What the world needs right now are people of faith. That’s what Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr. preached to around 80 people who gathered for the “Faith Allies for Trans Lives: Stand Up for Justice” event on Sept. 17 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton.
“Our work right now is needed more than ever…a time when politicians say trans people can’t use bathrooms or when faith is used to hide discrimination. What we’re saying is not today, not on our watch, not in our faith, not our government, not our divine spirit, not our truth, not our justice, not our liberation,” said McKenzie, Jr., who is the Director of Academy for Leadership and Action with the National LGBTQ Task Force.
The conference and training, hosted by Inclusive Justice and the Task Force, aims to establish relationships between group leaders and members of the community to begin building a statewide faith network dedicated to justice and the full inclusion of LGBT people in congregations and in society-at-large.
The focus was on transgender, gendergueer and genderfluid people who are still in an “urgent and desperate” battle for their lives, according to Rev. Dr. Julie Nemecek, a nationally-recognized transgender activist, speaker, elder and minister. Nemecek said “We’ve come a long way baby, but we’re not there yet.” She explained that backlash can be expected when progress is made for marginalized and oppressed people, but she offered some solutions on the upward struggle to equality.
“Know where candidates stand on LGBT issues and vote accordingly…build relationships with local legislators to make yourself known so when anti-transgender bills come up, those legislators will see your face,” she said about the executive and legislative battlegrounds. As far as the judicial branch is concerned, Nemecek seems confident transgender rights will be upheld moving forward despite the recent setback in the EEOC v. R.G. & G.R Harris Funeral Homes case. Nemecek said she believes that decision will be overturned, referencing victorious cases such as Smith v. Salem and Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, which have set precedents in courts across the country.
“Change is happening. It’s not easy, but it’s happening,” she said about the many houses of worship that are beginning to understand what a spiritual experience coming out can be for many in the LGBT community.
The church sanctuary was filled with hope as Nemecek armed attendees with the most powerful, research-based and easily accessible weapons they have. Their stories.
“Your story matters. Tell your story, often, to anyone who will listen, and to those that follow after you, you will be a hero,” she said. “Because what changes hearts and minds are personal stories.”
Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) made it clear why that’s true. “It’s easy to hate an idea, it takes a lot more to hate a person, especially when you know them,” he said.
Hoadley started the day “intimidated and excited” to be at the event sharing a story of his own. “I want to challenge myself to do something that is still not always the most natural part of who I am,” he said before boldly talking about his faith.
Born and raised in South Dakota by a strong Catholic family, Hoadley said he struggled with his faith and his relationship with God during his adolescent years. While prepping for Confirmation in the eighth grade, he was earnestly looking for answers about his sexuality when his priest did not seem ready to engage deeply in those kinds of conversations.
“I was not confident in myself enough to say ‘because I’m gay,’ that I have some questions about how does my lived experience intersect with my faith. Instead, I said I don’t understand where the church is coming from on some of these issues. Sort of dipping my toe into that water,” he said.
When given a chance to ask questions about social wedge issues, such as abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, all of which were part of his curriculum, his priest said, “Let’s just pray instead.”
Looking back, Hoadley said, “I don’t know if maybe that was a way to open up dialogue or not, but it’s not what I needed to hear in that moment.”
So, he hit the pause button on his faith until 2009 while working on the One Kalamazoo campaign which helped Kalamazoo become the 16th city in Michigan to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance.
For a number of reasons, Hoadley felt a strong pull to the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Kalamazoo where he showed up on All Saints Day, Nov. 1.
“I remember being so overwhelmed about being reconnected to such an integral part of who I am,” he said. “The organ was playing, I was thinking of my grandmother who passed, thinking of all that time I didn’t get to spend in spaces like this because someone, myself or others, had created these barriers…I found myself during that service just crying, being overwhelmed, but also knew that that’s exactly where I needed to be.”
Just as Hoadley was exactly where he needed to be the day of the conference to remind people that telling their stories in the light and out loud matters.
“We’re creating paths that will make it easier for someone to walk in the path behind us. The fact that someone else may have a slightly lighter load in this millennia-old task of coming of age, of figuring out who we are, of figuring out how to be our authentic selves means that the work that we’re doing today matters,” he said. “So part of what we have to do now is to celebrate who we are and our lives and our families and our love. To celebrate our faith out loud in Michigan in our hometowns, because when we live our lives authentically, it allows other people simply just to be themselves. I know that it doesn’t come easy, but that means the work is even more important.”
Some of the people leading the work include founder of Stand with Trans Roz Gould Keith; State Board of Education President John Austin; transgender activist and speaker Seth Carwyn; Blue Water Unity Church Administrative Director Jacie Sanders; Task Force Faith and States Organizing Manager Kathleen Campisano; and well-respected transgender advocate Char Davenport.
On the panel, Deanna Hurlbert, director of Michigan State University’s LGBTQ Resource Center, drew attention to a change in language that is confusing for some people.
“What we know about our sexuality, about our sex, our physical bodies as human beings and gender has changed radically. Gender and sexual difference has always been with us and a part of us. We now have language to describe ways of being different in terms of gender,” she said about her efforts to educate people on the issue of gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive language.
Hurlbert also made a valid point about school-based sex education programs, calling them “essentially plumbing class.”
“Insert tab A into slot B, get child C. If you don’t want child C, don’t put tab A into slot b. Until the foundational nature of the education we get about gender and sexuality changes, this is going to be a massive challenge…especially for those children who can’t find themselves in the textbooks or represented in the world around them,” she said.
Perhaps this will change sooner than later considering the big win for the LGBT community on Sept. 14 when the State Board of Education voted to adopt guidance on how Michigan schools can create safe learning environments for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Stephanie Lange, Student Assistant Specialist and Reproductive Health Supervisor in the Chippewa Valley School District said first we have to present fact-based material that isn’t confrontational or debatable. Otherwise, she said, if a teacher does not agree or feels uncomfortable with the information, they will not teach it even if it is mandated.
All the more reason for transgender students, parents and allies to encourage dialogue within their school settings. Lange started a conversation in her school district when she shared her story about her transgender son. She is one of the lucky ones to work with a loving and affirming group of people who embraced and supported her during that time.
“All of the things I was afraid of never happened,” she said, and to prevent others from feeling afraid, she and her mother, Penny Hader, recently established transgender youth and family support groups to fill a need in Macomb County.
And to think, there was a time when Lange admitted she thought having a transgender son was the worst thing that ever happened to her.
“It’s not. It’s amazing. This is going to be the wildest ride of my life…I love my child and my child is the same human being they were five minutes before they sat on my bed and said they were a boy. I’m going to tell that to anybody that cares,” she said. “Because we have to love these kids. They need help. They need us to love them no matter what.”
Connect with Transgender Organizations in Michigan
Trans Sistas of Color Project
19641 W. 7 Mile Rd.
Detroit, MI 48219
313-537-7000 Ext 107
University of Michigan Flint
Ellen Bommarito LGBT Center, 213 UCEN
303 E. Kearsley St.
Flint, MI 48502
Transgender Advocacy Project
ACLU of Michigan
2966 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48201
Stand with Trans
36520 Saxony Rd.
Farmington, MI 48335
23211 Woodward Ave. #309
Ferndale, MI 48220
Transcend the Binary
290 W. Nine Mile
Ferndale, MI 48220
Gender Identity Network Alliance