October 11, 2021
Bishop Peggy Johnson pastored the Baltimore-Washington conference and was the episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences before retiring in September 2021. She is the wife of the Rev. Mary Johnson, who recently shared her story of transitioning to a transgender woman. The following thoughts were expressed by the communications team of the Baltimore-Washington conference for the story that was published on October 11.
Would you please share something about what it meant to you as you traveled with your wife as she moved from Michael to Mary?
It was a blessing to be a part of this journey and to see how very happy Mary became when she could be her authentic self. The beginning of hormone therapy was a particularly joyful period. I had never seen her so elated because it was the first time she had experienced her true self. I also enjoyed buying clothes and figuring out what was appropriate, without trying it, and sometimes correcting it, and sometimes misunderstanding it. I once bought her a pair of bright pink leggings that were huge and we had a good laugh.
It opened up a whole new world of service care to me as I learned about the suffering of trans people around the world and the many ways people discriminate, punish, marginalize, and even deny the very existence of trans people.
What was difficult?
Life in the “closet” was hard. It would not be an understatement to say that being an active bishop with a trans wife would be a challenge to my credibility if it were widely known. Even now, after 11 years, it takes some courage to “get out” given the limited times we live in, the sharp division in the church on sexuality issues, and the general ignorance of this topic in society as a whole.
There has always been a fear that someone will “find out” and make a public scene, and I will be the subject of vicious media blogs in which I have been slandered in the past.
Professional counseling has been helpful and there is a world of professionals who are educated and give life if you start looking for them. There are also doctors, specialists, and even beauticians who are “trans friendly” that the community knows about and shares with beginners.
What brought you closer?
Faith in God and God’s protective hand and guidance through it all has always been a “tie that binds.” Mary and I have been kindred spirits since we met at the seminary in 1977 and we have been talking about everything for a long time: theology, family, church, food, fashion.
On one occasion, we attended the Trans Health conference in Philadelphia. It is an annual event that attracts thousands of people from all over the world. It includes a wide range of workshops, plenary sessions, spreadsheets and all sorts of things related to the trans world. I was thrilled to see that secret world that wasn’t so secret in this huge convention center. We have seen the potential of ministry in this community that the church barely touches. After that, I encouraged our chapter of the Network of Local Reconciliation Ministries to set the table in the future, which they did.
We also attended the Trans Day of Memories service at the Unitarian-Universalist Church one Sunday evening in November. This is a day when people will remember the many trans people who were killed in hate crimes across the country. There are plenty of hate crimes like this every year, and most of the victims are trans women in color. It was a relocation service. The world was sometimes very cruel to this community, and unfortunately the church as well. When the church condemns trans people for theological or other reasons, it gives a kind of permission to people to abuse trans people. This is no small thing.
Through these experiences, we felt called to expand the reach of service in this part of the vineyard in all ways.
What surprised you the most?
A few things … God seems to have a sense of humor because the whole time I was serving as an active bishop, the theme of “transgenderism,” or a person who was herself a trans man or woman, often came into my voice life. Wherever I turned, the topic would appear in casual conversation. There was one grandmother who mourned the passing of her granddaughter who wanted me to tell her to stop. There was one trans-student of the seminary who understood the call to the ordained clerk who came to my office to talk. I went to the Moravian seminary to serve in the chapel on weekdays, and there, in the first place, was a deaf trans woman! She was a student there, and I was able to sign her presentation, and after that we talked for a long time. When disability is added to the trans experience, it is a double challenge.
I was also surprised that we were not “thrown out” in public while I was an active bishop. Mary would lecture each year at this Keystone Trans conference in Harrisburg, Pa. It was a great opportunity for her to teach about spirituality in a transgender context. The people who attended this conference were either trans or family members or professionals in the field. Every time I went there, I would pray that United Methodists did not attend. But, of course there were, and they knew who she was, but it never came out, or at least there was no public “reflection” at the time. I thank the community for this gracious protection.
As an episcopal leader, how does your understanding of Scripture and the Book of Discipline inform your thinking about transgender people?
