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‘We have to shift the narrative to something that resembles Jesus’

Weekend panel explores ways adult Christians can fight for and care for transgender and LGBTQIA+ youth

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Michele Wates via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Amid a rash of recent legislation “intended to criminalize the existence, presence and stories” of people in the transgender and LGBTQIA+ communities, a four-member panel convened on Saturday discussed, as host Adrian White said, “how we can create space and come together to have a conversation about what we can do in response.”

“It will take all of us to respond,” said White, the board co-moderator for More Light Presbyterians, “in a way we pray will lead to a greater liberation for all of us.”

Adrian White

The online panel discussion, offered by More Light Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Gender & Racial Justice, was titled “A Time for Education, Action and Community Care.” Watch the 73-minute discussion here.

Joining White on the panel were:

  • The Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, co-director of Affirming Youth Ministries
  • The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, the PC(USA)’s Coordinator of Racial and Gender Justice
  • Carmarion Anderson-Harvey, Alabama state director for the Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America.

The current round of legislative attacks on trans youth — on Friday the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging a new Alabama law that criminalizes certain medical care for transgender children — is nothing more than a game for some politicians, Anderson-Harvey said.

Carmarion Anderson-Harvey

“These attacks on trans youth are a winning strategy. Shame on them for doing this,” said Anderson-Harvey, the first transgender person of color to be a statewide leader for the Human Rights Campaign. “Their power and privilege is under scrutiny now. They have no other tactic but to focus on our vulnerable youth.”

DeTar Birt said Affirming Youth Ministries works with LGBTQIA+ youth “who are Christian and Christian adjacent. Young people are scared and angry and concerned about this. They know the truth about who they are in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, but they also know what people are saying about them,” which for the most part “are lies. It can lead to depression, violence against them” and, in some cases, death.

“No young person should have to deal with that. They know there are connections with what’s happening politically and what’s happening in the church. People troll us to talk about the ways they Interpret Scripture, perverting the grace of God and saying we are not fearfully and wonderfully made,” DeTar Birt said. “Some children internalize this, and it’s incredibly damaging to their psyches.”

“For people who claim to care so much about the health and well-being of the church, we are allowing for the destruction of the church at the hands of homophobes. Children are saying, ‘If this is the church, I don’t want to have any part of it.’ … We do a disservice to them and to ourselves when we allow this to continue.”

The Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt

“I’m also going to call out mainline and progressive churches,” DeTar Birt said. “Far too often we take this line that ‘The church is where we come for spiritual nourishment, not to be political.’ We aren’t adequately prepared to help our young people who need us. They are struggling.”

“We have to shift the narrative to something that resembles Jesus,” Leonard said, adding the Office of Gender & Racial Justice and others, including Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, either have published or are working on resources “to normalize inclusion in churches.”

White wondered: What more can be done?

“As an adult, I have more rights than a young person has,” DeTar Birt said. “So we need to be their advocate … We need to be the ones working against unjust laws and policies. In our churches we need to counter the narrative” that says churches ought to stay out of political issues. “Jesus was political,” DeTar Birt said. “Young people need someone to show them what the truth is, that they are beloved children of God.”

“We can use the Bible to affirm gender identities and sexual orientations. We need to understand queer and trans interpretations of the Bible [that affirm], ‘You are good because Scripture says you’re good.’ I’m going to work with you and fight for you on multiple levels.”

“Educate and correct the record — at the same time, if possible,” Anderson-Harvey suggested. “We all have social media accounts we can use to communicate and correct the record … Misinformation hurts people and jeopardizes brain health. We need to start sharing that with our storytelling, and our allies can be co-conspirators. Be my voice when I’m absent. Use your privilege when others don’t have privilege. We need more of that.”

“There’s no Jesus without justice,” Leonard said. “You can’t call yourself a believer without understanding you are responsible for advancing the cause of justice in some way. It’s imperative to become vocal and visible.”

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard

We’re in the midst of a civil rights movement for people in the trans and LGBTQIA+ communities, Leonard said. “As in other civil rights movements, including women’s suffrage, none of this happens without co-conspirators and allies. Be present at community organizing and at school board meetings, because my liberation is tied to your liberation.”

According to Anderson-Harvey, local underfunded organizations around the country are working on these issues. Find out “your local trans identified organization and see how you can volunteer or donate,” Anderson-Harvey said. It can be as simple as spending several hours updating an organization’s database. “Our national organizations can’t step into your community — but a grassroots organization can because they’re in your backyard.”

Resources that panelists lifted up include the organizations More Light Presbyterians, Covenant Network of Presbyterians and Southerners on New Ground as well as a number of helpful books, including Austen Hartke’s “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians,” Chris Page’s “OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation,” Yvette Flunder’s “Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion,” the companion books “Queerfully and Wonderfully Made: A Guide for LGBTQ+ Christian Teens” and “Welcoming and Affirming: A Guide to Supporting and Working with LGBTQ+ Christian Youth,” “The Queer Bible Commentary” and “The Black Trans Prayer Book.”

“It’s the beginning of a list we hope folks can add to their library,” White said before thanking the three panelists, adding, “This has been such a gift.”

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