Saturday, December 20, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014!

Me in my Superman Onesie - Christmas 2014
Happy Holidays!  Thank you all for being in my life, and for the ways you support and encourage me!!

For those of you who may not know, I came out as transgender in September, 2013.
I chose the name Leo Channing, which means lion, fierce wolf, and church leader. My name reminds me to be courageous and strong in my activism, advocacy and faith.

2014 is the year that I embraced my new sense of identity: changing my name legally, transitioning medically with top surgery and testosterone. I am happier than I have ever been in my life, and so much more comfortable in my own skin. My voice is getting deeper, but still cracks, which makes me laugh!

I was surprised and thrilled to have my church embrace me as Leo. The opportunity to share my story with other churches as well has been an awesome gift. I truly enjoy this public speaking and sharing on my blog.

And for big news this year: In November, I was elected to the Board of Directors at one of my favorite non-profits, Cascade AIDS Project. I am so excited to be able to continue my support of this organization in their mission: “To prevent HIV infections, support and empower people living with or affected by HIV, and eliminate HIV-related stigma and health disparities.”

And I’m really looking forward to 2015….! I’m going to start taking aerial classes, with the hopes that one day I can meet a life goal of being on a flying trapeze (just for fun, I’m not changing careers, yet).

Here are some other highlights for 2015…

This year I am grateful to have the opportunity to organize a church service for the Portland Metro area, sponsored by the Portland Metro Chapter of ReconcilingWorks. This is an annual community-wide worship service and reception celebrating that we really do mean All Are Welcome, including the LGBT community. We will have an amazing preacher from Minnesota, Rev. Anita Hill, a pioneer of the movement for full inclusion! If that interests you, come on by! 
St. Andrew Lutheran, 12405 SW Butner Road, Beaverton, OR.
January 18th, 2015 – 6:30pm

Save the date: My 40th Birthday! – July 15th, 2015
Groan… I can’t believe I turn 40 in 2015. Say it ain’t so! Save the date now for a big blow-out event, July 15th, 2015. It will be a fundraiser for my AIDS Walk goal and will have entertainment, a silent auction and more! I am not ready to face 40, and plan on softening the blow of this milestone birthday with as many good friends and as much giving-back as one night can handle. PS - Do you make crafts, create art, quilt, knit, or other skills you may be interested in donating to the silent auction? Oooooh….. let’s talk! 

Stay Tuned: Faith Campaign for AIDS Walk – September 12th, 2015
In 2014 I helped to recruit communities of faith to start up teams for AIDS Walk. It was fantastic, and many great people participated and donated. Thank you! And in 2015, we are going to BRING IT! I’m excited to be involved in this endeavor again. Stay tuned for news of fun events!

Thank You! Thank you! Thank you!
Thank you for helping make this year so incredible and full of love. I’m excited for adventures and good work to be done in 2015. I’m glad you’re in my life and hope we stay connected over the years.

Wishing you a holiday season full of peace, love, hope, joy, and just the right mix of naughty and nice.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faith in the Midst of Lament

At the protest in 2008 at the School of the Americas,
Fort Benning, GA.
This is the text of the advent meditation I gave this evening on the theme of Sir Up... about how someone has stirred up my faith.

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

My advent meditation is called, “Faith in the midst of lament” or “The Christmas Story from the perspective of a shepherd, watching the flocks by night, who is afraid of the dark”

There is so much in this world to break our hearts. Every day and every generation we seem to find new ways, or refine old ways to hurt ourselves and others.

Grief, illness, worry, stress, fear about our jobs, our families, the environment, all may trouble us, binding us with despair, driving us to cope in ways that sometimes are unhealthy, or dangerous.

Many of you know part of my story – that I went to Berkeley in 2006 to go to seminary to become a pastor. Instead, I lost my faith and struggled with depression and anger towards God about all of the suffering in the world.

I wanted to walk away from God, from the church, and at my worst moment, I wished for a brain tumor so I could walk away from life.