I love the passage in Paul’s letter to Galatians 3:28 (NIV) that says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave, nor free, neither is there male or female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In some translations it does not say “male or female,” but “male and female.” For me, it’s not one or the other, it’s one i others. We have been taught for so long that people are male or female, but there is a much more spectrum of gender identity that transcends the gender a person assigned to it at birth.
The essence of Paul’s argument is “we are one in Christ.” Christ is our common denominator and our unity with Christ should be our unity with each other. We struggle with this in our human weakness and intolerance, but the church is called to always be “one” in Christ, in all our differences. How can we justify the schism of the church, given this mandate?
The Bible does not speak specifically about transgender people because it is a modern term. Our understanding of this still comes into focus as science develops new understandings of gender identity. The law of love for all people should be enough to tell us how we treat trans people. My previous service with the deaf community and the disability community taught me well about the giftedness and holiness of all people. The trans community is no different. We are all “terribly and wonderfully made. ”(Psalm 139: 14) We can learn a lot from this community and their path of faith.
Again, quoting Paul in his famous discourse on the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you. “ (12:21). It is a ban on exclusion.
Paul also reminds the church that people cannot be “excluded” from the body for any reason “If the foot says, ‘because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body’ it would not make it less of a body part. “ (12:15). The point here is that we are all one body in Christ Jesus and each part is indispensable to the functioning of the whole. This includes people in the trans community, as well as all of our different communities. The church is struggling hard with that. Can we see a great opportunity and mandate from Scripture.
The book on discipline is not about trans people at all. The passages that oppose homosexuality do not refer to the gender identity of people. Homosexuality refers to sexual orientation. Gender identity is completely different. At recent sessions of the General Conference, there were attempts to bring trans people in a negative way, but they did not come to terms.
I know numerous pastors of united Methodists who are either trans women, trans men, gender fluids, non-binary or gender inconsistent, and serve with grace and decoration. Some do it secretly, and some pay a high price for transparency. Let the church look carefully at this in the future. We could be a “beloved community” if we commit to it, but it takes a little humility, repentance, and learning.
Has your experience of living with the partner who made this transition shaped your ideas of love in any way?
My mother made an embroidered framed picture and gave it to us on the day of our wedding in 1978. It said, “To love and to be loved is the greatest joy on earth.” I believe this is a poorly translated quote by Victor Hugo. Indeed, it is true; but love is not just euphoria on the wedding day. It is a journey and with it come ups and downs and challenges; but if you endure, you become “real.”
When I say “real,” I quote from Margery Williams Bianco’s “Velveteen Rabbit” and the wisdom of a torn horse, “When a child or someone loves you for a long, long time, not just for playing, but for really loving you, then you become real. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. In general, while you are real, most of your hair has already been loved, and your eyes fall out and relax in your joints and you are very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you become real, you can’t be ugly except towards people who don’t understand. ”
Our journey of love in pastoral ministry, the upbringing of two sons, the episcopate, and this transgender transition were steeped in love, mutual respect, and sacrifice. Love is not glamorous, but deeply real and helps us greatly in this moment of revelation. Knowing that we love each other and are surrounded by God’s love and people who understand that we are truly blessed.
What is your prayer for your family at this historic time? What is your prayer for transgender people, inside and outside the United Methodist Church?
We pray daily for our families that they can be instruments of creating peace in this world, that they have the courage to speak on behalf of voiceless people, that they will embark on a journey of lifelong learning about diversity. Let people experience love for God through them as generous, forgiving and non-judgmental.
We pray for transgender and gender-matched, gender-non-binary, gender-fluid communities in all their diversity and potential. Let them agree with each other and thus do more. May God protect them from the harm of theology and church politics that they judge and downplay. May they find gracious hospitality in their places of worship and an opportunity to use their unique talent.
We pray for the United Methodist Church, our spiritual home, our “mother”, our heart. May he continue his work for justice in a way that draws people to Christ. May it flow in the wilderness of poverty and suffering by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let her be quick to take the towel and laurel of humble service and sacrifice. Let him learn that you cannot “legally bring” someone’s heart.
If you could share one message about this experience with people from the churches and conferences you have led and served, what would it be?
God loves you all, the way you are. Spread that unconditional love to the world and turn it upside down.
This article was republished with the permission of the Baltimore-Washington Conference website.