A church employee talks to Spectrum about her decision to transition from the male to the female gender, her relationship with her wife and family, and her relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Question: You are an employee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and in the process of transitioning from the male to the female gender. Is it possible to remain an employee of the church?
Answer: I am currently an employee of the SDA church, yes, but only for a short time more. I have chosen to leave of my own accord, and gave my notice to my employer nearly six months prior to my planned departure.
The senior executive I gave my notice to responded in a way that I will always cherish. After I told her that I would be leaving, her first response was to ask why. I told her that I was a transgender person, and that my journey at this time in my life was to move forward with the transition that I had begun nearly four years earlier.
Her response was: “My, I wouldn’t have guessed. Do you have a support network?”
I said that I did. She then asked whether my wife had a support network. I said that she did.
The next question was whether my children had a support network. Again I responded in the affirmative.
Over the next 15 to 20 minutes we worked out the logistics of how the information of my departure would be managed. Twice more she asked me the same three questions about a support network. I said that I hoped I would be able to continue to contribute to the institution and eventually join conversations on the subject of being transgender and Seventh-day Adventist. She said she thought that would be good.
You asked whether I could stay on as an employee. The answer is not simple. If the only constraints were at the specific institution where I work, I think the answer would be that I could transition and stay. But given the broader church politic and influence, I don’t believe it is possible at present.
Finally, given the connectedness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the thinking in some areas of the church, I believe staying is not worth the potential damage it would cause my family.
So you have not been asked to leave?
How about remaining a church member? Will you continue to attend a Seventh-day Adventist church? Do you hold Adventist beliefs?
I have no intention of leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I would say that I and my wife are progressive Adventists and as such we see the church as having a lot of room — more than what some would allow for.
The next question is not so easy. Finding an Adventist church that will accept a “same sex” couple will not be easy, and we will not attend a church on a regular basis that will not be affirming. So the answer is that it depends on where we end up settling and whether that place has an SDA church that will be a loving, fully accepting community. (Not that every member has to agree, but we should be able to hold a church office etc.)
As I said, we are progressive in our beliefs, and I have gone so far as saying that I am a cultural Seventh-day Adventist. That said, at the core of my belief I am a disciple of Christ and live my walk based on Christ’s statement of the law in the gospels when He states: The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and the second is like it; love your neighbor as yourself. I connect that to Matthew 25 and the scene of the judgment with its call to treat those on the fringes as God’s children.
I am not saying that there are no bounds or limits, but they must be based on principles of love that create positive, faith-building relationships.
I guess the simple answer is to the question is: In large part I accept the teachings of the SDA church and its fundamental beliefs. The community of the church is something that I am deeply a part of, based on both family and personal history, and in large part my experience with the Church has been very good.
Have you told any of your colleagues about your transgender experience?
Yes, and to a person they have been kind, supportive, caring and concerned. They would like to see me stay, but they also understand Adventist communities and the broader forces that presently prevail within the church on this and the broader questions of LGBTQI issues.
At this point all of my close colleagues know and have known for several months. Their support continues to be there.
Can you tell us more about how your wife feels about your decision to switch genders? How long have you been married?
I have been married for over 30 years.
I will not attempt to speak for her, but I will reflect on what she says and what I believe she thinks and feels.
First, she would not choose this. But our marriage has been based on a deep and enduring friendship and commitment — one grounded in love and faith. We have been faithful throughout our marriage to each other, always keeping our vows.
We are both, by nature, rather non-confrontational in how we relate to others, and we both look for the best in others. This outlook has created the path that allows us to move forward together as a couple even now.
She has known for nearly a decade that I am transgender and has made a conscious decision to stay with me and to keep our relationship alive.
My wife has experienced what is commonly felt by spouses and families of transgender people: when someone transitions there is a sense of the person dying before your eyes. But then the person who emerges is in most ways the same, so the reasons you loved that person are still there and in those key ways the person has not changed.
