Re-Naming God and Smashing Idols – Francisco Herrera, Ph.D. student at LSTC

Linda Thomas at CTS eventHave you ever heard a grown man squeal? That’s precisely what happened when I asked this week’s writer, Francisco Herrera – the blog manager for “We Talk. We Listen” – to write a piece on theological language and gender. Though he mostly writes about race and power in the church, he also has a keen interest in sexuality, gender and power and it shows. And through his humor, he leaves us all with a jolting reminder that, if we don’t open ourselves to myriad ways of talking about God, then we can very well sacrifice others on the idols of our own theological complacency. Take a peek and share!

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

My first serious object lesson in adventurous theological language happened about four years ago when I had to prepare a Bible study for a class. The professor gave us four Biblical excerpts from which to choose – two safe (from John 3 and John 5) and two risky (Ephesians and The Song of Songs) and left it up to us to decide.

The first presenter, who we will name “Emily,” chose the snippet from Song of Songs, and had us start the exercise by reading this juicy bit to ourselves:

Listen! My beloved! Look! Here he comes,leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My beloved spoke and said to me,“Arise, my darling,my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”  

(Song of Songs 2 : 8-13)


“When we read Scripture,” she began, “we tend to understand it through three basic hermeneutical lenses.” At this point she started writing on the board. “It is either God speaking to us, Jesus speaking to us, or people speaking to each other.” She paused for effect and then looked calmly but determinedly back at the class. “So my question is this…

“If this excerpt from the Song of Songs is God speaking to us, what does it say about God?”

Woman and Flowers – Marc Chagall

The responses from the other students were sweet and anodyne. God loves us. God cares for us. God wants to be with us, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Riled up, but leery and afraid to start trouble, I did my best just to sit and keep quiet. Emily wasn’t having it, though. And likely intuiting my impatience, she soon keened her green eyes and elvish grin hard upon me and asked:

“So Francisco…what do you think?”

Duly summoned, and with the knowingest grin easing across my face, I steadied myself and replied:

“God is a woman… who loves us, who desires us, who wants to make love to us, who longs for us in a perfumed garden, eagerly waiting to give herself to us with passion and abandon.”

And as I spoke, seduced by my own imagination, there I was – languishing in some highland orchard, hiding myself among the apple and peach blossoms – oiling my skin, lining my eyes with kohl, waiting for my Lord to come so that that he could delight in me, and I could delight in him.

tumblr_m4pda2yY5p1r0y25wo1_1280.pngThough utterly predictable, the group freak-out that ensued was truly one for the books:

“Well, I don’t think it is right for you to sexualize women like that.”

“But I don’t know how you could say that, there aren’t even any masculine pronouns here.”

“But appealing to that base kind of imagery is something completely unbefitting of a pastor.”

And my favorite question/accusation?

“I don’t know how you could have possibly come up an answer like that anyway…”

To which I grinned and, calmly gesturing at Emily, retorted: “Well, I’m simply following her paradigm.” Emily was maybe a bit too discreet to look me in the eye that moment, but I could still plainly see that the ends of her grin were stretched back on her face tight enough to lick her ears. It may have been problematic to think of myself as a highly-aroused, female concubine- but oh my was it ever fun and revealing!


And yes, I was being provocative, at least for this crowd, but I believed my insolence towards the class honest and just. Despite the shocking nature of what I said, in truth, my comment was actually a classic example of biblical literalism. If this excerpt is God speaking to us, well then, God is a woman who wants to have sex with us – apples and turtledoves and young stags and all. No imagination necessary. What’s more, these soon-to-be-pastors’ well worn theological tropes – though socially acceptable – completely drained this holy Scripture of its unquenchable fire and, well, butchered its song. But what really took my breath away was how quickly students moved to hush me – scandalized by the idea that God could possibly be a sexually active woman.


