Hospitality: A Burden and Disruption – River Needham, MDiv Student LSTC

ThomasLindaPresident Trump’s recent transgender military ban has once again catapulted trans identity and issues to the forefront of the national discussion – and it is a complicated discussion at that. To help us sort through this, blog regular River Needham has composed a rather thoughtful explication of the complications around the trans community, health services, and the United States military – as well as the lesson this has for the nation and the way that we take care of each other. Read, comment, and share.

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

One of my first memories of my faith journey becoming my own was when I was turning 18, and the time came for me to register with Selective Service. One of the few gifts of having an ‘M’ as my assigned gender marker. Soon after registering, I remember having conversations about becoming a conscientious objector, because I found war abhorrent, as much as I found poverty and homelessness repugnant. Unfortunately, my faith tradition of origin was not a peace tradition. So I began claiming the words of Scripture as my own and creating my theological basis for resisting war – for resisting the systems that incentivize nationalism economically and seek out disadvantaged people to “voluntarily” enlist for military service.

I share this to emphasize that while I have deep respect for people who serve in the armed forces, it is not something I could do, nor have I ever done. What I write here should not be understood as a critique of individuals in the armed forces, but rather an analysis of the systems that comprise the military and the military adjacent industries.


People who receive a vocational and voluntary calling to the military – they are a gift. This past week we found out through a social media posting that our President finds some approximately 15,500[1] current service members a burden, incurring high medical costs and disrupting military readiness.

In a volunteer Military, we must interrogate who serves, why they serve, and if we are truly a volunteer force. In the book Soul Repair, Brock and Lettini prove that recruiters often target the poorest and most vulnerable U.S. citizens, providing attractive offers of free college education, “three hots and a cot,” or engaging assignments to help develop a career.[2]  The hope of access to gender confirmation surgeries – which civilian health insurance does not cover, with few exceptions – attracts transgender people to serve at a higher rate than the general population: nearly 15% of trans people have served in the military, compared with 8% of the general population.[3] 


These statistics and analysis point to the reality that trans people are frequently in positions to make not entirely free decisions to keep themselves safe, fed, and housed with their needs met. When looking at the brutal realities of underground economies, familial relationships and the general devaluing of transgender people, feminine people, and particularly trans feminine people of color, we can ask more probing questions about the freedom people might have to say ‘no’ to a military recruiter.

Sadly, the U.S. Military consumes trans people, particularly trans women, beyond those who serve among its ranks. Regardless of how much thinly-veiled transphobia might show up in tweets from the commander in chief, these transgender women are a resource that is harder to cut off from use: trans women killed by members of the military.

Almost three years ago, Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman, was engaged to a German National, but instead was found dead in a hotel room after U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton violently murdered her. He had been stationed in the Philippines, and numerous military colleagues testified against him – that the techniques he used to kill Laude were techniques learned in his military training, and that he admitted to using them as part of his trans panic defense.[4]

Similarly, about a year ago, Dee Whigham was murdered by a Navy Sailor, who in just over 20 minutes stabbed her 190 times. Dwayna Hickerson, who recently pled guilty to Whigham’s murder, was training to be a weather forecaster at Kessler Air Force Base. His defense as to why he killed Whigham was primarily the same as Pemberton’s. In this situation, the trans panic defense looks like this: after Hickerson found out Whigham’s transgender status, he experienced rage or fear compelling him to kill Ms. Whigham as a means of protecting himself or his reputation. In addition to being a particularly dehumanizing defense, the trans panic defense remains valid in 48 of 50 U.S. states.

That’s not something I want in the world-as-it-could-be.


In the wisdom of the Prophets, we read: “[…]this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50, NRSV). Similarly, we read Jesus’ statement that towns rejecting his disciples would be less bearable than for the inhospitable Sodom.[5]

In the United States, we have a problem in that we hate transgender people, particularly transgender women of color. Transgender individuals often engage in underground economies. Nearly 50% of those participating in a street economy[6] experienced housing instability, or experienced extreme poverty (living on <$10,000 a year).  These are the facts that burden me.  Perhaps trans healthcare is expensive, but estimates place the actual cost of gender affirming hormones and [potentially] surgeries at 0.14% of the total military health care expense. 

The 2015 Trans Survey breaks down many aspects of transgender experiences. One typical response from our families when and after we disclose our gender journey is to end the relationship. According to the survey, 26% of people report having relationships end within a year of coming out; ten years after coming out the number has increased to 43%.

The reality of ended relationships disrupts my life, and even more disrupting is the realization that trans people whose families have ended relationships with them, or whose loved ones have unsupportive relationships with them, have a 57% lifetime rate of attempting suicide. Having affirming relationships – hospitality – turns that 57% lifetime rate of attempting suicide into a 33% chance of attempting suicide.

In the example of inhospitality, of preying on the stranger in the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah became an example of how not to act in the world. Time after time the scripture reminds us that their sin of inhospitality is what brought about their end.


Certainly, transgender people are not about to cause the collapse of society. Perhaps other deeper views about us point to other ways the world as we might like it to be is collapsing. Some organizations use the statistics around transgender existence in the world without advocating for needed changes.  Others count our health care a burden while considering the analogous treatment for a hypoactive thyroid to be a reasonable accommodation.   The world-as-it-is is becoming the world-as-it-could-be, and I’m eagerly anticipating a world filled with hospitality for all the people God has created. Where hospitality neither disrupts nor is a burden. Where medication and health care are available in abundance to all who need; and where all are treated with dignity and live until we die of old age and not because of some system exploited us until we die.

PressPhoto.jpgRiver Needham  is a clergy candidate with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC/MCC), and studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. River focuses their time and studies on fostering trans/formation and emotional wellness within local congregations. River uses pronouns like they/them/theirs/themselves.


[2] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Gabriella Lettini, SOUL REPAIR Recovering from Moral Injury after War Brock, Rita Nakashima. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War . Beacon Press. Kindle Edition., Kindle (Boston MA USA: Beacon Press, 2012), 2–4.

[3] James S. E. et al., “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey” (National Center for Transgender Equality, December 7, 2016), 166,

[4] In April 2017, the appeal was resolved, with Ms. Laude’s family receiving P150,000 as Civil Indemnity and Moral Damages.

[5] Matthew 10:14-15

[6] Street Economy is a collective term referring to economies which are not regulated and do not exist in formal ways, but are employed to help people meet their needs. It includes such things as drug dealing, the sex trade, and other economies like trading other services for places to sleep or food.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s