By October 1998, I was becoming aware of my identity as a transgender woman, but I was nowhere near having the courage to come out of the closet. In fact, my life choices had made it virtually impossible to express my truth without great risk. I was married with two children, a police officer, and a candidate for holy orders in the Episcopal Church. I was building a respectable life in all the traditional ways. It seemed I had it made. And I did. But I was depressed, lost, and losing faith. I was beginning to feel like an imposter in all aspects of my life, a big liar too afraid to live authentically.
I remember the response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, the wave of compassion sweeping the country after a young gay man had been targeted for his sexuality, kidnapped, beaten, and left to die on a lonely high plain in Wyoming, tied to a fence like he’d been crucified. The revelation that Matthew had been Episcopalian sparked a debate in the Episcopal Church with some of the more conservative voices saying that Matthew should be disallowed a Christian burial because he’d been “an avowed homosexual,” an unrepentant sinner. These assertions shocked my little community of fellow candidates and postulants for ordained ministry.
During my discernment process, I realized I’d been called to the ministry of the vocational diaconate, what some call a “perpetual deacon.” I’d been drawn to the description of a deacon’s function as a minister poised to be the voice of the world in the church and the voice of the church in the world. Instead of going to seminary, I participated in an alternative theological education, meeting weekly for a course called Education for Ministry and monthly for seminars in the canonical subjects: Holy Scripture, Theology, Church History, Liturgy, Pastoral Theology, Homiletics, and Ethics and Moral Theology.
The seminar for the month of October 1998 was in the subject of Ethics and Moral Theology, and the vehicle of instruction was the roiling debate about the life and death of Matthew Shepard, about whether or not he deserved a Christian burial, about whether or not he was a saved soul. Our mentors for the weekend assertively stated that Matthew Shepard was not beyond grace, even though he’d been an openly gay man.
One of my mentors, an erudite man who’d been appointed as the bishop’s “canon to the ordinary” made a point of saying, “Sometimes the Church must do the right thing, and in this case, the Church must provide Matthew Shepard a Christian burial even if it risks a schism and/or financial support.” He went on to explain that moneyed people should not dictate the morality of the Church, all this to the nods of agreement and statements of support by all of my peers, the other examining chaplain, and some other clergy visiting for the weekend.
At that moment, I experienced a sense of grace, feeling I had finally found a place where I could express my faith, share the confusion that had dominated my life, the confusion about my identity, my uncertainty about whether or not I deserved salvation. After all, if I had really received Christ, if I had really repented and prayed, if I had really been good, I wouldn’t have a gender confusion issue, right? But that moment, all those nodding heads, all those voices protesting those who would damn Matthew Shepard to hell, gave me great hope. My clergy mentors, my fellow candidates for ordained ministry, the postulants just beginning their journeys – they won my trust.
A few months later, at the last weekend seminar before my canonical exams, I shared how the ministry formation process had changed me. I shared my life-long struggle, and my peers applauded me, embraced me warmly, cried with me, and laughed with me. The truth was out, and I was still loved, still in grace, still part of the Church.
However, I was soon to learn that stories like the story I had shared have a life of their own. They grow on people, and with distance – the separation of time and space – people start having doubts and those doubts start turning into fear. One of those people who had been so supportive that weekend, told his priest about my revelation, “Do you know what we’re getting ready to ordain?”
During the weeks before my canonical exams I endured a psychiatric evaluation testing whether or not I was a sexual predator. My wife and I were interviewed about our sexual practices, about whether or not I had certain kinks, paraphilias they called them. I was asked if I was attracted to dead bodies, necrophilia. I was asked if I was an exhibitionist. I was asked if I engaged in voyeurism, if I like rubbing against or touching people without their consent, if I was titillated by inanimate objects, if I was a sadist or a masochist. And, I was asked if I was a pedophile. We spent a lot of time talking about pedophilia, it seemed.
At the end of it all, I was deemed to be a nonthreat to women and children. I had a meeting with my bishop and sponsoring pastor, and I promised to live with my gender dysphoria as a thorn in the flesh. Upon promising to do so, I was declared fit for ordination as long as I passed my canonical exams. I did pass the exams, and I did get ordained.
I had no idea what I had promised about living with gender dysphoria as a thorn in the flesh. I didn’t last two years. Finally, I had a crisis. I voluntarily offered to renounce my holy orders, but the bishop refused my renunciation, permitting me to take a leave of absence while I got my life in order. The pastor I had been working with was angry at the bishop and me, requesting my immediate reassignment from my home parish because my issues were a “threat to their ministry.”
Thus began a great falling away, an effective excommunication from my fellow clergy and Christians, a silence that made me feel that old fear again, that I indeed was beyond salvation, a lost cause. In anguish one night, I wrote a misguided email to one of the few clergy who still corresponded with me. I told her I wanted to commit suicide on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Oklahoma City, to let my blood soak the ground, that I wanted to haunt the place for as long as it stood. My friend responded with a rebuke, telling me I had offended her beloved Church. She had been one of my fellow ordinands.
I felt like my mentors and colleagues had lied that night when we were talking about Matthew Shepard. The Church was not a safe place for me, I realized. The Church was not ready to really see the humanity in lgbtq people. We were an academic debate, an ethical problem, a moral challenge, but not full participants in the Body of Christ.
When the Bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma voted to affirm the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire at General Convention in 2003, I again saw hope, but the horrible backlash in Oklahoma dispelled my hope. I heard people lamenting about how gays and lesbians were going to tear apart the Church, break the Anglican Communion, dispelling the fellowship of the saints. Perhaps the Bishop of Oklahoma regretted his decision to back Gene Robinson, perhaps he was weary from the battle to keep the Diocese of Oklahoma together, perhaps he just wanted to retire, but ultimately he demanded my renunciation, displaying no energy to defend what some pundits were calling the “first ever ordained transsexual in the Anglican Communion.”
So, a decade and a half goes by, and then there’s the mass shooting in Orlando.
Some of my old colleagues had reached out to me in recent years, mostly Facebook friends. One or two actually have become friends again. Through comments on Facebook posts, I saw some of my old colleagues lamenting the shooting, posting things like, “Dear LGBT Community, We love you. God loves you. We grieve with you. Signed, A bunch of Christians.”
I felt a trigger, a sense of despair mixed with hope. Was this incident going to blossom into a reconciliation, not only for me but for many other lgbtq Episcopalians I’ve known over the years, people who have been waiting to reengage with the Church as full members and ministers? As the week wore on, I saw a letter from the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. It lamented the massacre in Orlando without mentioning the lgbtq community, essentially whitewashing the incident, distilling the identities of the victims. And I knew we were still an academic debate, a moral challenge, an ethical problem, a threat to worldwide Anglican union. One of the authors of that letter was the Very Reverend Justin Lindstrom, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma. Also, some of those magnanimous voices in the early hours after the Orlando tragedy have remained silent, no reaching out, no reconciliation, just a mere gesture.
To me, the exclusion of lgbtq people from the full embrace of the Church is a sin. Yes, I know we are a challenge to cohesion, but it seems to me, the right thing to do is to embrace the marginalized, recognize who we are, say our names, bless our relationships and honor our identities. To refuse to do so in the name of maintaining a sense of unity is to willingly turn away from people desperately seeking grace. This is not the Body of Christ but the body politic, shivering and afraid. To welcome the ones who had been previously unwelcomed is the mandate of the Gospel. If some who cannot embrace turn away, that is their choice, but their turning away is not a dismissal, not a rejection, but an act of will.