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Hard times in Texas: Transgender Presbyterian minister Remington Johnson and her ministry of visibility and presence

I feel the anxiety. I feel the fear. I’ll still show up.

Photo by Brad Pritchett

(Outlook) — Remington Johnson expects the 2023 legislative session in Texas to be brutal for transgender children and their families.

In Texas, “we are on track to have one of the hardest sessions in modern history, at least for trans people and other marginalized communities,” Johnson said. “There are a number of bills that have already been pre-filed” — including proposed legislation criminalizing gender-affirming care for transgender youth, defining drag shows as “sexually oriented business” from which minors would be excluded (with opponents saying drag shows are places where children are “groomed” to become transgender), and limiting discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.

“It’s really, really bad,” Johnson said.

She knows.

Photo provided by Remington Johnson

She remembers clearly standing on the steps leading up to the governor’s mansion during a “Trans Kids Cry for HELP” rally in March 2022 — surrounded by trans children, their parents and supporters. Johnson is a transgender intensive care nurse, chaplain and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister, and she was wearing her clergy uniform that day: a white stole and a black dress with a tab collar and an audacious slit, way up the side.

Just a month earlier, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued a directive declaring that gender-affirming treatment for trans youth constituted child abuse — relying on a non-binding legal opinion issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Abbott ordered state authorities to begin conducting child abuse investigations of families seeking such care. This action raised the possibility that trans children could be taken from their families and their parents criminally prosecuted, even when groups such as the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have supported medically necessary, gender-affirming care for minors with gender dysphoria — noting that withholding this kind of care can have serious consequences, including increased risk of both substance abuse and suicide.

A legal challenge to Abbott’s order is still on appeal.

A Washington Post analysis has found the number of legislative bills targeting trans people to be on the rise: with more than 155 pieces of legislation filed in 2022 in states around the country, compared with 131 in 2021 and just 19 in 2018. Among them: proposed laws that would restrict gender-affirming medical care; laws to prevent trans girls and women from playing on female sports teams; laws to keep trans youth from using bathrooms or locker rooms aligning with their gender identity.

Like so much of American life, this political landscape has grown increasingly contentious. For example: at a protest organized by the right-wing extremist group This is Texas Freedom Force outside of a Christmas-themed drag show in San Antonio in mid-December, some in the crowd  – including some in support of the show and some opposing it – openly carried weapons.

Johnson and others experienced a similarly combative atmosphere at the “Trans Kids Cry for HELP” rally in March 2022. Standing on the steps leading to the governor’s mansion in Austin, in the shadow of the Texas State Capitol, she could see a group of men, some wearing camouflage fatigues, running towards the protesters, carrying cameras and bullhorns. She saw the capitol police entering the crowd carrying long guns. She saw a truck circling the rally using a speaker system to broadcast insults.

And sitting on the grass, she saw a trans girl of nine or ten, wearing a rainbow dress. “I know her family, and I know her,” Johnson said. “I have an eight-year-old son. I thought to myself” — and here her voice breaks a bit, all these months later. “This was my congregation for the afternoon. I felt a great deal of responsibility to protect them. Protect them from physical harm but also from whatever terrible things these people were going to shout out,” from the videos and photographs they were shooting, and from the ways they would use those images to harm trans people.

“This was my congregation for the afternoon…”

So Johnson stood tall on the stairs in her six-inch heels, commanding peace and justice.

“I’m standing on the steps, my arms extended and my black clergy dress with the slit up to my hip, standing six foot nine” in those heels, she said. “This is visibility. This is what I understand my ministry calls me to do — is to be visible. And yet, I don’t know how to do the risk analysis.”

Although she helped calm the crowd and avert violence that day, Johnson knows what could have happened, what might still be coming. She knows.

That day “was a differentiation point,” Johnson said. “Because after that we saw the rhetoric, the anti-trans rhetoric, crescendo.” Increasingly, “the very act of being a trans person is more dangerous. Just walking around, my very existence, my very presence,” is seen by some as a threat.

