Faith leaders, activists prepare for anti-trans bills

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Transgender activists and leaders are gearing up to respond to any North Carolina House Bill 2 copycat bills that may come to Georgia when lawmakers return to the State Capitol next month.

Some state lawmakers have threatened that Georgia will see a similar “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people during the upcoming session. That comes despite the financial – and political – consequences the Tar Heel State faced for the bill, an impact top legislative leaders in Georgia have noticed.

Chanel Haley, Rev. Kim Sorrells (photo) and Rev. Erin Swenson – all three transgender – sat with Project Q Atlanta during a transgender workshop hosted by Georgia Equality at the Phillip Rush Center on Wednesday. They discussed their experiences and the work they are doing to change a transphobic culture in the state.
Haley, the Transgender Inclusion Organizer at Georgia Equality and a one-time staff member for lesbian former state Rep. Simone Bell, highlighted the prevalence of transgender people across communities in the state. Georgia has the fourth-highest percentage of trans residents in the U.S. The annual Trans March during Atlanta Pride continues to grow.

“Trans people are a part of every single community,” Haley said. “We are every race, every sexual orientation, we have every degree, every age, every faith, and every job. In every state, in every country, in every city.”

Haley highlighted the safety concerns of transgender people living outside metro Atlanta, adding that LGBTQ people in Georgia are “under attack.”

“There are trans men and women who are afraid to leave their home and go to their local Walmart for the way they are treated. That’s why it’s important to ward off these negative laws,” Haley said.

Sorrells, an organizer with the United Methodist Church’s pro-LGBT Reconciling Ministries Network, said it’s important to counter the narrative that being a person of faith and being an LGBT person or ally are polar opposites.

“Often times the narrative is that people of faith oppose LGBTQ people,” Sorrells said. “There are a large number of people of faith of various faith traditions that are very supportive and affirming, and that don’t want to see discrimination done in the name of their faith tradition.”

Opponents of “religious freedom” legislation worked earlier this year to highlight religious leaders and people of faith – LGBT and allies – speaking out against the anti-LGBT bills. 

Sorrells and Swenson – one of the first ministers to transition and remain ordained – spoke about how poorly understood gender identity is, even among other LGB people. Both do work to educate others about being transgender in the hopes of cultivating compassion – and vocal allies.

Swenson, for instance, cited a monthly meeting over coffee with a Southern Baptist pastor.

“He says that his church is really frightened about the school things – about locker rooms. I am trying to help him to understand that trans women are not men,” Swenson said.

In addition to basic transgender education – about gender identity and how it is different from sexual orientation, the appropriate language to use, and singular “they” pronouns even – Sorrells discussed the importance of empathy.

“A lot of it is just a matter of empathy and for someone to sit down and meet a transgender person, to hear their story. When they hear stories or when they try to put themselves into our shoes, that can be really powerful for them,” Sorrells said.

All three – Haley, Swenson and Sorrells – agreed that it's difficult work to do education as transgender people about transgender experiences. It's the one-on-one or small group conversations that have the most impact, they said.

As for anti-transgender legislation regarding restrooms likely to be proposed in Georgia, and the politics of fear feeding it, Sorrells pointed out that “it’s a vulnerable space for all of us.”

“We want that space to be safe for women, we want that space to be space for children, for people with different abilities to be able to have access,” Sorrells said. 

“And we want that space to be safe for trans people, because the reality is that we are very at risk as we go into those spaces,” Sorrells said.


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