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Practical Advice for Religious Leaders Planning Transgender Day of Remembrance Events by Jakob Hero-Shaw

If you are a religious leader in a congregation that is going to officially recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), that is wonderful. I wish that every faith community would lift up this day. This is a holy day of mourning. This is a day that we set aside every year to honor the many people — primarily trans women of color — who are murdered because of transphobia. This is a day that is hard to grapple with, and from the perspective of the planning of religious services, this is a very tough one to plan and manage.

Right now in progressive religious communities all over the country, there are well-meaning cisgender members of the clergy who are turning to trans and nonbinary folks and assuming that the ideal way to handle the upcoming TDOR events is to fully hand it off to a trans person. This isn’t always a bad thing, but when it is bad, the consequences can leave a lasting negative impact, especially if the person taking on the responsibility simply is not ready for the weight of it.

Please don’t misunderstand, often the trans and nonbinary folks in our congregations are absolutely the appropriate people to manage TDOR for the congregation. However, this must always be approached with care and an awareness that this event is not always appropriate to be assigned to the nearest person who happens to be trans. Remember that many of the trans folks in your congregation need this service, as congregants, not as coordinators.

One of the things that I find as a trans person is that every year I am incredibly busy around November 20th, as I am helping coordinate multiple events. But I am a pastor and leading public events is part of my job. I trained for this. When I have seen the folks who have sometimes been recruited for the many TDOR events I have attended over the years, I have found myself worried about their spiritual and emotional well-being. Have they received the support they need from community leaders and clergy? Or have they been pushed up to a podium, asked to lay bare their vulnerability, and then gone on to be ignored for the next 11 months?

As we approach the trans and nonbinary people in our congregations and invite them to be part of TDOR activities, we must always keep at the front of our minds awareness of this fact: we are asking trans people to lead an event that focuses on the deaths of other trans people. When we ask this, we are asking the trans people in our midst to step up into leadership while also holding the weight of people being killed by the same hatred that most trans folks experience on some level throughout our day-to-day lives.

I get it, as religious leaders, we are constantly struggling to recruit volunteers. We are always on the lookout for folks who show leadership potential. As clergy, we’re tired right now. This annual trans thing is on your radar. You see that young nonbinary person who is just learning to claim their voice. You see the older trans woman who has frequently helped raise awareness in your congregation. You have recently met a trans man who started attending your services. All of these people seem like they would maybe have more to say on the topic of transness than you, dear well-intentioned religious leader. Yes, they absolutely have more knowledge on the topic of transness than anyone who isn’t trans. But if you are a religious leader who has received quality training in your work, then you are fluent in the language of mourning. You have the ability to hold complicated situations and serve complicated humans.

I encourage faith leaders to utilize your skills in creating sacred space. Draw on your vast experience of providing care for people who are scared, struggling, and grieving. Trust that you are qualified to do this. Only then are you ready to reach out to those trans folks in your community and ask them to co-create the sacred TDOR space with you.

Take care as you balance on that tightrope that stretches between representation and tokenization. Take care as you lift up trans voices and trans stories. Check your own intentions and remember that representation is vital, tokenization is dehumanizing. Do all of this with the constant awareness that this is a day that memorializes trans lives that ended too soon. Always stay present to the reality that the majority of those lives lost are trans women of color. Do not be scared to lead your community into a necessary place of deep grief and despair, which this day warrants. Also, know that it is important to add some trans joy and trans hope.

Lastly, please don’t let TDOR be the only time you discuss trans people in your congregation. Please talk about us throughout the year, not just on the day when we grieve those among us who have been murdered.

If you are a religious leader who is offering up anything at all for TDOR, thank you so much for your witness and your work in this world. There are people who will see what your congregation is doing, and even if they never enter through the door, they will be moved by your advocacy and presence. This is sacred and special and holy. Thank you for the care and courage you show in your community.

Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw is the Coordinator of the CLGS Transgender Roundtable and Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa. Jakob received his MDiv and Certificate in Sexuality and Religion from the Pacific School of Religion and his MA in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union. He holds a Graduate Diploma in Christian Theology and Spiritual Direction from Cardiff University in Wales, and a BA in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Islam, from the University of South Florida. Jakob has led trainings on human rights and participated in transgender advocacy throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Central and Eastern Europe. Jakob’s favorite thing in life is being a dad! He lives in Tampa, Florida with his husband and their two children.

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