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  • Gilbert Ostini

A Queer Faith - Trans Abundance in the Anglican Church

Lovingly interviewed by Gilbert Ostini (he/him)

Being a transgender Christian is, in the balance of things, pretty weird. Apart from being in the eye of the current culture wars, Christians and trans people are two demographics with very strong opinions of the other. Sitting in the middle often feels like being talked at by two camps who both find your existence incomprehensible. 

Instead of writing a defensive screed to either camp—both full of people I love, and people I struggle to get along with—I thought I’d go talk to my friend Jay. 

We catch St Peters’ Good Friday service together, then head back to her apartment for a cuppa; a strong, spicy peppermint blend, while seagulls wheel and cry above the thirteenth floor.

Jay is a trans woman, an engineer, a public servant, and a committed member of the little Anglican church where I worship. Similarly to me, she grew up constantly proximate to religious communities—her father is Jewish, her mother “from Presbyterian mission stock”—but only really found her faith towards the end of high school. 

At the same time, she was becoming aware of her queerness.

“Certainly at least in the Presbyterian Church,” she says briskly, “you can’t be openly queer and Christian. A lot of the rhetoric, when it comes to gender, was ‘oh, you’re treading into sin’. Wanting to transition or looking into that? That’s sin. You want to look into hormones? That’s sin. You just need to pray hard enough, and God will take all of this away.”

In my all-girls Presbyterian/Methodist high school, our Christian Ed lessons regularly featured the phrase ‘hate the sin, love the sinner.’ But what does this mean when the ‘sin’ is, as Jay phrases it, “not a choice, or an action, or a bad pattern of behaviour,” but something inherent? I recall asking a youth leader what the Bible had to say about transgender people (for a friend, of course). Looking so dismissive and confused, her answer was, “that’s not God’s plan for the world.”

Jay points out the strong correlation between how she sees herself as someone who is both queer and disabled. For her, these ‘imperfections’ are a “part of God’s way of me being a blessing to people.” Imperfection, she clarifies, in the sense that “you might not necessarily stack up neatly with how everything else is, or you might not necessarily be able to work in an environment that other people can function in well.” But to her, Jesus “is with the people who seem the least put together.” Her differentness helps her feel closer to God, and to have an affinity for people outside what church and broader society consider ‘the norm’.

Han Koehle writes that “Queer says no, you cannot insult me by lumping me in with the most marginalised and scandalous among us. I am unabashedly for their quality of life and not just my own.” Koehle’s expression of radical community links these questions of positionality and praxis—what are we going to do with our faith? We actually believe in a non-metaphorical God, but faith is also a way of structuring our doing good, loving and working with the understanding that, as Jesus says, “Whatever you do for the least of my people, you do for me.”

This grounded, practical empathy has clearly carried across to Jay’s work and study. As well as being a proud public servant, her PhD will look at how to embed and enshrine Māori data sovereignty in engineering practice.

When asked if she could explain her work so an English major might grasp it, Jay says her overall goal is to find a system of engineering practices that allow government “to not just give lip service to upholding the mana of tangata whenua, but actually embed and enshrine at a practical level. How do we do this right? What are the principles we need to follow at a day-to-day level?”

“We’re not just trying to do it in a tokenistic way… A degree of repatriation of data is not sovereignty. Nor is it co-sovereignty. Just because you have [data] onshore does not mean that iwi Māori have sovereignty or that we are being good kaitiaki of their taonga.”

It sounds like she’s talking about power, in both individual relationships and big systems. 

She agrees, and says that university is a place where she feels equipped to “speak truth to power … We cast light through context, background and analysis onto what is happening in society. What are the power structures, invisible or visible?” She laughs. “As an engineer, I still know about Foucault.”

This question of power is pertinent; existing at the queer/Christian crossroads means having the social disadvantages of queerness while still inheriting some of the privilege attached to big church institutions.

But our marriages, Jay points out, are still not equal. A blessing is not the same, legally or spiritually, as a church marriage. And whether Jay or I could become priests is a veritable mess of technicalities and church politics. Sometimes I wonder how Jay can stand the bureaucracy of the public service and the Anglican Church.

She’s slightly more inclined to shrug than I am. “One of the beauties of being trans and Christian is that we learn how to make peace with the imperfect institution.”

“We learn how to make peace,” I say, “but we also learn how to make trouble, which is what I’m trying to lean into at the moment. I think we could stir a little more shit.”

There is plenty Jay wants to burn down. And both of us still hold valid frustration and bitterness about the Christian spaces we grew up in. Some of that frustration is productive, driving us to challenge unjust church and social structures—but we can’t just burn things, no matter how satisfying it might be.

“Not that I’m condoning arson, but if you’re gonna burn something down, you’ve gotta plan what you’re going to do in its place,” Jay says. She draws attention to the period of Lent we’ve just come out of: a season of remembering that, “We come from dust and then we will return to the earth. Well, our physical bodies will return to the earth. So what are you doing in that season to plant?” Relationship and community sit at the heart of this planting: clearing out broken relationships and old ways of thinking, to plant something that will outlive and outgrow us.

“Something good and just and enduring,” she agrees. 

How do queer people, disabled people, people outside the perceived ‘norm’, fit into God’s plan? Jay’s conviction is equal parts spiritual and practical, spanning her studies, work and community life. It reminds me of Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote that “all work is empty save when there is love. And when you work with love, you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.”

In the everyday mess of work and angst and hurt, Jay’s reminder to me was to go out and plant “something that shows love above all else. That’s the letter laid down for us.”


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