Finding Leo: Transitioning in Church

This article first appeared in PQ Monthly, Portland, in January, 2015.

O! Let me speak into the darkness! Remember with anger and grief the too many deaths through suicide and murder! Let our voices be heard between clanging gongs of hatred and deafening silences of loss! Let my story be heard as protest in the midst of the pain and suffering caused by “Christian” parents, who try to grind the souls of their children into a compliant pulp.

Let me speak honestly of transitioning in church, and my fear of angering God, losing community, and a life of lonely isolation. But please, let me also share my story of hope, grace, community, and love. I need to offer an alternative vision of what may be.

At 37, I was the president of my church, a Lutheran from the cradle, with a lifetime of prayer and wrangling with God. But on March 26, 2013, it felt like an ancient clock struck the designated time to unlock the secret … slide … click…. drop…. and a big loud clunk. The pieces fit together. I finally understood (at first only in the quiet, when I was alone) that I am trans, male despite my anatomy. I’m truly one of the guys, because I am a guy.

Sitting in church on that first Easter Sunday, five days after this new realization, I felt the burning of eyes that I imagined were staring at me, and dreaded the wrath of a God who I feared would be mad at me. Slinking in late, crying during the service, I felt I no longer belonged. I had been an outspoken advocate of God’s love for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but apparently I didn’t think that applied to me.

During the first few months, I felt increasingly uncomfortable going to church and feared disapproval. I completed my term as president, but resigned from council. I just didn’t feel safe or comfortable. I cut my hair, began wearing a binder to flatten my chest, and people wondered. After I came out publicly as trans, it still took a while to be bold enough to wear a packer to give my pants the appropriate bulge.

Fortunately, I was still on a rotation to help out with worship, so I had to keep showing up occasionally. Each time, I survived. It wasn’t too bad. People still cared about me, and my own shame and fear seemed less valid. My mom kept encouraging me to go to church. She threatened to cause a stir if I was made to feel unwelcome and left the church. I wish every LGBT child had a parent who would, like her and others I have met, turn into a Mama Bear in defense of their kid. A parent should not be the bully of their own child.

That winter, I was asked to share my story in church, and given a forum to educate others on my journey and the concepts of the continuums of gender identity and sexual orientation. The first time I preached from the pulpit and shared that I was trans was a powerful experience. I cried in private before I spoke, frightened by the vulnerability and exposure. But I was not struck by lightning, and people still liked me!

In July, 2014, the church blessed my new name. In the middle of the service, I was invited to the baptismal font in the center of the sanctuary, with about 14 friends I brought for support in terrified anticipation of people’s response. But instead of judgment, I received a blessing. The congregation prayed for me, for my new life, and my new name. The pastor got choked up as he marked my forehead with the sign of the cross and the church applauded after the prayer. Relief. The community had embraced me, and God had claimed me. The church I had planned to leave has become my home again. Even the little old ladies now call me Leo, and the pastors work hard to use correct pronouns.

I began this article in the spirit of protest and lament. In the midst of loud “Christian” voices proclaiming intolerance, I file my story of grace. God’s love is wide, not limited by who is in or out, by who is “holy” or “worthy.” God loves me, no matter what. I am not a mistake, or an abomination. We must affirm the worth, the dignity and the beloved-ness of all people, including, without question, all LGBT people. If you are struggling, may you find courage to keep trying, and may your hope not fail. There is a place for you.

I lift my voice in opposition to the cultural image of a harmful, hateful church. This year I am organizing the annual church service for the entire Portland Metro area, sponsored by the Portland Metro Chapter of ReconcilingWorks, hosted at my church. It is a community-wide celebration of LGBT welcome. It will be inspiring and encouraging, with a fantastic speaker, music, and networking over dessert. You are invited to join us, Sunday, January 18, 6:30 p.m. at St. Andrew Lutheran, 12405 SW Butner Road, Beaverton, Oregon.

Thank you for hearing my story. I am not in the business of getting people to church, so if you never go, I will still raise a glass to you at my favorite bar, wish you well, and consider you a blessing.

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