News and Views

Q&A with Rev. Mary Johnson

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The Rev. Mary Johnson, a retired Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, recently announced her intention to live openly as a transgender woman. She shared some of her thoughts to questions posed by the BWC Communications team for a story published on Oct. 11.

Sharing your story is a very courageous act. Why are you choosing to share your story publicly?

As the spouse of a United Methodist bishop and as an Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, I am a public person. When my spouse, Bishop Peggy Johnson, retired, I decided that I would now live openly as Mary Johnson. I would no longer pretend to be a cis-gender male, which I have never been, although I was seen and treated that way since my birth. I am not ashamed to be a transgender woman and I did not want to give that impression. I do not want to confuse others if they see me in a dress or in a skirt as my gender expression changes to make who I am less ambiguous. Being transgender today has become a political issue in many places, but I am trying to just be myself in an open way. 

Can you please share a little about your journey, how you came to understand your gender identity, and began to grow more fully into the person you were created to be?

I was born in 1954, when “boys were boys” and “girls were girls.” I did not know about transgender people, never heard the word. I never thought too much about gender, until first grade. In kindergarten, my best friend was female. We did everything together. But in first grade, and thereafter, everything changed. The worlds of boys and girls did not mix. For me, boys were always different from me. And, as I grew up, I was bullied a little for being different in ways that children sensed; but for the most part I was just left alone.

The mystery of my young life was why girls got to be girls, and I couldn’t. Gender dysphoria is not feeling at home in the body you have, with the gender expressions you are expected to adhere to. Through time, I came to call myself and idenfiy as female. I loved to cook and to sew. I felt I was cleaner than most boys. I loved to read and write. I loved babies and dreamed of running an orphanage and caring for them.

As a workaholic pastor, I was too busy to worry about gender. I just lived my life. But my female identification was always in the background. When my wife became a bishop, my life changed in many ways. I went from being an equal colleague, to being the supportive spouse of a busy bishop. I went from working full-time to working part-time so that I could pick up many of the tasks of living our new life together. I was placed in a more female social role. This did not make me transgender, but it forced me to deal with feelings I have had all of my life. 

The invisibility that I experienced was not new. I realized that no one has ever really seen me – the me that I had long ago shut up with denial, repression and suppression. I felt like there were two people, that I was two-spirited. (Two Spirit, I learned, is a term only to be used by Native American people.) So, I looked it up on the Internet and was given a new word to explore – “transgender.”

At this time, I confessed to Peggy that I thought that I was transgender and sought professional counseling. I started to explore who I was, both psychologically and spiritually, with a spiritual director.

When did you begin to understand that you are female? Can you explain a little about what prompted that understanding? 

I would say always. Gender for the most part, in my experience, involves subtle differences. It is not one thing. But there were little things. I was intrigued by ballet, but I never thought about being a male dancer; I dreamed of being a beautiful ballerina. I never saw myself as Prince Charming, but saw myself more as Cinderella. When I thought about Halloween costumes, I wanted to be a belly dancer and wear a jingly coin belt on my hips more than I wanted to be a cowboy with boots and a six-shooter. I never spoke of these things out loud because of internalized sexism, knowing my place, and not knowing what would happen if anyone even thought I had such longings. I learned to police my gender expression and tried to copy boys so that I knew how to act and talk. Living as the wrong gender is like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet, they just feel a little off.

What have been some of the highlights along the way; what have been some of the biggest challenges?

One of the highlights was when I went on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). Estrogen changed my life. I felt right in my body for the first time in my life. Where before I had felt like there were two people – the outside person everyone saw and the inside person that no one could experience but me – now, there was only one person: me. I was calmer. I was less angry. I was able to embrace life with a sense of wholeness that I had never experienced. Testosterone did not agree with me. I would rather die than go back to how I was before.

Within a few months of working with my therapist, I started presenting at the Keystone Conference in Harrisburg, Pa. I shared what I learned about the importance of faith during these times of transition. I was able to share with others what it meant to me to be a transgender Christian believer. This was very meaningful.

The greatest challenge was living in the closet. It was not so hard when I did not realize who I was, but once I came to admit that I was a trans female, I could no longer see myself as a cis-gender male. I started living in two worlds. I still needed to pretend to be a cis-gender male for the world, but more and more, it was not me. The past 10 years of transition has been in private for the most part. It often felt like I was living a lie. I told very few people, only when absolutely necessary. It was not that I was ashamed, but because I did not want to bring them into my closet. Once shared, the story tends to spread, even when others are not intentionally seeking to “out” you.

The other challenge is how to minister to others authentically when you cannot show who you really are. There tends to be a guardedness that is not always helpful for authentic ministry. However, God is faithful and, even in the closet, God has sent me souls to care for.

Does claiming and beginning to fully live out of your identity as female change the way you go about your daily life? What are the little things that matter that you find yourself doing or thinking differently? 

I would say that for the most part, “no” it has not changed much. I have always cooked, still do.  I have always shopped, still do. I still do the sewing when there in a need in my family. I do regret missing out on Home Ec in school because it would have been so much more helpful in my daily life than my arc-welding class. 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.

Where are you finding joy? 

I enjoy my grandchild. Children bring me joy. My family brings me joy, I cannot help but smile when I am in their presence. Peggy brings me joy. Writing a sermon or a Great Thanksgiving gives me joy. Being in worship has always fed my charismatic spirit with joy. I have always been female, but being able to just be, brings a peaceful joy.

Why is the name Mary special to you? How did you choose that name? 

