Church Installs First Transgender Minister
[LEXINGTON, MA] - By the time she was 11 years old, Laurie J. Auffant knew what she wanted to do with her life. Auffant was attending the Nichols United Methodist Church in Connecticut with her family when a woman minister stepped up to the pulpit.
"I had never seen a woman minister before," recalls Auffant. "I was like, 'Wow!' She got up in the pulpit and I was just in awe that this woman was a minister. I was sitting with my family and I said, 'I could do that. I would be really good at that. That's what I'm going to be when I grow up.'"
So perhaps it's no surprise that on Nov. 3-her 40th birthday-Auffant was installed as minister of religious education at Follen Community Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lexington, Mass.
The ceremony was attended by 340 people, including Auffant's parents, siblings and other relatives. She's now charged with the religious education of nearly 200 children and young people, coordinating adult education programs and presiding at children's worship services, among other duties.
What is surprising about Auffant's installation is that she is now the first openly transgender person and the first Puerto Rican woman to be settled, or appointed to a full time, permanent position, as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Seated in her freshly-painted lavender office on the evening after her installation ceremony, Auffant says her ministry was made possible by those who came before her.
"I'm very aware that people have opened the door for me," she says. Women ministers, men who have worked for justice, other people of color, lesbian ministers like the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie of Arlington Street Church have paved the way. "I just stand in a long line of people who have tried to get in the door."
Auffant also credits the burgeoning transgender movement and society's cultural shifts with making it easier for her to be who she is. "All of that sets an environment where there can be someone who is a Unitarian Universalist minister who is transgender," says Auffant. "Yes I'm a minister, but I'm a part of a society and a culture that opens the door for everyone else. So I hope in my ministry that the children of this church and the youth of this church will grow up knowing that they can be who they are naturally, in the full sense of who they are, in whatever profession they decide to go into, and however they decide to express their spirituality that the environment that they will get here will be one of love and compassion and understanding. That's the kind of environment that we're trying to create at Follen Church."
But she's certainly traveled a sometimes rocky path to get where she is now. As a student at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Auffant was warned by a minister early on that her gender expression might be an obstacle to obtaining internships required as part of the ordination process. That proved true in 1995, when she began applying for summer chaplain internships at a number of local hospitals. As her friends were accepted for two and three internships each, Auffant watched a pile of rejection letters grow.
"That delayed my ability to keep pursuing ministry," says Auffant. Some of those letters stated that her intention to wear a beard- Auffant sports a red goatee-would prevent her from establishing effective pastoral relationships with patients and families.
When the rejections began accumulating the following year, Auffant's adviser Suzanne Hiatt urged her to "leave no stone unturned" and search outside of Massachusetts. Things began to look up when Auffant placed a call to the Rev. Frank Irving, a United Church of Christ minister and chaplain at Havenwood Heritage Heights retirement community in Concord, N.H. Auffant explained that she was a transgender woman with a beard and that she was interested in Irving's program, but that she wouldn't bother applying if he wouldn't want her there because of the way she looked.
Irving replied that there were 700 residents in the retirement community ranging in age from 65 to 105. "And he said that he imagined that some of the people would be comfortable with me and some of the people would be uncomfortable with me," Auffant recalls. "But he said, 'That's the case anywhere you go, right Laurie?' I said, 'Yes!'"
Days later she interviewed and got the internship. By the end of her three-month stay, "I felt like I had all these grandparents rooting for me," she says. "It was really a wonderful experience. I learned a lot about ministry with elders."
While her settlement at Follen marked the end of a meticulous two- year search, Auffant's transgenderism initially caused concern for some, says Debora Hoard, co-chair of the search committee. While Auffant fielded questions from the committee and congregants and provided much information and education on the issue, ultimately it was the children and young people now in her charge who helped tip the balance in her favor. "Luckily for most parents they were able to be led by their children," says Hoard. "The children would meet Laurie, from youth group down to the youngest ones and be like, 'OK, let's go. We've got a new minister, can you just vote and let's get on with it?'"
Auffant is also quick to point out that she was chosen not because she's transgender, but because she's a good minister. But she's hopeful her presence will expand the consciousness of her congregation. While the church has done a great deal to advance understanding and acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, some members have never even heard the word transgender.
"I think that my identity will just expand their understanding of gender and I think it will broaden the concept that the foundation of this church is that all people are welcome," says Auffant. "I think that will just be another layer of expansion."
Indeed, she's certainly qualified for the job. After majoring in religion and women's studies at Drew University, Auffant earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School. Auffant is a former ministerial intern and summer minister at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. After her ordination in April 1999, Auffant served three years as parish minister at the Unitarian Fellowship of Storrs in her native Connecticut.
Despite the occasional obstacles on her spiritual path, Auffant, who also identifies as lesbian, says she has never struggled to reconcile her faith and her sexual orientation or gender identity-a conflict that often drives many GLBT people from the faith traditions in which they were raised. Her departure from the United Methodist Church, which does not ordain openly gay clergy, resulted from her discomfort with certain theological tenets unrelated to its teachings on homosexuality. The professional struggle she experienced because of her transgender identity while pursuing ministerial positions never undermined her belief that she's a "holy, wonderful person who has every right to be in the church like anyone else."
"I'm created in God's image and I'm part of a divine creation so I never had any doubt about who I am," Auffant asserts. "I just knew that society needed to catch up and change. In Unitarian Universalism we believe in universal salvation and that means that there are not those who are condemned and those who are loved. It's universal love. All people. That's the very core of our faith tradition. So if you have that at the core of your tradition and you're taught that then the doubts that society might tell you- if you have a strong faith, I hope that your faith will give you strength," she says. "And it certainly has for me and I'm hoping that the children in the church will have that."