An interview with the Rev. Gwen Fry, President Elect of Integrity, the Episcopal Rainbow

The Rev. Gwen Fry is the President Elect of Integrity and a Steering Committee Member of TransEpiscopal. She sat down with ISSUES to share her story and her vision for the future of Integrity, which has recently decided to rename itself the Episcopal Rainbow.

Q: Can you tell me about yourself and your story?

A: I was born and raised in Northern Kentucky in the Greater Cincinnati area in a very tight-knit German extended family. And one of the things we always did was meet at my grandmother’s house at sometime on the weekend. We would watch sports together on television. There was one Saturday we were all there and there was some controversy in the tournament. And, as it turns out, it was Renée Richards (a trans woman) who entered the US Open. When I heard that, immediately, I was able to connect and put an identity, and a word, to what I had been feeling for my entire life. I was fourteen then. Thirty seconds after that happened, my aunt turned to the family and said, “He’s a freak.” And my dad said, “He’s a monster.” So, I stuffed it all down to try to get rid of these feelings and this identity. I played football in high school. I ran with a really rough crowd. I got really involved in church. I eventually went to seminary. I got married. I had a daughter. And, you know, I became a priest in the church.

In 2012, at the General Convention in Indianapolis, when the Convention included gender identity and gender expression into the non-discrimination canons, I felt like there was an opening for me to finally look at that and approach my bishop about coming out to him and working on moving towards a transition. I did that in 2014. We all set a date. My spouse was a priest and one of the things that was a real concern was her job security as well. So, we worked very closely together, developing a timeline. It finally worked out. I was a Priest-in-Charge in a small parish in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. At the vestry meeting we invited the Bishop, and I took that opportunity to come out during my Rector’s report. The vestry was super affirming except for one vestry member who turned to me immediately and asked, “Does this mean you are going to have curlers in your hair and eye shadow in the pulpit on Sunday?” It made me flash back to my grandmother’s living room that Saturday afternoon. “He’s a freak.” “He’s a monster.” After that, we negotiated a process for me to come out to the rest of the congregation. Before the vestry meeting ended, we decided there would be a time of discernment and education before any decisions were made. Fast forward to Sunday morning. The Sunday of the special coffee hour where I would come out. As I vested and stood in the back of the church, it appeared it was Easter morning. Word had gotten out and everybody was there. Probably the most intimidating thing I have ever had to do was stand in front of that parish hall full of people, come out to them about my gender identity, and inform them that I would be socially transitioning. As if coming out wasn’t difficult enough, I was also responsible for educating folks because they did not understand what being trans was or what it meant. When the meeting was over, walking to my car, my organist came over and said they were resigning immediately. They owned a small business and they just didn’t want to be associated with that because they didn’t want to lose any business. In the next couple of days, I was on the telephone, email, text, providing pastoral care to a number of different people in the parish. Talking about it. Trying to calm them. Monday morning a local reporter called us and asked for an interview or a statement from me. What my spouse and I did not want was to put this in the media. So I declined. But soon thereafter vestry members texted me that there was a story on the front page of the local newspaper, right under the banner, talking about a priest who wanted to become a woman. That Tuesday afternoon, there were three news crews parked outside my house pretty constantly trying to catch a peek. This all happened in the week between February 19th and 26th. I tried to stay ahead of the wave and to talk with people and to provide them some pastoral care. But by Tuesday night, I saw I wasn’t going to be able to stay ahead of it. I could see the writing on the wall. I knew there was no doubt that I was going to be let go, fired. So, I spoke to the bishop and, because I was a Priest-in-Charge, I told him I thought since he placed me there, he had the authority to remove me in a pastoral way. And I asked him to do that. I could see families in the parish dividing, spouses dividing, parents and children dividing. And I could not do that to them because of the love that I have for that parish, and still have for them. So, I wished them the best and we dissolved the pastoral relationship. On February 26th there was another special vestry meeting where the Senior Warden read the letter that dissolved the pastoral relationship. At that point in the meeting, I excused myself and left the church for the last time. It was the longest forty-five-minute ride home to Little Rock of my life. My story was in the local television news from that Tuesday to Friday. The only thing that knocked me out of the news cycle was the forecast of a late winter storm. So, you will never hear me complain about the weather ever again.

