From ......... NEWSWEEK

NOVEMBER 4, 1996

page 66


Crossing Over

Can a transsexual minister retain her ordination?


IT 'S HARD TO SURPRISE CHURCH trustees anymore. They know how to deal with divorced clergy or ministers plagued by a crisis of faith. They're slowly coming to terms with noncelibate homosexuals in the pulpit. They've learned to move swiftly against embezzlers and sexual abusers. But last week brought a novel problem. The issue before the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta was this: since Erin Swenson had completed her transsexual medical procedures, could she retain the ordination she had received when she was Eric, a man?

To answer that question, the church elders met last week to talk with Swenson and review an unusual set of concerns. One woman wanted to know whether Swenson, 49, had worn his wife's clothing before the sex-change surgery last year.

Others were concerned about her grown children. Some looked to the Bible for guidance. Evidently impressed by Swenson's quiet dignity, the panel took less than an hour to vote to retain Swenson's ordination. It was closeŃ186 to 161. And it was historic, this was the first time that any mainstream church had upheld the ordination of a transsexual Christian minister. Afterward, Swenson was charitable and delighted. "I understand fear," the former Sunday-school teacher told NEWSWEEK. "I was afraid a long time."

Swenson says that she's neither a publicity hound nor an exhibitionist. "I'm no shemale or drag queen," she says, "and I don't want to fight society. But I have as much right as anyone to practice my livelihood." Since 1973, Swenson's ministry had been diverse: pastor and preacher, chaplain at a psychiatric center, instructor and supervisor of seminarians at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. For the past 12 years, Swenson has also run a private marriage counseling practice. She does not have a congregation.

It was Swenson who brought the issue to the church. After her surgery, she wanted her name changed in the official register. That administrative request led to more than a year of debate within the Georgia church. Privately, Swenson says, she had struggled with her gender for decades. When he married, he told himself that his confused feelings would go away. Instead, they led to closeted cross-dressing, then bouts of deep depression. He became more withdrawn from his wife, Sigrid, and two daughters. Eventually, Swenson sought medical help and his wife divorced him. But Sigrid and her father, the Rev. O. H. Lyon, remained Swenson's staunchest friends. "A wounded healer can be the best kind of minister," Lyon told the presbytery.

Last week's close vote left many unsatisfied. "You can't father two children without being a male," says the Rev. Don Wade, who thinks the surgical solution "ruled out the power of God to bring healing." Wade filed a formal protest after last week's vote, and an appeal to a higher level might follow. This time, the churchmen won't be surprised.