The first time I came out, it was to my parents. It didn’t go very well. I was 20 years old, and we were in a small Häagen-Dazs shop in Madrid, where they had come to visit me during a semester abroad.
“Mom, Dad,” I squeaked. “I’m … Christian.”
It would have been much easier to tell them I was queer. We were a liberal family. My dad had a lesbian cousin. We had plenty of gay friends. But Christian? No. My oma (grandmother) came to this country in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Over scoops of ice cream, my staunchly atheist Jewish father and my ex-Catholic mother smiled awkwardly, trying to wrap their heads around this alien lifestyle.
“Oh, Ryan,” Mom choked out. “Why do you have to call yourself a Christian?”
“Because I am one.”
“Well, yeah, but why do you have to use that word? Can’t you just … do your own thing? What did you used to call it — being a Ryanist? Or what about Buddhism? You really liked Buddhism.”
“I still like Buddhism. I’m not rejecting Buddhism. And I’m not sacrificing my own path. But I’ve fallen in love with Jesus, and I think it’s for good.”
She cringed and looked over at my father. “This is your fault,” she said. “When I was pregnant with him you said he could be anything he wanted as long as he wasn’t a Yankees fan. Now look what he is. A Christian.”
Despite having parents who never really talked to their kids about faith, I had always been a strangely curious child when it came to religion. I would pepper my Orthodox Jewish cousins with questions about observing the Sabbath, pore over an illustrated book of Hebrew Bible stories from my oma, and engage Mormon, Muslim and Evangelical schoolmates in lunchtime conversations about their religious traditions. When I discovered Eastern religions, I devoured everything I could get my hands on about Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
One day in eighth grade, my dad and I were eating lunch after he’d picked me up from a two-hour meditation session at the local Buddhist temple. I was grinning from ear to ear, glowing with joy. He stared at me and shook his head.
“What?” I said. “You’re telling me you have no spiritual life whatsoever?”
“Nope,” he replied.
“That is so strange to me.”
“Well, Ryan, you’re pretty damn strange to me too.”
This interest in religion was in sharp contrast to how I spent most of my childhood. I’d been acting in commercials and stage productions around Albany, New York, since I was 7, and I’d become a bit of a local celebrity in my hometown. When I was 13, I was playing the lead in a professional production when I was “discovered” by a New York City agent in the audience. A couple weeks later, he called to tell me about a new Disney Channel series. He thought I’d be perfect for one of the roles.
I decided to audition, just for fun, not thinking I had a snowball’s chance in hell of landing it. A few weeks later, I was on set in Hollywood, filming the pilot. The Famous Jett Jackson became the most popular series on the network. We shot three seasons and a made-for-TV movie. The show pretty much consumed my high school career, and it led me to major in drama in college.
But there was still something nagging at me, some part of me that felt unsatisfied at the prospect of a life in showbiz. Then, as a freshman at New York University, I fell in with a group of fellow acting students who happened to be practicing Christians. I was surprised to find that they were compassionate, intelligent, open-minded people despite their Christianity. I was intrigued.
I spent several months beleaguering them with questions, expecting — perhaps even daring — them to tell me, as other Christians had, that my nonbelief would send me to eternal hellfire or forever separate me from God. But instead, they were warm and inviting of my questions and honest about their own uncertainties and doubts, never taking my agnostic challenges to their principles and convictions personally.
One day at lunch, after a particularly intense barrage of questions, one of them — Molly, the young Presbyterian who, six years later, would become my spouse — asked, “Have you ever read a Gospel?”
“Uh, no,” I answered sheepishly.
“Well,” she replied, “maybe you should let Jesus speak for himself.”
That afternoon, I stopped into the NYU bookstore and bought my first Bible. I walked back to my dorm, climbed into my bunk and flipped it open to a random Gospel. I was captured by the beauty of the story, seized by a strange and irresistible attraction to this Jesus, utterly compelled by his fearless insistence on calling out the violence and injustice of the world, facing it squarely, suffering its horrors, and emerging unconquered — suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it’s love that’s the strongest power in the cosmos, that love will have the last word.
My heart pounded, a knot formed in my stomach and a lump in my throat. I was terrified. I was not prepared to be a Christian. I wasn’t willing to reject science. I wasn’t willing to abandon my advocacy of the rights of my lesbian, gay, bi and trans friends and family. I certainly wasn’t willing to hand out religious tracts or carry a “REPENT” sign in Times Square or at the West Fourth Street subway station.
Turns out, I didn’t have to. With the help of my friends, I discovered a faith that embraced science, found beauty and wisdom in Scripture without taking it literally, affirmed the lives and loves of all of God’s children, and made room for my own questions and doubts. And I discovered places where I could become a leader in this tradition of bold, open and inclusive Christian faith.
