DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Like other graduates of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, Adam Plant walked onstage earlier this month to accept a diploma and a hug from Dean Gail O’Day.
Unlike them, his journey to the Master of Divinity degree took a significant detour.
Three years ago when he began his studies, Adam was a North Carolina woman with a desire to plumb the intersection of faith and sexuality. By the time of the graduation ceremony, Plant had found acceptance and peace as a man.
“Coming out to myself was, I think, one of the hardest things I ever did,” he said. “I think I was most afraid of being wrong. What if I am crazy? What if this is wrong?”
As he explains in a video shown during graduation, “Those voices no longer rule my head. Now I hear one clear voice ring out: You are whole. You are beautiful. You are loved.”
Seminary is often the place where students come to terms with their identities, and gender is among them. No surprise, a small, but growing number of transgender students seek out divinity school precisely because it is a place where they can wrestle with questions about their place and purpose in the universe.
Plant is not the first transgender student at Wake Forest. Liam Hooper, a transgender man, graduated a year ahead of him. And 85 miles to the east, Duke Divinity School awarded a Master of Theological Studies degree to a transgender man this month; it has admitted a transgender woman to its incoming class of 2019.
Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.; Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., and Union Theological Seminary in New York City have all admitted transgender students. Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., has a large transgender population and has helped to convene a nationwide leadership development program called the Trans*Seminarians Cohort.
An administrator at Wake Forest said the divinity school celebrates diverse gender and sexual identities and does not actively inquire about applicants’ gender identity. Duke has a similar statement.
But the presence of transgender students is forcing divinity schools to rethink many other assumptions such as how they talk about God and what’s on the signs outside their restrooms -- especially in North Carolina where a controversial bathroom bill passed by the legislature in March has prompted renewed debate about LBGT equality. (The law does not affect the divinity schools, which are private institutions.)
Plant, who grew up in rural Asheboro, N.C., said passage of the bill has inadvertently helped create opportunities for dialogue.
“I’ve had conversations with people about this that I never thought I would have,” he said. “It’s been a real exercise in extending compassion and grace and patience while also maintaining my own boundaries and taking care of myself and my community as much as I can.”
Though he’d started thinking of himself as a boy as early as age 3, Plant didn’t embrace his male identity until his first year of divinity school when a campus counselor referred him to a gender-identity specialist who helped him “to say out loud those things that I’d been thinking for so long.”
Plant aims to work as an advocate and educator on LGBT issues in faith communities. But before seeking full-time work in community organizing, he hopes to finish a video and book project to educate religious people on topics like gender diversity in the Bible.
Hooper, who graduated a year ago, has been working as a licensed minister at Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem. On Sunday (May 22) the congregation voted to ordain him as its "minister of welcome and beyond."
John Senior, who taught both men for three years in Wake Forest’s pastoral internship program, said the divinity school had already provided gender-neutral restrooms before Hooper or Plant arrived on campus. But having transgender students helped shape revisions to the school’s “Hospitality and Language” policy to acknowledge diversity in sexual identities.
Senior, assistant teaching professor of ethics and society, said the need to think theologically about the pressing issues of the day pushed Wake Forest to require courses addressing religious pluralism, race and class, but also gender and sexuality.
Wake Forest students come from lots of different backgrounds, and some of them were slow to recognize their fellow students’ gender transitions.
“Some students came from traditions that didn’t honor that as a way of being in the world,” Senior said. “Even though they were hard moments, I think they were important for not just the students involved but also for Adam and Liam as well.”
At Duke Divinity School, Brett Ray, this year’s transgender graduate, helped lead the school to designate some restrooms gender-neutral and to dedicate a room for Sacred Worth, an LGBT student group.
Ray, 23, first identified as transgender while a sophomore at the United Methodist-related Simpson College in Iowa.
“I didn’t know if I would still have friends, a family, or a church after making that proclamation,” Ray said. “I was in a gender studies class at the time, and there was just something that clicked, and I realized I had to live into the fullness of who I was, or I wasn’t going to live at all.”
A lifelong Methodist in a denomination that forbids the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals," Ray switched to the two-year Master of Theological Studies degree.
“I need to be in a space where I can be completely and comfortably ‘out’ as a queer trans-masculine person, without fear of dismissal,” Ray said.
Transgender divinity school graduates are seeing some ministry doors open to them. The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and many Presbyterian churches have affirmed of LGBT clergy. Most evangelical churches and the Southern Baptist Convention have not.
Ray plans to move to South Dakota to marry LGBT activist Pam Roes in September. A memoir titled “My Name is Brett: Truths from a Trans Christian” was published last year. Ray plans to work on a second book.
Most of North Carolina’s transgender clergy work in the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination that formed almost 50 years ago to focus on ministry to gay and lesbian communities, or the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, another denomination that began with ministry to LGBT blacks in Los Angeles during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Angel Collie, a 2014 alumnus of Yale Divinity School, is considering ordination in the MCC. He works as assistant director of the LGBTQ Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Collie says working with that population requires a lot of empathy, and his seminary training helps.
“Being that we are in the South, religion is a very significant factor in the lives of people who are coming out,” Collie said. “It’s almost always a piece of the coming out narrative that I encounter here on campus. I find myself doing what seminary prepared me for everyday, even if it’s not in a traditional congregational context.”
Psychotherapist Erin Swenson, a Presbyterian in Atlanta who in the mid-‘90s became the first mainline clergyperson to change genders while ordained, said transgender ministers are often uniquely gifted to serve congregations because they know the experience of not measuring up to others’ expectations.
“We live in a world where we have unfortunately learned that love is an earned quality -- that love comes from being more beautiful, smelling better, driving the right car, having the right job, having the right income,” Swenson said. “If there’s one thing people struggle with in churches, it is accepting themselves for whom they are.”
(Jesse James DeConto is a correspondent based in Durham, N.C.)