By Melissa Lauber
Because she wants to be a witness to others on a similar journey, the Rev. Mary Johnson is beginning to share the story of her transition from the Rev. Michael Johnson and her choice to now live fully as the person she feels God created her to be.
Living as a man, conjured up feelings that “were more or less like being in solitary confinement, of being imprisoned,” Johnson said. “God’s invitation to me was to just be myself. It was like the door of the prison opened and I had the choice to come out and to be real. But the first person you have to come out to is yourself, and that’s a very real ‘coming-to-Jesus’ moment. Will God accept who I really am?”
A pastor whose membership is in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Johnson is the spouse of Bishop Peggy Johnson, who Sept. 1 retired as episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Conferences. After serving as a pastor in local churches since 1978, Mary Johnson chose a different kind of ministry, supporting and assisting the bishop with a variety of work.
“The greatest challenge was living in the closet,” Mary Johnson said. For much of the past decade, she’s felt compelled to live two lives, pretending to be a cis-gender male in most public settings, and often silencing her voice so that she would not “become a problem” or a distraction from other ministries. “First, I wanted to do no harm,” she said. “I tried to walk a fine line.”
“Living in the ‘closet,’ was difficult,” Bishop Johnson said. “It would not be an understatement to say that being an active bishop with a trans woman spouse would be a challenge to my credibility if it was widely known. Even now, after 11 years, it takes a measure of courage to ‘come out,’ given the liminal times in which we live, the sharp division in the church over issues of sexuality, and the general ignorance about this topic in society as a whole.”
During the past decade, the couple has learned, and gone on to teach, formally and in other encounters, about transgender people and faith.
“As I entered into a greater understanding of the diversity of gender, I realized all binary thinking is flawed,” Mary Johnson said. “It’s a shorthand that’s easy because, with it, there’s right and wrong. But there are all kinds of folks. There are a multitude of kinds, and God loves them all. Understanding each other’s perspectives helps us understand God, because we’re able to see God in them.”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are those whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth.
"The denomination’s Book of Discipline does not talk about trans people at all,” Bishop Johnson said. “The paragraphs that oppose homosexuality do not apply to people’s gender identity. Homosexuality is about sexual orientation. Gender identity is totally different.”
As she’s transitioned, Mary Johnson said that much of her daily life remains the same. “The only things that have changed are the superficial things, like the clothes and shoes I wear. I wear a little more jewelry and wear scents that I enjoy. I still go on walks with the woman I love and read three or four books at the same time. I still do my devotions and worship the God I serve.”
Johnson has also found that her ideas about God have shifted a little during her transition. “A lot of my understanding of the Christian faith was centered on obedience.” But a shift came when she began to realize that “God just wanted my love and God wanted to love me. … It was a softer experience of God that moved into the fruits of the Spirit. God was kind, gentle and faithful to me. God wanted joy in my life, and peace in my soul, which was different than God wants obedience no matter what.”
Another shift is that she has “gone from needing answers to being more comfortable with the questions. I believe that one of the marks of the Holy Spirit in your life is that you have new questions,” Johnson said. “That’s how God teaches us, through questions. Questions lead us to think new thoughts.”
For Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington Conferences, these questions circle back to one’s understanding and relationship with Scripture. As Mary Johnson’s bishop and Peggy Johnson’s colleague, Easterling said that when she heard their story, her heart was immediately stirred, and she thought of “the burden of having to keep one’s full identity closeted and how disempowering it is to have to hide a part of oneself for fear of rejection.”
Reflecting on how United Methodists should respond to those who are transgender, Bishop Easterling said, “How one interprets Scripture will absolutely determine one’s understanding of people who are transgender. If one believes the Bible establishes binary gender categorizations, some of the choices of transgender people become challenging to understand. However, if one believes the Bible does not establish binary categorizations, it is easier to enter the conversation. I think we should leave room for differing interpretations and engage in honest, respectful, inquiring conversations to examine, challenge and deepen our thinking. Our understanding of many aspects of life has been broadened over time, this includes gender roles in society and the church, and human worth and personhood. As other disciplines expand our thinking, we must broaden our theological thinking as well.” The bishop added that “with respect to the Book of Discipline, it is clear that being transgender is not a chargeable offense.”
