Reverend Emma Chattin travels a lot. Her busy schedule includes speaking at conferences, meeting with staff and patients at psychiatric hospitals, and visiting churches and seminaries as liturgist and lecturer. One constant of travel for her and other gender-nonconforming people is the dread of potentially humiliating treatment by TSA personnel. She tells of people who present differently from what their documents say being pulled aside for pat-downs on suspicion of a “groin anomaly” (an actual TSA term). “For some people, such encounters are so upsetting that they can precipitate an emotional breakdown,” Emma says.
Emma is on a lifelong mission to counter the attitudes that give rise to such callous treatment. To achieve this mission, she has positioned herself, in her words, “at the intersection of the trans communities and religion,” two spheres of action that she describes as “very important in this day and age.”
On the trans side of this intersection, Emma is Executive Director of the TransGender Education Association of Greater Washington DC (TGEA), whose mission is “to support individuals in transition (anyplace along the broad spectrum of gender identity, whether static or dynamic), and the communities into which they are transitioning.” She is also an ordained minister, serving as pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Northern Virginia, a GLBTIQQ-affirming community for all people: “No exceptions, No kidding.” She is a member of the MCC Eastern Network Leadership Team and a regular guest preacher at the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist Church. Emma also serves the spiritual life-cycle needs of those who do not have a minister, performing weddings, funerals, baptisms, christenings, and re-naming ceremonies.
Emma’s appreciation for religion comes by way of her family. Her father and uncle were both Methodist ministers, and she grew up in a church environment. Along with her mother and her sister, Dawn, a nurse, they stood by her on her “long, complicated, and occasionally difficult gender journey,” which led her to transition as an adult. Their support included participating in her ordination at the MCC Church of Richmond, a ritual which included her father and uncle laying on hands as she stood beside an altar decorated with items of significance from her life. One of these items was a whimsical Betty Boop doll, which Emma explains was “symbolic of the fact that we bring all of ourselves to the altar of service.” Looking around the congregation that day, her niece, Gwendolyn, about 12 years old at the time, commented, pleasantly surprised, “There’s so many gay people here!”
Once, Emma’s father told her that part of the reason his view of gender was eventually so accepting is because when he was a student, “a transsexual woman like you” came to speak at his seminary and transformed his thinking. Emma realized then how much power her own experience and voice could have on the development of clergy, whose voices would touch thousands of lives. That realization impelled her to devote time to religious education and outreach. Every year, she goes to seminaries to speak with the young pastors in training. She always thinks about that woman who taught her father. “It’s my way of paying her back,” Emma says.
Once, at a seminary, a student asked her, “I know God doesn’t make mistakes, so why do you think God made transgender people?” Emma responded “I think God made transgender people to provide a clearer image of Divinity. God is neither male nor female, but made both in the image of God. My God is gender queer, totally trans.” She cites examples from the Bible of gender-transgressing figures that are nonetheless heroes, such as Deborah, Prophet and the only female Judge mentioned in the Bible, or Jacob, who possessed many stereotypically feminine traits. “It’s culture that made God male, and culture that seems very determined to continue to do so,” says Emma.
Stripping away that patriarchal cultural layer to expose gender fluidity in the Biblical stories has proven valuable in Emma’s counseling work, especially when helping conservative parents learn to accept a transgender child. “You opened my eyes,” one parent told her. To Emma, this was an example of a principle she holds dear: “We have to touch people’s hearts through the stories we tell.”
Awareness of our stories also informs her work in the mental health field, where Emma has seen the damaging power of bad or thoughtless actions in the lives of transgender people. “I got into this area because of a patient who was suicidal and went into a psychiatric hospital only to come out more at risk than when they went in due to being repeatedly misgendered there,” says Emma. The patient committed suicide five weeks after being released. “And this was a hospital that said they could handle transgender patients,” she adds.
"Doctors and nurses, by and large, want to do the right thing,” says Emma, “but they often don’t know exactly what that is.” To guide them, she has devised a simple formula for delivering effective care: “Parts, paperwork, and presentation are no indication of a person’s pronoun preference. Ask, honor, respect, and use accordingly.”
Helping healing professionals know what to do is the purpose of many of Emma’s travels. Recently she was invited to address the California Hospital Association on the subject of Treating Transgender Patients. In such appearances, she reminds her hosts that their first responsibility is to “do no harm” and that misgendering patients, for instance, by using the wrong pronoun, is, in fact, doing harm. “It’s about being mindful, and being mindful of possibilities,” she says. “What you perceive about a person is not necessarily their truth or their authentic self.” Above all, she says, “Treat people as people before you treat them as patients.”
Much of Emma’s outreach work has grown out of work with TGEA, which she began leading in 2015 at a time when its future was in doubt. Now that the organization is stable, Emma has expanded its reach with gender awareness training and educational presentations at businesses, hospitals, schools, organizations, seminaries, and houses of worship of all denominations. A strong advocate of community building and creating connections among marginalized people, she is a founding co-facilitator of several support and community building groups for the trans community, including Parents of Trans-youth, Trans & Gender Non-Binary Tweens & Teens, and Spouses of Those Who Identify as Trans. During her time as Executive Director, TGEA has also formed two additional groups: Play Day for trans and gender-expansive children 5-11 years old, and a group for transmasculine and gender non-binary teens and adults. TGEA and MCC NoVA also supported Emma in leading the First Annual Northern Virginia Interfaith Service of Remembrance for the Victims of Suicide last September. Emma gives great thanks to all the many volunteers that support her work “to help build community and make the world a better, safer place for people of all genders.”
Emma lives in Northern Virginia with Heather, her wife of 21 years, who is a true partner in the work that she does. “We really like each other’s company, and we travel together often,” says Emma. “We can ride together in the car for hours without touching the radio because we still have so much to talk about!”
Ultimately, Emma says her work in both religious and therapeutic communities is part of the same struggle, whose outcome is far from certain. “Many of the institutions that are supposed to be helping people live better lives are actually causing harm in many cases.” Emma cites potential legislation protecting GLBTIQQ discrimination in the name of religion, a toxic climate for human rights in Africa caused by too many American missionaries, and schisms in some Christian denominations as reasons why it is so important for people of faith to speak out for equality. “We want to make a good future for all people now,” she says, “and the way to do that is to educate people, touch their hearts, and let them hear each other’s stories.”