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New Episcopal Chaplain a Role Model

Cameron Partridge, first openly transgendered chaplain

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Cameron Partridge, Episcopal Chaplain, Boston University

The Rev. Cameron Partridge says his Episcopal Church is evolving its acceptance of transgendered people. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Over the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, BU Today looks back at some of our favorite stories from the academic year. Each week we’ll present stories about a special topic, from student clubs and sports to research and technology. This week we feature the best of religion.

You probably aren’t aware that November 20 is the national Transgender Day of Remembrance. Cameron Partridge is. The observance began after the 1998 murder of a transgendered Boston woman. November 20 also happens to be Partridge’s birthday (he turned 38 in 2011), and BU’s new Episcopal minister, the University’s first openly transgendered chaplain, once shuddered at a birthday that reminded him both about his own mortality “and that you could be killed.”

Then a church he served hosted commemoration services that pulled in hundreds each year. “I started to feel like, you know what? I need to go. This is really important,” Partridge says. “There’s still part of me that’s like, ugh, but honestly, I really find that it’s such a powerful experience of community. And that’s a really wonderful thing to have on your birthday.”

As he takes over the University’s part-time Episcopalian chaplaincy, Partridge, who lives outside Boston with his wife and their toddler son, says he wants to minister with the empathy that has sometimes been denied him since he completed his transition to a man in 2001. His father, for example, no longer speaks to him. “It’s not my choice,” he says. (Most family and friends accepted him after long conversations.)

As for students, including any who might be uncomfortable with a male chaplain who graduated from Bryn Mawr as a woman, Partridge says, “I wouldn’t want someone to feel like they weren’t allowed to hold a different theological position” from his own. “There’s not a thought police here.” Sure, it would hurt for a student to reject him as spiritual guide because of who he is, he says, but “I’m not the only chaplain in the University, and I would be fine helping to connect them with someone they feel comfortable with.”

In clerical black and collar, there is no physical hint that the bearded and bespectacled chaplain was once female. While open about his gender change, Partridge doesn’t want it to define his totality as a person. In fact, during the regular dinners with Episcopal and Lutheran students that he recently inaugurated, it hasn’t come up at all. “Frankly, I don’t think the students would care,” says the Rev. Cindy Jacobsen, BU’s Lutheran chaplain.

Partridge says he would understand if some did. “Being trans is more unknown to people than being gay, for instance. There’s plenty of gay clergy.” By contrast, he’s one of only two openly transgendered Episcopal priests in Massachusetts, and nationally, he says, “I know most of them, and there are maybe five to seven or so.”

“My hope is that people just sort of respond to one another and to me as just human beings.”

Sean Glenn (STH’13) first encountered Partridge at evening prayer early in the fall semester and found him “one of the most welcoming and friendly individuals I have ever met.” The chaplain’s openness about his backstory “is so important because the community needs role models like him.” Personally, that’s vitally important to Glenn, a gay man who says colleagues often ask how he can reconcile his sexuality and his Christianity. BU’s chaplains, including Partridge, “have done great work to make people like me feel comfortable, welcome, and dignified.”

Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill says Partridge “brings intelligence and compassion” to his job, citing the joint ministry with Lutherans. The weekly dinners together are coupled with joint Sunday worship. “These are two relatively small but historic groups that are starting to partner,” says Hill. “Getting kids to sit and eat and talk together is important.”

Partridge also brings scholarship to his ministry: when he’s not shepherding his tiny BU flock—15 to 25 students regularly attend services and the dinners, he says—he lectures at Harvard Divinity School, specializing in gender and sexuality ideas in early Christianity and theology. Glenn says Partridge introduced him to “queer readings of scripture,” which interpret biblical passages according to gay believers’ experience.

There’s an old joke that Episcopalianism is the Republican Party at worship. A quarter of American presidents have been at least nominally Episcopalian—not just Republicans like the first President Bush, but some Democrats, including Franklin Roosevelt. Partridge concedes that this historically upper-crust church has “been wrestling with how to codify its growing acceptance” of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) people, but the operative concept there is “growing acceptance.” A key point, he says, was the church’s 2009 General Convention decision to ordain gay bishops.

