1800 - Today: "Respect My Existence
Or Expect My Resistance"
Click on one of the below sections to be taken to it lower on this webpage.
Creating their own sanctuaries - molly houses and Rev. Church
The painter who loved women, animals, and Christ Androgyne - Rosa Bonheur
An AFAB preacher - Rev. Joseph Lobdell
Resisting genocide - Two Spirit tradition lives on
Coming out with a message of love - Lee Frances Heller
The first openly trans reverend - Rev. Erin Swenson
Throughout history, attempts at quelling gender diversity have been met with resistance -- whether that is the more subtle resistance of surviving despite all the hate lobbed at you or the overt resistance of fighting back. This trend continues into the 1800s, the 1900s, and to the present day. People whom our modern culture would term transgender have always existed, and we always will.
As we near the present day, many of those who have been forced to hide are stepping out of the closets -- including in Christian communities. There have always been trans and nonbinary people in our churches, including in ministry positions; now, we are starting to let the wider church know that we are here and ready to fight for our right to stay.
[Image description: Cartoon titled "A Morning Frolic, or the Transmutation of Sexes" by John Collet (c. 1780), in which a woman wears a man's hat and a man wears a woman's wig and holds a fan; they smile at each other, with a four-poster bed behind them.]
[Image description: José Guadalupe Posada's 1901 drawing of a ballroom of men in dresses paired with men in suits; this piece hails from Mexico, showing that gender nonconformity among Europeans was more widespread than the English molly houses.]
CREATING THEIR OWN SANCTUARIES
Back in England, gender nonconforming persons carved out spaces for themselves in the 1700s that lasted through the 1800s: Molly houses.
"Molly" was the term used for "womanish men" during this period in England. (Meanwhile, "mannish women" were referred to as "tommies.) Like the bars and night clubs, book stores and other establishments created by LGBT people in the 1900s and today, molly houses provided a space for "mollies" to dance, discuss politics, engage in sexual activity, and otherwise enjoy each other's company safe from the judging eyes of their society (1).
Many of these molly houses included a little chapel or "marrying room" in which mollies could perform "rites forbidden to them by the Church" -- religious authorities tried to keep sacredness out of the hands of gender variant persons, but they could not stop them from developing their own versions of sacred rituals. The authors of Queer Myth describe the marriage ceremonies that occured at molly houses as "a mixture of camp and seriousness, at once mocking the institution of marriage and solemnizing the relationship of the two men” (2).
Sometimes molly houses found allies in the official Church; one such ordained minister was the Reverend John Church. In 1810, a London molly house called The Swan in Vere Street invited him to be their chaplain:
"Church presided over same-sex, transgendered ‘marrying’ and ‘birthing’ ceremonies and other rites, gaining such notoriety that leaflets were distributed naming him the ‘devil incarnate’ for ministering to the mollies… A broadside ballad was circulated about Church and the mollies… [in which he goes to hell, where] Church will continue to preside over ceremonies undertaken by the souls of the deceased mollies, who will also be there” (3).
I offer my gratitude to Rev. Church, who recognized the holiness of marriage between persons of any gender long before his denomination, the Church of England, did. He sacrificed his reputation and was threatened with hell in order to support the gender nonconforming communities of his time.
THE PAINTER WHO LOVED WOMEN, ANIMALS, AND CHRIST ANDROGYNE
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was a French painter whose family, though of Jewish heritage, practiced Saint-Simionism, a sect of Christian socialists.
Bonheur had two partners in her life, both women, the first of whom she lived with for some forty years. She cut her hair short, dressed in male clothing and "enjoyed emulating traditional masculine behavior" such as chain-smoking and working with animals (4). Her paintings are almost all of animals of various kinds, from horses and bulls to dogs and sheep.
As a mystical Christian, Bonheur "envisioned herself as a third gender being reflecting the androgyny of Jesus Christ, whom she referred to as ‘the beloved son, savior couple, Christ Androgyne.’” When discussing family relationships, she also sometimes referred to herself as a grandson or brother. Her final words were to her partner Anna Klumpke: "I will be your guardian angel" (5).