Had I talked about her in more socially acceptable tones – as if God were a woman like a statue of the Virgin Mary: flawless, impassible, and white-washed – I doubt they would’ve protested. Suggesting that God could be like a woman with passions and desires on the other hand, like pretty much all of the women that I have ever known, was just too much.

No one wanted to explore my ideas, extrapolate or even humor me condescendingly. They just blindly contradicted my musings and tried their best to move on. It chilled me to the bone – conscious or no – to realize that my own peers were committing a kind of theological idolatry. Their understanding of the relationship between sex and gender and God was so upset by my insolence that their basic response was to try to shut me up. Looking back in hindsight, feminist liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid would have called my interpretation a classic example of indecent theology; speaking unapologetically about gender, sex, power, and God in such a way that it exposes the hypocritical violence inherent in so much respectable “church talk,” even (and sometimes especially) progressive theological God-Talk.

And at that point I could truly appreciate how shocking and vital it was to speak of God not only as “not male,” but in brave and shocking ways, indecent ways – because doing so exposes the hidden idols in our theology that so often blind us to the pain and suffering  and oppression that we initiate and/or perpetuate.

“Christa” – Edwina Sandys

Let’s even do a test here, now, and pay attention to yourself and see how you twitch:

Think about God as: a sexually active woman, as “daddy” (Abba), speak of Christ as “Crista”a controversial statue depicting Jesus as a nude, crucified womana woman in labor, as the plague of the first-born, as a good Samaritan. Even in literature. Think of  Shug, from Alice Walker’s epochal the Color Purple, talking about how she felt closer to God while having sex; or Nedjma’s scintillating memoir on Islamic womanhood – The Almond – where she reflects on how God loves us so much that they delight in our delight and “even watches over us while we snore.”


Using such powerfully transgressive language for God often does a fine job of exposing destructive limitations in our theology, limitations that we have been taught, even inherited – and hence makes it easier for us to query them and, as with any idol, to smash them. And if we don’t, we run the risk of sacrificing our friends, loved-ones, colleagues, and parishioners on theologies that serve nothing but our own arrogance, convenience, or own our unholy hungers.

Plus you might even make new friends! – as Emily and I most certainly shared a quiet giggle to ourselves, leaving class together and sporting the same sly, knowing smirk.

We’d broken a few barriers that day, and hopefully, some more imagination would come from it. Some more grace might come from it, too, and maybe – just maybe – even some more love.

10426792_10152402252785213_3657317853318980302_n.jpgBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005 He completed his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012 and then began Th.M./Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Fall of 2014 – his emphasis on World Christianity and Global Mission. A polymath and a scatterbrain, when he isn’t preparing for school stuff he blogs at and Tweets at @PolyglotEvangel.

My Gender, So Far… – Rev. Andrew Tobias Nelson

ThomasLinda sittingAs our conversation on gender continues, we’re going to make a marvelous twist in the road with our next author, Andrew Nelson. From the halls of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Holden Village to his call in New York state, Andrew is extravagant with his energy, sincerity, and enormous heart. Since coming out as trans a little over one year ago – barely one year into his first call – Andrew has spoken openly and playfully about everything that he’s been going through. Thankfully, Rev. Nelson is now, generously and joyously,  sharing some of those thoughts with us. Gender is a thing, people, so take a peek at what Pastor Andrew has to say about it and – of course – read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

