Coming Out As Trans* In The ELCA
My Dad was a progressive pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for most of his ministry. He preached his last sermon on the Gospel of social justice at the age of 88 and passed on to glory in 2012 at the age of 92.
Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, I strove to follow my Dad’s example.
Throughout my first 45 years, I was a person of deep faith and an active member of two congregations in the ELCA. I am now 68 years old and my faith has grown by leaps and bounds as my life has been restored to wholeness. But for the 15 years or so following my 45th year, my understanding and practice of my faith languished in a valley of despair.
In my late 30’s and early 40’s I served as assistant organist and president of my congregation. As president, I helped our congregation to successfully navigate a very difficult situation involving transgressions by our pastor, which could have torn our community in two.
Exhausted by this struggle and seeking affirmation that never came from my congregation, I began to attend worship services less and less frequently. During this time, I was also wrestling mightily with my true feminine gender identity, which was sometimes buried very deeply and at other times was lurking just beneath the surface. I believed I would not be welcomed in the Church if I came out as trans*.
During this same time, the word “Christian”, as used in the media, was often aligned with conservative religious fundamentalism, and I was loath to identify myself in that way.
Ever since the age of three I knew that I wanted to be treated differently than other boys, but I could never bring myself to ask to be treated like a little girl.
I had a deep-seated fear of rejection and was a pleaser, so I worked very hard to be the best little boy I could be. But because of sexual abuse during puberty by an older male cousin and an overriding need for love and acceptance, I buried my feminine identity beneath a mountain of fear and confusion well into middle age.
I married my high school sweetheart at age 21 and our children were born by the time we were 25. But a wonderful and supportive family and a successful career as a university professor didn’t take away the pain of gender dysphoria that I felt. Because I was so afraid of coming out as trans* and losing everything, I moved forward masquerading as a man, full of frustration and anger, moodiness and withdrawal.
Our family shared deep love and many wonderful experiences with one another, but beneath it all I lived in fear of embracing my true self, so I turned to other means of coping. Alcohol didn’t help, body modification didn’t help, and a suicide attempt failed.
I found myself wandering in a wilderness without my faith life to support and guide me.
When I finally came out to my wife as trans* in 2004, I was 59 years old. Our marriage became a day-to-day journey supported by ongoing therapy, individually and as a couple. But something was missing! My faith began to overflow as my true self continued to emerge. I needed to be part of a community of believers.
I sought out the pastor of my ELCA congregation from which I had been separated for more than 15 years and expressed my desire to come back to my community of faith.
I will never forget my pastor’s response to my coming out and my request for affirmation and acceptance. Instead of opening their arms in a welcoming embrace, they said that there were probably one or two churches in our town that might welcome and accept me and I should seek them out.
To be rejected by my church in this way is an act that I have forgiven but will never accept or condone.
At that moment I vowed to help change the Church by devoting my energy as a trans* person for full welcome and inclusion of all people.
I soon found an ELCA Reconciling in Christ congregation in a nearby community and will never forget that first worship service as my true self. I parked across the street from the church and watched people entering the building, becoming more and more nervous about venturing forth.
Finally, I got out of my car and walked across the street to the front door. I appeared confident, but on the inside I was a nervous wreck.
This was my first time attending a worship service as my true female self.
All I longed for was to finally become whole in body and in spirit, and was seeking acceptance, welcome, and inclusion in the Body of Christ. I chose a seat in the sanctuary in a position similar to where I sat as a young teen in my Dad’s church.
The sun shone through the stained glass windows, casting a soft and comforting light just like I remembered from my youth. Soon two men, partners whom I knew from my place of work, sat down beside me.
The second lesson was from Galatians, Chapter 3. I heard verse 28 in a new way that day. The text says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
At that moment I knew I was part of the Church, the Body of Christ.
I understood that spiritual unity with one another and with God transcends matters of gender identity and expression.
It was a powerful message!
The hymn of invitation to Holy Communion was “One Bread, One Body.”
One bread, one body, one Lord of all. One cup of blessing, which we bless.
And we, though many, throughout the Earth, we are one body in this one Lord.
Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man no more….we are one body in this one Lord.
I wept openly as I sang this hymn of unity, and one of my friends took my hand and comforted me with his quiet strength. This first worship service as my true self was a transforming experience. It set me forth on my journey of advocacy and activism, working in behalf of full welcome and inclusion for all people in communities of faith.
I continued to worship with this faith community and became involved in the life of the church. But every Sunday, as I entered worship and engaged in quiet meditation, I would read the welcoming statement in the bulletin. Many oppressed groups were named as welcome, but one that was omitted stood out for me: people with different gender identities and expressions.
Each time I read this welcome statement, I felt excluded.
It’s important to name all segments of the LGBTQIA community in such statements, and the most effective way of doing this is to use an inclusive statement to welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions.
While I still retain my membership in an ELCA congregation, I began forming relationships within a welcoming and inclusive justice-seeking United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation in the Twin Cities. A service of renaming and reaffirmation of my baptismal vows was held in my behalf on Reformation Sunday, 2010. I ultimately joined this fabulous community of faith and continue to be deeply immersed with the life of this congregation.
My journey of faith continues as a member of the board of ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation (formerly Lutherans Concerned/North America) where I serve as transgender representative. The opportunity to co-facilitate “Building An Inclusive Church” trainings in different localities across the country has been a very meaningful experience and has deepened my understanding and commitment to full welcome and inclusion in the Body of Christ for all people.
I am also a convener of TransLutherans. Our goals are to lift up and provide support for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the Church. We call out to the people of God to fully welcome and include us as part of God’s sacred creation. We also strive to educate others about transgender and gender non-conforming people and the issues they face.
TransLutherans advocates for welcome and full inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the life of the Church.
The work of TransLutherans can have a significant impact by helping each and every one of us to fully express our individual gender identities, whether gender conforming, transgender, or gender non-conforming. All of us are free to express our identities in the fullness and richness of our diversity, recognizing that we are precious gifts to one another, gifts bestowed by our Creator. The statement of human sexuality, which the ECLA passed in 2009, includes implicit references to welcoming people of all gender identities in the life of the Church.
It is in the context of these references that TransLutherans intends to pursue our work in behalf of trans* people of faith.
Author’s note: Trans* is a relatively new umbrella term that includes all transgender and gender non-conforming people.
JamieAnn’s story was originally told to Becky Garrison via a telephone conversation.
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