Sunday, November 21, 2010

Light Shining in the Darkness: Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston

Early yesterday evening, as the nearly full moon rose above the Boston Common, my partner, our thirteen-month-old and I headed to dinner with a friend and then wandered around the corner for Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Upon arriving at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, I was amazed at how many people were already there, even a half hour before the start of the event. Before the night was over, between 325-350 people would crowd into the space, including the balcony (and I got those numbers from the ultimate source, Jim Woodworth, one of the cathedral’s longtime sextons).

One of my favorite things about TDOR is the way it draws people together—I love touching base with people I haven’t seen in a while, and this year I was struck by the variety of contexts from which I knew people: from the Greater Boston trans community, current and former students, and Episcopalians from the Diocese of Massachusetts. In the latter category was the Reverend Stephanie Spellers, priest and lead organizer of the Crossing, and Penny Larson, drummer for the music team of the Crossing, which for the second year in a row hosted an open mic on Thursday for the local collaborative “Transcriptions.” Penny gave some very moving remarks later in the event, which are reposted below.

Also present at TDOR for the first time this year was my bishop, the Right Reverend M. Thomas Shaw III. He had just come from a eucharist celebrating the 100th anniversary of the clothing of the sisters of St. Anne-Bethany, and was present to deliver a welcome message.

When the MC for the evening, Mesma Belsare, called Bishop Shaw forward, I have to say my heart was absolutely pounding, and I found myself wondering why. I think it was because of the intense way my worlds were intersecting in that moment. And while TDOR was hosted by my congregation over the last two years, and I myself spoke in the slot that +Tom was now occupying, last night’s intersecting worlds felt more intense to me. This was probably because the event was unfolding in this same space in which I was ordained in 2004 and 2005-- actually, as I write this, I’m realizing that last night I was sitting just about where I sat and then stood during my ordination to the diaconate, which +Tom did. But mainly I think I was nervous because I know that members of the trans community have been hurt very badly by people of faith, and especially by churches—in the name of my God. And I was, I admit, concerned that Bishop Tom not say anything to exacerbate that hurt.

He started out by saying that before he welcomed everyone, he wanted to offer an apology. He wanted to apologize for the way in which Christians in particular have hurt transpeople, how Christians have, as he put it, “misrepresented God” to transpeople. Then he went on to reference the work of trans people in this diocese, at which point he referenced me and my colleague Chris, both of us transmen and priests here. I was very moved and humbled by what he had to say about us. He went on to say that both the church(es) and the world are made more whole by the full participation of transpeople in their midst and in their lives. He closed by saying it was therefore a particular honor for the Cathedral to host TDOR.

The applause for +Tom was sustained and, I sensed, at least from those sitting around me, that people were quite moved and perhaps even a little surprised by their positive response to +Tom’s remarks. Of course I can’t know how anyone other than myself, and those who later commented to me, felt—but that was the sense I got.

A number of speakers got up and spoke from their hearts throughout the event, ranging from transpeople to non-trans allies. There were people who spoke of having avoided coming to TDOR in the past because it was too scary, or felt too potentially victim-oriented to them, but who now felt differently. Particularly moving to me were the remarks of young people—one non-trans twelve-year-old spoke of one of her parents, a transwoman, and how lucky she felt to have her as a parent. Two young transmen spoke about the importance of reaching out to trans youth, and to watch especially closely for warning signs of suicidality. Two parents of a young man who died here in MA a few years ago spoke very movingly about their commitment to and love of the community. Several people spoke of people they knew who had taken their own lives, or attempted suicide, and several people came out as suicide survivors. In the wake of the intense reflection in this country about LGBT suicides this fall, this sequence of speakers gave a very important reminder that the T is very much part—indeed, likely even more at risk – of this wider pattern. But risk and loss were counterbalanced by resilience: people spoke of how they have reclaimed their lives, and of how important it is to protect and nurture one another’s unique humanity. One person spoke of this need with beautiful metaphors of light.

That image resonated yet more at the conclusion of the event, when the huge group split into two for the candlelight vigil. One group went across the Boston Common to the State House to read the names of the dead and then walked to the gazebo at another spot on the Common for a final gathering, while the other group went directly to the gazabo. As the groups left, my partner and I decided we needed to take our wiggly little guy home, so after chatting with other stragglers for a few minutes, we gathered our things together and made our way to the back of the cathedral. As we exited the swinging glass doors and stood with Jim out on the cathedral steps, we watched a long train of candlelight slowly make its way across the common, majestically moving from the State House to the gazebo.

The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.



Penny Larson’s remarks, which are also posted at her blog are below:

Good evening. Thank you for coming, and welcome to my home.

I showed up on these steps four years ago, less than six months after my transition, and I was welcomed as an equal sister. I drum here, and I worship here. The Crossing community has prayed for me and laid hands on me during my process. They have marched with me and lobbied with me. This past Easter Bishop Shaw received me into the Episcopal Church as I delivered the sermon during the Cathedral’s Easter Vigil. I feel blessed and humbled to be a part of The Crossing community, and I am profoundly moved that my family is helping to host this Transgender Day of Remembrance.

