Farewell Sermon to the Flame – 5/31/2020

Beloved friends and family of the Flame!

I can’t believe today is my last day as your pastor, and this is my farewell sermon.  Wow. 

It is also surreal to be stepping away as pastor in the midst of the uprisings of outrage over violence towards our black siblings.  There is so much in our city, in our nation, and on our hearts that is burning.

My last day falls in the middle of a global pandemic, and coincides with protests and curfews.  It is also on the same day as the church holiday Pentecost.  This is a day commonly celebrated as the birthday of the Christian church.  Next week, with Pastor Matta, you will be celebrating the fourth birthday of the Flame.  Between current events and our own church changes, there is so much transition, joy, grief, rage, celebration, and pain, all wrapped up in a complicated bundle that is this time.  No matter where you are on this emotional journey, you have a place here.

I love that since we have formed the Flame, we have made a #queerchurch that seeks to be a healing community of faith.  We have proclaimed to people who may not have felt at home in another church, who may be mad at God or not believe in God, who may be struggling, or who are strong in faith that “You have a place here.”  I give thanks for the Flame, and all of the ways we lift up and celebrate the belovedness of each of us. 

As we say in our Reconciling In Christ Welcome Statement: “Regardless of your age, income, health, housing status, relationship or family status, physical abilities, race, religion, HIV status, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, You have a place here.”  It brings me so much joy to think of the ways we have lived that out. And you meant it!  You are incredible!  We don’t get it right all of the time. Every one of us messes up sometimes.  But we try, and God has used us in some pretty cool ways. And this important ministry will continue and thrive.

I think of that first Pentecost – of people on the margins being used by the Holy Spirit to start something new and something amazing.  The Spirit is up to that mischievous work throughout the world and history, and it has been a privilege to be a part of the birth of the Flame.  God is using me, you, all of us, to bring about something new.

I have wonderful memories of the way we meet people at Pride in Portland and Beaverton, and AIDS Walk, and other events, and tell them that they are beloved, and how excited they are to hear about a Queer Church.  Those are Pentecost moments! 

I also love that this community is outward facing.  We love to laugh and play and support our own community, but we also long for justice in the world, and work to care for our neighbor.  We show up for the immigrant, we show up to dismantle white supremacy, we care for the houseless, those living with HIV, and those who are poor.  I love that as a church we sent a resolution to the floor at the Oregon Synod to support the Poor People’s Campaign – and it went all the way to the national church assembly! 

I also want to remind you of this effort of the Poor People’s Campaign resolution to remind you that we are a part of something bigger.  Even as we create something new, we are not alone in this.  When we shared the resolution for the Poor People’s Campaign, we met and heard about people all over the country who were doing the work already.  We helped the national conversation!

We are a part of a movement of love.  We joined in with others around the country writing notes for the National Youth Gathering for ReconcilingWorks to hand out to teens – to let them know that they are beloved.  We provided gifts to our queer elders at the SAGE Christmas parties and to an immigrant family.  You are amazing!

I love that here at the Flame, we dare to dream.  We think outside the box and don’t accept the status quo.  Even when the Flame started as a gathering in my living room, we had big dreams for the future.  I am so grateful for Pastor Matta and all of you here who are going to keep this fire going.   And I love that it is ok that some of our big ideas work, and some of them don’t.  I was looking through my files as I was passing along items to Pastor Matta, and found the draft order of service I had drawn up when we were planning a liturgical circus service for Christmas Eve, 2017. In our draft plan, the acts to different Christmas hymns were for Kate on silks or chains, Devynn on lyra, and Bentley and me each doing a piece on the trapeze.  That would have been epic!  But it didn’t come together, and that’s ok.   We had other events with Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus – and my ordination circus! 

Another big idea that didn’t happen was to facilitate an anti-racism training for the Portland Metro area last year.  That’s ok too.  We ran into roadblocks, and we are still doing the work.  Other churches are doing a lot of good work too in their own book studies, movie groups and more.  We never hosted that big event, but we co-hosted the Dear Church book tour at Central for Rev. Lenny Duncan.  Over 300 people came.  And we did our own book discussions of Dear Church, and Assata Shakur’s autobiography, and movie discussion of the Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, and a deep dive together into the ELCA documents on Women and Justice, and the Strategy for Authentic Diversity.  Maybe we haven’t yet hosted the big event, but I am so proud of you, church, for continuing to engage in hard conversations on justice, and naming the sins of patriarchy and racism.  Thank you.

