‘Not a disappointment to God’
Many transgender people have encountered bias from religion, but some are seeking — and finding — acceptance in local churches.
As the piano begins to play inside Metropolitan Community Church, the music invites the handful of congregants to take their seats. It’s a Saturday night and the group is actually part of Mary Magdalene Friends, which uses the facility for its service.
What makes the group different is that it’s made up of mostly LGBT people, with a strong showing of transgender women. “Everyone is included and invited to the table,” says Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou, lead pastor. She steps up front to begin another night’s sermon, this one on living each day as though Christ was coming back. “Jesus taught us to live for God and beyond the materials of the world,” she says from the pulpit.
Along with being the head of Mary Magdalene Friends, Sprague-Ballou is also transgender, and has been working for years to create a safe environment for that community, including those who desire to belong to a church. “People use religion as a weapon and thump the Bible over your head,” Sprague-Ballou says. “But Jesus brought love to the outcast.”
Rev. Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou of Mary Magdalene Friends United Church of Christ conducts a Bible study class.
Transgender people are fighting for the right to simply exist. While acceptance is forthcoming in some regards, they still meet widespread social and political resistance. On a national front, their rights to access public accommodations or serve in the military have been challenged. In Southern Nevada, they are working to establish gender-diverse policies in the school district. While these battles tend to become politicized, in the end they are mostly about people wanting to live safely.
This also includes the freedom for members of the trans community to express their religion. There has been some progress on this front. According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 5,000 churches across the United States welcome LGBT people. The United Church of Christ has ordained LGBT people since the ’70s, and the United Methodist Church ordained its first transgender person this year. Yet, some feel there are still obstacles to finding a church or worshiping freely. “I refuse to allow conservative Christians to take my spirituality away from me,” Sprague-Ballou says.
Before putting on the clerical collar, Sprague-Ballou wrestled with her own spirituality. Growing up in the Catholic Church, she knew two things: She was called to the ministry from a young age, and she felt she didn’t belong in her biologically male body. She didn’t really have a term for the latter, but knew the feeling would impact any chance of serving in the church.
So she kept her feelings hidden for decades and forced herself to seek what society told her was normalcy. She held a job with Clark County School District. She got married and, still a man, fathered children.
Religion fluctuated in her life at that point. Sprague-Ballou left the Catholic Church after high school and began attending a Pentecostal church. But she quit church altogether when she was 37. “I couldn’t go to another sermon hearing how I’d be tossed into the pits of hell,” Sprague-Ballou says. During that time, she also began living a double life. In the daylight, she was a devoted husband who held down a good-paying job. At night, she would go out and meet up with men.
Tired of wrestling with two identities, she came out as gay in 2002 and a year later told her family she was transgender.
After coming out, she and the man she was seeing (now her husband) began going to church again. “I don’t think God ever gave up on me,” she says.
At Metropolitan Community Church, near Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue, the couple found refuge. Out and able to get closer to God, Sprague-Ballou could come back to this idea that she was called into ministry. “Being in a United Church of Christ, I started to see just how accepting church could be,” she says. “So I started looking at what seminaries were willing to give education to LGBT people.”
Her first attempt was with a seminary based in Berkeley, California, where she started in 2010. Though the school said it was accepting of LGBT people, Sprague-Ballou says she felt discrimination from one teacher, which impacted her education. So she switched to San Francisco Theological Seminary, doing the bulk of her degree online, though she had to travel back and forth to the campus sometimes. During that time, Sprague-Ballou got more involved in the local trans community and began organizing events for Trans Pride. In a building owned by the Metropolitan Community Church, she set up a drop-in center for the transgender community called Transcending the Gender Box, which offers support groups, provides food for trans individuals who are homeless, and has a computer for those who need it. She began encountering more trans people looking for community, some who were seeking out religion.
All the while, Sprague-Ballou knew that the pastor of Mary Magdalene Friends would be retiring in 2017, giving her the opportunity to take her place after she graduated. Membership has fluctuated, and Sprague-Ballou is working to build it up again.
About 15 people attend one evening’s service, during which they pray, sing, and worship together. During communion, Sprague-Ballou takes pieces of bread, dips them in grape juice and gives them out to each congregant. Then she prays for each person individually.
Sometime in the middle of worship, 19-year-old Lorenzo Score sneaks in and sits in the back of the church. This is a relatively new experience for him. For years, long before transitioning to male, Score viewed religion and church as a place of hate. “Ever since I was about 7 or 8 and actually started listening to what they were saying,” he says thinking about his Catholic upbringing. “Everything was a sin. You had to apologize for everything.” Beyond his Catholic household, his extended family members were Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the religion didn’t matter — everywhere he looked, Score says, he didn’t really find love and acceptance (something he noticed even before coming to terms with his own gender identity). “People just used religion to hate people or sometimes physically harm people,” he says. So when he was 11, he was done. He told his family no more church.