I was mad about the cruelty I saw in the world, the genocide in Rwanda, atrocities in Central America, child soldiers, and poverty. I grieved the death of my young niece, Merissa Pratt. I didn’t think I could hold this anger and pain in my heart and still have room for God.

I’m still mad about what I see and I know I’m not alone. I don’t want the victims of this world’s anger and hate to be forgotten. I want their names to be spoken. 

On my heart tonight are young black men who were killed, their lives crushed by systemic racism, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and too many more.

On my heart tonight are transwomen murdered just for being who they are, Deshawnda “Tata” Sanchez, Kandy Hall, Zoraida Reyes, Yaz’min Sanchez, Tiff Edwards, Mia Henderson. Alejandra Leos, and an unidentified victim, all killed in the US since June of this year.

And just this month, a 12 year old boy in Folsom, California, Ronan Shimizu, killed himself after anti-gay bullying he received at school.

There are people whose names or stories we don’t know: refugees in Syria, victims of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, victims of ebola, the victims of the mass murder of students in Guerrero State in Mexico.

There are the people in our own community, who struggle with homelessness, domestic violence, addiction and illness.

To paraphrase Psalm 13:1, How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever?

How long will you hide your face from us?

So far, this has not been a really peppy meditation, but these are the kinds of thoughts that wore me down between 2006 and 2009. These are the kinds of reasons I felt that faith in God was not going to work for me.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in dwelling on questions of suffering, at least every now and then. Tonight I get to tell you about Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit theologian who stirred up and revived my faith. He was able to hold both anger about injustice and love for God and others in his heart. I am grateful for his witness, and I think that it is important to be honest about what sustains our faith in even the scariest of times.

Living and working in El Salvador since 1957, Jon Sobrino saw crushing poverty and brutal oppression. He and his colleagues began to speak up and act out against this, and to work on behalf of the poor in the midst of the El Salvadoran Civil War that left about 75,000 men, women, and children dead, mostly civilians. Sobrino and his colleagues believed and shared the good news that God desires life and creation, and that the acts of violence perpetrated against the people were not God’s will. He became my hero because of his courage and solidarity with the poor.

On November 16, 1989, while Sobrino was in Thailand on a speaking engagement, members of the military broke into the school where he taught and assassinated 6 of his colleagues, their housekeeper and her fifteen year-old daughter. Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Ignacio Martin Baro, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos. These friends and colleagues had worked alongside Jon Sobrino in his work for the poor and were taken away in a brutal act of cruelty and repression.

Instead of giving up, Sobrino kept working, living for a time in exile, faithfully speaking, writing, and teaching. Not only did he keep going in the midst of great suffering and personal loss, but he continued to be vocal in sharing the good news that God stands with those who suffer, that God is active and working to liberate God’s people, even if we may fear that God has left us all. God may not come as we expect, this is the story of Christmas. Jesus came to serve, not to rule on earth in power. God is present, and works through us to transform our world.

Sobrino’s writings captured my attention (so much so that I was able to go back to school and finish my degree). He helped me to see Jesus as relevant, he described God’s anger at injustice and passion for the value of human life and dignity in a way that stirred up my own belief. He lives a life of integrity, his life reflects his values, and this inspires me.

To this day, Jon Sobrino speaks and acts to call us to faith and to action, and I am grateful I got to see him speak at a protest at Fort Benning, Georgia in 2008. Studying him in school, hearing him speak, I wanted to stop dwelling on the questions of why God allowed bad things to happen, or how humans could be so cruel to one another. He asked us to take part in alleviating the suffering in this world, and I found in him a role model who could live out his faith in service to others without getting used up or becoming bitter.

My meditation’s subtitle, “The Christmas Story from the perspective of a shepherd, watching the flocks by night, who is afraid of the dark” really describes me. Scared by all I was seeing in the world, I refused to look up to see the bright star in the sky, and I forget to look at the examples of light and love that shine in others around us. As Sobrino said “Hope is the seed of liberation.” This is true for whole communities, and it was true for me in my own search for liberation. Once I found hope again for having faith, it slowly, carefully, began to regrow. It wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t easy, and sometimes I just had to hope that just showing up would be enough. It was.

