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As a faith leader, the Rev. Kate Malin, Rector of Christ’s Church in Rye, New York, wears a variety of hats: teacher, theologian, preacher. She is used to giving informed guidance to her parishioners and to the process of researching and preparing thoughtful answers to discussions and questions not only spiritual but regarding all aspects of life. However, when she learned several years ago that one of her identical twins is transgender she admitted her knowledge of the subject was sorely lacking.
“There was definitely for me a period, a space of time, where I felt like I just didn’t know and I had to get up to speed super quickly because my child, Emmie, was leading me,” Malin said. “Then, what I had to do as a priest was stand before my congregation and basically say to them, ‘I need you to know this and I need you to know that I don’t know the answer to a lot of the questions that you may have. And I can share with you what I know so far.”
Today, Emmie Smith and her mother appear to be just, as if not closer, than they were before Smith came out. The duo has appeared in various publications speaking out in favor of transgender visibility ranging from SELF, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and most notably, National Geographic, where three years ago a 17-year-old Smith allowed a camera crew to document the journey of her gender reassignment surgery in an effort to demystify and humanize a part of the transgender experience. In a continuation of those activism efforts, both Malin and Smith will be featured in a weekend event titled Thriving as a Trans* Family, put on by Christ Church Cranbrook from Saturday, June 8, through June 9.
Now years removed from the initial announcement Malin made to her parish about her daughter’s true identity, she’s had time to take stock and re-examine how the experience changed her approach to faith. She said she first began to grapple with her understanding of how members of the transgender community fit into her Episcopalian beliefs.
“There’s been a lot of conversation in the church about the role of gay and lesbian and bisexual individuals as far as leaders in the church and participants in the life of the church, but a transgender individual is on a different road,” she said.
She went on to say that questions began to come up for her around the creation story, gender roles, being baptized by gendered name and surrounding the “binary structure of so much expectation around what God deems to be righteous and unrighteous even though it’s not necessarily in the Bible.”
“What does that mean for the identity of a Christian person for whom that identity is not authentic? So, I began to really think about how what I needed as a parent of a child onto transition and what I needed from my own spiritual community, both my colleagues, my bishop, but also my parishioners and what the decision and the process of the sharing this news with them,” she said.
She went on to say that that honest re-examination of her beliefs and their potential shortcomings regarding the LGBTQ community generated a lot of discussion among parishioners, too, which allowed her to see how an even unintentionally repressive religious environment could generate significant anguish for those who lose their support system.
“I’ve been approached by strangers on phone and email and people who heard me preach or talk, and some are parents and they’re frightened and they think their child is going to hell. And some are children who believe they will never be able to go to church again, that God considers them an abomination,” Malin said. “I realized that there’s a lot of spiritual questioning and sometimes real crisis and pain. And oftentimes, these family members are quite faithful and they now need support. And, from the very place that should be a great source of support, they don’t even know how to ask for it and their own priests and fellow parishioners don’t know what to say or what to do.”
Combatting that feeling of loneliness and isolation is part of the reason that Malin makes a point to share her and her daughter’s story and continue being an activist for those in the transgender community. Smith agrees. Regarding her own relationship with God, she said that it’s also gotten more introspective and stronger since she’s transitioned and begun to live her authentic self. And that’s largely because of the immense support of her mother and the parish.
“I feel like my relationship with my faith got a lot clearer because I was able to more effectively communicate with my own understanding of the divine, with my own relationship with my mom and the people who work with her,” Smith said. “I feel like everything just got more vibrant, it was like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time when you’re nearsighted or farsighted; all of a sudden things just snapped a little more into focus than they ever could have before when I was speaking to God through a pretty thick pane of glass. I think being honest and true to yourself is the only way that I really felt I could have a spiritual relationship with God.”
Mindful of an Accepting Gospel
The Rev. Canon William J. Danaher Jr. is the rector at Christ Church Cranbrook and reached out to Smith and Malin to invite them to share their experience. Although not part of the LGBTQ community himself, as an ally and the father of a non-binary child, Danaher said that it’s imperative that his congregation use this upcoming weekend to help re-examine the gospel being preached.
“I do want to say that I’m really, really honored that Emmie and Kate are going to be coming to Christ Church Cranbrook and part of the reason why we’re doing this is because I do think it’s a relevant question about the times in which we’re living. It’s not so much that we’re preaching the gospel it’s, ‘What gospel are we preaching?'” he said. “And the kind of gospel that I believe should be preached at my church is one in which people are beloved as they are and as God created them to be and they are nurtured and loved in a relationship with God that brings them deeper into who they are, but also deeper into the love of God and has them experience the body of Christ.”
Danaher added that having spent six years of his career in Canada in a more LGBTQ-affirming area than Metro Detroit, his eyes were opened to a possibility that even in more traditionally conservative religious circles there could be acceptance for members of the LGBTQ community.
“It was there that I met people who were in the church and outside of the church who identified with the trans community for whom their transition was completely mainstream,” Danaher said. “I don’t see that as much here in the United States and I think part of it is that there’s less openness and there’s also much more suspicion of the trans community and I was initially astounded by it when I would encounter it even among people who identified with the LGBTQ community, but wouldn’t identify with the “T” in the trans community.”
He cited activists like Pauli Murray as inspiration for the inclusion of Smith and Malin at the upcoming event with an ultimate goal to “lift up people who are hidden in plain sight,” even when experiencing backlash from those not supportive of the cause.
“And I had a bit of resentment, I’m not going to deny it, there have been people who have come after me in the ways that people come after leaders in a church when you make a decision. That’s the price of being honest,” adding that he knows Malin has faced resistance, too.
Reaching the Resistant
In response, Malin said that the best way to reach those who don’t approve of a transgender-affirming gospel is by holding candid conversations.
“To get people the vocabulary they need so that they can really talk and hear each other. And let them know personal stories and meeting people is so important,” Malin said. “Many kids in my parish have come out as gay back in the time back in the time when it was really hard and scary and it’s different, that’s changed so much and now we have another major social shift. And a lot of suspicions from folks are, ‘Is this for real? Are these folks just going through a phase?’ There’s all sorts of rationalizations and diminishing and mistrust and we need to hear trans people talk.”
Smith, currently a student at The University of Michigan, agrees that there is too little transgender representation in the religious community and elsewhere. Also an actress and writer, Smith is interested in sharing transgender voices in the media, too.
“For me, the most powerful tools against dehumanization are stories and art. We as humans are so good at connecting with a character that we see on screen or on stage or on the page; it lets us into the humanity of other people in a way that I think is really super rare except for, I think, service like church and religious practice,” she said. “But there is something so similar about being [with] a person’s experience and going through their story that lets you empathize with them in a way that I think just is not possible in other circumstances.”
One of her latest projects is a theater production called “Elektrik,” which follows a transgender-inclusive cast and is based on a Greek myth. Smith collaborated on the production with her brother, Caleb, and the project won a NEO or New, Emerging, Outstanding artist grant. Smith said she hopes that one day it, and other shows like it, can make it to Broadway.
“It’s not about someone discovering their identity because this character, Elektra in the show, is not struggling to figure out her identity and putting on dresses for the first time and going through that process, she is an active character in her own story and while her identity as a trans woman is important to her, it’s not the focus or the engine behind the story, it is just another facet of her character which comes into play like other aspects of her identity as a woman, as a daughter, as a queen,” she said. “That’s why I push for LGBT characters … to keep away from the stories we’ve heard too many times.
To find out more about the upcoming event visit christchurchcranbrook.org.