Transgender people and religion

The Indian transgender Hijras or Aravanis – ritually marry the Hindu god Aravan and then mourn his ritual death (seen) in an 18-day festival in Koovagam, India.

The relationship between transgender people and religion varies widely around the world. Religions range from condemning any gender variance to honoring transgender people as religious leaders. Views within a single religion can vary considerably.

Abrahamic religions

Abrahamic religions have creation stories in which God creates people, "male and female".[1][2] This is sometimes interpreted as a divine mandate against gender variance. The Torah contains specific prohibitions on cross-dressing[3] and damaged genitals.[4]


The term saris, generally translated to English as "eunuch" or "chamberlain",[5] appears 45 times in the Tanakh. It frequently refers to a trusted but gender variant person who was delegated authority by a powerful person.[6] It is unclear whether most were in fact castrated.[6] In Isaiah 56 God promises eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and hold fast to his covenant that he will build an especially good monument in heaven for them, to make up for their childlessness.[7]

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism asserts that sex/gender is an innate and eternal category based on verses in the Book of Genesis about Adam and Eve and the creation of maleness and femaleness.[1] Sex-change operations involving the removal of genital organs are forbidden on the basis of the prohibition against “anything which is mauled, crushed, torn or cut” (Lev. 22:24). A further prohibition in Deut. 22:5, proscribes not only cross-dressing but any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, and this would also apply to an operation to transform sexual characteristics.[8] There are, nevertheless, Orthodox authorities who recognize the efficacy of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in changing halachic sex designation.[9] In 2007 Joy Ladin became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox institution (Stern College for Women in Manhattan).[10][11]

Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism as of now, has no place for trans people as everything in the community is determined by gender roles.[12] Most Hasidic Jews are barely aware of trans people, and the topic is never discussed altogether.[13] The first person to come out as trans in a Hasidic community was trans activist and writer Abby Stein, who is also a straight descendant of Hasidic Judaism's founder the Baal Shem Tov. When Stein came out she was shunned by her family, and got a lot of hate from the Hasidic community.[14]

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism has mixed views on transgender people. In 2003 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a rabbinic ruling that concluded that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is permissible as a treatment of gender dysphoria, and that a transgender person's sex status under Jewish law is changed by SRS.[15] There have not yet been any openly transgender rabbis or rabbinical students affiliated with Conservative Judaism. But the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of three Conservative movement schools, openly admits students of all sexual orientations and gender identities for rabbinical training and ordination.[16] Also, Emily Aviva Kapor, who had been ordained privately by a "Conservadox" rabbi in 2005, began living as a woman in 2012, thus becoming the first openly transgender female rabbi in all of Judaism.[17] In 2016 the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international association of Conservative rabbis, passed a "Resolution Affirming the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People".[18][19][20]

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism has expressed positive views on transgender people. Reform Judaism's Central Conference of American Rabbis first addressed the issue of transgender Jews in 1978, when they deemed it permissible for a person who has undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to be married according to Jewish tradition.[21][22] In 1990, the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared that people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) may convert to Judaism.[23] In 2002 at the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Rabbi Margaret Wenig organized the first school-wide seminar at any rabbinical school which addressed the psychological, legal, and religious issues affecting people who are transsexual or intersex.[24] In 2003 Reuben Zellman became the first openly transgender person accepted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; he was ordained there in 2010.[25][26][27] Also in 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism retroactively applied its pro-rights policy on gays and lesbians to the transgender and bisexual communities, issuing a resolution titled, "Support for the Inclusion and Acceptance of the Transgender and Bisexual Communities." [21][28] Also in 2003, Women of Reform Judaism issued a statement describing their support for human and civil rights and the struggles of the transgender and bisexual communities, and saying, "Women of Reform Judaism accordingly: Calls for civil rights protections from all forms of discrimination against bisexual and transgender individuals; Urges that such legislation allows transgender individuals to be seen under the law as the gender by which they identify; and Calls upon sisterhoods to hold informative programs about the transgender and bisexual communities." [29] In 2006 Elliot Kukla, who had come out as transgender six months before his ordination, became the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.[25] In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism issued a new edition of Kulanu, their resource manual for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion, which for the first time included a blessing sanctifying the sex-change process. It was written by Elliot Kukla at the request of a friend of his who was transgender.[30] Also in 2007, David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center called for a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.[31] In 2015 the Union for Reform Judaism passed a "Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People" with 9 points calling for securing and defending the rights of transgender and gender non-confirming people to respectful and equitable treatment and affirming its own commitment to continued pursuit of same.[32][33]

