We’re approaching Epiphany. Whether you observe this twelfth day of Christmas on January 5 or January 6, it’s a day for remembering those who came to see the Christ child and recognized him as a king, despite the outward signs of humble birth.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Tradition tells us there were three wise men, but scripture only tells us there were more than one, and that there were three gifts: gold, denoting Jesus’ kingship; frankincense, identifying him as a priest; and myrrh, prefiguring his death.
I’m thinking about this story of seeing the truth in someone despite outward appearances – as I also think of something that happened earlier this week:
On December 28, 2014, a young person made the decision to end their life. The person’s parents wrote about the death of their son, but the young person identified herself as female in her suicide note.
While I won’t discuss methods here, I do want to address what led up to this death.
At fourteen years of age, this young person discovered a name for what she was going through – what she had known about herself since the age of four. Leelah, as she named herself, recognized she was transgender. At sixteen, she learned she would not be allowed by her parents to transition to living out her identity; instead, she would have to remain living as a male, at least until she reached the age of eighteen.
Unable to bear that future, Leelah ended her life and, in her letter, asked those of us who live on to “fix society.”
It may be difficult to understand what it’s like to be transgender, and even more difficult to understand why she wasn’t willing to wait a couple of years.
Those of us who are transgender often know very early in our lives that something is different. We may realize what our gender identity is, and that it’s at odds with how others identify us. We may have any number of ideas about what’s going on: at one point in my life, I wondered whether this was some sort of social experiment to raise me as a boy even though I was a girl. But eventually we learn that we are not alone in this, and that it’s natural – not common, but natural – for us to identify differently from the way others – including our families – identify us.
Once we realize there is a way to resolve this issue – and that we don’t have to live the rest of our lives in denial of who we know we are, but can live as our authentic selves – any attempt to force ourselves back into hiding is very painful. What is also painful is when those closest to us – those we most love and trust – betray us by denying our identities.
By this I don’t mean to put the blame on one set of parents – as Leelah correctly identified, this is a problem with society as a whole. We can’t convince every parent to accept their transgender children. But we can help to fix society, and we ought to start by fixing the church, as that’s where many people are taught that being transgender is a sin.
How do we fix the church? We can recognize the truth of transgender people: just as gifted, loving, holy, and blessed as the rest of us. We can bring our finest gifts to transgender people: not mere welcome, but affirmation; not mere acceptance, but a place in the life and leadership of the church; not mere acknowledgment, but solidarity in word and deed, in private and in the public square. This includes standing for transgender rights in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Meanwhile, we can reject the lies about transgender people – that being transgender is a mental illness (the American Psychological Association says it’s not), that transgender people are predatory (we’re more likely to be preyed upon), that transgender people seek to deceive others (we seek instead to bring our true selves to light).
I can’t promise that this work will mean no young person will ever end their life again. But I can promise that loving transgender people as they are, affirming their lives – including them at every level of church and society, and standing in solidarity with them – will go a long way toward creating hope for a future. In doing so, we will help to bring to reality the realm of God.
What gifts will you bring?
If you are considering self harm, please ask for help.
In the USA: