DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) – Like other graduates of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, Adam Plant walked onstage earlier this month to accept a diploma and a hug from Dean Gail O’Day.
Unlike them, his journey to the Master of Divinity degree took a significant detour.
Three years ago when he began his studies, Adam was a North Carolina woman with a desire to plumb the intersection of faith and sexuality. By the time of the graduation ceremony, Plant had found acceptance and peace as a man.
“Coming out to myself was, I think, one of the hardest things I ever did,” he said. “I think I was most afraid of being wrong. What if I am crazy? What if this is wrong?”
As he explains in a video shown during graduation, “Those voices no longer rule my head. Now I hear one clear voice ring out: You are whole. You are beautiful. You are loved.”
Seminary is often the place where students come to terms with their identities, and gender is among them. No surprise, a small, but growing number of transgender students seek out divinity school precisely because it is a place where they can wrestle with questions about their place and purpose in the universe.
Plant is not the first transgender student at Wake Forest. Liam Hooper, a transgender man, graduated a year ahead of him. And 85 miles to the east, Duke Divinity School awarded a Master of Theological Studies degree to a transgender man this month; it has admitted a transgender woman to its incoming class of 2019.
Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee; Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City have all admitted transgender students. Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, has a large transgender population and has helped to convene a nationwide leadership development program called the Trans*Seminarians Cohort.
An administrator at Wake Forest said the divinity school celebrates diverse gender and sexual identities and does not actively inquire about applicants’ gender identity. Duke has a similar statement.
Plant, who grew up in rural Asheboro, North Carolina, said passage of the bill has inadvertently helped create opportunities for dialogue.
“I’ve had conversations with people about this that I never thought I would have,” he said. “It’s been a real exercise in extending compassion and grace and patience while also maintaining my own boundaries and taking care of myself and my community as much as I can.”
Though he’d started thinking of himself as a boy as early as age 3, Plant didn’t embrace his male identity until his first year of divinity school when a campus counselor referred him to a gender-identity specialist who helped him “to say out loud those things that I’d been thinking for so long.”
Plant aims to work as an advocate and educator on LGBT issues in faith communities. But before seeking full-time work in community organizing, he hopes to finish a video and book project to educate religious people on topics like gender diversity in the Bible.
Hooper, who graduated a year ago, has been working as a licensed minister at Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem. On May 22, the congregation voted to ordain him as its “minister of welcome and beyond.”
John Senior, who taught both men for three years in Wake Forest’s pastoral internship program, said the divinity school had already provided gender-neutral restrooms before Hooper or Plant arrived on campus. But having transgender students helped shape revisions to the school’s “Hospitality and Language” policy to acknowledge diversity in sexual identities.
Senior, assistant teaching professor of ethics and society, said the need to think theologically about the pressing issues of the day pushed Wake Forest to require courses addressing religious pluralism, race and class, but also gender and sexuality.
Wake Forest students come from lots of different backgrounds, and some of them were slow to recognize their fellow students’ gender transitions.
“Some students came from traditions that didn’t honor that as a way of being in the world,” Senior said. “Even though they were hard moments, I think they were important for not just the students involved but also for Adam and Liam as well.”