Meet Chris Paige
Chris Paige is the executive director of Transfaith™/Interfaith Working Group, a national trans-led nonprofit that focuses on issues pertaining to gender-affirming faith and spirituality. Chris founded Transfaith Online in 1999 as a personal hobby, but the site has grown to be one of the most-consulted online sources on transgender spirituality. Chris has also served as the publisher of The Other Side and founding co-convener of the UCC GenderFold Action Alliance. Chris is a member of the planning team for the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, the world’s largest transgender-specific conference.
Chris identifies as “OtherWise,” which is a non-binary gender identity (neither male nor female), and prefers “they/them” pronouns.
They have received a 2010 Achievement Award from FTM International. And with a 2011 “patron of humanity” medal from the Philadelphia Metropolitan Community Church, that title seems particularly apt when you consider Transfaith’s newest, most necessary offering: a transgender-focused suicide prevention course.
What inspired the creation of the Transfaith Suicide Prevention Course?
Well, a couple of things. At an institutional level, the statistics out of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey are just overwhelming. Having this broad-based national needs assessment come back with a staggering 41% attempted suicide rate among transgender identified respondents (and higher rates among certain segments, such as people who’ve been rejected by family or struggle with unemployment) is hard to ignore. There’s a way that those numbers demand further conversation.
At a more personal level, these statistics just gave us words for what we were already experiencing in our communities. Both Louis [Transfaith™/Interfaith Working Group’s Engagement Coordinator] and I have friends and colleagues who think about suicide on a regular basis. I think there’s a myth about suicidal people being somehow… broken. Nobody says it out loud. But I think there’s a sense that suicide impacts “those people.” I don’t even know what “those people” means except for stigma and shame. But the people I know who struggle with suicidal thoughts are amazing, high-functioning survivors. They are leaders in communities they serve. They are loving and beloved. I mean, really amazing people, who have been through it — but they get weary. Life hurts and sometimes people grow weary and, in the world, it’s hard to find spaces to talk about that kind of deep pain. People don’t always know how to hold that kind of pain for one another — and the stigma and shame just makes it all the worse.
So, we kept talking and talking about what we were experiencing and finally got clear that we needed to do something to bring together best practices in suicide prevention with a transgender-specific conversation about suicide. We start with the statistics and we provide skills, but some basic level, we are want to break through this taboo so there is space available where we can talk honestly about our struggles at those moments when it really matters. We need crisis management skills, but ideally, we are figuring out how to be there for one another long before it reaches a crisis.
Do you think online communities have a role to play in suicide prevention?
I think online communities are a really important component. Sometimes people are able to articulate feelings online that they don’t feel able to share face to face. So there’s an opportunity to see a red flag that might be going otherwise unnoticed. There’s an opportunity to break through someone’s isolation and shame to realize that they are not quite as alone and that other people have similar feelings. There’s an opportunity to open up conversations we might not seem to have space for in our daily lives. That said, the Internet is a mixed bag. Online communities can be echo chambers that either reinforce our negative feelings or reinforce our positive feelings. Online communities can be as alienating as they are empowering — and they don’t replace having a real, live shoulder to cry on. Online community can’t fix everything. But the Internet has already made a historic difference in organizing around transgender communities, in helping us find one another.
As you see it, what’s the connection between faith and “nurtur[ing] strength and resilience among transgender communities”?
When we are talking about faith or spirituality, we are talking in some deep ways about worldview and ultimate meaning. What is it that helps you to get up out of bed in the morning? How do you make sense of the things that have happened in your life? What inspires you? There are as many answers to these questions as there are people on earth, so it’s not about any one thing. It’s about belief, but also about practice — and faith communities can be as toxic or empowering as the internet.
One of the ways I look at it is that we have such incredible health disparities in transgender communities that we can’t afford to set aside any tool that might help us. So let’s engage directly around religion, faith, spirituality, and worldview. Let’s have conversations that can interrupt the negativity we might hear from other corners. Let’s share with each other about those things that inspire us and help us keep on keeping on. For one person, a simple yoga pose in the morning may help to calm their trauma-based fear and make them better able to face the day. For someone else, it may be reaching for a higher power through prayer or song. For another person, it may be all about connecting with the ancestors.
I’m not interested in religion for the sake of making things “pretty” or “simple” or “right.” I just think it’s powerful that these ancient wisdom traditions have so much to say about when life gets messy and complicated and hard! So these conversations, they are about wading into the deep end where people are struggling with deep issues, sometimes with life and death issues, and so often with complicated challenges about how to get by. Sometimes spirituality is that thing that gives me the courage to face reality without flinching — but it’s also this thing that calls me into a rhythm that includes rest and renewal. Again, it’s not about having one answer for every person or situation — but framing conversations about spirit and worldview help us access wisdom that makes us stronger and better able to face another day.
Anything else you want to add?
There are a lot of things that are individual — the feelings, the struggles, the beliefs, the practices. Each of us is unique and there is a lot that we have to figure out for ourselves. Western society, life in the U.S., even our language around “rights” really emphasizes this individual thing. But when we are talking about Spirit or about resilience, we also need to engage as communities.
One of the things we hope for with the Transfaith suicide prevention course is for groups to go through it together. That way, the individual is building knowledge and developing skills — but the group is also opening up conversation and building relationship as a group. When a group of people go through it together, there’s this community-building, team-building added-value that can go a long way towards overcoming the stigma and taboo around suicide.
For more information about the Transfaith Suicide Prevention Online Course and more, visit http://institute.transfaithonline.org.