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[UMNS-GENERAL-CONFERENCE-NEWS] UMNS GC17 - Transgender United Methodists share stories


From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Thu, 24 Apr 2008 21:46:17 -0500

Transgender United Methodists share stories

April 24, 2008

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report at www.gc2008.org <http://www.gc2008.org/

By Robin Russell*

FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)-For three decades, United Methodists have debated at General Conference gatherings whether gay Christians can participate fully in the denomination, including being ordained as clergy.

This year, persons who have changed their gender are adding a new angle to that debate.

The Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore, said he took "steps toward wholeness" two years ago when he switched his gender to male.

"I can say that I have come home to the child that God created me to me, and I'm very joyful, whole and peaceful," he said at an April 24 press conference sponsored by a pro-gay advocacy group.

Phoenix had been minister at St. John's for five years as the Rev. Ann Gordon. Following surgery and hormone therapy, he changed his gender and adopted a new name.

The press conference was sponsored by Affirmation, an unofficial caucus of United Methodists that are among advocacy groups hoping to gain support during the 2008 General Conference for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people through prayer vigils, rallies and speeches. The event was held near the Fort Worth Convention Center, where General Conference is meeting through May 2.

Other groups that organized public-witness activities on issues of sexuality and sexual identity were Reconciling Ministries Network, Methodist Federation for Social Action and Soulforce.

Gay-rights proponents hope this General Conference will elect a more "moderate" Judicial Council, the church's supreme court, so that practicing gays and lesbians will not be barred from church membership; include a statement in the Book of Discipline that not all United Methodists are of one mind on homosexuality; and allow gay and transgender people to be ordained as clergy, said the Rev. Troy G. Plummer, executive director for Reconciling Ministries Network.

Emerging issue

The issue of transgender clergy came to the forefront in 2007 when Bishop John R. Schol reappointed Phoenix as pastor of St. John's. Schol said the 2004 Book of Discipline did not prevent transgender clergy from serving in an appointment. The denomination's highest court affirmed that decision last October, agreeing that gender change is not addressed in the United Methodist constitution.

While church policy does not permit self-avowed practicing gay clergy to be appointed and bans gay unions, it says nothing about transgender clergy.

Some United Methodists are hoping that will change.

The Rev. Karen Booth is executive director of Transforming Congregations, an organization she says ministers to "sexually confused, sinful and broken people." She believes transgender people exhibit a "deep, psychological conflict." While the church should minister to them, she says, leadership should not be an option.

"We recognize that there are, in fact, people who are unfortunately born with a chromosomal blueprint that is ambiguous. That is a valid medical condition that needs to be addressed," she said. "Most of what we see is more of a psychological state where a person says, 'I don't feel like I'm in the right body.' We believe that's a blurring of the distinct way God created us as male and female."

When transgender people describe a difference between how they feel inside and what their body looks like, Booth said it reflects the Gnostic heresy that "assumes an anti-body dualism-if inner feelings are at odds with physical reality, the latter is insignificant and expendable."

She also finds it ironic, she added, that "gays and lesbians say, 'God created me this way,' whereas transgender people say, 'God made a mistake.' There's a real inconsistency there."

Booth has submitted petitions to the 2008 General Conference that would spell out church policy by stating that neither transgenderism nor transsexuality "reflects God's best intentions for humankind."

Seeking acceptance

Phoenix, however, believes transgenderism is compatible with Christian teaching because "it was in the context of my faith in Christ, led by the Spirit, that I made the transition (of gender)." What's more, he added, his church is thriving in its mission of disciple-making and mission.

"Seeing me become more transparent, honest and authentic in the transition gives them permission to be honest in a way that they couldn't have before," he said of his congregation. "We want to be known as the children God created us to be. That's been my experience with my church, across the board."

Panelists at the press conference also included:

· Tina Seitz, a United Methodist from the Detroit area who considered suicide to spare her children embarrassment of having a transgender parent, but who says making the transition to a woman makes her feel "whole in a way I never did before." She said a United Methodist church gave her the spiritual guidance she needed "as never before."

· Sean Delmore, a doctoral student at Boston University's School of Theology and a transgender man who is pursuing ordination as a deacon in the New England Annual (regional) Conference. He came to faith at seminary and found "radical hospitality" through a United Methodist bishop who asked him, "How can we help?" "That is the history and tradition of The United Methodist Church," he said.

· Diane DeLap, Affirmation spokesperson and a transgender woman who called on General Conference delegates "to reject any attempt to discriminate against transgender persons in ministry and membership. One of the things that concerns me is that the church is interfering in what is a medical decision. When a doctor concludes that medical treatment is needed, it is the church's position to support people through those decisions." She added, "Jesus welcomed the outcast of his day. If he were here today, he would be welcoming us into the church, too."

*Russell is managing editor of the United Methodist Reporter.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.


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