Exactly what motivated Audrey Elizabeth Hale to murder six people, including three 9-year-old children, at the Covenant School in Nashville last week remains unknown at this writing. We do know that Hale, who apparently began using male pronouns in recent months and may have identified as transgender, owned a cache of legally purchased firearms, including AR-style assault rifles, and was in treatment for an “emotional disorder.”
But the lack of clarity about Hale’s gender identity and motivation hasn’t stopped the right-wing media from whipping up an anti-trans panic, describing Hale as a “trans terrorist,” as Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh Show did in an episode last week headlined “Christian Children Murdered by Trans Mass Shooter.” Amid all the pain, numbness, and outrage in Nashville in the past week—and as protests demanding gun control have erupted—the atmosphere of danger in which trans people live in Tennessee and throughout the United States has only intensified.
As it happens, I was already scheduled to interview the Nashville-based transqueer Christian scholar and activist Roberto Ché Espinoza on Tuesday, the day after the shooting, for a forthcoming Nation feature about Christianity and politics. To say the least, it turned out to be a profound and somber moment to talk about being trans in America—and Nashville—today, not to mention being trans and Christian.
Espinoza, who grew up in Longview and San Antonio, Tex., is an ordained Baptist clergyperson in the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, pastor of a small interspiritual community called Our Collective Becoming, and the author of the books Activist Theology (2019) and Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation (2022). He also writes Our Collective Becoming on Substack and is the founder of the Activist Theology Project, a collective of “politicized theologians and healers, social change agents, and strategy-minded people situated in the hybrid space of church, social change, and the academy.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Wen Stephenson: I’m just wondering at this moment what it’s like to be, very publicly, a trans person in a place like Nashville?
Roberto Ché Espinoza: I’ll be honest with you, I’m looking into body armor. I was supposed to speak at a rally on Saturday called Our Lives, Our Resistance.
WS: Related to trans rights?
RCE: Yeah, [about] the laws like the drag law and the anti-trans legislation. But due to accelerated calls for violence against trans people, the rally and march has been postponed, and we’re pivoting to a night of healing, instead But we are not advertising details about this due to safety and security concerns. There has been a lot of online chatter from Telegram channels that are calling for outright war against LGBTQ folks, but especially trans folks. The uptick of trans-antagonism is a lot and I’ve been tending to community care this week and endeavoring my best to remain safe.
I mean, it’s sobering, I would say, to live here. I’m told that as long as I’m in Davidson County [where Nashville is located], I’m OK. But I don’t know that that’s true. Because violence seems to beget violence here. And you know, Matt Walsh came after me last year. The Proud Boys came after me a week before my chest surgery in December. We moved to a new location out of safety. I’ve been doxxed.
WS: What do you mean they came after you?
RCE: Targeted harassment.
WS: Online or in person?
RCE: Online. They shared a picture, my headshot, and the text was, “I want to hate-crime it.” And when the Proud Boys did that, I showed up on a Telegram channel, and when that happened, my wife really broke down, and we really had to sit and—I mean, we had security at the hospital, and my wife was in an undisclosed location while I was in surgery, my name was not up on the board, you know, they took every precaution to keep us safe.
But, living in Nashville right now, it does feel like the end of empire. And I feel like, in Revelation, John of Patmos watching it all come down. And I’m trying to be wise and discerning in how I endeavor to make little moves against destructiveness.
WS: So, where do you locate yourself in the religious, theological, and political landscape?
RCE: It’s a good question. It’s a question I’m not asked often, I just get conscripted into progressive Christianity, but I would say pretty firmly that I am not a progressive Christian. I don’t think [either political progressivism or progressive Christianity] go far enough. I think they’re too compromised by 19th-century liberalism and still focus on hyper-individualism, which centers whiteness. I identify, and have identified for a long time, as a liberationist. And I’m trained in liberation philosophy and decolonial theories stemming from Latin America, which is my own cultural background, as a Mexican American.