A transmasculine person writing on why gender matters…
There’s a sentence, isn’t it?
Are we ready for a conversation about genders outside the binary, genders along the spectrum, genders that are fluid, genders for which we don’t have words in English?
To put myself in a gender category is easier some days than others. Growing up with a female body (that’s called my sex, different from my gender) there were expectations for my behavior which were only partially enforced. Grandma called me ‘young lady’ when I needed to calm down, my father adjusted my posture at the piano, and of course I had to go to prom in a dress. But when it came to climbing trees and playing music or sports, I was just a kid, and being a boy or girl didn’t come into it.
When I came out as Transgender about a year and a half ago, some of my friends who have known me awhile responded by nodding and telling me I make more sense male than I do female. While this was a great affirmation to hear, it does make me wonder what in the world we mean when we perceive people as either male or female, how we behave when we meet somebody who is androgynous, and why it matters so much.
Everyone inhabits a multitude of spaces: age, gender, sexuality, class, race, mental health, physical ability, education, politics, family systems, culture, Star Trek or Star Wars… We are none of us only one thing, yet male/female seems to be one of the first things we give as primary identity. It’s already been noted that when a baby is born or expected one of the first ways we decide what gifts to get and what dreams to start dreaming is to unveil the birth sex (which we call gender, but these are not actually the same thing).
Gender plays into our power structures, culturally who is allowed to get how angry about what, who is allowed to grieve in what way, who is expected to take care of the household or be the breadwinner. Even when a heterosexual couple tries to live in an equal partnership, the pay gap and surrounding culture don’t support equality within marriage as much as reinforce unhealthy pressures for culturally gendered roles. We’re getting a little better, changing tables are gradually showing up in men’s restrooms so dad can change a diaper, Target recently stopped specific gender marketing toys for kids (though toy guns have an aisle that’s blue and dolls have an aisle that’s pink – and don’t even get me started on “Lego Friends”), and more hopeful stories are being told about folks who don’t buy into to the binary – but it’s slow going since so much of our expectations are internalized past the point of noticing them.
Gender is the water we swim in.
So why do we still hold to gender? What does it matter that ‘real women have curves’ or ‘real men love Jesus’? What are ‘real’ men and women, and why do we perpetuate that conversation as though we need to prove our own validity as human people?
Can’t a ‘real’ person just be a person?
I remember an old movie I used to watch as a kid included the song “I enjoy being a girl,” which, coming from a family where sexuality was taboo and gender got all conflated with attractions and purity, was not something we ever really talked about. But then came the Disney movie Mulan and the song “I’ll make a man out of you” was both exciting because I connected with it, and problematic because it reinforced a very particular kind of masculinity. I mean, my father darns his socks and speaks quietly, but he’s no less a man for his gentle behavior.
So how do I know how to behave to convince the people around me of who I am as a transmasculine person?
Does it even matter that they see my gender?
How do I have to hold myself in public to hear ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’ (neither of which seems like I’m old enough for those labels, which speaks to cultural ageism)? (How) do I need to adjust my interactions with women and other men so as not to make anybody uncomfortable by my loud humor and big hugs, which could be received differently depending on if I’m wearing a suit or a dress? Navigating gendered space, like public bathrooms, is not something we should have to be afraid of. Yet because our brains learn categories as a way to make sense of the world around us, we need to know some basics, some boundaries, some common sense for keeping one another safe and providing for community flourishing the best we can.
Gender matters, in that we can fall back on it for generalities, for stories, for illustrations of ways of being, but it also doesn’t matter, in that there are so many ways to be male or female or both or neither, and every situation and relationship calls out different nuances, different varieties of strengths and weaknesses, as we support and connect with one another. Gender can be a game instead of a power play, it can be fun instead of rigid, but far too often machismo and homophobia relegate masculinity and femininity to small, tight spaces where there is no room to breathe or figure out who we actually are. We do not need to prove ourselves as ‘real’ men or women to celebrate and discover who we are individually and as part of God’s Beloved Community.
I am a transmasculine person who looks forward to playing with gender expectations, to make the space around me safer for those who don’t fit the binary, to open up conversations about getting to know one another beyond the ‘types’ of our male/female expectations.
I am a transgender man because it is the most honest way I have to present myself to the world around me.
That’s what gender is about, how we relate to and through our presentation of self and our interactions with others, how we explore and share the selves God has created us to be, how we reflect the Image of a God who is so much bigger than our labels.