As you know, this is a somber time, when we remember those that have been lost in the last year to violence. Sometimes the price is high when one lives an authentic life. There is fear, and misunderstanding, and hatred. Whatever the number of people we recognize this evening as lost during this last year, I suspect that the true number is higher. We simply are the victims of violence far more often than could be explained by mere random chance. We are targeted.

I have a dear friend who wonders why we do this every year, I believe she says something to the effect that we are celebrating our victim hood. And I admit that the heaviness of this day weighs upon me, even though this is only my fifth Transgender Day of Remembrance. It might be easier to just let this day slide by with barely a notice, to pretend that a day to remember our dead was unnecessary. But then the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. So while I’m very happy to have been involved with a special open mic night co-hosted by The Crossing and Transcriptions as part of Trans Awareness week, which was far more positive and celebratory, I think the importance of this night can not be overstated.

This past August, I volunteered at the inaugural season of Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp specifically for trans and gender-variant kids between the ages of 8-15. I got pretty attached to those kids, and I’m sure I’ll be back next year. Those kids were amazing, and it was a joy to be around them. This is our next generation. Many of them were experiencing the thrill of being themselves for the very first time at camp. Those kids just want to live happy lives being the people they truly are.

But the reality is stark. And the world that exists presents all sorts of difficulties for those who are perceived as different from some arbitrary standard. I want the world that those kids grow into to be so much closer to perfect than the world I grew up in, and yes, even the world as it stands now. I want those kids to grow into a world where they won’t have to go to a camp to be met with unconditional understanding and acceptance. My mother, when I was very little, taught me to always know that I am no better than anyone else, and I am no worse. I believe that we can all live together, celebrating each others similarities while basking in our uniqueness.

And so it is on this night, more than any other, that it becomes of paramount importance that we stand to fear and hatred, whether from within or without, and refuse to be anything less than our full selves. It is on this night that we should embrace the rich diversity that exists within our world of community, allies, supporters, friends, family, and loved-ones. It is on this night that we must change the world.

Thank you for joining us!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Signs of Endings All Around Us: Transgender Day of Remembrance

This is a strange, liminal time in the liturgical year, when signs of endings are, as the hymn puts it, all around us, even as we look forward to the harbinger of hope and new birth soon to be announced in Advent.

For those of us in the trans community, this is a liminal time in another way—a time when we actively remember and face the ongoing reality of our vulnerability to violence and death, particularly for transwomen of color. And it is a time when we seek to galvanize ourselves and our allies, to take our horror, grief, and outrage and harness it for change. To that end, this Saturday, November 20th, marks the 11th annual, International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).

Brief History

As it so happens, TDOR started with a local murder here in Boston. On November 28, 1998 Rita Hester was found dead, having been stabbed multiple times by an assailant who has never been identified. In the days following her murder, a vigil was held down the street from my former parish, St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s in Allston, MA, where Rita lived. Across the country, San Francisco activist Gwen Smith then started the Remembering Our Dead website, which began keeping track of transpeople around the world who had died due to transphobic violence (that work is now carried on by Ethan St. Pierre at this site). Gwen also organized a vigil in San Francisco in 1999 that inspired similar events around the world. The most common date for holding TDOR, November 20th, marks the death of another Boston transwoman, Chanelle Pickett, who had been murdered on that date in 1995. TDORs now happen around the globe, and in some cases expand to include educational events. Here in Massachusetts, this is Trans Awareness Week, with multiple activities happening across the state.

What Your Congregation Can Do This Week

* go to a TDOR in your community and be an ally. Listen, support, be present as an ally

* host a TDOR in your community—more and more churches are opening their doors in this way, though the events themselves are not usually religious services. Indeed, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that many members of the trans community feel deeply alienated from religious traditions and communities. Simply opening your door, making space for the trans community to come together and organize its own event, is incredibly powerful. More and more Episcopal parishes and cathedrals are hosting these events-- here in Boston, for instance, TDOR will be hosted by the Crossing and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul this Saturday at 6pm). In Sacramento, California, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (@ 27th & Capitol) will be hosting the city's TDOR with a candlelight vigil at 6:30 p.m.

* Host another event in trans week (or at another time of the year), like an open mic night, or a film viewing.

* Consider making a special space in your service this Sunday to honor the trans community. Perhaps in your Prayers of the People, for instance, you might name those who have died this past year and/or compose a special collect; perhaps you might mention this event in a sermon—be creative, open and compassionate (and if you’re willing to then share what you did and how it went, it would be great to include such vignettes in future blog posts).

* However and whenever you are able, please pray for the trans community. Pray for our strength and stamina in this newly challenging political climate, as we continue to fight for basic nondiscrimination and anti-violence legislation, as we strive for equal access to health care, as we make our way in all sorts of vocations, families, and faith communities.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Over the Columbus Day weekend, October 8-11, I attended the Believe Out Loud Power Summit in Orlando, Florida, representing TransEpiscopal and, together with Oasis California chair Tom Jackson and St. Aidan’s San Francisco Rector Tommy Dillon, the Bay Area Oasis/Integrity community. It was an inspiring, empowering conference in which the transgender – and specifically TransEpiscopal – community was seen and heard…and welcomed as full participants. My participation was funded in good part by Integrity and Oasis and I am grateful to both.