Flame fam – I love your commitment to fighting racism.  I love that you are one of the first nine churches nationally to participate in the Emmaus Collective, committing ourselves to dismantling white supremacy.  I love that you have embraced lifting up the voices of people of color and queer people in our readings.  I am so glad that we remember that Jesus was not a white man.  You are a church that fervently accepts that work and takes on those hard conversations.  We don’t get it right all the time, but you are incredible and I am so proud of you.  Keep it up!  I pledge to keep doing this work of dismantling white supremacy, and am glad to have you as co-conspirators.

I also love that at one point we had an Accessibility Team that looked into ways that we could be hospitable for the Deaf community.  That ministry didn’t unfold how we dreamt it, but the heart and the work and talent are there. Thank you!

To borrow the expression, I love the audacious hope for the church that I see in the Flame.  Keep on dreaming big.  Keep on being willing to change, and fail, and try something new.  Keep showing each other grace.  Keep taking care of one another, and reaching out into the community. Keep on seeing visions, and dreaming dreams, and letting the Spirit invite you into her dance.   The mischievous Divine is using you for some incredible healing and peace and justice making!

One of the amazing things about Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit births something new in this time of transition and the unknown.  Our church is in transition between pastors, and the country is definitely in a time of the unknown with protests and a pandemic. But you are not being abandoned. At the Flame, things will be different, but they will also be the same.  You have a new pastor, but the same core values, the same loving community.  I trust God and give thanks in my heart that God brought us Pastor Matta to lead the community forward, and I have a deep faith in all of you, Flame family.  God has an incredible adventure in store for the Flame! The world needs you to be the hands and feet of Christ – lit up by the Holy Spirit – caring for each other and those in the world who have been cast aside.  The world needs you to flip tables and build relationships, to listen to, learn from, and honor the voices of our black and indigenous neighbors, our trans siblings, all people of color and queer people.  The world needs you to feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and love the outcast.

Dear friends – I have so many good memories of our gatherings, of sassy Jesus, of wonderful music, zoo lights, and Mega Cookie Baking Day, Christmas Eve services, visits over coffee, or in McMenamins, or the hospital, Trans Days of Remembrance, and tabling for Trans resources day, game nights, craft nights, circus adventures, and pantomimed bible studies.  Thank you for potlucks and picnics and so so so much more.  Thank you for loving me in all my goofiness and joining in some good antics together.  Thank you for so much laughter and love.

It has been an incredible privilege to be your pastor and co-dreamer these last four years.  I have so much that I want to say in this farewell sermon, but I don’t want to take two hours.  When I asked my mom for advice, she gave me a nice three-point sermon that is definitely true, so I’ll end with that. 1) I love you.  2) I’ll miss you. 3) Thank you.


The readings for the service were from

Reading 1 from “Where am I to find hope?” by Rev. Lenny Duncan
Rev. Duncan also recommends White Homework Lessons

Reading 2 from “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired” by Rev. Tiffany Chaney

Scritpure: Acts, Chapter 2, verses 1-4; 14-21

Exuberant Love 2018

Leo’s Ordination and Circus Filled Fundraiser!

July 2014, 2018 – We gathered to celebrate God’s exuberant love for all and Leo’s ordination as an ELCA pastor. We continued with a celebration of exuberant love in the community with a circus filled variety show and fundraiser for AIDS Walk Portland.

You can check out the fantastic highlight video from Pacific Hearts Video here.

Good Friday Meditation

Willamette River, 2017

The following is the meditation I shared at St. Andrew Lutheran tonight at the Good Friday service.  We did the seven last words of Jesus, and my passage was the Luke 23:32-34 below.

Luke 23:32-34 (NRSV): Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Today I took a walk and strode past sleeping bodies on park benches and in doorways. I averted my eyes, ashamed and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who need help. I saw one man from the other side of the street while he wiped away several tears.

Today I read the headlines of cruelty against so many people here and around the world. More than I can count. More than I can handle. I don’t even know what to do with my outrage and powerlessness, my fatigue and my broken hearted-ness.

Today, in this service, we hear about the death of a man who, in his ministry, really saw people. Jesus looked into the eyes of each one, whether they lay on the street begging, or sat in a house of power counting money and influence. He fully saw all of their joys and hopes, their sins and their sorrows. And he loved them all. Even those he confronted. He loved them all, and they crucified him for it.

Today I think about all of the people I don’t see, don’t want to see, or don’t want to forgive. I haven’t forgiven those who drive the wheel that generates the conditions of poverty and homelessness, those who seek war instead of peace, those who say a harsh word, or those who are cruel bullies. I don’t even want to forgive myself for, without a word, sliding past the homeless man hiding from the rain in my doorway the other day.

I am so angry and heartbroken with our world, which continues to crucify to this day. Yet, even as Jesus was crucified with criminals, Jesus forgives. He sees, and he loves those who called for his death. Our God is compassionate. Our God forgives, restoring relationships and wholeness, even to my enemies, even to me.