I am so relieved to stand here, six years later, to have once again found God and an abundant life of faith, love, and community. I am grateful for my life. The Psalm of lament I quoted, Psalm 13 ends well too. “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Many of you here have helped me to find my way again, and Jon Sobrino did too. This year, for Christmas, I will still feel stress of holiday chaos, and ponder with grief and anger the injustice of the world. But I will trust in God’s presence and love in a way I couldn’t in 2008.

Through this journey, my faith was restored, and I found I could trust God again to care for this world. And just as importantly, I could trust God to hold closely in eternal love and faithful steadfastness those we have lost, my niece Merissa, our own Martin Schmidt, those I named tonight, and all those in our hearts. Every name, and everyone unnamed, is remembered and embraced by God.

I am motivated to try and make the world a better place, to be a part of God’s work here on earth. Sobrino lost so much, kept going in the midst of desperate injustice, kept his faith in God intact, and his example ignited the hope that brought back the spark of my faith even in the midst of lament.

“Hope is the seed of liberation.”

I hope we can each remember to look up, look around, and find a surprising abundance of faith and hope. Let’s not worry about a scarcity of goodness or love, but live with confidence in the promise of God’s presence. My Christmas wish is that we can be free to help others, to make a difference in the world, no matter how small, and find ourselves fed and nourished by the abundance that is in God.

I thank God for Jon Sobrino, for this community, and for all who stir up our faith.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Physical Reminders

Standing at the baptismal font on my naming day
Photo courtesy of Lee Ann Krause
A note: My goal is never, ever, EVER to try to get you to go to church, or convince you to believe in God. That is just not my job. Your faith is not my business. I do want everyone to know they are loved, no matter what, and I want to make churches safe and welcoming for those who might want to go to one. Thanks for reading.

For me, coming out as trans is liberating and terrifying. In the beginning, I cried myself to sleep, afraid of a life of isolation and rejection. I didn't know anything about what transgender meant, and I didn't have connections within the trans community. I just knew that I had discovered a truth about myself that could not be hidden away.

It took some time for me to know I was accepted in the church, but I began to feel comfortable once again. Then, a few months ago, a friend sent me Nadia Bolz-Weber's blog with a naming liturgy for a transgender member. Though it sounded intimidating and I wasn't sure exactly why it was important to me, I wanted to do this in my own church for my new name. Sure, I was hoping for public acknowledgement in the church of my transition, and introduction of my new name to those who didn't know. But both of these could have been done in other ways. Doing something as part of Sunday morning worship seemed important.

My pastors trusted in our congregation and God's grace, and we developed a naming liturgy, modifying the one we found on Nadia's blog. We scheduled it for July 13, 2014. I didn't expect a negative response, and yet I was terrified. I wanted to back out and avoid the public event. I went forward with it anyway, but I invited friends of mine to come with me for moral support.

After the sermon hymn, our pastors invited me up, as well as my "naming support crew." Twelve guys in my friend group, as well as friends in the congregation, and my mother, surrounded me as I stood next to the two pastors by the baptismal font.  We hadn't even started yet and I was tearing up. It was incredible to have the support and presence of my friends.  I was not alone.

We went through the liturgy and many of us, including the pastors, choked up during the last prayer:
Leo, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Bear your new name in the Name of Christ. Share it in the name of mercy. Offer it in the name of justice. Christ is among us making peace right here right now. And let the people say, “Amen.”
Tonight, one month later, I was driving home singing to the Spice Girls, and I could finally put to words why I wanted to have a naming service at the font, and why I based it on the service for affirmation of baptism. (spoiler - the Spice Girls' song is not a clue).

1) To me, baptism reminds me that every day I will mess up, and every day I can start over. I can't be perfect, no matter how hard I might try, and nothing I do will make God stop loving me. I have the freedom to be human, to f#@% it up royally, and I am always given another chance. God's passionate embrace is unconditional. We will always, always, always be loved and worthy.

