Monday, August 31, 2009

Congratulations, Rev. David Weekley and Epworth UMC

Yesterday Rev. David Weekley, who transitioned from female to male in the 1970s and was ordained as a pastor in the United Methodist Church 27 years ago, came out to his congregation. I was honored to meet David this past June at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference-- I moderated a panel of trans clergy on which he sat.

One thing I want to correct from the otherwise accurate below story is that this sentence -- "the Methodist church also will withhold church membership from anyone who is openly gay"-- is incorrect. Plenty of openly gay people attend United Methodist Churches and their memberships are not subject to removal.

But what an extraordinary story, on which the Regal Courier has taken the lead:

Congregation embraces transgender minister as his secret is revealed
Rev. David Weekley hopes his story will help change United Methodist Church doctrine

BY CHRISTINE MCFADDEN
The Portland Tribune, Aug 30, 2009, Updated 11.4 hours ago

As soon as he raises the topic of gay rights to his conservative clergyman friend one day at lunch, he knows it’s a mistake.

He knows that the United Methodist Church long ago retained the right to turn away openly gay clergy members.

So Weekley listens to his friend espouse the opinion of the church, and buries his secret deeper. No one can ever find out that Weekley, a married father of five in Southeast Portland and a Methodist clergyman of 27 years, was born female.

Until now, there has been just one openly transgender Methodist clergyman in the U.S. to retain his ordination (That man, Drew Phoenix, 50, had his ordination challenged by members of the church after coming out publicly in 2007 to his congregation in St. John’s of Baltimore United Methodist Church in Maryland.)

Today, Sunday, Aug. 30, Weekley — who leads the congregation at the Epworth United Methodist Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood in inner Southeast Portland — became the second.

Just months after telling his own children that he was not their biological father, Weekley, who is in his late-50s, came out to his congregation of 221 members.

Standing behind his pulpit, Weekley began his usual worship service. About halfway through, he paused to share a personal message he called “My Book Report.”

He told them that in 1984, just nine years after undergoing extensive sex-reassignment surgeries, he was ordained by the Methodist Church without telling anyone of his original gender at birth.

Following his story, the congregation, who had remained silent throughout his talk, broke into thunderous applause. Church members then proclaimed their support for their pastor.

“It doesn’t change him; he’s still Reverend David, and that’s what counts,” says congregation member Robbie Tsuboi, who has been attending Epworth since 1964.

“I think it was a really, really positive reaction. From what I understand, it was 100 percent support within the church.”

Given the church’s stance on gay rights and its previous reaction to Phoenix’s revelation, Weekley hadn’t known what to expect. According to the Methodist “Book of Discipline,” performing a same-sex wedding, even in a state where it is legal, is an offense that could lead to discipline from Methodist church leaders.

Besides opposing the ordination of gay clergy, the Methodist church also will withhold church membership from anyone who is openly gay.

That’s why Weekley’s action is gaining national attention, including support from the one person who preceded him down this road.

“I’m very happy that he’s going through with this” Phoenix says. “It takes a lot of courage to do what David’s doing.”

Inspired by the past

Weekley’s original plan was to keep quiet throughout his career, waiting until retirement to finally come out. But a trip he took with church members in June 2008 changed his mind.

Weekley joined members of his congregation, which is 95 percent Japanese-American, on a pilgrimage to the remnants of a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Minidoka, Idaho, just outside of Twin Falls.

The experience touched him deeply. He had faith that a congregation like his own, many of them having experienced prejudice and alienation would be a safe place to come out, he says.

He was right.

“We at Epworth support him,” says congregation member Kazuko Hara, who has been attending Epworth’s services for more than 50 years. “I am supportive of him and will stand by him.”

“I think that they’re looking at his heart,” adds Kaau Ahina, who has been attending Epworth for three years. “They love him for who he is, and (his wife) Deborah.”

Following Sunday morning’s service, Weekley answered questions from the congregation about his decision and his life. One member asked: Was he relieved to have revealed the truth about his life? Weekley exhaled. “Extremely,” he answered.

“Twenty-seven years is a long time,” he says. “I have a lot to say and now I can finally say it.”

Despite anticipating that some of his congregation would leave the church, Weekley actually heard that some members plan to become more involved following his disclosure on Sunday.

“I don’t think I anticipated that so much,” he says smiling.

Weekley is accustomed to being a minority. In fact, he is a minority of a minority, serving as the second-ever Caucasian pastor at Epworth, a church first established in Portland’s old Japantown (today’s Old Town/Chinatown) in 1893, which later moved to Southeast Portland.

