A Place at the Table
by Lauren Renée Hotchkiss
April 3, 2015
A number of years ago I was a contestant for the title of “Miss ETVC,” the official spokesperson and representative for the transgender organization that later became Transgender San Francisco. We were rehearsing at Finocchios, a well-known club in the City at that time.
I got to know club emcee Tommi Rose and several of the performers that worked there. One was Candy Cane, a flamboyant drag queen with hair a yard wide, a heart of gold, and a bubbly personality that was infectious. I looked forward to rehearsing every Saturday and talking to Candy and some of the other performers during breaks.
One Saturday I came in to find the normally lively scene very subdued. No one was talking, and the room seamed sombre and dark. I was almost afraid to speak. At last, however, my questioning look was answered by Tommi, who told me that Candy had been beaten to death with a hammer on the street not far from the club. It had been a hate crime, and the perpetrator was never caught, or as we found out later even particularly sought by the police. After all, Candy Cane was only a drag queen.
Fast forward a year. I'm Miss ETVC, preparing to step down as the time to choose a new representative approached. Part of the duties of my position was to socialize with members of the club at our regular socials and especially with the new folks that were not yet feeling fully a part of things.
Lynn Tharret was one of these. It was more difficult for her than for others, though, as she was semi-disabled by a neurological condition that made it difficult for her to walk straight and also affected her ability to to speak clearly. Some people found her difficult to be around, and I too at times found my interactions with her challenging. But I persevered, and as I did I began to see a change in her. She began to dress in female attire more frequently and more stylishly, and I could see the woman in her blossoming. Others sensed it too and she began to make friends. Then one night she wasn't there.
We found out the next day that she'd been found on a street in the Tenderloin, beaten, pulled halfway into a doorway, with her dress pulled above her head. Apparently she had lain there for hours in the busyness of the day, dying, dead, as people walked around her. At last she was picked up by the police and taken away, with as little caring as if she were trash being removed to the dump, but not before she was stripped of her valuables and cash. We never heard anything more.
There had been many transgender murders before, and there have been hundreds since in the United States and thousands around the world. There is no way to make sense of how someone could do this to another human being, but perhaps there are passages of scripture that can help us understand, if not the workings of the world, then a bit more about ourselves.
The Gospel of John tells us the story of Jesus coming to the temple to teach the people. Before long a group of Pharisees and scribes show up, and as we've seen elsewhere in the gospels, this always means trouble. They're out to trap him so that they can bring him up on charges and get him the heck out of their temple and the hell out of their lives.
They'd caught a woman in the very act of adultery – how they managed that I'm not sure I want to know – but however they did it they drag her before Jesus and say to him “the Law of Moses tells us we're supposed to stone adulteresses like her. What do you think?”
Well, if there is one thing that Jesus was not, it was slow on the uptake. He knew exactly what they were up to, and was ready with one heck of a Jesus-y reply: So he says, after a superbly timed and pregnant pause, “Let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.” Well, he had them. He knew it; they knew it, and one by one they began to slink away.
It seems we still have more than a few stone throwers today, and not nearly enough that have taken Jesus' words to heart and learned from them, not nearly enough that can simply tolerate those who are different, to say nothing of acceptance and celebration.
Now, let's take a moment to look at what perhaps has been the most damaging passage in all of scripture when it comes to justifying hatred of transgender folk. Yes, it's the dreaded Deuteronomy 22:5. In it's one statement “a woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God” it speaks volumes, unfortunately all of misinformation. Like many such cherry-picked quotations taken from the Bible, stripped of their context, retextualized according to the pickers agenda and intent, and with a biblical setting that is obscure at best, their original reference and purpose is lost on most modern readers.
Filling in the gaps somewhat a more accurate rendering might be "No man shall put on a dress to enter the women's tent (for fear of rape), nor shall a woman wear an article of man's clothing for the purposes of entering the holy temple (from which women were prohibited by Judaic law)." It's change from a conditional to an absolute is reflective of both the political and moral climate of the time and place and of the personal biases of those who paid for Bible translations, publication, and distribution.
Some Biblical scholars believe that this passage may have been a response to the Jewish people's experience during their exile into Babylonia in the sixth century B.C. Throughout the Near East at that time, priests in so-called "Pagan" religions tried to emulate the preeminent mother-goddess figures by becoming effeminate and often dressing as women. Judaism, which depicted a God who was definitively male, had no place for such mother-goddess worship. The priests of Jehovah, therefore, outlawed the practice of men dressing as women to keep the captive Jews from participating in these "heathen" rituals.
In one final passage, from Galatians, Paul, speaking of the oneness and unity found through faith says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Equating the passage to our age, how can we then hate others when there is no other. Would we not simply be hating ourselves?
Each year, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the list of the names of transgender people killed that year is read at hundreds of memorial services across the country and around the world. At best it is only a partial list, for many transgender murders go unreported and many victims are mis-gendered. Also, disproportionally, most of the names on the list are trans-women of color. Unfortunately I don't have time within this sermon to give you individual details about their lives and deaths. Some were shot, stabbed, run over – often repeatedly, beaten, strangled, burned to death, dismembered, decapitated, and yes even stoned. There's no need to go on.
What can we do to address something so huge, so systemic, so seemingly unassailable? Can we as religious community with faith even the size of a mustard seed command the mountain of hatred to stop. I wish it were so. And perhaps if our faith was even this strong it would be. I wish I could say that there will be no more murders. I wish that we could draw a line in the sand and say “this stops here!” I hope to God that it does. I hope to God that there will never again be a need for me to lead or participate in another TDOR service.
But as long as there is a need to do so, as long as transgender folk are being killed just for being who they are, I will be there with my trans sisters and brothers and the allies that support us and hold us in love. And not just one day of the year, but every day.
Like so many other things in life, like so many actions of faith, it is baby steps will change the world. If we but treat each other as nearly every faith says in some form: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” things would truly change in amazing ways.
But not until it's for everyone. We decry the frequent mass shootings, especially if some of the victims are white. But at the same time the news conglomerates often downplay the many people of color that have been killed in military operations throughout the Middle East and in other incidences around the world. Despite the expression being seized by a white supremacist group all lives do matter, for each and every life matters to God: black lives, brown lives, Asian lives, Native lives, and trans lives too. For all have a place at the table.
Let us pray:
Oh, dear God
We see a world around us that seems to make no sense.
So many of your children kill each other,
many with no conception that it is wrong,
with no idea of the great harm they are doing
to themselves as well as those they kill,
with no recognition that the other is them.
The cycle of war and violence seems never sated
and we struggle with not losing hope, with not losing faith.
We need you more than ever,
We need to see you in one another
We need to see you, Dear God, in ourselves.