2) My baptism also means that God claims me as a part of the family.  God claims us, and needs us to go out into the world to work for justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and to bring hope and light into the world.

This big ceramic bowl of water in the middle of the church is a physical and tangible reminder. It anchors my understanding of who I am, who God is, and how I want to live in the world. It was the perfect place to pause and reflect as I took the next step in my journey, and took on a new name.

I needed to be sure that God knows my new name. I needed to know that God still claims me:
"Leo, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever..."
I needed to know that God still sends me forth to make a difference in the world.
"...Bear your new name in the Name of Christ. Share it in the name of mercy. Offer it in the name of justice...."
I needed to know that God is still with us, even if I've turned my world upside down.
"...Christ is among us making peace right here right now..."
I needed to know I would still find support at my church and with my friends.
"...And let the people say, “Amen.”..." 
I no longer cry myself to sleep because I am trans. I do not feel condemned to live a life of isolation and rejection. There is room in this world for me to live authentically, and to find strength and joy in friendship and my faith. In fact, getting to be myself, which happens to be trans, is pretty dang awesome.

God still claims me, God still loves me, and God still wants my help in the world.  I do still need this reminder every day, and this is why I wanted a naming service at a big bowl of water in the middle of my church.

Maybe for you, baptism isn't a meaningful symbol for you. That's ok.  Maybe something else jogs your memory and reminds you that you are loved and worthy, that there is light and hope in the world.  Maybe it is a rainbow, or sunshine, or purple flowers (as it was for me in Berkeley during my crisis of faith), maybe it is in the hug of a friend. Maybe right now you have a hard time remembering that you are loved at all.

No matter what, please know that God loves you and claims you. God's family includes you. Whether or not you have been baptized, you are a child of God, named, and held close in love. You are not alone. You are needed in the world. No matter who you are, or what people have said about God to bully you, or what you feel may have put you outside of God's grace, you are beloved.  

YOU are beloved and needed.

Please don't ever forget it.


Want to do more for the work of welcome in churches for the LGBT community?  Here are some organizations, Lutheran and ecumenical.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Enter the Lion

July 27, 2014
Dear friends,

You are such an inspiration to me, and I can never sufficiently express my gratitude for all of the ways you have loved and cared for me, especially since I have come out as trans.

I am excited to share that after much discernment, prayer, and the required therapist letters, I am continuing my transition from female to male.  Yesterday, on July 30th, I took my first testosterone shot.  On August 19th, I will be in Fort Lauderdale for top surgery to remove my breasts and give me a male chest.

Some of you will celebrate this news.  Thank you!  Some of you may struggle with it, and I totally understand. I only ask that you still see me for the lovable goofball I have always been. I am giddy and grateful, and trying not to be too anxious about negative responses from those I care about. 

It isn't easy for me to defy expectations or risk upsetting people. My biggest fear in this process has been how people will respond. I'm a people pleaser. I want to be liked, and I hate conflict. But I will risk the hard conversations and negative comments so that I can live more fully as myself. This is an experience that is giving me strength and courage to find my own voice. I do not undertake this lightly, and if you are not supportive, please consider how your words may wound me or harm our relationship.

I am so excited to continue this journey and curious to see how I will look and sound in a year. Have questions? Some places to check out: HRC Transgender FAQ, and Hudson's FTM Testosterone basics, or ask me.

I wanted to record my voice at intervals for comparison, so I googled "lion quotes" and found this lovely one by Elizabeth Kenny:

It's better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.  

Good words to live by, I think.

With joy,

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Happy Pride

Portland Pride 2014
Photo Credit Dustin Vance

To fully explain my amazing weekend at Pride this year, I need to take you back almost 15 months to some of the fear I experienced as I was first coming out as trans.

But first, an aside:  Even though I write as a person of faith, please know: my goal is never, ever, EVER to try to get people to go to church, or to convince them to believe in God. That is just not my job. Your faith is not my business.  I do want everyone to know they are loved, no matter what, and I want to make churches safe and welcoming for those who might want to go to one.