Score’s distaste for religion was there even before he understood he was transgender. He came out as a lesbian at 17, to ease his family into it. “I thought doing that was a lot safer,” he says. In the fall of 2017, he told his family the truth: that he was, in fact, transgender. “My grandmother, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, told me I couldn’t be transgender,” Score recalls. “She said she wouldn’t accept it. That it was too hard for her.”
Score says his mother was tolerant at first, which changed in October, once he started taking hormones to transition to male. He found himself without a place to stay.
In 2016, before Score knew he would come out as transgender, he met Sprague-Ballou and became familiar with Transcending the Gender Box. With no place to go after his family disowned him, Score returned, finding a welcoming community.
Sprague-Ballou kept an open invitation for Score to come to church. During Trans Pride Week in November, he finally took up the offer. “This place gives me hope,” he says. “It’s nice to see some churches don’t use religion as a tool for hate.”
Mary Magdalene Friends isn’t the only space for trans people. Though, for Jeremy Wallace, it took a few tries to find a church.
Jeremy Wallace works on a paper for a course he's taking with an online seminary.
Right after his transition to male, Wallace decided to find a local church and landed at one he thought he liked. He joined a men’s support group. He developed friendships with other congregants. However, he was closeted about being transgender. Though the church (he declines to name it on the record) said it was affirming, Wallace says its practices didn’t match; he says he witnessed gay churchgoers being treated unfairly. At a crossroads, he had to choose between staying at that church, hidden, or going to another place to be his “authentic self.” He chose the latter.
One Sunday morning, Wallace sits close to the front row listening to the music at Northwest Community Church, on South Rancho Drive. He isn’t the only transgender person in the audience of about 70.
The stage is decorated for the season with poinsettias and Christmas decorations. On one of the walls a banner reads: Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject Racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
“No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” one member says to the audience at the start of service.
From the moment Wallace walked into the Christmas Eve service two years ago, he knew he was accepted, he says. He grew up in a somewhat spiritual household. His parents were different denominations — one Baptist, the other Methodist — and didn’t want to fight about how to raise their children. The result was that religion was present, but church became an irregular occurrence.
Wallace sought out God and on his own. While he wrestled with his identity, there were moments of fighting and anger toward God. “I have to believe God is big enough to handle my temper tantrums,” he says.
The more honest Wallace got with God, he says, the more at peace he became. Even as the world condemned who he was, Wallace felt God was loving and accepting. “I did a lot of praying before my transition,” Wallace says. “I would always pray, ‘If this isn’t the right thing, please take it away from me.’ My faith actually grew stronger as I transitioned. Today, I’m solid in my faith in God. I’ve never felt that I’m a disappointment to God, or that he made a mistake with me.”
At Northwest Community Church, the pastor learned of Wallace’s spiritual journey and asked him to share. By this point in his life, Wallace had become a public speaker, talking about his journey and transgender rights. But he had wearied of talking about himself and wanted a higher calling. “The first time my pastor asked me when I was going to seminary, I laughed in his face and said he was out of his mind,” Wallace says.
He continued going to church as a proud, out, trans man. Being open made Wallace more comfortable serving and volunteering at the church. But this year, he found himself more receptive to his pastor’s question about seminary. He wanted to go.
“Here I am, a foul-mouthed, tattoo-covered trans guy going to seminary,” Wallace says. “I just knew God was calling me to it.” Learning Scripture is also practical, considering many people use it to speak down to Wallace for being transgender. “So I want to know what they are saying, the whole passage they are taking it from, and the context of that passage,” he says.
Wallace looked at seminary schools that not only were trans friendly, but had a diverse student population and also allowed for some of the work to be done online. He decided on Chicago Theological Seminary. “One reason was because when I emailed one of the admissions counselors, he had under his signature that his preferred pronouns were he, his and him,” Wallace says. “For the school to even think to do that is huge.”
Wallace has been doing online classes for a few months and doesn’t know when he will graduate. There has only been one time in seminary that Wallace had a classmate make an insensitive comment about being transgender. Wallace didn’t have to respond, though, since his classmates and his professor stepped in to advocate on his behalf.
Wallace encounters this intolerance of transgender people often from the religious community, but he never associates that mentality with who God really is. “How can someone say they are emulating Christ but then exclude people,” he wonders.
Wallace adds that it’s not just conservative-leaning Christians who often fight against accepting the spiritual nature of trans individuals. Within the LGBT community, many have experienced the hate perpetuated by religious figures and scoff at the notion that some choose to practice that same religion. “Part of my journey is standing up and out as a Christian, as well,” he adds.
People like Wallace and Sprague-Ballou stand in the gap. They have found God and refuse to let go of that. There is a lot of uncertainty in Wallace’s life. God isn’t one of those things. “My faith in God is rock solid,” he says. “There are lots of moving parts, but I feel blessed and lucky because the ground I’m standing on is God, and it isn’t moving.”