May God forgive us all, for we don’t know all of the ways we participate in the violence and sin of the world. Forgive us, restore us, and guide us. Amen.

Christmas Letter, 2017

To my beloved Friends and Family,
Wishing you a beautiful holiday season, and all that is good and joyful in 2017! I’m grateful for each of you.  I write this on the day that the Electoral College voted, and I know that on my letter list are many who are mourning, and some who are glad.  But we are all part of the human family together, and even if we disagree, I’m glad we are connected.
One of the reasons I decided to write a Christmas letter again this year is because I think it is important for us to stay connected – to tell our stories, find common ground, and build up our communities.  We are all in this life together.  So I’m going to tell a little of my story of the last year, and would love to hear your stories too.  I’d love a letter, or email, or maybe a chance to catch up over coffee or drinks. 
This year, I really enjoyed diving into some of my passions.  I have continued to take trapeze classes.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am 41 and half my class is half my age, and many are bendier, stronger, and bounce back more quickly. But no matter if I ever advance to the next level of classes, trapeze is a great joy in my life.  I love growing stronger, being in the air, facing my fears, and getting to know fabulous people, including my teachers and classmates.  If folks in town are ever interested in checking it out, I love Night Flight, where I attend: nightflightaerial.com
Another passion of mine is advocacy for those affected by HIV, and busting stigma.  I just started my third year serving on the Board of Directors at Cascade AIDS Project and am learning so much and meeting tons of great people! I really enjoy getting to dress up for events like the Art Auction (pictured on my card, with my friend Darren picking me up), and hitting the town with a big team for AIDS Walk Portland.  I’m fired up to get an even bigger team for AIDS Walk in 2017!  Many of you on this list have volunteered, walked with me or donated, and I’m forever grateful!  AND it is thrilling that we are going to broaden our services as we open an LGBTQ health clinic! (LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning). If you’re interested, you can read more about our future clinic and services at www.cascadeaids.org  I have met so many amazing people volunteering for CAP, and made some lifelong friends.
Oh – a news item! In September, I moved again!  But this time I bought a place, so I won’t be moving again any time soon.  Finally! This is probably of great relief to the friends who have helped me move multiple times over the past few years, including Mark (pictured on my card with me celebrating batman) and Darren, who took time off of work to fight commute traffic and safe spots for my moving truck, since I didn’t have enough notice to get a permit.  Now that’s friendship!
One of the things that keeps me hopping is my volunteer work for ReconcilingWorks, the non-profit that helps Lutheran churches welcome include, and celebrate LGBTQ people.  This is truly rewarding work, and I love getting to go to different churches and provide trainings and get to know people in different parts of the country.  This year I was able to fly to Orlando to co-lead a large training of churches who wanted to take action after the Pulse shooting.  It was a little intimidating for me because I knew that the people in the class were impacted by the violence against LGBT and Latino community members. I was deeply moved by their participation. 
At any of my trainings, I come out to people in presentations as a bisexual trans man, and speak to my experience, while also training them on concepts of hospitality and gender identity. This leads to many interesting questions and great discussions.  I love this work, and all of the people I meet.  And I find it interesting that I’m happy to do public speaking and train large groups, but afraid of other things, like driving in snow and ice, or rain, or curvy roads.  You get the picture. J   If you’re intrigued about a group that works for welcome in churches, we’re at www.reconcilingworks.org
I’m also excited to work on an event that our local ReconcilingWorks chapter is throwing:  a huge community wide service of welcome: January 29th, West Linn Lutheran Church, 5pm. Our theme is “Building the Beloved Community,” which you may recognize from Martin Luther King Jr’s philosophy.  The music is again going to be awesome, and the service will be followed by a potluck dinner. Food+music+community = winning.  It is one of my favorite events of the year and you’re all invited.  Unless you don’t want to come because it’s church, and that’s totally cool too. J
But the most exciting news didn’t make it until page 2?!!  I had to build the suspense for this one. J  The Lutheran church in Oregon hired me to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community, to listen to people’s stories and hear their experiences with church, and in general.  One of the outcomes is that we have a new little start-up church that meets (for now) in my living room every week.  We named our church “The Flame”.  It is a pretty small group for now, primarily LGBTQ folks and allies.   We meet at 6pm, so we don’t compete with the Sunday brunch hour! J 
Even though I started a church, I still will never try to convert anyone.  It’s not my business what any of you believe.  We don’t have to agree.  Truly.  I think differing opinions and a variety of experiences is beautiful, and I love y’all.
There is so much of my church nerd self that now has expression, it is really pretty fun.  We even got a domain name and are working on our website!  www.theflamepdx.org  is our little baby (thank you, Evan!).  See, I had to list those other links, so that I could casually slip into the letter the web address of our little creation. J
One of our members, Adam Page, painted a logo for our church, pictured to the left, and I love it!  Our vision was that each person, no matter the color, body type, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity, could contribute to the community, and the flame.  Plus, I love rainbows!
Part of this new role with the Lutheran church is that I am on my way (again), to becoming a pastor!  I have 3 classes to do through a distance learning program, one of which I am in now – World Religions.  I have a few other requirements, and then maybe someday in the next year or so, I will be Pastor Leo of The Flame.  Whoa.
You know the little white tab at the neck on the pastor or priest’s shirt?  If I get ordained, I’m totally going to glitterize or bedazzle some of those for the right occasions.  It’s going to be great! I’ll definitely invite all of you to the ordination.

