08/13/2020 16:22 EDT | Updated 08/14/2020 08:12 EDT

My Church Fired Me After I Came Out As Trans. It Taught Me The Limits Of Its Love.

Queer people aren't accessories to debate — we're human beings, people of flesh and blood.

As told to HuffPost associate editor Connor Garel

When the leadership at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ont. announced its decision to fire me, a month after I came out as a transgender woman, they said it was because of “theological reasons.” Those reasons were not made clear. 

I always suspected I might lose my job after letting everyone know who I am, but I stayed optimistic. We’d had at least one out gay staff member during my six years at the church, and I had previously advocated for more affirming churches in our denomination, which was met with support from leadership. I let others convince me that firing me would be a violation of my rights

And for a minute, I thought the congregation had accepted me. I thought that we were making history — that I might become one of the first out trans pastors in Canadian Baptist life, signalling to so many people who are hurting that the church could be a space for them. I thought that I wouldn’t have to make the choice between my vocation and my gender. 

I received about 50 different messages from people in the congregation expressing their love and care and support. They ranged from, “Welcome, Pastor June! This changes nothing, and we’re glad you’re a pastor,” to “I don’t understand this, but I’m willing to work to learn more.” 

The church issued me an email address with my new name. They changed my photo and my staff bio on the church website.

And then they fired me.

‘The need to be different’

As I prepared the sermon that would end my career, I thought to myself: as a young, repressed, closeted trans girl in the church, what would I have wanted to hear my pastor say? What kind of truth would I need to hear as somebody struggling since childhood to reconcile their gender identity with their faith?

I grew up in a small, rural town of about 3,000 in western North Carolina, on a parcel of land that used to be part of my grandparents’ farm. Politically, the county is conservative; socially, it was steeped in racism, homophobia and transphobia. 

I can remember a day in Kindergarten when everybody told the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist church six days a week, so I said I wanted to be a minister. At the same time, I was thinking about how great it would be if I could also be a girl. I didn’t say that part.

Junia Joplin
The writer's family attended this church for four generations. Her great grandmother was a charter member back around 1912. She took this photo and kept it on the wall of her office.

Those thoughts were difficult to describe or make sense of, because I tried to ignore them, to pretend they weren’t valid. But they never went away. They were always there, in the back of my mind, even as I delivered my first sermon when I was 11. My pastor helped me write it, and my parents bought me a grey blazer and a tie, printed with one of those loud, early ’90s geometric patterns, to wear. 

Ironically, the sermon was called “The Need To Be Different,” and I delivered it around the time my sense of gender dysphoria became very persistent.

By then, I thought about being a girl on a regular basis. It became a kind of burden that I felt ashamed about, something to get rid of. Once, my father caught me trying on my mother’s clothes — he said, calmly, “I’m raising a son, not a daughter,” and then never spoke about it again. On the other hand, I knew that being in the church and delivering sermons was something to celebrate, something that gets validated and encouraged. 

This dissonance was painful as I advanced in my vocation, and it made the fear of rejection feel even more terrifying.

An impossible choice

My vocation and my gender identity grew out of each other. They matured together. They intensified together. Being called into ministry is this persistent, innate, ethereal feeling you have, like a wireless transmission that’s always present, always has been. Gender identity is, in many ways, very similar. They’re two things that lie at the very core of my identity. 

Yet for 30 years, I was made to choose my career over my gender.

The tragedy, I always believed, is that I couldn’t have both. It always felt like an impossible choice, and it remains one for many.

John Cullen
The writer at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, where she worked for six years as lead pastor before being fired, in June.

If there are 100 people in your church, probably eight or 10 are LGBTQ+ identified, and if we all spoke up, it might cause a lot of trouble in our churches. It would force people to rethink their positions. It would force them to look at the scripture and its numerous revisions and interpretations. It would invite them to consider how the Bible — once used to justify evils like genocide, slavery, and misogyny — is being similarly mishandled by homophobic and transphobic people. It would create the conversations I wish I could have heard as an 11-year-old kid, conversations that would have disabused me of the false narrative that the Bible condemns queer folk.

Churches too often place conditions on their love and welcome. When they say, “All are welcome” (words that appeared in Lorne Park’s bulletins every week), there are strings attached. My dream is for churches to drop the pretence. When they say all are welcome, it needs to be all.

I really do think one of the greatest gifts LGBTQ+ Christians can give to the world is simply themselves. To say, ‘I’m trans, I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m bisexual, and I’m a person of faith — we exist.’ We are human. We’re not a concept, or a statistic.

None of this shook my faith. I think situations like this can either drive you away from faith or draw you closer to it. And I would certainly say that I’ve developed a deeper sense of what I would call God.

But that doesn’t mean this hasn’t been difficult. It has. It’s tough not to feel abandoned and rejected. As much as I know the stages of this journey aren’t all going to be nice and neat, won’t all be sewn up perfectly around the edges, won’t yield all the answers that I want, I still have questions about the future: Where is my next paycheque going to come from? Am I going to have a career in three months? Is my family going to reject me? Will the people I love reject me?

When our churches debate whether or not we’re sinful, or whether or not we deserve a space in your family, we’re debating our humanity. We’re people.  And so, if you’re out there, know you’re not alone. I see you. We see you. God sees you, and God calls you by your name — even if you don’t know what your name is yet.

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