Jesus, the
transgender terminator?

Jesus, the
            transgender terminator?

With dozens of
citizens speaking at the February hearing that would
ultimately lead to the dismissal of Susan Stanton, the
transgender former city manager of Largo, Fla., the
media needed a pithy sound bite, and it found an
especially good one: “If Jesus was here
tonight—and believe me, I know the
Bible—I can guarantee you he’d want [Stanton]
terminated.” Those words were spoken by the Reverend
Ron Sanders, pastor for the Lighthouse Baptist Church.
Never mind that his church has only 30 members; his
words were broadcast around the world. Why? Because we (or
at least the media) tend to assume that any one clergyperson
may speak for all religious people.

Meanwhile, in an
interesting coincidence, Newsweek ran a story about
Boston University professor Steve Prothero’s
new book Religious Literacy. A prime tenet of
Prothero’s book is that while more than 90% of
Americans say they believe in God, only a tiny portion
actually know anything about religion. Newsweek
says that almost everyone fails Prothero’s
religious literacy quiz on the basics, such as the
names of the four Gospels. (You can take his quiz on
the Newsweek Web site.)

If
Prothero’s assertion is correct, many Americans must
be relying on others to interpret religious tenets
and, even worse, may be unable to recognize when
clergy are embellishing a bit, to put it politely. As one
of the citizens at the Largo hearing said, “I wanted
to quote the story of Jesus leading the mob to come
take someone’s job, but I couldn’t find
that passage in the Bible.”

Of course,
transgender people definitely encounter problem passages in
the Bible. Deuteronomy 22:5 says, “The woman shall
not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither
shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all
that do are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles
are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be
admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

But as Justin
Tanis, an ordained minister who is also a program manager
for the National Center for Transgender Equality, pointed
out in a 2006 interview for the Washington
Blade,
“Deuteronomy also forbids eating
shellfish, mixing seed in a field, or blending
fabrics.”

In fact, if all
of the rules of the Bible were strictly enforced, folks
would be put to death for working on the Sabbath (Exodus
35:2) and stoned for using the Lord’s name in
vain (Leviticus 24:16). Furthermore, any person with a
handicap or any sort of blemish would be forbidden to
approach the altar (Leviticus 21).

Meanwhile,
biologist Joan Roughgarden has noted that the Bible actually
provides evidence that transgender people were a part of
regular life even in biblical times. Roughgarden is a
transgender woman who has taught at Stanford
University since 1972. In her book Evolution's
Rainbow,
Roughgarden wondered why, if
Darwin’s theory of evolution were correct, diversity
in the animal population did not seem to be
disappearing.

But Roughgarden
is also a Christian who has done extensive reading of the
Bible. In her latest work, Evolution and Christian
Faith,
she offers the radical notion that the two
beliefs are actually quite compatible. And she goes a
step further to claim that Jesus’ beliefs and
teachings actually were intended to help Christians
live with the diversity that existed then and that would
continue to be present.

Of relevance to
trans people is her discussion of eunuchs. She references
Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus describes three types of
eunuchs—those “which were so born from
their mothers’ womb,” those “which were
made eunuchs of men,” and those “which
made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of
heaven’s sake.”

Roughgarden
interprets the first category as describing intersex
individuals and the latter transsexual individuals. She
notes that Jesus’ descriptions line up with
those of ancient Roman writers who described those we
would today call cross-dressers as well as those who
transitioned genders without physical alteration.

She points out
that some eunuchs held powerful positions and that
“eunuchs were common enough that writers referred to
them with such phrases as ‘armies of
eunuchs.’” And she asserts that the apostle
Philip's baptism of the eunuch in Acts 9:27–38 serves
as an “explicit instruction to include eunuchs
within the church.”

But statements at
the Largo hearing implied otherwise. And if Americans
are truly as biblically illiterate as Steve Prothero
asserts, rhetoric like Pastor Ron’s can and
does end up being taken as Gospel.

Many LGBT people
have been hurt by religion used in hate, and transgender
people are no exception. I nervously returned to church only
when my wife, Barbara, was dying of cancer and I
needed a spiritual connection during those difficult
days. What I discovered was that there are progressive
mainline churches that truly welcome LGBT folks, and their
leaders are convinced that Jesus would (and did) too.

So don’t
hesitate to question sweeping generalizations about Jesus.
And if you are a Christian, please do your own
research. Help show Pastor Ron that his is not the
last word on transgender people.

(Note to readers:
Stanton began living as Susan around Mother's Day, and
so I have changed name and pronoun references accordingly.)

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