When it comes to stories of faith and gender transition, misconceptions abound. In certain religious circles, a transgender person of faith might seem like a contradiction in terms — you can be one or the other but not both. But such an assumption is antiquated. Now more than ever, trans folks are exploring religion in informal groups and at churches, synagogues, mosques and temples across the country.
At the same time, religious communities are working to make space for transgender Canadians after years of ignorance and discrimination. Affirm United, a national program of the United Church, encourages ministries across the denomination to include people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Volunteer-run communities, such as Toronto’s Salaam Canada and Unity Mosque, have popped up to create gathering spots for LGBTQ2 Muslims. Even Catholic groups, like the All Inclusive Ministries in Toronto, have welcomed transgender gatherers to celebrate their faith.
How trans Canadians explore their spirituality while transitioning is deeply personal and unique. To better understand this journey, we spoke to three trans folks from different faith communities across the country. These are their stories.
Skylar Forsberg, Saskatoon
‘I always knew there’s lots of ways you can identify. Gender can be fluid.’
In the photo, there is a beaming young girl. She wears winged eyeliner and a tiara, and sports the bright, toothy smile of a kid still too young to know the hatred and bigotry of a world displeased with who she is.
For now, Skylar Forsberg, 14, is immune to the discrimination against her; her mom, Fran, fields most of that burden. Fran set off a massive debate in Saskatchewan when she filed a request in 2014 to remove gender markers from her child’s birth certificate; that request was finally upheld by provincial courts in May. The ruling is a huge win for LGBTQ2 folks in Saskatchewan. For Skylar, though, the matter is simple: it’s proof of who she’s always been.
Skylar is one of eight adopted children in the Forsberg household in Saskatoon; her 10-year-old sister, Renn, is also transgender. In her preschool days, Skylar was drawn to feminine clothes. She begged to wear them to school, and dress-up was a favourite game. When she was six, a family friend introduced her to drag, and she started performing under her alter ego, Queen FooFoo. Fran bought wild and over-the-top wigs and high heels for her, and Skylar hand-picked songs to perform at community events, often selecting her favourite Lady Gaga hits, like Born This Way.
By the time she was 11, Skylar was searching for a word to describe the way she was feeling. “I always knew there’s lots of ways you can identify,” she says. “Gender can be fluid.” Fran encouraged her to try on different labels, and Skylar, who has Indigenous heritage, settled on two-spirit at first. The term, used in Indigenous communities to describe the mutual existence of both a male and female spirit housed within a person, gave Skylar the fluidity to keep exploring her identity.
This exploration was furthered through Camp Caterpillar, a United Church camp on Saskatchewan’s Candle Lake specifically for gender-variant or transgender children and their ally friends. There, kids like Skylar are free to express their identities as openly as they choose — without fear of ridicule or shaming from youth who aren’t on the trans spectrum, an issue common at traditional summer camps. On her way home from the experience, Skylar told Fran she was transgender. “I realized at camp that I wanted to be a girl,” she says. Together, they began the steps toward transition: selecting pronouns that fit, navigating the coming-out process with friends and loved ones, starting on the puberty-blocking medication Lupron and understanding what it means to be a trans youth.
Only a handful of Skylar’s friends know she is trans. In fact, those she’s most open with are part of her church community at Grosvenor Park United, where rainbow flags are present in abundance and, as Skylar says, “We welcome everybody.” The church even hosted a drag night last year to raise money for Camp Caterpillar and Pride Home, a group home for LGBTQ2 children. Skylar performed as Queen FooFoo to the tune of This Is Me from the musical The Greatest Showman.
Fran wasn’t raised in a churchgoing home, but she takes all of her children to Grosvenor Park regularly. A lot of churchgoers there, she says, are also adopted or are people of colour, and it’s a place where her children, who are Cree, can find community. For trans kids especially, the church has become a safe haven.
These days, Skylar considers herself “a church person.” But what her faith will look like in the future remains to be seen. Her interests lie less in religion and more in social justice; her favourite church activities thus far include sending cards to folks in northern communities where suicide rates have skyrocketed, and making care packages for homeless women in Saskatoon. In early June, Skylar celebrated a milestone: she was given the go-ahead from doctors to start hormone-replacement therapy. At the slightest mention of hormones, she throws her arms in the air, clasping her hands together in a hallelujah gesture. The treatment is something Skylar has long awaited. “She finally gets to have boobs,” Fran says with a laugh.
