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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/MICHAEL WOODS w@NWAMICHAELW The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fayetteville on Saturday presented members of the LGBTQ community sharing stories of their faith. They included (left to right) Justine Morgan Turnage, vice president of of the Transgender Equality Network; Cathy Campbell, president of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of PFLAG; Raymond M. Sweet, national lead of Eagle, an LGBTQ employee resource group at Alcoa; the Rev. Gwen Fry, Episcopal priest; and Stephanie Mott, founder and executive director of Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project.

"The Unitarian Universalists have always been on the edge of social justice," said the Rev. Jim Parrish, who will be installed May 30 as the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fayetteville. The Unitarian Universalists supported the fight for civil rights in the last century, with a large contingent marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., Parrish said.

"But we learned we didn't know that much about civil rights," he noted. The same could be said of the current civil rights movement, striving for equality for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender and queer community, Parrish continued.

To that end, the Fayetteville fellowship on May 16 presented a panel of transgender individuals and the mother of a transgender man to help educate its membership and the community. In particular, the panel members spoke of how being transgender has affected their faith and acceptance in places of worship.

"The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville is a diverse faith community that promotes justice and service while seeking personal and spiritual growth," begins a news release from the fellowship. "Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion promoting personal experience, conscience and reason bound to neither statement of belief or creed."

After each story are panelists' responses to questions asked from the audience.

Stephanie Mott

To speak at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fayetteville, Stephanie Mott said she had to miss the sixth of six sessions for new members at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in her hometown of Topeka, Kan. A transgender woman, Mott has written articles, led workshops and made other presentations hundreds of times. She is the founder and executive director of Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project and the founder and director of Transgender Faith Tour, which she would continue after her Fayetteville appearance. She is the chairman of the city of Topeka Human Relations Commission and community liaison for transgender inmates at the Shawnee County (Kan.) Jail.

Here is her story:

"My current experience is amazing -- one of acceptance, inclusion, unconditional love," Mott told the audience.

For 30 years, Mott was "unchurched," homeless, suicidal and burdened with alcohol and drugs, she said. "I was trying to figure out how to be a man. I had lost faith. I wanted a relationship with God, but I believed God hated me."

"Inside, I was like my sisters, but outside, I was like my brothers," Mott described her childhood. "I knew something was wrong with me, but I would pretend to be a boy so society would tolerate me.

"I had a good, amazing family, wonderful and beautiful. So I knew the problem had to be with me, with something I didn't want to be."

Mott's religious upbringing left her with the belief in an "all-powerful, every-present, loving God," she said. "But God saw me in a very bad light. I was an abomination before God. I was only pretending to be male."

Then Mott was invited to attend a Metropolitan Community Church in California, which offered a support group for transgender individuals.

"I had to go," Mott continued. "I walked in there, and that ended up being God's house. I met another transgender person, and for the first time in my life, I actually believed it was possible for me to be authentic -- and I was 48 years old."

Mott found herself when the pastor preached from II Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

"I was sure he was preaching at me and telling me it was OK with God for me to be who I am," Mott related. "Whew! It's like I was born. I went back to that church a couple weeks later as Stephanie for the first time. I even signed Stephanie Mott for the first time (in the attendance register).

"I went in there, and I sat down in the pew," Mott continued. "I was presenting myself as authentic for the first time. And I looked up at that cross, and I felt truth in myself in the eyes of the Holy Lord for the very first time. I can't tell you what the sermon was about that day because I was being Stephanie for the first time in front of God and everybody in the pew."

God spoke to her again, after the pastor served communion, Mott said. The pastor put her arms on Mott's shoulders and said: "God loves her daughter."

"She had shown me. Stephanie was born, and I haven't looked back," Mott continued. "I actually believe it's OK to be who I am, and it's OK with God. Really, I was in conflict with God when I wasn't accepting myself for who I was created to be. I actually came into harmony with God when I accepted myself the way I was created. And today, I have a relationship through my faith with God that I didn't know I could have.

"No transgender person should ever think they have to choose between being authentic and having a relationship with God."

Do your family members accept your gender identity?

Mott told of two sisters and two brothers, but both brothers and parents were gone "by the time I began living authentically. My two sisters are ... we're like three sisters now."

But the sisters spent some time grieving the loss of Mott as a brother. "They had this brother for 50 years, and one day he wasn't there anymore," Mott said with understanding.

Mott said she was proud to include her sisters in the decision to take the hormones to transition to being female. "I think that has helped them have some ownership in the choices that I've made."

What was the hardest thing about your transition?

"I have an almost 24-year-old son, and we haven't spoken in nine years, and there's nothing I can do about it," Mott stated.

"The best thing, in a strange way, is there's something good that comes from that," she continued. "I think if my son had been a part of my life, I probably wouldn't be sitting here today. I probably wouldn't have gotten involved in activism. I wouldn't have gone public about being transgender. That's the thing I'm most grateful for -- being in a place with my faith, my life, today where I can at least try to see some good in some things that are very difficult."