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism has expressed positive views on transgender people.[34] In 2003 the Reform rabbi Margaret Wenig organized the first school-wide seminar at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College which addressed the psychological, legal and religious issues affecting people who are transsexual or intersex.[24] In 2013 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association issued a resolution stating in part, "Therefore be it resolved that the RRA [Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association] directs its executive director and board to move forward, in cooperation with the RRC [Reconstructionist Rabbinical College] and all relevant associated entities, in educating RRA members about issues of gender identity, to urge the Reconstructionist movement to similarly educate its constituency and to adopt policies that will do all that is possible to provide full employment opportunities for transgender and gender nonconforming rabbis, and to explore how the Reconstructionist movement can best influence the wider Jewish and non-Jewish world to [be] welcoming and inclusive of all people, regardless of gender identity." [35]


In 1998, after she won the Eurovision song competition, a serious religious debate was held as to whether, and how, Dana International (a transgender woman) should pray in a synagogue. One rabbinical authority concluded that Dana should be counted in a minyan as a man, but could not sing in front of the community since she was also a woman, according to the rabbi, and that would violate the Orthodox rule of kol isha.[36]

Several non-denominational Jewish groups provide resources for transgender people. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life published an LGBTQ Resource Guide in 2007.[37] Jewish Mosaic has published interpretations of Jewish texts that affirm transgender identities.[38] Keshet, an LGBT Jewish advocacy group, has assisted American Jewish day schools with properly accommodating transgender students.[39]


The New Testament presents eunuchs (Greek eunochos, similar to Hebrew saris) as acceptable candidates for evangelism and baptism, as demonstrated in the account of the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch.[40] While answering questions about marriage and divorce, Jesus says that "there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."[41] Discussion has occurred about the significance of the selection of the Ethiopian eunuch as being an early gentile convert to Christianity: the inclusion of a eunuch, representing a sexual minority, in the context of the time.[42]

Some Christian denominations accept transgender people as members and clergy. Unitarian Universalism, a liberal religion with roots in liberal Christianity, became the first denomination to accept openly transgender people as full members with eligibility to become clergy (in 1979),[43] and the first to open an Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns (in 1973).[44][45] In 1988 the first openly transgender person was ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Association.[46] In 2002 Rev. Sean Dennison became the first openly transgender person in the Unitarian Universalist ministry called to serve a congregation; he was called to South Valley UU Society, Salt Lake City, UT.[46] In 2003 the United Church of Christ General Synod called for full inclusion of transgender persons.[47] In 2005 Sarah Jones became the first openly transgender person ordained by the Church of England as a priest.[48][49][50] In 2008, the United Methodist Church Judicial Council ruled that openly transgender pastor Drew Phoenix could keep his position.[51] At the UMC General Conference the same year, several petitions that would have forbidden transgender clergy and added anti-transgender language to the Book of Discipline were rejected.[52] In 2012 the Episcopal Church in the United States approved a change to their nondiscrimination canons to include gender identity and expression.[53] In 2013 Shannon Kearns became the first openly transgender person ordained by the North American Old Catholic Church.[54] He was ordained in Minneapolis.[54] In 2014 Megan Rohrer became the first openly transgender leader of a Lutheran congregation (specifically, Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church of San Francisco.) [55]

In contrast, a 2000 document from the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concludes that the sex-change procedures do not change a person's gender in the eyes of the Church. "The key point", that document states, "is that the transsexual surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was a male, he remains male. If she was female, she remains female."[56] The document also concludes that a "sex-change" operation could be morally acceptable in certain extreme cases, but that in any case transgender people cannot validly marry.[57] Pope Benedict XVI denounced gender studies, warning that it blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race.[58] He warned against the manipulation that takes place in national and international forums when the term "gender" is altered. "What is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender,' is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator", he warned. "Man wants to create himself, and to decide always and exclusively on his own about what concerns him." The Pontiff said this is humanity living "against truth, against the creating Spirit".[59] As well, in 2015, the Vatican declared that transgender Catholics cannot become godparents, stating in response to a transgender man's query that transgender status "reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one's own sexuality" and that, "[t]herefore it is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather and is therefore unable to be admitted to the position of godfather or godmother."[60]

Catholics, nevertheless, have held a range of positions regarding transgender issues. Theologian James Whitehead, for instance, has said, “The kind of transition that trans people are talking about is very similar to the journey of faith through darkness and desert that people have been making for thousands of years.”[61]

