Meet Allyson Robinson, the first openly transgender Baptist minister
Allyson Robinson had been married for over a decade when she says she "finally spoke my truth". At the time she was known as Daniel Robinson, and she told her wife – Danielle – that she wanted to be a woman. Formerly an army officer and then studying to be a minister at Texas' Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, it wasn't a decision she took lightly.
In fact, as she wrestled with her sexuality, Robinson was almost driven to take her own life. "I grappled with the truth that was emerging within me at that time in ways I never had before. It nearly led me to suicide," she told Christian Today. She would cry all the way to Divinity school, a 45 minute commute, and again all the way home. One day, she considered deliberately driving into the river; afraid of what coming out as transgender would mean for her wife, children and church. "By grace alone in that moment I caught myself thinking those thoughts and realised that was not the right way forward," she recalls. "I didn't know what the right way was, but I knew there had to be some other way."
She started seeing a therapist, and began an in-depth study of LGBT theology. "It's ironic that the seminary at the largest Baptist university in the world has an incredibly diverse library on faith, sex and gender," she laughs. "It gave me many different perspectives, I realised that there were other perspectives, and that began the journey for me."
She told her family the truth, and Danielle vowed to stand by her, as did the majority of her relatives. The support of her loved ones "has not just empowered my ministry and my work for inclusion, but it has strengthened me, and helped me to see myself as a beloved child of God in ways that I never did before I came out."
Robinson went on to become the first openly transgender minister to be ordained in the Baptist tradition, and served as transitional pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. MSNBC called her "the most radical preacher in America".
She realises, however, that not everyone who identifies as transgender or who struggles with their sexuality is fortunate to find such support, particularly within the Church. It's why she's dedicated herself to the promotion of LGBT civil rights, working for a number of key organisations.
This weekend, she's speaking at the Gay Christian Network's (GCN) annual conference in Houston, Texas. It's the world's largest annual LGBT Christian conference, and will explore what's next for the Church as it grapples with issues of sexuality and gender in the midst of a culture war.
"I think it's critically important at this point in history that places like this [GCN] exist. In American culture, we have over the course of a generation or two lost the ability to speak across our differences, and that applies equally to Christians and to those who profess other faiths or no faith," she says.
"One of the things I love about GCN is its tradition and commitment to make a space where people who don't agree on all the details can get together as followers of Jesus and share worship."
Previous speakers include evangelical author Philip Yancey, blogger Rachel Held Evans and Baptist theologian Tony Campolo, who announced his support of same-sex relationships in June last year. The conference encourages Christians with different perspectives to come together and wrestle with the big questions facing the Church.
The US legalised same-sex marriage last year, though provisions have been made for churches and religious organisations to refuse to perform ceremonies for gay couples. Some denominations, such as American Baptist Churches USA, allows individual congregations to decide whether to ordain LGBT clergy or perform same-sex marriages, but the majority remain in favour of a traditional stance. It's led to renewed accusations that the Church is out-dated and irrelevant.
"I think that that the Church may always suffer from this impression, that it's behind the times, simply because it's rooted in traditions and cultures, many of which date from before the time of Christ, and I think that's okay," Robinson says.
"That said, I think our society has watched the Church grapple with these questions, and many are disappointed that it has taken the church longer comparatively than the rest of society to come around."
Though she commended the Church for its conservative nature; the way that it "measures very carefully the winds of change before it sets sail to them", Robinson says that same caution may be hindering its ability to reach out to those outside.
"It's important for the Church to weigh carefully the pull of the culture in which it lives, and yet that careful weighing serves to set it apart from culture in ways that can be less than helpful for the Church's mission of carrying forth the gospel in to the future," she says.
Sexuality is just one of many issues the Church has faced. Many believe it's become more divisive than necessary, but Robinson says it's crucial we get to grips with it. "The big difference here is that the traditionalist stance on inclusion for LGBT people in the Church is hurting people," she says.
"In fact, I don't think it's alarmist to say it is killing people, because of the influence the Church continues to wield across our society. It gives this conversation a different level of gravity than conversations about worship style of some of the other finer points of theology."
The good news is that Robinson believes there is hope for the future for LGBT Christians struggling to find their place within the faith community. She says it's "very likely but not inevitable" that soon there will be many more Christian leaders who identify as LGBT across the denominations.
"I think that it the future rests upon our ability – and by 'our' I mean LGBT affirming Christian people – to continue to hold the institution accountable while finding new ways to cross the divide; ways that reflect the truth that outside of the walls of the institution, this war is over. The cultural war has come to a close at least on this front, and those of us on the affirming side have won," she says.
"It is critical that we as affirming Christians find ways not to become the kind of church that once rejected us."
The Gay Christian Network Conference is taking place from 7–10 January in Houston, Texas. For more information, click here.