Alex Patchin McNeill’s driving passion is working for queer and transgender inclusion in sacred spaces, and fundraising for progressive social causes. He is the first openly transgender ministry candidate in his conservative Presbyterian region in Western North Carolina. Alex earned his Master’s of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School with scholarship on the intersection of religion, gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. He has been writing, organizing, training, and preaching for LGBT equality for the past nine years. For four years, he served as the development director at a reproductive justice organization where he honed his skills in foundation and individual fundraising. Currently, he is one of the subjects of Out of Order, a documentary film being made about queer clergy in the PC(USA). He will continue to speak, organize, and fundraise for queer religious issues until all faithful LGBT individuals can call a church home.
Did I want my (future) congregation to see me as a man or as a transgender minister? You could hear the steady bzzzzz of the leaf blowers outside the church in the silence that hung after the Reverend asked his question. In the time between the asking and my answer, I tried to scan between every possible meaning of his query: Did they still not understand that coming out to them as transgender meant that I was striving to be seen as male? If I answered that I wanted to be seen as male, would they stop me from continuing in the ordination process? If I said that I don’t intend to hide the fact that I’m transgender, would that open me to all kinds of awkward follow-up questions?
I am the first person ever in my committee’s region of the Presbyterian Church, USA to come out as transgender while seeking to be ordained. The fact that they were asking me anything about being transgender at all is significant. To my knowledge I am also one of the first people to come out as a transgender man seeking ordination in the denomination. Though he likely didn’t know it, the Reverend’s question struck at the core of my six-year thought process around my transition: What kind of man did I want to be, and how willing would I be to share my story once I got there?
I was a faithful follower of Christ long before I was aware of where my gender journey was leading. My faith means the only answer I could give in that moment was the whole truth, despite the political ramifications and the urge to sugarcoat my reality to make it more palatable. I told my ordination committee that I want be seen as male, which is why I am in the process of legally, medically, and culturally transitioning from the female sex assigned at my birth into a man of whom Jesus would be proud. However, (and here’s the hardest part) I am willing to remain open and honest about my transition journey with my congregants and others long after I am consistently seen as male.
Being a transgender man is difficult, and my ordination committee is not the first gauntlet I’ve faced to defend the way my body looks. Daily, I face the temptation to hide the fact that I am transitioning. I know making the choice to be open about this journey won’t get any easier once my body stops inviting questions about my gender identity. It is blissfully enticing to think of just assimilating into maleness and never again having to answer personal questions about my body, respectfully asked or otherwise. I fear I will never stop having to justify my maleness if I remain open about being transgendered. I fear that no congregation will ever hire me to be their minister if I remain open about my transition. To date there is only one transgender woman who has kept her ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and no trans person has ever been hired to work at a church while out. The personal and professional consequences of being out are very real. Many amazing transgender people have made the difficult choice to keep their transition private, and I support their decision. However, I know I am called to something else.
I am called to remain open about my transition because I want to offer my journey to those who are struggling to make leaps of faith of their own, and to use my story to help the church welcome transgender people into their communities.
When I first started medically transitioning, I documented my experience on my blog and through Youtube videos I kept extremely private, like my own secret time-capsule. However, I had one of those come-to-Jesus moments that caused me to tear down the privacy settings on my posts, and start living as openly as I can as a transgender man.
I was at an annual retreat for LGBT folk seeking to be ministers in the Presbyterian Church. Since the ban against ordaining out gay and lesbian ministers has been lifted in our denomination, the retreat focused on how we can tell our stories to help move the denomination forward towards full welcome of LGBT persons in ministry. One of the attendees was a British independent documentary filmmaker who was inspired by the bravery of our group in seeking ordination that she wanted to tell a few of our stories in a feature length film. After I told my story she approached me and asked if I would agree to be one of the subjects of the documentary. I had a choice: I could either shrink back in fear of the unknown consequences of visibility, or I could put it all out there in the hopes that my story might give comfort or courage to someone who needed to hear it.
If I seek to follow Jesus, I cannot be content to protect myself while other people are suffering. Transgender Day of Remembrance memorializes those who were killed for living openly as transgender people or who were killed for being perceived in the wrong body at the wrong time. In 38 states in the US, you can be fired just for being transgender. In our churches and faith communities the spiritual violence inflicted on transgender people is just as horrifying. As a transgender Christian and future minister, I had a unique opportunity through the film to help combat transphobia in the church by sharing my story on a larger scale.
The film is called Out of Order and our first trailer was just released. In the weeks since the trailer has been public I’ve been amazed at the range of people who have seen their journeys reflected in our stories. It is a constant reminder of why I choose, daily, to be visible. At the conclusion of my meeting with the ministry committee, they voted to affirm my calling to ministry and keep me in the ordination process. I realized in that stretch of silence I was ready to live out my calling to share my journey. I will tell my story because I don’t want the violent result of those who lost their lives to be the final word. Their story continues in our collective struggle for liberation.