Although Weekley himself is not Japanese-American, many of his congregation members speak Japanese and offered mottos as themes for the pilgrimage to the internment camp.

They were: “Gambate,” meaning “Go for it;” “Shigatanai,” meaning “It cannot be helped;” and “Gaman,” meaning “Bearing the unbearable with dignity and grace, creating beauty from hardship.”

This motivation, along with the newfound knowledge that he wasn’t the only transgender clergyman in the world, inspired him to share the truth.

“I knew there were a few transgender people on the planet, but I didn’t think it was a large population,” he says. “It’s not something that you share. You don’t say, ‘by the way, were you born that way?’ It just doesn’t come up.”

In June, Weekley attended a health conference in Philadelphia for transgender people, where he met with more than 40 other religious leaders like himself.

“Jewish, Shinto, Pagan — every faith had at least one transgender leader there and (we) started a trans-religious network,” he says.

He and Deborah returned home ready to come out with the truth, they say.

“He’s not (been) happy,” says Deborah, 60, who works as a massage therapist. The two have been married for 13 years. “He’s becoming more agitated as the years are passing in hiding. He’s not thriving. I want him to thrive.”

Childhood as a girl

Born in Cleveland as a girl, Weekley always knew he was different.

“I always saw myself as a little boy,” he recalls. “My best friend was Gary. I liked sports. At a very young age, it didn’t seem like it was any problem.”

Going to school was more troublesome, he says.

“The teachers didn’t like me — each year that got worse,” he says.

From being blamed by teachers for things she didn’t do, to being slapped across the face by her fourth-grade teacher, Weekley says he didn’t feel he received any adult support until 10th grade, after being referred to a school psychologist.

“I really wanted to drop out of school,” he says. “It was a horrible time. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t look like a girl, I was different.”

As a young teenager, Weekly as a girl joined the marching band because she was comfortable in the unisex uniforms. At home, her parents just thought she dressed like a hippie.

His mother was a Catholic homemaker and his father worked in management and didn’t attend church. The two parents, political opposites, had one other son.

Things changed when Weekley was about 14, he remembers. While at a friend’s house, she overheard her friend’s mom talking on the phone to a neighbor about Christine Jorgensen, the first widely known transgender woman to undergo reassignment surgery in Sweden.

“I started listening and I got really excited,” he says. “After that day I knew what I would do: I would start saving my money and go to Sweden. That was the plan.”

Transitioning to a new life
When a family friend referred her to a doctor, she learned that she wouldn’t have to go as far as Sweden.

At that time, only two clinics existed in the U.S. that were capable of performing sex-reassignment surgery. One happened to be in Cleveland.

“It was a miracle,” he remembers thinking.

Before she could go under the knife, however, she had to endure a six-month process required by the clinic, which included thorough medical and psychological tests and interviews.

She eventually began hormone therapy.

“I went home and popped one and stood in front of the mirror and waited,” he says.

After three months and not much progress, she began non-reversible injections.

Before the surgeries, Weekley had to hire an attorney and go through the lengthy process of changing all of his legal documents.

The courts, he says, were “horribly prejudicial,” and “didn’t easily change the documents.”

The first surgery took place in August 1974, when he stayed in the hospital for three weeks after receiving a phalloplasty — cosmetic surgery of the penis. The second surgery took place the following December for chest surgery, and Weekley went back once more for additional treatment in June 1975.

While he says his family visited him in the hospital for just one of the surgeries, he kept a strong relationship with his grandfather. “(He) taught me how to tie a tie,” he says.

His insurance paid for all of the surgeries, but today most insurance plans wouldn’t cover them because gender reassignment is not considered a “life threatening” condition, Weekley says. “They have no idea how wrong they are,” he says.

For his new name, Weekley chose David, meaning “Beloved of God.”

Adulthood as a man

After his sex-change operations, Weekley studied psychology at Boston University and, while in graduate school at Miami University of Ohio, began to feel drawn to the church.

Weekley had previously stayed away from church due to the hateful things he had heard regarding homosexuals and other minorities. However, after feeling a connection to the United Methodist Church, he joined.

That connection, among other reasons, led him to attend seminary school at Boston University School of Theology. He earned a Master of Divinity Degree in philosophy, theology, and ethics.

This was something he never thought he would do, despite being passionate for preaching at a young age.

“I used to preach to my stuffed animals and I don’t know why,” he says. “My growing up was so horrific that I couldn’t speak in public.”

