A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast

Telling Erin's Story

November 11, 2021 Simon Doong and Lee Catoe Season 1 Episode 38
A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast
Telling Erin's Story
Show Notes Transcript

Simon and Lee have a conversation with the Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson. In 1996 Erin became the first known mainstream minister (Presbyterian, PCUSA) to change sex and remain in ordained office.

Special Guest:
Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson

Guest Question:
What was your experience like maintaining your ordination credentials in the PCUSA while requesting a name change per your gender transition? How have you seen opportunities for transgender individuals in the church (and the ordination process) change during your life? What work do you think remains for the church in terms of justice and equality for transgender and nonbinary inclusion? |

Resource Roundup:

Erin's Website
Beyond Pink & Blue Conference

For Listening Guides, click here!
Got a question for us? Send them to faithpodcast@pcusa.org!
A Matter of Faith website

00:03 – Simon Doong

Hello and welcome to a matter of faith of Presby Podcast, the podcast where we respond to your questions and comments on issues of faith, social justice, and church life. Don't be afraid to write in and ask your question. Because if it matters to you, it matters to us. And it just might be a matter of faith,


00:21 – Lee Catoe

whether it be faith in God, faith in others or faith in yourself. We are brought to you by the Presbyterian peacemaking program and unbound the interactive journal on Christian social justice for the Presbyterian Church, USA. I am your host, Lee Catoe.


00:39 – Simon Doong

and I'm your host Simon Doong.


00:41 – Lee Catoe

Without further ado, let's dive into today's questions.


00:45 – Simon Doong

Well, hello, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. Lee, this is gonna be a really exciting episode for folks to listen to, I think what do you what do you have to say?


00:56 – Lee Catoe

Yeah, this is we've been doing well, this might be the second one that we've kind of done this with. Whenever we did the podcast with Margaret Towner. We just kind of let that be the podcast and we're gonna do that the same this week, obviously prompt with a question. But yeah, we are welcoming to the podcast and we got to talk to the Reverend Dr. Erin Swenson, which many people in this denomination, the PCUSA and outside the nomination, who we know of, because in October, October 22 1996, and the Greater Atlanta presbytery, she sustained her ordination as a Presbyterian minister and Erin transitioned from male to female and 1995 and 1996, after 23 years of ordained service, and with the press tres vote in 1996, she became the first mainstream minister to make a gender transition while remaining in ordained office and not that that completely, you know, defines who she is. But I do think it is worth mentioning that definitely, because just because of the work that she's done for transgender rights, specifically in the church, and just the voice that she has for the queer community, we're so excited that we got to talk to her. 


02:17 – Simon Doong

Yeah, it was a real honor. And with that, we're gonna cut right to our conversation and introduction with Reverend Dr. Erin Swenson. Well, we are so excited to be welcoming a very special guest today. Joining us on the podcast we have Reverend Dr. Erin Swanson. Erin, thank you so much for being with us today.


02:40 – Erin Swenson

It is absolutely my pleasure. Simon, I think I think the opportunity to do this makes my day and my week and my month.


02:51 – Lee Catoe

Yeah, it makes my day and my weekend, my month to I've been I've wanted to meet you for a while. I'll just say,


02:58 – Erin Swenson

Oh, yeah. That's really nice. I like that.


03:01 – Lee Catoe

And, and yes, so I'm so happy you're joining us and just throwing it out there as a queer identifying person who was ordained. You are very inspirational, and I'm very grateful for you and blessed to have you with us today.


03:19 – Erin Swenson

Oh, thank you so much. You guys are sweet.


03:22 – Lee Catoe

But we did get in a question.


03:24 – Erin Swenson

Okay. So now you're not?


03:28 – Lee Catoe

Gonna, yeah, we're gonna, we're gonna throw you the we're gonna throw you the curveball here. And and so our question reads, “what was your experience like maintaining your ordination credentials and the PCUSA while requesting a name change per your gender transition? How have you seen opportunities for transgender individuals in the church and in the ordination process, change during your life? What work do you think remains for the church in terms of justice, and equality for transgender and non binary inclusion?” That's a lot but.


