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Faith leaders strategize for transgender rights at Newton forum

by Ethan Jacobs
Friday Jan 30, 2009
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Somerville state Rep. Denise Provost told attendees at a Jan. 21 forum organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality (ICTE) that they could make a powerful case to lawmakers in favor of transgender rights by appealing to their faith. The forum, held at Hebrew College in Newton, was the first major event organized by ICTE, which is part of a coalition advocating for the passage of legislation this session to add trans-inclusive language to the state’s non-discrimination and hate crimes laws. Provost said she was moved to watch how warmly her own church, an Episcopal congregation, embraced a transgender man who had originally joined the congregation as a woman, and she said she believes stories like these can move her colleagues.

"In my message part of it has to be the story of how wonderfully easy it was and how beautiful it was to have a transgender person in our community of faith, and how not an issue it was when a female member of the congregation went away and came back as a male person, and all the church ladies in their seventies and eighties were happy and twittery and accepting," said Provost. The man in question, the Rev. Cameron Partridge, has since become a priest at St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Allston and is one of the founders of ICTE.

Provost, who was joined at the forum by the bill’s co-sponsor, Medford state Rep. Carl Sciortino, said people of faith have a particularly persuasive message to share in support of transgender rights.

"I’ve been thinking about our religion, all of Christianity, and the Old Testament, too, and it’s full of transformations. And God’s usually behind them," said Provost, prompting laughs from the crowd. "In the Old Testament you had sticks turning into snakes and disobedient women turning into pillars of salt, and you had a recalcitrant guy like Jonah turning into a prophet. And then you get to the New Testament and you’ve got water turning into wine and God turning into human form, and it’s so full of transformation. It makes sense to me, thinking about it, that the church ladies and the Sunday school should say, no big deal."

ICTE formed in 2007, and its goals and structure are similar to the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry (RCFM), an interfaith coalition that worked in support of marriage equality during the debates over same-sex marriage. One of RCFM’s core advocacy tools was a declaration of support for marriage equality signed by more than 1000 clergy, congregations and lay people from many faiths. ICTE is currently collecting signatures for its own declaration of support for the transgender rights bill, and currently more than 100 clergy, along with about 200 laypeople, have signed the declaration.

Rabbi Daniel Judson, a member of ICTE and a former member of RCFM, told attendees that the forum was an historic moment in the local campaign for transgender rights.

"As far as any of us can gather this is the first time in Massachusetts history that a group of people of faith have come together specifically around transgender issues. So this is that moment, this is that moment when things change," said Judson, an administrator at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School.

Several speakers at the forum shared their experiences as transgender people of faith. For many of them their faith has been a vital source of support. Sean Delmore, an ICTE member and candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, credited his church with helping him come out as a transgender man.

"As I was coming out as a transgender man through the fellowship and the love of one congregation, one community of faith, they really helped love me into being when I could not have the faith and trust to be myself," said Delmore. "Those private conversations, they helped me bring those out into a personal public being."

Matt O’Malley, political director for MassEquality, said that the transgender rights bill currently has 41 co-sponsors. Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), the lead organization in the coalition working to pass the transgender rights bill, is planning a lobby day for sometime this spring.

Judson told Bay Windows that ICTE has been reaching out to clergy across the state urging them to support the declaration in favor of the transgender rights bill. He said the group has framed its argument as a question of fairness and justice.

"We’re talking about this as a matter of rights, and we’re framing this to other clergy people that in some ways just as you supported equal marriage out of a conviction that it was the right thing to do, that people are created equal, so too in this case," said Judson. "They are people who are created equal, people who are deserving of rights. God creates all of us as equal and as who we are meant to be. It’s just simply saying allow people to be treated under the law equally."

RCFM attracted the support not only of rank-and-file clergy but of local religious leaders, including the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), which has its national headquarters in Boston; the state’s three Episcopal bishops, Tom Shaw, Bud Cederholm, and Gayle Harris; and Rabbi Ronne Friedman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel Boston, New England’s largest Reform Jewish congregation. Judson said ICTE is working to win the support of the state’s religious leaders, and Friedman has already signed onto ICTE’s declaration.

Neither Sinkford nor the Episcopal bishops had signed the declaration as of the evening of the ICTE forum, but all signaled support for the legislation when contacted by Bay Windows. The Rev. Mally Lloyd, canon to the ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, said she did not know whether ICTE had reached out to the bishops, but she said the diocese as a whole supports the passage of trans-inclusive non-discrimination and hate crimes legislation; last November the diocese’s annual convention passed a resolution supporting such legislation. Janet Hayes, spokesperson for the UUA, said she was not aware of any conversations between Sinkford and ICTE, but following Bay Windows’ inquiries Sinkford sent a letter to all Massachusetts UUA clergy Jan. 27 announcing the UUA’s support for ICTE’s declaration and urging all clergy to add their names to the declaration.

Judson said he believes the voices of people of faith will be essential to winning over support for the transgender rights bill in the legislature, as it was during the marriage debate.

"What we discovered during the struggle over marriage equality was that, lo and behold, the religious voice was really needed because the folks who were saying they were opposed were often doing it on religious grounds," said Judson.

Copyright Bay Windows. For more articles from New England's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.baywindows.com

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