“It feels much more dangerous,” Johnson said. “We see the nightclub shootings. We see the Nazis and the paramilitary showing up at Drag Time Story Hours. I see people getting doxed, and the harm and the fear it is causing them.”

A few months ago, “I told my family, I told my friends I would not be surprised if someone kills me this next year.”

A ministry of visibility

Photo by Jacob Gusentine, from “I Know the End” film.

Johnson also knows this: growing up in a small town in the panhandle of Oklahoma, in a rural stretch called the No Man’s Land for several decades in the late 1800s when no U.S. state at the time claimed those three counties, the church taught her what community meant.

“I’m from First Presbyterian Church in Guymon, Oklahoma,” Johnson said. “The community within that church was one in which no matter what your profession was, we were called to care for one another. We were called to support, we were called to feed, we were called to house, we were called to be there” — even for a child who, in time, realized she was transgender.

After college, she made her way from Oklahoma to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, first becoming a chaplain and now a nurse in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Austin.

What’s the common thread — with her vocation in health care settings and her advocacy, including as a board member of Texas Impact, an interfaith group working on justice issues? “It’s all the same work,” Johnson said, using “what skills and energy I have to care for those around me. … It’s generative. It feels very sacred because we’re doing this together.”

And “the other common thread in this is just how broke the systems are … and how power politics works, particularly in Texas,” where she increasingly sees evidence of what she describes as “the hardening of hearts.”

In the Presbyterian church, “the call over and over again is to open ourselves up to the other. To the person sitting beside us, to those in the front and back, to those in the church next door or those at home, those in the world,” Johnson said. “It’s this refusal to see one another and the hardening of hearts that is woven into so much of the suffering that seems to be in all of these different places I find myself.”

As a Presbyterian minister, Johnson speaks directly about the influence of Christian nationalism in political discourse — and offers another view of what a life of faith can be. Often, Republicans who oppose access to abortion and gender-affirming care “tell us they are Christian and they are voting their conscience,” Johnson said. “[But] how can their conscience lead them to do things that cause very clear harm to people? One of the ways to understand that is not to vilify them or flatten who they are, but dig deeper and understand more. Part of the ethos of many of these political leaders is the idea they have a call from God not to protect sinners from the consequences of their actions. Because the suffering is redemptive.”

She presents another narrative of faith: one in which transgender people are seen as “complex children of God,” worthy of giving and receiving love. She describes herself as a “religious translator” between families and medical care providers; for people for whom only one narrow version of American Christianity has come through.

As co-director of the Think Tank at the Center for Health Communication at the Moody School of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin, Johnson convenes groups of leaders to discuss particular scenarios — such as how to talk to families and loved ones in a medical emergency or how to promote the use of flu vaccines. “I gather all of these disparate voices, all of these different experts – from nurses to social workers, clinicians, patients, loved ones, surgeons, business people – I bring them together and set the space” for conversation, reflection, problem-solving and creating community, she said. “Just like we set it every Sunday” at church.

In her public appearances for advocacy work, Johnson wears a clergy collar or a stole, “absolutely, always. It is important that in the public square, there are other Christian voices that represent a broader, more complex perspective of what people of faith might think and want in this world. … The collar is a very explicit symbol that this is a person who has been vetted and supported and fed and cared for by some faith group” — a faith community where others are welcome too.

Unquenched anxiety

For trans children and their families, for progressives in Texas, the past year has been difficult — and the next one may be worse.

“There have been lots of sleepless nights and churning anxiety,” Johnson said. She knows. At 3:22 a.m., she responded to a reporter’s request for an interview, already awake, already worried.