But wait, you say, aren’t I in tech support?  Indeed, it’s true.  I am! I will continue to  work both jobs.  I’m very grateful for my fun job solving problems and working with a great team on software used in the Medical Records department of hospitals at Nuance Communications, and I’m not going to give up a good thing there.  Oh yah – for consistency – that’s at www.nuance.com.
The best part about my day job is the people, and all of the cat pictures that we send to one another. I’ve included an example to the right.  (not my actual cat….) (nuance.com doesn’t actually contain cat pictures) (should I have # these?)
For whatever 2017 brings, may we all hug our loved ones tighter and more often, reach out to help a stranger, reconnect with old friends, and listen to each other’s stories.
I wish you and yours the very best, and may we all find love, joy, peace, and hope.

In gratitude,
~ Leo ~

Finding Leo: The Flame

This article was first published in PQ Monthly, Portland, in September, 2016.

I was in a bar the other day, telling a story about what’s new with my life.  I began by saying, “Well, I’m starting a church…”

My friend made a face.  Yep.  I would make that same face if I heard someone say that. Church is still a bad word sometimes.

Life is funny.  When I began hanging out in the LGBTQ community in Portland, I didn’t know I was trans, and I tried to keep my faith in God pretty quiet.  In a community that has been treated so poorly by the church, the last thing I wanted was for people to think some cis straight woman was coming in to save the gays (spoiler: I wasn’t).

Slowly I began speaking more about my faith, when I realized that it was helpful to be a Christian ally in support of marriage equality.  Ironically, it was on the night I stood in front of the courthouse with a sign stating “Christian Ally for Marriage Equality” whooping and cheering with the rally against DOMA that I realized I am trans.

Fast forward three and a half years, and I’m an out and proud trans man, starting a church.

Last month, I wrote about a grant that the Oregon Lutherans are using to listen to the stories of the LGBTQIA community and create an alternative worshipping community out of this listening.  It is very exciting and intimidating to be doing this work, but I’m thrilled to share that we are beginning to take form and shape.

We have chosen a name.  We are The Flame.  As we state on our new website, theflamepdx.org,
“With this playful name we embrace our LGBTQIA and ally identity, and also evoke images of faith and spiritual renewal. We are an alternative worshiping community, a little start-up church, where we gather, build relationships and community, and share our faith journeys. We celebrate that all gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations are gifts from God, and that we are beautifully and wonderfully made just as we are. We bring our questions, doubts, struggles, and joys. This is a group where we work to ensure that everyone feels safe and heard.  We celebrate the beautiful diversity of God’s creation, including us!”

On the one hand, starting a church in my living room isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination.  When I was twelve, I dressed up in an angel costume to play the role of pastor in the funeral service for my friend Nicole’s bird.  In 2001, at 26, I decorated my living room like a church basement (construction paper signs and all), and threw a costumed themed party at my house, a “Lutheran Church Women’s Basement Potluck”. We dressed up with hats, dresses and gloves, had a great potluck and sang hymns.  Maybe my drag persona should be a church lady. Maybe I should accept the fact that as much as I cannot deny that I am trans, I cannot deny that I am a church nerd. Maybe I am starting to embrace that.  Fortunately I am meeting many other LGBTQ pastors and seminarians who are teaching me the ways of being fabulous while being faithful. (for more see elm.org).

When I interviewed for this position, I told them that my main slogan is “I don’t care if you go to church, I don’t care if you believe in God.  It’s not my job and none of my business. I just want to make sure there is a safe and welcoming church for you if you want it.”  This will not change. Even as we start building The Flame, I will never try to convert you.  This is just one more part of my life that I can talk about when you ask, “So what’s new?”

I don’t blame you if you are turned off by the word “church”, and I will love you just as much if you are never interested in checking us out. You are amazing no matter what.

I’ll sign off with the opening we use for our gatherings.