In 2006 Albert Mohler, then president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said "Only God has the right to determine gender", adding, "any attempt to alter that creation is an act of rebellion against God."[62][63] He also stated, "Christians are obligated to find our definitions … in the Bible. What the activists want to call 'sex-reassignment surgery' must be seen as a form of bodily mutilation rather than gender correction. The chromosomes will continue to tell the story...Gender is not under our control after all. When a nation's moral rebellion comes down to this level of confusion, we are already in big trouble. A society that can't distinguish between men and women is not likely to find moral clarity in any other area of life."[63] In 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution at its annual meeting stating that "God's design was the creation of two distinct and complementary sexes, male and female" and that "gender identity is determined by biological sex, not by one's self-perception".[64] Furthermore, the resolution opposes hormone therapy, transition-related care, and anything else that would "alter one's bodily identity", as well as opposing government efforts to "validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy".[64] Instead, the resolution asks transgender people to "trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the Gospel".[64]


In Islam, the term mukhannathun is used to describe gender-variant people, usually male-to-female transsexuals. Neither this term nor the equivalent for "eunuch" occurs in the Quran, but the term does appear in the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, which have a secondary status to the central text. Within Islam, there is a tradition on the elaboration and refinement of extended religious doctrines through scholarship. This doctrine contains a trans-positive passage by the scholar and hadith collector Al-Nawawi:

A mukhannath is the one ("male") who carries in his movements, in his appearance and in his language the characteristics of a woman. There are two types; the first is the one in whom these characteristics are innate, he did not put them on by himself, and therein is no guilt, no blame and no shame, as long as he does not perform any (illicit) act or exploit it for money (prostitution etc.). The second type acts like a woman out of immoral purposes and he is the sinner and blameworthy.[65]

Iran carries out more sex change operations than any other nation in the world except for Thailand. It is sanctioned as a supposed "cure" for homosexuality, which is punishable by death under Iranian law. The government even provides up to half the cost for those needing financial assistance and a sex change is recognised on the birth certificate.[66]

In 2016, a fatwa was introduced by 34 Pakistani religious scholars that, the by-born (intersex) ones among the local Hijras, can marry themselves heterosexually, if they are identified as specific male or female body by medical test. They can also marry heterosexually with the normal people.[67]

The status of mukhannathun in Islam has been partially based on their inability to have penetrative sex with women, whether by inclination or due to anatomic interventions. They were allowed into harems but ejected if they displayed sexual interest in women. In some historical periods (when sanctions against gender variance were on the rise) castration was required, but some mukhannathun reacted positively rather than negatively.[68][69]

Baha'i Faith

In the Baha'i Faith, transgender people can gain recognition in their gender if they have medically transitioned under the direction of medical professionals, and if they have sex reassignment surgery (SRS). After SRS, they are considered transitioned, they may have a Baha'i marriage.[70]

Dharmic religions


The traditional religion of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, has long standing, historically robust identity for gender variance that functions as a kind of caste. The general term is Hijira but different regions with completely different languages have other terms for roughly homologous cases with details that vary, for example another caste that works the same way is Arvani. These castes typically have very low status and it is considered a tragedy for a child to end up this way. In some parts of India these castes have special legal status whereby their members are the only people in the population who may legally engage in prosititution – and they are, in some senses, expected to earn their living this way.

Hindu philosophy has the concept of a third sex or third gender (tritiya-prakriti – literally, "third nature"). This category includes a wide range of people with mixed male and female natures such as homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, the intersexed, and so on.[71] Such persons were not considered fully male or female in traditional Hinduism, being a combination of both. They are mentioned as third sex by nature (birth)[72] and were not expected to behave like ordinary men and women. They often kept their own societies or town quarters, performed specific occupations (such as masseurs, hairdressers, flower-sellers, domestic servants, etc.) and were generally attributed a semi-divine status. Their participation in religious ceremonies, especially as crossdressing dancers and devotees of certain temple gods/goddesses, is considered inauspicious in traditional Hinduism. Some Hindus believe that third-sex people have special powers allowing them to bless or curse others. However, these beliefs are not upheld in all divisions of Hinduism. In Hinduism, the universal creation is honored as unlimitedly diverse and the recognition of a third sex is simply one more aspect of this understanding.[73]


Most Buddhist scripture does not distinguish same-sex sexual activity from heterosexual activity, both being seen as non-conducive to spiritual growth.[74]

In Thai Buddhism, being kathoey (an umbrella term that roughly maps to a range of things from MtF transsexualism to male homosexuality) is seen as being part of one's karma if it should be the case for a person. The response is one of "pity" rather than "blame". Kathoey are generally seen as not likely to form lasting relationships with men, and the lay explanation of their karma is that they are working out debts from adulterous behavior in past lives. In the past they disrupted marriages, and now they are doomed to never marry.[75]

In Thailand, kathoey are still not allowed to legally become female or marry a man. Same-sex marriage is not possible in Thailand. Transgender women however can marry their European partners, if that is legislatively possible in their partner's country, and leave Thailand.

