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Crossing Boundaries: A Transgender Priest Becomes a University Chaplain

By | January 3, 2013

(Marilyn Humphries)

In December of 2001, Cameron Partridge was a 28-year-old candidate for the Episcopal priesthood in Massachusetts when he informed his bishop he would be transitioning from female to male. The Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw admits this news left him feeling uneasy. But, he added, “I’m old enough now that when I feel discomfort that probably means God wants me to pay attention to this.”

Partridge had known he wanted to be a priest since he was in his teens. But he grew up in a fairly conservative church in California with little exposure to women or gay clergy until just before he left for college. While attending Bryn Mawr, he came out as gay during his sophomore year. Finding himself still called to ministry, he later enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, where he received a Master of Divinity degree in 1998 and a Doctor of Theology degree in 2008. While a theological student, a progressive local church, Christ Episcopal, sponsored him for ordination.

In 2005, four years after his conversation with Shaw, Partridge was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood. He served in local congregations until 2011, when Shaw appointed him as chaplain to Boston University (BU). He now has the distinction of being one of the first trans chaplains at a major university, in addition to being one of just seven openly trans clergy in the Episcopal Church. He continues to teach and, since his transition, he has found himself engaging in more advocacy and political action. He told me, “I seemed to need to pass through certain kind of fear before I could embrace a fuller vocation to contribute to conversations on trans and wider LGBT equality in and outside ecclesial contexts, as well as to explore these themes in academic contexts.”

Even outside the church, the trans community faces severe obstacles and rampant discrimination. Trans individuals experience much higher rates of homelessness, suicide, and abuse than the general population. And though the American Psychiatric Association recently reclassified how it diagnoses transgender patients, taking away the stigma of a “disorder,” many transgender patients still struggle to obtain medical care and insurance. A 2011 survey also found that trans respondents experienced double the national rate of unemployment, and nearly half of those interviewed reported losing a job because of their gender identity. Those surveyed were also 4 times more likely to live in extreme poverty.

As a generally liberal mainline denomination, the Episcopal Church is perhaps poised more than most Christian groups to grapple with the complexities of gender identity. Over the past four decades, the church has slowly begun changing its canons to prohibit exclusion on the basis of several categories, including race, gender, and sexual orientation. According to Integrity USA, an Episcopal LGBT advocacy organization, the first openly gay clergyperson was ordained in 1977. In the mid-2000s several clergy came out as transgender, and the first openly transgender Episcopal clergy were ordained.

During the 2012 General Convention in July, the church overwhelmingly passed groundbreaking resolutions barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in access to lay leadership and the ordination process. Partridge was grateful. “What makes me most proud of this summer’s General Convention vote was the collaboration and sense of community that built momentum towards it,” he said, citing several advocacy groups who pushed for the resolutions. “Through all the intensity of the Convention, we were uplifted by community—to me it truly felt like the communion of saints.”

Within the national church, the diocese of Massachusetts—Partridge’s home base—has been a particularly supportive place for trans issues. After supporting Partridge’s transition, Shaw came to believe trans equality was an important movement for the church, and he has sought to create spaces for it within his diocese. Each year, Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul plays host to the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a memorial for those who died because of their gender identity. The annual event began as a vigil following the murder of a Boston-area trans woman in 1998. Shaw feels the service embodies what a church should be. “I stand up in front of them each year and say that the conception of God that judges you is not the conception of God in this diocese,” he said.

A local Episcopal lay leader, Byron Rushing, serves as majority whip of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 2011, he was a major figure in the passage of Massachusetts’ Transgender Equal Rights Bill. Rushing, also the former president of Boston’s Museum of African American History, considers this battle for LGBT equality to be a civil rights issue. “Civil rights cannot be assigned to one group and not assigned to other groups unless you define those groups as somehow not human,” he told me.

Even within the various committees of the diocese, Partridge has found allies. When he was undergoing the ordination process as well as gender transition, Partridge discovered that a member of a diocesan commission was also a therapist with expertise in gender identity. The therapist proved to be immensely helpful in educating diocesan leaders about transgender issues. Partridge is also not the only transgender clergyperson in the diocese. The Rev. Christopher Fike is a trans man, an Episcopal priest, and a social worker in the Boston area. But, as Fike points out, “Gender is not the center of my existence. Once I transitioned and everything fell into place, I went on with my life, which is rooted in family, community, and church.”

Likewise, Partridge prefers not to dwell on his gender transition. He reads trans narratives in the media with a critical eye. “Sometimes portrayals of trans lives have a before-after type focus,” he said. “They can dwell on people’s former lives, their previous names, when they ‘knew’ they were trans, how their family reacted. And while that can be powerful, I personally find that narrative pattern restrictive and sometimes invasive.” He prefers to keep his personal life private. “When it comes to my family, it’s one thing for me to be openly trans, and even to be open about being a husband and dad, but my family members need space to be who they are,” he said. “The public pieces of my vocation are not necessarily theirs.”

Partridge does not feel his transgender status has hindered his role as a chaplain; if anything, it has helped him connect with students. “In one sense, my being trans doesn’t matter,” he said. “In another way, I’m able to have certain conversations about the complexities of human identity with college students, who are figuring out their own identities.” Cindy Jacobson, a former Lutheran chaplain at BU, said of his appointment, “The reaction was positive not so much because he is a trans man, but because people really like him.” Jacobson now pastors University Lutheran Church in nearby Cambridge and has invited Partridge to speak several times at her church. When I watched Partridge talk with students, I noticed the ease with which transgender and gender nonconforming people shared their stories with him. Jacobson concurs, “A unique gift he brings is himself. Because he is a trans man, perhaps this gives permission for students who are trans or are questioning to seek him out.” Kerry Aszklar, the Q Events/Activism chair of BU’s Queer Activist Collective adds, “I think that it’s great that BU has trans people as part of the faculty and staff. Not only is it inspiring to queer people, but it’s good to have a trans person to look up to and act as a mentor.”

In his students, Partridge has encountered a hunger for theological reflection around social justice and equality on a number of fronts. “I’ve met many students who want to make a real difference in the world,” he said. “Some have particular interests in environmental justice, others in HIV/AIDS, some in economic justice, and some in trans equality—and in the intersections of all of these.”

Likewise, trans clergy also find themselves at various intersections—between their identities and societal expectations, as well as between their faith and a Christian institution struggling with issues around sexuality. To some, transgender individuals offer a new perspective on the Christian experience. In 2008, at the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion—held every ten years—the Rev. Christina* Beardsley, a trans woman and priest in the Church of England, spoke about the gifts trans clergy bring. There are 7 trans clergy in the U.K. and they are all trans women. “We’ve lived in male roles,” and we’ve lived in female roles, she noted, “which gives us an awful lot of compassion for both men and women.” She continued, “We know about being on the edge of community, sometimes, and about the mystery of boundaries, and the danger, but sometimes the necessity, of boundary crossings.” In short, trans people of faith may understand something real, and important, at the heart of the Christian experience.

Becky Garrison is the author most recently of Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues (forthcoming) and contributes to a range of outlets, including The Washington Post‘s On Faith,The Guardian‘s Belief section, and American Atheist magazine. This report was supported by a 2012 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life. 

*Correction: The article originally misstated the first name of Christina Beardsley as Christian, but has been updated to correct the typo. 

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