Cathy Campbell

Cathy Campbell is the president of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of PFLAG. "But my most important qualification for being up here is that I'm the mother of a 33-year-old transgender man, who came out to us and family and friends when he was 25," Campbell said. "My story is a lot more simple."

Here is her faith story:

During her childhood, Campbell was not connected to a church or a faith community. In fact, her family was "anti-church," filling her child's mind with misconceptions, she said. When she and her husband moved to Fayetteville, she joined the local Episcopal Church.

"I was ready. I was ready for something," she said. "I had a sense that there is something more to life, something invisible but real. And I wanted to try to form a connection."

Campbell said she has been practicing Christianity for about 16 years, trying to find her place. She saw other Christians acting on their beliefs, but the thought of her being an activist bothered Campbell.

"I thought I just needed to have a loving heart. I needed to pray. I needed to do workshops and things like that," she said.

"Noah (her transgender son) struggled with gender identity issues for years before coming out as a transman," Campbell said. "But there was something about his coming out, and the fact that this church was accepting of me, of him -- not just in an 'Oh, the gay people can sit over there' kind of thing.

"I could go to church and have people be interested in me, and it felt really good," she continued."They were accepting of me as a mother of a transgender man and as somebody who was going through my own transition."

Campbell admitted it took a while to get used to being the mother of a son. "I could not have guessed until it happened how tied I was to the identity of being a mother of a daughter -- I'd had that for 25 years, and I liked it!

"But I never questioned that it was the right thing to do," she continued. "I never questioned Noah's path at all. But for me it was like (she made the sound of race car) changing my own life and my own identity to match his."

Somewhere in this process, Campbell started moving toward activism as her ministry. Walking in the Fayetteville Pride Parade seemed daunting, although she did attend the first year of Noah's transition. Now, she walks the parade proudly with her son.

"I don't know what was scary about it," she said. "But being out, it gives me a little tiny taste of what it's like to be transgendered people who are out -- but I have so much less risk."

In her Episcopalian baptismal vows, Campbell promised to respect the identity of every human being, she said. "And this is what it's about -- to respect the dignity of everybody and to do it publicly."

Now, Campbell proudly calls herself an ally of her son and people of all sexual orientations. "To me, this feels like ministry, part of my faith journey," she said. "My faith journey has come from being a very private person of faith to a more and more public person of faith."

But not only in the LGBTQ community. Campbell has worked with foster children for many years. "I see the injustices the government imposes on so many groups of people," she said. "To me, it's my faith that drives me to do something about that.

"I still go to church," she concluded. "I still sing in the choir. I love my church ... But my ministry time is not spent at church anymore. It's spent out in the community with other parents of LGBTQ people."

Campbell said she tries to follow the advice of a sign on a friend's desk:

"Speak the gospel always. Use words when necessary."

What was the biggest relief in your transition?

"I was the mother of a very unhappy young person who was trying to pass as female," Campbell said. "It was hard as a mother to see that unhappiness and get these phone calls of pure misery ... and to not be able to fix the misery and not knowing what caused it. It was hard for me as a parent as Noah has landed in his identity, but I feel good as a parent now."

But Campbell's real fear, she said, was worrying Noah would get hurt. "And I still have that fear," she said. "This guy is 5 feet tall. I asked and asked for him to take some martial arts, self-defense classes, but he never has. If somebody hit him, he wouldn't know what to do," she said, no doubt embarrassing her son who sat in the audience.

"He's a minority now in a way that could be dangerous. But I would not ever ask for anything to be different about him."

Do your family members accept your son's gender identity?

"With our family, nobody has been mean to Noah, and for the most part, it's been affirmation of our family that, 'We love you, no matter what.'"

Most of the family, however, just doesn't talk about it, she said. "But I say, 'OK, if we're going through this as a family, by golly, we're talking about it.'"

The Rev. Gwen Fry

The Rev. Gwen Fry is an ordained Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Arkansas. The transgender woman serves as president of Central Arkansas Integrity, an LGBT organization in the Episcopal church.

"I think the transgender community is something that can transform the entire church," she said.

Here is her story:

"When I was 5 years old, I realized there was something different in how I reacted to and lived through the world," she said. "I didn't know what that was. But I just know that, when Mom was up the street visiting a neighbor, I loved getting in her makeup. That was kind of my thing for a long time."

Fry reported always feeling like a misfit, and during adolescence, she tried to prove her manhood by playing on the school football team and running with a "pretty tough crowd, a gang that cruised the strip," she said.

"I was trying to prove something to myself, and I didn't know what that was," Fry continued. "... Until I was a teenager, and there was this crazy thing, this huge, huge controversy about this tennis player."

In August 1977, the New York Supreme Court ruled that Renee Richards, a transgender woman who played professional tennis, was eligible to play at the U.S. Open tournament as a woman, according to an article Monday in the Opinion section of the New York Times.

"And I said to myself, 'Yea! That's me! That's me! I finally put the two together," Fry related.

