Transgender visibility may be at an all-time high, but most agree there’s a long way to go.
Another chip of the proverbial glass ceiling is slated to be knocked out this weekend when Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge becomes the first openly transgender priest to preach from the historic Canterbury Pulpit at Washington National Cathedral.
“Cameron Partridge is a priest of great intellect, pastoral presence and possesses a deep passion for the gospel,” said Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Cathedral, in a statement.
Partridge, during a phone interview from Boston where he serves as Episcopal chaplain at Boston University, says he’s excited about the strides being made for transgender visibility.
Actress and activist Laverne Cox is “phenomenal,” he says.
“And [transgender activist] Janet Mock, the two of them, they are so incisive and insightful and smart and they speak incredibly well. I’m very proud of the things they have to say,” he says.
But there’s at least one part of being a transgender person that Partridge, a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, argues has not earned enough media attention: “I don’t think the intersection of trans people and religion has received a whole lot of conversation yet.”
“I’m really honored and grateful for the invitation,” he says.
Through his sermon at the National Cathedral and other work in the church, he hopes to “open people’s eyes” about how “gender is more complicated than male or female. I experience it that way.”
“I think creation is much richer and more diverse and dynamic than we understand and trans folks are part of that,” he says. “There is much more ambiguity in the world than we tend to want to acknowledge.”
Partridge’s status as both transgender and a religious leader do not conflict, he says. In fact, pushing traditional boundaries within the church is part of what he says is his calling.
“Difference is real. We have human differences, and they are not simply impediments to get over,” he says. “They are part of what we need to engage in order to realize our full humanity. That can be something that trans people can be called to.”
For Partridge, 40, the church has been one of his few constants. He grew up Episcopalian, a denomination he says has “progressive traditions.”
“It’s a church that has a big tent, with a lot of people from different perspectives in it. That’s important to me.”
In 2003, the church elected its first gay bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson. He’ll preside over this weekend’s service.
Partridge came out twice: first as a lesbian as an undergraduate at all-women Bryn Mawr College, and again in 2001 as a transgender man a few years after he obtained his master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.
While he doesn’t have any horror stories to tell — he never faced rejection from friends, family or even religious leaders — he did struggle with one thing as a newly ordained priest: the sense that he was alone.
Early on, Partridge didn’t know of any other transgender members of the Episcopal clergy. That quickly changed, however, when he learned about TransEpiscopal, an online group exclusively for transgender Episcopalians and their friends and families to share stories.
“Even though I personally felt supported by the non trans people in my life and the trans people I knew who were not in the church, I did still feel kind of alone,” he says. “The wonderful thing was discovering that in fact, I wasn’t.”
Over time, the ever-growing TransEpiscopal has “brought trans people into the foreground of the church’s national conversation” and “driven the passage of pro-transgender legislation,” according to the group’s website.
Fighting for increasing visibility for transgender clergy has been one of Partridge’s goals. In 2012, the Episcopal Church added gender identity and expression to its non-discrimination laws after advocacy from Partridge, among others.
And while he doesn’t interject his personal life into every single class he teaches at Harvard, he says dialogues about his own identity come up in class just as often as that of any other professor.
“I’ve had a sense that being openly trans and being willing to say that at the start of a class gives people permission to bring who they are into the classroom,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re gonna talk about it, but [students] don’t have to bracket themselves off or compartmentalize themselves. That’s true whether the people in the classroom are trans or not.”
The inclusive environment he’s fostered in his classroom is slowly becoming a norm in the Episcopal church, Partridge says, but he acknowledges there are still more steps to take.
“I’d love to see more different traditions of Christianity engage gender identity in ways that they have not yet.”
There’s work to be done in the political sphere, too. He points out that without congressional passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), transgender people are denied many legal protections, not to mention the persistently high rates of homelessness and violence within and against transgender communities.
He finds himself heartened, though, by glimmers of hope. Take, for example, when conservative television host Pat Robertson said last summer that going through gender reassignment surgery was not a sin after being prompted by a caller.
Partridge acknowledges that for many religious leaders — especially evangelical ones — conversations about transgender people are still new.
“That someone doesn’t have a knee-jerk negative reaction, I think that’s important,” Partridge says, even though Robertson’s comments later on weren’t as inclusive. “We’re at an important moment and we need to dig deeper.”
The trajectory of the movement is going in a “great direction,” Partridge says. “But there’s a lot to do.”