“Welcome to the Flame. Here we build a healing community of faith, in which there is room for all.

If you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual,
You have a place here.

If the word queer is painful to you because of how it has been used for bullying,
You have a place here.

If you don’t believe in God, are mad at God, or just wonder how anyone could have faith,
You have a place here.

If your faith is solid, and your flame burns bright, or if you have questions and your flame is wavering,
You have a place here.

If you are an ally whose heart longs for justice and a world where all are loved,
You have a place here.

The Flame is a place of love, healing, and celebration. Regardless of your age, income, health, housing status, relationship or family status, race, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation,
You have a place here.

We believe that each one of us has something to offer. Each one of us is beloved and worthy of love. If you need a reminder of this,
You have a place here.”

If you’d like more information, drop me a line or check out The Flame’s website at theflamepdx.org.  We are still just newly beginning, but what an adventure!

Finding Leo: Three Glass Marbles

This article first appeared in PQ Monthly, Portland, in August, 2016.

The other day I had a conversation about feelings, specifically my anger and frustration with all of the hate and violence of the world. I was given an exercise to try. I chose three stones from a bowl. One blue. One red. One green. They weren’t really stones, but glass marbles, but because of the heaviness of what they represented, they seemed as stones to me.  I held them in the palm of my hand as we spoke, the colors glowing with the ambient light against my palm, the glass cool and hard. 

I set the glossy stones on the table and selected the blue one. Pale and clear, it represented tears. Tears of anger and sorrow.  Another death from hatred of skin color. Another act of violence against the trans community. Another vile and bullying rant from politicians and their supporters on social media.  I held my grief and rage in my hand and then set it down. I cannot hold it all the time.

I selected the red stone and held it up to the light. Sun from the window pierced the dark marble. It looked like a ruby, or heart of fire. This was my joy. I remembered all of the generosity in our community. I celebrated the love expressed in vows as friends married. I delighted in the memory of a new and scary trick in trapeze class and being liberated by the height and flight, and the encouraging instruction from my teachers. I placed the red stone next to the blue stone. Both of these feelings are true and exist side by side.

Finally I picked up the green stone.  The green was so light, the stone was almost clear. I held it up to the window and could see out to the horizon, though the perspective was upside down. The earth was sky, and sky was the ground. This stone was dreaming and hope.

Like Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), I long for a reversal of the way things are now. Instead of hate, let there be love. Instead of fear and hunger, let there be joy and abundance. Let the world be a place in which every person is celebrated as a beloved, unique creation, and no one is turned away or left out.

Now I hold the green stone in my palm and dream. I see my hand through the translucent marble. How can our own hands bring about this world of peace and grace?

I am thrilled that the Lutheran Church in Oregon (ELCA) has hired me to be an advocate for the LGBTQIA community. With one part of this role, I am continuing to work with churches to help them learn how to have the conversation about welcome, inclusion, and celebration of all gender identities and sexual orientations. Along with many other leaders, we are creating safe places of community, and helping congregations live out their commitment to welcome.

Even more exciting, I think, is the larger piece of this new role. Reaching out into the LGBTQIA community, we are listening to the stories of both pain and joy of people’s experiences with the church. All sorts of faith communities have done real harm to our community. I am grateful that we want to acknowledge this harsh truth and work for healing. Sadly, the church has helped create a society where parents kick out their children, or struggle to love them. We hear the stories of attempted suicide, homelessness, and addiction as a means to escape the racism, homophobia, and transphobia that the church helps perpetuate. Some church traditions have been silent in the face of this. Others have preached hate outright. There is very good reason for our communities to distrust the church.

We want to acknowledge this, and as part of the church’s response, we are exploring the creation of an alternative worshiping community. What does this mean? We are learning. There are certainly already many safe places for LGBTQ people to gather in a faith community. You can find many of these for all sorts of faith communities at this link: http://www.welcomingresources.org/usa.htm 

Recognizing the vast variety of backgrounds and experiences people have with the church, we dare to hope that we can also make a difference, alongside these other faith communities. We are in the dreaming phase of creating a new safe space for LGBTQIA people and allies to share our stories, our joys and struggles, explore our own sense of faith and spirituality, and support one another as we build relationships.

I want to thank the Lutheran Church in Oregon (ELCA) for putting their money where their faith is and investing in creating this new community. I am endlessly grateful for the leadership and compassion of Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke and Pastor Michael Keys who wrote the grant for this project, and supervise me in this journey.

I pick up the three stones again and hold them all in my hand.  They make little clicking sounds as they bump into each other in my palm.  Our lives are complex, and contain many emotions and experiences. Often we have conflicting feelings side by side. Indeed, we can never know the depth of what another person is holding in their hearts. I dream of a world where we listen to one another, and help each other carry the burden of tears, celebrate life’s delights, and dwell in hope.

