Transgender faithful incorporate theology, ritual

Angie Leventis Lourgos
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — – The minister blessed the chalice of wine and loaves of bread before inviting everyone in the pews of St. Michael’s United Church of Christ in West Chicago to partake of Holy Communion, a sacrament she had once been excluded from because of her gender identity and transition.

“We don’t slip in unnoticed — we are specifically invited by Jesus to this borrowed table, to share, to remember,” Cindi Knox remembers announcing to the congregation in that July 5 liturgy. She was licensed as a minister in July and is openly transgender, her sex reassignment and spiritual life often intertwined and woven in her ministry.

“We thank God for the gifts of bread and wine, body and blood,” the congregation replied.

The 53-year-old cleric in feminine glasses with white hair parted to the side said she knows she could have chosen to live as a woman and hide her birth sex, but she believes transparency helps her as well as those she serves spiritually.

Like Knox, other transgender faithful in the Chicagoland area say incorporating theology in their transition has helped them heal emotionally, as well as celebrate their gender identity with others who share their faith. A 35-year-old transgender woman raised in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma found acceptance in a synagogue in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood. A 22-year-old college student home for spring break came out as a woman during Sunday worship and was embraced by her church in north suburban Evanston.

Meanwhile, several faiths have also made strides in the past few years to include worshippers who are transgender, said the Rev. Larry Greenfield, board chair of the Religious Institute, a liberal national multifaith group focused on theology and sexuality.

A vicar of the Church of England in May proposed that leadership approve a new service celebrating the name change of church members who have transitioned. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordained its first openly transgender minister in 2014. The Episcopal Church approved the ordination of transgender clergy in 2012.

“That’s a symbol to transgender people: Yes, you’re right, and, yes, you’re holy,” said Knox, who served as a substitute minister at St. Michael’s and is searching for a permanent clergy position. “Until you can see someone in that space, you think ‘Maybe I’m not worthy, maybe I’m not holy.’ ”

Knox was raised in the south suburbs in a conservative Evangelical Free church, which prohibited homosexual and transsexual conduct.

In Sunday school, she would question various church teachings. At home, internally, she would question why everyone kept calling her a boy.

She wore women’s clothing for the first time one Halloween in middle school, donning a plaid skirt for trick-or-treating.

“You don’t have to walk like a girl,” a next-door-neighbor told her.

“I didn’t know I was,” Knox remembers thinking.

By 12, she was praying to either wake up as a girl or not at all.

Those feelings made no sense until eighth grade, when she saw a newspaper article on Renee Richards, a tennis player who was transgender and fought to play as a woman. Though the term transgender was largely unheard of in the 1970s, 0.3 percent of adult Americans are estimated to be transgender, according to 2011 research by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Knox remained in the closet for years as she married, had a daughter and eventually divorced. She didn’t begin transitioning until her mid-20s.

While she continued to pray and read Scripture alone, Knox said she spent some 14 years away from organized religion, barred from or marginalized by many churches because of her gender identity. She said even some congregants at an LGBT church made her feel like “a gay guy in drag.”

On April 21, 1998, she had sex reassignment surgery in Montreal, her last stage in aligning her flesh with her inner sense of self.

“Even going into surgery, I’m praying about this,” she said. “Is this really what I need to do? Should I cancel at the last minute?”

Recovering in bed at home, she said she felt the grace of God, realizing that everything up to that point was a piece of a larger plan.

“All of this was part of the story that God had intended for me,” she said. “I don’t think it was a mistake. It just felt holistically right and holistically blessed.”

Shortly after, with a mix of hope and dread, Knox returned to church. She and her longtime partner and now wife, Mary, chose an LGBT-friendly congregation in west suburban Oak Park.

Knox found she missed the rhythm of liturgical ritual. She longed for the body and blood of Christ, but held off. After church, she said a member asked her to help plan an upcoming women’s retreat. Knox had explained that she’s transgender and was moved when that didn’t seem like much of a distinction to anyone.

The next week she returned and approached the chalice, the pastor blessing her as Cindi as she took communion for the first time in almost a decade and a half.

“The fact that there was no barrier to me whatsoever was amazing,” she said. “No pretense, no covering up any of my life. I was welcome as me.”

She began giving lay sermons, often focusing on those on society’s margins. Knox said she was drawn to the United Church of Christ for its openness to theological questioning and searching, as well as its inclusiveness toward those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. She went on to graduate from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2013.

At St. Michael’s, several congregants said while a transgender pastor might be different, it’s not too radical, especially in an era when gender identity has become a more prominent theme in politics, sports and pop culture.

A transgender minister could “have a worldview that might be slightly bigger than someone who hasn’t gone through those challenges,” said 46-year-old congregant Jeana Stewart of West Chicago, “which may be a gift to ministry.”

The convert immersed three times in the ritual bath, the warm water spiritually purifying every part of her newly female form.

Bathing in the mikvah — a pool of naturally sourced, flowing water — was the final step in Violet Fenn’s Aug. 30, 2012, conversion to Judaism.

The following Sabbath service, she remembers holding a Torah scroll at Congregation Or Chadash in Edgewater as the rabbi proclaimed that she would now be known in the community of Israel as Siglit, Hebrew for violet, the name she took when she transitioned years ago.

She recalled the congregation congratulating her with rounds of “Mazel tov!”

“When I went through my gender transition, I finally aligned my body with who I thought I was to be,” she said. “But my spiritual soul didn’t match up yet. I was trying to find a home.”

About 36 percent of transgender adults worldwide identified with some Judeo-Christian-based faith, according to a 2011 survey by Tarynn Witten, director of research and development at the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at Virginia Commonwealth University. She said almost 8 percent were Roman Catholic and about 9 percent labeled themselves “mainline Protestant.” About 7 percent of those polled identified as Jewish.

Fenn was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma and as a kid liked attending services, particularly the concept of being a part of something bigger than herself. She was taught homosexuality was sinful; being transgender wasn’t even discussed.

As a teen, she repressed the sense that something wasn’t right, that her voice shouldn’t be dropping, that her flesh was wrong.

At 28, she contemplated hanging herself. She said she began transitioning instead.

“Because I couldn’t handle being in the wrong body,” she said. “I decided my family might not like it, but they’d rather have me alive than dead.”

Fenn went to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery on May 19, 2011. Although alone, she said she sensed God’s presence in the hospital room. When she awakened, she was at peace.

She came to Chicago a few months later to attend a seminary, planning to become a pastor, but was drawn to Old Testament scripture and the Jewish roots of Christianity. At her first Sabbath service at Or Chadash, an LGBT-friendly synagogue, the Hebrew chanting struck her as both strange and beautiful.

“I fell in love with Judaism,” said Fenn, who in early July moved back to Oklahoma.

Rabbi Emeritus Laurence Edwards, who guided Fenn’s conversion, said he has made transitions of his own in terms of LGBT acceptance. About two decades ago his sister, also a rabbi, asked him to officiate her marriage to a woman. At first he vacillated, unsure if blessing a lesbian wedding was the right thing to do, until their mother nudged him to perform the ceremony.

He said he knows he can’t fully understand Fenn’s experience.

“But every human being is created in the divine image,” Edwards said. “God is neither male nor female, God is beyond gender. So perhaps trans is more the divine image than male or female in the traditional binary.”