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Rev. Dr. Justin Tanis is known by many in the LGBTQ community for his book that explores the relationship of the transgender community to religion: “Transgender: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith.” The 2003 work has helped give Tanis, who is not only transgender himself but also the managing director for the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies at the Pacific School of Religion, a unique outlook on the topic. On Saturday, Nov. 10, he’ll be sharing his insights with Michigan crowds through a workshop at Ferndale’s Affirmations LGBTQ community center called Transgender and Thriving. The event is sponsored by the Metropolitan Community Church – Detroit in Clawson.
“It was my doctoral dissertation,” Tanis said of his written work. “I wrote the book that I wanted to read while I was transitioning, documenting God’s affirmation for transgender people. I wanted to highlight the primarily positive ways in which the Bible talks about gender differences and also begin to articulate what is different about theology done by and for transgender people.”
In 2003, Tanis’s book was one of very few on the shelves that attempted to tackle the crossroads of transgender persons and religion.
“There was very little written by and for transgender people of faith at the time and I wanted to address that,” said Tanis. “I am particularly interested in providing a positive perspective for transgender people and our loved ones.”
So Tanis turned his dissertation into a textbook of sorts, teaching about the spiritual needs of the transgender community and the steps a church must take in include them.
“The book includes information about what the Bible says about gender differences, some information about transgender people in communities of faith and more about what communities can do to welcome us, as well as reflections on transgender theology,” Tanis said.”
Despite the 15 years that have passed since the book was written, Tanis said that the core of his work still stands up. He said he is glad that during that time there has been much improvement in both the understanding and perception of transgender people — though he said there is still much to be done.
“Many, many things have changed since I wrote the book,” he said. “To begin with, there is so much more research about transgender lives, so we have more concrete knowledge to back up what we knew anecdotally back then. We have also made considerable strides in greater social acceptance and legal protections, although those are under threat at the moment.
“Our language about transgender people has changed,” Tanis continued. “For example, my original editors felt ‘transgendered people’ was more grammatically correct than ‘transgender people.’ Now, people consider ‘transgendered’ to be a negative word. Back then, non-binary wasn’t used to the same degree that it is now. People used ‘gender variant.’”
In fact, considering the strides made over the past decade and a half, Tanis said he briefly considered re-writing the book.
“I decided not to re-write the book because so many of these things have changed,” he said. “I felt it was more important to let history stand as history and focus instead on writing new chapters and books. But I think that, terminology aside, there is much of the theology in this book that is very current and relevant.”
Today, with trans rights under attack, Tanis said is it more important than ever that communities of faith stand with the transgender community.
“I believe that communities of faith are called to model God’s love and care for people,” he said. “That includes standing with the marginalized who are often treated with disrespect, violence and discrimination in society. Young transgender women of color face horrific levels of violence and intolerance, and all members of the transgender community are greatly increased risk. This should not be acceptable to people of faith. We are called to treat others as we want to be treated by them and to treat our neighbors as ourselves.”
It’s also not lost on Tanis that it’s often so-called faith leaders who are perpetuating the violence against trans folks.
“People of faith are among the leaders trying to ensure that we do not have legal protections,” he said. “Christians are the ones fighting hate crimes legislation, non-discrimination ordinances, and promoting legal discrimination based on religion. Therefore, Christians and other people of faith need to be prominent in saying that that those who promote intolerance do not speak for all of Christianity or all faiths. We have a responsibility to speak out when faith is being used as a weapon against others.”
Tanis went on to say that in trying political times, the transgender community and its allies can use the help of organized faith more than ever.
“My workshop will focus on spiritual health and sustenance for transgender people, our loved ones and allies,” he said. “I think it is critical that we take time on focus on our spiritual flourishing and thriving so that we are able to support and sustain our community for the long-term.
“Together, we’ll define spiritual health for ourselves and look at some of the components that contribute to our wellbeing,” Tanis continued. “Then we’ll consider what these mean for us individually and how we might cultivate spiritual health within our communities. We’ll ask, ‘What can we do to preserve the lives of transgender people and how will that make a difference in our world? Our survival and our thriving are acts of resistance and resilience.”
Transgender & Thriving with Rev. Dr. Justin Tanis will place Saturday, Nov. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Affirmations in Ferndale. The church is located at 205 N. Main Street in Clawson. Admission to the workshop is $50 and includes a copy of Tanis’s book. For more information, visit mccdetroit.org.