It is impossible to know how Bonheur would identify today, perhaps as a butch or nonbinary lesbian. Regardless, the way she defied gender norms -- even though wearing pants and same-sex activity were against the law for French women -- connects her to trans persons today; and the way she fused her own gender identity with her image of Jesus may also resonate with some trans and nonbinary Christians.
[Image description: a photograph of Rosa Bonheur (right) with her 40-year-long partner Natalie Micas in Nice, France (1882); a dog sits on Micas' lap.]
[Image description: a photograph of Joseph Lobdell from the shoulders up; he has short dark hair and dark clothing.]
AN AFAB PREACHER
Rev. Joseph Lobdell was put on trial for "impersonating a man" in 1858. Born in New York and assigned female at birth in 1829, Lobdell left his family behind at age 24 to live as a man.
He got a job teaching singing lessons in Bethany, Pennsylvania, and eventually got engaged to a woman. When he was recognized by someone from his birthplace, however, he was forced out of the town. He then made his way to Minnesota Territory, where he spent a few peaceful years until 1858, when he was arrested for "impersonating a man." Luckily, the little farming colony of some 50 people where he was tried found Lobdell innocent:
"Citing the sixth-century Code of Justinian as a precedent, Judge Robson ruled that laws in previous eras had granted women the legal right to dress as men." But they no longer wanted Lobdell in their midst; they paid his ticket back to New York.
In New York, Lobdell lived in poverty but met the woman he would marry in 1861: Marie Louise Penny. The two of them survived in the woods through hunting and charity. Lobdell "proclaimed himself a prophet" and traveling preacher, giving Marie the role of reverend's wife. I would love to have heard what he preached.
Unfortunately, their story has an unhappy ending: Lobdell eventually ended up in the Willard Insane Asylum. There, his doctor published an article on him titled "A Case of Sexual Perversion," in which the doctor misgenders Lobdell and depicts him as a "hysterical," "pathological" woman. The article notes that Lobdell "considered herself a man in all that the name implies" and claimed to be a Methodist minister.
Lobdell spent the rest of his life in mental institutions, pathologized and misgendered; he died at age 82 in 1912. But his history has been brought back to the surface by a distant cousin of his, Dr. Bambi Lobdell, who published a book on Rev. Lobdell in 2011.
Dr. Lobdell explains that her cousin's story is still relevant to LGBT persons today, because “his otherness was framed as deviance... signaled by his gender presentation, his refusal to conform," which is something that still common.
Joseph Lobdell got to spend several decades as the man he was, one who saw himself as a prophet and preacher. I hope that people like him today will get to enjoy the sort of happy ending that Lobdell was robbed of, as work is done to uncover our history and resist injustice against our people.
RESISTING GENOCIDE: TWO SPIRIT TRADITION LIVES ON
On this site's page on history from 1400-1799, I began a conversation on the attempted genocide of Two Spirit persons from First Nations communities; these attempts continued into the 1800s and into our present era.
The US government attacked traditional healing practices, including the prohibition of curing ceremonies in the 1870s and 80s that forced Two Spirit shamans to "operate underground" (6). In such an environment, "just trying to maintain a traditional way of life was itself an act of resistance."
While secretive work was resistance, there were more outright forms of resistance, too. Feinberg quotes the oral history of Joe Medicine Crow from 1982:
"One agent in the late 1890s...tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected badé. The agent incarcerated badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men's clothing. He forced them to do manual labor... The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow Agency, and told [the agent] to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them [the Two-Spirits]" (7).
Missionaries played a key role in forcing Two Spirit persons to assimilate to Western gender norms. Feinberg quotes a Lakota medicine man whose people's Two Spririt winktes were pressured in the 1920s and 30s: "The missionaries and the government agents said winktes were no good, and tried to get them to change their ways. Some did, and put on men's clothing. But others, rather than change, went out and hanged themselves" (8). Many missionaries of the Americas have so much blood on their hands, including the blood of many Two Spirit people.