However, once he entered the Methodist church, he reentered the closet.

“One of the greatest ironies and pains is that the church is the place I’ve had to go back in the closet,” he says. “I’ve stood with colleagues who have said horrific things to me, and they don’t even know it.”

Weekley moved to Portland in 1993 to serve a local church, eventually ending up at Epworth United Methodist.

Gay rights within the Methodist church are undoubtedly political, he says. While the church has its own official stand, progressive members are tolerant toward gay rights, which clashes with the conservatives’ beliefs.

The majority of Methodists in the U.S. reside in the Bible Belt and are conservative, which enabled delegates at the 2008 general conference to pass a new rule stating that no United Methodist funds could be used to educate people on gay and lesbian issues.

At the last general conference, there was talk of the church formally splitting.

“Over the years it’s gotten less vociferous, but there is still no resolution,” Weekley says.

Some progress has been made at the smaller, localized annual conferences.

Weekley’s progressive Oregon-Idaho conference recently had the highest percentage of votes for an “All means all” declaration, which would amend the church’s bylaws to include everyone in the church.

The declaration was narrowly defeated nationally, however, showing that, “the conservatives have enough people and power to always defeat the rest of the denomination,” he says.

Weekley has advocated for inclusivity, not just to national audiences but also to much smaller ones, serving as dean of a summer church camp this year at Epworth.

Though the camp focused mainly on the civil rights movement, a portion focused on breaking traditional sex roles and accepting different kinds of families.

One parent withdrew children from the camp after learning of its liberal content.

“Can girls play baseball? Can boys play with dolls? Of course you can,” Weekley says. “And that was apparently enough for this person to decide not to bring their kids.”

Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best
Despite keeping his secret for the past 27 years, Weekley has led a “blessed” life, he says. “God got me through.”

He has been married twice, and his children and current wife Deborah provide a steady stream of support. The couple have five children (two from a previous marriage) ranging in age from 21 to 39, as well as six grandchildren.

Weekley is up for a national award at this year’s Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation, (a movement to increase the awareness of issues in the gay community and promote inclusivity in the church) and is writing a book about his coming-out experience.

The book’s working title is “In From the Wilderness: The Practice of Gaman.”

He shared his first manuscript with his congregation on Sunday as well. It features his experience at Minidoka and an annotated bibliography of resources for others out there in similar situations.

However, now that he has come out publicly, Weekley and his wife are preparing for any potential backlash. In fact, that’s why he’s asked that his birth name not be published — for fear that hate groups would use it as negative propaganda.

They have taken some necessary precautions in case of any trouble that could arise from aggressive prejudice.

“Trust God, but tie your camel,” Weekley says, quoting a Middle Eastern proverb.

Phoenix, the other openly transgender United Methodist clergy person in the U.S., had charges filed against him from clergy in his conference and was brought before the Judicial Council (the United Methodist Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court).

The charges to have him removed from the church proved to be unfounded and Phoenix was able to retain his ordination. He is working in Anchorage, Alaska, in environmental health and justice and calling on Congress to pass legislation ending the discrimination he endured.

While the Book of Discipline forbids gays from joining the church, nothing explicitly turns away transgender people, which protects Phoenix and Weekley.

However, conservative Methodists have been battling the “All Means All” declaration, working to exclude transgender people.

Both Phoenix and Weekley could potentially face having their credentials taken away if legislation is passed at the next general conference (which takes place every four years) in 2012 banning transgender people.

“There’s always that possibility — just like there was in 2008,” Phoenix says.

Although Greg Nelson, director of communications for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, thinks that it’s likely similar legislation will be brought up again soon, he believes that, “it’s important that this came out before the conference in 2012.

While Weekley and his wife are preparing for the worst, they are optimistic about the future of the church.

Weekley says that he has, for the past 27 years, thought about switching to a church that is more accepting of his choices, but ultimately decided to stay loyal.

“There have been many times I’ve thought about walking away and considering a different denomination,” he says, “but my heart has always caused me to remain in the hope of effecting change.”

He remains hopeful that the Methodist church can one day retain the same acceptance toward gay rights and perhaps pass legislation similar to the Episcopal Church, which recently adopted protections for gays and transgender people.

“This really puts it all on the line,” Weekley says of his decision to share his news with his congregation and the world. “I’m not leaving, I’m just coming out. I’m not walking away, but I’m not staying quiet and hidden anymore.”

cmcfadden@portlandtribune.com

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