1234069_10100529137486034_1394595583769889368_n.jpgAndrew Tobias Joy Nelson is a 2012 graduate of LSTC, serving his first half-time call in Chatham, NY. He’s trying to be as visible as possible about being Trans for the sake of those for whom visibility is impossible because it would put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Andrew plays french horn and is always reading four or five books at a time, though he can’t pick a favorite between Star Wars and Star Trek because the musical scores are too good. He writes in tribute to his mother, who responded to his public gender transition with the assurance that she “always knew [she] was carrying a boy.”

A White Male’s Take on Why Gender Matters – Benjamin Taylor, PhD student at LSTC

ThomasLinda.jpgThis month, “We Talk. We Listen.” will be featuring multiple responses to Women’s History month written by male Christian leaders. ELCA Lutheran PhD student Benjamin Taylor is the first contributor, and his post does something quite wonderful: he gives 1) a good overview of common male-centered oversights in Christian theology while simultaneously 2) providing the reader with a wealth of information on feminist theologians and their works. It is worth a good, careful reading, even three or four readings. So dig in, and don’t forget to share.

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


My act of writing a piece for “We Talk. We Listen.” on feminist theology [1] must begin with a personal recounting of my own experience, a telling of how I journeyed into the present. I am a white man—more precisely, I am a white heterosexual man, and even more precisely I am a white, heterosexual man with relative privilege. Each of these qualifiers are important to who I am. Each of these qualifiers afford me a set of protections and advantages over against those who do not identify as male, or who is not white, heterosexual, or privileged.[2]

Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Third Word, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also, at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women. The incorporation of diverse voices and backgrounds as “feminist” allows for the diversity of voices, overlapping experiences and shared concerns to be heard.

A few weeks ago in her piece for “We Talk. We Listen,” Dr. Wenderoth wrote about how way that the language we use shapes the way we see the world. Likewise, MDiv student Allison Bengfort reflected on the ways in which society teaches both men and women to objectify women—men to objectify women sexually and women to objectify themselves for the benefit of men. Rev. Julie Ryan witnessed to the rich mosaic of work that is the ministry of clergywomen within the ELCA. And Marissa Tweed reminded us that even though women are ordained in the ELCA, clergywomen continue to face the struggles and challenges that come with being a clergywoman in a deeply partriachial culture, both within the church and in the society at large. These powerful and diverse reflections reveal both the interdisciplinary nature and intersectional approach within the study of feminist theology.


Feminist theologians,[2] by and large, start from the premise that men have maintained a monopoly on God-Talk throughout the history of Christianity. In other words, feminist theologians argue that men have exercised their power to tip the theological scales in their benefit as they shaped the Christian tradition. These androcentric (male-centered) theologies work hand in hand to create and sustain partriachial societies. In explaining the patriarchal nature of these societies, feminist theologians have looked at the way power has revealed itself in their own societies.


As often as power is exercised explicitly, it is often exercised implicitly. In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, feminist theologian Serene Jones writes about the experience of giving birth in a hospital.[3] Upon giving birth to her baby, the hospital staff placed a pink cap onto her newborn, thereby assigning her newborn the gender identity “female.” Jones uses this narrative as she explains the theological construct of original sin: “In the first ten seconds of her life, my daughter had been placed in a web of social meanings that shaped expectations about her. My daughter’s being ‘born into sin took form of a pink cap, a set of hospital rules, and the complex web of social interactions they initiated.”[4]

As we are born (“fallen”) into sin, we are also born into a set of sexual, cultural and political constructs that condition our lives and our self-expression.

by Kimberly Peeler-Ringer

Jones’s example illustrates the perniciousness of power in our society. Power not only oppresses the one it deems to be Other, it also represses the one it considers to be Other. Power shows itself by hiding itself under the banner “this is the way things are and this is the way things must be.” Many feminist theologians argue that men have hijacked the symbols and narratives of the Christian faith to legitimize and exercise their patriarchal oppressive power over women. Some obvious examples within the Christian tradition are I Timothy 2, in which the male writer of the letter warns women to be silent in church, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision not to ordain women on the basis of their sex. Instead of viewing these examples apolitically through the lens of “tradition” or “custom,” it is important to name it for what it is: a manifestation of the patriarchal society in which these decisions were made.


