In the United States, 2015 was a landmark year for transgender people.
After becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her work in Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox in 2015 became the first trans woman to be memorialized with a wax statue in Madame Tussauds wax museum, based in London—a significant accolade among many for Cox. In 2015, the Amazon series Transparent, about the family of a man who has long identified as female, became the first show produced by Amazon to win a major award and the first streaming video service series to win a Golden Globe for Best Series. Trans man Aydian Dowling was the Men’s Health Reader's Choice pick for the title of the Ultimate Men's Health Guy in 2015. And Caitlyn Jenner appeared on countless magazine covers and became a household name in 2015.
Within the last year, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has had its own awakening concerning transgender people. From late 2014 to late 2015, trans people became not only a topic of serious discussion within the denomination, but also the subject of multiple position statements, a film project, several articles—even a talking point for the first Seventh-day Adventist candidate for President of the United States. For the first time, transgender people showed up on Adventist radar in a significant way.
How transgender people featured in Adventist discourse within the last year has varied widely.
In October 2014, the Biblical Research Institute’s Ethics Committee authored a statement on “transgenderism,” a phrase not often seen in scholarly literature, but one gaining popularity among Evangelicals. The statement addressed “sex-change surgery” in particular, saying “the question of sex-change surgery (also called sex reassignment surgery) challenges the Church with sensitive questions.”
The statement addressed believers who opt to undergo gender reassignment surgery, saying “we recognize the uniqueness of their existential situation and the limitation of our knowledge in such issues,” adding that “from a biblical perspective the human being is a psychosomatic unity. This means that sexual identity cannot be entirely independent from one’s body as is frequently asserted.”
The statement also suggested that “In some cases, sex-change surgery may be motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity. Undergoing sex-change surgery in order to satisfy the homosexual urge to have sex with a person of the same sex would violate the ethical and moral biblical principle of sexual activity being limited to heterosexual marriage.”
The statement also addressed transgender people who convert to Adventism, and trans people who want to be married.
In October 2015, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University issued a statement titled “An Understanding of the Biblical View on Homosexual Practice and Pastoral Care," which referenced transgender people, but aside from one sentence—“In addition, various alternate sexualities, including homosexuality, bisexuality, and the variety of transgender identities have become increasingly mainstream”—the document dealt exclusively with homosexuality.
On November 2, 2015, the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists approved a statement on human sexuality that, like the BRI’s statement, essentially professed agnosticism concerning transgender people. The NAD statement said, “While the Seventh-day Adventist Church has formulated teachings on gender and sexuality that may have a bearing on issues related to transgenderism, the Church has not yet articulated an official position applying these teachings to the issue. The complex nature of transgenderism calls for further discussion before recommendations can be made for the Church.”
Another Adventist approach to relating to transgender people in 2015 came by way of telling trans people’s stories—primarily in articles on this website. My March 2015 article on Teagan Widmer, a successful, self-taught software engineer and the creator of the Refuge Restrooms app, was the first article (as far as I know) in a Seventh-day Adventist journal documenting a story of a trans person.
In June, Alita Byrd interviewed an Adventist employee who, in the process of coming out as a trans woman, was also transitioning out of Adventist employment. The interviewee, who declined to be named, said that she had no intention of leaving the Adventist Church.
POLITICAL TALKING POINT
Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, arguably 2015’s most famous Seventh-day Adventist, has made some strong statements about transgender people in his bid for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Writing for Sojourners, Andrews University graduate Eliel Cruz traced the Adventist Church’s complicated history with homosexuality from Colin Cook’s controversial, church-funded “Homosexuals Anonymous” in the 1970s to Carson’s statements about homosexual and transgender people in his 2015-2016 presidential run. Writes Cruz, “Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, has compared same-sex marriage to bestiality and pedophilia. He even suggested segregating bathrooms for the transgender population since it was unfair to make non-trans individuals uncomfortable. And this week, Carson referred to trans individuals as “abnormal” and said they should not be given “extra rights.”
The 2015 film project “Enough Room at the Table,” directed and produced by Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer, who also created the film “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” provided another first for Adventist trans people. Enough Room featured a weekend dialogue in which 12 Adventists from around the United States including pastors, educators, parents, and LGBT+ Adventists, all from from differing theological paradigms, experiences, and perspectives, came together as strangers to talk with one another. One of the participants, trans woman Rhonda Dinwiddie, provided some of the film’s most deeply poignant moments as she shared her story with the group. The project is the first Adventist-created story featuring a transgender individual. It debuted at the Spectrum UltraViolet Arts Festival, and is available for $.99 as a digital download. The DVD of Enough Room will be available soon.
YOUTUBE ATTACK VIDEO
Just last week, Rhonda Dinwiddie found herself at the center of another visual project—a YouTube video attacking her, the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church, its pastor, and that conference’s administration. In the summer of 2015, Dinwiddie was ordained as an elder at the Hollywood Church (another denominational first). As part of a series of church-life conversations at Hollywood, elder Kirsten Salvador interviewed Dinwiddie in December 2015. That video was uploaded to Hollywood’s YouTube channel on December 15.