04:06 – Erin Swenson

So if you're using tape, you need to have lots of tape if you're using CDs or DVDs, okay, we got this. This is a big subject. My experience of being an ordained, you know, I was ordained in 1973 by the old southern shirts, the PCUs Presbyterian Church us, which, as you know, split from the northern church during the civil war over the issue of slavery. So it was it was kind of a strange thing for me to do because I'm from Western New York state. So I'm not a Southerner, and I'm not a Southerner, really at heart either. But my ordination was important to me. I was fairly young. I was I was only 27 years old when I was ordained. I had big plans. I went through Columbia seminary and get a graduate degree, it's at Columbia seminary and completed the clinical requirements to become a pastoral counselor and had plans to be a church counselor. Not necessarily a in the modern term Christian counselor, I don't know that Christianity is really by itself a framework for counseling. But I certainly wanted to do the best psychotherapy and counseling that I could do, you know, being informed by my Christian faith and my Presbyterian background, and, and succeeded in doing that it worked really well. For years, I had been carrying around this secret inside of myself since I was a kid about being transgender. It emerged in in the fifth grade when I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to be a girl and not a boy. And it was it was very disturbing, because it was a novel idea I had not heard of, of anyone even close to, you know, close to resembling anything like that. I mean, there were jokes about boys and girls and being dressed as girls and all and you know, boys joke about girls all the time, but there was nothing serious because this was serious. And I knew living in the South, that this was not not something that I could work with in my life. So I really, I really learned to submerge it. And it became part of my theological thinking, you know, that God and I had a secret and, and, you know, God, the God that I was taught as a child was a God who, you know, we learned the words in Presbyterian in catechism. You know, God is omniscient, you know, which means God sees and knows everything about you. And so, you know, that was kind of terrifying for a little boy who, who had a big secret who had a great big secret. But the other part was also the God was all loving God, God knows you and loves you all the way down to all the secrets you have, to the marrow of your bones. God, God is a loving God. And that was, you know, that I grew up in that kind of church was, um, I have to always be thankful for that it saved probably saved my life. It certainly affected the direction of my life. And and when, at the age of 20, I finished a an experience as a counselor at a church camp. I just I discovered that I had gifts for ministry that I didn't realize that I had, and I got married and became a candidate for the ministry all at the same at the ripe old age of 20. Yes. So, you know, it's been a long, long journey. For me, I was ordained in 1973. My work has always been pretty consistently as counseling. I've been pretty much a full time therapist and counselor all those years. And and along with that have served the church in other ways as occasional supply pastor for churches whose ministers were on vacation. I did have a fairly lengthy stint as an interim supply pastor for a pretty good sized church here in Atlanta, and have been a parish associate and other kinds of things and served on committees of the presbytery. So I've been a, I was a pretty good Presbyterian. And it all worked for me, my life was going really well until I reached my mid 40s. And depression, which had been dogging me my whole life, finally caught up to me, and started threatening my life, I began to be seriously depressed, in spite of the medications that my, my psychiatrist prescribed for me, in spite of all the years of counseling that I had had, of course, still not mentioning that I had a secret. And oh, gee, and that, and that, that became a really serious problem for me, um, my wife, and I got married in the meantime and had two children, one of whom our second child was born prematurely and was severely disabled as a result of the treatment that she got being premature. And so our family had rather rather sizable medical bills, which were footed by the church. The insurance program in the Presbyterian Church for ministers is beyond excellent. It's wonderful. The Presbyterian Church takes really good care of its pastoral pastorals, folks, and so we felt pretty comfortable. The problem was I kept getting more and more depressed sacred, my wife told me that she would be leaving me when our daughters left home, and they were on the cusp of doing that. And, and that it wasn't that she didn't love me or, you know, it was that she couldn't be married to me with depression that tend to do tended to bring her down. And so I struggled with all of this by myself, pretty much because I I really knew where the depression was coming from. One day while I was getting our, Laura, our daughter with severe disabilities ready for the school bus to pick her up, and it was a pretty big job because Laura couldn't walk and, you know, getting her ready for school was a fairly sizable job. A secret came into the bathroom where Laura and I were, and she had this she had this bottle of pills. And she said, she said, I have a new doctor, my old doctor prescribed these pills for problem I've got and they don't work for me. And so I've got new pills that are working great. And you know, it was kind of strange. It was like, why would you say something like that? But you know, she did. And she put the bottle of pills that didn't work in the medicine cabinet. Out of curiosity. I glanced at them and they were Premarin and Premarin. Back in the 1970s was a very popular medication among two groups of people, middle aged women who were suffering the the ills of, of menopause and pre menopause, and transsexuals, people who wanted to change their sex from male to female, because Premarin has a very powerful conjugated estrogen. And I you know, of course, I knew this because I had read every scientific article on gender transition that existed in the universe. And I knew exactly what it was and I got very excited I started stealing her pills. One per day very, I was very, I was very disciplined. Took one pill a day and something miraculous happened. Years of deadly I mean, really deadly depression, lifted almost immediately. Premarin Isn't that powerful? It doesn't do that much. It doesn't change you into a woman, you have to take it every day, for months and perhaps years before it even has some kind of an effect on your body. So you know, I wasn't going through and it's certainly not a psycho, you know, psychoactive drug that that is going to change how you think. But the act of taking it was was medicinal to me. It was, yeah, it was healing. And it was something it revealed something to me that I needed to do. So I finally got appropriate treatment and decided to transition, which was a as you might imagine, a huge decision for me and my family.


