Trans/forming our World, our Words and our Selves – River Needham

Our blog, We Talk:We Listen now adds gender diversity to our blog’s ongoing conversation about race/racism. Intersectionality* across identity and difference brings additional awareness of the ways in which our lives overlap.

Imago Dei — Made in God’s Image…

The theological notion that all human beings are made in God’s image; that all humans reflect God’s embodied presence is considered normative in the Christian context. However, that which is normative in Christian doctrine is not necessarily incorporated into our lived lives.

Trans-folk are indeed made in God’s image. In recent years the glorious dynamism of the trans community has been poignantly visible in virtually every media and even – in the case of the next writer – in the halls of LSTC. So please read and enjoy the following reflection upon transgender identity and pay close attention to River’s heartfelt tutorial on trans-identity and respect.

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Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas  – Professor of Theology and Anthrpology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.” 

The title of this blog inspires me: We Talk, We Listen. I am writing from the perspective of a transgender person. We live in beautifully complex matrices of power. At the most basic level this means that we are all both oppressed and oppressor. 

At the same time, I am oppressed because of my gender expression as someone feminine-of-center, my size, my transgender status, my mobility challenges, my history in poverty and mildly for my denominational heritage. On the other side of that same token, I am white, grew up in a Christian household and retain my Christian faith tradition, and have the resources to pursue a graduate degree – items which either give me privilege, or point to the privilege I already have.

WeTalkWeListenOneUnderstanding this matrix of privilege, allows me to point out one of the most frightening facts about being transgender in the United States today: according to the study Injustice at Every Turn, transgender people have a dramatically higher rate of dying due to unnatural causes – a 41 percent chance of having attempted suicide; the rate climbs to 49% if only black transgender people are considered.

Both of these are over 10 times the rate for the general population.

Similarly, nearly 80% of transgender people are harassed in educational settings. As a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I am thankful that although my gender dysphoria could be life threatening, I have been able to pursue transition in ways that were life giving and which allowed me to minimize the crushing dysphoria I experienced before it crushed me.

Yet, I must also acknowledge that I am part of the 80% of transgender people who have been harassed in an educational setting because I am transgender.

WeTalkWeListenFourAs a person who was assigned male at birth (AMAB), transition (the process of changing one’s gender presentation or performance to match an individual’s gender identity) involves multiple steps, much as coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual might mean different ways of identifying and different ways of telling those identities to people.

First, I came out to myself – after living with three other men for a semester, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not like them in ways that I couldn’t explain. Second, I had to get to the place where I wanted to be recognized for this difference. I initially asked my flat-mates to use the name I was given at birth with gender pronouns like “they” and “them” to refer to me. I asked a couple of other friends to use different pronouns. Once I knew which pronouns fit, I asked all those around me to use those pronouns.

In my first semester of transition, I recall the times I was misgendered by professors in very public ways. Yet, when I pointed out that I was being misgendered, these very same professors would apologize, but only privately. One professor argued that I could not get upset because my pronouns were too difficult to use. As many people can imagine: Private apologies for public wrongs, while welcome, function as a tool to oppress and stigmatize those who are wronged. Beyond that, private apologies for public wrongs show that it is appropriate to harm people. These apologies do not allow those who are watching to learn from one’s mistake. Rather than a classroom of people learning from one person’s mistake, potentially each person has to make that same mistake before that same number of people have the personal experience with each mistake.

In terms of a physical transition, I began my transition with subtle changes, like wearing a hint of foundation over my very closely shaved face, or slightly tinted lip balms to ease the dysphoria. Eventually I purchased a nice collection of makeup, which, have made certain people more comfortable, less comfortable, and generally unaware of what to do with me. I was assigned male at birth, I am a femme transgender person; the majority of the time, my gender expression is high-femme. Eventually I recognized that I am River at my innermost core. Sometimes, that means shaving my face, and spending an hour contouring and making my face look flawless. On other days it means proudly sporting remnants of facial hair and wearing jeans and a button down; that’s totally cool too.

The fundamental core of being transgender is this: The gender I was assigned at birth isn’t working for me, and I want to try something else. As Kate Bornstein has said “No question containing either/or deserves a serious answer, and that includes the question of gender.”

WeTalkWeListenThree (1)This then raises the question of God; why should we discuss gender diversity in a
blog for Christians? If, as Christians we believe that each person is created in the image of God, what does it mean for a transgender person who feels their body is closer to a curse than a gift? What about those who wish to medically or surgically change their bodies?Are their bodies also in the image of God? My answer to these questions is “Yes.” I am created in God’s image, because God created me from Her own likeness.

That said, the image of God in my body is disguised and I have to go on a journey God has given me to find His image; to be comfortable in my body – whether or not that includes medical or surgical transition. Thus, we should discuss gender diversity, because our world needs a witness to God’s love for a diversely gendered people – for people who have genders like a little old lady, and those who have genders something like a butch man, and those who feel held to a particular gender because of social pressures. God loves each (a)gender, and welcomes (a)gendered people into God’s reign – and that includes God’s reign on earth.


*intersectionality: the complex interaction of social locations negatively impacted by systems of power where privilege and oppression are hard to identify, define, and/or are subject to change.

Special Thanks to Sophie LaBelle who has allowed us to use images from her webcomic Assigned Male. You can see more of her work at and at her Etsy store.

River uses pronouns like they/them/theirs/themself.


Injustice at Every Turn is a special study – published in 2010 – on the nature of violence and discrimination against the trans community. This link will take you to the Executive Summary, Full Report, and Racial breakdowns.


My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity, by Kate Bornstein.

Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life, by Lisa Salazar.


What happens when…

Trans People share their deepest insecurities about being transgender.

and when…

Trans people respond to the word “pronouns.”

2 thoughts on “Trans/forming our World, our Words and our Selves – River Needham

  1. Jenna Pulkowski

    Thank you for sharing this, River. You are such a beautiful and wonderful creation of God, and I give thanks to her for your witness for all the ways each of us is imago dei.


  2. Pingback: The Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies’ Pride Month Resources* – Dr. Linda Thomas

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