Through scriptural reflection and personal stories about gender identity, an ordained priest moves the conversation beyond transgender inclusion to demonstrate the unique and vital theological insights transgender Christians can provide the church.
Father Shannon Kearns is familiar with liminal spaces. He’s lived in them his whole life. And while his experience as a transgender man has often made it difficult for him to fit in—especially in the context of Christianity—it has also shaped his perspective in important ways on complicated, gender-transgressing aspects of theology and Scripture.
In the Margins weaves stories from Shannon’s life into reflections on well-known biblical narratives—such as Jacob wrestling with the divine, Rahab and the Israelite spies, Ezekiel and the dry bones, and the transfiguration of Jesus. In each chapter, Shannon shows how stories have helped him make sense of his own identity, and how those same stories can unlock the transformative power of faith for those willing to listen with an open mind and stand alongside him in the in-between.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in rural Pennsylvania and knew I was different from the time I was very young but I had no language for my difference. My life, in many ways, has been a search for that language. I looked to stories as my first reflector of self: books, plays, television, and film became my window into the outside world. No matter how hard I looked, though, I only caught glimpses, fragments; I never saw myself fully reflected. So I started writing to ask the questions I didn’t see anyone else asking. I wrote to try to find a place for myself in the world of stories. I wrote to try to define and name myself.
I stayed in the church and in the theatre and never felt fully at home in either. Where was the space for a visibly queer kid? Where were the roles for someone who didn’t fit into traditional notions of gender? Where could I be at home? Be myself? Yet, even as I grappled I couldn’t let go of either Christianity or the theatre. There was something in the Jesus story that wouldn’t let me go: a story of a man who made a space for the most marginalized. A man who was an outsider. A man who traveled around and told stories so that others on the outside could feel their worth. In theatre I found a community who let me be weird and quirky. I felt something holy happening when we sat in rooms together and asked hard questions. I couldn’t give up either of these sanctuaries even as I wasn’t sure how to find a place in them.
It was in reading other people’s stories that I was able to name myself: first as gay then as transgender. I became the first openly transgender man ordained to the Old Catholic priesthood. I continued to tell stories. I continued to enact rituals on church altars and on theatre stages. For a while I tried to keep these pieces of my life separate, but they continued to bleed into one another and so I am now embarking on the great work of integration.
Yet I still feel the lack of stories that represent myself and my community. Stories of transgender men. Stories of religious queer and trans folks. Stories of trans people with rural backgrounds.
See, I exist with all of these strange worlds inside of me. I will always be the kid from rural Pennsylvania. I will always feel the angst of spending so many years of my life not fitting in and not being able to name my identity. I will always be queer and trans and hold that legacy of stories in my body. I will always be captivated by silent churches and lofty words and dreams of a new and better world right here and now.
This is what my writing is trying to capture: space for people like me to exist. And not just exist but also to thrive. To no longer be the outsiders but to be the ones centered. To tell our own stories, to name ourselves, to continue to ask questions and find our own answers.