What I mean by liberation is, there is a horizon—to me, it is a horizon of justice. And we should be oriented in that way. Another way to say this is, we should be creating conditions for ethical futures.
And I am an ordained Baptist clergyperson, in the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, and very much committed to community—which is not something that is easily achieved by either the right or the left. What I’m trying to recover, what I tried to do in my last book, Body Becoming, is talk about how what I do impacts you, materially. We are an entangled and interconnected body, and it’s kind of like the butterfly effect. What I do in Nashville does have an impact somewhere else.
We need to get out of this reactionary and retaliatory framework. Because repaying violence with violence is not the solution. We are in an environment comprised and composed of violence, and as a result there is so much suffering. And if we think we are going to get free, and create a future that is free of violence, we have got to make a hard pivot out of violent tendencies and begin to nurture our land, our spirit, our soul, our bodies.
I see so many people who are just ready for a fight, and I don’t think that’s the way forward. Which is partially why I wrote this book. If we can really engage the process of becoming, then we can begin to practice love and justice and charity and abundance.
So, I think it’s relationships all the way down—relationship to self and other. I don’t think it’s about doctrine, dogma, or that bullshit. I think it is about being on the Way, and practicing kindness, practicing compassion. And the Latin root for compassion means “suffering with.” So learning how to suffer with.
WS: I’m curious, how do you understand being trans from a Christian perspective? And how do you understand Christianity from a trans perspective, if that makes sense?
RCE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I would say that we’ve inherited binary thinking from the Enlightenment, and as a result what is white, cis-gender, and Eurocentric becomes the standard, which accelerates supremacy culture.
I say very clearly, I’m not an institutionalist. I’m not here to preserve the institutional church. As a Christian, I’m here to follow Jesus, to be on the Way, and to make little moves against destructiveness. That’s what I think Jesus was about. We have erected dogma, doctrine, and structures that accelerate violence against the underdogs of history, and that fight the poor instead of creating abundance. And in effect, we have created ideologies of violence that people will call salvation, in the name of God.
And you know, the people [on the Christian right] who say the Bible is clear on LGBTQ issues. Well, no, the Bible is really only clear on, maybe, money: You should give your money away, and you should feed the poor, and clothe those who are naked.
And also, we are radically interconnected with those who oppose us. We are a body. It’s not just me, it’s not just you, but we collectively are a body. We are an ecosystem. And right now there is a disease in the ecosystem, and it’s manifesting as violence toward those who are different, and it’s trying to establish norms and values to dispose of those who are different. In this ideology of Christianity, we are trying to naturalize violence as, let’s say, a gift from God. And I think that’s bad theology. And we know that bad theology kills.
WS: I’m curious if you see much in the way of a specifically Christian resistance or pushback to white Christian nationalism?
RCE: I mean, I see reactionary attempts. So much of the rhetoric is a reaction against, instead of an invitation for a solution. What I think the response should be is rooted in relationship. I think in a relational approach, we will be able to create conditions for ethical futures and ethical majorities. But we have a hard time with relationships here in this country. We don’t know how to do relationships. We don’t even know how to be human with one another. And that shows up in our organizing and our responses, and certainly shows up in our politics.
So, we can talk about freedoms and rights, but we have to talk about it in relationship to each other.
WS: Relationship is hard. Even if we weren’t as incredibly polarized in this country as we are, even if somehow that weren’t the case, relationship is hard. I mean, relationship is hard even among my like-minded activist friends.
WS: So, what are some tactics for building those relationships?
RCE: It’s about being-with, and then suturing the wounds. There is a phrase in Spanish, en conjunto, which doesn’t get translated into English very well, it roughly means “togetherness.” We don’t know how to practice togetherness anymore.
But I think it’s hard to hate people over good food, so I like eating roasted chicken and greens and cornbread with people. You can get a lot done over a roasted chicken.