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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Old Church Takes New Look at Gender

[LEXINGTON, MA] - The Rev. Laurie Jean Auffant likes to think that the Rev. Charles Follen would applaud her selection as minister of religious education at the church he built in 1833 to celebrate freedom of speech and thought. Auffant is transgendered - one of just three or four ordained into the Unitarian Universalist Association nationwide, according to UUA officials. She is the first to ever serve at the 700-member Follen Community Church in Lexington, and probably the most public transgendered minister in practice today.

Auffant - a woman who dresses in traditional men's clothing and wears a beard - is something of a gender identity pioneer.
Auffant's arrival, according to everyone involved, has been a milestone for this octagonal sanctuary with a fierce and proud intellectual history dating back to Follen and his church's legendary second minister, the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For years, Follen Community Church has been one of several local churches that actively welcomes gays and lesbians; its slightly faded rainbow flag has been posted outside for so long that it just blends into the background. But Auffant - a woman who dresses in traditional men's clothing and wears a beard - is something of a gender identity pioneer, even in a progressive religious organization that has embraced gays, lesbians, and bisexuals for three decades. She sees herself as the newest human example of the deeply held Unitarian Universalist principle to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and a living extension of the words Follen himself spoke at the church's groundbreaking 170 years ago: "May its doors never be closed against anyone who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity. We pray that within its walls all unjust and cruel distinctions might cease, and that here all might meet as brethren."

Auffant was officially installed at Follen on Nov. 3, but the 40-year-old minister said she first felt at home there in 1997 when she, still a student at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, was invited to deliver a guest sermon on Mahatma Ghandi's principles of nonviolence. Her charismatic preaching style charmed and energized the congregation, and she was invited back to speak about sexuality to the church's high-school-age youth.

"The transgender movement is about changing the systems of language and the legal and medical establishment that try to box in humanity."
Throughout her years in seminary and after her ordination in 1999, Auffant said she felt a draw to the Follen community. When the church began its search for a new minister of religious education, Auffant and a dozen other ministers applied for the spot. The congregation took nearly two years to make up its mind, and during that time Auffant spent hours talking with dozens of congregants, visiting their homes, meeting their children, and speaking frankly with those who admitted to reservations about the effect she would have on the nearly 300 children who would fall under her care.

"A lot of adult concerns were conveyed as parental concerns for children," said Debora Hoard, a member of Follen's ministerial search committee. Other members questioned whether Auffant, newly ordained, had enough experience for the job. "And there were some people who said, honestly, 'I am having a real problem with this. This is not the person I would choose,'" Hoard said.

Dealing with the dissent was a difficult but important process for the church, Hoard said. "Ultimately it came down to how Laurie was going to work as a minister and there were two important things - her organizational skills and her passion for being a Unitarian Universalist. She had the ability to convey that to the kids, something the congregation has said repeatedly that it wants," said Hoard.

And the long hours painstakingly spent developing trusting relationships with church members ultimately paid off. "I found that once people met me, they liked me," Auffant said. Her candidacy was supported unanimously by Follen's search committee and by 91 percent of the congregation at a vote taken in May, Hoard said.

Auffant was raised in Guilford, Conn. She said she has always felt "different" about her gender identification. There was no startling realization or crisis of identity. "It's not an issue," she said. "I've always been this way." She was brought up Methodist and loved attending church and play-acting sermons so much that her childhood nickname was "the minister."

After graduating from Drew University in 1984, Auffant moved to Somerville, and during a visit to the Arlington Street Church in Boston for a labor rally, became entranced by Unitarian Universalism and the church community. The installation at Follen is the culmination of a girlhood dream, she said. "I have been waiting my whole life for this," she said. "It makes total sense to me that I am here."

Interviewed last week in her office, recently painted a soothing shade of lavender at her request, Auffant discussed her plans to revamp Follen's religious education curriculum, including the rejuvenation of the UUA's "Coming of Age" spiritual development program for teenagers, and the reorganization of Follen's child-care program in an effort to attract and retain more young families. "My commitment to [the congregation] is to be pastorally present and ensure the safety of their children. There is a tremendous amount of faith and trust people come here to Follen with," Auffant said.

She realizes that there are the questions about her gender identity that must be explained to the youngest of parishioners. "I might say [to a child], 'There are more than two genders, than just being a boy or a girl,'" Auffant said. "I have always been a person in the middle, and I am comfortable in the middle. In the UUA, we respect everyone." "I might tell them, 'I dress the way I like to dress,'" gesturing to her regular uniform, a man's suit, tie, and polished leather dress shoes. And what about the beard? "I might tell them, 'I'm a woman and I have facial hair. It is natural, and I like it that way,'" she said.

But adult questions about her appearance get more complex answers about the inadequacy of the English language when it comes to transgendered people or transexuals, a term for transgendered people who have undergone surgery to alter their gender. "If a cashier hands me change, thanks me, and says 'sir,' I don't correct them. Society says we only have two genders, and that title was just signifying respect," said Auffant.

"All people are searching for is a religious home. It's not just what you look like... We are trying to express that you can have a spiritual home here."
"The transgender movement is about changing the systems of language and the legal and medical establishment that try to box in humanity." Auffant, who identifies as a lesbian, said her family and friends have always been supportive. But others - especially homophobic strangers - have been unaccepting, unkind and, at times, even physically threatening.

Being seen as "different" throughout her life has caused her to develop compassion toward those who may feel alienated from church. And by this, she does not mean only gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered people. "I don't think my presence is going to dramatically change who walks through our doors," she said. "All people are searching for is a religious home. It's not just what you look like. You may feel like an outcast because you just moved to Massachusetts, and you have no spiritual home. We are trying to express that you can have a spiritual home here."

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