Editors’ Note: Rev. Mykal Slack and the Freedom Center for Social Justice, for which he is co-director, are participating partners in the National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice, held March 24-26. He shared his story with Freedom for All Americans and the Religious Institute ahead of the Weekend of Prayer. Learn more about the Weekend of Prayer here.
One year ago, on March 23, 2016, Rev. Mykal Slack stood in the rotunda of the North Carolina General Assembly, his mood alternating between angry and disappointed and upset at what he was watching: Lawmakers from North Carolina had convened a special session and were irresponsibly rushing through consideration of House Bill 2, legislation to, among other things, restrict restroom access for transgender people and knock down LGBT-inclusive local non-discrimination ordinances. Despite the large presence from opponents of HB2 and many transgender people delivering public testimony on the very real harm the bill would bring to their daily lives, HB2 became law that day.
Rev. Slack had chosen to wear his collar that day, finding it vital to demonstrate that people of faith can and do object to the systemic violence perpetuated against transgender people. He gathered with other people of faith, transgender clergy, and activists of every stripe to stand against what was being done and to be together on a day that, tragically, would mark the one year anniversary of the suicide of Charlotte Trans activist Blake Brockington. And he shared his own story of being a transgender man of color and a person of faith.
One year later, Rev. Slack shared his perspective in a remote press conference coordinated by the American Civil Liberties Union around their case, centered on Gavin Grimm, a transgender 17-year-old. The case was scheduled to be heard by the United States Supreme Court, and that day nearly 2,000 faith leaders – including Rev. Slack’s co-director at the Freedom Center for Social Justice, Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls – had signed a “friend-of-the-court” brief supporting full transgender equality.
“This case is deeply important and could have a real ripple effect on the ways that students of every experience can exist in their public schools,” Rev. Slack said. “At the same time, it’s important to be aware that these cases don’t often have the same impact in places where folks are on the margins in the deepest ways – lower income folks, folks of color, folks in schools that aren’t resourced in the ways they should be. So it’s important to think about how we do education around this, how far the reach is, and how we honor the work already happening to support Transgender youth on the ground.”
Rev. Slack can’t help but draw comparisons between the Gavin Grimm case and HB2 in North Carolina. In both instances, attempts are being made to shut transgender people out of the public sphere, erase their experiences, and deny them basic access to spaces, the usage of which so many take for granted. And while it’s true that placing the lived experiences of Trans people on a national stage has opened up much needed and long awaited dialogue about transgender justice in some of the most unlikely places, legislative and judicial action to deny the basic human rights of Trans people only puts Trans and gender non-conforming people at greater risk for physical, emotional and spiritual violence at a time when violence perpetuated against Trans people, in particular Trans women of color, is already at an all-time high.
In early March the U.S. Supreme Court sent Gavin’s case back down to the lower court, following the Trump administration’s decision to rescind guidance for public schools on how to best respect transgender students. But this case – and others like it – remain vital and important. Transgender students continue to face discrimination in schools – and in at least three other federal appellate circuit courts, cases similar to Gavin’s case are pending.
“It takes work, sometimes work folks have never done before, to do what it takes to actually honor and celebrate the lives of people, especially when those lived experiences are different from one’s own,” Rev. Slack said. “But we have a responsibility to do that work. I would say that it is a part of our spiritual practice as people of faith and moral conscience. In this particular moment, we’re talking about a young person who is being told at every turn, ‘Your life does not matter. Your life does not have value.’ We cannot let that be. We especially cannot let that happen to our children.”
“We have a responsibility to do that work. I would say that it is a part of our spiritual practice as people of faith and moral conscience.” – Rev. Mykal Slack
Having disclosed his gender to people of many faiths while a student at Union Theological Seminary in 2006, Rev. Slack understands how important it is in this moment for people all over the country to pause and direct their energies toward a more just world for trans and gender non-conforming people.
“When I told my seminary community that I was trans, there were folks who were immediately supportive and understanding,” Rev. Slack recalls. “They responded quickly to requests for name and gender marker changes in various contexts, and they were always ready to ask me what I needed from them. And there were people who’d never heard the word ‘transgender’ used in a sentence before. My invitation to these folks was to take a deep breath, remember that theirs was not the only lived experience in the world, and access the resources and people they needed to figure out how to be in community with me. Many people spent time talking with me about my journey, when I could manage that, and dear friends offered to be sounding boards for others on my behalf when I couldn’t. Some folks read articles. Everyone listened. And a lot of people, I found out later, prayed…for deeper understanding and for open hearts and minds to do what needed to be done to ensure that I continued to feel welcomed and valued as a member of the community.”
Rev. Slack points out that “none of this is the end-all be-all of our work toward transgender justice. The invitation to pause, have conversation, or pray? They’re only a beginning, meant to open doors toward deeper understanding and engagement. And the hope is that, whatever trans and gender non-conforming people need at any particular moment in time, is what families, teachers and fellow students, co-workers, businesses and congregations are becoming more and more prepared to offer and do.”
“Legislation like HB2 can’t silence the millions of people who believe in our collective liberation,” he continued. “And the Supreme Court’s delay on this case is just that – a delay. And definitely not the final word on how people can show up for one another and show up seeking justice for all people.”