique and multifaceted, with a story and history wholly her own. And on Sunday, during Transgender Day of Remembrance, we heard many names of those no longer with us.
The one who called me pastor was Emily.
Emily’s spirit stirs in me as I paint and write and remember. Her heart cries out to us:
Transforming and transformed,
Her heart redefined resilience,
Transfiguring our world into a place of
As I commit to painting more trans holy women—with Barbara Satin topping the list—I invite you to share the trans women who have inspired and emboldened you to live more fully, more holy.
For the lives of trans women have something important and needed to teach the church.
Emily taught me what it means to remain faithful when the world and the church is unfaithful to you. She taught me what it means to be authentically and fully human.
Emily taught me what it means to be brave.
May we all be bold enough to live fully into our humanity, embracing and love all unabashedly.
Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber