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Trans Active — “The Spirit and the Flesh”

| Nov 16, 2009
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Just in case you’re wondering about the title, this column is not about Walter L. Williams’ 1992 book on sexual diversity in American Indian culture, although I’m sure it’s a fascinating read. No, this month we’re talking about that one topic my mother said never should be discussed at the Thanksgiving dinner table (or under any other circumstances with inebriated family members), namely Religion. As I recall Mom also imposed a moratorium on Politics as well, which means we’ll have dig into that a bit, too.

To be truthful, I misspoke in that last paragraph, and I did it for dramatic purposes as well as historical accuracy, because what this article is really about is Spirituality, and transwomen’s spirituality in particular. However, because “religion” gets more people perturbed than the less provoking topic of spirituality, and because my mother never said not to discuss spirituality, I introduced the topic as I did. Oh, well. Now that we have that cleared, let’s get a move on.

Spirituality is one of those umbrella labels covering a lot of philosophical real estate in much the same way that “transgender” may be used to cover the spectrum from periodic crossdressers to post-op transsexual women. Religion is but a subset of spiritual divisions, and it’s also one of the most divisive. Religion is a topic that can uplift, depress, bring together, isolate, educate and infuriate. But let’s try to concentrate on the good stuff.

According to Random House, religion is “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” In other words, it’s a belief system coupled with a set of rules and, usually, specific rituals, such as baptism. At this point a critic might jump in and observe that for too many religious people one of those rituals involves diving into politics and passing laws to make other people live the way that they do, but let’s not be hasty; there’s plenty of time for that later.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is much more flexibly defined as, “of or pertaining to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature.” Very conveniently this covers all religions, including those with patriarchal roots, like Christianity and Islam, and also Eastern systems, like Buddhism. For that matter it includes pagan beliefs from Wicca to Druidism. It also includes Deism, the belief in a Higher Power but without a specific set of beliefs. I would argue that spirituality also covers agnosticism and even atheism, for even uncertainty or lack of a belief in a Higher Power or a spiritual realm are also forms of belief regarding spiritual matters.

Jo Clifford
Jo Clifford portrays a TS Jesus in a controversial play.

Many if not most transwomen have had or continue to have a dim view of religion, particularly the patriarchal religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — where the most outspoken believers are transphobic, homophobic and/or sexist. Fundamentalists often cite specific passages in their mainstay texts, such as the Christian bible, to support their archaic prejudices. Given the strong association between religion and political activism as evidenced by the Catholic and Mormon church roles in opposing laws that would benefit transgender people, it’s no wonder many of us have little regard for that faith and its many offshoots.

Yet quite a few transwomen do manage to hold onto some form of their childhood faith. Dr. Becky Allison, a cardiologist in Phoenix, Arizona, describes her upbringing in the Mississippi Delta, where non-conformity was not tolerated and few dared challenge the literal truth of every word in the Bible. She describes realizing she was supposed to be a girl around the age of five or six, her religion told her “those thoughts are sinful — they are of the devil — you will be an  ‘abomination.  We will all reject you, and God will also.” Her understanding also told her, “you can pray and be forgiven, and you will not be troubled by these thoughts anymore.” So she ended up praying to change and waited to be “healed.”

“Religion’s hold on me was so strong, I grew to adulthood believing I would be ‘cured’ and rewarded for my faithfulness,” she says. “When I finally realized that my feeling of being the ‘opposite sex’ was never going away, I had to reconcile that with my faith.  My early attempts to do so involved looking at Bible verses which supposedly referenced being transsexual, and trying to explain how that REALLY didn’t pertain to me because it referred to a priest in the temple, or it was part of the ‘old covenant’ that was replaced by Jesus’ law of love, or whatever I could find for an excuse.”

Over the years she wrote a series of essays that illustrated her change in perspective, the “Grace and Lace” letters (at that evolved as her need to transition became stronger. She came to a conclusion oft stated in her fellowship at United Church of Christ, that “taking the Bible seriously means we cannot take it literally.” She disagrees with the practice of using the Bible as a means to scare people into conformity and instead finds beauty and peace in many of its passages.

Dr. Becky Allison
Dr. Becky Allison

Dr. Becky told me in an email, “unlike many of my friends, I have not completely abandoned the Christian experience of my childhood. I see past the great harm done by people claiming to act in Jesus’s name, and I see the love that shines through in the life of Jesus.  As I said in more than one of my essays, ‘My God is a God of love.’  God doesn’t hate me.  God doesn’t even hate the people who tell me God hates me.  It’s not about hate. . . It’s all about love.”

Too bad that more of her fellow Christians don’t seem feel this way. They insist on taking the bible literally, cherry picking the parts they like, ignoring or rationalizing those inconvenient to them, and using other passages to condemn those whose lives they disapprove of. In my secondary YouTube channel I have produced several videos, some of them very irreverent, challenging the religious bullies. Some of these “Christians” have abused YouTube’s flagging system to attempt to silence me. They help make my point: if you must lie and cheat in service of your belief, you have no real faith at all.

