This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.
In 2016, the prison where I was working as a chaplain received a transgender inmate named Michelle, who is serving a life sentence for rape and murder in his late teens, when he identified as “Michael.”
Not surprisingly, Michelle’s arrival had a significant impact on the institutional staff. Many felt helpless and uncertain as to how to engage with her on any level. Others simply viewed her as a “piece of garbage,” the personification of evil and degeneracy. As an Orthodox priest serving in this secular context, I was not immune to the challenge that her presence posed. For instance, policy prohibited me from refusing to use her chosen name and gender pronouns. Beyond wanting to keep my job, I complied for two reasons. First, I could not engage with her pastorally if I could not speak to her, and she would not speak with me unless I addressed her by the name she had chosen.
More than that, though, I have called this person Michelle and used feminine pronouns (even in this context) because I believe there is something essentially mysterious about her identity, which may well be tied to transgenderism. Continue reading