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By Oliver Leon November 5, 2012

That Transsexual Guy: The Radical and the Ritual

Illustrated by PYRA GILL-McCABE


I first bumped into Shannon Kearns on Twitter.

His handle, @anarchistrev, caught my eye. There were Christian anarchists in the world?! And they were trans, too? I was curious as to how those identities intersected, and the reverend kindly agreed to an interview.

That Transsexual Guy: This might be a chicken or the egg question but, what do you think came first—your faith or knowledge of your gender identity?

Shannon Kearns: My faith definitely came first, if only by virtue of the family that I grew up in. I didn’t really become aware of gender as a concept until I hit puberty and by that time my faith was already well ingrained. My gender discomfort and my discomfort with the faith of my childhood seemed to grow together, though.

If this isn’t too personal a question, how did you know you were called to God’s service? How old were you?

I was probably in junior high when I began to get a sense that I was called to be in ministry. I don’t know if I could have articulated exactly what I was called to, but I felt this sense that I needed to not only be a part of the church, but also that I should be a part of changing the church.

I was very concerned with how shallow the faith I was being taught seemed. It seemed like God was supposed to make everything perfect if only you believed properly and hard enough and that just didn’t match up to the experience I was having.

I wanted to raise the questions I felt no one else was asking. That calling to be a bit of an antagonist in the church has remained.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I finally had language for my gender discomfort. By that time I had already deconstructed my faith from childhood and embraced a faith that was much more inclusive and concentrated less on personal salvation and more on saving society.

But newfound faith was very intellectual and I missed the deep emotion I had as a faithful child. It was my transition that gave me back the gift of an emotional faith.

Transitioning allowed me to embrace my body again—as I had pretty much been trying to ignore it completely ever since puberty. And in learning to embrace myself as a bodied person, I began to embrace my faith as something that actually cares very deeply about bodies.

It’s a faith that considers bodies important and holy. It’s a faith that encourages rituals that are all about bodies. That emphasis on being bodily allowed me to embrace a faith that was both intellectual and emotional.

So you’re a Christian anarchist. What does that mean to you?

For me, Christian anarchy is about creating new ways of community and living in the shadow of the Empire. Which means a focus on community, on the local, on cooperation. It’s a rejection of things that seek to divide people, like American political parties, and an attempt to cooperate together to make sure that everyone has the things they need.

I’m dedicated to non-violent resistance and trying to follow in the way of Jesus. I think of Christian anarchy as the willingness to do the hard work of being in community with people and with getting my hands dirty to do the work of justice. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a taste of what it means to me.

You co-founded and co-direct Camp Osiris. From what I read on the site, it’s a bit of a radical Bible camp for youth with a distinctly queer lens. Can you tell The Link’s readers how the camp started and what it’s about?

Camp Osiris started two years ago. Caidin Riley, the co-founder and co-director, and I had a desire to start a camp for queer young adults and adults who wanted to talk about the intersections between their sexuality and/or gender identity and their Christianity.

We wanted to create a space where people could talk about their struggles, meet other queer and/or trans* Christians, and where they could talk about what it means to be activists where they live.

Caidin and I had both been a part of other queer youth camps and we realized that two things were missing: There weren’t any camps for young adults and adults (most camps were for teenagers) and while they did a great job creating safe spaces, they didn’t equip people to go back home and make a change where they were living.

We wanted to create a camp that would do those things. Camp Osiris gives people new ways to read the Bible. We look for the texts that are revolutionary for queer and/or trans* people. We want to give people the tools to reclaim their faith and to make it their own.

Then we talk about the things in our own communities that we’d like to change and work on making sure that they have the resources they need to work on those changes in their home communities.

We stay in touch with campers year round, connect them to people who live near them, and offer support and community. It’s been a powerful experience.
We’ve got three camps coming up in 2013. For more information you can check out camposiris.com.

You’re also trying to start The House of Transfiguration, a social justice-oriented church in Minneapolis. How is that going?

House of the Transfiguration is really just beginning. I’m hoping that we’ll have a small “launch” group meeting starting in January with the hope of starting public worship services in the Fall of 2013. It’s a slow process but one I am really excited about.

We’re going to be a North American Old Catholic Church parish. The NAOCC is an independent Catholic denomination that ordains women, queer and/or trans* people, divorced folks, and married people.

They care deeply about social justice and it’s through them that I am being ordained. I am excited to start an Old Catholic parish here in Minneapolis as there aren’t any communities like it.

I’m really interested in what happens when you fuse ancient ritual with radical practice, when you mix chant music with a nice drum beat, when you have mass with inclusive language, and when the community can hold the best of the ancient with a view toward the future.

In your vision for a better future, what would your ideal church look like? Would we need churches or places of worship?

My ideal church would be a community dedicated to one another and to the community in which they live. They would be focused on worship, creating ritual, and changing the world. They would eat together and sing together and protest together.

I see the church as a base community for resistance: It’s the group that strengthens the people doing the work of justice in the world. It’s the group that provides rituals that give life meaning and depth, the group that supports one another and challenges one another.

I think Christians will always need to be in community. We need the encouragement (and the occasional kick in the ass) to work for the good of other people.

It can be really easy to concentrate on personal needs and to forget about the community. Churches, when they are at their best, are encouraging people to look outside of themselves and to live for the benefit of community.

Is there value in doubting faith?

Absolutely. And maybe I just say that because I can’t imagine having a faith without doubting. I know that my times of doubt; the times when I have had to completely deconstruct the things that I believe, those times have made my faith so much stronger.

Even the times when I have tried or wanted to walk away from faith completely have, in the end, managed to strengthen my belief.

I think the key thing, for me, has been to try to eliminate shame when struggling with doubt. Instead I try to see it as a natural part of the process of growing and learning and I don’t beat myself up over it.

Do you have tips for queer and trans* folks struggling with their faith?

I think the biggest thing I would want to say is that you are not alone. There are a lot of deeply faithful queer and/or trans* folks out there. We are working hard for inclusion in churches and starting new communities.

If you are struggling with your faith, know that that is okay. You can take your time figuring things out. If you need to step away from faith for a while in order to gain perspective, that is okay, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you want to get in touch with me you can send me an email anarchistreverend@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @anarchistrev. To read more about my thoughts on Christian anarchism, trans* theology, and churchy stuff check out at Anarchist Reverend.

About the author

Oliver Leon writes That Transsexual Guy at The Link newspaper, at Concordia University. He graduated from Dawson College in 2011, having studied at Reflections in Literature. When not writing poetry or drinking tea, Oliver is likely to be found offering peer support at the 2110 Center for Gender Advocacy. He will soon be published in the upcoming comic anthology on the Quebec student strike, En Greve.


As always, thanks to the wonderfully welcoming folks at The Link. Thanks also go out to S. Kearns for the interview.


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