12:48 – Erin Swenson

I had a dad who was living at the time, I have two sisters who are in the area. We're all very close as a family. So my transition, you know, my the one of the reasons I never even considered transitioning was I thought that I would I would be an outcast by my family and friends, that I would have to leave Atlanta my home and go far away to establish a new life somewhere among strangers. And, and you know, that was not an appealing idea to me because I love my my family and I loved what I did. I loved my work. I love being part of the presbytery I loved. I had started, Karen Falk and I were co founders of a psychotherapy group back in the mid 80s. That's still working. It's on Peachtree Street as a Peachtree Street address in Atlanta. It's a very, it's a very active psychotherapy practice. And I'm very proud that I that I was a part of the founding of that group. So everything was wonderful. I did not want to leave. And so telling my family and having them of course, the first response was shock and and, you know, almost dread, you know, they were afraid for my life. My father in law screamed at me, thought that I had not considered suicide carefully enough. I think I hope he was joking. I hope he was he didn't sound like he was joking at the time. He was he was very, he was very unhappy that what I was doing, was going to hurt his his daughter, my wife, and his two beloved granddaughters, you know, our children. And so, you know, he was being very loving and, and, but, but he came around to he became one of my most ardent supporters. And in this always because of my gender transition was very good for me it it changed my life in ways far beyond gender. And so my family could see this and everything was great. Secret and I divorce we had a very friendly divorce. We kind of sometimes think that we didn't have a successful divorce, because we still talk to each other, you know, several times a week we see each other all day on Sunday. We spend almost every Sunday together, we celebrate holidays together, the family is still together. For all intents and purposes, the only thing is we're all living in different houses. And pretty much everything is is status quo. As far as a family is concerned, the problem was that I had to change my name because my name was Eric Carle with a K. And that's a pretty masculine name, you know, when you really think about it, and it wasn't going to work for my new persona. So I had to change my name, I decided on Erin Katrina, with a K. So I could keep my initials. That way. I could keep all the things that I own with Eks and not get rid of them. You know, being in planning good planning, very practical.


15:48 – Erin Swenson

Yes, I'm very practical. And it saved my life a couple of times, because air the difference between Erin e ri en and Eric er II see is only one letter. And I've gotten myself into many fixes where the list the list that the the, the, the court, court clerk had, you know, for the jury duty people was Eric Swenson. And I went up and said, Oh, no, no, no, I'm Erin's wins. And I think there's a typographical. Look to me, he said, Oh, of course, he said, Don't worry about it, I'll take care of changing it for you. So you know, it was a very useful thing to do. The problem was, was the insurance the insurance was, um, it made made me feel sick inside because I knew that I was going to have to deal with it. I couldn't just call call the board of pensions, the place where the insurance was and say change my name. Because they were going to say you need to change your name on the role of presbytery and that's where I needed to go. So I called the presbytery. And I very gingerly asked them how I changed my name. And the Chair of the Committee on ministry was very nice. He said, it's really easy, Eric, all you got to do is send the Committee on ministry a letter and tell them what you want change your name to, and we'll take care of it from there. And that sounded just fine to me. So he said, Then he said, By the way, you know, he was being friendly. He's saying, so he said, you know, what do you want to change your name to? He was curious. I said, Well, I want to change my name to Erin Katrina Swenson. He said, Why do you want to change your name do that? That was in capital letters, even though he was talking to me? And I said, Well, you know, I'm changing my gender expression, male to female, and I thought it would be a better name. He said, I'll have to get back to you on what she he did. He he called me back not 30 minutes later, he obviously had talked to the executive presbyter are the head of our presbytery. And he said, Yeah, we're going to need that letter from you, we're gonna need a couple of other things we're gonna need, we're gonna need the letter to address what your gender process is, you know, where you are in this gender transition process. And secondly, we want to know if you have any plans for any kind of surgical treatment along with you. Yeah. And that was kind of, oh, my gosh. And then the third thing was, and we want to know what your intentions are regarding your ordination. And you know, I said, right there on the phone, I said, you know, I don't want to change anything. I do not want to change my ordination. I don't want to change my work. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have changed my family. I, I don't want to change anything. So I said, nevertheless, we need a letter from you stating all this stuff said about surgery. I'm not sure about surgery. So you know, and besides that, it's kind of intrusive for you to ask that. But he he, he insisted they needed answers to that. So I answered them the best I could. And I was very non committal about the surgery question. I told him that I wanted to keep my ordination and that I needed to change my name, and he called me back. Within a couple of days of the time I sent the letter said, we need we need some help with this. I gave them some resources, some books. I suggested some people in the area who could be professional resources. My psychiatrist, I'm a very, very active gender activist in Atlanta named Dallas Danny. And they did good work, they they bought the books, they pass them around in the committee. They got Dallas to come and Dallas spent several hours with them talking about me and about gender transition. And Lloyd called me back and said, we've had a very good process. And we've met, and we've decided to do what you asked, we're going to recommend to the presbytery that they change your name on the roll.


20:15 – Erin Swenson

I said, What year was it? 1990?