Beth Brant (1941-2015), a Mohawk Two-Spirit "woman-loving writer," describes how white colonization has brought "anti-queer prejudice" into the Americas, where "many Natives have now assimilated" that hatred: "‘The love that was natural in our world,’ she explains, ‘has become unnatural as we have become more consumed by the white world…Our sexuality has been colonized'" (9).
Letting Two-Spirit persons share their own stories about what has been done to their people is integral to fighting this assimilation. Thus, Feinberg interviewed several of hir First Nations friends about this topic, including Chrystos, "a brilliant Two-Spirit poet and writer from the Menominee nation," who lamented the loss of knowledge about what life was like "before first contact" with white people:
"[It] is hard to reconstruct. There's been so much abuse of traditional life by the Christian Church. But certain things have filtered down to us. ...The whole concept of gender is more fluid in traditional life. Those paths are not necessarily aligned with your sex, although they may be. People might choose their gender according to their dreams, for example. So even the idea that your gender is something you dream about is not even a concept in Western culture" (10).
Feinberg also interviewed Wesley Thomas, a Navajo who describes himself as "nadleeh-like." Nadleeh is a Two Spirit identity of the Navajo nation, Thomas explained, "and was part of the normal Navajo culture...[until] the first half of the twentieth century due to the introduction of western education and most of all, Christianity. Nadleeh since then has moved underground" (11).
Finally, zie interviewed Spotted Eagle, a White Mountain Apache who was born on her people's reservation in 1945 and, she says, "grew up totally accepted. I knew from birth, and everyone around me knew I was Two-Spirited. I was honored. I was a special creation; I was given certain gifts because of that, teachings to share with my people and healings. But that changed -- not in my generation, but in generations to follow" (12).
The open acceptance Spotted Eagle enjoyed changed once the US government finally set up a mission school system on her isolated nation's reservation and she was compelled to attend. Luckily, her people took her out of mission school "and sent [me] away to live with an aunt off reservation, so I didn't get abused by Christianity. I have some very horrible memories of that short time I was there."
Spotted Eagle had a Two-Spirit partner; after he died, she married a woman who already had three grown children: "'Two of them are Two-Spirit,' she said proudly. 'We're all very close.'"
Feinberg states that Spotted Eagle identified colonialism as the cause of the "imposition of the present-day rigid sex/gender system in North America": "Patriarchy is a tool of colonization and exploitation of people and their lands for wealthy white people," Feinberg quotes her saying.
Spotted Eagle leaves us with a note of hope despite the violence: "The Two-Spirit tradition was suppressed. Like all Native spirituality, it underwent a tremendous time of suppression. So there's gaps. But we've continued on with our spiritual traditions. We are still attached to this land and the place of our ancestors and managed to protect our spiritual traditions and our languages. We have always been at war. Despite everything -- incredible onslaughts that even continue now -- we have continued and we have survived" (13).
This quotation from Will Roscoe summarizes all that Two Spirits have endured and survived:
"The disruptions caused by conquest and disease, together with the efforts of missionaries, government agents, boarding schools, and white settlers resulted in the loss of many traditions in native communities. Two-spirit roles, in particular, were singled out for condemnation, interference, and many times violence. As a result, two-spirit traditions and practices went underground or disappeared in many tribes.
Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender native people throughout North America are reviving the two-spirit role and its traditions. National gatherings of two spirits have been held since the early 1990s, and regional gatherings are held in many parts of the country. Organizations such as the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits in San Francisco, provide invaluable cultural and social services to lgbt and two-spirit native people and their families."
Despite the violence that Euro-Americans have put Two Spirit people through, they live on. Thank God.
Moreover, while many First Nations people are understandably wary of Christianity, there are some Two Spirit Christians today, including Lynn Young, a Lakota Two Spirit seminarian.
[Image description: a photograph by John H. Fouch of Osh Tisch and her spouse, both of whom have long hair and traditional Crow clothing on. Osh Tisch is dressed in feminine attire; she was a badé Two Spirit in the 1800s.]
