Affirming pastors can have an immeasurably positive impact in the lives of their LGBTQIA congregants.
Hannah Soldner, a Believe Out Loud blogger, is lucky to have three affirming pastors who accompany her on her faith journey. Rev. Mieke Vandersall, the second openly gay minister to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, is one of those pastors.
In the following interview, we spoke with Hannah and Rev. Vandersall about their journey together at Not So Churchy, where Rev. Vandersall is Founding Pastor, and how churches can welcome and affirm trans and gender nonconforming people.
What was it like to discover the Not So Churchy faith community?
Hannah Soldner: I started attending Not So Churchy a few years ago, and I really loved the idea of a queer space, although I wasn't out at the time. I myself had never spent much time in trans Christian experiences—and so even before I felt like it was time to be out, even though I intellectually knew it was going to be OK, I didn't know how people were going to react, even in a heavily queer-attended church.
I had a partner at the time who had never thought of herself as queer—and when I came out to her, I remember her talking to Mieke, and that's how Mieke came to know about my gender identity. I approached Mieke at a membership coffee or dinner after I knew that she was aware of my gender identity, and I appreciated that she very much let me have that conversation on my own time, at whatever rate I wanted to or needed to go. She was really present to me and was there for me even beyond my coming out.
Rev. Vandersall: Hannah has been a vital part of the community from the beginning, and I was able to watch her transition happen. I wanted to be a presence encouraging her to do what she needed to do in order to live into her fullness. So I watched her take the baby steps she needed to take until there was sort of this point of no return.
Why are affirming faith spaces important for LGBTQIA people?
Hannah: There is something about gender confirmation that can be incredibly powerful in a way that's inexplicable—but I'm going to try to explain anyway. For a long time, I kind of de-gendered my life. I didn't really use my gendered name or markers for myself or anyone.
And so when there was a focus on my name and pronouns and people started calling me "she" and "her" and Hannah, that was something that I wanted, but it was also like when you burn yourself eating a piece of pie because you're so excited to eat that piece of pie. It wasn't 100% amazing, necessarily. I had built up guard around dealing with that.
And yet, certain things, like being referred to as a "Daughter of God," stuck with me and were very powerful. There was a clarity about who I am, and there was something very tangible, joy-like, God-like in that, to be 100% open with somebody in a way that had seemed so impossible for so long.
Rev. Vandersall: For someone for whom the Bible's been used against, having affirming spaces for LGBTQIA people is an important point of healing—to reclaim our tradition, which might have hurt us but isn't intended at its core to be hurtful. Our faith is intended to be liberating. I wanted to create open, healing, creative spaces where we could explore our relationship with the sacred—and that's what Not So Churchy is.
On the flip side, churches really miss out when we don't create spaces where people can be themselves. With Hannah, we missed out on some of her gifts for a really long time because she wasn't living as who she was supposed to be. Hannah encourages others, and her engagement opens the space for other people's journeys to happen. She's really giving a gift. And when more people in our faith community feel visible, more people feel safe to come.
Hannah, how have church traditions intersected with your transition?
Hannah: I grew up in the Christian faith, but I was never baptized, and so last year I very much wanted to explore that. When you go through a Catechesis process, most people learn about Jesus or God or what it means to be a person of faith, but I was in this interesting position where I had always been in the church forever. So even though I didn't have any questions about what it means to be a believer or a Christian, one of my other pastors said they believed it was important for me to have this Catechesis process. For me, that process took the form of, “What is baptism? What does baptism mean for me?”
As part of that, I learned that baptism is not a sacrament designed for trans people. Throughout history, the church used to baptize believers naked, and they would separate people by gender. Now, in a more modern church, I would have been baptized as a baby—or for most trans people, by the time they're adults like me, churches have shunned them. So I wanted to use this time to explore: how does someone like me reclaim this sacrament?
A month before my baptism, I also started hormone therapy. So in a very real sense, physical and emotional changes that come with hormones came, and that made it a much more visceral experience for me. My transition and my baptism became so intertwined with each other because they happened at the same time.
What steps can faith communities take to welcome and affirm trans and gender nonconforming people?
Hannah: There's still this feeling that even if a Church is queer friendly and flies a rainbow flag, it might not be trans friendly. For trans inclusivity, it's a matter of thinking, are there unisex bathrooms? Is it just men's groups and women's groups? Do I have to stay closeted and be with a group that doesn't connect to my gender? Will people say "men and women" and not include gender nonconforming people? Will they say "Men sing now, Women sing now," and then force me to out myself? A lot of the way that our churches have been designed to worship is very gender-based. Even if you don't know someone is trans, being aware of this is so important for the church as a whole.
It's also important to remember that people are going to move at a rate that works best for them. So when a trans person comes to a pastor or faith leader, the leader needs to meet them where they are. Trans people are not monoliths—in the same way other congregants are not monolith. There is no one-size-fits-all. I would also say that not everything about my life is about my transition, so I would let the person guide. Don't assume that everything about a trans person's life has to do with gender transition.
Rev. Vandersall: For us, including trans people is in the water of who we are. There are basic things that everyone can do—when we use sacred language and gendered language, being really aware of that is important. And making sure we meet in places where it's safe to go to the bathroom—people notice this, and it's important. Those basic things are important. It all comes down to engaging in basic education so that when you say that everyone is welcome, you really mean it.
With Hannah, we did a renaming ritual six months before her baptism. And then she started going through the Catechesis and exploring this part of herself, exploring her faith in this distinct way. And it all culminated in her baptism about a year ago, in November 2015.
What advice do you have for people who are looking for an LGBTQIA-affirming congregation?
Rev. Vandersall: Sometimes they're hard to find, but those affirming places are out there. I would tell people that they should seek them out—because they're worth finding. It's worth finding affirming spiritual community. Things happen to us when we are with affirming communities.
Hannah: There are people and communities out there and they're growing all the time. There are online communities like Believe Out Loud, and there are things you can read like blogs or books or websites. You can search for an LGBTQIA-affirming church on Believe Out Loud's website.
Rev. Vandersall: Religion is an important part of so many people's lives, so when we see anti-LGBT legislation happening, it's very typical that religious people are making those laws. How we are taught—how we are formed—has ripple effects on all of those policies in this country.
By creating spaces like many faith communities have created—open, affirming spaces—we're so much better for it. It creates space for honesty on so many levels. We're healthier as a faith community when we are able to say that this is who we have in our midst, and we're grateful that God's given us the opportunity to meet them. The more honest we are, the better we are.
Interview created in partnership with Freedom for All Americans