“It feels like, in the Episcopal Church, there’s more a sense of resolve to just be who we are…a sense of all people being welcome and able to become the people God created them to become,” the new chaplain says. Indeed, academia can be as intolerant as church: Partridge has said that as an undergraduate at then wary-of-religion Bryn Mawr, “deciding to become a priest was like coming out.”

Pondering a gender change began with his doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School in the ’90s. “I was out as gay at that point,” he recalls. The run-up to his change was not the turmoil-filled time you might expect. “I’m not a huge fan of the trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative” of some other transgendered people, Partridge says. “I know it’s true and real for some folks, but I never felt like God made a mistake. I’ve not had a problem with God about this, I really haven’t. I just had a sense of this growing—discomfort, disjunction.” With the change, “I felt like I was able to kind of reclaim the body that God had given me.”

Seeking a unisex name, he was stumped until he went for take-out sushi one day when he was still a woman and the clerk misheard the name, asking, “Cameron?” Partridge looked the name up and learned it meant “crooked,” just the name, he thought, for someone who believes gender is not linear.

As for his agenda as chaplain, he’s exploring ways to involve students in environmental justice, an interest that has come up in conversations with them. He’s also interested in economic issues and attended an ecumenical Eucharist with two students at the Occupy Boston protest. “It was really a beautiful thing to go down there and experience all these different folks from different traditions within Christianity, experience what we term the intersection of the church and the world,” he says. It’s more than a theological issue for both chaplain and students: “I have real concerns about the economy and how we got here, and my students do, too, because they’re thinking, what’s going to be waiting for me” after graduation.

College, he says, remains “an amazing time to explore one’s faith, one’s tradition, to explore how their intellectual life and their sense of vocation connect with their broader sense of who they are.”

This story was originally published on November 18, 2011

19 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

19 Comments on New Episcopal Chaplain a Role Model

  • Debbie Lowe on 11.18.2011 at 9:59 am

    I was a member of Cameron’s congregation at the Church of St. Luke and St. Margaret – and I had no clue that he was transgender until he told me. Cameron’s a lot of fun and great to work with. So no one needs to feel uncomfortable at all.

    Debbie Lowe

  • Robin B. on 11.18.2011 at 11:17 am

    Great story. Welcome to BU, Cameron.

  • Nathan on 11.18.2011 at 12:51 pm

    RE: ‘academia can be as intolerant as church: Partridge has said that as an undergraduate at then hostile-to-religion Bryn Mawr, “deciding to become a priest was like coming out.” ‘

    Gay may not be a choice – but practicing a religion IS a choice.

    I have no problem with academia treating religions with the suspicions and hostility they have earned over the centuries.

  • Sarah on 11.18.2011 at 9:32 pm

    Cameron is one of the most intelligent intellectuals and best priests I have ever met. I wish our class rooms were full of profs like him like and our churches were full of ministers like him.

  • joan on 11.19.2011 at 12:14 am

    Do you have copies of your lectures?id love to learn about the”queer readings of scripture”.

  • JCF on 11.19.2011 at 12:22 am

    “I have no problem with academia treating religions with the suspicions and hostility they have earned over the centuries”

    Because all religions—all belief-systems—are the same, Nathan?

    How did religion earn suspicion and hostility? Via their treatment of other belief-systems.

    You can’t escape having a belief-system. You have to pick and choose (wisely, one hopes!)

    God bless Fr Cameron in his ministry.

    • Nathan on 11.21.2011 at 9:33 am

      I misquoted “wary-of-religion” as “hostile-to-Religion” – for that I apologize.

      To define religion as a belief-system may be enough to the extent that religion is personal. Socially, the definition is too narrow. Socially, religion is political organization. Historically, it has been both an early form of group government and an alternative form of government.

      A personal religious belief-system is not the source of religious tension at universities. A personal belief in something with no ‘provable’ value to someone with a differing belief-system is widely accepted. Many people see no value in specific sports or forms of art, but they accept them as a matter of personal taste. Personal religious beliefs fall into that category of a belief-system.

      Organized religious beliefs and religious hierarchies have served as the government or alternative government through history.

      Organized religions have ‘earned’ suspicion through their treatemnt of other religions (Mugols of India, Crusaders of the Holy Lands.)

      They have also ‘earned’ suspicion throuh treatment of non-religious institutions, such as universities, democratic governments and dictatorships.