In Theravada Buddhism monks take vows of celibacy, and self-control over sexual impulses is idealized as part of the path to nirvana. In the 1980s, in response to growing awareness of the AIDS crisis, some Buddhist writers drew on Buddhist teachings to argue that homosexual behavior was unnatural and unethical and demonstrated a lack of self-control. However, other Buddhist scholars have argued that karmic debt only accumulates around heterosexual immorality when patriarchal notions of male ownership of female sexuality are disrupted (for example, pre-marital sex is "theft of virginity" by a man from the woman's father). According to this view, the difficulties and pain of gender variant lives are part of how this debt is paid off in subsequent lives and as such it incurs no additional karmic debt.[76]


Shinto kami associated with same-sex love or gender variance include: shirabyōshi, female or transgender kami represented as half-human, half-snake. They are linked to Shinto priests of the same name, who are usually female (or occasionally transgender) and perform ceremonial dances in traditional men's clothing;[77] Ōyamakui no kami, a transgender mountain spirit that protects industry and childbearing (notably enshrined in Hie Shrine);[78] and Inari Ōkami, the kami of agriculture and rice, who is depicted as various genders, the most common representations being a young female food goddess, an old man carrying rice, and an androgynous bodhisattva.[79] Inari is further associated with foxes and Kitsune, shapeshifting fox trickster spirits. Kitsune sometimes disguise themselves as women, independent of their true gender, in order to trick human men into sexual relations with them.[80] Common belief in medieval Japan was that any woman encountered alone, especially at dusk or night, could be a fox.[81]


One issue that Confucianism is quite clear on is the importance of filial piety with an accompanying tradition of veneration of the dead. People are supposed to respect and obey their parents, get married, and have children who extend their family lines. Gender variant people who are physically capable of living up to this standard would be generally encouraged to enter a marital relationship, have children, and be discreet about any additional relationships (for example homosexual partners) on the side, if absolutely necessary.

Chinese religions

Eunuchs, male-bodied people castrated for royal services, existed in China from 1700 BC until 1924 AD.[82] This social role had a long history, with a continuous community, and a highly public role. Before being castrated a Chinese eunuch would be asked if he "would ever regret being castrated" and if the answer was "no" then surgery would take place. It's an open question as to who would answer this way and why. The historical status of Chinese eunuchs was a curious mixture of extreme weakness and great power. The allure of power and influence were sometimes offered as excuses for the decision to become a eunuch. It has been speculated that Chinese monarchs trusted their eunuchs because the inability to have children left them with no motivation to seek power or riches.[83] It is not clear to what extent eunuchs were transgender or otherwise gender-variant, but the history of eunuchs in Chinese culture is important to its views on transgender people.

African religious beliefs

The Akan people of Ghana have a pantheon of gods that includes personifications of celestial bodies. These personification manifest as androgynous and transgender deities, and include Abrao (Jupiter),[84] Aku (Mercury),[85] and Awo (Moon).[86]

According to the creation myth of the Dogon-people the first 8 people on the earth, 4 men and 4 women, started the 8 Dogon families through a special arrangement with Amman where they could fertilize themselves, being dual and bisexual.[87]

The mythology of the Shona people of Zimbabwe is ruled over by an androgynous creator god called Mwari, who occasionally splits into separate male and female aspects.[88]

Australian Aboriginal

The Rainbow Serpent Ungud has been described as androgynous. Shaman identify their erect penises with Ungud, and his androgyny inspires some to undergo ceremonial penile subincision.[89] Angamunggi is another Rainbow Serpent, worshipped as a "giver of life".[90]

Other Australian mythological beings include Labarindja, blue-skinned wild women or "demon women" with hair the colour of smoke.[91] Stories about them show them to be completely uninterested in romance or sex with men, and any man forcing his attention upon them could die, due the "evil magic in their vaginas". They are sometimes depicted as gynandrous or intersex, having both a penis and a vagina. Ths is represented in ritual by having their part played by men in women's clothes.[92]

Pacific Islands

Third gender, or gender variant, spiritual intermediaries are found in many pacific island cultures, including the bajasa of the eastern Toradja people of Sulawesi, the bantut of the Tausūg people of the south Philippines, and the bayoguin of the pre-Christian Philippines. These shamans are typically biologically male but display feminine behaviours and appearance, and are often homoerotically inclined.[93][94][95] The pre-Christian Philippines had a polytheistic religion, which included the hermaphroditic gods Bathala and Malyari, whose names means "Man and Woman in One" and "Powerful One" respectively; these gods are worshipped by the Bayagoin.[96][97]