So back to my story.  It was March 31st, 2013, only five days since I had become aware that this word "trans" might apply to me. I was still the president of my church and actively advocating for welcome and affirmation of the LGBT community in our church, including beginning conversations about welcome with the local boy scout troop. Then, as now, I would proclaim that God's love included everyone, that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender wasn't just "something to be tolerated", but one of the many diverse and beautiful ways that God creates us all.

It was Easter Sunday, a pretty big day, and I was supposed to be driving to church already. Instead I stood in my closet (both literally and figuratively). I could not bring myself to dress as a woman, but was afraid to dress as a man. I called my roommate, half naked, frozen in inaction, and he told me to just put anything on and go to church.  I dressed as "male" as I could or dared at the time - jeans, t-shirt with sports bra and Converse all stars.

I got to church fifteen minutes late and snuck into one of the pews. As I sat there, knowing I could not put on a dress, aware of this growing realization that my gender identity is male, I felt shame. I was struck with the fear that God was mad at me, that I was doing something bad. As much as I would have vehemently argued with anyone who tried to make that claim about any other member of the LGBT community (or anyone for that matter), here I sat, full of fear and internalized transphobia.  I wanted to walk out on Easter Sunday service and go home.

Over the next months, as I came out further to myself, my friends, and my family, this feeling continued to surface. I really didn't want to go to church. I completed my term as president but resigned from the church council. I felt that I could not attend the church I had been a member of for 18 years, because I wasn't sure they would accept me.

I am grateful that through study and prayer I have let go of (hopefully most of) my internal transphobia. I am as God made me, and living more authentically will not only enable me to be closer to God, but to be more giving of myself to others.  I don't know why God made me male in a female body, but I don't need to know the why. I can rest in the knowledge that God loves me passionately as I am, just as God loves each of you passionately just as you are.

And over the last fourteen months, my church has impressed me by living out the welcome that we voted on in December, 2012.  Two weeks ago, one of my pastors, Pastor Robyn Hartwig, preached on the spirit of God moving through the congregation, leading us to stretch out of our comfort zone for our brothers and sisters. From the pulpit, she spoke of how she met me as Laura and now knew me as Leo, that I was a she and am now a he. She told us that the spirit of God moves out ahead of us, welcoming and including those who are different from ourselves, but who are already included in and part of what God is doing in the world. 

I had been known as Laura for 18 years in that congregation and didn't know if I had a place there now as Leo, but hearing this word of welcome from the pulpit was powerful. I did not mind being mentioned in a sermon, but was deeply moved by the words of support. Both pastors have also been calling me Leo when they present me with the bread at communion, and this is holy hospitality. In a few weeks, we will have a formal name blessing in the church of my new name, Leo Channing.

At Pride, this welcome and love from my church was made tangible again. This year, my congregation had about 25 members buy matching t-shirts to represent our local church and walk in the Pride parade, joining several other churches from a variety of denominations, and about 75 other Lutherans.  

This church of mine, this people I did not know could be my people, called me Leo and marched with me, holding signs, blowing bubbles, and waving sticks with rainbow streamers, offering holy hospitality and welcome to all they met on the parade route.

At one point in the parade, the route goes past the bar CC Slaughters. Several of my friends were standing under the balcony, cheering us on. They have loved me and supported me through the twists and turns of coming out as trans, and have always made me feel that I was one of the guys. I love them fiercely. The parade announcer at CC's is also my friend Summer Seasons. Walking with my mom, seeing my friends, hearing Summer greet us and talk about the welcome and advocacy of our church made me leap for joy.

The picture above, taken by my friend Dustin Vance, captured this moment. This was Pride for me. As I wrote on the photo on facebook, "What moves me to such joy is the love I receive from the LGBT community in Portland, and the love I receive from my church family, and all of this love crashing around in a tidal wave of awesomeness in the same place." My heart burst with gratitude for each of you: the words of support you have provided, the hugs, the love, the joyful greetings of "Happy Pride!" -- I knew that I was in the right place, being my authentic self, my authentic trans self, and it was amazing. 

