Religious communities haven't always had the best relationships with LGBTQ+ people. But thankfully, that's been changing, thanks to accepting faith leaders and brave LGBTQ+ individuals who manage to stay in touch with their faiths despite unfriendly religious environments.
One of these individuals is J Mase III, a Black trans masculine person, educator, and poet with deep roots in both Christianity and Islam. His trans identity and his religious identity may overlap in his work and life now, but reconciling the two took time, patience, and a willingness to engage with the religious texts he grew up with in wholly new ways.
In a recent conversation with Refinery29, Mase discussed how transgender communities of faith can exist within organized religions, the problems that remain for people who are trans and religious, and why reclaiming your body as a trans person is a spiritual act.
Ahead, read our conversation with Mase and learn more about his personal experiences as a trans person of faith.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your religious background? What did religion mean to you growing up?
"I was raised in a Christian and Muslim household, with my mother’s side of the family being Baptist and my father being from the Nation of Islam. As a young person, I always learned about faith from my father’s side in a very open-ended way: You’re always in communication with Allah. My mother’s side was more dominant in that we went to church every Sunday. You go to church, someone from the pulpit tells you what to believe, and you internalize that. So, by the time I was 11, no one told me being trans or gay was wrong directly, but I was coming home every day and trying to pray transness, gayness, and queerness out of me.
"I started coming out in my early to mid-teens. I have had multiple experiences of people trying to exorcise demons from my body because I was a trans and queer person. But, before that, I had a conversation with my mother who, because of the ways her faith manifested, was not able to accept me as a queer person or as a trans person. I actually came out to my father and his family members a number of times, just because I wasn’t sure that they heard and understood what I was saying, because it was just so easy."
How did your relationship with faith change as you accepted your queer and trans identity?
"I actually walked away from faith for a long time. What made me come back to faith was working for a queer youth center. Our department did a lot of trainings and workshops with different faith communities. My boss at the time had a lot of trauma around faith stuff and wasn’t really keen on going to all these places, and I was like, 'I love church! I love mosque! I love all these things!' When I started doing that kind of work, I discovered the difference between 'defensive' and 'liberation' theologies. Especially when we talk about the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), defensive theology looks like six or seven scriptures that are consistently used to claim that LGBTQ+ folks are unholy or sinful, like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People use these scriptures to say, 'This text says that God killed these people because they were gay.' If I argue and say, 'Well actually, if you look at Ezekiel, it says that the sins in Sodom and Gomorrah were about greed and not about sexuality,' I prove that this scripture has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ folks. It is at best neutral — and that’s not liberation.
"Around 25, I learned liberation theology, which says if this text is about all of God’s people, and God created us all, then we must also be in the text. It forced me to look at different stories. One of my favorite stories, which is both in the Quran and the Bible, is the story of Yusuf in the Quran and the story of Joseph in Genesis in the Bible. It tells the story of this character who is very prophetic with their dreams, but who also can be interpreted as someone who is very gender non-conforming and possibly a non-binary trans person. This person ends up saving all these people, including their family, from starving. When I looked at stories like that, that reengaged my desire to read the Quran and the Bible. It made me think more critically — what does it mean that other people have been teaching me not to like these books? We were just using passed-down theology. That brought me back into wanting to do theology work on my own. It brought me into wanting to pray more. It brought me into not just feeling like I could be a spiritual or faith-based person, but I was regardless. It made me reclaim some of the stuff that I felt was stolen from me."
What role does faith play in your life and work now?
"By trade, I’m a poet and I do lots of educational consulting as well. But my heart is very much in faith spaces. I’ve been working with a friend of mine, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, putting together a book called The #BlackTransPrayerBook, which is a reclamation of a Black trans theology. It’s going to be an interfaith book. As Black trans people, we are often forced out of faith spaces that will pray to white Jesus and but won't consider why is it that Christianity was such a tool for colonization or how it’s been used to harm us.
"This work is about creating and examining a theology that tackles anti-Blackness, Black affirmation, transphobia, transmisogyny, as well as trans libration. Those are the things that I’m interested in and that comes through in my poetic work, too."
Christianity can have a white, heteronormative reputation. Have you ever had to defend your commitment to Christianity as a Black trans masculine person?
"In Christian and Muslim spaces, there is this idea of trans people being unholy because we seek to change that which God made us. What I love to put out to people is that we are consistently told in our places of faith why we are more than just physical bodies — and no one more embodies that than trans people. How can it not be a spiritual act to reclaim myself, my body, my name, and my pronouns?"
There’s something really powerful about using spirituality to reclaim one’s body.
"It’s anti-faith to think that we as humans can look at just the physical world and think we know everything about how we’re called to be. Gender and a lot of things need to be liberated from the ways we examine ourselves."
What advice do you have for young people of faith who are questioning and exploring their gender identity?
"For the young Muslim folks, especially trans Muslim folks, you are not the only. You are not the first. There is a whole community of us out here. Please search for and reach out to that community. We are going into queer spaces, which are largely run by white people or white money, that oftentimes robs us of our culture. There’s so much language beyond English, beyond academic understandings of transness and queerness, in which our people have always existed as trans bodies.
"For people of all different faiths who are younger than me, know that just because someone tells you something about what your faith is supposed to look like doesn’t mean you have to believe them. As much hatred as there is out in the world, they cannot destroy us or stop us from existing. Know that there is something holy about us that keeps us here."
What else needs to be understood about the trans experience within faith communities?
"Some of the worst transphobia I’ve ever experienced is in LGBTQ+ affirming churches that didn’t know crap about trans people — spaces that will add a little 'T' on their door and think, 'I got your pronouns right once, so you should like me.'
"If I went to someone who was anti-trans and said, 'Why do you think that I’m so sinful?' they could probably pull out four or five scriptures to spit at me. I could go to an LGBTQ+ affirming church in many places right now and say, 'Give me a scripture that affirms me as a trans person,' and the only thing they’ll come up with is 'God is love.' That’s a wonderful sentiment, but it is not as nuanced as what the people who hate me have. We as trans people deserve better than that. We deserve theology. We deserve faith communities that understand us intimately, not just in the physical self. Trans-led faith spaces need to come up more in the world and be given resources to function. Because we need something very different than what’s being offered."
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.