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.

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.

Finding Leo: One Chest Hair Is Enough

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

I have been on testosterone for 21 months, and still only have one chest hair.  One.  It’s faint, and sometimes I need my glasses on to see it, but it’s there. Sigh. My facial hair status bar is still loading at 20%. I can wish for more right now, for the hormonal transition to go faster, but I may as well wish for civility in our national political discourse.  Some things we just can’t control.

Most of the time I feel ok about my body. But I also deal with wishing I was manlier. Part of me believes that the more masculine I appear, the more easily I will navigate the world.  Even though I am very out about being trans (including writing a column about it), I don’t always want to be out to strangers and worry about being misgendered. I am nearly always called “sir” by waiters and sales people, but then I brace myself for them to wrongly “correct” themselves.  I try to butch it up so they know they were correct in identifying me as male.

I often don’t feel masculine enough when I’m contemplating dating. If you missed it, last January I came out as bisexual, which is not infrequent in the trans community. I’ve been told that people read me as a gay male, which is great when the dating audience is a gay man, but discouraging if I’m trying to pursue a straight woman.

You know how we lament (or celebrate, depending on your opinion) that men are socialized to be manly from a young age?  I missed out on all of this socialization into the world of being male.  I feel like I’m trying to learn a foreign language by only watching television and guessing at the syntax and rules. For example, I am deducing that I need to stop fluttering my hands about or clasping them to my chest when I’m shocked. Or do I?

Our world has so many ways of telling us we are not enough. We are not manly enough, we are not thin enough, smart enough, funny enough, popular enough. Some of this comes from advertising, to be sure. If we buy <insert magic product here>, we will be <insert desirable quality> enough, and then be happy.  But our judgment of ourselves and others also comes from our own tendency as humans to tear one another down as we tease, exclude, or bully those who are different from us, often as a way to ease our own insecurities.

To be sure, it frustrates me when we are mean to each other.  But what breaks my heart to pieces is when churches or people of faith tell people they are not enough: pure enough, holy enough, cisgender and straight enough.  How can I hope to do enough to help heal the wounds inflicted by spiritual leaders on those who are seeking God?  The truth is, I can’t.

I have had many conversations over the last few years with people who have been hurt by the church.  It doesn’t matter to me if you go to church or if you believe in God.  It’s not my job to get you to church, and none of my business.  I love you just as much as the person who does go to church or believes.  But I do care about your stories.  You deserve to be heard. You are worthy of being seen and loved just as you are.

I mentioned last month that the tattoo on my arm references my favorite bible verse, Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV): “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.”

I’d like to put that another way.  “For I am convinced that nothing will make God stop loving you. No matter what anyone has told you, you are enough. Whatever you have done, whoever you love, however you live, you are still beloved.”

I can understand if it doesn’t really make a difference for some people if I say this. Their hurt and rejection by the church is too deep to heal quickly. As a person who lived as a straight, cisgender, white woman in the church for 37 years before coming out, I’m sorry that we haven’t done more as a church to speak love over the rancorous voices of bigotry, discrimination, and shame.

I regularly feel awkward about talking about God and faith, especially in the LGBTQ community. I’ve been told I am too churchy to date. I don’t relish being the uncool guy that always talks about God and goes to church.  But I have been the humble recipient of your stories, and I want to be a good caretaker of the anger and hopes you tell me. I am honored that you have shared your lives with me.

You know, I’m going to try to take my own words to heart. I will celebrate my one little chest hair. It is enough. I will try to accept my mannerisms that are read as feminine. I am male enough. I will keep working for justice in the church. I am cool enough.

And you?  You are enough. And you are pretty damn awesome.

Finding Leo: My Best Valentine

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

It’s raining outside. I’m scrolling through Facebook past angry political posts and memes about cats. And then I see a post from AIDS Walk Portland. Drawn in, I look at the photos from last summer. Blue sky and sunshine on the green grass of The Fields Park, smiling friendly faces, pictures that bring back happy memories and joy. My mind starts jumping ahead to this summer, and ideas bubble up for making 2016 even better.
I volunteer for Cascade AIDS Project because I believe in the mission: to prevent HIV infections, support and empower people living with or affected by HIV, and eliminate HIV-related stigma and health disparities. I also want to make a difference because of the people I care about who are affected by HIV.


But how do I describe the greater gift that the community has given me?
In 2010, I was mad a God for suffering in the world, and mad at the church for the human failings of its leaders. Upset about my poor choices in love, and my loss of faith, I was struggling with depression and felt adrift. I had moved back home to Beaverton, after dropping out of seminary. I was lonely, tired of taking myself to dinner alone, and I was just plain feeling blue. I didn’t yet know I am trans.