20:18 – Erin Swenson

This was 1995. Okay. This was 26 years ago. Um, yeah, this was a long time when people talk about transgender ministers. There were no transgender ministers in 1995. That, you know, they just didn't exist. People who were ministers and were transgender, left the ministry and went into hiding and disappeared. So this was quite highly unusual. I didn't know that at the time. I really didn't know that at the time. I should have but I didn't. So So Lloyd called said we're going to do it. We're going to put the Do you know what the omnibus motion is? Ah, if you ever 10 Presbyterian, Atlanta Presbyterian has various specs. It's the at least it used to be the largest presbytery in PCUSA. So we had more churches and people than anybody else. So the business of the Presbyterian was hefty. And Presbyterian meetings were long and very involved. And a lot of decisions the presbytery makes are really pro forma. You know, admitting the minutes to a an ordination commission to the minutes doing things like that which require a motion and an action from presbytery. And so our presbytery puts all of those things into one giant omnibus motion. And at the beginning of the meeting, the omnibus vote motion is presented to the presbytery for action. And it's presumed that everybody will vote for it. And then we can just take care of all of that sticky little nitpicking business all at once. And so they wanted to put it in that omnibus motion along with everything else, along with me hoping, hoping that it would just sort of sneak through the presbytery. Because Because my hope and my desire was to be able to have a very quiet private transition, I was a therapist and having a public transition at all would have been terrible for my practice. And in what I was hoping was to reopen my practice as a woman, and and get a new set of patients and you know, work from a new part of town. Atlanta is big enough, fortunately, that could have done that easily. And it would have been great. If had gotten into the papers and become or become an issue. It would have destroyed my practice. And so I thought the presbyteries interests and my interests were the same. My I thought the presbytery wanted to keep it quiet, as well as me. And so I thought this was going to work. On the day of the the presbytery met the same day as as gay pride in 1995, in June 1995. And the the executive said, Erin, and he thank goodness, he used my right name. He said, Erin, I suggest you don't come to the presbytery meeting, because you will just be you'll be swamped with questions and concerns. And people are, you know, there'll be lines of people wanting to talk to you, and you won't have a good time and people won't get the kinds of responses they want. And it will just be a bad scene. He said when I want you to, I will approve your request for absence. And, and so I could go to the Gay Pride celebration, which is what I did all day long. Well, I you know, my butterflies in my stomach were flying everywhere wondering what in the world happened. And I got a call like, right after the meeting was over, the chair of the committee called me and said, Erin, I am very sorry to have to tell you that it did not go well. And I said, tell me, you know, tell me what happened. He said, Well, first of all, when they brought the omnibus motion at the beginning, there was a minister in the presbytery, who said he wanted to take it out of the omnibus motion. And he told me the name of the minister and I recognized that he was he was a one of the more conservative members in the presbytery. So I didn't expect that it was with good intentions. And he said, and so the presbytery met, and at the very end of the presbytery meeting, they brought that question to the floor, which of course is not a good time to bring anything to the floor because everybody's tired and wants to leave. So they want to dispose of it quickly. He said that Minister rose, and he said that he had that this was a highly unusual request, that he had done a thorough study that as far as he could determine, no Presbyterian minister had made such a request. And actually, he could not find any Protestant minister that had made such a request. He said and therefore, if the presbytery approves this, it will be taking an action Action, which could be determined to be a precedent for the Presbyterian Church, and perhaps indeed, all of Christendom, I would have voted for it. Sir like, Yes, that makes sense, of course.