The Big Nambas speakers of Vanuatu have the concept of divinely approved-of homoerotic relationships between men, with the older partner called the "dubut". This name is derived from the word for shark, referring to the patronage of the shark-human hydrid creator god Qat.[98]

Among their pantheon of deities, the Ngaju people of Borneo worship Mahatala-Jata, an androgynous god. The male part of this god is Mahatala, who rules the Upper World, and is depicted as a hornbill living above the clouds on a mountain-top; the female part is Jata, who rules the Underworld from under the sea in the form of a water-snake. These two manifestations are linked via a jewel-encrusted bridge that is seen in the physical world as a rainbow. Mahatala-Jata is served by "balian", female hierodules, and basir", transgender shamans metaphorically described as "water snakes which are at the same time hornbills".[99]

Similar transgender shamans, the manang bali (which literally means a transformed shaman from a male into a woman), are found in the Iban people in Borneo such as in Sarawak. Manang bali is the third and highest degree of shamanism after accomplishing the second degree of manang mansau "cooked shaman" and the first degree of manang mataq "uncooked shaman". The initiation ceremony for becoming a manang bali is called "Manang bangun manang enjun" which can be literally translated as the Awakened shaman, shaken shaman.[100] After this ceremony, a manang bali dresses and acts like women and have homoerotic relationships. This makes them both the target of ridicule and respected as a spiritual intermediary. Boys fated to become manang bali may first dream of becoming a woman and also of being summoned by the god of medicine Menjaya Raja Manang or the goddess Ini Inee or Ini Andan, who is regarded the natural-born healer and the god of justice.[101] Menjaya Raja Manang began existence as a malegod, until their brother Sengalang Burong's wife became extremely sick. This prompted Menjaya into becoming the world's first healer, allowing him to cure his sister-in-law, but this treatment also resulted in Menjaya changing into a woman or androgynous being.[102] Menjaya was consecrated as the first manang bali by his own sister, Ini Inee Ini Andan in the first ever awakening-shaking ceremony and the first healing by a name-changing "belian" curing rite.

Neopagan religion

In most branches of Wicca, a person's status as trans- or cisgender is not considered an issue. Transgender people are generally magickal people, according to Karla McLaren in her Energetic Boundaries study guide. Transgender people are almost always welcomed in individual communities, covens, study groups, and circles.[103] Many transgender people were initially attracted to Modern Paganism because of this inclusion.

However, there are some Neopagan groups that do not welcome transgender people. In some cases, this is because of the emphasis on the union of male and female, and the exclusion of transgender individuals from such practices.[104] Also, some gender separatist groups exclude transgender people, often on the basis that non-transgender individuals share certain spiritual qualities derived from genetic or biological sex.[104] Dianic Wicca is an example of such a separatist group.[105]

Classical myth

The patron god of intersex and transgender people is Dionysus, a god gestated in the thigh of his father Zeus, after his mother died from being overwhelmed by Zeus's true form.[106] Aphroditus was an androgynous Aphrodite from Cyprus with a religious cult in which worshipers cross-dressed,[107] in later mythology became known as Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite who merged bodies with the water nymph Salmacis, transforming him into an androgynous being. In Phrygia there was Agdistis, a hermaphroditic being created when Zeus unwittingly impregnated Gaia. The gods feared Agdistis and Dionysus castrated her; she then became the goddess Cybele.[108]

In addition, Norse gods were capable of changing gender at will, for example Loki, frequently disguised himself as a woman and gave birth to a foal while in the form of a white mare, after a sexual encounter with the stallion Svaðilfari. Comparison of a man to a child-bearing woman was a common insult in Scandinavia, and the implication that Loki may be bisexual was considered an insult.[109]

Human fertility was a major aspect of Egyptian mythology, and was often entwined with the crop fertility provided by annual flooding of the river Nile.[110] This connection was shown in iconography of Nile-gods, such as Hapi, god of the Nile, and Wadj-wer, god of the Nile Delta, who although male were depicted with female attributes such as pendulous breasts, symbolizing the fertility the river provides.[111]

Further reading

Gender Identity In Halakhic Discourse by Charlotte Fonrobert, part of Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
Transitional Belief: Christianity as Viewed through the Lens of a Transgender Believer by Mr. Ashley Ford (Jul 12, 2013)

See also


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