There are many reasons. My birth initials given to me by my parents were M.C. To honor that, I wanted to keep them. So, I chose Mary Charlotte Johnson as my new name. It is not legal yet, so it is more of a nickname used by family and friends. I have not legally transitioned. Sometimes it is not possible in the United States. There is a lot of paper work, so we will see if it ever becomes my legal name. 

When I was struggling, I had a dream every night for about a year. In that dream, like with Mary, God came to me with an invitation to give birth to God’s daughter. I would always say “yes,” and I would give birth to God’s daughter. What I came to realize was that, in this dream, I was this daughter. So, like Mary, I gave birth to the beloved of God.

Charlotte came from the fact that originally I was named after both of my grandfathers, their middle names were Charles and Carl, so Charlotte.

How does being an ordained Elder inform your ideas and actions about the process of transitioning?

First I wanted to do no harm. We live at a time when national politics has seeped into our theology. Laws are being written to deny civil rights, medical care, and common decency to transgender and gender non-conforming people. I do not want to cause harm.

I did not want to interfere with my wife’s ministry, which was difficult enough as she tried to be the bishop to all the members of her conferences, no matter their political persuasion. I also worked to find ways where I could use my gifts to help those who were feeling neglected by the church.

Second, I want to do good. I tried to teach truth when so much misinformation was being shared about trans people and their lives. In my liturgical writing, I worked to shape the language to be inclusive of all people, including non-binary and transgender people. My gender is not all that I am, but it shapes the way I see the world and live in it. 

Thirdly, I wanted to stay in love with God. I sought out theological writings of transgender theologians. I went to their lectures and tried to learn to move beyond proof texts to a lived experience of the presence of God in my life and in the lives of others who have traveled a similar journey.

How does your reading and knowledge of Scripture guide you? How is your faith informing your decision-making and your path forward?

The Scripture says nothing at all about transgender people. “Transgender” is a modern term, with a modern cultural understanding. Judaism recognizes eight genders, so if we follow their lead, I guess we should too. Today, gender is beginning to be seen as a spectrum rather than a binary, as more and more people share from their lived experience. This means that the church has to translate the teachings of Scripture from the biblical culture of many thousands of years ago to one that makes sense in a world where we are learning new truths about gender identity and human sexuality.

The more I have learned about myself, the more I have studied to understand not only my experience, but the experiences of others. There is not just one transgender story. If you know one story, you know one story – but there are so many more to learn from. I have gained a better appreciation that we are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

What has been your family’s reaction been?

Family reaction has been mixed. For my spouse, she needed time to process it all, but we talked to counselors, read books, and shared our hearts. My sons were the next to learn because they started to be concerned about the changes they observed in my behavior. But they have been very accepting as they have continued the journey with me. My mother and siblings have recently learned what they were starting to guess. They love me, even if they do not fully understand and have only started to learn more of what this means.

Coming out is an on-going process and how people react is often tied to their experiences with other transgender and non-binary people. 

Being the spouse of a bishop put you in a unique and somewhat public role. How did this role shape your decision-making and action?

From the beginning I promised Peggy that I would stay in the closet and tried not to make my being a transgender person an issue that would become a distraction to her ministry. However, being in relationship with me, made her more aware of transgender people in the lives of the people of her conferences, which enhanced her ability to minister to their unique needs. She was able to encourage churches to be sensitive to the needs of transgender people in their midst. We could have done things differently, with differing results, but we were able to do more good, I believe, then we would have if we had made me the focus.

What response would you make to people who might think negatively about transgender people or who want to debate your personal choices? 

My choice has never been whether or not to be a transgender person. I believe that it is one of the ways the Potter shaped my clay. The pot does not have the right to complain. My choice has been to be honest with myself and then with others. Gender expression is a choice to allow people to know that truth.

I would invite people to listen to the testimonies of transgender Christians to gain understanding. I would invite them to listen to the growing scientific understanding, most of which has come in the last 20 years. Personhood is never up for debate, I am who I am. You can judge if I am a loving person, or if I have brought joy into the world. You can judge any of the fruit of the Spirit in my life. I am just a Christian who happens to be transgender.

What words of advice or guidance would you offer to the church, to those who are transgender, to those who are wrestling with identity, and to those who seek to live out a Christ-like response with transgender people? 

My advice is to love each other. Transgender children and young adults who are loved and supported are less likely to commit suicide. Watch your rhetoric, because some of your harsh words may be for those who you love and you may do harm that you do not intend. 

I believe that God wants us to grow in our understanding of our own souls. I believe that I have a female soul. Be who you are. Keep safe. Don’t out others before they are ready. You can endanger their lives. Support equal rights for all people and fight to end discrimination that only causes harm. 

The United Methodist church where I worship now has welcomed me and my family. I am an old, transgender woman. It is hard to hide that fact. The pastor and people have been nothing but the family of Christ. We are just getting to know each other, but I am looking forward to a deepening fellowship. That is all we can ask for. 

Are there any words or thoughts you particularly want to share as you open up your life to tell this story?

There is some fear that comes with opening up to the annual conference that I have loved and served. We have come a long way together. I remember in executive clergy session, when Rev. Rebecca Steine Stephenson came before the conference, seeking to return after a leave of absence after transitioning. Those present questioned the validity of her baptism, the validity of her ordination, even her personhood. She withdrew her membership. I remember when Rev. Drew Phoenix came before the same body some years later, only wanting to change his legal name. He shared his life-long journey, and yet there were questions. At that time, I wondered if I would ever change my name, what would I have to face as a person of sacred worth? I am not trying to make a political statement, but I wanted you to know how God has blessed me as I continue to grow in my understanding of my own life in Christ.