Beck Schaefer is a member of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto, where he is the treasurer and a reader. He co-facilitates workshops in the diocese on trans issues and experiences.
My transition began two-and-a-half years ago, shortly after I moved to Toronto to pursue a masters’ degree. I met a number of trans people. At school, I was encouraged to develop a professional image and network. In practical terms, this meant wearing skirts and being much more sociable. I also went back to church after about 15 years away. This brought me closer to God and better able to listen to Him. A few months after starting school, I became depressed. I found myself jealous of the trans people I knew and constantly ill at ease in social situations. I felt like I was pretending to be someone else and doing a really bad job of it. I also felt like no one saw the real me. It became increasingly hard to get dressed in the feminine clothes I was wearing to look “professional.” One day it hit me that I needed to acknowledge my masculinity and my mood improved immensely for a couple of days. Almost immediately, I started wearing men’s clothes and got my hair cut short. This happened just before Holy Week. The Holy Week services gave me a lot of opportunity to pray. By Easter, it was clear to me that God was calling me to be a good man in the world. In the following months, I changed my name and pronouns, asking people to refer to me as he or him instead of she or her. In early 2016, I legally changed my name and gender. I have also started the process of medically transitioning. Being able to live an authentic life has made me much more confident.
When I was growing up, my family was active in the church. When I left home for university, I drifted away from the church. During this time, I was sometimes interested in spirituality and read widely on it. A few years ago, I found myself more and more drawn back to Christianity. As a result, I started attending St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. At U of T, I participated in the Ecumenical Chaplaincy’s Queerying Religion program and joined the Student Christian Movement. In these spaces, I became familiar with a queer- and trans-affirming Christianity that prioritized social justice as a Christian vocation. At St. Stephen’s, I learned about a Christianity that acknowledges that the world and humanity are deeply troubled and urges us to find God in that brokenness and to love ourselves and others from a place of vulnerability. Having a regular religious practice allowed me to hear and listen to God again and be open to what He was saying to me. Since my experience of being trans is an important part of my faith journey, I wanted to mark my legal name and gender change in the church. Mtr. Maggie Helwig suggested a re-affirmation of my baptismal vows, including a blessing of my new name and gender. This gave me a chance to publicly express my new understanding of my relationship with God and to commit to living it out.
I’ve started co-facilitating workshops with the Rev. Margaret Rodrigues. The workshops are designed to introduce people to trans issues and experiences. We also provide some suggestions for ways that parishes can be more trans-friendly. Other than the workshops, I try to be open about being trans and raise awareness about trans issues and experiences in a more informal way.
The first step (that the church or parishes can take to be more accepting of trans people) is to learn about trans issues, preferably from trans people. If you don’t know any trans people, look for books, websites and movies created by trans people. Once a parish feels it can be openly welcoming and supportive of trans people, there are a number of concrete things that can be done. Churches should have at least one gender-neutral washroom. Single-user washrooms are already gender-neutral, so those just require new signs. If your church doesn’t already have single-user washrooms, you may want to consider designating a multi-user washroom as gender-neutral or making a gender-neutral washroom part of a renovation project. Include prayers for both the difficulties and joys that trans people experience because we are trans. Try to reduce your use of gendered terms. For example, say “children” instead of “boys and girls” or “friends in Christ” instead of “brothers and sisters in Christ.” If you have a statement in your leaflet welcoming different groups to the church, include trans people in that statement.
What I find most welcoming is being treated as a whole person rather than having my gender identity be the only part of me that people see. Regardless of how welcoming the parish is as a whole, people in certain roles within the parish (priests, youth leaders, parish nurses, etc.) should become familiar with trans issues and be able to refer trans people and their families to appropriate services.
Trans folks are a diverse group of people who bring a variety of gifts to the church. Speaking personally, my experience being trans and transitioning has led me to experience exclusion and fear in ways that I never had before. I hope I can use these experiences to work towards inclusion and to still some of the fears that divide us from each other.
Five years from now, I would like to continue to be educating people about trans issues and doing more activism in support of trans people, particularly the most vulnerable, since we experience higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and depression than the general population.