"But I never said anything because, sitting there in the living room in my grandmother's house, my uncles and my dad talked about 'The Monster.' And so I stuffed it. I didn't want to be a monster."

"My faith journey has been extraordinarily important to me because, when I felt like no one else understood me or could comprehend what it was I was dealing with, I went to that still-small voice that always heard and always listened and stilled me and showed me that love, and I channeled it into adulthood."

Growing up in the Episcopal church built a faith which led Fry to ordination as a priest, then a family.

"I fell in love with my spouse. I thought that was going to fix the stuff, and it didn't," Fry related. "Playing football, running with the rough crowd, being ordained, getting married and having a daughter ... None of it helped."

Fry had created this life for herself, and the image of a pastoral family was imposed. "For decades, I literally struggled with having the life I created and being authentic to myself, and making the choice to be myself and lose everything that I had worked for until that time," she shared.

"Six years ago, I decided I had to live. I had to transition. It's the only thing that made sense to me. I had to take the chance that I would lose everything and ... and so I did," Fry said with a crack in her voice.

Fry drew a timeline for coming out and how she would take those steps. "I had all these different pieces that I had to put together," she said. "I was taking everyone's life into consideration, so that I could gain my own life."

Fry was a parish priest, and her wife at the time was completing her own ordination process.

"All of that came together last Feb. 19 (2014)," Fry said.

She met with the Episcopal bishop of the diocese and then the vestry, the congregation's governing board. They agreed on "a period of education and conversation to figure out what all this meant." Then she found herself standing up in front of the church after a regular Sunday service.

"I thought there was a chance I could transition with this group of people," Fry said of her congregation, but without obvious bitterness. "But this was just ripping the parish apart. I told the bishop, 'I love the people in this church, and I can't stand for this to happen.'"

Last evening, at the vestry meeting (of her church), the senior warden read a letter from the bishop of the diocese, which dissolved the pastoral relationship between the parish and myself. I fully support and agree with the bishop's action of dissolution and believe it was the very best thing to happen for everyone involved. I thank the bishop for his generous and pastoral response in this situation and fully support his decision and leadership in bringing a gracious and holy end to this. I ask that you pray for the church, a church and people that I continue to dearly love. Thank you for your support and prayers. My hope is that someday this will not be newsworthy, or even an issue at all, and people may live as the children of God in all the wonderfully diverse ways there can be.

-- The Rev. Gwen Fry, in a statement released through the Diocese of Arkansas

"Since that time, since I lost my position, I've pretty much lost everything ... except my life," Fry said.

"And the thing that has gotten me through this is that connection with all that is sacred, with that still small voice that I still hear in the middle of the night."

What was the biggest relief in your transition?

"The biggest relief is living my life authentically, and I don't have to live a lie anymore," Fry replied. "I can be honest and open. This is who I am.

"As a transgender person of the faith, in a faith community, I am the very face of vulnerability, and that's exactly what the church needs to see right now," Fry continued. "They need to see that vulnerability is real. It's what we're called to be living in a community of faith. The power of vulnerability is just amazing, and that's something I have discovered over the past year as well.

Do your family members accept your gender identity?

Her two brothers are very accepting. Fry and her wife are separated pending a divorce, she acknowledged. But her wife is very supportive, and they have grown to be best friends, eating dinner together two or three times a week, she said. In fact, Fry's wife encouraged Fry to start hormone replacement therapy to continue the transition.

"My daughter is 23," Fry continued with sadness. "And I will text her, and she will text back now. They're not very long text conversations, but maybe two or three texts. She will not reach out to me. This past year, there have been no telephone calls, no birthday card, anything like that. But (texting) is a start, and I'm holding on to it."

Fry also told the story about a visit with her mother, an Alzheimer's patient who Fry said has not recognized her voice on the phone in three years. Fry has not come out to her mother.

Yet, last summer, on her mother's birthday, Fry visited her in her nursing facility, although not dressed as an obvious female.

"She actually did recognize me," Fry said. "And as I took her down to the dining room for her birthday lunch, as I was pushing her through the ward and downstairs ... Every person that she passed, she said to them proudly, "This is my girl."

"Somehow that spirit just kind of transferred, and that was a grace-filled moment," Fry concluded.

The still small voice ... Have you always felt God loved you?

"Absolutely," Fry said. "My faith experience, my experience growing up in the church ... Because of the church's love, because of their acceptance and because of their nurturing me throughout my entire life, it enabled me to be where I am today.

"It was through the church, through God's love, through individuals in different parishes that has made this possible."

Bishop's response

"As a result of Gwen Fry's coming out as a transgender priest, the Episcopal Church in Arkansas has had a chance to have significant substantive discussions about the presence of transgender people among us," said the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas, in an email Friday. "I have now heard several stories of people who have transgender relatives or friends. Those stories were not forthcoming before Gwen made the decision to tell her own story. The Episcopal Church remains a place where we proclaim God's love for all, and where members of the clergy such as Gwen can have valuable ministries."

NAN Religion on 05/23/2015

Print Headline: Faithful transition


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