25:16 – Erin Swenson

Geez. And so you know, the people in the presbytery side, and they passed his thing, and they sent the question back to the committee, and the committee studied it for months and months and months and months. The composition of the committee changed at the beginning of the year, when, when the committee structure all changed. And it became Of course, more conservative because this was one of the one of the priorities of the conservative wing of the presbytery was to make sure that my ordination did not continue. They requested they get sent me 52 very deeply involved theological and psychological questions that were they wanted me to write answers to, and they wanted the written answers in five days. And I thought that was highly unreasonable. But I did it I sent I and I worked day and night, cancelled all all appointments, everything and just, you know, I ate while I was working, I slept while I was working, I did I just worked for five days, got it done, got it to them and, and manage to do a pretty good job of answering their questions without saying anything that they could use against me, which is I'm sure what they were looking for. So I did a really good job with that. I'm very proud of those. Um, in the end of the summer of 1996, the committee had had the question for almost a year and a half. They had a committee meeting or a presbytery meeting coming up in October that they had to make a report to on this issue. And so the executive presbytery called me and he wrote me a letter, he said that it was going badly for me in the committee that they were taking straw votes, every every committee meeting on what people would vote for in terms of my ordination, and that was going more and more against me, and in fact, was almost unanimously against me. So he said, he said, I just need to tell you that to prepare you, he sent me a letter stating pretty much the same things if the committee had a deep concern that I was damaging my family, which, which really upset my family, because, you know, by this time, my family understood that my gender transition was saving my family, not not destroying it, it was like, you know, their, their family member was back from the, from the dark, from the, from the gloomy woods where they had been walking. And so, you know, they were very angry with the presbytery for saying that, because they had nobody had had even called my family to be concerned about them. I was like, Why do you say that? So um, I realized that I was in trouble. And I asked the executive presbytery for a list of the names, addresses and phone numbers of all the members of the committee, I decided prayerfully I have to say that because the iron Presbyterian and you know, I still, but I prayerfully I prayerfully considered what to do with that list and decided that if the if the church if the committee and therefore the presbytery, and the church, took away my ordination, because they were too ignorant to know really what they were doing, you know, that they would rather be ignorant and set and send me off, then then to confront what the issue was, that was going to hurt me and I would fight, I would, I would get a lawyer. And we would, you know, I would, I would use my life savings if I had to. And I would fight the church all the way to the Supreme Court. If on the other hand, if I felt like the committee, and therefore the Presbyterian the church had, had looked carefully at the issue had had, had had an opportunity to really understand what was going on, and then decided that they really didn't want me to continue in the church that I could do that. So So I had work to do. And I called every member of the committee. And over the next month, I met with each one of them individually. And the meetings were probably two or three hours each. I think one went to four. We met in restaurants and in their offices and in their homes. I sat down with him and said and thank them for being willing to meet with me. And and ask them you know, if, you know, I said you've got my my life history and you've you've read my story. So, you know, let's start with what your questions are. So Where where are you with this? And what are your concerns about it? And there were lots of concerns about you know, whether I was fulfilling an ordained label call Fortunately, I could answer that because I, in the months between I had had an encounter with a senior, an old woman who was transsexual and transitioned in the 1970s, who attended a Presbyterian church for years and was a beloved pianist. She played the piano for just about every, every event in the church. And when I met her, I had never met another Presbyterian that was transgender. And I grabbed her hands, and I, you know, I told her clothes, and I said, How wonderful to meet a fellow Presbyterian, transgender Presbyterian, I've needed this for a long time. And she looked at me and she said, Oh, but I'm not a Presbyterian. And I said, Ah, what do you mean, you know, you love this church, they love you. Why are you not a Presbyterian? And she looked at me and she said, I, I didn't think God wanted to me to be the church, you know, because of who I am, what I am. And I realized that there were a lot of people like that out there. And that somehow, you know, in, in my very liberal, very liberal, progressive thing I had to I had to admit that somehow, this person had been sent to me to remind me what my call was. And while the committee was working on getting insurance for me, if I could give up my ordination, I had to call them and tell them to stop because I was not giving up my ordination for anything. So I got to tell this to each member of the committee told them the story about this woman told them how important it was, and and then I you know, that I was trusting them, I was trusting God. Because if my ordination was taken away, it would be a disaster for me. I said, you know, I would not want to but I would have to fight. And so you know, they they knew what the parameters were. The committee met before the presbytery meeting, and unanimously, they unanimously upheld, recommended that the presbytery change my name on the rolls as I had originally asked. It was, it was a remarkable turn of out and, and it probably saved the day that the vote was close. It was 243 46 to 308, no 326 to 308, there were there were there were eight votes. If five votes had gone the other way, it would have been different. So the presbytery upheld my ordination. And, and that's the last that I you know, there was some people who tried to, to form a to make a charge against me and all that sort of stuff. And none of that worked. And I've been ordained ever since I celebrated. I will celebrate my 50th year of ordination. year after next in November Synchronizer. C, and I will celebrate our our 50/54 wedding anniversary, this coming summer. Even though we're not married, we still celebrate. We call each other talk about our relationship and it's pretty sweet.


33:28 – Erin Swenson

But you know, the ordination process was difficult. I can say that as an ordained Presbyterian minister, I really appreciated the churches giving me the opportunity to do the work that I did all those years. I did not appreciate what happened as a result of my request. I thought that the church, I thought that the presbytery could have dealt with it much better. It would have been really fine for the presbytery to have quietly let me change my name. What did happen is it got into the newspapers, it got into Newsweek, it was in USA Today. It and it destroyed my therapy practice. I really did. I spent years and it never did. It never did bounce back to where I could really support myself. So I you know, I spent years having to do things like I built wheelbarrows for Home Depot. I can put together a gas grill in 13 minutes.