My friend from seminary asked me if I would join her team in the AIDS LifeCycle, a 545 mile from San Francisco to LA. I wasn’t a cyclist, but thought I would give it a try, hoping it would be a way I could get fit. Because I live in Portland, I was connected with the training captains and teams from this area.


Team Portland for the AIDS LifeCycle is very committed, and I tried to train hard. We got up early on Saturdays and spent the whole day on the bicycle, going up steep hills, learning to ride in the wind and the rain, learning to follow good cycling etiquette. We shared the stories of how our lives were impacted by HIV.


Truthfully, I was still a bit of a lost soul on those rides. I am especially grateful to David Duncan and Maje Anderson, great cyclists and extraordinary men who shepherded me along my steep learning curve, fear of falling and other anxieties, as well as my general struggles. They never left me behind. They helped me face the scariest downhills. The rest of the team is also awesome but some of my strongest memories are of those times when I couldn’t keep up, but David and Maje stuck with me.


The actual event in the summer of 2011 was amazing, with 2500 cyclists and roadies over 7 days. Again, I felt out of my element, and overwhelmed by several challenges (for me one of the hardest was waking up, packing all my gear, and getting on the bike without my usual slow morning dawdle). I was moved deeply, however, by the way people encouraged and supported one another. This was also a time when I most strongly identified as “one of the guys”, and tried to figure out what that was about.


Flash forward to 2012, and David and Maje invited me to ride a shorter ride, this time for the local organization, Cascade AIDS Project. I did some training on the bicycle, but more importantly, became involved in the local community. I met so many new friends who changed my life forever, and found meaning and purpose in working to end AIDS and fight stigma.


It’s amazing how just a few choices can change the direction of your life. I raised money, fought stigma, and promoted education to make a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV. But what I have received far outweighs anything I have given.


It was a journey for me to come from the place of sorrow in 2010, to the place of joy I am now. It took time to rebuild my faith, and find community. It took a village to help me come out as trans.

I find so much inspiration and courage from those who choose to be public about their HIV status, such as the Positive Pedalers from AIDS LifeCycle, whose motto is Eliminating Stigma through Our Positive Public Example, and Cascade AIDS Project’s group Positive Force NW, who seek to build community and eliminate HIV/AIDS-related stigma. I have tried to craft my own life motto, “no shame, no fear, no stigma” based on these role models. They have given me the bravery to live my own most authentic life, loved and cared for me, and helped me find community as my true self. I saw God at our AIDS Walk.


For Valentine’s Day this year, I give my love and gratitude to all who walk, all who donate, all who volunteer, and to all who don’t let stigma or fear hold them back. For those who are struggling, you are in my heart.
I look forward to a day when HIV is no more, but until then, I am grateful for an opportunity to walk alongside those affected by HIV. I can’t wait organize our faith communities again this year for AIDS Walk Portland, on September 10th, 2016. You can sign up now! Start or join a team at AIDSWalkPortland.org!


Thank you all for being a part of my story, and in my life.

Finding Leo: Back to the Beginning

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

Coming out as trans, starting with my own self-realization on March 26, 2013 was both terrifying and liberating. Of course I told Daniel first. A friend of many years, he is the one I call when things go bump in the night. We talk about everything, squabble like siblings, and laugh till we can’t breathe. Daniel was my first go-to for many awkward questions about being gay, and he was patient in my ignorance.

I confessed to Daniel that I thought I might be trans.  I say “confessed” because it carried the burden of so much fear and shame, and was so hard to finally admit. I second-guessed myself. Was I wrong? Was I just trying to fit in? Was I really trans, or trans enough to be trans? Was it just in my head? 

I told my roommate, Patrick, next. After an incredibly awkward pause, I started with “I’ve been looking up transgender stuff on the internet.” A few nights after I shared this new secret, we stayed up until three in the morning, analyzing why I felt this way. He shared his fears, and held me while I sobbed.

If only the me-of-today could share with the me-of-then what I have learned! I am so much more vibrant and authentic living out of the closet. I stand taller, and am more confident in my uniqueness.  I am joyful, and understand why I never quite felt like I fit in.

Within a week of my confessions, I decided to cut my hair. For most of my life, my hair had been long. It is thick and naturally wavy, and I never really styled it. Daniel did want to give me big ponytails or “poof poofs,” but that wasn’t going to happen. I did the “wash, comb and go,” and it felt like a big fluffy triangle. I told myself I could always grow it back.

It was also time to broaden my circle of people-in-the-know and I decided to tell my friend Andrew next. In another story, I’ll tell you how his comment made me realize I am trans. But at this lunch, I didn’t know how to bring it up. I asked about his day, and dawdled over food choices. It felt shameful to admit. In my head, I was a poser and a wannabe. Maybe I wasn’t really trans, but just wanted to be cool.  I finally got the words out, “I’ve been questioning my gender identity.”

