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SocietyMarch 28, 2017

As a Christian, I won’t allow the likes of Family First to hold us back from being open and inclusive


We should be on guard against allowing conservative religious views familiar in the US to creep into our discussion of issues in Aotearoa NZ, writes Rev Dr Helen Jacobi of St Matthew-in-the-City

I think I first really started to understand the nature of the transgender life when I read Charity Norman’s novel The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone. It was only published in early 2015 so my learning curve has been steep. I challenge anyone to read this book and not be moved by the story of Luke who becomes Lucia.

It was the same year that at St Matthew-in-the-City we hosted a visit from the Rev Sarah Jones, a priest from the Church of England. Sarah is also a folk singer and we heard her story as a transgender woman, and her music, and we were inspired.

Sarah Jones. Photo: Supplied

On or around November 20 each year at St Matthew’s we host a service for the transgender community remembering those who have died around the world. The number of transgender people who are murdered each year is astonishing. The service is attended by more people every year as local support for the transgender community grows – a great thing to see.

In the USA the issue of who can use which public bathroom has been hotly debated and churches have weighed into the debate, the conservative churches claiming that this is somehow a religious issue. The Episcopal (Anglican) Church has joined other churches in supporting transgender rights, saying:

“Permitting religiously based anti-transgender types of laws would enshrine religious beliefs in the country’s law and implicitly favor religious viewpoints that reject the existence of transgender persons over those who embrace such persons’ existence and dignity.”

In New Zealand, the ultra conservative group Family First has weighed into the debate and its views too are underpinned by a religious view that claims this is all a simple matter of biology. They have raised the issue in particular of bathroom use in schools. I have always thought the job of being a school principal is the hardest job there is and each school will need to work through issues surrounding transgender rights. It sounds like the principal of Marlborough Girls’ High did a sterling job recently in addressing with care and sensitivity the needs of a student and the wider school community.

What is important in all of this is to support young people who are doing what all young people do: figuring out who they are. Our understanding of gender identity is changing fast and our public policies and practices need to keep up.

We should be very careful of allowing conservative religious views from the USA to creep into our discussion of the issues in Aotearoa New Zealand. One of the most basic tenets of Christianity is to understand that human beings are all created in the “image and likeness of God” which means that God’s very nature is found in each of us. God’s nature has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with love and our connection with each other and with the earth.

A still from the anti-transgender Family First video

I have two daughters and years ago when they were young we were friends with a family of four boys. Every time that family came to visit the youngest, from the age he could walk, would make a beeline for the girls’ rooms and change into a dress. It was a cause of some distress to the parents who were not sure how to react. We have lost touch with this family through moving countries but I wonder how s/he identifies now.

Bringing up children and teenagers is pretty challenging and each person is unique in their own right. As we gain more understanding about the gender spectrum let’s not allow groups like Family First to hold us back from being open and inclusive. And do not allow their underlying conservative religious beliefs to dominate the conversation.

There are many communities of faith who are open and inclusive. That’s the kind of religion I believe in: a community where Luke and Lucia can feel safe and respected for who they are as God’s children.

Rev Dr Helen Jacobi is the vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland and blogs at Spirited Edge.

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