The conference, sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, brought together 300 members of eight mainline denominations. These included:

– the ELCA’s Lutherans Concerned;
– the UCC’s Coalition for LGBT Concerns;
– “More Light” Presbyterians;
– Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples (GLAD) within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ);
– the United Methodists’ Reconciling Ministries Network;
– the Welcoming Community Network of the Community of Christ;
– the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists; and
– our own Integrity.

The goal of the conference was to exchange denominational experiences of resistance and success and to explore collective values, vision, and modes of collaboration with an eye to increasing the number of Believe Out Loud (i.e., welcoming) congregations and developing LGBT leadership within our faith communities. The conference also provided a golden opportunity for networking across denominational lines and, in our TransEpiscopal case, within Integrity and in the transgender caucus pulled together by Barbara Satin, Faith Work Associate of the NGLT’s Institute for Welcoming Resources. I and my Bay Area Lutheran colleagues, for example, cemented our ties and undertook to build a closer working relationship.

The Integrity contingent numbered about 60 people, including the new Executive Director Max Niedzwiecki, President Rev. David Norgard, Stakeholders Council Chair Rev. Susan McCann, and the entire Stakeholders Council. As a representative of TransEpiscopal, I participated in the Sunday evening meeting of the Council and the Eucharist presided over by Susan McCann.

Based on the discussions at the stakeholders council meeting and one-on-one conversations with Max, Susan and others, it is clear that Integrity and TransEpiscopal are very much on the same wavelength concerning issues facing us at the 2012 General Convention. In particular, we are of the same mind concerning revisiting CO61 which would add gender identity/expression non-discrimination to the ordination canon. There was also great receptivity to ensuring that the work underway to collect new liturgies for blessing same-sex couples be broadened to include rites to mark major steps in gender transition.

The transgender presence was visible and welcomed at the Summit and two trans people participated in the general worship service. Eight people attended the Saturday evening transgender caucus, including one gender queer person and the father of child just beginning the FtM transition. There were several other trans/gender queer people at the Summit who, perhaps less ready to come out, chose not to attend the transgender caucus.

Much of the weekend was devoted to attending one of the four break-out sessions offered on campaigns, communications, leadership development, and – the one I and sixty others attended – “Barriers, Resistance, and Conflict.” Spanning over nine hours in four sessions that stretched into the evenings, participants in the latter learned how to identify and deal with conflict and resistance in our congregations and the church at large. Though ample scope was given to differences in context and styles, emphasis was placed on graceful engagement.

Around the edges of the Summit, several organizations offered a variety of resources that might be helpful in congregational and denominational settings. Among those available from the NGLTF’s Institute for Welcoming Resources ( were the visually stunning “Shower of Stoles” of LGBT clergy; a half-hour DVD “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses;” and “TransAction,” a down-loadable three-session “transgender curriculum for churches and religious institutions.” The Family Diversity Project also offered four exhibits/books: Love Makes a Family: Portraits of LGBT People and Their Families; In Our Family: Portraits of All Kinds of Families; Pioneering Voices: Portraits of Transgender People: and We Have Faith: Portraits of LGBT Clergy. The Project seeks new faces and stories to add to these exhibits. They can be contacted at

Looking to the future, the next major event of this sort will be “Practice Spirit, Do Justice,” a national multi-faith gathering at the “Creating Change,” the National Conference on LGBT Equality in Minneapolis, February 2-6, 2011. Information on that conference is at Also worth noting is the ongoing National Religious Leadership Roundtable of the NGLTF. You can find out more by e-mailing Dave Noble at

For its part, Integrity will be sponsoring a series of one-day “Believe Out Loud” workshops around the country. Information is available at In the Bay Area, Oasis California ( will team up with Integrity to hold a one-day training session for “Believe Out Loud”/Welcoming Congregations at St. Paul’s, Oakland on January 12. It is also planning a conference later in the year devoted to issues of aging in the LGBT community. Stay tuned.

In closing, it should be noted that the October 9-11 Believe Out Loud Power Summit in Orlando took place at a particularly difficult moment for the LGBT community, as news spread of the bullying, murders, and suicides that have afflicted our young people. Indeed, the uniformly positive media coverage of the conference focused on the reaction of conference participants to the horrible murders that had just unfolded in the Bronx. Typical was Orlando’s WESH-TV interview with Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, the NGLTF’s Faith Work Director (

As Rev. Voelkel’s colleague Darlene Nipper told USA Today, the New York murders were “heavy on the minds” of those gathered in Orlando and “touched us all.” The names of the victims were read and silence observed at the opening worship October 9 and many participants recorded messages for the “It Gets Better” project.

And, thanks to the sort of solidarity exhibited in Orlando, it will get better!

Submitted by the Rev. Vicky Gray