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Congregations welcome transgender people

Unitarian Universalist churches, General Assembly affirm transgender people.
By Donald E. Skinner
Winter 2007 11.1.07

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The Rev. Peter Morales and Carol Ganow

Carol Ganow (right), a transgender member of the Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., stands with the Rev. Peter Morales, the church's minister. (Wyley Eaton)

Harold Ganow had known since age three that being male just didn’t feel right. He even picked a new name way back then, “Carol,” that he used when he thought about being female. Throughout school and into college and a career as a scientist, that unease about gender identity continued. Then in the early ’90s, when he was in his forties, he did something about it. He came out as female and changed his name to Carol.

One of the places Carol Ganow came out was Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, where she’d been a member less than a year. JUC saved her life, she said. When her transition led to divorce, losing her job, and the loss of her children’s custody, she edged toward suicide. “But I had friends at church who kept me going,” she said.

She had doubted that she’d be welcome at any church. She’d had transgender friends who were booted out of other churches. At JUC Ganow felt support. She learned later that some were frightened, and at least one family left the church—but for the most part there was acceptance. “I learned that I’m simply one quite normal variant of the human condition,” she said.

Unitarian Universalist congregations, which have been welcoming to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, have begun to embrace transgender people. “Trans­gender” describes people who transcend the traditional understanding of male and female. “Transsexual,” a subset of transgender, describes people who are born into a body of one sex, but believe they are another sex. Others who are transgender include crossdressers, genderqueers, and intersexuals. The first are people who simply enjoy dressing in the clothing of another sex. The second, genderqueers, are people who do not choose to identify as any one gender. The last, intersexuals, are people who are born with a combination of male and female physiology.

Transgender people have been supported by the Unitarian Universalist Association officially since 1996 when “transgender” was added to the name of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns (OBGLTC). Delegates at the UUA’s 2007 General Assembly this past June took that support another step forward by approving the first-ever GA resolution in support of transgender people.

The resolution came in response to a report by UUA President William G. Sinkford, who highlighted the support that congregations in Florida had provided to Largo city manager Steve (now Susan) Stanton, who was fired after he announced he would undergo gender reassignment surgery. The GA resolution, affirming support for “the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, including transgender individuals,” was initiated by the Rev. Manish Mishra, minister of the UU Church of Saint Petersburg, Florida.

As transgender people have become more visible in society—Felicity Huffman received a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her role in the 2005 film Transamerica, Barbara Walters did a special on transgender issues earlier this year, and the venerable TV soap opera All My Children introduced a transgender character in 2006—UU congregations are also welcoming more transgender people. Many congregations now include one or two transgender people, notes the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the UUA’s OBGLTC. He said the situation is similar to the early ’80s when there were fewer gays and lesbians in congregations.

When a transgender person chooses to undergo the process of transition from one gender to another in full view of the congregation it can lead to transformational moments for the congregation and the individual.

PJ Mears transitioned from a female to a male identity around 1998 while a member of First Universalist Church in Auburn, Maine. “The church was absolutely helpful in this process,” Mears said. “When I first joined I was in my shell. After my physical transition people commented on how easy I was to be with. I had a real blossoming.” The congregation elected him president twice.

The Rev. Jodi Hayashida, minister of the church, says Mears’s willingness to go through his transition publicly “helped the congregation understand at an emotional and spiritual level why people feel compelled to do this.”

Jim Chaplin, who was president of First Universalist in the mid ’90s, credits the Rev. Johanna Nichols, who served the church from 1988 to 1999, with helping the congregation grow into a place of welcome to everyone. The congregation held workshops on gay and lesbian issues and became politically active in the equal rights movement in Maine. As bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgender people began attending in greater numbers and told others about the congregation, the church became almost a third BGLT.

Early on, several families left because of that focus, but Chaplin said he rarely hears negative comments. “All of the sharing and learning brought us closer as a community,” he said. “And because we have 150 members everyone has to pitch in. Working side by side with someone helps overcome any uncertainties. We had shared values and a sense of responsibility for the church.”

The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison is minister of the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Salt Lake City and is one of only two or three openly transgender ministers called by a congregation. “For my ministry to be successful I had to prove to the congregation that my being transgender is irrelevant,” Dennison said. “I’m a minister first.” But transgender ministers can bring special gifts, he said. “I have never met one who has not thought very deeply about identity, what it means to break the rules to be your true self, what you are willing to risk for integrity.”

When anxiety arose in the ministerial search process about “Are we going to be a transgender church?” or “Is he going to be a transgender activist?” lay leaders came to Dennison and asked, “What do we do?”

“I said, don’t do anything,” Dennison said. “Listen to them and hear their concerns and don’t try to fix them. That’s all people need, to be listened to.”

John C. Hilke is copresident of the South Valley congregation. “Calling Sean as minister helped get our message out that we are an intentionally diverse congregation,” he said. “We wanted someone who would be a good speaker, who would do all the things a minister is supposed to do. As far as I know gender was beside the point. This is consistent with the way the congregation has been positioning itself for some time. This is all positive for us.”

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