Thank You Oregon Lutherans!

Rainbow Cross by Adam Page

I’m not sure if this is the right time to post this or not, but here it is.

On June 1st, I started a quarter time position with the Lutheran church to do advocacy for and ministry with the LGBTQIA community.

In the midst of our sorrow and anger, and so much frustration over the silence or bigotry we in the LGBTQIA community often experience from some church people, I wanted to share this small bit of good news.

In this ministry by the Oregon Synod of the Lutheran church (ELCA), I’ll be doing some of what I already do now, but with more local focus and support. It is a quarter time position, and I’m on track to be ordained as a pastor after I complete my training. I’m also still working full time in my tech job.

So what will I be doing?

  • Exploring the idea of creating a new worshiping community based on inclusion, diversity, justice, and healing,  We will start having one-to-one conversations and small group gatherings to explore the idea of what faith and community mean to us.
  • Helping Lutheran churches in Oregon become Reconciling In Christ, which means to be explicitly and publicly welcoming towards people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.
  • Helping Lutheran churches that have already voted to become Reconciling in Christ live out that welcome in real, tangible ways.
  • Connecting with and building up the community of leaders to share in this work.  
I am thrilled that the Lutheran church is putting resources into making a real difference in the lives of the LGBTQIA community, especially when our hearts are aching and our faces are wet with tears.  
Have questions, want to be involved, or just chat?  I’d love to hear from you.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

Finding Leo: Of Love and Pride

This article first appeared in PQ Monthly, Portland, in June, 2016.

Pride is defiance. Pride is art and beauty. Pride is my community.

Pride is a celebration of love, human dignity, and self-worth, amidst the noise and nonsense of bigotry and discrimination.

I walk in the Pride Parade as a trans person a faith, with a large group of churches, in defiance of those who would try to turn Christianity into a tool of violence.  (For those of you who don’t know me, I have a strong belief in God, but I will never try to get you to share my beliefs or go to church.  It is none of my business whether you go to church or believe, and not my job to get you there. I truly mean that.  My goal is to help make churches are safe, welcoming, and supportive of the LGBTQ community.)

I really don’t like to admit that I am a Christian. It has become a bad word.  People claiming that label have kicked their kids out onto the street for being LGBTQ. People who profess to follow Jesus stay silent as women (cis and trans) are subject to daily sexual harassment and violence, while child poverty skyrockets, and people face increasing homelessness. Yet they scream rage to protest a store trying to protect the trans community, a vulnerable population in the bathrooms. 

In 1 Corinthians 13:1 it says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” 

Yes. I am over it.  I want to throw my hands in the air and give up on the word Christian. I try to remind myself that God loves even these folks, who are afraid, and do not agree with me, but it’s hard. I cannot stand the clang and clamor of those in the church who would condemn me or my LGBTQ community.  This is not love. This is not my faith.

And yet…. And yet…  People are standing in defiance of this media perception of “Christian”.

Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke of the Lutheran Church in Oregon released a statement shortly after the May 5th publication of guidelines by the Oregon Department of Education supporting trans youth.  http://www.reconcilingworks.org/or-bp-safe-schools/  He writes:  “While many of us are still learning about gender identity, and what it means to be transgender, we as the church seek to recognize that child of God, in each and every person, who is worthy of honor and respect. As we learn more about the varied and wonderful people in our midst, we are moved to help keep all people safe from harm and harassment.  With you, we in the ELCA celebrate the LGBTQIA community working with us in this state, recognizing their unique experiences, insights and understandings.”

Thanks be to God for the faithful witness of church leaders who speak out on behalf of our community.

Bishop Kirby Unti in Northwest Washington similarly spoke out against an anti-trans initiative I-1515 in Washington state. http://www.reconcilingworks.org/kirby-unti-wa-i1515/  “As a Christian, I believe in loving our neighbors as ourselves and treating others the way we want to be treated, including those who may seem different from us. And that’s what my wife and I taught our four daughters. So I’m troubled by I-15I5, which would roll back important non-discrimination protections for our transgender neighbors in Washington. We’re all God’s children—including people who are transgender—and we should all be treated equally under the law. We must stand together as a community and oppose initiatives like I-1515.”

I am grateful for the love that compels these leaders to take a stand.

On May 16, Reconciling Ministries Network’s Executive Director Matt Berryman and Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli shared the news of 1500 pastors in the Methodist church who are standing by their LGBTQ colleagues as the movement grows in the Methodist church to allow LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.  http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/rmn-general-conference-daily-download-may-16/   This is love.  This is Christian.

