Twenty people gathered on Wednesday in Rothenberg Hillel House to hear Evan Fischer speak about his experiences as a transgender clergy member. Fischer is rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Wooster, Ohio, and the first Episcopal priest to successfully transition while maintaining his role in the church.
“No one else has done it before, I think, in the entire Anglican communion,” Fischer said. Since he didn’t know of anyone else who transitioned while still in a congregation, Fischer said “there was no roadmap on how to do it.”
Two years ago, when he began his transition, Fischer had been serving his congregation for 18 years. By coming out, he risked being ostracized from the community where he felt most at home. “I don’t know if I’ve been that scared,” he said. “These are the people I’ve cared for and loved for 18 years at this point.”
Fischer said that he met privately with members of the congregation to disclose the news about his transition before church on Sunday. “The other hard part was on Sunday waiting to see who would show up again,” he said. “That was terrifying, not to know if anybody was going to show up at church.”
When students asked if he received pushback from his community after coming out, Fischer said that people outside of the church were generally supportive. “The only people I had trouble with were members of the congregation,” he said. Fischer said that the parishioners who were offended felt his transition was a personal slight.
“They felt betrayed, that I had somehow lied to them, that I wasn’t who I said I was,” Fischer said. “Some people really grieved.”
A student asked about how the church’s reaction affected his emotional well-being. Fischer said that while “not that many people left” as a result of his transition, the negative reactions hurt a lot at first.
“The first year and a half was very painful,” he said. “The parish had a lot of meetings without me. Every slight anyone had ever felt, any injury I had ever done to anybody, anything that I had done to them that had hurt them, they brought up and basically ripped me to shreds.”
Fischer said that despite other people’s discomfort, he has not backed away from his former duties.
“I have not shied away from going about doing my business in the community and in the diocese, and I’ve found an enormous amount of support in the diocese and in the national church.”
Fischer said his spiritual transformation as a result of coming out was a matter of coming to terms with public opinion, rather than private discomfort. “I think the reconciling for me is in the church, not with God,” he said. “I’m more at peace with myself, so I’m more at peace with my God.”
The event was sponsored by Canterbury, Hillel and the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life.
Marc Bragin, Jewish chaplain and director of Hillel, said that he was touched by Fischer’s story and hoped it would inspire more people to be comfortable with who they are.
“I feel really honored that Evan came to share his story with us. It was evident that he has discovered who he is and is comfortable with who he is. I can only wish that on everyone. … It was beautiful, and I really feel like it was a spiritually uplifting thing to do. And so I was happy to be a part of it.”
Fischer said that he wanted to help people understand that you can maintain identity as both a Christian and as transgender; these identities are not mutually exclusive.
“I want to be a witness to the church that you can be a parish priest and transgender and a faithful Christian,” he said.