As my wife and I have discussed my transition in the past few weeks, she said something that really struck me, and shows what an amazing person she is. I had expressed how amazing it was to just be me, mostly not worrying about keeping up appearances. I talked about how a burden that I have carried for some forty years was finally lifting. She responded that she could understand and that she was so glad to see how free and happy I was. She went on to say that she still loved me and can’t picture growing old with anybody else. Then she said: “I appreciate that you have carried this burden for so long; now it is my turn to carry the load.”
This is as deep a commitment as anyone could ever ask, and as great a gift as anyone could receive.
We do hope to grow old together.
Do you know other Adventists who are transgender? What has their experience been like?
Yes, I know several Adventists who are transgender and several former Adventists who are as well.
The experience of each is different, but the key is how family relates to them. For those who have supportive families who are within the church, they have continued their connection to the church to varying degrees. Some are regular participants and members of their local churches. One is even a local church elder. For those that have family who are not accepting, most have left the SDA church and in some cases even the larger Christian religion.
Acceptance by one’s family is a very powerful thing, and when your family is there for you in positive supporting ways, even it they don’t understand, life is worth living.
Tell us a little bit about your family. Did you grow up in the Adventist church?
I grew up in an Adventist family. I am a 4th generation Adventist on both sides of my family. One of my grandfathers was a pastor/administrator in the church, the other was the head elder of a large congregation for 30 years or more. My parents both worked the majority of their professional lives within the Adventist educational system, with my father a university professor/administrator and my mother teaching every thing from kindergarten to college. I have three siblings. Two have spent most of their professional lives within the Adventist healthcare system as managers and leaders. One has held positions as president and CEO of several organizations. My third sibling is a very successful author and publisher.
My home life was a wonderful upbringing in a loving, caring family in an Adventist community. Virtually all of my friends were Adventists and their parents were active in the church and community. I was never abused by anyone as a child. My mother’s area of professional expertise is in the area of family and early childhood development and so she was very engaged as a parent, and my father was an equal partner in the task of raising the four of us. They are still active in their church community and truly cannot go anywhere in the Adventist world without encountering someone they know.
We are still a closely connected family, and I talk regularly with my parents and siblings. We vacation together about once every 12 to 18 months and these gatherings are always fun and enjoyable.
My wife and I have children who are young adults who we raised in the Adventist church, with most of their schooling in SDA schools. They are both Christians, but they now question the Adventist church because of the basic tone of the church and how it views LGBTQI issues. They find an incongruence to how the church views people they know who are LGBTQI and Christian.
When did you begin to feel more comfortable as a girl or woman?
My journey to understanding started in elementary school. Before the age of 9 I realized that I would rather be a girl to the world, but feared the consequences of telling anyone — so I didn’t. Sometime in the mid 1970s my brother, who is four years older, came home and announced that the artist who created the album “Switched on Bach” had “changed sexes” and he wanted to know what my parents thought. I don’t remember the specifics of that dinner table conversation, but I do know that it was clear that they didn’t think you could switch, and that likely it wasn’t “right.” This insured that I stayed deeply in the closet.
I came to realize that I was a “transsexual” sometime in the course of middle school when I happened across an article in one of the local daily news papers. There was an article about a young transsexual woman who had transitioned,; she had the surgery commonly referred to as Sexual Reassignment surgery (SRS). (Preferred terms to today are Gender Reassignment surgery, GRS, or Gender Conformation surgery, GCS). With this article I realized that there was actually a way to change how one’s genitals appeared from male to female, and I knew that somehow that is what I needed — that indeed I could become a woman. About the same time Renée Richards became the first “out” professional athlete to play in a major sporting tournament and series (women’s tennis). With this and a few other things I realized that there were indeed other people who were similar, but within the culture and conversation of the community, it was clearly viewed as bad.
Due to the conflict with my religious upbringing I struggled to reconcile what I felt, and so I did what any good young Adventist male would do: I got married just out of college. My wife and I were young, and I was sure that this was the cure.
The realization that it wasn’t was quick to arrive, and in less than a year, I knew it hadn’t changed that part of me. I continued to struggle in silence and in the closet. I struggled with God about it until finally, after two children, I realized that God accepts me the way I am. I realized that it wasn’t my choices that led to the way I am; I just am, for whatever reason, and I don’t get to know “why me?” until heaven.
