Huntington church pushes back against proposed assault on transgender identities

A rainbow sign preaching unity outside of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington.

by Taylor Beglane, Kiki Sideris and Syreeta Yelverton

When Hurricane Sandy swept through Manhattan in 2012, the East River flowed two and a half avenues up to the Rev. Jude Geiger’s front door. In the days that followed, Geiger was thankful for the outpouring of support in a normally bustling city. The bodegas did not gouge their prices, and one cafe put out a power strip on the sidewalk for passersby to charge their phones and laptops — small gestures of kindness that left a lasting impression on him.

“The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis is the spiritual and human response to tragedy,” Geiger, who is a married gay man, said in a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington (UUFH) for All Souls’ Day on Sunday, Oct. 28. “It’s healthy, it’s normal and it defines civilization. That is what we should do, that is who we should be, and that should be our marker for decency.”

This year, UUFH is giving a new meaning to All Souls’ Day, a Christian holiday that typically commemorates the souls of those who have died. In addition to honoring those who have passed on, UUFH will use the holiday, which falls on Friday, to commemorate “decency,” which Geiger said is missing from today’s political atmosphere.

The Trump administration is considering new policies that would legally define people’s genders as male or female based on the gender listed on their birth certificates, unless genetic testing proves otherwise, according to a memo draft leaked to the New York Times.

This goes against Unitarian Universalists’ values, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said in a public statement last week. The religion is driven by seven principles, including “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” and “acceptance of one another.”

UUFH’s congregation of about 150, which is made up of Catholics, Jews, atheists and members of the LGBT community, agree with this stance.

“I think it [the memo] is an absolute disgrace,” Lorraine Donlan, a church member, said after the sermon. “I think it’s another immoral, unethical blow to divide and conquer.”

Other religious groups, like some evangelicals, openly support this push.

“People of faith, we believe that our lives are predestined and God created us to be who we are,” the Rev. Benigno Valle, an associate minister at Faith Alive Ministries, an evangelical church in Central Islip, said. “I firmly believe that that includes our sex as well.”

But Geiger believes that this goes against Jesus’ teachings.

“These policies are rooted in fear, hatred and ignorance,” according to Geiger. “Religious groups that support intolerance have lost their way. From the Christian perspective, Jesus perpetually calls us to the side of the oppressed.”

The Trump administration’s changes come after many local governments and federal courts have continued to expand protections for LGBT citizens. New York City, for instance, will add “X” as a third option on birth certificates for people who don’t identify as male or female starting Jan. 1.

To promote decency throughout their community, UUFH has focused on keeping its trans congregants safe by offering programs such as a trans-friendly youth summer camp and pro-LGBT science-based sexuality education for middle schoolers.

“Twenty years ago, when I started to work at that camp, we had kids coming out as gay for the first time,” Edward Vigneau, a religious education teacher at the fellowship, said. “But 10 years ago, we started to see one or two kids transition.”

The fellowship has also been active in letter-writing campaigns to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a bill pending in the New York State Legislature that would ban discrimination based upon gender identity and expression throughout the state.

The Trump administration’s proposal will have no impact on GENDA and is unlikely to pass anyway, according to Christine Duffy, director of the Pro Bono Partnership of New Jersey. During Obama’s presidency, the Department of Justice cited a chapter from her book, “Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace: A Practical Guide,” for the proposition that “sex,” as used in anti-discrimination laws like Titles VII and IX, encompasses gender identity.

“Sex has a broader definition of whether you have a penis or a vagina,” Duffy, a trans woman who prefers the terms “gender affirmed” or “gender diverse,” explained. “There are a slew of people who aren’t just XX or XY — how do you classify those people?”