I want to live in the spirit of Pride, and all those who fought for social change. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, Peter Staley, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. It is where I see Jesus walking.

Fear and prejudice in our country are still real and alive. But so is our pride and our defiance. From the first walk after Stonewall to today, our presence says “NO” to those who would try to silence or demean us. Thank you to the people of faith who join us in that defiance and say “YES!” to love.

2016 will be my fourth year walking in Pride parades. I’ve danced with the Cascade AIDS Project contingent, waved bubble wands with Bishops and walked with hundreds of Lutherans and a 10 foot rainbow cross with ReconcilingWorks and Open Door Ministries, the non-profits working with the Lutheran Church to help them welcome, include, and celebrate the LGBTQ community. I have rejoiced in the beauty, art, and love experienced by so many.

Pride is my community.  I cannot wait to see your gorgeous faces! Thank you for reminding me every year of your strength, passion, conviction, and joy.

I asked my mom, Gretchen, why she comes to Pride. “Walking in Pride is walking in solidarity with my son and his wonderful friends, and with those I’ve sung with.  I love them all.”  I think this is what Jesus would say too.

You can find welcoming congregations in many denominations here: http://tinyurl.com/WelcomingChurches

Finding Leo: The Holes In My Heart

This article first appeared in PQ Monthly, Portland, in May 2016.

Warning: It is a dangerous thing to open our hearts. Love is risk and vulnerability. Love is fear and hope.  Love for our friends, partners, families, and pets will lead us to both exultation and grief.

In my family, my coming out journey has been mostly a positive experience, though I do not take this for granted. I would like to share a part of my family story.

In 1994, I was dating a man that I would marry (and later divorce) and I met his nieces, who were infants and toddlers at the time. These are the four little girls who stole my heart. How do you describe the way a child takes your hand and grabs hold of your heart for the rest of your life?

Tosha, Merissa, Sheena, and Brianna, lived a few hours away, so I was not around as much as I wanted. I tried to stay connected by writing them postcards, and notes, and sending little presents.  I saw them grow from toddlers to teenagers, and tried to be the best Aunt Laura I could be.  (I was still living as a straight cis-gender woman. I didn’t even know I was trans).  When my ex-husband and I divorced in 2005, it was easy to pledge that I would continue to be their aunt forever. Love does that.

In 2009, I took two of these wonderful young ladies to New Orleans for a national Lutheran Youth Gathering (ELCA). It was a good but exhausting week, chaperoning over 25 kids amongst 37000 youth.  At one point, Merissa touched all of our hearts when she gave her available cash and snacks to a homeless mother and child, and then encouraged the group to collect their snacks to donate as well.  At the end of the week, I dropped Sheena and Merissa off at the bus station, hugged them, told them I loved them, and eagerly drove home to my well-earned chaperone nap.

Just a few weeks later, I received a call on Monday morning, August 31, 2009, that Merissa had died in a car accident at 17 years of age.  I regret so much, including my exhausted and abrupt last words.

There is so much I grieve about Merissa, and I know that my grief is only a small proportion of that felt by her parents and sisters. She was so vibrant, hilarious, loving, and adventurous. She was beautiful, and special, and the world is not as lovely without her.

I think of my nephew and all my nieces every day, including those I have gained since 1994. When reflecting on family this month, my heart was bursting to talk about Merissa again.

I have found that each of my family relationships has changed ever so slightly since I transitioned from female to male. I was daughter, and am now son. My best friend, Daniel, now bugs me to make sure I’m a good son. I try! I was sister, and am now brother. I was aunt, and am now uncle.

In addition to the millions of other moments and memories that we all miss out on since Merissa is gone, I never got a chance for her to meet me as Uncle Leo. When Sheena told me recently that Merissa would have accepted me, it made me happy. But I wish she could have met me as the more authentic me.

How do I explain this so it makes sense?  I am the same person, but more fully. I am me, but living into my maleness. She will never know me as Leo. I will never have a picture of us where I am Uncle.  It is only one small part of my grief, but it is real.

After I came out as trans in 2013, I avoided my nieces for a while. I was afraid of how they would handle me after transitioning to male, after I had been Aunt Laura to them for so long. I knew I was missing out, but in those early days of coming out, fear defined a lot of the choices I made. I finally visited in the fall of 2014, and then drove down for the birth of Tosha’s first child, in January of 2015. I am grateful they received me with love and acceptance, and my fears were unfounded. These girls are special.

I deeply wish that Merissa was here to share our journeys and enjoy long conversations. I never got the chance to know Merissa as an adult.  I would love to go to her graduation, and celebrate her escapades. Our lives are an infinite number of stories, as we say in our Building an Inclusive Church training.  I want to hear more of Merissa’s stories. I will grieve her death for the rest of my life. There are holes in my heart that will never be filled because she is gone.

