Celebrating UCC trans leaders and International Trans Day of Visibility
International Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, is a day of celebration and solidarity. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about the increasing challenges trans citizens face, with increasing attacks on their civil rights through legislation in a number of states.
It’s also a day that focuses on the accomplishments of transgender and nonbinary people.
The UCC has many trans and nonbinary leaders serving on the front lines of faith, justice and equality in their communities and the wider world. This week, in celebration, we share five of those many stories.
Marissa Miller is the founding executive director of the National Trans Visibility March, in its fourth year of advancing the rights of trans and nonbinary individuals. A member of The Community Church-UCC of Washington, D.C., Miller is nationally recognized as an advocate for human rights, social justice, health equity and LGBTQ equality. For the last 20 years, she has worked to improve access to treatment and care for transgender people and people living with HIV, working to erase stigma and discrimination through education, policy, advocacy and visibility, ensuring that disenfranchised populations are decision-makers at the table.
“I transitioned with no support, leading to years of substance abuse and prison, being ostracized, and not fitting in,” Miller said. “The affirming welcome, inclusion and ministry the church can provide are not just services; it’s what we can do to be in solidarity to change the trajectory of marginalized communities.”
The Rev. Justin Sabia-Tanis is a theologian, pastor and activist, serving on the faculty of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he directs the social transformation program as an assistant professor. He’s also the author of Trans-Gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith.
“I’ve been lucky to have done a wide range of work, including writing a book and multiple chapters and articles on the intersections of gender identity and spirituality and on queer art. I’ve also been a local and national advocate for transgender rights,” he said.
“Studies show that the presence of even one supportive person in the life of a nonbinary or trans youth can make the difference between life and death, struggling or thriving. Our churches are and can be that life-giving sanctuary in which people across the gender spectrum are welcomed, honored and nurtured — perhaps the only place that is true in their lives.”
Barbara Satin is a UCC lay leader, working since 1998 for the rights of trans people in a number of settings. She’s helped secure housing for elderly queer people in her hometown of Minneapolis, served on a U.S. presidential council and authored TransAction, a resource for churches. For the last 14 years, she worked for the National LGBTQ Task Force, directing its faith-related work much of that time. Though she retired from the Task Force in February, the 87-year-old will continue her ministry as a beloved child of God.
“My nearly three decades of activism as a transgender woman have been bookmarked by my faith — and the affirmation of my gender identity by faith communities,” Satin said. “While my advocacy started in the pews of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ (now Living Table UCC) in Minneapolis, it spread across a wide spectrum of UCC venues including the Coalition for LGBT Concerns and the Executive Council of the national denomination.
“What has been the cornerstone of my work is my willingness to tell my story — a relatively simple tale of a journey that started in the fear that my trans identity was a curse and came to fruition with the realization that I am a beloved child of God. My faith-centered storytelling has had impacts on individuals, congregations and faith settings across the country as my 14 years of faith work with the National LGBTQ Task Force provided me with national exposure and the honor of being named by President Obama as a member of his Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership Council for my efforts.”
Chris Paige is an OtherWise-identified writer, educator, organizer and coach, and a longtime partner and advocate of the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition and UCC Health and Wholeness Advocacy Ministries. They authored OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation in 2019. Through work with Transfaith, a multi-tradition, multiracial, multi-gender advocacy organization created by and for transgender people and now the OtherWise Academy, Paige has been committed for more than 20 years to providing a platform for prophetic, transgender, intersex and OtherWise voices.
“In a world where transgender lives are too often cut short, we need our allies to help make space for our testimonies of strength and creativity – for our unique perspectives on how God is moving in our midst,” they said.
The Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, a UCC preacher and teacher, was licensed in 2003 and ordained in 2004 by the Metro Denver Association as an “out” transgender man in ministry. To decrease isolation for trans and gender non-conforming people he helped create and is the subject of the documentary “Call Me Malcolm” in 2005. After his contributions to the UCC film and study guide, Himschoot continued working on inclusion and equity issues in and beyond the church. He currently serves as a pastor at the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono, Maine, where continues to share trans-affirming messages of love, acceptance and inclusion.
“I believe that Jesus shows up in surprising places, so when we’ve met him we know him by what happens in our lives — something delivering, something freeing, something healing,” Himschoot said. “Limits on what a woman can be, what a man must be, or beliefs reducing the fullness of gender are nothing Jesus taught.”
“Without question, the UCC has much work to do to live fully into our Open and Affirming values with our trans and nonbinary siblings,” said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, team leader of UCC Health and Wholeness Advocacy Ministries. “An important part of that work, especially as we observe Trans Day of Visibility, is not only to give witness to the challenges – God knows there are so many right now – but also to uplift the positive stories of lived experience. I celebrate that the United Church of Christ is blessed with so many trans and nonbinary leaders who serve on the front lines of faith, justice and equality.”
Legal fight — and a film
Schuenemeyer is working in partnership with the South Central Conference and UCC clergy in Texas, where state lawmakers continue to challenge the rights of LGBTQ people. A public statement of support, an open witness of clergy signed by national and Texas faith leaders, “affirms that transgender and non-binary people are beloved by God and are among the neighbors Jesus commanded his followers to love and treat with worth and dignity that human judgment cannot set aside. The letter calls on “public leaders in Texas and across the country to oppose anti-transgender and nonbinary legislation and directives, and to support policies that recognize the dignity, humanity, and equality of our transgender and nonbinary siblings.” Read and sign on to the letter here.
“We have to stay vigilant,” Schuenemeyer said, “because what is happening in Texas is also happening in an number of other states. We’ve seen an onslaught of legislation in the past, but now more of this legislation is passing and governors are signing it into law. Our trans binary siblings are being used as political pawns and the unjust stigmatizing effects of these laws impact the entire community.”
The UCC National Ministries are also hoping to expand the reach and the impact of the congregations who are celebrating Trans Day of Visibility through social media, encouraging people to share their church’s plans for worship and events here on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In addition, the national setting, as a community partner, is sponsoring the film Mama Bears at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The documentary, which will be screened on Wednesday, April 6, details how a mother’s unconditional love for her trans daughter forces her to rethink her religious beliefs. The CIFF film guide notes that, through a “Mama Bears” Facebook page, “Christian mothers of LGBTQIA+ children from all over the country are joining together to fight for a safer and more inclusive world for their children.”
The film’s Producer/Director Daresha Kyi said Mama Bears is already booked in 17 film festivals across the country, and “we are looking at holding theatrical screenings in cities where there are large groups of mama bears.”
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