Last week I read an article from CTV News reporting on a trans woman, Junia Joplin, who is, well was, the pastor of a church in Ontario. It threw me back six plus years when, while serving a parish in Arkansas, I too came out as a trans person who would be socially transitioning. Junia’s story was all too familiar. Well at least this part of her story was my story as well. You see, Junia came out to her congregation during her sermon a little over a month ago. I suppose she was lucky that her parish took a month to discern and vote on whether to keep her or fire her for being transgender. Sitting on this side of my history, I’m not sure if it was a blessing or an abominable curse that they spent a month “discerning” Junia’s worthiness to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. In the three days it took for my parish to come to a decision to “dissolve the pastoral relationship” I had to bear the burden of tv news stations camping out in front of our house and being in the news cycle for five days. I received nasty threatening emails and text messages from strangers I didn’t even know both locally and nationally. They threatened my safety just because I am a trans woman. I pray Junia didn’t have to run the gauntlet that I did in that month leading up to the vote to fire her because she is a pastor who just happens to be a trans woman.
In the story Junia said, "I had a wonderful friend who took me out to dinner just to keep my mind off what might be going on and I had a cry but I tried to almost immediately start thinking about what comes next.”
Junia was already thinking about what would come next even before the votes on her future at the church were tallied. We transgender people in the church know what that’s like better than most. We clergy who are trans have made a great deal of progress in just a few short years. A great deal of progress has been made in the church since my coming out. The church has passed many resolutions at General Conventions since 2009, making it possible for trans people to be protected and incorporated more easily in the church at all levels and this is so very good. The challenge for the church now is ensuring those resolutions that have been passed make an impact all the way to the parish level. While transgender clergy are being accepted more and more in the church, that acceptance seems to be weighted much more heavily in the favor of lay members who are transgender and clergy who identify and express themselves as trans men. But that shouldn’t be surprising should it? Everyone in the church knows that women clergy have a much more difficult time being hired in the church than male clergy. There are even Facebook groups dedicated to women breaking the glass ceiling in the church. And even as difficult as it is for women to be hired for parochial positions in the church, it’s is even more difficult for a trans woman clergy person to be called to a church position. So, Junia’s question is an important one. What does come next for trans clergy, and especially clergy who identify as trans women, in a church where we have been given legislative equality but yet strive for acceptance and inclusion at the local parish level? What will it take for us to become the beloved community we all yearn to experience?
The bias and discrimination toward trans women is very real. I believe that the only way to get beyond this is to broaden the experience of the wider church with those of us who identify as trans women as well as clergy who identify as nonbinary, of which we have a growing number in The Episcopal Church. It isn’t easy hearing a bishop say, “the church isn’t ready for you yet.” And yet, this is where the church is at this time. I often joke with folks by telling them that my ministry in the church is now applying for positions as a trans woman so search committees are exposed to trans people in the clergy. But seriously, I do think one of the missions and ministries I can offer the church is to make myself available to those seeking to create a church where the ministries of all people are raised up and celebrated. By being vulnerable enough to meet others face to face and show them the unfathomable love of God I have experienced in my journey, I pray that some day the church that has nurtured me to become the authentic person I am will truly come to accept, embrace and celebrate all the children of God. Particularly those of us who identify as transgender.
We in the transgender community are resilient and can persevere. As individuals we often get knocked off of our feet only to get back up time and time again. I am a living example of this as I sit here in Maine writing while my spouse is in the home office writing her sermon for next Sunday. The transgender community has made great strides in the church and society and we are thankful for the progress we have made. But we have so far to go before we are accepted and celebrated in our communities. The transgender community has so many gifts the church desperately needs and we will be standing and waiting right here while the church continues its discernment of where we might fit in as leaders in The Episcopal Church in your neighborhood.