Doing Transgender and Religion

Together with a group of researchers from different universities, both from religious studies and gender studies, we have started a project about transgender and religion in the Netherlands. At the NOG Research Day ‘Doing Gender in the Netherlands’ about transgender issues, I presented some of the key issues at stake in this project. This is an adapted version of this presentation, and all input is welcome. If you wish to keep in touch or join this particular project, let me know!

Issues of LGBT tolerance, gender equality and sexual diversity have come to function as central concepts around which Dutch national identity is shaped. The Netherlands is first and foremost a secular, sexually free, emancipated country where the gays are free, safe and protected. In the last decade, the more trans* inclusive notion of LHBT (lesbian, homo/gay, bisexual, transgender), has come to replace the formerly used holebi (homo/gay, lesbian, bisexual) in academia and in Dutch popular culture. However, multiple organizations have pointed at a gap in the acceptance of the ‘T’, transgender people. Indeed, there is more visibility. 2015 was even dubbed the year of transgender by the Volkskrant, referring to the increasing popularity of public figures as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner (though the last one is a more problematic figure and her popularity has been widely discussed by trans activists, see here or here). Media visibility notwithstanding, the public representation of transgender continues to focus on medical aspects of the transition (such as the reality-show Hij is een Zij), and misses a nuanced approach to the various experiences, that trans people might have. When the notion of religion enters these debates it is often perceived as threatening to these ideals of ‘sexual freedom’. As a consequence, religion continues to be met with hesitance in political discourse and as well in genderstudies. Religion is one element that is not present in relation to transgender in public discourse, and the importance of faith and religion in the lives of LGBTs is often overlooked or ignored. Coming from religious studies and anthropology, there is a broad field of scholarship about the relation of gender and religion. However, here it is not uncommon that ‘gender’ refers to the study ciswomen, in which case the project of ‘doing gender’ is limited to ‘doing women’, or ‘doing gays’ at best. 

So overall, religion and transgender are hardly put in the same sentence in Dutch politics and academia, which is why we decided to bring together scholars and social partners from different academic en political spaces to try to understand these complex relations and hopefully create more understanding and space for gender diversity in religious studies and religious institutes.

As an example, two cases about transwomen and leadership in Christian churches in the Netherlands form a starting point for research. In 2015, transwoman Rhianna Gralike resigned from her position as secretary of a small Roman-Catholic parish nearby Utrecht, after months of struggle with the church board and discussions with Dutch archbishop van Eijk. According to van Eijk, her ‘lifestyle’ is incompatible with the teachings of the Roman-Catholic church, and as such she felt forced to resign. Omroep Flevoland has reported most about this case, no attention has been given to this in national media. The second case is based on my own research. In 2014 I interviewed Monique, who came out as a transwoman in a Protestant church where she had been active as a church elder, which is a part of the church board and leadership. Because her church only allowed men to participate in the church board, she was asked to resign from this position. For both Rhianna and Monique, their identification and self-expression as woman did not only have consequences for their personal lives, but directly influenced their role and authority in church. For both, their leading position in the church was questioned because of their recognizable trans* identification. In the case of Rhianna, identifying as a transwoman was considered an abnormality, which conflicted with the norms and values of the Catholic church. The language used by church representatives, specifically archbishop Eijk, largely followed anti-gay discourses within the church as transgender was considered yet another deviant LGBT sexuality, a lifestyle even. At this moment, the resignation of Rhianna has yet to be brought to court as case of discrimination. Monique on the other hand, although her identification had similar consequences for her position in church, came to this through a very different experience. She did not consider the decision of the church board an act of discrimination, which was the case with Rhianna. As the rules for church leadership were pre-set (no women were allowed in the leadership of the church), the change in her position in church was considered inevitable and a sensible consequence of her new role as a woman. That she was asked to resign from her function was painful, but she felt strengthened by this as well, as the incident confirmed the acceptance of her gender identification in her community and by the church leadership. The cases of Rhianna and Monique, members of the two largest religious denominations in the Netherlands, show how the position of transwomen is negotiated by both religious structures as well as by transwomen themselves. The quick question of why they do not simply leave their church, seems inadequate in this context, at least I wish not to stop there. For many trans people, religion provides a community, family and support in daily life, as well as an functioning as an important space to practice their individual faith. These are both examples of transwomen who nowadays openly identify as woman in their religious communities. There are many trans* people who do not feel supported to express themselves as their desired gender in their community. It is thus not only important to allow space for trans* individuals in church, but there should be more openness for discussion from the start. Starting from the stories of transgender people themselves seems the most important task. On broader level, I propose that an in depth study of trans* narratives and experiences in relation to their faith might offer new insights into the current debate about religion and sexual rights, gender equality and emancipation in the Netherlands and as such will enhance the academic analysis of these debates.

What do you think? If we wish to continue this project, what should we keep in mind?

And a question that came up during the NOG day: how can we be critical about discrimination in religious institutes while not disregarding religion altogether? What does it mean to ‘do’ religion from a queer feminist perspective?

This paper is an adapted version of a presentation given at the NOG Research Day on Friday 10 June 2016 Doing Gender in The Netherlands: TRANS* approaches, methods & concepts at Leiden University.

More information about the project see here.

For more information about transgender and Christianity see the LCC project Voor U niet verborgen.

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