[Image description: a drawing in a ledger book from 1876 of Cheyenne Two-Spirits, called he’emane’o, carrying scalps tied to poles and wearing women's dresses; they led the Cheyenne victory dance after Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn.]
[Image description: a photograph of Charlie the Weaver (right) with a friend; Charlie was a Navajo nadleeh and is wearing Navajo garments that are both masculine and feminine, including a belt and necklace.]
[Image description: a photograph of Two Spirit persons Jaxin Enemy-Hunter and Travis Goldtooth, in traditional attire, holding an apple to each other's foreheads without hands -- a balancing game.]
[Image description: a poster that has three raised fists in rainbow color in the center and the text "Two Spirit and Queer Liberation Movements: from radical revolt to freedom fighting justice"; images of Two Spirit figures are in the background.]
[Image description: a photo of Lee Frances Heller in 1999; she is wearing a dotted dress and has short white hair, smiling at the camera in front of greenery.]
COMING OUT WITH A MESSAGE OF LOVE
Lee Frances Heller (1919-2000) was closeted until she was 67 years old; she finally came out after retiring from chaplaincy and discovering that her gender identity was not against God's will but part of how God made her:
"God can give us an acceptance of ourselves and help us to stop fighting the losing battle against our crossdressing. In my ignorance, I fought it until I reached the age of 67 ... I finally accepted myself for what God made me ... a born-again Christian crossdresser. I came to realize I was created this way - accepted it in full faith and have taken my shield and warded off my critics for God to deal with, and He has spared me a lot of discordant situations with those who refuse to understand me. Those dearly beloved ones are His problems. ..."
In 1990, Heller began the Grace and Lace Letter, a quarterly newsletter about God's love for and acceptance of trans people. Julie Ann Johnson, one of Heller's friends, describes the newsletter, which Heller published until 1997:
"The circulation of these letters was small at first. Only a couple dozen copies of the earliest were distributed. But as the word spread, so did the readership, with about 400 transgendered Christians on Lee’s mailing list when she died. Virtually all the costs throughout the years were borne by her meager pension, or by gifts from friends..." (14).
Johnson also describes how she met Heller and how this woman changed her life:
"It was through Lee Frances Heller that God helped me to find a way to come to terms with my then-secret feeling of hopelessness as to my own transsexuality. ...I finally asked God to help me find a way – and He did. He did several things in parallel. These included directing my 'coming out'. But more importantly, He led me to a wonderful evangelical Christian church in Wheaton, Illinois... Then He led me to Lee Frances Heller. Lee and I became friends for the last three years of her life. Lee helped me understand the wonderful love of God and His gift of Salvation to me through Jesus Christ – even me, a transgendered person."
Heller spent the last decade of her life changing the lives of so many trans persons, like Johnson quoted above, who had been taught all their lives that their gender nonconformity was a sin against God. Heller taught them that God had made them just as they were with a purpose:
"I take great solace today in knowing God knew from the beginning I would be a transgendered person. This is the way He made me. To try to understand is far greater than our human understanding can conceive. The course of our lives was laid out by Him. ...We are gentle, loving people. We are genuinely caring people. Our basic nature is inoffensive. He made us according to His plan and only His plan in us and for us can satisfy Him. Everyone, including the mighty bastions of the Church, has tried to remake us and it can't be done. THEY are the ones mad at us. Not God. Stop pronouncing judgment on ourselves. ACCEPT the fact you are made as God made you. Too many are trying to live without Him because they believe the lie of Satan that they are not acceptable to God because of being [trans]."
Heller was able to see what so many fail to see: that it is human society that demonizes trans people, not God; and that when trans persons live into who God made them to be, amazing things can happen. She saw that trans persons have unique gifts: "BECAUSE of what I am, I can serve the Lord in a unique way." Thank God for this beautiful minister to some of the most shunned and outcast members of the Body of Christ!
