Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Interview with Transgender Pastor Candidate Sara Herwig

To see the review of the film, Thy Will Be Done, Click Here

Wichita Kansas is blessed to have one of the top up and coming independent film festivals in the country. I am blessed to have the opportunity to cover it. One of the things I have tried to do for a number of years is to review movies with the perspective of what can I find in that movie to open up spiritual discussion in a respectful and positive way. While there are times some people are not open to those discussions for whatever reasons, it is still something that in all honesty has brought me some satisfaction, because as a result, I have developed some real friendships, and in the process, learned a few things. I am also blessed that others have told me of how the process has helped them either discover spiritual issues in film, or helped them in their own search for spiritual truth.

This year at Tallgrass one of the films showing was a documentary named, Thy Will Be Done. The movie provided wonderful opportunities for discussing spiritual issues related to movies. This movie is one I know will be controversial for a number of reasons, mainly the subject matter. Thy Will Be Done is a documentary that explores the life of Sara Herwig. Sara was raised in Kansas, attended a Christian College, attended Seminary, was married, had a daughter, and felt the call into Christian ministry as a pastor. As a result, Sara was on a life course to take her to this place she had always dreamed of and felt strongly about. There was only one issue that would cause this course to take a detour. Sara while always feeling like she was a woman was actually born a male. After some contemplative thought, and prayer, she ultimately had what is commonly called a sex change operation, and became a female. To complicate things in the last years she has also, as a woman, married another female. In the process of ordination, there have obviously been many questions, debates, and concerns. If granted a church, Sara will be the first transgendered individual to be ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

While at Tallgrass I approached Sara and the director of the film, Alice Bouvrie about the opportunity to sit down and talk about the film. They graciously agreed and the following is a transcript of that interview. While I understand many will question me for publishing this interview, I believe my faith requires me to love all people, no matter what. I also believe that just as described in the Bible, I need to study to show myself approved, in other words, recognize I don’t know everything, and that a starting point of understanding is to sit down and talk. Therefore, the three of us sat down to discuss issues related to faith, and being transgendered.

Mike Furches (MF): Alice, how long did it take you to make this film?

Alice Bouvrie (AB): It took me 8 years to make this film. As you can see it’s not a comedy. As we were making the film, things kept changing in Sara’s life, in the Presbyterian Church and in the ordination process. It was like a never ending process and eventually I just had to say I have to finish it.

MF: Did the ordination happen?

Sara Herwig (SH): I am what they call in the Presbyterian Church a Candidate, Certified to Seek the Call. You have to actually be called to a church as their pastor before you can be ordained. I’ve been seeking a call for a little over 4 years now.

MF: Well, I was concerned about some of the questions I was going to ask you, but after seeing the film, I think I am going to be okay.

SH & AB: (Laughter)

MF: I guess one of the first questions I would have as we move on, is who is Sara?

SH: Well, first of all, I’m a person. I’m a Christian, and I’ve felt God’s love and call in my life since I was in Junior High many years ago. The call to ministry is a very big part of who I am. I’ve found myself working within the Presbyterian Church for full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered) people in ministry. If I were to define myself by those kinds of things, I would say I’m a person of faith, I have a concern for social justice issues, for marginalized groups and people, and the need to extend God’s love to them as well as those who are in the mainstream of Christianity. But, there’s a lot more to me than that. I kayak, I backpack, I bicycle a lot, and my interest in music runs the gambit from traditional folk to classical choral music. I read a lot. I was an English Lit Major in college.

MF: In the discussion after the film was over you alluded to some assumptions regarding being gay, being this or that, and so forth. How would you describe yourself in the area of Transgender?

SH: Transgender has become more of an umbrella term that covers anybody that crosses what our society considers to be the gender boundaries. That would be people who cross dress, female impersonators, drag queens and drag kings, and of course Transsexuals would be in there to. But these days there are a lot of people who keep gender as being a long continuum and people fall along different points, shifting going back and forth. That continuum is always changing. They might call themselves Gender Queer or Gender Different, or something like that. I’ve always identified as female.

