Learning to Listen: Workshop Explores Transgender Experiences

By Matt Puckett

This fall semester, the Rev. Dr. April Stace will lead a workshop and teach an intensive course at General called Translucent: A Spiritual Care for Trans* Families. Stace has worked with and been close to the spiritual lives of the trans* community since her chaplaincy, both in and, perhaps especially, outside of the church. “In a lot of ways,” says Stace, who also has a trans* partner, “being with [my partner] during various stages of the transition and coming out process is the best experience I have."

“Transgender experiences have been rendered invisible in American society at large for a long time,” Stace says.  “And while the past couple of decades have been incredibly important in terms of visibility and acceptance in society for the LGBTQIA* communities in this country, the trans* community has been, in many ways, sidelined in that wider progress until very recently.”  The trans* community has indeed benefitted from the advances made by the overall queer community in that there is more public willingness to see and discuss the issues than ever before, but Stace also explains that the visibility is unevenly spread, leaving out some of the most vulnerable members, “particularly trans women of color, who face extreme amounts of discrimination and violence.” According to a joint report by the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition, between January 2013 and November 2017 there were 102 reports of fatal violence against transgender persons (Lee, Mark. A Time To Act: Fatal Violence Against Transgender People in America, 2017. Web. Nov. 2017).  At least 87 of those were people of color; 88 were women. Furthermore, even among those experiencing increased visibility, it does not always translate to a meaningful understanding of their community’s issues.

To the best of Stace’s knowledge, she is not aware of any other seminary currently offering a similar course.  In many ways, Stace will be breaking new ground. When asked about the public perception of this, Joshua Bruner, Director of Communications for General Seminary said, "The Episcopal Church and our Presiding Bishop have made clear, unqualified statements about the full inclusion of trans* people in our communities of faith.”

Among others, Bruner is referencing a July 2017 statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, offered in response to President Donald Trump’s actions to ban trans* people from the armed services. “I am compelled to oppose these actions and to affirm the moral principle of equal rights for all persons, including the LGBTQ communities,” Curry said. “I do so as a follower of Jesus Christ, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and as a citizen who loves this country.”

Bruner continued, “From my experience, many trans* people have sought out Episcopal parishes in particular because of the public statements of inclusion. Trans* people often take emotional and spiritual risks in walking into a church building, after often having painful experiences with religion in the past. Thus, it would seem irresponsible for Episcopal seminaries not to equip future church leaders with this experience. And ultimately, this is an exercise on listening, and can be applied to the spiritual care of all persons."

Stace would seem to agree, putting listening at the forefront of her educational approach. “Everything about pastoral care starts and ends with learning how to listen,” she says in describing the course. “We have to learn how to listen well enough so that we can tell our own internal voices from the voice of the person speaking to us.”  Broadly speaking, there are two levels of the trans* experience on which she intends to focus.  First, there are outward, what she calls “basic” issues of living.  Access to healthcare and certain legal discriminations are a couple of examples.  The second level, the deeper level, concerns the spiritual lives of trans* people.  Stace describes the “trauma that many trans* people have faced—while religious communities can be enormous sources of support for trans* people, more often they are sources of great pain and rejection. Dig even deeper, and we get to some of the core issues that some trans* people deal with around their bodies—a sense that their inside doesn’t match their outside, that their body is ‘wrong.’

None of these issues and questions will find easy answers, but for Stace that is almost tangential; the most important thing is to listen. “Too often, we have marginalized or cast out their voices,” she explains, “but in my experience, the radical insistence of trans* people to be who God made them to be, even in the face of so much discrimination, is pure gift to the church. I learn much more from the trans* people I have known than they have ‘received care’ from me—and we would all be made wiser if we learned to listen. That is really the essence of this class.”

To register and learn more about TransLucent, please visit www.eventsatgeneral.com