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Jesus, the
transgender terminator?

Jesus, the
transgender terminator?


Some citizens of Largo, Fla., cited religious grounds for the dismissal of Susan Stanton, the transgender city manager. Would Jesus really have terminated her employment? This and other transgender tales from the Bible.

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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