In that moment, I felt encouraged to continue the work of making churches safe and welcoming for all people, especially for those in the LGBT community. I do not take that moment of joy and love for granted, Many people, including friends I love dearly, have struggled with rejection by friends, family or church community. For those of you who are allies and members of faith communities, I ask that you will join me in advocating for the LGBT community, so that all may know they are truly welcome. (here are links for Lutherans and for others)

If you have been hurt by a church community or people using the Bible against you, please know that the word of hate does not come from God, nor does "love the sinner, hate the sin."  I am sorry you have been hurt.  God rejoices in YOU, in all that makes you wonderful and unique. God celebrates your glitter and sparkle and rainbow, or however you express yourself.

There is a lot of joy in this picture from Pride, but my weekend wasn't all smiles. I also experienced a decent amount of gender dysphoria. That is the clinical term for the distress caused by my perceived gender (female) being different than my gender identity (male).  Several friends either spotted that moment when I got quiet and withdrew or jumped in when I asked for help, and they provided hugs and words of encouragement. I am forever grateful to each of you.

I also felt extremely empowered and uplifted by participating in the first trans march in Portland. For me, the most incredible moment was being a part of a large group of people, voices reverberating off the buildings with repeated chants of: "What do we want?" "Trans rights!" "When do we want them?" "Now!"  I did not expect the tears that threatened to fall as I felt in my bones that I am not alone in this journey. Please know that you are not alone either.

Pride weekend is over for Portland, but I will try to continue to live out what Pride means to me: love, empowerment, authenticity, advocacy, joy, friendship and solidarity. And lots of glitter and rainbows.

Thank you all for the many ways you have blessed my life.

Happy Pride!

Monday, January 20, 2014

What's in a name?

At the Oregon Coast with friends
 Psalm 138:13-14 "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well."
Well, I changed my name on Facebook from Laura to Leo.  In case you missed my earlier post, I have come out as transgender and identify as male. Part of that journey has been giving myself a man's name.

I remember the first time I wanted to have a male name. It was at Latino Pride in July, 2013 and I was with several of my friends, all male. Feeling good with my short hair cut and my cute outfit from the men’s department, I felt masculine energy exuding from me… and so when I introduced myself as “Laura,” it just didn’t fit.

After pondering many names, and trying some on mentally, I decided to pick a first and middle name with the same initials as my female name. One night in August I found the perfect first name: “Leo.”

Leo is Latin for lion, and I have felt a special connection with lions since childhood. In fact, there is a large poster of an African Lion (panthera leo) running towards me by my desk.

My love for lions started with Aslan, from C.S. Lewis’ series, The Chronicles of Narnia. An allegory for Jesus, the lion is a strong, loving, protector, and yet calls one to do what is right. The lion urges one to bravery and action. Much of my early faith was based on this understanding of God. The lion reminds me of God's love and presence, and of God urging us to care for others.

In the frightening early months of my journey as transgender, I decided I wanted to be a lion and not a mouse. As an activist who hates conflict, this resonated with me.  I do want to be a lion, and I want to have a loud and powerful roar against injustice. Working for justice requires courage.  It calls for the animal energy to pounce and play, to love fiercely, and to fight tirelessly for myself and others.

My friend Patrick suggested my middle name, Channing, which means fierce wolf and church leader. This is also who I want to be as I work for inclusion and welcome in the church, so this name belongs too.

Leo Channing. I like it. :)

It also helps that two handsome and gifted men, Leonardo DiCaprio and Channing Tatum, share my names.  That is company I would gladly keep. In fact, I think a picture of the three of us together would be quite an appropriate way to celebrate my journey.  Don't you agree?  
God of all, your creation is wonderfully diverse, and I am grateful to be a part of it. Be with all those who are searching for a sense of identity or belong, whether it is gender, or community, vocation or within their family.  You know us and love each of us, and have from the start, no matter where we are or what we do. Thanks, and Amen.