While staying at a Quaker guest house on Capitol Hill during a conference on social justice, I met a minister from the United Church of Christ (UCC), a progressive denomination whose clergy and laypeople have been on the front lines of nearly every major social struggle in United States history — abolition, civil rights, women’s suffrage, labor, reproductive justice and even LGBTQ equality, ordaining their first openly gay pastor way back in 1972. This minister told me about the divinity school where he had been trained: Pacific School of Religion (PSR), a UCC seminary in Berkeley, California, whose curriculum centered on social justice and a theology of liberation for people of color, women and queer folks.
The autumn after I graduated from college, I enrolled at PSR. Molly moved out to California the following year and attended PSR’s Presbyterian sister school. We married during the summer between my second and third year. Molly scored a two-year Global Ministry Fellowship right out of seminary, a sweet first call that took us around the world — from New York City to southern Africa to Southeast Asia and back to New York. After those whirlwind years of globetrotting, we were ready to settle down. Molly wanted to take a break from professional ministry for a few years to have and raise kids, and I was ready to finally pastor my own congregation.
We conducted a nationwide search for a congregation that would be a good fit for me, ideally one within driving distance of Molly’s family in northeast Kansas, and we settled on a United Church of Christ in a small Midwestern city. So, six years ago, we moved from New York City to northwest Iowa, the most conservative corner of the state.
The second time I came out, it was to my church. It didn’t go very well.
I always knew I was genderqueer, but I didn’t always have the language for it. When I was a kid, all of the adults in my life seemed to think there were only two kinds of people: females, like my friends Kristina and Marisa — they were called girls — and males, like Nicholas and Christopher — they were called boys. But from somewhere deep in my soul came the rejoinder: “I am a male — but I feel like Kristina and Marisa. What do you call that?”
Rather than attempting to score goals on the soccer field, I picked dandelions. Instead of playing cops and robbers during recess, I put on musicals. My Matchbox cars sat unopened on the shelf while I spent hours in my Playskool kitchen. In my early teen years, I got ahold of a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and was bemused to find myself squarely in the Venusian camp.
It’s not that I didn’t like boys. It was simply obvious that they weren’t my people. I didn’t talk like them, didn’t walk like them, didn’t stand and sit like them, didn’t communicate like them, didn’t play like them, didn’t care about what they cared about. Boys were fine, I guess. I just knew for certain that I wasn’t one.
Girls were so much more worth it. We got each other. We clicked. We knew what really mattered in life: love, babies, kitchen parties and The Sound of Music.
Nearly all of my friends were girls. Beyond a few physical distinctions, I couldn’t understand what made us so different. It’s not that I wanted to change my anatomical maleness — I was fine with my body the way it was. But the expectations everyone seemed to have about what my maleness meant — the expectation that I “be a boy” and eventually “be a man” felt maddeningly impossible to meet.
My family was certain I’d be gay. When I went through puberty and started finding myself attracted to women, even I was a bit surprised. Though my sexual orientation seemed to warrant the label of “heterosexual,” the frustration and confusion around my gender identity — what I later learned to call gender dysphoria — never went away.
Explaining this to a church, however — even a self-styled progressive one where I had served for almost six years — turned out to be more of an adventure than I’d bargained for.
The first couple of years of my pastoral ministry were about what you’d expect in a small mainline congregation in the Midwest. The work of preaching, worship leading, pastoral care, and community leadership — not to mention our two children — kept me busy, and, for the most part, content. But about a year and a half into my pastorate, I began to feel a subtle spiritual listlessness and loss of touch with my sense of vocation. I decided to seek a spiritual director, and found a mild-mannered Catholic sister named Janet who was schooled in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola and was willing to meet regularly for the cost of lunch at Perkins.
Through Sister Janet’s patient guidance and the Exercises’ ingenious method, I developed more clearly than ever before a sense of the meaning of discipleship and of the adventure of sharing Jesus’s life and mission. Inspired, I found my ministry developing in unexpected ways: building a mentorship program to support new refugees in our town; celebrating Communion services at the local microbrewery; hosting workshops on race and privilege with local black leaders; collaborating with Native American water protectors to support the efforts at Standing Rock. Meanwhile, many different types of people began approaching me for spiritual guidance — longtime parishioners, activists, wounded ex-Evangelicals, atheist Jews, disaffected cradle Methodists and even a Black Muslim. I discovered, to my surprise, that I was gifted at this work: applying the ancient resources of Christian faith to the complex challenges of 21st-century life, especially among those who didn’t fit the traditional definition of Christian believers.
