News and Views

Q&A with Bishop Peggy Johnson

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Bishop Peggy Johnson pastored in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and was episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences before retiring in September 2021. She is the spouse of the Rev. Mary Johnson, who recently shared her story of transitioning to a transgender woman. The thoughts below were posed by the Baltimore-Washington Conference Communications team for a story that was published Oct. 11. 

Would you please share a little about what has been meaningful to you as you’ve journeyed with your spouse as she transitioned from Michael to Mary?

It was a blessing to be a part of this journey and see how very happy Mary became when she could be her authentic self. The beginning of hormone therapy was a particularly joyful time. I have never seen her so elated as she experienced her true self for the first time. I also enjoyed buying clothes and figuring out what fit without trying it on and sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it way wrong. One time I purchased a pair of bright pink tights for her that were enormous, and we had a good laugh.

It opened a whole new world of ministry concern for me as I learned about the plight of trans people all over the world, and the many ways people discriminate, punish, marginalize, and even negate the very existence of trans people. 

What has been hard?

Living in the “closet” was difficult. 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.

There was always a fear that someone would “find out” and make a public scene and I would be the topic of mean-spirited media blogs in which I had been slandered in the past.

Professional counseling was helpful and there is a world of professionals who are knowledgeable and life-giving when you begin to search them out. There are also doctors, specialists and even beauticians who are “trans friendly” that the community knows about and shares with beginners. 

What has drawn you closer together?

Faith in God and God’s protective hand and guidance through it all has been the “tie that binds” always. Mary and I have been soulmates since we met in seminary in 1977 and we have long talks about everything: theology, family, church, food, fashion.

On one occasion we attended the “Trans Health” Conference in Philadelphia. It is an annual event that attracts thousands of people from all over the world. It includes a wide range of workshops, plenary sessions, display tables and all manner of things that relate to the trans world. It blew me away to see this secret world that was not so secret in this huge convention center. We saw how much ministry potential there is in this community that the church is barely touching. After that, I encouraged our local Reconciling Ministries Network chapter to set up a table in the future, which they did.

We also attended a “Trans Day of Remembrance” service at a Unitarian-Universalist Church one Sunday night in November. This is the day that people are to remember the many trans people who have been murdered in hate crimes across the country. There are quite a few of these hate crimes each year and the majority of the victims are trans women of color. It was a moving service. The world has been very cruel to this community at times and, sadly, the church has as well. When the church condemns trans people for theological or other reasons, it gives a kind of permission for people to abuse trans people. This is no little thing.

Through these experiences we felt called to expand our ministry-reach in this part of the vineyard in whatever ways we can.

What has surprised you most?

A few things... It seems that God has a sense of humor because the whole time I served as an active bishop, the topic of “transgender,” or a person who was themselves a trans man or woman, would frequently come into my life. Everywhere I turned, the topic would come up in casual conversation. There was a grandmother who was grieving the transition of her granddaughter who wanted me to tell her to stop. There was a seminary student trans man who was discerning a call to ordained ministry who came to my office to talk. I went to Moravian Seminary to do a weekday chapel service and there, in the front row, was a Deaf trans woman! She was a student there and I was able to sign my presentation and afterwards we talked for quite some time. When one adds disability to the trans experience, it is a double challenge.

I was also surprised that we were not “outed” publicly while I was an active bishop. Mary would teach at this Keystone Trans Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., each year. It was a great opportunity for her to lecture about spirituality in the transgender context. The people who attended this conference were either trans or were family members or professionals in the field. Each time she would go there, I would pray that there were no United Methodists in attendance. But of course, there were, and they knew who she was, but it never got out, or at least there was no public “glare” at the time. I gratefully credit the community for this gracious protection.

As an episcopal leader, how does your understanding of Scripture and the Book of Discipline inform your thinking about people who are transgender?

I love the passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:28 (NIV) that says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In some translations it does not say “male or female” it says, “male and female.” For me it is not one or the other, it is one and the other. We have been taught for so long that people are either male or female, but there is much more of a spectrum to gender identity that goes beyond a person’s assigned gender at birth. 

The thrust of Paul’s argument is “we are one in Christ.” Christ is our common denominator and our unity with Christ should be our unity with one another. We struggle with this in our human frailty and bigotry, but the church is called to be “one” in Christ always, in all of our diversities. How can we justify a church split, given this mandate?

The Bible does not specifically talk about transgender people as it is a modern term. Our understanding of it is still coming into focus as science unfolds new understandings of gender identity. The law of love for all people should be enough to tell us how to treat trans folks. My former ministry with the Deaf community and the disability community have taught me well about the giftedness and sanctity of all people. The trans community is no different. We are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14) There is much we can learn from this community and their journey of faith.

Again, quoting from Paul in his famous discourse about the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12), “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (12:21). That is a ban on exclusion. 

Paul also reminds the church that people cannot “disqualify” themselves from the body for any reason “If the foot should say, ‘because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (12:15). The point here is all of us in Christ Jesus are one body and every part is desperately needed for the functioning of the whole. This includes people in the trans community, as well as all of our diverse communities. The church struggles a great deal with this. May we see the marvelous opportunity and the mandate from Scripture.

The Book of Discipline does not talk about trans people at all. The paragraphs that oppose homosexuality do not apply to peoples’ gender identity. Homosexuality is about sexual orientation. Gender identity is totally different. There have been attempts at recent sessions of General Conference to legislate trans people in a negative way, but they have not come to the floor.

I know a number of United Methodist pastors who are either trans women, trans men, gender fluid, non-binary, or gender non-conforming and they serve with grace and distinction. Some do so in secret, and some pay a heavy price for transparency. May the church take a hard look at this in the future. We could be the “beloved community” if we set our minds on it, but it takes a good bit of humility, repentance, and learning to do so.

Has your experience living with a partner making this transition shaped your ideas about love in any way?

My mother made an embroidered framed picture and gave it to us on our wedding day in 1978. It said, “To love and be loved is the greatest joy on earth.” I believe this is a loosely translated quote from Victor Hugo. Indeed, this is true; but love is not just wedding day euphoria. It is a journey and with it comes ups and downs and challenges; but if you stick it out you become “real.”

When I say “real,” I’m quoting from the “Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams Bianco and the wisdom of the Skinned Horse, “When a child or someone loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and are very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real, you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.” 

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. 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 we are truly blessed.

What is your prayer for your family at this moment in history? What is your prayer for transgender people, both in and out of The United Methodist Church?

We pray for our family every day that they might be instruments of peace-making in this world, that they will have the courage to speak for people without a voice, that they will engage in a journey of life-long learning about diversity. May people experience the love of God through them as generous, forgiving and non-judgmental.

We pray for transgender and gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, gender fluid communities in all their diversity and potential. May they get along with each other and get more done that way. May God protect them from the hurts of theology and church polity that judge and diminish. May they find gracious hospitality in their houses of worship and opportunities to use their unique giftedness.

We pray for The United Methodist Church, our spiritual home, our “mother,” our heart. May she continue her work for justice in a way that draws people to Christ. May she make streams in the desert of poverty and suffering through the power of the Holy Spirit. May she be swift to take the towel and the basin of humble service and sacrifice. May she learn that you cannot “legislate” one’s heart.

If you could share one message about this experience with the people of the churches and conferences you’ve led and served, what would it be?

God loves all of you, just as you are. Spread that unconditional love to the world and you will turn it upside down.