09 April 2009

Can’t not

Jenny Howard

Like many of us, I have lots of inspirational signs taped to the wall in front of my desk. The briefest one is just two words: “Can’t not.” I’ll come back to that sign in a minute.

First, I’ll introduce myself. I’m a first-year M.Div. student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and an Inquirer for Ministry of Word and Sacrament under the care of the Presbytery of Detroit. And I’m transsexual.

When I talk about being transsexual, I sometimes get the response, “I admire your courage!” But of course, it’s not about courage. Courage means making hard choices. For me, coming out to myself in midlife as transsexual was the only option left. I spent a lot of time in the library looking for another answer to what was going on inside me, any other answer. Finally, it was just a matter of accepting transsexuality as something that’s true whether I want it to be or not.

When I talk about changing my vocation from computers to ministry, I sometimes get the response, “What made you want to go to seminary and be a minister?” This, too, was a matter of accepting, not choosing. I can remember my “prayers of discernment” last year sounding more like a 17-year-old sassing her parents: “Hey, God! What the hell are You thinking? I can’t be a minister! As You perfectly well know, I’m transsexual! Don’t be ridiculous!” God, not surprisingly, did not give my opinion more weight than God’s own opinion. And, like the teenager’s parents, God can be way more patient than I can. In the end, I found that I could see God’s point. And besides, I didn’t have a better plan for my life. Or any other plan, really. So, I accepted the only possibility. Well, I did apply to more than one seminary, to give myself the illusion of choice, but God made sure I ended up at Louisville.

And so, with all that wonderful acceptance on my part, my life got onto the path it was meant to, and it’s been a smooth ride ever since.


Technically, legalistically, I don’t have the same concerns that gays or lesbians do in pursuing Presbyterian ordination. The “gotcha” rule in the Book of Order –G6.01016b – just says that ministers have to be faithful in marriage to a person of the opposite sex, or be chaste and single. I’m chaste and single, and likely to remain so. (I’m not saying that’s what I want, but that’s a topic for another day.) So there should be no problem, right?

But if that’s true, then why did my transsexual friend get kicked out of the process – excuse me, I mean “released from care” – by her presbytery just after she informed them that she was transitioning? Why am I the first transsexual student ever to attend Louisville Seminary? Or the first transsexual, as far as I know, to be admitted to any Presbyterian seminary? (I know one person who transitioned partway through her time at Columbia.) Why did Union-PSCE, certainly no more selective than Louisville, reject my application after much delay, and without explanation? Why is the Field Ed Office here at Louisville telling me that there are only two churches – the More Light ones – where I can get an intern placement next fall, out of a dozen or more Presbyterian churches in this Presbyterian-rich town?

So why, then, do I want to keep trying? Why do I want to be a transsexual Inquirer, and eventually, a transsexual Minister of Word and Sacrament? The trick, of course, is in that word “want”. It’s not about what I want. I didn’t ask to be transsexual; I tried to find any other answer. I didn’t ask to be called by God to the ministry; again, I tried to find any other answer. The reason I keep trying is because this is the only option left. I am transsexual; I am called; and all I can do is accept both.

That, then, is the explanation of the sign in front of my desk: I’m doing this because I can’t not do it.

To all of you reading this who know that there is a call on your life, I wish you the blessings of Christ’s grace and peace.

1 comment:

Sara H said...

Jenny, Thanks for sharing a part of your story and experience. You are right that neither being transsexual nor being called by God are choices. But we do have a choice as to how we respond to those realities in our lives. I am honored to be with you as another openly transsexual woman in the ordination process. God's shalom be with you. - Sara Herwig