My heart sank when I heard the news. It was the twelfth transgender murder in our country this year. Amber Monroe, a twenty-year-old African-American transgender woman and student at Wayne State University was shot and killed in Detroit early Saturday morning, August 8.
Amber would frequent the Ruth Ellis Center, a social service agency that provides short and long-term residential and safe space and support services for homeless, runway and at-risk LGBTQ youth in metro Detroit. When she was killed, Amber was standing on the corner of Woodward and Six Mile, not far from the Ruth Ellis Center, where volunteers from our church provide dinner each month. Some of them knew Amber.
In 2013 the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 72 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were trans women and that 67 percent were trans women of color. In 2014, they reported that trans women were also 5.8 times more likely to experience police violence and 6.1 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police.
Ahya Simone, 22, a trans woman from Detroit, knew Monroe but was not necessarily shocked by her death because, in her words, “Trans women of color are disproportionately affected by violence… These are the things that devastate us, it’s horrible. There are so many of us trans people organizing and mobilizing for justice for our fallen sister. It’s hard. Our community is small and marginalized. These are things that devastate us. Our lives are treated as disposable.”
As the years go by, I have become increasingly attuned to the mystery of human life. Conception, pregnancy and birth are a mystery. The first roll-over, first smile, first steps and first words are a mystery. Sexuality is a mystery. Marriage is a mystery. Friendship is a mystery. Death is a mystery. The only eternal truth that is perfectly clear to me is that God is love, God created humans to love and Jesus taught us to love one another.
Unfortunately, we humans tend to fear and even hate what we don’t understand. We label those who are not like us as “other,” never realizing how devastating our judgments are for those who are considered outcasts. Jesus never talked specifically about the LGBTQ segment of God’s good creation, yet he did insist that his followers treat every person as a precious, unique, one-of-a-kind child of God, especially the least, the last and the lost. What Jesus did say is that God does not discriminate against, hate or marginalize anyone.
Rejection, violence and the treatment of others as intrinsically worthless and even disposable do not bring us closer to the kingdom of God. The only way to bring in the kingdom is by practicing God’s unconditional love, seeking to understand those who are different and modeling acceptance and grace to all. Jesus invites us to honor the mysterious God-breath that is in each person by empowering them to reach their full potential.
I was compelled to examine my own theology and let go of assumptions and stereotypes when two transgender individuals became part of a downtown congregation I served. Having to think through many issues also provided an opportunity to reflect upon the amazing variety of people that God creates and loves. We stumbled at times on the journey, but the congregation welcomed our transgendered friends with open arms, and we learned how to be a church for all.
Having the mind of Christ and being faithful to Jesus’ ethic of radical love means showing radical love in return. To say we are welcoming does not mean that we can pick and choose who is really welcome. It means stopping ourselves before we say, “We’re glad you’re here, but you may not really fit in with our congregation.” The greatest indictment of the Christian church is our rejection of others based on our own fears rather than heeding what Jesus teaches us about God’s creatures: we are fearfully and wonderfully made, each one.
When Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner was pictured on the cover of the June 2 Vanity Fair as Caitlyn, a transgender woman, people around the world took notice. Jenner was subsequently awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the July 15 ESPYs. In her acceptance speech Caitlyn said, “All across this country, right now, all across the world, at this very moment, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender. They’re learning that they’re different, and they are trying to figure out how to handle that, on top of every other problem that a teenager has.”
“They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide. The numbers that you just heard before are staggering, but they are the reality of what it is like to be trans today.”
Jenner referred to Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old transgender teenager who committed suicide on Sunday, December 28 by walking in front of a tractor-trailer on Interstate 71 in Ohio at 2:30 a.m. Leelah, who arranged for a farewell letter to be published on social media following her death, wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was. They’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights… My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgendered people who commit suicide this year. I want to look at that number and say ‘That’s (messed) up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
Jenner also mentioned fifteen-year-old transgender teen Sam Taub. Taub, a junior derby skater from West Bloomfield, Michigan, committed suicide on April 9, four months after self-identifying as a boy and a few days before Jenner’s “coming out” interview with Diane Sawyer. Sam’s father, Geoffrey Taub, said in a Detroit Free Press article, “Parents can do a lot for their children if their children are able to talk to them, and that has been the hardest part.”
Praising Jenner for mentioning Sam in her speech, Taub said that he has been contacted out of the blue by Sam’s friends in middle school and on Facebook to let him know how Sam inspired them. “I think Sam was carrying a torch for others, and now I think Caitlyn is carrying that same torch,” Taub added.
Caitlyn Jenner used her speech as a platform to encourage the world to do one thing: accept people for who they are. Accept differences. “They deserve your respect,” she said. “And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us.”
The mystery of human life still baffles me, yet one thing remains clear, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) God perfectly loved Amber Monroe, Leelah Alcorn and Sam Taub as much as God loves every human being on this earth.
I thank God for all those who unconditionally loved Amber, Leelah and Sam and encouraged them to become their true selves. I thank God for Detroit Police Chief James Craig and other police and local officials, who met with more than one hundred residents last week to build trust between the LGBTQ community and the police. I also thank God for the Ruth Ellis Center, which is taking care of costs for Amber Monroe’s funeral.
In the midst of the struggle to understand differences, may God empower us to refuse to treat any life as disposable and vow to show compassion, support and respect. Glory be to our God, who created each one of us so that we, too, can carry the torch for others and fix society. Please.