Sarah, Drew, and Tomila (UMC transgender history)

It turns out that the Rev. Sarah Flynn, who was the first known transgender clergy on my UMC timeline was friends with the Rev. Tomila Louise (of blessed memory, d. 2005) who transitioned “a year or two” earlier than Sarah. I hope to share more of Tomila’s story in the near future, but for now here is Sarah’s letter to the UMC Judicial Council in support of Drew Phoenix, citing Tomila’s story (and her own).

From: Sarah Flynn
Sent: Friday, September 14, 2007, 9:00 AM
Subject: RE: Rev. Drew Phoenx

To the members of the United Methodist Judicial Council

RE: In support of the appointment of Rev. Drew Phoenix

September 13, 2007

I write to you in support of the appointment of the Rev. Drew Phoenix, clergy member of the Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The decision before you regarding the appointment of Rev. Phoenix concerns his eligibility for pastoral service based on the question of whether or not a transgender person may receive an appointment in the United Methodist Church.

I wish to make known to you that the Rev. Ralph Ward, then resident bishop of Troy and the New York Annual Conferences, appointed me to ministry beyond the local church as a college registrar and counselor of students after I completed the transition from male to female in August, 1978. Bishop Ward met with me in the hospital while I recovered from surgery to provide spiritual support and discuss my future plans.

At that time I chose to leave pastoral work since I did not wish to be subject to public curiosity and so began a career higher education. Bishop Ward later re-issued my ordination certificate with the assistance of Bishop Lloyd C. Wicke, who had ordained me.

In time I became active in the Southern New England Conference as an affiliate member, and for nine years did supply work, at least eight years as the part time pastor of Windsorville United Methodist Church.. This was with the approval of the District Superintendents and with the Bishops of the SNE Conference. I retired from active ministry in the United Methodist Church in 2002.

I was not the first United Methodist minister to make such a gender transition. Before me, was the Rev. Tomila Louise (now deceased) who transitioned at least a year before I did. Like me, Rev. Louise remained active in the Maine Annual Conference and after its merger with the New England Conference, and she continued to work on various Conference committees and served a supply parish on Cape Cod for a time.

Tomila and I were friends for many years after meeting at a support group hosted in Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral where the Rev. Canon Clinton R. Jones served as a counselor and advisor to many of us transgender folk who belonged the support group and were receiving help from the New England Gender Identity Clinic which Canon Jones had initiated. His ministry was highly regarded by the professional community and by the several Episcopal bishops who served the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut during his ministry at the Cathedral.

It is my hope that by sharing this testimony with you at the present time you will realize that Rev. Drew Phoenix is not an exceptional case. There have been others before him, as surely there will be more who will come after him.

I believe that by sharing my story and that of Rev. Tomila you will realize that changing gender identities need not be an obstacle to effective pastoral ministry. Indeed, judging from the comments I received from the District Superintendents and the parishioners I served, I believe people found me an effective preacher, counselor and administrator. The same I think was true of Rev. Louise. Judging from the support which Rev. Phoenix has received from his parish one has reason to hope that he also will continue to serve his people in a caring and courageous way.

Recently the American Medical Association called for an end to discrimination against its own transgendered members and also condemned the discrimination of insurance companies who regard sex reassignment surgery as elective or cosmetic surgery. It is worth noting that the condition of being transgendered is not considered a mental illness in the DSM IV. What is considered a medical condition is ’gender dysphoria,’ which is the intense sense of being trapped in a sexual appearance that is inconsistence with one’s own sense of self. When that condition is treated by appropriate hormonal replacement, surgery and other changes, the symptoms of gender dysphoria are resolved so that the person may live an integrated life. In fact that is the only effective treatment for the condition.

Canon Jones did a survey of 90 or so post operative transsexuals that he was able to locate. The responses to that survey showed unusually high positive results years after people had transitioned. Even if they had difficulty adjusting due to the lack of acceptance of significant others, well over 95% stated that they would still choose to transition if they had their lives to live over. Very few medical procedures enjoy that kind of success rate.

I am of the opinion that the reason for this is that all of us who have had to endure for years the sense of personal incongruity and guilt and shame we associated with how we felt, find after our transition a sense of peace with ourselves so essential to being able to develop productive and useful lives.

I hope and trust that the Judicial Council will affirm the decision of the bishop to appoint Rev. Drew Phoenix. The time of misunderstanding and fear of transsexual people is on the wane. It is time for the United Methodist Church to show maturity and leadership in recognizing his call to serve and the acceptance of the church to receive his gifts and graces for ministry.

Faithfully yours,

Rev. Sarah J. Flynn

Troy Annual Conference, Retired

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on June 14, 2022.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.

Also, I am grateful that certain right-wing websites like to post things like this (because they think it’s inflammatory) as it sometimes provides an interesting archive of details that might otherwise be lost. Here is a historic gem with thanks to our antagonists! I have confirmed with Sarah that it is legitimate, but I am posting it here so we don’t give that other website more traffic.

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