Yesterday, I listened to moving testimony at the Ministry Committee hearing for resolutions D002 and D019 that would add “gender identity and expression” to the Episcopal church’s non-discrimination canons. Their passage would ensure access for transgender people to the ordination process and all levels of laity participation. The resolutions were successfully voted out of committee yesterday, similar to the last General Convention when they were subsequently approved by the House of Deputies but stalled in the House of Bishops in a discussion to remove mention of any protected groups in the non-discrimination language and replace it with language that would ban “all” discrimination.
I write this post to address these resolutions as a transgender man and a relatively new member of the Episcopal Church. I also write as a witness to the power of the presence of ordained transgender people in the church and the knowledge that I could have access to all levels of lay participation.
Baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, it was my spiritual home until roughly six years ago when I simply could not abide any longer the way I was being treated by my fellow parishioners. At the time, I was not living as my true self. Instead, I was trying to live as expected by the Catholic Church and, apparently, by some of her parishioners – as a woman rather than the man I know myself to be.
And yet, despite these efforts, despite trying to adhere to the messages of the Roman Catholic church and the expectations of those around me, I was still treated differently, as “other,” based on my appearance as a masculine woman. Some of my fellow parishioners would return my greetings in church with mumbles and troubled expressions, while some would not respond at all. The final blow came when, during mass, a woman who had offered the sign of peace to the people around her, folded her arms across her chest and looked me in the eyes while refusing to accept my hand that was offered to her in peace. Her message to me was clear – I was not wanted there.
Some people told me that those who did not welcome my presence in my church were only individuals and I should not have let them drive me from my spiritual home. Some stated that “all” people are welcome in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the word “all” can be a veil that conceals patronizing tokenism or subtle discrimination. We may all be welcome in God’s house, but that doesn’t mean that we are all necessarily treated the same way when we are there. “All” was in the language that the priest at my former Catholic church used when I explained my pain from the treatment of some of my fellow parishioners. He told me, “We are all children of God and made in his image,” as though I was the one who needed convincing rather than the people who would not speak to me or the woman who refused to accept my offer of peace.
And so I left the Catholic Church, becoming spiritually adrift. Where was I to go? Where could I receive the Eucharist as my true self? In what church would I not face rejection? From what I had seen and heard from other transgender people who had been discriminated against in their churches of other Christian denominations, I thought that there was no place for me. I was so spiritually lonely that I even tried to go back once to my former Catholic church but experienced such a level of anxiousness while sitting in the pews that I thought I was going to be ill so I didn’t try it again.
My spiritual Diaspora lasted for years, leaving me hungry for the sustenance of the Eucharist and the fellowship of a congregation. I didn’t believe that a spiritual home existed for me. Until, that is, I met a transgender man who was an Episcopal priest.
My entire world changed at that moment. I knew then that if a church was accepting of transgender people in the ordination process, then this would be a church where I would be accepted as well, and not only sitting in the pews. In a church with ordained transgender people, I knew I would find an open path for my own lay ministry.
For transgender people, one of the most marginalized groups in our society, witnessing the participation of others like themselves in ordained and lay ministries in the Episcopal church can be positively uplifting and life altering, as it was for me.
There is power in the presence and visibility of transgender people in The Episcopal church, and a person does not need to be transgender to see it -- anyone who is struggling in their life, who might feel for whatever reason that they would not be accepted into any church, would receive the message, as I did, that the Episcopal church can be a spiritual home for them. This Episcopal 'beacon,' as it were, could be guaranteed by adding "gender identity and expression" to the non-discrimination canons D002 and D019.