34:31 – Erin Swenson

All the skills you learn all this, yeah, the stuff I learned. But you know, it was a rich and worthwhile experience and I would not trade it for anything in the world. It was all very worthwhile. And, and and you know, I I learned that I had way more friends in the church than I thought that I had. I learned that the conservative opposition that used to be in the church much more than it is now I mean, it's changed, the church has changed dramatically in the last five to eight years. And you know, 25 years ago, um, the people who were, the conservative quarter of the church were a very small number of very, very vocal people. And so they made it sound like they were a lot of people, and they really weren't, they were small groups of people, they objected strongly. And, and, and continued to carry the church down this road of trying to figure out who the church is. And fortunately, we came to our senses and realize who we were, and decided to move on with, with the mission the church has been called for in this age, I think. And those people have moved on to other places and created new denominations and joined other churches. And I think everybody's much happier now. Since that has happened. I think, I wish the Presbyterian Church were more friendly to transgender and gender non conforming people, I still find that the only churches that invite me to come and teach a Sunday school class or preach or do anything that is in front of people are the most progressive churches in the denomination. So I usually have to travel to preach, you know, I have to use air travel to go somewhere. But I really wish you know, I would have loved to be able to say, guys, that, that over the last 25 years, I've been invited, that I've spent 20 or 25 weekends a year traveling about the country, to various Presbyterian churches everywhere, helping people come to understand what it is to be transgender and Christian. And, and of course, that is not in spite of my wishes for it. I've even had pastors of progressive churches say to me, kind of in an embarrassed tone, that they're sorry that they haven't invited me to come to their church that they really have meant to, but that they were afraid that there were these members of their church who were very unhappy about my ordination. And they were afraid of what those members would say to me, as if that would make any difference to me, like, like, I hadn't heard people say anything nasty. Anyway, you know, there still is a lot of fear about being transgender, I think I think gender issues make most people a little bit anxious, some people is more visible, their anxiety is more apparent. Some people their anxiety is hidden from them anti gender non conforming attitude, that that that sort of betrays their own fear that they might, they might stray from gender norms. And there are lots of people well, there aren't lots there are some people like that. And I think they scare everybody else, because, you know, we want to be we want to be attractive as men and women, don't we? Sure we do. And, and when we talk about being gender non conforming, meaning, you know, especially if it's non binary, if it's not an either or male or female man or woman, kind of thing that I really want to be attractive, but I want to, I want to express the gender characteristics that might be the most beautiful in both genders, not just one or the other, or try to do something new with myself, that's a totally different gender altogether, you know, that absolutely throws people into a pure panic.


38:52 – Erin Swenson

I'm a member of that, you know, it's changed over the years, because 25 years ago, when I transition, there were two choices for people like me, you could be either a transsexual, which meant that you were, you were intending to go from one side to the other, that you were going from male to female, or from female to male, and that you intended to get as much medical treatment as you could afford to assist you in making that transition. Including, if possible, genital surgery, so that everything matched that was one choice, the other choice, the only other choice was to be a male crossdresser that was it. You can you can join clubs for male cross dressers who got together and and, you know, actually, you know, the most attractive group sexually were the cross dressers. They spend incredible amounts of money on expensive makeup and wigs and clothes. The transexuals couldn't afford all that stuff because they were trying to save up for medical bills. and they had no monies. So all of us transexuals were just kind of looking sort of forlorn and shop shopworn. But there were just two groups, that was your choice. And if you didn't want to belong to either one of those groups, there really was no place for you. Today, those groups still exist. I mean, there still are support groups for people for the purposes of doing a gender transition. But there are a lot more groups for gender non conforming people, people who are non binary, I think kids in school, middle school, through high school, tend to be way more comfortable with a non binary category and find that the sort of the best form of personal expression for themselves, because it really expresses what it means to be in those in between years, you're neither male or female, you know, actually, your body is changing. And you might still look feminine, but be growing a beard, or you might still have have no breasts and have a gorgeous, have a gorgeous female face. All those things are true for kids in middle school and, and in high school. So it makes sense to being gender non binary. And, you know, I think, as those kids are getting older, my sense of it is, and I'm a therapist, so I, I get to see them, my sense of it is that they tend to grow a little more binary, as the years go by, especially if they're if their interest isn't very political, if it's really a personal thing for them, you know, they tend to find it easier to sort of fall out fall into the binary categories, as they get older and age into actual adulthood. Although there are quite a few adults these days that are non binary. There's a wonderful minister in the United Church of Christ, Pat Khan over Pat, pat has written a couple of books, I don't remember their names, and I should kick myself for that. But well look them up. We'll put them out there. Pat, pat, was the was the pastor, the minister, the staff person for the United Church of Christ's Washington office. So this was the person who was the interface between the UCC and and the legislature, the federal government, and Pat came out as gender non conforming, non binary, and Pat could show up, it's looking like a man or a woman or anything else. And just the it says the United the very progressive United Church of Christ back on its heels. They hired me along with some other people to put together a committee and study with a called jenderal minorities. I thought that was an interesting, I've never heard that word anywhere else. jenderal minorities. And so Pat got to testify in front of that group, as well as a bunch of other people, many of whom are now. Now one of the people who's a transgender Lutheran Bishop testified before that committee when they were in seminary, as a seminarian. So I you know, it's, it's kind of interesting to see where the church has come. I really wish the Presbyterian church could be a little looser, the the people who are transgender and in ministry are simply candidates for the ministry. They're waiting on a call to be able to be ordained. Or they have become staff members of seminaries or presbytery staff. They've done just about everything there is to do except be a pastor in a church. And, and for many of these people, that's what they what they dearly desire. I'm fortunate that I got to have that experience before I transitioned.


