Transgender pastor’s new test of faith

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Ann Gordon stood in front of her United Methodist congregation last fall and announced that she was now he.

Surgery and testosterone had transformed Ann into the Rev. Drew Phoenix -- still as liberal and laid-back as always, but now legally male. Most in the small congregation accepted their pastor’s transition; they even threw him a renaming party, complete with birthday cake.

But when Phoenix, 48, was reappointed to another year of ministry this spring by his bishop, it sparked a protest in the United Methodist Church.

The denomination’s highest authority, the Judicial Council, will take up the case next month, deciding whether the church should accept transgender pastors. The decision will determine Phoenix’s future; it could also have political implications.


Presiding over the Judicial Council is Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr., President Bush’s nominee for surgeon general and a longtime lay leader of the United Methodist church. Democrats have objected to Holsinger in large part because of work he has done for his church over the years.

In 1991, Holsinger wrote a paper for the church describing gay sex as abnormal and unhealthy. On the Judicial Council last year, he supported a pastor who would not permit a gay man to join his congregation. Holsinger has also affirmed the church’s stance against openly gay and lesbian clergy.

The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on Holsinger, though his confirmation hearing was two months ago. He has been asked to answer further questions in writing. In the meantime, Holsinger will handle several Judicial Council cases dealing with sexuality. Most prominent is the question of Phoenix’s right to remain in ministry.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which sets out rules for the denomination, does not address the issue of gender identity. But since it bans discrimination on the basis of gender -- a point intended to ensure the equality of male and female clergy -- Phoenix argues in a legal brief: “There is no basis for prohibiting my appointment . . . based on my identification as male.”

Behind that phrase -- “my identification as male” -- is a lifetime of longing.

Even as a young girl, Ann Gordon felt sure she was meant to be a boy. She played football every afternoon, clearing the snow off her yard in winter so she could practice the moves of her idol, NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel. One of her happiest moments as a teen was playing Joseph in a Christmas pageant and hearing the minister tell her: “Ann, you look handsome.”

She grew up thinking of church as forbidding -- all about “obeying the big daddy in the sky.” But, to her surprise, she found herself tugged toward ministry after several years abroad with the Peace Corps. Five years ago, Gordon was assigned to lead St. John’s of Baltimore City.

Set on a residential street lined with brownstones -- some painted bright pink or green -- St. John’s serves a diverse slice of downtown. Within a few blocks, there’s a Korean newspaper, an African Braiding House, a sushi bar, and a kebab restaurant that serves meat slaughtered in accordance with Muslim law.

The church had absorbed none of that vitality when Gordon arrived. The congregation numbered fewer than a dozen. Gordon threw herself into bringing St. John’s back to life with the mantra: “We worship a radically inclusive God.”

She reached out to gays and lesbians, welcomed agnostics, opened the 100-year-old stone church to yoga, tai chi, antiwar lectures, even a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Word spread about Gordon’s spirited services: how she invited questions as she spoke, making her sermons feel more like college seminars than a list of “Thou shalts.” How she emphasized themes of social justice, and organized her flock to help the poor.

Weekly services now draw at least three dozen -- mostly well-educated white-collar professionals. On one recent Sunday, a check for $1,000 was tossed into the collection basket along with the usual array of rumpled bills.

Even with her success, however, Gordon felt empty, unbalanced, as if she were acting a part. In 2004, on a trip to the Alaskan coast, walking along what felt like the very edge of the Earth, she finally dared to ask herself what was missing. Then she found the courage to act on her answer.

Never during her eight-month-long transition did she question whether God would want her to renounce her femininity. She was sure God had intended her to be male; her woman’s body was meant to challenge her. And, perhaps, to push her church toward a fuller understanding of Christ’s love.

“Maybe this is my gift to the church. Maybe part of the reason I became pastor was this very moment,” Phoenix said.

He revels in his physical changes: His knuckles are hairy! His biceps bulge! But he also finds joy in a new sense of unity with his creator. “It’s like when you come back after a long trip, you collapse on the couch . . . and you just feel, ‘I’m home,’ ” he said. “I am who I am. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

His critics share the same certainty: God doesn’t make mistakes. Which is why they’re not sure they can endorse a pastor with a woman’s double-X chromosomes presenting herself as a man.

“There are theological implications we need to talk about as a church,” said the Rev. Kevin Baker, a United Methodist pastor in a Maryland suburb.

Among his questions: Are transgender individuals stable enough to take on pastoral counseling duties? Are they mentally ill? If gender dysphoria is a genuine medical condition, is it God’s will that those who suffer turn to surgery to make themselves feel better? Or might a lifetime of struggle be their cross to bear?

“If Drew Phoenix were unhappy about his race and tried to undergo a surgical procedure to change it, everyone would say: ‘That’s wrong -- you should affirm who you are and live as God has made you.’ But to change your gender identity has become faddish,” said Mark Tooley, who studies Methodist doctrine for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank.

Before he preached his first sermon as the Rev. Phoenix last September, he met privately with every member of the church. Few had questions -- or concerns.

“I was surprised for a moment, but after a moment or two, it was: OK, . . . this is the direction he’s been called. It didn’t change anything for me,” said Dave Fisher, 48, a lawyer. “Everyone is included here. This is more Christlike than any church I’ve ever been.”

Across the nation, few clergy have come out as transgender.

The Rev. Erin K. Swenson transitioned from male to female in 1996 and continues to serve as an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA. In the Reform Jewish tradition, Rabbi Elliot Kukla -- born Eliza -- recently wrote an officially sanctioned blessing for Jews undergoing gender changes.

But when a Baptist minister transitioned from male to female in 2004, she lost her teaching post at an evangelical college in Spring Arbor, Mich. Administrators cited conduct “inconsistent with the Christian faith.”

Opponents of transgender clergy say the concept of fluid sexuality undercuts the duality set forth in Genesis: “Male and female he created them.”

Phoenix finds a different message in the Bible. “Throughout the New Testament, people would ask Jesus, ‘Who are you?’ He would answer: ‘Who do you say I am? And who do you say you are?’ Our spiritual path is all about finding the answer to that question.”