      I don’t accept that a person must have a belief-system. You may be correct, but it depends on a mutually agreed definition of the term that we may not share. And belief is a tricky word. A person may believe something that is provable true, provably false, sometimes true, sometimes false, or factually unprovable. To equate all belief-systems under a single term is to imply that all beliefs fall into the same categories of factuality. That isn’t true.

      Personally, I don’t think human scale physics are part of a belief-system. Your definition of belief-system may or may not include physical reality. Without a good definition of what falls OUTSIDE a belief-system, I don’t think we can discuss whether a belief-system is neccesary.

  • Casey on 11.19.2011 at 1:41 pm

    Nathan – for those of us who believe there is a God, having faith is very much like acknowledging that there is a sun in the sky. Calling that a choice is rather strange at that point. At the same time, I absolutely recognize your point about it being important to be able to criticize beliefs and religious practices. I just wish that people would be a bit fairer about it, and recognize that such criticism should be able to flow in all directions.

    • Nathan on 11.21.2011 at 9:39 am

      Casey – I believe in God. For me it is NOTHING like acknowledging there is a sun in the sky.

      I don’t equate ‘having faith’ with having ‘observed proof’

  • santina on 11.20.2011 at 4:09 pm

    iv known cam forever! from his sposering church of christ church somerville. and he is indeed one of the most amazing, funny, loving people that I know.

  • J. M. on 11.21.2011 at 6:06 am

    ““I’m not a huge fan of the trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative” of some other transgendered people, Partridge says. “I know it’s true and real for some folks, but I never felt like God made a mistake. I’ve not had a problem with God about this, I really haven’t. I just had a sense of this growing—discomfort, disjunction.” With the change, “I felt like I was able to kind of reclaim the body that God had given me.””

    I’d suggest, Cameron, that in trying to show respect for the narratives of other trans people, you consider seriously that you are being held up as both a successful and passable (which word is not used here thankfully, but unfortunately explicit statements of the same are used) trans person, and as such as both a role model and authority. In turn, when you invoke God to define your differences with other trans people, you are speaking as an authority and invoking an even greater one. This has the impact of casting aspersions upon the authenticity of the narratives of other trans people.

    The reality is, of course, that that narrative may not be one that you’ve had in your life because it was not forced on you. Many a trans woman had to go through the process of bringing their own beliefs into conformity with medical doctrine in order to receive the grace of a therapist that they might transition. It’s falling away, but not entirely. It might be better to speak about yourself and not others. If you do speak against this narrative, make it about the coercivity of it, and not about God’s fallibility. The only right answer in my mind is that you have and always have had a man’s body — it’s your body isn’t it, and you’re a man, so how else would it be? That’s closer to what seems to be emerging as the native trans experience, but the oppressive and coercively-imposed narrative still survives, and perhaps for some people it’s even true. But whether it’s true for them has little to do with whether God made a mistake. God gives us each our own individual identities, minds and lives. With that comes differences in narrative, in conceptualization, etc., that vary not just between people but over time within a single person.

    To the writer of this article, there is no concrete and singular thing which makes one “physically female” or otherwise. Discrete, dichotomous biological sex is a fiction that mostly exists among non-biologists, non-anatomists, who seek to use the authority of medicine to codify their hard-and-fast subjective experience of reality as natural law. It’s nonsense. Also, “gender change” seems a bit strange (and archaic) and out-of-step with many trans narratives, and unfortunately does not clearly come from Cameron’s own words, so it is hard to tell whether you have imposed that terminology or if Cameron did. Does Cameron feel that his gender at some point changed, or merely that his discernment of it led him to a clearer understanding of it than he once had? Certainly everything he is quoted as saying seems to point to the latter, and not to the quasi-euphemism that is “gender change”.

  • Jesus wept on 12.04.2011 at 8:54 am

    History is replete with examples where the whisper of conscience is collectively ignored by a people and great wrong is committed.

    The poor confused “priest” and the commentators have so long moved in a liberal sphere. After years of this, one says, “Sure, cutting off genitalia and giving exogenous hormones to ‘correct gender dysphoria disorder’ is perfectly natural.” It isn’t. Nor should it have any place in modern evidence based medicine except perhaps in a highly controlled research setting. Even then, ethical concerns scream out.

