May 2, 2008

Transgender Activists Accuse Church of Exclusion

The role of transgender people in the United Methodist Church is attracting a great deal of attention at the 2008 General Conference. Much of the focus is due to the reappointment of Baltimore’s Rev. Drew Phoenix who, prior to a sex change procedure, was the Rev. Ann Gordon.

Affirmation spokeswoman Diane DeLap called upon delegates to “reject all attempts to exclude the gifts and graces of transgender people.”

While all agree that the church should minister to those who struggle with their gender identity, whether transgender people are ready for leadership and clerical roles in the church is a point of contention among United Methodists.

The legislative action at the conference will determine how the Book of Discipline approaches transgenderism. The question of whether physical sex is God-given, as Genesis suggests, or whether it can be interpreted and manipulated by the individual’s subjective, psychological perception of him or herself underlies the conference’s legislative wrangling.

Representing the cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) activism, United Methodist caucus group Affirmation held an April 24th press conference. There, spokesperson Diane DeLap appealed to delegates. “Today I call upon the delegates of the 2008 General Conference [to be more inclusive] by rejecting all attempts to exclude the gifts and graces of transgender people in ministry and membership,” she said.

Alluding to the current restrictions against ordaining openly homosexual clergy, DeLap stated,  “We shouldn’t be adding another level of exclusion in the Discipline.” Saying that “from the beginning of the Church they [early Christians] attempted to exclude Gentiles,” DeLap argued, “I believe it’s time for the church to abandon its drive to exclusion. . . . If Jesus were here today . . . he would be welcoming us into the church.”

The Rev. Drew Phoenix compared life prior to the sex change process as similar to “being homeless.” Rather than physical reality, said Phoenix, the feeling of homelessness was “borne of the disconnect between my internal, spiritual self and my external . . . self.” Now, Phoenix claimed, “I can say very clearly that I have come home . . . to the child God created me to be.” This God, according to Phoenix, is “both and at once male and female.”

“I never foresaw myself transitioning to be a woman,” said Tina Seitz, who underwent a sex change procedure in 2005.

Tina Seitz, who transitioned from male characteristics to female ones in 2005, explained that although she had dealt with transgender feelings for a long time, “I never foresaw myself transitioning to be a woman.”

“I didn’t want to live as a woman, I didn’t want to give up my life as I knew it, and most of all I didn’t want to put my kids through” the struggles they would suffer due to their father’s transition.  Driven by a period of severe depression and intending suicide, Seitz instead underwent medical procedures to alter sex characteristics. Seitz, although pleased with her transition, is hurt that she cannot attend events at her children’s school because “there are other children that threaten and want to beat my son because of me.”

Sean Delmore, a PhD. candidate at Boston Theological Seminary and diaconal ordination candidate in the New England Annual Conference, recalled the support of the international United Methodist Church that hosted her when she traveled overseas to undergo her sex change operation. “I’ve never experienced a prouder moment than when I saw those banners [at the 2008 General Conference] saying ‘welcome’ and ‘Open hearts, open minds, open doors” said Delmore.

During a question and answer session, DeLap argued that by objecting to sex change procedures, the “church is interfering in what is basically a medical decision . . . between a doctor and patient.” Steiz asserted, “Being transgender is not a mental disorder.” Phoenix added that undergoing sex change has made his ministry more effective because he has been able to lead his congregation in “seeking wholeness of body, mind, and spirit” and “they [the congregation] follow that modeling and are seeking their authentic selves.”

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