The video caught the attention of Andrew and Hilari Henriques, who operate the independent Adventist website prophesyagain.org. The couple posted a 33-minute video in response, attacking Dinwiddie, the Hollywood Church, its pastor, Branden Stoltz, and the Southern California Conference where Hollywood is located. The Henriqueses expressed outrage and called for firings. “I believe somebody has to be held accountable for what is going on at Hollywood,” Andrew Henriques said, looking into the camera. He called for punishment for the church’s pastor, its ministerial director, and conference president Velino Salazar. The video launches into a lengthy excursus on biblical texts dealing with wickedness and with sexuality.
I spoke with both Kirsten Salvador and Rhonda Dinwiddie about the video and how the Hollywood Church was responding to the attack.
Salvador said that the Hollywood Church did not want to respond in a reactionary way, knowing that God can work transformatively through negative situations like the one created by the attack video. She said that the team of elders at Hollywood and the pastor had all been supportive of each other after the video went viral, creating a small firestorm on social media.
“We do not want to feed the flame, but this affords us an opportunity to do something positive,” Salvador said. She said that Dinwiddie, in addition to having thick skin, has a “gentle, kind, compassionate spirit.”
Although within the last year the Seventh-day Adventist Church has begun acknowledging and discussing transgender people in serious ways, the denomination still more often than not talks about trans people rather than listening to them. To continue reversing that trend, I wanted Rhonda Dinwiddie to have the last word, to be able to speak for herself, and not simply be spoken about.
Here are her responses to my questions about this incident:
What does it mean to you to be part of a community that not only welcomes you, but also recognizes your desire to take part in ministry by making you an elder?
My community is, simply, my friends. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, political ideologies, personal philosophies and sexual and gender identities. I care about all of them, whether they are inside or outside of my Christian community, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. My local church community is my family . . . my spiritual home. Each member is very important to me. I was asked to become an elder because of my mindset and what I already do, not to set something new into motion. I find love and security in knowing that my church family has recognized my consecration to it by my choosing to serve as soon as I could find my place to do so.
What was your response to the YouTube video from "Prophesy Again," which, though part of the same Worldwide Adventist family, in name at least, was such a completely different approach to you and your being an elder than the Hollywood Church's approach?
That video and what the hosts presented sickened and saddened me. They chose to complain, criticize, condemn and judge the people of my church without ever trying to contact or interview any of us. They showed no interest in learning anything new . . . only interest in using what they already “knew” and in using the Bible and EGW’s writings to propel aspersions against us.
In what ways has the congregation at Hollywood responded on a personal or interpersonal level to the attacks from people like those in the video?
My co-leaders think things through carefully and seek counsel from one another and from leadership within the Conference, Union and Division. We do nothing hastily or in anger. Hatred was no stranger to any of God’s people in Bible times. We should consider ourselves no different, and we are expected to be the recipients of it.
Now, you were a key part of the dialogue process that went into Daneen and Stephen's "Enough Room at the Table" film project. What do you hope that project will accomplish in the Adventist Church?
I am hoping that the films Seventh-Gay Adventists and Enough Room at the Table will be shown in every SDA church on Planet Earth and that they will engender deep conversations within each of their congregations. We need to be a church of question askers, not a church of answer providers spoon feeding all from a silver platter. The diversity of human life must be acknowledged and accepted as a very natural part of life. Hateful discrimination based on any artificial divisions of humans must dissolve through mutual love and respect for one another. Jesus gave us only one Great Command: that we love one another. It is only this, if anything, that can usher in the end of time.
What do you think people—Adventists or otherwise—might be prone to misunderstand about you as an individual, and about transgender people more broadly?
I would guess that a large majority of people, the world over, believe that transpeople are perverts or sex addicts or child molesters etc, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are simply people born with a an unusual condition wherein the brain’s sense of gender does not correspond with the body’s physical gender. Such people need education, and there is plenty available for those who really want to know and understand.
And when it comes to the full range of sexual identities from asexual to pansexual and everything in between, what would you hope the Seventh-day Adventist Church's attitude or response would be to people across the wide spectrum?
I hope that the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church will talk publicly with us rather than to or about us without our public participation. Until now, we have been relegated to “it” or “they” rather than “we” or “us.” We have been ostracized and excluded from virtually all conversations. This is what needs changing first and foremost. Then the possibilities will come for true care, understanding and acceptance of sexual and gender variant people. And, I would love to see this happen before my passing.
The last thing that I would very much like to see happen is church-wide, truly open, prayerful and fervent Bible study where all of the supposed proof texts that are used against us are thoughtfully weighed according to their ancient languages and the cultures/societies and textual contexts in which they were used rather than taking them simply at their face value. Study means STUDY, not the most casual, automatic and literal a Victorian reading that many radical extremists are inclined to.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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