The book that Heller's friends published to commemorate her life, By the Grace of God, is a treasure trove of trans Christian history from the late 20th century. The whole PDF can be found here, though with a strange glitch -- to get from one chapter of the book to the next, you have to alter number in the url: so to get from chapter 1 to chapter 2, you would erase the 2 in the url and change it to a 2: welcomingresources.org/graceofgod1.pdf to welcomingresources.org/graceofgod2.pdf. A frustrating glitch, but worth working with in order to enjoy this beautiful collection of trans faith.
THE FIRST OPENLY TRANS REVEREND
I would be so thankful to anyone who can tell me where I can find the full text of Materials on the Ordination Case of Erin K. Swenson and the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, 1995-1997. Justin Tanis quotes passages of it in his text Transgendered, which I will replicate in full below because I know of nowhere else that they can be found.
First: background on the case.
Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson, an ordained minister and therapist, requested a name change from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta in 1994 as part of her process of coming out and transitioning as a trans woman. This simple request launched what would come to be known as the first instance "in which a major Christian church had dealt with the issue of an ordination of a transsexual" (15).
[Image description: Rev. Erin Swenson in her collar in D.C., standing with a hand upraised among other ministers in collars.]
After debating the issue, the Presbytery's Committee on Ministry faxed Swenson a list of more than 50 questions, which they asked that she respond to within five days. Some of the questions asked were extremely personal, invasive questions, such as "the ability of post-operative MTFs to achieve orgasm...[and] her childhood experiences."
Stop and imagine asking a faith leader you know such questions -- should it not be obvious how inappropriate and unprofessional they are? Trans persons have had to suffer indignities like these for centuries, and those seeking ordination in our own decade are still asked to share the intimate details of their sex lives and genitalia. That Rev. Dr. Swenson responded patiently and eloquently to these questions instead of calling it quits and walking away right then and there speaks to her resilience and the inherent dignity that they could not strip from her.
Moving on to the more theologically-based questions that she was faxed, those responses which Tanis recorded in his book are pasted below.
Upon being asked whether she thought her transition would be a stumbling block:
“Regarding 1 Corinthians 8 I anticipate that my gender change will be a stumbling block for many. Were this simply an expression of freedom granted under the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as in the consumption of ritual meat, I would expect this passage to be a good reason either not to make the gender transition, or make it far from the sight of God’s people. Such is not the case, however, for a gender change is not simply a casual expression of free will but a deeper movement toward wholeness and healing. If God’s people are put off by an event of such profound healing, I would wonder if they are truly God’s people.
It seems to me that my change of gender is no more difficult to accept, no more of a ‘stumbling block’ than the Gospel of Jesus Christ which calls us into radical acceptance of the self and other as we discover God’s radical acceptance of us in Jesus Christ. A gospel that allows, no requires, us to become all that we are created to be, whether that be male, female or transgendered” (16).
Tanis' analysis of this response:
“This exchange highlights a recurring theme in the dialogue between Swenson and the committee. They ask in a variety of ways how her transition will impact the health of the Church; Swenson responds by challenging the Church to its full potential in living out the radical messages of Jesus and affirms the ability of the church to maintain unity even while dealing with the issue of transsexuality” (17).
Another question from the Committee:
"If you continue in Atlanta Presbytery it will have a far reaching and devastating effect on Presbyterians. As a minister of the Gospel do you feel it worth the friction that will occur and the loss of members which will come?"
"While I am aware that my continuing in the Atlanta Presbytery may well inspire some few disaffected church members to leave, I am also aware that there are many, perhaps now unchurched, who may consider the Presbyterian church a place where they may find an open and accepting fellowship as a result of this issue. I think that it is very important for the church to decide whether it will serve itself by “marketing” itself to the general populace and thereby diluting its message of radical reconciliation, or if the church can trust in God’s call to be the church, fully committed to the words of Jesus that even ‘the least of these’ can find a place in her bosom."
(If you hear a strange noise while reading the above response, that's just the sound of me cheering.)
Tanis' analysis of this response:
"Her insistence that the Church needs to consider the implications of a decision not to support transsexuals as much as pondering the effects of including transsexuals is important. Too often the Church has taken the least controversial course, not examining the impact of that decision in following the radically inclusive message of Jesus nor the ways in which the Church has come to be seen as prejudiced and judgmental” (18).