MF: Sometimes people have the assumption where they think of Homosexual or Gay tendencies with people who are Transgendered; would you explain your thoughts on that?

SH: Well, being Transsexual, which comes under an umbrella of being Transgendered, in terms of being a Transsexual, sexual orientation isn’t directly tied to being Transsexual or vice versa. I know all of the Gay and Lesbian men and women I know were born as men and women don’t want to change their gender role. The Gay men I know don’t want to live as women, and the Lesbians I know don’t want to live as men. They’re happy being who they are, but they find themselves intimately attracted to people of the same sex. That tends to work itself out among transsexuals in about the same way it does in the general population of America, about the same percentage of Transsexual people identify as Gay or Lesbian. Myself, I identify as Lesbian because I also identify as a female, and I am married to a woman. Sometimes, especially if you have someone who transitions and is, married at the time, which I wasn’t, but those who do, their spouses find themselves in a peculiar situation where they find themselves as being perceived as being Gay or Lesbian because their partner has changed gender roles. Some of those marriages stay together and some don’t. So much of what we think as sexuality in our society is all a matter or perception and how you’re being perceived. Transsexuals talk about whether or not they pass, whether or not their identifiable as male or female or as somebody who is trying to play that role. There are those for example, where there is somebody who was born as male, but identifies as female, and transitions to living as a woman. They may have been attracted to women as a man, but now, as a woman, they find themselves attracted to a man, and they would identify themselves as a Heterosexual woman.

MF: Can you speak some to the things you alluded to in the film, and after film discussion regarding the chromosomal issues, where just because someone may have male or female genitalia, does not mean that their minds is necessarily at that place. Your thoughts on how the chromosomal make-up can have an impact on the individual, specifically in the developmental stages?

SH: There have been studies done, specifically at The University of Amsterdam where they have discovered a part of the brain that is specifically related to gender identity and sexuality and they’ve found through a very small sampling where they had autopsied the brains of people who had died and they compared that part of the brain between male to female Transsexuals and female to male Transsexuals, a Gay man, and a Lesbian woman, and a Heterosexual man and woman. They found that that part of the brain, for example in the male to female Transsexual was similar in size to that of the Heterosexual woman. A part of the thinking behind that is that there are a number of hormone washes that take place in the early stages of gestation while in the womb that affects the way the body develops physically. Of course the default is female. The thing that causes a fetus to develop as male is the X-Y chromosome and the way that the body responds to testosterone and the hormones that are released. The thinking is that for some reason, the sexual organs of the body respond to that hormone wash, but the brain doesn’t and continues to develop as female. If that bears out to be true, and that’s the way the research seems to be going, then you do have an explanation as to what is going on. People have said that I’m in the wrong body, that I really do have a female brain in a male body.

MF: Can the marvels of science help change that?

SH: Yeah, but do we want to? We get into the whole thing of bioengineering and ethics. If you can test to see if you’re unborn child is going to be Gay, or be Transsexual, do you abort? That’s why I think there is some trepidation in the Transgender community about finding the Gay gene, there is a fear of that kind of thing.

MF: One of the things you came out and said was that you had surprised yourself at how conservative you were on some things.

SH: As I worked through my faith and my theology, after transitioning and coming back into the church, I found myself reaffirming things that would be considered to be conservative. I think the difference now is the things that I emphasize. When I was growing up in the Evangelical movement there was a lot of emphasis on personal sin, condemnation, and escaping the judgment of Hell. In my ministry now, I tend to emphasize more on the steadfast and everlasting love of God and God’s compassion, and mercy for everyone, as it is offered for everyone. I hope I never I talk about needing to confess our sins without including the sure promise of God’s forgiveness and love and care for each individual, and for the corporate church as a whole.

