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Enduring the shadow: Pastoral identity on Trans Day of Visibility

When we embrace visibility and vulnerability, we can find a God-given sense of belonging in the make-up aisle, at a civil protest, and – if we allow it – in the church, writes trans woman and pastor Lucinda Isaacs.

In March 2022, I was a finalist for a head of staff position, and the committee didn’t know yet that I was trans. I had accepted this about myself, after decades of mental gymnastics, the summer before. As a part of the interview, I led a bible study on Zoom with the committee. At the end of the study, I shared my gender identity in relation to their commitment to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life and leadership of the church. They received my vulnerability with genuine appreciation. They demonstrated that they were exactly who they said they were in their profile. It wasn’t a long conversation, and then we moved back to the main subject from our bible study — homelessness in their community. I was delighted when they invited me to an in-person interview.

In-person pastoral interviews are daunting marathons, especially for introverts. I realized that I would probably not have a break in my schedule in the afternoon to shave my face for a second time in the day — which, at the time, was something that helped maintain my confidence. Would they take me seriously at 4:00 p.m. when my afternoon shadow emerged? Would I become conscientious of this shadow and lose my swagger? I trusted this committee because I could see their graciousness and integrity. This probably didn’t matter to them, but the incongruence was felt by me.

I decided it was time to explore my options with makeup. I went to the cosmetic store and helplessly meandered through the aisles. I knew nothing. Make-up didn’t interest me at all. A sales associate saw me bumbling through the aisles not really knowing what I wanted. Concealer? Foundation? What did I need? She asked, “May I help you?”

“Um, yes,” I said as I looked over her shoulder so I could bypass seeing her facial expressions. “I have a job interview coming up, and I’m worried about my afternoon shadow. I’d like to cover it up.”

“Oh, baby,” she said. Her shoulders relaxed and stretched a little wider. “Don’t worry!” She leaned in and whispered, “I’m trans.” She straightened back up and asserted herself. “There’s no judgment here!”

“Hi,” I replied. “I’m Lucinda.” I had no clue she was trans, and she didn’t have to tell me. She could have withheld that part of herself from me, as is her right.

“Lucinda,” she said, “Grandma is going to fix you up.”  She was probably pushing 70. She took me to the end of an aisle at the opposite end of the store. After showing me some color correctors, she asked, “What type of job interview do you have?”

Explaining to strangers — even neighbors — that I’m a pastor is my least favorite part of the job. Everyone has their own assumptions about my profession. I have to listen about the God they don’t believe in or why they stopped going to church. Or, even worse, they feel the need to assert their religious piety. But telling a trans person that I was a pastor felt particularly loaded, as I had heard enough stories in support groups of religious trauma and rejection. I considered dodging her question. However, she didn’t have to tell me that she was trans, so maybe I should tell her the truth about myself.

“I’m a pastor,” I said.

“Oh, honey, aren’t you interesting?”

She started instructing me on how to apply the color corrector, but I couldn’t help but think of her visibility’s effect on me. Later that month was going to be my first Trans Day of Visibility, commemorated on March 31 each year, since my own self-acceptance. Headlines were gnawing at me. Issues that mattered to trans people were being used to manufacture outrage since we were beginning a midterm election year. The Attorney General in Texas instructed child welfare workers to investigate families of trans children for child abuse. Dangerous rhetoric about trans women as groomers was once again becoming more commonplace. I was convinced only more outrage would be manufactured in the lead-up to the mid-term election. (It turns out that I was correct, but I was naïve about a precipitous decline of this outrage following the election.)

I felt the pressure to dazzle this committee to ensure that I could continue to provide for my household and faithfully live out my sense of call to pastoral ministry. I felt like my margin of error was thinner than ever as a candidate for a position, and my material concerns meant that I had to carefully navigate my own invisibility, including my discretion with the congregation that I was serving.

I purchased the color corrector. When I got back to the car, I began to weep because I also left with her visibility. I told her that I was a pastor, but the truth was, in that moment, she was a pastor to me. Her accompaniment assured me of my belovedness. Her presence, though fleeting, insisted that I wasn’t alone. She gave me a sense of belonging. When I lead worship, that’s what I have always wanted people to know when they leave — that they are beloved and never alone. In my car, I was mourning that I’d have to endure the shadow a little longer because I knew my own visibility could offer others those same assurances. The appearances that I had to maintain were increasingly burdensome and distressing.

I told her that I was a pastor, but the truth was, in that moment, she was a pastor to me. Her accompaniment assured me of my belovedness.

I have never worn the color corrector, and I still avoid make-up other than an occasional swipe of lip gloss. However, today marks my first Trans Day of Visibility as an openly trans person, and the day feels particularly pointed this year. As of March 29, the American Civil Liberties Union is tracking 435 anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States. So far this year, Utah, South Dakota, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida state legislatures have criminalized gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth. Anti-trans rhetoric continues to escalate taking on more violence and vitriol. As the rhetoric and legislation become more eliminationist, it is easy to feel belittled and alone.

A part of my own visibility is the newfound presence and assuredness with which I navigate the world, making the color corrector mostly an afterthought. However, I am committing myself to work on my visibility as a pastor. Since I am not currently serving in that office, I am hesitant to use the word pastor — I like precise language. But what I am learning is that I am a pastor to the activist that I met at the Ohio Statehouse. I am a pastor to the mother I consoled as she worried about her child being denied life-saving healthcare. I am a pastor to the person who told me she struggles to love herself because she is transgender and that Christianity hasn’t always helped.

While I reflect on my pastoral identity on this Trans Day of Visibility, these reflections extend to the mission and life of the church. I am pleading for the church’s visibility, not just in assuring transgender, non-binary and gender-expansive people as well as their loved ones of their belovedness and belonging, but for a visibility that ensures their safety, protection and equality. If the church remains invisible in this struggle, then all I can do is hope that people in need will find the right people to pastor them, and that might be a sales associate in the make-up aisle.

This essay is adapted from a book-length piece of creative non-fiction about gender and spirituality.