In April 1996, Swenson met with as many committee members one-on-one as she could convince to do so. Perhaps cultivating a personal connection to her helped convince the members of the legitimacy of her ordination, because that September, they voted unanimously in her favor. The full Presbytery meeting in October, then, voted to uphold her ordination with a 186-161 vote (19).
The Presbytery asked theologians Shirley Guthrie and Ben Kline to help write a theological statement explaining the decision to uphold Rev. Swenson's ordination. Part of their statement (published February 1997) is as follows:
“If we think as biblically faithful Christians, we cannot say that biological-bodily structure alone and in itself is determinative of who a transsexual person is and what God created him or her to be. That would be in a too materialistic or naturalistic way to deny the reality and importance of the psyche or soul. Nor can we condemn the desire of transsexual persons to express in their bodily (and therefore also sexual) life the ‘gender identity’ that defines that they know themselves to be ‘on the inside.’ That would be to deny the fact that God created them too to live thankfully and obediently as embodied human beings. We have to remember the inseparable interrelatedness of the body and soul that God wills for transsexuals as for all other human beings.
[Image description: a photo that the site of origin describes as showing an "LGBT 'sandwich'" because the four people it depicts seated in a living room are LGBT: Susan Craig (the B), Bear Ride (the L, I believe), Erin Swenson (the T), Michael Adee (the G). These four are all important in PC(USA) LGBT history.]
If we do that, must we not welcome the wisdom and skill of modern science that understands the contradiction between body and soul in people who suffer from gender dysphoria, and seeks to restore to them the unity of body and soul that God wills also for them? Must we not be grateful to God that modern science has made it possible?" (20).
According to her website, Rev. Dr. Swenson continues to work as a therapist in Atlanta, now specializing in transgender-related therapy. She also speaks nationally and internationally about her gender experiences. In terms of her personal life, Swenson "continues to maintain warm and supportive relationships with her ex-spouse and their two grown daughters, as well the rest of her family, in the wake of her 1995/96 gender transition. Erin enjoys music, reading, and triathlons."
Rev. Swenson once visited my church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and I was grateful to have the chance to hear her talk and preach. I honor her as a forerunner of trans ministers in the same denomination in which I hope to one day be ordained, PC(USA).
WHERE WE ARE TODAY
So many more powerful voices are rising in Christianity, trans and nonbinary voices that are demanding a place at the table for themselves and their people. As Virginia Mollenkott says, we are everywhere: "We are currently filling the pews, the choir lofts, the Sunday school classes, and even the pulpits. Many of us serve nobly and well on various church boards and committees. We are your teachers, musicians, deacons, elders, ushers, choir members, superintendents, pastors, and family members. We sit next to you or stand before you in practically every congregation on Sunday mornings" (21).
It's time for this website to hand over the reins to those trans Christians who are alive today so that they can speak for themselves. See the resources page of this website for a list of such people, a full bibliography of the works I used for this site's content, and more!
< [Image description: an illustration broken into tiles like a mosaic of the trans flag with the sillhouette of a church steeple and roof in the foreground; taken from an article on Believe Out Loud.]
(1) Queer Myth, p. 237
(3) ibid., p. 111
(4) ibid., p. 93
(6) Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg, p. 25
(8) ibid., 26
(9) Queer Myth, pp. 95-96
(10) Feinberg, pp. 26-27
(11) ibid., p. 27
(12) ibid., p. 28
(13) ibid., pp. 28-29
(14) By the Grace of God: Lee Frances Heller and Friends edited by Julie Ann Johnson, p. 17
(15) Transgendered by Justin Tanis, p. 103
(16) ibid., p. 104
(17) ibid., pp. 104-105
(18) ibid., p. 105
(19) ibid., pp. 105-106
(20) ibid., p. 106
(21) Transgender Journeys by Virginia Mollenkott and Vanessa Sheridan, pp. 31-32
For more on how Christianity has impacted First Nations peoples, see this article titled "Religion and Native American Assimilation, Resistance, and Survival."