MF: You have been fairly open about the need for each individual to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This said, there are still people who are rather judgmental and critical of individuals for people like you. The film alludes to that regarding your attempts to obtain ordination. How do you come to a place of peace in regards to who Christ is, you seeking to be involved in ministry, and yet, the conflict that some seem to challenge you and others with regarding ones sexual identity or sexual preference?

SH: Part of the issue is that Transexualism is understood by a lot of people in the church as being another form of being Gay. It is hard to separate sexual identity out from sexual orientation. There’s actually nothing in scripture that deals with being Transsexual. Jesus certainly never talked about it. There is this being so committed to this binary system of male / female. This again goes back to how one reads scripture and interprets it. I think it is a part of a lot of people’s faith that oppose my ordination. They do so, because they don’t believe the Bible supports what I’ve found with my life, but I don’t interpret scripture the same way.

MF: In the first few lines of the film there was almost an appreciation or respect of people who disagreed with you. There was also a recognition that while you respect them, and appreciate them without condemnation, you just recognized that you interpret scripture differently.

SH: I think the whole question of Biblical authority or the nature of Biblical authority is really what at the heart of a lot of problems in the church in regards to Gay and Lesbian issues, Transgender, Transsexual issues.

MF: One of the questions I have for you Alice is what drew you into the making of the film and are there things that you have learned as a filmmaker? There is a lot more reward to making a film than making money. (laughter from the three of us.)

AB: Well money is not going to be a big benefit from this. It really is true though, filmmakers like to think of themselves as a sort of fly on the wall. The mere fact though is that this just isn’t going to happen. The camera changes a lot of things; I also think it changes the filmmaker in a lot of ways. It changed me in ways that I never expected it. The whole education thing with Sara was so patient with me. It took me 8 years to make this film. In the course of 8 years we did a lot of interviews, outside of the sit down formal interviews we did a lot of just sit down and talking. I had a lot of questions and she was so open and so honest. What was so great about being invited into this community, the Transgendered community in particular was I was so surprised at how eager others in the community, mainly Transsexuals and Cross Dressers, was how eager they were to tell their story and to educate people and enlighten people because we know so little about gender and all its myriads of manifestations. How delightful it was to feel a comfort level in that way. I knew so little about it. I had never had an opportunity to really sit down with them and ask them questions. It’s a familiarity that I just grew into. It was like a pleasure, like a gift to learn these things and to be able to talk to Sara.

MF: What kind of a gift was she? What do you mean when you say she was a gift?

AB: A gift in the sense that I learned a lot about gender, gender identity, and the diversity of gender. It was a gift in terms of my own comfort level because I had never had a chance to really involve myself or to integrate in anyway with the Transgender community. It was a little awkward for me, I didn’t understand it. It’s like night and day the comfort level I have, the understanding I have. It feels great! It feels good! Now when someone introduces themselves to me because I made this film, and Transsexuals come up to me and says, ‘Hello, I’m so and so, and I’m Trans.’ (appreciative giggle from Alice here) and I’ll go, ‘Oh so cool.’ Whereas before I wouldn’t have known what to ask or what was appropriate to say or not to say. People don’t know how to behave, they don’t want to be offensive, and yet, we’re so ignorant and stupid about it. So with that, it was an education in a sort of intellectual level, but also in an emotional, personal and psychological level.

MF: One question is a curious thing. Sara, what does your daughter call you now?

SH: That’s always an issue when families are involved. What do you call this person who used to be your mother or your dad, especially when that person doesn’t present that way anymore? Well, she is an only child; she is the only one who ever called me daddy, and so she wanted to have a term of endearment where she was the only one to use it with me. What she came up with was calling me Sarie (like Sarah, except an emphasis on the e, pronounced SarEE). She introduces me to people as her parent, Sarie. (laughter from all involved) I have to keep asking her how to spell it. (more laughter) It’s like do you spell Sara with or without an h. Do you spell Sarie, with an ie, just an e, iey, or what? Remind me one more time.

MF: What’s your hope for the documentary?

AB: Sara, you answer.