43:58 – Lee Catoe

yeah, it's hearing. Yeah, hearing you saw especially about the double the pianist. Oh, yeah. And, and, and you just talking about, like the people that you know, that have been here that have that are that were transgender, then I feel like in many times now, people don't realize that, that, that people who were like non binary, or transgender have always been here. A queer people have always been here, like as a right, as a broad term. And I feel like we're just now starting to get these stories and realize that, that our people have always been a part of the church. We haven't. And we have a history.


44:45 – Erin Swenson

Yeah. History. And it it. It frankly, makes me a little angry sometimes because I see the articles coming out about you know, who were the first transgender clergy members, and I get a bear mentioned At the very end, you know, everybody else probably transitioned in, at least after 2000, if not after 2010. And I transitioned in the 1990s. And you know, people don't realize that I did this without anyone. No one shined a light anywhere it was it was pure, sort of bumbling my way through the woods, feeling my way with my fingers in the darkness. And I'm so thankful that we all made it through. But but it could have gone the other way. It could have been very different. It could have been very different. So yeah, thank you. And and you're right, I think I think young people these days are just beginning to realize that they have, that they have people many of many of whom have passed on, but some of whom have not, and who are still around and are available. And that there there is a lot of history that can be appropriated, if they would want to hear it. I'm writing a book about this whole thing. So wonderful. Yeah, right. It's I've got someone helping me edit all the all the stuff that I've written, and we'll see if it can come out making any sense.


46:22 – Simon Doong

If you don't mind me asking a question, Erin, Because amidst all of the sort of the difficulties and the challenges that both are in the process of maintaining your ordination, as well as simply, as many people experience and trying to find themselves, I think it's so easy to, it's just, you have to have a certain amount of faith, to keep your faith in the midst of struggle and trying times. And so for yourself, what did that look like? And how did how would you say your relationship with with faith or with God has grown or changed as a result of not only your experience with you with ordination but in terms of the work you do now with in therapy with, with other folks, if that makes sense?


47:10 – Erin Swenson

Thank you, Simon, that's a great question. That's, um, it's a big part of the book that I'm writing my experience, but it was almost at the same time in my life, the first experience that I had of consciously wanting to be a girl, and you'll have to, you'll have to buy the book to read about that experience. It's very dramatic, and you'll just love it. But anyway, that happened at almost exactly the same time that my family started going to the Presbyterian church down the street. And, and my experience with God in that church was I I've always been a somewhat somewhat of a mystic. I found nature to be a place where I could go and wander and feel safe. I never felt, I never felt threatened or afraid, on the Appalachian Trail. And, you know, I understand that I probably should have felt betrayed, afraid and threatened on the Appalachian Trail, especially if I was by myself. But never, I mean, I've always experienced that as God's realm, and the place where it was created for me along with everybody else in the world. And, and it was an example of how God loved me. And the church was a place that I could hear that message over and over again. I was, I was a very spiritually sensitive kid. And so the minister, the, the Christian educator in the church really befriended me. I was a little depressed even then. And so they took me under their wing and wanted they, I remember one particular time when willing, the Christian educator took me into her office, it was real clear that my parents had talked to her about, about me and about my my sadness. And willing asked me, she said, Well, you know, it's just you and me here now. And you can say anything you want, and it's not going to go anywhere. And I knew that this was supposed to be the place where I was going to come clean with whatever it was that was bothering me. And that was probably the most the most likely place in my childhood that I could have said something. I'm real clear if I had said that. It was 1957 58 it was Atlanta, Georgia, the world was not ready for such as me. And so I my life would have not been very good. And I told I lied to her and told her no, there was nothing bothering me. And of course, that was just straight out obvious, incredible lie, and she knew it. I did, too. But it I said to her, basically that I wasn't going to talk to her about it. Nevertheless, um, I was embraced by that church in ways that were special. It became a place for me to be developed into a leader. I I joined the session long before teenagers were members of church sessions. I was the superintendent of the summer summer church school event the one week long summer time, almost camping kind of event. I was the superintendent at the age of 16. I joined the church choir, I sang and I was the head of the youth group, I got elected head of the presbytery youth group. So I started attending presbytery meetings when I was 17 years old, you know, I started going to presbytery meetings in the early 1960s. So you know, I, I was a part of this presbytery and and I was surrounded by people. So I have to say that my experience of faith had a great deal to do with being part of a community of faith that surrounded me and supported me. I'm still not sure how they would have treated me had I been honest with them at the time, I kind of think that it would have been asking too much of them for where the world was. But so I don't blame them, you know, for what I think might have happened, I think that they did recognize in me leadership skills, which were clear clearly a part of my decision to go into the ministry. And and and it's been that ever since. Ever since I've come out I've become clearly a big part of the LGBTQ community within the Presbyterian Church. I've been, I was on the board of more light Presbyterians, which is one of the biggest advocacy groups in the Presbyterian Church, for queer Presbyterians. And, and, and I was I was actually co moderator of that group for a year or so. So, you know, I had a, I've had wonderful opportunities, but I think my experience of faith has been both, you know, what the church taught when I was young, if you ever attend a sermon that I that I do, very often, I will begin my sermons with my finger up in the air like this. And I sing this little light of mine. Because it's the song that I remember from the longest in my childhood, that taught me that in spite of everything inside of me, that there's light, it might be hidden, but it's still light. And my job is my job in life is to find a way to use that light and show it to the world. And, and it's my prayer for illumination before sermon, it's amazing, because congregation start singing with me all the time, you know, we're all just kind of rocking out on this little light of mine before, before we end it, you know, I, I find that happening over and over again, people are hungry for the experience of, of human human understanding, touching, being a part of something that's bigger than me. Those things are all are all a part of my, my experience. Thanks for the question. I really appreciate it a lot, Simon.