With that realization, I became comfortable with the idea of seeing myself as a woman, but due to my military career, and my family responsibilities I stayed closeted until my wife happened to find my boxes of clothes and accessories. By this time I was in my early 40s and I was ready to live with integrity in my marriage, and so I told her. That was nine years ago.
The emergence of the internet was a powerful thing for transgender people, as suddenly there was information out there that you could find from the privacy of your home. Suddenly I realized that I was not alone. This created hope that there might be a chance at “life.”
To summarize, I felt comfortable as a girl when I was somewhere between six and nine years old. Like everyone else I moved through life with its accompanying doubts and fears, but I did it to the world as a guy, and internally as a girl. In adulthood — once I resolved the spiritual conflict — I was good with being a woman. In fact I was great with it. The more I have moved through transition, the more comfortable I am.
Now I’m a rather sporty 50-something woman who loves fitness and fashion and trying to figure out how things work. I love to create images of the world (through photography). I love woodworking and cooking for my family.
What do you like about the Adventist church? What do you dislike?
The greatest strength of Adventist churches, I believe, are the sense of community they foster, and the Sabbath. The connectedness of the faith is powerful and inviting and has been very rewarding to me and my family. The Sabbath and the rest and the coming apart have given me a connection with God and family that I believe is of divine design and intent.
What I struggle with in the institutional church is that we have become a church of rule, much like the Pharisees. These rules — although well intended — have become more important than the principles that underlie them.
The second thing I struggle with is that we have failed to live out the gospel as it is set out in Matthew 25. We make attempts, but we are more concerned with appearance than we are about actual practice. I fear that many will be on the on the right side of the “rules,” but the wrong side of the judgment.
The final thing that concerns me within Adventism is the recurring rise of perfection doctrines within the church. The Last Generation Theology (LGT) is the latest iteration. This type of theological thinking creates this drive to create rules so that we can define perfection, and can “know” that we are indeed progressing toward salvation or are in fact saved.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope that I will be working full time at whatever the Lord leads us to do. Given my skills and work experience I expect it will be in the area of aviation operations, doing something such as flying for a major air carrier or in the more technical part of the flying business: flight test. I could end up back in government working on issues related to transgender inclusion, but I doubt that will be full time.
In five years I will have been living full time with the world seeing me as the woman I am, married to the same beautiful and amazing lady I am today. I doubt we will have grandchildren yet, but it certainly could happen. I hope that I will have been a positive, loving voice in a challenging discussion in the church and the broader society.
How have you seen the church’s attitudes towards gay, lesbian and transgender individuals change in your lifetime? How do you anticipate them changing further?
Clearly within the church you can find those who have moderated their tone and even their stance on LGBTQI people, but the official position stands as it does, with non-inclusion unless you are celibate as the stated policy.
If, as I suspect, the US Supreme Court rules in favor of “same sex marriage” the church will likely have to moderate its stance to at least accommodate those who come to Adventism already married, just as we have accommodated those who came to the church already in polygamous marriages from cultures where that is acceptable.
On the issue of transgender acceptance, the church has not taken a formal stance, although the Biblical Research Institute did issue a paper earlier this year. If the BRI paper is adhered to, we will end up in much the same place as we are with the LGB portion of the group — which is really a very unaccepting position.
If you look to the millennial generation, I believe that there is hope for radical change: that our church forms a doctrine that is based on monogamous committed relationships.
On the transgender front, we could save ourselves much grief and bring a great deal of healing by simply following the biblical lead as patterned for eunuchs of old. Although many in the transgender community don’t like the association, in a careful reading of the relevant scriptures one can, without manipulation, include what we today call transgender people. We can find it in both testaments, even spoken directly by Christ. Finally we see an apostle act on it by baptizing a eunuch.
The subject of this interview has requested to remain anonymous at this time, because of her current employment at an Adventist institution, and the employment of family members at Adventist institutions. She hopes to speak publicly in the future.