SH: Alice has done such a beautiful job of not only telling my story, but telling the story of those around me, especially the two people who were intimately involved in my life for so long, Billie and Stephanie. Unfortunately, we had reached the point in the interviews when Jan and I got together, that Jan never really got interviewed. Jan is my current wife. My hope is things like this, opportunities to open up dialog and to talk about ways of being authentic human beings, authentic creations of God, in the world together without being exactly the same, to find different ways of manifesting our lives, our personhood, and our faith. That there would be education about Transgender issues and how they relate to communities of faith. It’s very hard to get Transgendered people, and Transsexual people to take an interest in faith communities because many of them have been hurt so badly by their churches and people in their families who were very religious. There are some kids today, who are 18 years and younger and come out to their parents and they find themselves out on the street with nothing. That is a generation that is really at risk. There could be a real ministry there that the church could take part in, in ministering to these kids and showing them what real, authentic unconditional and forgiving love is. We’re not doing that. I’m hoping that this will be a way of moving in that direction. On a very selfish note, I am hoping that some congregation in the Presbyterian Church will see this and say, ‘How come we don’t know about her?’ (laughter).

MF: Because you are Presbyterian at your core. (more laughter from all there)

SH: I think I said it was in my DNA, but it is only a metaphor. (more laughter) I have the Presbyterian gene. (laughter)

AB: Let’s hope not.

SH: There is a little altruistic thinking there to some extent, that it may open the way for me to actually be called as a pastor of a church, or a college chaplain. I’ve never wanted my ministry to be just about Transgender issues, my ministry at 1st Pres., I did my ministry internship there and Jean Southerland who is in the film was my supervisor. I’ve always focused on the full spectrum of what pastoral ministry and care is. It just happens that at our church, that some of the people that you care for as a pastor are Transgendered people, but, I don’t want to be the Transsexual pastor, or the pastor of the
Transsexual’s.

AB: Like you have said, the Tranny in the pulpit?

SH: Yeah! (laughter) I used to teach this session that I said if you want to see more people in the congregation, just put out this big sign that says, come see the Tranny in the pulpit.

MF: I know our time is up, so I really want to thank the two of you for sitting down with me. It has been really good, and I appreciate it.

Now in closing this story, I think it is also important for me to share how the interview ended. We spoke about a few more things. One of the things that impressed me about the film is my own faith belief that Jesus loved all people, even those often considered the most the hardest to love. As I watched the movie, I was impressed at the images of the church, and frankly, yes, those involved. Here were people in this small church often excluded and not welcomed to a larger church. Yet here, they felt welcome. I couldn’t help but wonder, if the God I believe in loves and reaches out to touch those he loves, why does the church often exclude those people. I am not talking about the acceptance of sin; I am talking about a love and an understanding that may go beyond what we normally think of. I am talking about a concept known and taught in Romans that says that while we were yet sinners God loved us. I am talking about a real investigation of issues that impact people. It was sad to think that often times, these hurting human beings can’t and don’t trust the faith community. It is even sadder that often times we preach and speak about a message of love, but our actions give no indication of the love we are instructed on in the Bible, especially where it is defined for us in 1st Corinthians 13.

I have to admit, I liked Sara, and I shared some things with her about my own journey of trying to understand in a Biblical way, issues related to homosexuality, gender identity and more. I also did something I seldom ever do; I exchanged a hug with both Sara and Alice. Why? Simple actually, I respect and love them both as human beings. I wanted them to know, that this one Christian, is willing to love, is willing to touch, is willing to share in this spiritual journey together. While I may not fully agree with everything about them, neither do I agree with my own wife on everything, yet we love each other and have been together for over 30 years. I will say, from our conversation, I was challenged, and found many areas we did agree on. I continue to seek to learn, to become educated, and to ultimately, show love. My hope would be that we would all be encouraged to do the same thing, not just in a word, but in action and deed.

To see the trailer for this film, click the following video. If the video doesn’t appear, just click on the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOy6KxoD4RI



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