He was not fazed or worried. This was not the end of the world, and he would always be my friend. After our conversation, I felt like maybe it wasn’t going to be that big of a deal.

However, for the next few months when I would come out to people, I still softened the statement by saying “I think I may be transgender.” It was a journey for me to go from considering the idea, to tentatively suggesting it, to embracing it. But that softened statement was also made out of fear and defensiveness. My logic was that if I expressed doubt, then people couldn’t attack my sureness.

I made the appointment to get my hair cut. I didn’t tell my other friends or my hair dresser what was really going on. I even brought pictures of women with short hair that matched the men’s style I wanted. I had to go back three times, each time getting shorter and closer to what I truly meant. When I finally came out to my barber, I finally got the man’s haircut I wanted. Authenticity really does pay off!

At first, I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror or in my reflection in windows with the short hair. It was unsettling. I began wearing jeans, a sports bra, and t-shirt regularly, but wanted to expand my male wardrobe. I am blessed with the best of friends who gave me their hand-me-downs to help me start out.  Each step towards living as male just clicked and felt right.

But during those first few months, being in public scared me. I felt vulnerable and exposed in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I vividly remember walking five blocks in my neighborhood in men’s shorts and a t-shirt with short hair. You’d have thought I was streaking through a priests’ convention the way I felt that I stood out! The places I felt safest were at my friend’s home or at gay bars. However, even there, as I felt more authentically me, I also felt I had made myself ugly and unlovable.

Two months after I came out, I got a tattoo on my right forearm: “Nothing can separate us” from a bible verse, Romans 8:38-39. It reminds me that nothing I can do will make God stop loving me. This reminder was critical in these first few months when I was filled with so much fear: fear I was doing something wrong, fear that people would be upset or hurt me. 

I needed something permanent to remind me that God’s love is bigger than my fear, bigger than other people’s judgment, bigger than my own internalized transphobia. I needed this tattoo to remind me that I am still good, and whole, and worthy of love.  I needed this tattoo to connect me to my faith, even when I was too afraid to believe. 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Beautifully Made

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

You are not alone.  You are lovable and worthy.  You have a place at the table. For those of us longing for a community of faith, longing to be known and loved by God, we need to hear these words.

More and more churches are willing to take a public stand and proclaim that “All Are Welcome” really does include everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Churches are having faithful and sometimes hard conversations, while at the same time working to maintain community. But while these discussions are being had within the sanctuary and church classrooms, many of us may be left outside in the cold, separated from community and kept from hearing those words, “You are a beloved child of God.”

The Rev. Mike Tupper of Kalamazoo, Michigan is a Methodist pastor longing for justice and inclusion in the United Methodist Church. He was brought up on charges within the church for officiating at two marriages of same-sex couples. One of the couples included his daughter. Currently, in the Methodist church, pastors can lose their credentials for marrying a same-sex couple. To protest this, he is camping outside every night until the General Conference for the United Methodists this May. At that time, groups within the Methodist church are going to ask for full inclusion for LGBTQ members and pastors, and for the rules to allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings. (Local folk – heads up – the conference is scheduled for Portland, Oregon from May 10-20th, 2016.  You can be involved and find out more here: http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/itstime)

In his moving picture, Rev. Tupper is outside of a tent, in the snow, proudly holding the photo album from his daughter’s wedding. On Facebook, his caption reads, “Day #51 Cold and snowy. I’m holding book of our daughter’s wedding. Sarah is the reason I’m sleeping outside every night thru General Conference. Praying that Sarah will be fully welcomed inside our church. On to Indianapolis this Friday for a witness.”

I am truly grateful for Rev. Tupper and others who work to not only make the church safe for LGBTQ people, but to celebrate and live alongside our LGBTQ neighbor, fully recognizing the wonderful gifts and strengths of each. I will be paying attention to the Methodist General Conference when it comes to Portland this May, and ways that we can help support those working for change in the church.

This work can sometimes feel daunting, so it is also important to find sources of renewal and strength.  One such opportunity is being sponsored by the Lutherans in the Portland Metro area.  It is a community-wide church service to celebrate that each of us is beautifully and wonderfully made, loved by God and embraced by our community.  Our queerness and diversity is part of what makes us beautiful!  

You are welcome to join us on Sunday, January 24th at 6:30 p.m. at Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Ave, Portland. Child care will be provided. There will be a pop-up choir for the event, if you would like to participate.  The one rehearsal is at 5:45 p.m. that evening. A dessert reception follows.

The Episcopal Church also recently had a Festal Eucharist in honor of St. Aelred, the patron Saint of Integrity USA, the welcoming church movement in the Episcopal Church.  This celebration was on January 9th this year at St. Matthew’s Episcopal.