Easterling shared that she believes “this gracious invitation into Mary’s life is an opportunity to listen, learn and prayerfully discern.” And, she said, “I do not believe it is appropriate to question the timing of such personal information. Bishop Johnson and Mary Johnson are servant leaders, but that doesn’t mean they have lost all autonomy on their lives. We need to be careful about overstepping our bounds.”
For the Johnsons, “faith in God and God’s protective hand and guidance through it all has been the ‘tie that binds’ always,” Bishop Johnson said. As they move forward together, she holds close the embroidered picture her mother made and gave to them on their wedding day in 1978 that says, “To love and be loved is the greatest joy on earth.”
“Our journey of love in pastoral ministry, raising two sons, the episcopacy, and this transgender transition has been steeped in love, mutual respect, and sacrifice,” Bishop Johnson said. “Love is not glamourous, but deeply real and it helps us greatly during this moment of revelation. Knowing we love each other and are surrounded by the love of God and people that understand makes us feel truly blessed.”
Mary Johnson agrees. She often counts her blessings. Born in 1954, at a time where “boys were boys and girls were girls,” she remembers cooking and sewing, loving to read and write and dreaming of running an orphanage for babies. She also remembers the times, even as an adult, feeling invisible. Over the years, she said, “I realized that no one has ever really seen me, the me I had long ago shut up with denial, repression and suppression. I felt like there were two people, so I looked it up on the internet and was given a new word to explore – ‘transgender.’”
Johnson retired in January. Today, she and Bishop Johnson are living in Virginia. She’s finding great joy in her new grandchild, in continuing her writing of Great Thanksgiving liturgies for Communion services and has discovered a church home at a nearby United Methodist church, where, she said, “they call me by name and treat me with respect.” “I think that would crush me if I ever found out I couldn’t worship in the church,” she said.
And she, Bishop Easterling and Bishop Johnson are all praying – for transgender people and for The United Methodist Church.
“Sharing one’s deepest truth is empowering and vulnerable at the same time,” Bishop Easterling said. “My prayer is that the entire Johnson family is surrounded with prayer, support, and protected from harm. I pray that they continue to acquire the resources they need for their mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being. I pray that this becomes a time for those who love them to reach out in love and support, knowing that they will also come under deep scrutiny, accusation and rejection by some. … This can be a rich opportunity to grow in our understanding and to practice humility in our inquiry. We are all created in the imago dei, and I do not believe that changes as individuals live into the fullness of their created being. Our understandings are yet so limited about all of creation and our Creator.”
Bishop Easterling said she considers it “a privilege that we are invited into this part of the Johnsons’ lives, and we should hold it as sacred.” It is her hope that people will see this as an opportunity “to help those they lead and serve to make meaning of their lives, especially from a theological context,” she said. “I hope pastors take the time to educate themselves on matters brought to their attention so that they may offer informed, insightful, well-reasoned analysis to the discussion. That is both the responsibility and joy of pastoral ministry."
Bishop Johnson also offered a message to all those in the churches and conferences she and her spouse have served. “God loves all of you, just as you are,” she said. “Spread that unconditional love to the world and you will turn it upside down.”
To Learn More about Transgender People:
- National Center for Transgender Equality – https://transequality.org/ provides comprehensive information about transgender people and the wide variety of issues they face.
- Human Rights Campaign – https://www.hrc.org/ seeks to educate the public about the transgender community and provides a range of resources for supporting transgender and gender non-binary people.
- Reconciling Ministries Network – https://rmnetwork.org/ equips and mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
- United Methodist Alliance for Transgender Inclusion – https://rmnetwork.org/get-involved/extension-ministries/umati/ offers support, outreach and witness to transgender people.
Read a fuller interview with the Rev. Mary Johnson:
Read a fuller interview with Bishop Peggy Johnson: