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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ragsdale: Pastor uses faith in gender change

DesMoinesRegister

A transgender pastor, who came to peace about his gender identity and his faith while in seminary, will speak about his experience next month at Simpson College.

Malcolm Himschoot is a United Church of Christ pastor. He also grew up as a girl even though he felt he should have been the "third brother" in his family.

His story about trying to reconcile his self-perception and how the world viewed him, his transition from "Miriam" to "Malcolm" and his struggle with faith, love and gender identity were featured in a documentary, "Call Me Malcolm," released in 2005.

"I was in my last year of seminary at Iliff School of Theology when I was invited to tell a story nobody would have assumed I would have just by looking at me," Himschoot said. "In my life, my gender journey was about discovering and living truth, living out of a place of compassion for myself and in relationship with others."

A Colorado native, Himschoot enrolled at Iliff in Denver as "Miriam" Himschoot. Originally, she hoped to study theology to better understand Christianity and the teachings of her home church even though those teachings seemed to indicate God hated her.

During Himschoot's struggle for identity, she became estranged from her parents, family, church and friends.

In college, however, Himschoot learned about transgender individuals and began investigating the condition and alternatives open to transgendered people. Shortly thereafter Himschoot began adopting a male identity.

Transgender is a broad term that refers to people who don't conform to traditional gender identity. It includes transsexuals who may transition from male to female or female to male by presenting themselves in their preferred gender or by undergoing sex-reassignment surgery. Those who change gender don't necessarily change their sexual orientation.

Christian community

Supported by the Iliff Christian community, Himschoot began presenting himself as a man, asking people to "call me Malcolm."

Joseph Parlagreco, who directed the documentary for Filmworks and the United Church of Christ, said the film is a snapshot of Himschoot's life.

"He didn't know he was going to be a minister. He didn't attend seminary with that objective. He had no job. He was where a lot of us are, trying to figure out who we are, where we fit in, who we should love and who will we marry. These are universal questions," Parlagreco said.

Himschoot, 28, is an outreach pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. He has a passion for urban ministry, addressing "poverty and how the faith community needs to pay attention to inner-city issues." He's proud of United Church of Christ's policies that welcomed him and gave him the opportunity to serve others.

"I've been privileged to claim my experience and be in ministry in a church that has been open and affirming for at least 20 years," Himschoot said.

His mission to promote understanding and his friendship with Jan Everhart, director of the Lilly Initiative for Vocational Exploration, brings him to preach and speak at Simpson College on Feb. 5.

Everhart and Himschoot met at Iliff, a United Methodist seminary.

"I knew Miriam, an excellent student who won the student of the year award studying for a masters of divinity," Everhart said. "Malcolm made his transition while he was a student there, something he did incredibly gracefully, with great integrity and faith."

According to statistics cited by FtM International, an education and advocacy group for female-to-male transgender, cases of transgender occur in approximately one in 50 people, at about the same frequency as birth defects such as cleft palate.

"Researcher Lynn Conway found that occurrence is stable across society, is found in all different cultures and it has been stable across time," said Rabbi Levi Alter, president of FtM International. "Some people are shocked at the frequency, but that's because you can't necessarily tell who is transgender just by looking at them. They don't go around wearing a sign."

Some are uncomfortable

Alter said he knows some people are uncomfortable with the transgender concept, but "this is a real-life issue."

"Some people prefer to have simple choices, black or white, right or wrong, my way or the highway," Alter said.

Himschoot agrees that most people think "God created things a certain way and if you change anything at all, you're going against God."

"That's just not the God I know or the God I worship," he said. "The stories Jesus told, the way he touched people's lives, I only see doors opened, not doors closed."

Everhart, a biblical scholar, believes that thinking about gender should be broader than the male-female construct.

"What I have learned over many years is that it is not that clear for some people," Everhart said. "God is creative. There are more than two ways to be."

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