Coming Out Of The Wilderness & Into The City

Rev. David Weekley saw himself as a pastor tending to his flock until he came out as one of the first openly transgender ministers serving in the United Methodist Church. At the age of 58, his life moved in an unexpected direction, away from the institutional church and toward working with the transgender community. Becky Garrison caught up with David and his wife Deborah in the Boston area to explore his journey thus far.

I realized at a very early age  that I was a boy despite the gender ascribed to me at birth. I found myself isolated and alone. In the 1950s, scant resources existed about "homosexuality," let alone transgender identity.

In my mid-teens, I heard about Christine Jorgensen's transition and discovered there was actually a way for my external self to match my internal self.

With the help of a teacher to whom I had confided my gender identity, I found a school psychologist willing to assist me in this exploration. At this time, the only way to transition was to go through a clinic that followed a very regimented process using the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care

After I turned 21, I connected with a gender clinic and started meeting with a team of medical professionals. I began my surgeries three years later and completed them within a year. Fortunately for me, my health insurance covered the costs of transition, unlike today where people often have to pay for many of these expenses out of pocket. (These costs will be close to $150,000 if one has both chest, or "top," and bottom surgeries.)   

I grew up in a secular family but began taking religion classes in college where I was majoring in psychology. In graduate school, I studied the Phenomenology of Religion with plans to teach comparative world religions but I felt drawn to explore the Christian church again. For years, I had avoided the church because of its attitude toward gays and lesbians. 

The local United Methodist church saw me as a young single man and encouraged me to get involved in the church.

As I felt led toward ordained ministry, the pastor suggested I consider going to seminary. Even though I was shy as a result of having been isolated for years, after a lot of reflection and prayer, I decided to give this a shot, still convinced I would ultimately teach. I went to Boston University, where I quickly realized this wasn't a safe place to share my story.

This was the era of the so-called "Moral Majority" and our whole society reflected the conservatism and homophobia of the time—no one had yet really heard about Transgender. Hence, I decided to live as "stealth" in terms of my personal story. I decided that following ordination I would try to give as many people as possible the experience of getting to know me as their pastor, neighbor, colleague and friend. Then when I felt the timing was right, I'd share my story publicly. I thought that this personal connection would make a difference.

For 28 years, I worked in social justice concerns on a lot of issues, especially LGBTQ inclusivity. I found the United Methodist Church had a very self-contradictory attitude. The denomination's teachings say all people have "sacred worth" and are equal, but then they say "homosexuality" is incompatible with Christian teaching. Further, they prohibit "self-avowed practicing" lesbian and gays from ordination. 

There is still no mention of transgender people in official church law, though gender identity is named alongside sexual orientation in the anti-violence section of the denomination's Social Principles.

In 2009, my kids were old enough, and my second wife Deborah and I felt the time was right for me to share my story.

I tried to prepare my congregation by meeting with my elders in my congregation, bishop, and district superintendent. The day I decided to shared the story with my congregation, I invited a few members of the press. I had been advised to do this myself to try to prevent sensationalism in any media coverage that might follow.

Very quickly, my coming out story became very public. I got a lot of support, but there was also enough pushback to make some things happen in our relationship with the denomination that were not bearable for us. In 2011, my book In From the Wilderness: Sherman: She-r-man was published. My bishop recommended it on his reading list and I was invited to speak at a number of colleges, conferences, and other outlets especially in the Portland area. At the same time, some colleagues protested my ordination and wanted charged brought. One congregation left the denomination; several long-time colleagues suddenly no longer spoke to me.

Over the next year, I started thinking about returning to school to do more work about transgender experience and spirituality. I wanted to figure out how to focus my ministry on LGBT people with an emphasis on transgender issues. This work is very important because I had quickly I discovered it was much easier to be a transgender person than a Christian because of the anger experienced by trans people who had been abused by the church.

We decided to move back to Boston where I enrolled at Boston University's School of Theology in a doctoral program.

I recently finished designing a retreat around issues of faith, vocation and work. I chose this because a sense of calling and purpose in life are huge issues for transgender people, and I want to help them explore their passion and their employment. Employment is a huge issue for trans people who are often fired as they transition, and are then unable to find jobs after they transition. I experienced some of this myself after I came out as transgender by experiencing a diminishment of power and status. I hope this retreat can be a beginning point for people to explore these issues. 

The prejudice against trans people isn't as bad as it was when I first attended BU in the '80s. I think it's remarkable that there's now a transgender chaplain at BU. Even though I still run into some faculty and students who are anti-trans, a lot of the faculty and staff are now supportive whereas they weren't some thirty years earlier.

Recently I completed a study on my book with a local UMC church in Boston that's endorsing a qualified transgender candidate for ministry. Also I'm getting involved in the greater transgender community here in Boston, as well as working with national groups like Transfaith Online.

In 2012, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) created the Transgender Extension Ministry. This ministry is a positive step forward, and it is creating ripples effects throughout the denomination. Since this group has become visible, they have received a number of requests from parents who have transgender children. This is so important.

My parents had no support and no place to go when they made this journey with me in the 1970s.

For those who want to explore trans issue, I recommend starting with Virginia Rainey Mollenkott's book Omnigender, which is where the idea of the gender continuum was first developed. This concept sees gender not as binary but more of a continuum where people fall into different components along this continuum. Lesley Feinberg's Transgender Warriors examines the history of transgender people starting with the 13th BCE. 

More recently in 2001, Justin Tanis wrote Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith, which is an excellent resource for churches who want to think theologically about transgender issues and make their spaces welcoming for trans people.  Also, I have been following more contemporary theologians like the Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng and Dr. M. Shawn Copeland who are coming up with new developments in LGBT theology, which includes trans theology. For example, Copeland looks at the queer body of Christ to explore how Christ welcomed all and embraced the queer people of his time.

These developments put the responsibility on LGBT folks to understand their role and their faith in a positive way. 

When I was at seminary during the era of second wave feminism, my experience was that the very people I thought would be supportive were hostile to trans people. Their storyline is that all transgender men are butch dykes who couldn't remain as butch dykes so they transitioned as men. Women who transition are seen as traitors to feminism. This view is not as prevalent today though this community is still seen in certain high profile feminist spaces like Michfest

Third wave feminism is not promoting the gender binary anymore, but I feel they are trying to claim that gender is solely a social construct. In my view, this denies the reality that there's any innate sense of gender from a chromosomal or hormonal component. Long before I was socialized, I understood myself as a male who was interested in girls. I never ever saw myself as a girl or a lesbian.

I define gender identity as how you internally see yourself in terms of your gender.

Gender expression is how you express your gender outwardly, and sexual orientation is simply who you are attracted to in terms of an sexual relationship. My hope is that we can all have a place where we can naturally express who we are without facing discrimination.

Photo via Reconciling Ministries Network / Methodist Federation for Social Action

Comments (3)

David...are you still at BU? I have lost your email. This is an excellent column.

Thank you David for a beautifully written article. Your thoughts & feelings are so well expressed; I am so sorry that you have experienced so much bigotry from other Christians. Your parents sound like marvellous people - you must be very grateful to them. Keep up the good work with God's blessings & help.

I think the problem is that people do not understand gender identity, even years after your own experience. I must say that I find it foreign in some aspects because I am not able to conceive of not being the gender I am. So, I take trans people's experiences as the definition. I think things will not change until we stop viewing transgender identity as a mental disorder and view it as simply a difference in how people identify themselves. As a cisgender person, I may be way off too, but that is how I understand this and what I hope will happen in the near future.

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