Asked what her future looks like, Skylar has an immediate answer: “I really want to be a flight attendant.” She hopes to travel the world, to see places beyond her Saskatchewan community — especially Hawaii. “You can be anything, basically,” she says. “A drag queen told me, ‘Always dream big.’”
Talia Johnson, Toronto
‘I learned it was okay to be angry at God.’
Nothing in Talia Johnson’s life has followed a conventional narrative. Born and raised in Toronto, she attended an Anglican church with her family as a child but found the services dull; she joined the choir to motivate herself to go at all. Whereas most children in her shoes might try to distance themselves from church, Johnson did the opposite. As a teen, she convinced herself to jump headfirst into religion, getting baptized and confirmed. It was a point of stability in her life, a safe, progressive place to grow. She continued to attend into adulthood and then with her wife, celebrating and finding community in shared faith.
But as the years passed, Johnson’s life began to diverge from its expected course. In her mid- to late 30s, questions about her gender identity became too pressing to ignore. She felt she was a woman, and this deeply confused her. Throughout her life, she’d had little exposure to other LGBTQ2 people. To be a trans woman, she thought, meant to be a straight woman. Johnson, however, knew she couldn’t fit into that box — she was married to a woman, after all. Unsure of her identity, she repressed her feelings and stopped going to the one place she felt at home: church.
Eventually, the strain became too much. “I realized I had to either transition or die,” she says. In 2009, Johnson came out to her family and wife. For the most part, her loved ones supported her. “My mom said ‘Congratulations’ when I came out, so I couldn’t ask for a much better response,” she says. Her transition, however, ended her marriage.
Johnson also continued to feel conflicted about church. She feared discrimination from other congregants and worried that there was no longer a place for her in the community. For her first year living as a trans woman, she chose not to attend. “I learned it was okay to be angry at God,” she recalls.
But in coming to understand her gender identity, Johnson began figuring out something unexpected about herself: perhaps part of the reason for her unease with church was that its messaging was no longer right for her. “I never really meshed with the idea of Jesus being risen,” she says. “I had no personal relationship with Christ or the Trinity, and I thought, ‘No, this isn’t working for me.’”
Johnson’s transition became a catalyst for her foray into new religious communities. Online, she began chatting with people from other faith backgrounds. Someone suggested she might connect better with Judaism, and something clicked. “I spent a lot of time just doing self-analysis,” Johnson recalls. She went as far as writing a 6,800-word spiritual autobiography, reflecting on her religious needs and desires and what beliefs she wanted to uphold. She found solace in the Torah, particularly in selections that opened space for trans realities. In Genesis, for instance, Johnson says a progressive reading of the Creation story suggests that rather than two fixed genders, “God made male, female and everything in between.”
An educator, writer and editor, Johnson is also now studying to become a Kohenet Hebrew priestess, a spiritual leadership role that seeks to reclaim the place of women in Judaism. She’s the first trans woman to join the priestessing program. “I’m energized by educating others,” she says. “And I hope to provide healing for trans people, for their families.”
In the near decade since Johnson began her transition, her faith and gender identity have become inextricably connected. “I really do think it’s part of the nature of transition, when we’re doing some serious examination of what is right in our own lives, that leads us to a reflection on [what] God and faith and religious practice means,” she says.
Shylo Rosborough, Edmonton
‘There was an invisible wall between me and God.’
When Shylo Rosborough was a child, he never went to church. His parents both left organized religion when they were 18, and other than prayers before an Easter meal, he knew little of Christianity. There was a Bible in the house that collected dust. He remembers being curious about faith — he believed in a greater power and longed for community — but he didn’t believe a religious setting was somewhere he could fit in, sensing that he was different from the rest of his peers. In his teen years, this feeling was only amplified: assigned female at birth, Rosborough came out as a lesbian at 13 in middle school. While his parents were supportive, he figured there was certainly no place for a queer person in Christianity and pushed even further away from faith. “There was an invisible wall between me and God,” he says. “I thought, ‘God hates gay people. No wonder I don’t have that connection with Him.’”