But I am grateful for those four little girls who stole my heart, and the relationship I can still have with my beautiful, talented, and caring nieces, Tosha, Sheena, and Brianna, and now their children, Serenity and Josiah.  I am their Uncle Leo, and they love me as I am. Thank you.

To honor Merissa’s passion for those in need, please consider a donation to OutsideIn, New Avenues for Youth, or P:ear, all organizations working to improve the lives of youth affected by homelessness.

Finding Leo: The Binder Adventure

This article was first published in PQ Monthly, Portland, in April, 2016.

I came out as trans in 2013. This revelation introduced a whole new level of questioning and much emotional energy invested in the question “Am I really trans?” I would review the DSM-IV definition of transgender and compare my “symptoms” as a checklist.  I would say “Ok, I may be trans, but am I trans enough to be trans?”  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I thought.

On spin cycle in my brain during this time was my dislike of my breasts. Summer was the worst. Wearing a bikini in the midst of shirtless men in shorts while trying to be one of the guys is less than ideal, to say the least.  Hardly a conversation went by that I didn’t bring up my dislike of my breasts. Oh, my poor friends! It even became a joke, or perhaps a desperate plea, not to discuss my breasts any more.

As soon as I came out, I wore only sports bras to keep my breasts as flat as possible. When I became brave enough to come out to more people, I decided to try a binder. A binder, or compression tee, is a tank-top like shirt designed to compress one’s breasts for a flatter chest. It can be difficult to put on, and not always comfortable, but the mental relief it provides for body dysphoria is huge and far outweighs these other considerations.

I was nervous to actually go shop for a binder, so I convinced my roommate, Patrick, to go with me. We went to She-Bop, “A Female Friendly Sex Toy Boutique for Every Body.” A pleasant sales clerk walked up to offer assistance. Too embarrassed to ask for a binder, I mumbled a question about the “gender identity section” as I had seen it described online. She kindly showed me where the binders, packers, and stand-to-pee devices were. She told me that I could try on the binders to determine which size to get. Grabbing a few, I headed to the dressing room. 

My first attempt to pull the binder over my shoulders was a complete failure. Picture a black tank top, with three layers of fabric in the front and one in the back. The fabric is deceivingly stretchy, but its job is to grip and squeeze the offending breasts into something approaching flatness.  Grip and squeeze it does! I couldn’t even get the first one over my shoulders. So I wrestled my way out of it and tried again with the next size up, but it was not any easier.

I backed out of the binder, an effort in and of itself. I looked at the red marks on my skin, and peeked my head through the curtain for the clerk. She helpfully suggested I try rolling the binder up first. Then, after I slid it over my shoulders, I could simply unroll it. There was no “simply” unrolling it. After getting stuck again, I asked if Patrick could come into the dressing room to help, but their store policy prohibits more than one person in a dressing room.

Even trying the unrolling technique again, I was completely failing. The gripping and squeezing action of the binder was incredibly effective on my underarms as I tried unsuccessfully to get the binder from over my shoulders to under my armpits and ready to roll down.

I stuck my head out of the curtain again, this time, with my binder stuck on my armpits and my arms unable to lower. In a stage whisper, I called for Patrick to come back over to help. Since he couldn’t come in, I turned my back to the opening and had him stick his hand through the curtain to roll down the binder from the back, while I tried to roll it down from the front. My pinned arms flailed as I tried to both block my breasts from view and tug down the front of the binder.

After a mutual effort, we were able to roll the binder down. Every inch of progress was preceded by strain, tugging, scraping, and probably profanities. 

But then, success!  As much of a pain in the ass, or underarm, as it turned out to be, I enjoyed the final product when I looked in the mirror – a smooth chest without the protrusions of breasts that, for me, ruined the clean line of my shirt.  Of course, I had to repeat the process in reverse to struggle out of the sample binder.

As difficult as it was to put on at first, wearing a binder gave me incredible experience of freedom, allowed me to calm my mind, and gave me some relief from dysphoria. Top surgery a year later then gave me total liberation and a lightness of spirit. I no longer trouble myself wondering if I’m trans enough to be trans, or what people will think of my decision to transition.  I’m free, and I’m me.

If you would like to help young trans-masculine men with limited resources relieve their gender dysphoria, TransActive Gender Center in Portland has a program for the donation of new and used binders. They also provide “a holistic range of services and expertise to empower transgender and gender diverse children, youth and their families in living healthy lives, free of discrimination.” You can find out how to help here: https://www.transactiveonline.org/inabind/

Thank you, as always, for being so awesome.

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