“More and more of the parents that I know who have transgender children have left the state this past year in anticipation of how bad it will get this coming year. And those who have stayed are all making contingency plans for what is the last possible state they can stay in Texas and protect their family. That’s really hard. There is this refugee-esque nature to it, feeling like you’re a frog in the pot and the temperature is going up. You hope you can jump out before you get cooked. The costs are enormous, financially and emotionally. These are folks who are leaving their community. I use the word refugee on purpose. You are forced to leave your culture, your community, your roots to stay safe. There are also risks to leaving, in going to unfamiliar places.”

“There is this refugee-esque nature to it, feeling like you’re a frog in the pot and the temperature is going up. You hope you can jump out before you get cooked. The costs are enormous, financially and emotionally.”

Documentary filmmaker Jacob Gusentine made a short film featuring Johnson called “I Know the End.

In it, she is seen skateboarding to a hearing at the Texas State Capitol in her clergy dress, then putting on her heels and passing through the metal detector to offer her testimony, her statement of faith of sorts.

Photo by Jacob Gusentine from “I Know The End” film.

“My name is Rev. Remington Johnson,” she said that day. “I’m a Presbyterian clergywoman, trans woman, lifelong athlete, mother. And I’m here because I heard that the Republicans wanted a fair fight. I still worry sometimes in the back of my mind that I will inflict my presence on those around me. That there may be something sort of wrong with me existing next to other women. So I see the pain that these bills and the discussion around these bills cause trans children and their families. I feel the anxiety, I feel the fear, I feel the tearing inside myself because this is hard and is wrong and it is wicked.”

A ministry of presence

After the advocacy, after the hard physical workouts she uses to build strength and release some stress, after trying to get some rest, Johnson goes to the hospital, to her job as a nurse.

The week of this interview, three patients had died in her intensive care unit.

“We had done everything we could do, and we could not get them better,” she said. “I was there to hold the families. I was with them when we had the conversation,” to say the best medical intervention would not be enough to keep them alive.

“I’m here to give the drugs to keep them comfortable, as we remove the breathing tube and turn off the machines and focus on comfort above everything else. We rest them into death. One of my patients died yesterday. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in my role as a nurse is how very similar it is to being a minister in a church or a chaplain. You’re literally washing the feet. You’re laying hands on bodies and washing and cleaning and medicating.

“I thought to myself, ‘For many of my patients, I am the very first trans person they have ever met.’ I’m very visibly trans. Many of these families are from rural Texas, and they very likely voted for people who are passing laws and passing agendas that make my life less safe. One of the things I’ve been thinking about are these tiny moments. Where else will these families get to hold a trans person? We embrace one another. For patients, I am the one to hold them up when they take their first steps to recovery — literally picking them up from the bed and taking one or two steps before they can sit again. I’m holding their wives and their husbands as they weep. I’m bringing food and water. I don’t think these moments will change the way these people vote. All these people have ever been exposed to regarding trans people is how hard and sad our lives must be, and what sexual predators we must be.”

“But as a minister, it’s my job to stay close and present, even when things are really hard. … I’m going to care for these folks and I’m going to bleed a little bit in front of them. I’ll still show up”

But those moments in the hospital room, at the side of the bed, “this is evangelism,” Johnson said. “They now have one moment where they can say, ‘She loved me; she loved my husband; she loved my mother; she cared for me.’ That feels to me just as important as standing before the House of Representatives Health and Human Services Committee. … It’s all the same. It’s all being present and visible and being that loving presence of the divine.”

For all the hard-heartedness and fear, for all she knows, Johnson does not feel hopeless.

“I have met people on the very worst day of their lives when they have gotten terrible news: ‘the cancer is everywhere;’ ‘your heart is so damaged it will never recover;’ ‘your mom is never going to wake up.’ I have been with them to grieve with them, but also to sit and hold hope even when it feels there is nothing to hope for. It’s not that I don’t feel terrified, just gnashing in my belly. Before this interview, I was laying on the couch just clutching my heart, which was beating out of my chest. Every one of these interviews takes something out of me. But as a minister, it’s my job to stay close and present, even when things are really hard. … I’m going to care for these folks and I’m going to bleed a little bit in front of them. I’ll still show up.”