53:24 – Lee Catoe

Well, I will say that you have been alight to us in this moment. And, yeah, it's, it's, even in my own ordination journey. I grew up in the South, I'm from South Carolina, I couldn't, I wouldn't get that from like a very rural from like a very rural part of South Carolina and your story. And I hear a lot of myself and in that, you know, like, not being honest, knowing from a very young age and kind of, you know, kind of just still holding on to this call that I can only attest to the Spirit and you, you are alike. And anytime you want to come back to this podcast, and when your book comes out, we would love for you to come back.


54:19 – Erin Swenson

Oh, that would be great. We can we can pitch my book.


54:23 – Lee Catoe

Yes, we can pitch your book and get it out there. And we are so so blessed and grateful for you and your presence and all you've done in this church and and truly, truly, just to say thank you for for everything you've done and giving thanks to God for who you are, and who you were created to be. So thank you so much.


54:46 – Erin Swenson

And I am thankful to both of you and for the Presbyterian Church for making it possible for you to do this podcast. But for the two of you for sharing your gifts and and being such a valuable and Important conduit for messages that people need to hear.


55:03 – Simon Doong

Thank you Thank you, Erin. And speaking of of pitches and conduits for resources, we did want to give you a chance for our resource or resource highlight to talk a little bit about some of the, the work that you're doing currently, as well as some resources that that you think are available that folks should know about.


55:32 – Erin Swenson

I'm working on a book. And and I think of that has been important. I'm trying to convince myself that it's important. It feels a little egotistical to me, but I'm managing that somehow. I'm, I'm singing in a in a diverse choir here in Atlanta called the Tre Clegg singers. We sing a lot of spiritual, we're probably two thirds of us are black. Our ages range from 14 to 80. We are about as diverse a group of people as you can imagine, they're about 30 of us, and we can rock out and we share our gifts with the community. I'm you know, I'm sure there are lots of other things that I'm going to be doing, but I don't know what they are yet. So there you go. I feel like I have lots of opportunities. Thanks, Simon.


56:19 – Lee Catoe

Awesome. Well, we'll make sure everything is in in the show notes for everyone listening to have a quick way to get there. We'll link it up and thank you. Yeah, right. Make it easy. But again, Erinn, I wonder, can we end it with this little light of mine? 


56:39 – Simon Doong

Yeah, I'll get my finger going. Okay. Yeah,


56:41 – Erin Swenson

yeah, everybody imagine finger guns are lined up.


56:45 – Erin Swenson

This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Let it shine.


57:12 – Lee Catoe

Man, thank you.


57:13 – Erin Swenson

the recording will be coming out soon. Thank you very much. Thank you, Erin. I guess it's time to say goodbye.


57:25 – Lee Catoe

They are. That's it?


57:27 – Erin Swenson

I am sorry. I'm sorry to say goodbye. This has been fun. Thank you


57:37 – Simon Doong & Lee Catoe

This has been the matter of faith podcast brought to you by the Presbyterian peacemaking program and unbound. If you would like to submit a question for discussion, you can do so at Faith podcast@pcusa.org. We look forward to hearing from you see you next time.


57:52 – Lee Catoe

See you next time y'all. Thanks everyone for listening to Episode 38. As a matter of fate, the press V podcast. Don't forget to subscribe, like or follow using your favorite podcast platform.


58:24 – Simon Doong

And don't forget to leave us a review. We really like five stars and we really appreciate it. It helps us keep bringing great content to you.


58:31 – Lee Catoe

And if you have a question for Simon or I please send those questions to fate podcast at PC usa.org. We look forward to reading your question.