    The Episcopal organization is becoming a magnet for the gender confused. We then have obfuscation wrapped up with pseudo-religious “Episco-babble” resulting in a noisome brew which has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus.

    • Jayne L. on 06.11.2012 at 2:35 am

      To “Jesus wept.” –How about signing your name? It’s easy to say what you said under a cloak of anonymity. And a review of the gospels wouldn’t hurt.

      The “greatest wrong” I see here is in your unkind, judgmental response.

  • Mark Andrews on 12.04.2011 at 10:59 am

    “Discrete, dichotomous biological sex is a fiction that mostly exists among non-biologists, non-anatomists, who seek to use the authority of medicine to codify their hard-and-fast subjective experience of reality as natural law. It’s nonsense.” No, its this statement that is nonsense.

    If “Discrete, dichotomous biological sex is a fiction,” why does it occur in nature with such annoying regularity & frequency, while intersexuality, though observable – measurable – repeatable – and verifiable – occurs so rarely?

    Intersexuality is simply the naturally occurring failure of biological dichotomy. If someone chooses, in writing the narrative of their life through living it, to accept ambiguity or dichotomy, so be it, but for heaven’s sake don’t call it “fiction,” as if restructuring one’s body to match one’s psyche were no more than taking a pencil eraser to paper. Its more complicated, expensive & perilous than that. Subjecting the somatic to social construction is deeply unsettling because there can be no end to it. Rather like dissecting a frog, wouldn’t you say?

  • J. M. on 12.04.2011 at 8:32 pm

    Mark,

    Please provide exact keying for this dichotomy as it is applied to everyone. Please ensure that only transsexuals and medically-diagnosed intersex people fall outside of it. Please use consistent criteria without resorting to self-identification. Handle the case of a person who reaches maturity without being diagnosed as being intersex by a physician, but discovers that their gender identity and the gender they were raised with and assigned at birth differ differ to the ones typically associated with their karyotype or development of their internal sex organs.

    Is there a single determining factor? Is it karyotype? Hormones? External genitalia at birth? External genitalia at maturity? If it’s a plurality of factors, then why only those factors and why not others? It’s a selective fiction that requires either an ignorance of or a willingness to selectively-interpret biological factors typically associated with sex.

    I don’t know what you’re referring to with “social construction” — my complaint is precisely that the notion of “biological sex” is socially-constructed to favor a model which matches the majority experience, but which requires setting aside ambiguities and contradictions in real biological understanding as being secondary to that social construct. Everyone is a male or a female unambiguously even if sexual development varies, and people do not half so often know their karyotype as they claim to by virtue of knowing the sex that they were assigned at birth. A biologist and any half-competent physician knows the difference between a karyotype and the sex that was assigned at birth by a physician examining external genitalia.

    • Mark Andrews on 12.05.2011 at 9:06 am

      J.M. – Please explain how sexual reassignment is something other than self-commoditzation & self-colonization.

  • Karen on 12.06.2011 at 8:53 am

    And so abandonment of Christian faith in the name of “Christian faith” continues in a denomination, that accepts within its ranks also bishops who publically abandon faith in Jesus Christ’s literal bodily resurrection from the dead.

    Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; *male and female* He created them.”

  • George Born on 07.06.2012 at 8:38 am

    For me, believing that we were all created in the image of God means we must respect the dignity of all people and love one another.

  • Kai Rinchen on 06.07.2014 at 3:22 pm

    This is a great article in general, but there’s something I want to point out that bothers me. The author wrote,

    “In clerical black and collar, there is no physical hint that the bearded and bespectacled chaplain was once female.”

    While I’m sure the author meant no harm and probably even thought he was saying something complimentary, it is just this kind of comment and attitude toward physical appearance that reinforces the ridiculous gender policing that insists that transgender people are only acceptable if they conform to a certain appearance. If people really paid attention to how everyone looks, you might see that there is a lot of variation that cannot be classified as strictly male or female, but is simply “human.”

    Besides that, it really doesn’t matter what Rev. Partridge looks like, does it? Would he be less effective if he looked less “masculine”?

    Ask yourselves, upon what is your acceptance of a transgender person predicated and why is that your criteria?

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