With all of this happening, I had lost total track of liturgical time. And, after I was let go, a friend of mine at another Episcopal Church reached out to see if I could use a place to worship. I thanked her but the last thing I wanted to do, at that point in time, was to enter a church. It was just way too painful. But things progressed. And, as my daughter and spouse went to her church, I realized I really did need to reconnect with God. And so I got dressed that Sunday for church and left the house, for the first time, as Gwen. I got there and, like I said, I did not realize where we were in the liturgical calendar. I participated in the service and we got to the Gospel reading. And, lo and behold, the story was the Transfiguration. I just sat down and cried. Quietly cried. That was such a powerful moment.

From there, I thought it would be easy to find a job in the church. It wasn’t. Even though there are protections for gender identity and expression in the non-discrimination canons, it really doesn’t have any teeth at the parish level. There is still a huge amount of discrimination that exists there. And that’s because people don’t understand. They don’t have the education. Or haven’t met any trans person that they are aware of. So, I have applied for positions across the Episcopal Church and never really got anyone to move me further into a search process. I did receive a couple telephone interviews but it did not work out. I am still looking for a position in the church. It probably will not be a parochial position because of the times we live in and where the church is with regard to transgender folks, especially trans women. There are no trans women in the Episcopal Church with a full-time job. And there are plenty of trans women clergy out there. So, I continue to look. I’m discerning that maybe I’m being called to, perhaps, a diocesan position or something like that where I could be a canon for social justice or LGBTQ ministries. Or something along those lines. That brings me to being elected as the next President, actually first President, of the Episcopal Rainbow, which I am really excited about. That we are moving in a different direction focusing more on a grassroots movement. Having worked in Arkansas, and going through the legislature there, I know how important it is for people to be involved locally with the process. And I’ve also experienced that in the church as well. I want to be here to be a resource for those folks, to organize those folks, so that they don’t have as difficult a time as maybe they otherwise would. So, the Episcopal Rainbow will be focused on grassroots.

Q: Can you tell me about the process that led to the decision to change Integrity’s name to the Episcopal Rainbow?

A: Well, we did that in consultation with Louie Crew Clay. And, he fully supported that. We thought that perhaps it was time to change our branding. Change our image a little bit because we were moving forward with a very new way to be the organization. So, we did that. We talked about it. We thought that, in changing back to the grassroots movement, our new logo and name would be more appealing to a wider demographic of people in the Episcopal Church. That’s what we’re looking for. We want everyone to feel like we are there for them and support them.

Q: How do you imagine grassroots playing out? Will you use the chapters or other approaches?

A: The chapters are the primary way that we will be working. I also want to develop a network of folks in all the different diocese to be able to support and help them, whatever they might need. So, it’s a two-pronged approach actually.

Q: What do you envision the Episcopal Rainbow doing at future General Conventions? If you are trying to redirect some of your energy locally, what do you imagine still being at the center?

A: We will continue to be visible at future General Conventions. We absolutely feel the legislative process here in the Episcopal Church, changing policies and canons and things along those lines, is extremely important in working towards the full inclusion of all people. At this General Convention, there is the marriage rite that has been front and center and, as a matter of fact as you interview me, the compromise resolution B012 has just been passed in the House of Deputies. And also there are other resolutions that have received less publicity on a number of trans issues that have come to General Convention. Some have made it out of committee. Some have not but we are excited about the progress of the raised visibility of trans issues in the church. One of the things that is important for the Episcopal Rainbow movement going forward is seeing things from an intersectional perspective. I think that’s something that the wider church has missed or hasn’t focused on as much. And that is so important because there are so many minority voices out there. The church needs to hear more about that. Race. Gender. Language. Economic disparity. They are all at play in groups of people who are minorities and are discriminated against.

And one of the things that I think the church needs to hear is that acceptance varies widely across the church. Places that are not accepting really need our help to get to where the rest of the church is. We can’t lose those folks or leave them behind. We need to keep them in the mix because as MLK Jr reminded us; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Q: How do you envision Episcopal Rainbow and TransEpiscopal working together in the future?

A: I foresee us working more closely together. Resolution C054, if adopted in both houses, mentions Integrity and TransEpiscopal by name to work together with the Office of Formation to develop Guiding Principles for the inclusion of Transgender and Non-Binary (Enby) people in Dioceses, Parishes, missions, schools, and camps in the next triennium. And I find myself in a unique position as a member of the Steering Committee of TransEpiscopal while also being the President Elect of Integrity. And I would like to see us come together more and move forward together. Because we are stronger together than apart.

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