By: Tynan Power*/TRT Columnist–
For the last few months, my life — or at least my e-mail — has been dominated by the upcoming LGBT Muslim Retreat. Last year’s retreat was a wonderful opportunity for education, support, connection and community-building. This year promises to be even more rewarding, though we are still ironing out a few wrinkles.
The people involved with planning this event are some of the best of the LGBT Muslim movement: scholars with deep compassion, religious leaders unafraid to acknowledge where their expertise ends, volunteers who put their time and energy into doing the work because it needs to be done. They are all genuinely committed to meaningful inclusion.
On one team, they had a wonderful idea: assigning “companions” to new people, because the retreat can be very emotional for those who have never before experienced a welcoming community of queer Muslims. These “companions” would act as mentors, offering some informal counseling, while also being prepared to refer people to physical and mental health professionals, as needed. The team noted they should be sure to have “companions” who are men, women and transgender.
I love the idea of these “companions.” I also love that the team was sure to think of the needs of transgender people. When I saw “men, women and transgender,” though, I knew we had some work to do.
I see this a lot. It’s always well-intentioned. Unfortunately, to me, the effect is more alienating than welcoming.
When I hear “men and women” set apart from “transgender,” I hear an invalidation of my identity as a man. “Transgender” is not my gender. “Transgender” refers to the relationship between my self-identified gender and the gender I was assigned at birth. It’s not my destination; it’s how I got there.
Viewing “transgender” as my gender identity is like looking at a happy family and seeing only the fact that the children are adopted. How they got to be a family may be an interesting story or different from the norm, but it doesn’t change the simple reality that they are a family. They view themselves as a family, and they want — and deserve — to be treated as a family.
Many people, like me, fall under the “transgender” umbrella and identify as “men” or “women.” For us the process of changing genders — socially, medically and/or legally — is undertaken with the aim of moving from one gender box to another. When “transgender” is treated as a gender in and of itself, equated with “man” and “woman,” it seems to say that our transgender experience prevents us from being men and women. When groups are divided by gender into three categories — man, woman, and trans — it forces us to choose what part of our identity to uphold and what part to suppress.
Of course, having “transgender” listed as a gender option isn’t a problem for everyone. There are plenty of trans people who don’t identify as “man” or “woman.” That would be better indicated, though, by a gender box that says “gender nonconforming,” or better yet “other (please specify).”
It seems to me that the key to creating a pool of spiritual “companions” that meet the needs of the retreat is to figure out what it is we’re truly trying to ask or address. In offering trans “companions,” are we trying to provide support for people who have transitioned, or are transitioning, from one gender to another? Are we offering experienced trans mentors for people newly out? Or are we trying to prevent forcing people into two gender boxes?
In the end, our retreat will be able to say that our spiritual “companions” include men, women, and gender nonconforming people, that they are cisgender and transgender — just like our beautiful spectrum of attendees, who vary as much in gender identity as in age, race, ethnicity, religious practice and sexual orientation. I want to know that our new attendees are supported in the ways that they need to be and the rest of us, who have been around a while, are doing the work of making sure there is room for them, no matter how they identify.
*Tynan Power is an FTM parent, writer, Muslim and interfaith leader. He is the co-chair of the 2012 LGBT Muslim Retreat in Philadelphia, May 25-28. For more information about the retreat, visit www.lgbtmuslimretreat.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.