Then, at 17, a new opportunity arose: a friend whose father was a pastor invited Rosborough to their small covenant church for a youth group. At first, he was hesitant, worried that his sexual identity might be a problem; he joked that he might burn if he walked in. But the group was welcoming, supportive. Meetings were held in the pastor’s garage, and the 30 or so congregants would share a meal afterwards in the family home. The gatherings weren’t preachy or overly sanctimonious. “I liked the experience of finally being with a community of faith,” he recalls. Rosborough was sold: this religion thing might be for him, after all.
By December 2015, he was deeply invested in the youth group. That fall, a conference held by Generous Space, a ministry that once encouraged people to abandon homosexuality but now advocates for LGBTQ2 people in religious spaces, came to Alberta, and Rosborough attended. He was floored to see three queer people as part of the church community, open about their identities. Their confidence inspired him. Perhaps, he thought, he had found his calling, a future in church leadership.
At the same time, Rosborough was grappling with a personal change. He began trying on male pronouns and dressing more masculine — and he liked it. At 17, Rosborough came out as a trans man. It was liberating to find the words that explained his identity to the world. This time, his parents struggled more with acceptance. The social aspects of transition, of learning to understand your child as a new person, made it difficult for them. Rosborough leaned on his faith to get through. His relationship with God deepened, he says, and his calling to study theology grew louder.
With the help of his pastor, Rosborough began applying to Bible colleges, hoping to learn enough to someday do for others what his youth group did for him. Many schools flat out refused his application: they didn’t know how to, or simply didn’t want to, make space for a trans student. Only one school, a small Christian college just outside Edmonton, agreed to recruit Rosborough, with strict stipulations. Rosborough would revert back to using feminine pronouns. He would live in the women’s dorms. And on field trips, he’d use women’s bathrooms. Rosborough hadn’t yet begun hormone-replacement therapy, but he wouldn’t be able to start it during the two-year program at the school. The choice was up to him: stall transition or give up on his pursuit of religious studies.
Unsure of what to do, Rosborough prayed to God. “I suddenly felt this peaceful presence, and I knew I had to go,” he says. “I would gain a lot more [by going to school] than just working for the year and transitioning.”
The first year at the college was incredibly taxing. Perhaps naively, he thought he might make a difference among administration, showing the value in diversifying the student body to include transgender individuals. Instead, he found himself stuck in a cycle of everyday transphobia. Though his identity was, as he describes, “an open secret,” he abided by the conditions the school laid out. Rosborough arrived to classes to be called by the wrong pronouns, used bathrooms that were marked for women and slept in a women’s dorm. He found solace in a select few friends who respected that he was trans. Eventually, however, the mental hurdles were too great to ignore. Rosborough wanted to start taking hormones, to present as male and live his truth — so he left the program.
At a friend’s recommendation, Rosborough found a home at King’s University, a non-denominational school in Edmonton with roots in the Christian Reformed Church. He met with the president, who affirmed that he could transition and study simultaneously. There were no covenants to sign, no unrealistic standards to uphold. The school even had a gay-straight alliance. It’s all Rosborough ever wanted. Now 20, he’s just one year away from earning his undergraduate degree in theology. Someday, he hopes to teach about faith, sexuality and gender.
For years, Rosborough wondered if his trans identity negated his Christian beliefs, if it was even possible to be a true follower of God as a transgender man. Over time, he has come to realize that he can’t tell his faith story without recounting the journey of his transition, that each informs the other to paint the full picture of who he is. It’s why, he says, churches need to work harder to promote inclusion and to understand trans identities as integral to faith. While sexual orientation has been a hot topic in Christianity for the past few decades, the move to bring non-binary genders or even the idea of transition into the church “is still very new,” Rosborough says. “A lot of people like to push the ‘LGB’ and the ‘T’ together in this scenario, but I feel like they’re very different fights that are being fought.”
Erica Lenti is a journalist in Toronto and the editor of This Magazine.
This story first appeared in The Observer's November 2018 edition with the title ‘Belief in transition.'
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