Pride 2017: Trans pastor and police chaplain helps others
by David-Elijah Nahmod
There's a trans pastor in San Francisco who has fostered change by ministering to a congregation in the Outer Sunset, an area of the city not known for its wealth of LGBTQ institutions.
The Reverend Megan Rohrer is the first out transgender person to lead a Lutheran congregation. Currently the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, Rohrer has created an environment where all people – LGBT and otherwise – can worship together in a spirit of unity, harmony and joy.
Rohrer, 36, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, was also sworn in earlier this year as a volunteer chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department and prays with the homeless as part of their work with the San Francisco Night Ministry.
The reverend is always ready to serve their community at a moment's notice. Within 24 hours of last December's fire at Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse, which killed 36 people, Rohrer rushed to the East Bay to console survivors and to comfort the loved ones of those who perished. The following night Rohrer organized a memorial service at Harvey Milk Plaza for the transgender and gender non-conforming victims of the fire. (At least three people who died were transgender people.)
Rohrer recently spoke to the Bay Area Reporter about their own faith journey and their commitment to community service. It's a story that began in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Rohrer came out in college, and recalls that they had to move off campus after the death of Matthew Shepard due to safety concerns.
Shepard was a gay Wyoming college student who was beaten and tied to a fence post in 1998. His murder made national headlines and brought attention to anti-gay hate crimes. A federal hate crime law, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, bears his name, as well as the name of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was dragged to death by three white men a few months before Shepard's murder.
"I moved to Berkeley in 2001 to go to seminary and began working as the executive director of Welcome, serving the chronically homeless in the Polk Gulch that June," Rohrer recalled. "Eating with the homeless and sleeping out on the streets for a week each year, I fed the homeless for 12 years, before Welcome's work transitioned to finding creative ways to patch holes in San Francisco's continuum of care.
"Called by Grace Lutheran, in the Sunset district, the congregation sees my advocacy work with Welcome as the mission of our church," Rohrer added.
When Rohrer's homeless advocacy first began, they were not yet identifying as transgender.
"When I was ordained as a pastor, in 2006, I identified as genderqueer," Rohrer said. "The idea of the transgender umbrella had not been named yet. Back then the only medical options for transitioning were to choose to either look like Ken or Barbie. Neither of those options seemed like a good fit for me."
Rohrer noted the changes brought about by the Obama administration – as well as lawsuits filed by private citizens – that made it possible for transgender people to "choose their own adventure," as Rohrer refers to it.
During the Obama years, the administration issued guidance directed at protecting trans students, which the Trump administration has since rescinded.
"As someone who always wanted to be a parent, many of my medical choices were also closely linked to my own fertility decisions," Rohrer said. "Now that my wife, Laurel Rohrer, and I have two beautiful children that we are adopting, my future choices may look different than my current choices. The beauty of pastor robes is that my uniform does not change when I change my space on the gender spectrum."
The pastor addressed the significance of having an out trans person do the kind of spiritual work they do, including becoming a police chaplain. Rohrer said that Captain Teresa Ewins, a lesbian who oversees the Tenderloin station, encouraged them to become a chaplain.
"Particularly so that the LGBTQ members of the SFPD would know for certain that they could utilize the chaplains for self-care and support," Rohrer said. "In light of the guidelines released by the Trans March against being kind to police officers, the timing of my swearing in could not be more important."
Last year, Mayor Ed Lee and gay officials then-state Senator Mark Leno and then-Supervisor Scott Wiener were heckled and booed off the stage at the Trans March. This year, organizers said elected officials would not be speaking from the stage at the event.
Rohrer elaborated on the changes for this year's Trans March, scheduled for Friday, June 25.
"This year's Trans March guidelines go so far as forbidding trans people from saying kind things to the SFPD as they support marchers," Rohrer said. "I know many LGBTQ officers who volunteer to work at the Trans March, Dyke March, and Pride parade, particularly so they can support their community."
According to the Trans March's guidelines, "Law enforcement is generally hostile towards trans people, particular [sic] those who are black and brown. From harassment and abuse to violence and outright murder, law enforcement has not be [sic] a friend to our communities and many of our allies. Do not talk to them. Do not take selfies with them. Do not high five them. Do not thank them," the statement reads.
Trans March organizer Danielle Castro told the B.A.R. that the guideline was "for the safety of the community."
Asked about the possibility of LGBT SFPD members wanting to be involved with the march, Castro said, "Everyone is welcome to come. We just don't want an issue with our attendees being arrested."
Rohrer said that no one from the Trans March has contacted them to participate. But they and their family will be marching in Sunday's Pride parade.
"The kids, Laurel, and I will be marching in the Pride parade with the police contingent. I'll be in police blues with my clergy collar," Rohrer said.
Rohrer added that they want community members to know that they need not be afraid to ask for help.
"Beyond the care that I provide for members of the SFPD, I hope that the existence of a transgender SFPD chaplain can encourage at least one person to seek safety from domestic violence, to report a hate crime, or to learn more about the burden first responders carry on our behalf," Rohrer said.
When speaking with Rohrer, many might notice that they always specify that they are "openly transgender." The B.A.R. asked about the significance of the word "openly."
"There have been countless transgender people throughout history, most we will never know about because they live authentically in the world without need of disclosing their genital history to strangers," Rohrer said. "Some individuals, like me, disclose their transgender status in order to educate and advocate. Instead of saying I'm the first transgender person to do something, I say the first 'openly' transgender, to honor those who live non-disclosing lives. Their contributions are just as valuable."
Rohrer also addressed their preference for gender-neutral pronouns.
"For some, gender-neutral pronouns name a space of defiance, living intentionally in the middle or outside of the gender spectrum," they said. "As a pastor, working a very public job, gender-neutral pronouns give me the space I need to make choices about my health and body privately. When and how I choose to identify as male, female or both, is less important to me than helping people live with hope, kindness and faith."
Rohrer has indeed brought change to the LGBT community, and to the lives of transgender people themselves, many of whom are finding welcoming homes in faith communities for the first time.
"Part of the reason I'm so open about both my faith and my trans status is because I regularly get emails and social media messages from people who say that they decided not to kill themselves after they read about me," Rohrer said. "These messages are humbling and far too much of a weight for one person to carry, perhaps this is why I work so hard to support and mentor others. Sometimes the greatest things we can do is be ourselves proudly and publicly."
For information on Grace Lutheran Church, visit https://www.dailygrace.club/.