By Audrey White
Gender diverse people have been part of Christianity since its earliest days, but there is a void in 21st century literature about understanding and embracing transgender folks in Christian communities and families.
Austen Hartke’s new book, Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, speaks into that void with grace, passion, and integrity. It is an unprecedented resource for Christian parents, church leaders, and anyone who wants to start understanding how trans people experience our faith. Hartke says the response to the book, which came out in March of this year, has been largely positive.
“Folks I have talked to who we might consider the movable middle have been encouraging,” he says. “People who don’t know what to think about trans people, or say ‘I think the Bible says something negative but I’m not sure’ have been receptive.”
Hartke has been teaching others about transness and faith through his YouTube series Transgender and Christian for 100 episodes, and he has spoken at numerous conferences since 2014. He currently serves as the Faith Coordinator for Gender Spectrum. As a well-known trans Christian and an award-winning writer, it makes sense that he would be the person to write the first mainstream, accessible book on the topic. He declined to take full credit for the book’s ideas, nodding to a history of liberation theology in different traditions as well as the insights of those he interviewed.
“This is all based on theology that people have been doing for the past 10-20 years,” Hartke says. “But it hasn’t been applied to gender diverse people in the same way and it hasn’t been accessible. I wanted to make this something you could pick up and read if you’d never studied theology and didn’t know anybody who was trans. I wanted this book to exist, so I wrote it.”
The book weaves together the personal narratives of trans Christians from many walks of life with analysis of scripture, such as texts about Jews and Christians encountering eunuchs. Hartke hopes his book will hold meaning for folks encountering it from a wide range of perspectives.
“People are never aware of their own lenses, and there’s no way to read scripture objectively. I wanted to reach people who feel like they want to know more about what the Bible says about gender diversity; people who take scripture seriously but are willing to talk about how we interpret it.”
For most people, though, the key to empathy and understanding is storytelling—that’s most of the Bible, after all. As Hartke puts it, “when someone says ‘I know you’re having a theoretically difficult time, but my life is on the line,’ people hear that.”
Hartke and those he has interviewed all tell their stories beautifully. There’s the Rev. M. Barclay, the first non-binary trans person ordained in the United Methodist Church, who describes their non-binary gender “not as an ‘in-between’ but as a ‘more.’” There’s Lynn Young, a Two-Spirit Native American Traditionalist Christian who tries to show others that zir faith and zir indigeneity belong together. There’s Nicole Garcia, a Latina trans woman who has nearly completed her theology degree, allowing her to be the pastor she has always known she was meant to be.
Hartke weaves stories together to paint a complex picture of the lives of trans Christians. Some characters are prominent activists, while others are young people in the early days of navigating their faith after coming out as trans. This patchwork of stories and scripture analysis creates a provocative narrative that holds much fruit, both for trans Christians and for our allies, as well as anyone else who seeks to understand how the church can advocate for trans folks.
One story Hartke had hoped to include was that of a black transgender woman, because that group faces particularly high rates of violence and discrimination. However, even with offers to anonymize women’s identities, Hartke couldn’t find anyone who felt it would be safe for her to participate. It’s an important reminder that we must always look for the voice that’s missing and find ways to protect and treasure those people.
Despite the broad number of voices it encompasses, Transforming is still just one piece of a burgeoning movement toward trans inclusion in faith life. When I ask Hartke about his hopes for the future, his vision is bright.
“I would love to see Christian communities banding together and standing up for the physical wellbeing of trans people in the same way that they band together for the physical well-being of babies. I would like to, 50 years in the future, see a mainline or evangelical denomination that, as part of their belief system, includes things like ‘we are going to fight for an end to transphobic bullying in schools or including trans people’ in their set of beliefs.”
The road won’t be easy, and it will definitely make people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t essential, as we work together to protect and uplift trans people–especially kids and youth, who need the adults in their lives to nurture their whole selves.
“I was talking with someone who said ‘the church has people who are LGBT affirming and people who aren’t, and if we openly say we’re affirming, we let some people in and push others out,’” Hartke says. “But opening a door to let people in isn’t the same thing as pushing others out. If they choose to leave that’s a different issue.”
To be successful, trans folks and allies will need to lean on each other and create community however possible.
“There are not many times that gender diverse Christians can get together,” Hartke says. “When we can get together even if it’s through a book and not real time, we challenge each other in really great ways.”
For folks looking for more resources, Hartke recommends finding the LGBTQ+ advocacy group within your denomination, or attending a conference like those hosted annually by Q Christian Fellowship or The Reformation Project. For parents of young kids, the author Megan Rohrer has created the beautiful book Transgender Children Of God. There’s a gap in resources targeted at middle and high school students, he notes, but advocacy groups and conferences are ready to support youth.
Hartke continues to create accessible resources for trans Christians and allies, and his newest YouTube project is going through the Bible book by book. He doesn’t see the work ending any time soon, and he hopes more people will get involved.
“This is a middle of the conversation,” Hartke concludes. “Hopefully this is something we can communally collaborate on going forward.”
Audrey White is a writer and dog dad in Dallas, TX. They have written about religion, music, bisexuality, and politics all over the internet, including Autostraddle, Pitchfork, and the Dallas Morning News. Find Audrey on Twitter at @audreywhitetx for well-curated retweets and occasional outbursts of minor genius.