When I posed these spiritual questions among my fellow members of the GenderLife transsexual women’s support forum, I got a range of replies ranging from “I don’t believe in god. If he does exist I have one serious lightning speed back hand” to those expressing a firm belief in some form of Creator. There was also a healthy doubt perfectly typified by one of my forum friends who noted, “I consider myself a deep skeptic, my skepticism chose me, I didn’t choose it. Like some people get the gift and become filled with the spirit and go out there preaching their glad tidings, for me it was the opposite: I’ve been through experiences where, in fact, all suspicion of spirit was drained away from me.”

For anyone who’s suffered because of their gender — the loss of friends and family, transphobia, agonizing self-doubts and the other trials and torments many transwomen know — a lack of belief in a Higher Power is more than understandable. Why would any loving God put us through all of this grief? Many times in my first transition in 1985-86 I went to the roof of my high rise apartment complex and wondered why I didn’t just throw myself over. If there was a God at all he must truly hate me to have made me a transsexual woman and thrust me into a mean-spirited world. Later on I had even greater reasons to doubt.

My doubts made perfect sense. If there was a God then how could so much suffering and cruelty be permitted in this world? Those lame excuses I’d heard from those I regarded as religious fanatics — platitudes about “free will” and “the wages of sin” and, most pathetic of all, “God moves in mysterious ways” — explained nothing, gave no comfort and gave me the impression they were just talking out of their collective ass. None of these answers gave me anything upon which to lay even one brick for a spiritual foundation.

It was a powerful combination: a gender condition I did not choose, a hostile and unjust world, an inexplicable faith that relied on an archaic text filled with genocide, slavery, cruelty and other atrocities, and believers who could seldom offer more than platitudes. Add to this the theocratic crusading of the religious right, starting with Anita Bryant’s crusade against gays and ending with “values” voter organizations leading the fight against trans rights, it’s a wonder that any of us make any peace with spiritual matters.

Yet the majority of those who responded to my query about spiritual belief, did express some sort of faith. Said Kristina, “I would not have been able to make it this far if I did not.” Like many posters she expressed a belief in some sort of deity but not in the conventional sense. Deism is defined as the philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe, and that this (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without a need for organized religion to explain it.

For transwomen such as myself, Deism strikes a balance between a long term, persistent belief in some sort of divine creative force and the many contradictions and excesses present in mainstream religions. It allows for the purest form of faith, that of trust without a concrete reason. Mainstream religions are backed by written texts and thousands of years of practice, presenting that as a foundation. Deism is a faith backed more by feeling and intuition — one could argue that makes it a more feminine belief system — as opposed to mainstream religions which exist on the back of tradition and majority in numbers.

However, history has proven that both tradition and majority belief can be terribly misguided. Tradition held that the sun circled a flat earth. Majority opinion once held that interracial marriage was a sin and that both homosexuality and gender diversity were mental illnesses. Majorities, albeit slim ones, passed laws in California and Maine that denied full civil rights to gay people, so it is clear the majority is not always right.

Though it would take a fair-sized book to explain my spiritual beliefs — how I got there from a childhood belief begun in parochial school and how difficult it was to overcome the fear and paranoia of a mainstream religion that damned me to “hell” for not behaving and believing a certain way — it was partly education that helped me overcome my fears. Starting with Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, a book my mother gave me fifteen years ago, I began to see that what I was raised with was hardly the last word on the matter, nor was it the first.

Well, I supposed I have probably created more doubts than answered any questions, and if that’s true then I have done my job. In his hilarious, irreverent documentary Religulous, Bill Maher says “I’m preaching the gospel of ‘I don’t know.'” He also says, “Doubt is humble and that is what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.” What I hope you will do is examine your beliefs, whether you’re a Dr. Becky type of Christian or a devout atheist. If your belief system is a good one, then it will stand up to scrutiny. And if you are afraid to question your beliefs, then you don’t really have faith after all.”


Christine Beatty is a transsexual author whose work has been seen in Transgender Tapestry, Spectator, TransSisters and Chrysalis Quarterly over the last eighteen years. In 1993 she published her own book of short stories and poetry, Misery Loves Company and her literary manager is currently marketing her new autobiography. Her transgender activism work stretches back to the early 1990s, and in 2000 she was distinguished as Transwoman of the Year by the Los Angeles Transgender Task Force. She helped organized the 2003 Transgender Day of Remembrance in Los Angeles, and in 2004 appeared in a Calpernia Addams’ And Andrea James’ all-transgender production of The Vagina Monologues. Formerly from San Francisco, where she co-founded the rock group Glamazon in 1994, she now resides in Los Angeles. Her personal web page is at

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Category: Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Christine Beatty is a familiar name to TGForum readers. In 2010 she wrote the TransActive column here, and she was featured in the Perpetual Change column back in 2001 as part of the rock duo Glamazon. Along with her musical endeavors, she is also a TG activist, an author and a poet. She has recently published "Misery Loves Company" and has had articles appear in such publications as Chrysalis Quarterly, Transgender Tapestry, Spectator, and TransSisters.

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