The Transgender Spring, 1996-2006

I call the period from 1996-2006 the “transgender spring,” that is, the first decade of transgender Christian publishing. While not intended to be a detailed history, I do want to highlight a bit about what it meant to be writing about transgender concerns in that period. Every sighting of a transgender Christian was precious through those years.

The 1996 issue of Open Hands focusing on transgender experience is the earliest evidence that I have found of (affirming) transgender awareness from progressive Christians. Even so, the articles were overwhelmingly shaped by non-transgender voices and priorities. 

This was the time when “gay and lesbian” organizations were becoming “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender” organizations, more as a result of pressure from funders than because of a groundswell of connections with actual transgender people. The “welcoming congregations” movement was just beginning to come of age as previously grassroots organizations began to consolidate, expand funding, and hire staff. However, transgender people were still mostly “under the radar” (even on the left) as the culture wars over first gay ordination and then same-sex marriage took center stage in the church. 

During this “spring,” transgender organizing remained extremely individualized, with only a few exceptions. The Transcendence Gospel Choir was instrumental in the passing of transgender-affirming legislation in the United Church of Christ (in 2003). TransEpiscopal became the first transgender religious caucus (from 2004). The documentary, Call Me Malcolm, came out in 2005 and emerged from behind the scenes efforts in the United Church of Christ national office. The first Transgender Religious Leaders Summit (by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Pacific School of Religion) was not until January 2007. 

In those early years, newsletters and magazines delivered in brown paper envelopes were the norm for networking among crossdressers and transgender people. The internet was just beginning to emerge from academic use into public view. AOL CD-ROMs advertising dial-up access were everywhere. Search engines were a new thing. Social media as we know it today had not been invented yet. 

The Rev Erin Swenson made national news in 1996 as she defended and maintained her clergy credentials in the Presbyterian Church (USA) after her transition.

The Rev Victoria Kolakowski, who I like to call the Queen Mother of transgender theology, published an academic article and a book chapter as early as 1997. These were articles from an openly, transgender scholar, written and published in a way that actively engaged existing theological discourse. 

Lee Francis Heller’s Grace and Lace letters were a lifeline for many from 1990-1997 and were compiled as a book called, By the Grace of God, in 2001 after Heller’s death. Vanessa Sheridan had independently published books in 1993 and 1996. Rebecca Allison’s website became an important resource on the internet in the late 1990s and included Christian spiritual content. However, these were examples of folk who were writing for a diaspora of isolated and often non-disclosing folk. Their impact on the broader theological conversation was limited. 

I assume that Micah Bazant’s 1999, Tim Tum: A Trans Jew Zine was similarly important for the transgender and Jewish diaspora. Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein were extremely important figures for transgender communities in general in the 1990s and were both raised Jewish, though they typically write primarily from a secular perspective. The first transgender rabbi in Reformed Judaism, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, was ordained in 2006.

TransFaith Online launched in 1999, with a variety of faith-based voices compiled by Mx Chris Paige. Widely linked among welcoming movement organizations, it would eventually become the #1 Google search result for “Transgender Christian.” 

When The Other Side magazine published a cluster of articles in the May-June 2001 issue, it was a ground-breaking level of exposure. The Other Side would cease publication about 3 years later, but at the time, it had at least 10,000 readers across the country and around the world at the time. This was a significant readership at a time when the internet was still emerging.

That cluster of articles included a contribution by Virginia Mollenkott, whose book, Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach, by Pilgrim Press (associated with the United Church of Christ) was being published around the same time. It also included articles by Erin Swenson and Chris Paige.  This cluster will be revised and featured in OtherWise Christian 2: Stories of Resistance.

Pilgrim Press would go on to publish several additional books highlighting transgender authorsOmnigender and Trans-Gendered remain classic works to this day. Despite being staff for the United Church of Christ, Pat Conover’s 2002 Transgender Good News would be self-published.

As the internet grew, so did alternatives to book publishing. The Unitarian Universalist Association compiled (led by Mr. Barb Greve), published and distributed a free PDF book called Crossing Paths, which included contributions from lots of transgender people, many of whom were reflecting from a place within Christian tradition. 

The internet became a major influence in transgender organizing, helping transgender people find one another–including transgender people of faith. Best practices for discussing transgender lives shifted through online discussions and collaborations. PDF publications, blogs and eventually YouTube videos would provide many more ways for transgender people to share from our journeys, exchange news, and compare notes.

By 2007, cisgender ally, Peterson Toscano, was launching Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible and my work with Transfaith was reborn with a more active outreach. A variety of gatherings and caucuses would emerge in the subsequent years.

During this same season, same-sex marriage, a favorite foil of conservative Christians, was gaining cultural acceptance. In 2008, same-sex marriage in California made headlines with the battle over Proposition 8. By 2009, the momentum was growing as marriage equality reached a half a dozen states, including Iowa in the heartland. It would be 2015 before the Supreme Court would make same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Yet, over those years, the attention of the culture wars would increasingly shift towards transgender experience.

Christianity Today’s publication of “The Transgender Moment” in February 2008 reflected a key moment in this changing environment as transgender experiences came “on the radar.” Being covered for the first time by what many consider to be the “flagship” publication of evangelical Christianity meant that we had finally come into view for Christian culture at large. For better or worse, everything was changing. 

In 2014, Time magazine declared the “transgender tipping point” with Laverne Cox on their cover. By 2016, the “bathroom bills” were becoming trendy with North Carolina’s efforts making headlines. While celebrities like Christine Jorgensen (1950s) and Rene Richards (1970s) had made headlines before, the impact of names like Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, Jazz Jennings, Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox marked a groundswell, even before Caitlyn Jenner made her transition public in 2015. 

Much has changed in the last 25 years! Yet, the transgender spring remains a pivotal time in still recent history. Many ground-breaking writers and activists are still very much with us, though their contributions have not always translated into a world of social media. The contributions that were made have often been overlooked or taken for granted by both LGB organizers and the transgender Christians that would follow.

OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation seeks to contribute in some small way to remembering the work of these important elders who made a way out of no way, often at great personal cost. Even so, there is more work to be done.

In particular, the cultural dynamics around both publishing and ordination mean that both non-binary, intersex and people of color voices remain relatively absent from even this history, even as they were working in a variety of ways that may not be as obvious to mainstream culture. For that history, we must depend on oral histories while also listening carefully to those around us who have stories that have yet to be told.

With the changing face of book publishing (including more accessible avenues to self-publishing), OtherWise Engaged Publishing is eager to fill in some of the gaps, as we are able. We will keep blogging out the details!

Entries tagged with “transgender spring”:

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on September 6, 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or concerns.

15 thoughts on “The Transgender Spring, 1996-2006

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