Waiting for Permission

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Alex McNeill
Author Alex Patchin McNeill

It took me a very long time to allow myself the mental space to think that I might be transgender. I tried for years to ignore the pain associated with moving in the world when everyone saw me as a girl. Even when I did let myself think about what it would be like to live fully as male, those thoughts kept bumping up against walls of “What will my friends think?”, “How can I tell people?”, and “Am I brave enough?” I carried around this lump of anxiety that I thought the outside world had imposed on me. Finally, I confessed to a friend that I was thinking of changing my birth name in my first step of transitioning from female to male. She looked me in the eyes and asked me, “What are you waiting for?”

Her question reverberated through the walls of my doubts and fears, and I suddenly realized – I was the one I had been waiting for. It wasn’t God or my friends that were holding me back; I was. I had felt the call to a new gender reality as deeply as I felt my call to ministry, but I had ignored it because I thought I needed some sort of external validation to make it real.

I had been waiting for permission.

You see, waiting for permission has been an all-too-familiar feeling for those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), particularly those of us who are part of the church. For many years, our calls to live into the fullness of our ministries were kept on hold as we waited for permission from our denominations to be ordained. Many of us, not willing to leave our lives permanently on hold, either shifted denominations or left the church entirely during that time. We didn’t feel that we had the permission to express our authentic identities as ministers because we hadn’t been fully validated by the denominations we loved.

I know the daily hurt of not being seen as the person I was called to be in, whether in my gender or my call to ministry. I know all too well how quickly that desire for permission to live fully as myself can transform itself into cords binding my thoughts and restricting my very being.  As a Christian, I am grateful to believe in a God who works in mysterious ways, who shatters preconceptions and overturns the tables of our ordered way of thinking to bring a new reality into being.

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To be LGBTQ in this world requires living at the intersection of the already and the not-yet.
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To be LGBTQ in this world requires living at the intersection of the already and the not-yet. On the one hand, our lives are restricted by the very real limitations of law and culture. Many of us are unable to legally marry our partners, to access the health care we need to survive, or to serve the denominations to which we have been called. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit doesn’t need permission to work in our lives. Following in Jesus’ example, we develop ministries right where we are. We bring our callings to bear on all the work we do, whether we are bank tellers or involved with a local church. We live into this not-yet when we embody the values, community, and possibility of the world we experience God creating in our daily lives.

In the LGBTQ community, we have honed and refined this sense of openness to the possibilities that the Holy Spirit inspires because it has been necessary for our survival in a world that remains bound. It’s time for us to stop hiding this gift under a bushel. We have an opportunity to help the church move beyond the restrictions of waiting for permission. We can teach the church how to take bold and prophetic chances by which the Spirit can break into the world and create a new reality. I’ve been calling it permission, but perhaps it’s time to name it for what it is: liberation.

AUTHOR BIO: Alex Patchin McNeill is the first openly transgender ministry inquirer in his conservative Presbyterian region in Western North Carolina. Alex earned his Master’s of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School with scholarship on the intersection of religion, gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. He currently serves as the Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians.

Read more articles in this series.

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