The voices that say “No” to inclusion and love are not the whole story.  They are not the complete picture of church. God’s hospitality is abundant, and God’s love is bigger than any box we can try to use to set up insiders or outsiders.

Please know that no matter what you are told, you are not alone. You are lovable and worthy. You do not need to stay on the outside, for you are welcome at the feast. You are beautifully and wonderfully made, just as you are.

Photo used with permission of Rev. Mike Tupper.

Some helpful links…

To find a welcoming congregation in your area, of any denomination: http://www.welcomingresources.org/directory.htm

I also highly recommend PFLAG as a place to find comfort, community and strength:  https://community.pflag.org/

To find out more about the welcoming church movement in a few of the many denominations with such organizations:

Lutheran ELCA – http://www.reconcilingworks.org/

United Methodist – http://www.rmnetwork.org/

Episcopal – http://www.integrityusa.org/

Community of Welcoming Congregations – an interfaith advocacy group –

Finding Leo: Light a Candle

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

When I look back over 2015, there were many bright moments. I had a few firsts in my life as a trans man: taking off my shirt in public for the Trans Pride March in June, wearing a tux for my birthday.  For Halloween I wore an outfit that was, for me, a classic look that I’d been longing for: dress slacks and suspenders with a white undershirt, which in my imagination exudes a classy masculinity and sexiness.  I also marked the first anniversary for both top surgery (with a sassy shirtless picture), and of taking testosterone. I became more comfortable using the men’s bathroom, though I still hold it rather than use some bathrooms, and definitely rush to get in and get out, anxiously trying to make sure I don’t give myself away as trans. #wejustgottapee

2015 was liberating and joyful in my transition, and I’m feeling more comfortable in my skin.  I also had the opportunity to train people in four states on how to be more welcoming and inclusive to LGBTQ people in their church, and to help them understand sexual orientation and gender identity.  It was a good year for making connections and seeing more churches become welcoming to the LGBTQ community.

I love the chance to stay connected with people on social media (and find interesting articles and cat memes). But there is also a painful side of humanity that bleeds on our Facebook walls: mass shootings, nasty debate about refugees, finger-pointing, fear mongering, and a world grappling with escalating violence.  When I look over 2015, it seems like we are bent on a downward spiral.  It makes me angry and uncomfortable.  It takes an effort to not let my fears or cynicism win.

I need a reminder of the good in the world. On long winter nights, some traditions use the flame of a candle to draw our attention towards light. One Christmas tradition has an evergreen wreath, the advent wreath, with candles representing hope, love, joy, and peace, in addition to one in the middle for Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. I really appreciate the symbolism of a flame, lighting up the gloom around, bringing warmth and visibility.

You remind me of the good in the world. Together, let’s light a metaphorical candle. Can we give a spark of hope in a world of looming climate disaster? Can we give a flicker of love when families kick out their LGBTQ kid? Can we give joy, even when we want to weep at the suffering we see? Can we give a portion of peace in a world of bloodshed, racism, and fear of the other?

Will you light a candle? Let us each put energy towards bridge building, peace-making, and hearing the stories of others. Let us find out what we have in common.  Let us be curious about each other, in a way that is caring.  Let us be brave enough to share our own stories of struggle and happiness.  Let us be gentle with ourselves about our own short-comings, and learn to be graceful with others for theirs.

I need that candle’s burning flame because it is easy for me to fall into despair and fear. I can let the long nights of the cold, wet winter drown me in hopelessness about all that is wrong in the world. I want to stick my head in the sand, and binge watch detective shows where all of the problems are figured out as a neat puzzle, and the bad guy gets locked up in the end. 

In my faith tradition, the light of the candle also reminds me that God is with us in these hardest moments. God is weeping with us, and chanting with us “Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter.” The flickering flame reminds me that God does not come in a chariot to save the day, but dwells with us in these long nights, loving each of us, no matter what. Because of that presence we can be inspired to be voices of both consolation and protest.

I know we come from different traditions, and I respect that. I don’t expect you to believe in God.  It’s not my job to convert you, and it’s none of my business. Regardless of our different faith traditions, my wish is that together we can be the light of hope, and love. Together we can find joy and work for peace.

As we look over 2015, where was your heart most broken? For me it was in loneliness, and a fear for the future in a world of hateful political rhetoric. Is there a way I can hold space in my life for the feelings that come up and be gentle with myself and with others? Can I breathe in, breathe out, and work for hope, love, joy, and peace?

I wrestle with this. In the midst of our hectic world, how can we bring hope, share love, manifest joy, and create peace in tangible and concrete ways? You probably have ideas. Here are a few of mine to start us off: Buy a Street Roots magazine from every vendor you see. Register to vote. Send a card to someone who is feeling down. Advocate for the rights of trans people to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. Vote. Love. Give generously.

Will you light a candle?

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