The Black Church (the collective term used for various African American Protestant denominations) is an inherently prophetic institution. Since its inception, it has served as a site of strategizing for ameliorating the unjust conditions of American society. Even to now, it’s a place where Protestants congregate and hold various discourses regarding economic inequalities, healthcare reform and recent hate crimes against black male bodies. On one hand, the Black Church’s strong voice is notorious for bemoaning the rampant injustices in this nation. On the other hand, its soft voice is known for lamenting the harmful effects that prevalent injustices engender. But there’s something missing in the Black Church discourses concerning injustice and unjust conditions. There’s an area where the Black Church’s voices and lamentations are needed: trans-phobic hate crimes.
Trans-phobia is real and trans-phobic violence occurs. Innocent lives are taken and justice goes unserved while the prophetic Black Church sits in silence or solely focuses on certain types of injustice. These are, unfortunately, the facts. The horrible facts of a world where the social and physical non-conformity to traditional sex/gender roles and expectation can serve as an invitation to brutal violence. The shameful facts of a society where merely leaving a gender assigned public restroom can breed fear for a transgender person. The embarrassing facts of a nation where a black transgender woman named Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald gets charged with second degree murder despite the numerous eyewitnesses that she was only defending herself. But these are the cruel facts of our world.
The reason the Black Church needs to address the facts of transphobic violence is because they largely go ignored by the media. It was just last year that the body of Tyra Trent was discovered in an abandoned house in Maryland with no clues left for the police. Her case is sadly similar to dozens of other cases concerning transgender persons who are abused, harassed and murdered with little detective work done due to indifference of their lives. There was barely any news coverage concerning the murder of Victoria Carmen White, whose killer was just acquitted a few months ago. With these horrifying occurrences in our society, the church needs to stand up and provide support and succor to the transgender community. And here are three basic reasons why:
It wasn’t until October 28, 2009 that the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed. It legally expanded the 1969 Federal Hate Crime Law from focusing completely on race and violence during voting times, to including violence done to persons because of sexuality, gender and gender identity. It is the first act intended to protect transgender people. I use the word “intended” lightly because even with this Act passed and signed into law, transgender people experience a substantial amount of ridicule and abuse from law enforcement officers. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs reported 17.1% of survivors of vicious hate crimes experienced verbal and physical abuse from law enforcement officers when trying to report a hate crime in 2010. They also reported 8 percent of hate violence against transgender people of color in 2010 was actually committed by the police themselves. Our transgender family doesn’t receive adequate help from the law, but they need to experience love and compassion from the church.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund reports that “>90% of jobs illegally discriminate against transgender people because of their gender identity, which then contributes to the high poverty rate in the trans community. Employment discrimination, economic inequality and impoverishment are all, of course, interconnected. The unfair treatment experienced by trans persons is almost unfathomable. It is not completely unfathomable because members of the Black church know what it means to be discriminated against because of their identity. It is not a history or experience foreign to us. Therefore, we should be empathetic and stand in solidarity with trans people and cease being a part of the discrimination and the criminalization of trans bodies. We should not perpetuate the same sin done to us. The Black Church should be a site for healing and restoration.
I know religion can sometimes fuel hatred and divisiveness. There are ministries that believe trans people bring violence and injustice on themselves. I can hear the questions: Why would they change their gender? Don’t they know they’re living in sin? I can hear the unapologetic assertion: The church is no place for them. I hear each and every question and assertion in my head. And I don’t have the answers or responses they are looking for. From my understanding of Pauline texts and Augustinian theology, we are all living in sin: every single one of us. But this isn’t about that; it’s about the murders of innocent humans. And no matter what your view of sin is – killing, harassing, abusing are wrong no matter what. The Black Church has been a home for the downtrodden since its inception. Let’s not stop now. Let us try to resemble Jesus and be open to the ones who the world has turned away. Let us, as a church, try to be Christian.