But it is also important for us to go beyond these common examples. Feminist theologians note that male theologians have long taken their particular experience of being male (and usually, white, heterosexual and privileged) to be the universal experience of all people. When this happens, the experience of being a woman in a partriachial society is negated. As a result, many feminist theologians have incorporated their own experience of being a woman in a partriachial society as a way of subverting this androcentric tradition. In addition, many feminist theologians look to other resources within the Christian tradition to subvert the sexist, racist and homophobic power structure in society.  A few examples, from both feminist theologians as well as from the wider field of contextual theologians, help to show the diversity and the wealth of voices that challenge androcentric theology.

I am the youngest member of my family. I have two older brothers, and when the family discussion (finally) gets to me and what I “actually do” with my time, I often utter the words “feminist theology” or “black theology.” When they ask further questions, they assume that the qualifier “feminist” or “black” means “other.”

In reading and engaging with contextual theologies (feminist, womanist, black, Dalit, queer, mujerista), it is crucial that we do not understand “contextual” to be “other,” which so often is interpreted to mean “less-than.”  We must remember that Western theology, from Augustine to Tillich, is just as contextual as the theologies that we live into and envision in our constructive theology classes. It is merely that constructive or contextual theologies are more honest about their identity and more open to the experience of difference than are other “traditional” theologies.

Early, and often ignored, women leaders of the church.

At times, judging by our slate of courses, our community does not always acknowledge the bountiful gifts brought by diverse theological voices. It can be difficult. The acknowledgement of different voices is fraught with tension. In my own experience, I have struggled with this tension as I came to read these theologians very late in my academic journey. That is a tension I still carry within myself. The engagement with voices that differ from my own offers me a chance of reflection and of self-examination along the journey.

And in this, I invite you to come along.

beneditedBenjamin Taylor is a PhD student at LSTC, where he studies systematic theology and continental philosophy. He enjoys reading, traveling, writing, playing golf, and walking his playful—if, slightly misbehaved—dog, Riley. He also works as the Graduate Research Assistant in the JKM Library and serves as the Sittler Fellow in the Joseph Sittler Archive. Ben completed his qualifying examinations on feminist theology in March.


[1] Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Two-Thirds World, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also and at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women.

[2] My own experience living in Hyde Park is an experience of negotiating this privilege—realizing it, struggling with it, speaking to it, hiding behind it, coming to terms with it, being embarrassed about it—sometimes all within a matter of hours.

[3] In using the verbiage “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian(s),” I follow the crucial distinction between “gender” and “sex” that is largely assumed in feminist theological discussions. By this, I mean that sex refers to one’s own biological makeup, while gender refers to the set of cultural meanings and social designations that society ascribes to one’s performance in society. See Linda E. Thomas and Dwight N. Hopkins, “Womanist Theology and Black Theology: Conversational Envisioning of an Unfinished Dream” in A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins, Eleazar S. Fernandez & Fernando F. Segovia, eds., (Marynoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2001), 72-86. On “sex,” Thomas and Hopkins write, “By sex, we signify the biological designation that human beings receive at birth. Thus, sex is a biological construction based on genitalia (78).” On “gender,” Thomas and Hopkins write that “Gender is a socially constructed category. By this we mean that it is not a biological category…Gender is not formed overnight, nor even is it a finished product; it is dynamic and subject to the ongoing formation of human culture (77-78).”  Heteronormativity has long portrayed gender as a binary: either one is male or female. This binary needs to be problematized. Gender is a performance that does not need to fall into traditionalist determinations of what is male or what is female.

[4] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 117.

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.

Picture 002

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.”