It finally occurred to me, two years ago, that I would have to come out about my gender. I am a trans person — more specifically I identify as genderqueer or nonbinary, meaning I do not fit neatly into one of Western culture’s two traditional genders. A clergy colleague, a queer woman I’d come out to during a long late-night conversation, asked me, “So what’s it like to be genderqueer but to live closeted in the Midwest, looking like half of a traditional straight married couple?”
It was the very question I’d been doing my best to avoid. I didn’t have a good answer for her. But somehow I knew that once the question had been asked aloud, I would eventually have to face it.
About a year and a half later, our family was on vacation in California, and I had more time than usual for prayer and meditation. Every time I sat down to meditate, something I was always saying to the young parents in my church wouldn’t leave me alone: “We can only convey to our children their eternal and unconditional belovedness to the degree that we believe it about ourselves.”
It had become an article of faith for me.
We can have all the right words, say all the right things, but kids are disconcertingly perceptive. They can tell when we don’t love ourselves. In the middle of prayer, out in the garden one day, it hit me: With regard to my gender, I simply wasn’t believing — and wasn’t living — my own belovedness. And if I was ever going to convey to my kids just how beautiful and beloved they are, I was going to have to accept myself.
When I came back from vacation, I worked out a plan with my therapist. I started by preaching a short sermon series to my church, introducing them to queer theology, a body of work that emerged from the LGBTQ Christian community over the past few decades. In the third sermon, on Pentecost Sunday — the day the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit — I revealed to the congregation my own Spirit-given queerness. In the middle of that week, I sent out a pastoral letter to my congregation, further explaining my intention to live true to my gender identity, and I included a photo of myself as the nonbinary person I am, dressed in my clerical collar, a black pleated skirt, my favorite dangly cross earrings, and my favorite sandals — with my carefully pedicured toenails. What could go wrong?
A lot, it turns out.
In a church forum the following Sunday, an older parishioner said to me, “I’m so disappointed in you. You lied to us. If you had told us this when you interviewed, we wouldn’t have hired you. And if I had dressed like that when I was a kid, my father would have killed me.”
“I understand,” I said. “You didn’t sign up for this. But please know that I wasn’t trying to lie to anyone. I just didn’t know how to be myself. I was afraid that if I did, it would be just as you said: I wouldn’t be able to find a job — or worse.”
I reminded him that plenty of trans people do get killed for being who they are. But I confessed that I’ve become more afraid of the world I help to create by hiding my true self than I am of dying.
Over the next seven months, tensions escalated. I wouldn’t — couldn’t — go back in the closet, and yet the experience of seeing their male-bodied pastor in skirts and dresses proved simply too jarring for some. The church’s vice president, himself a gay man, yelled at me, saying I had no right to call myself queer — he saw me simply as a straight man who wanted to dress inappropriately at work. One influential member told me that he wouldn’t be back in church until I was gone and that he’d be doing everything in his power to ensure that it happened as quickly as possible. “How am I supposed to bring my mother to church with you dressed like that?” he demanded. Meanwhile, other parishioners were angry that my coming out had caused a problem at all — they felt that the open and inclusive public image the church projected had been exposed as a lie. Some people stopped coming to church. Some stopped giving. The congregation’s governing body began to take action to remove me, and I was finally asked for my resignation.
It felt like a death. There were — and are — intense waves of grief: for what could have been; for my hopes and dreams of a vital, progressive Christian ministry in this small, conservative Midwestern town; for relationships with people and with a community of faith that I’ve grown to love. But there’s also relief. Relief that the pain of coming out to my church community is finally over.
I haven’t lost my faith or my sense of vocation. These experiences — painful and difficult as they’ve been — have only served to clarify for me who I am, who the God I worship is, and what kind of work I am made for. What I don’t yet know for sure is whether I’ll be able to pursue my call to ministry and put bread on my family’s table. Finding the right church now is more difficult than it was when I was pretending to be a man. My own clarity about my identity and calling is going to require a pretty narrow niche market: What kind of church is looking to put an activist genderqueer Jesus freak on their pulpit? Time will tell, I suppose.
But I don’t regret it.
Coming out is a sacrament. A vehicle of divine grace, freedom, and deep interior knowledge of our eternal and unconditional belovedness. It is not without cost. It can lose us friends, family, livelihoods and even life itself. And yet the world we cocreate by daring to be ourselves is one a little closer to the reign of God, where the incredible and breathtaking diversity of God’s self-expression in Her creatures may be joyfully, reverently and fearlessly affirmed. May my life, my voice, my body, my faith, be given in love to the vision of a world in which all of us can be who and what we are without shame, fear or apology.