Facing Intolerance: Avery’s Story

 Awake:

Pastor Avery Sledge’s Story

As told by Kailey Mau

How do we know who we are?

It’s that big mystery in life; an enigma. It took many years for me to sort this out. I’ll start with this: I am a transgender person. I’m also a United Church of Christ Pastor. Society says being a transgender person is not natural; it’s not normal. It’s not a part of “God’s plan.”

My gender difference is something that I became aware of at about age five. I did not have a name for it back then. I went through school sort of living a dual life: a life I had to present at school and the life I felt internally. I felt conflicted by my conservative Southern, Southern Baptist upbringing. I grew up thinking that God didn’t make mistakes.

As I went through my early years, I did all the things which society says you are supposed to do. I grew up, went to school, married, converted tot he United Methodist Church, and had a family– two kids. But I wrestled with feeling different the entire time. I did a lot of wrestling and arguing with God, one on one. I wrestled a long time. I often asked God why he did this to me. I was very raw in my prayers. After I retired as an Air Force colonel, I waited a couple more years before I decided I probably needed to go ahead and have “the surgery.” A lot of that was probably driven by 9/11 and the Real ID Act, which meant that one had to carry ID’s that matched faces with who people thought they were seeing, which told the gender they were.

In the meantime, while serving in the Air Force and struggling through my internal conflict, I also had another piece of my life through the church that was tugging at me. And so, when I finally got the call to enter the ministry, it was almost like we– God and I– were arguing about this summon. I initially offered up many reasons as to why I should not enter into the ministry. Among them, I said that I was a transgender person and the United Methodist church had never ordained a transgender person before. It was then God said, “I’m not calling you to be just a pastor. I’m calling you to be a pastor for my people,” which is a totally different call. Not tied to any specific denomination. My first words after realizing that were “Oh, crap.” And then I knew that I had to at least respond to the call; my argument was gone.

One of the things I learned from both of my struggles is that we can come before God, angry and mad, and use profanity to ask the “why” questions. Yeah, the struggling is the hardest part. But that’s the meat–wrestling with faith. If you’re so certain about your faith, then I don’t think it is faith. There is no room in growth for sureness. Every time someone reads the bible, they hear it differently and it speaks to them differently. God is still speaking each time. My personal belief is that God can take all the questions we have and all the anger we’ve got–God’s big enough. All our lives, many of us have been taught that we have to be polite to God and we need to revere a powerful God as a power moved to some distant place. But I believe that we have to be open, honest, and sometimes, raw; it’s just like any other relationship. Conversation goes both ways. And somewhere in the midst of this, it’s not like God gives this lightning bolt answer to our struggles. It’s this small, still voice. And that’s what I experienced in my case.

I spent years in the dark night of the soul, asking God, “Why did you do this to me?” And I went through this process several times: first as a child, then after my spouse and I started talking about my conflicted feelings about my gender identity, and later on as I realized where the path was taking me. It was a long struggle; it was painful. There are still days where I wrestle with God. There are still days where I wonder why I’m in the ministry. I still wonder whether I’m doing any good. But at the end of the day, I realized there is a reason I’ve been called to the ministry as a transgendered person. My life matters.

Over time, I’ve found that each of us have many identities and some of mine happen to be: spouse, child, sibling, grandparent, parent, retired colonel, clergy person, and finally, transgender person– which is in a long line of the many identities I have; not the identity I have, which is what we tend to focus on int his country. We tend to use labels as a kind of short hand. Labels allow us to objectify folks. We forget there are more dimensions–to people–than the one way we categorize them. It’s easier to dehumanize and to use a label than to recognize that they are part of our full humanity, no matter who they are. When you take time to share stories, you take away a different perspective of that person. When you get to know someone as a person, they aren’t just an object. Then you realize maybe they’re not the devil incarnate after all. This same notion applies to race, religious preferences, immigration status, and any other number of circumstances.

I don’t live here in Springfield. I commute into town four days a week for several hours. So I’m not really part of the Springfield community, which makes my life somewhat difficult. But I do engage when and where I can engage; I love this community, with all the funky little shops. However, I believe that many in Springfield don’t think we have a problem with intolerance. Some are in denial. “We don’t need laws to protect against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination because the police can’t tell you of any issues of hate crime…” they say. But there are still stories of intolerance that happen in subtle, benign ways. I’m enough a part of the community to see that.

We have to make it clear that Springfield does not discriminate, in particular against the LGBTQ community. And by nondiscrimination, I mean we all subtly discriminate against the poor, we subtly discriminate against black people, we subtly discriminate against people of other religions, like Islamic folk….whether we want to or not, it’s because we are currently a dominant white, Protestant culture. That doesn’t just go for us, it happens everywhere. It’s a privilege we don’t want to give up. When push comes to shove, we retreat into our own, innate fears, innate grounding, or the way we were taught. An we all have that internal struggle on some level, if we’re honest with ourselves.

Sometimes it’s more convenient to pretend something isn’t a problem. I’m old enough now for people to take me as I am or leave me. That being said, unless there is a reason to tell someone that I am a transgender person, I don’t tell them. It’s been 13 years since my surgery; it’s not as important that I share my transgender status with everyone. And I think that for me, it’s nice to have walked both sides of the railroad track. I had privileges of being a male. And now, it’s still a different kind of privilege–being a woman–but you do get treated differently. My views are sometimes discounted now; I’m viewed as less competent at the hardware store, for example. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned to embrace all sides of me: the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social. All of that sort of intertwines if you really think about it.

When it comes to accepting yourself, you do go through a period of denial. Then you struggle–and that can last for a while. But then you accept. It’s then that you can go through this period of realizing that everything comes together. You realize, “this is who I am.” There is a subtle difference between denial and acceptance; I think you do both. And so does everyone else. We all are fighting some kind of internal or external struggle, sometimes daily. Ultimately, we all embrace that mystery we don’t understand.

So keep up the struggle; don’t lose hope.

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The Facing Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. The organization’s model to share stories and raise awareness is in cities across the United States focused on topics such as poverty, sex trafficking, mental health, immigration, and more. Facing Project stories are compiled into books and on the web for a community resource, used to inspire art, photography, monologues and—most importantly—community-wide awareness, dialogue, action, and change toward a more understanding and empathetic society.