Trans minister headlines Unity Banquet
by Neil Ellis Orts
The Reverend Megan Rohrer is the first openly trans pastor to serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Rohrer has been serving in San Francisco for a decade, first as a social worker and then as a pastor and executive director for The Welcome Ministry, a service to the homeless. Along the way Rohrer has developed programs, especially for homeless LGBTQ youth, and has also been the recipient of many honors, including an honorary doctorate from Palo Alto University.
Rohrer is one of the speakers at this year’s Transgender Unity Banquet (Saturday, April 28, at the Brookhollow Sheraton, 3000 North Loop West) and will also work with Montrose Grace Place, a local ministry to homeless youth.
Neil Ellis Orts: You’ve been invited to speak at the 20th annual Transgender Unity Banquet. What can those attending expect from you?
Megan Rohrer: There’s not a theme. However, the kind folk at Grace Lutheran Church and Montrose Grace Place are helping to get me there because I’m working on an LGBTQ homeless youth leadership project, which is interviewing queer youth who are in the shelter system around the country. I’ve traveled to lots of different cities to record stories of those youth, and while I’m in Houston I’ll be able to do that with the folk at Grace Lutheran. So I imagine I’ll be doing some speaking about the stories I’ve heard from the homeless youth.
Tell us a little about that project—how it got started and what it hopes to accomplish.
I’ve been doing work with the chronically homeless in San Francisco for the last 10 years. The Polk Street area in San Francisco, where I work, had historically been the gay district before the Castro became popularized by Harvey Milk. When the gay community in San Francisco moved to the Castro, the lower-income queers remained in the Polk Street area and many of them were sex workers. They kind of had an economy of sex work in that neighborhood. Then the AIDS crisis came along and kind of decimated that economy. So a lot of the older homeless folk in San Francisco that I work with are the remnants of this earlier gay community that used be a little more highly functioning.
As I worked with these older, chronically homeless, mostly gay men, I started working with the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco and a gentleman named Joey Plaster. He was starting to uncover some of this history in a Polk Street project that he did. We worked together to research a group of pastors from the early ’60s who had been sent to San Francisco after the National Council of Churches did a survey of then-adolescent Baby Boomers and what they were up to, so churches could respond to their needs. They did their survey by picking up hitchhikers across the country, and the youth they picked up all said they wanted to go to San Francisco. So the Council sent pastors from each of the denominations to San Francisco—perhaps one of the only times that churches have been ahead of the culture. They arrived in 1963, which was before the summer of love, so the hippie kids hadn’t arrived yet.
What they found in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where they stationed themselves, were these queer homeless youth, many of them trans, and most of them hustlers of some sort. So out of this movement, the pastors mobilized and were able to get federal funds by arguing for the first time that a [low-income group] could get federal poverty dollars for reasons other than skin color.
So Joey Plaster and I used the materials that were in the Historical Society and the writings that the queer hustlers from the ’60s had written about what their lives were like, and we shared them with the LGBT homeless youth who live in the Tenderloin today. They wrote responses, and we were able to get some grant funds to share the work from the ’60s and the work that we’re doing today in a few select cities around the country. Through our work using the history of those queer youth from the ’60s with queer youth today, we’ve found ways to encourage youth across the country to become more involved politically and share their stories. My hope is that collecting the stories around the country will make it possible to have a conference in DC in 2013 where some youth from places where I’ve traveled can come together, create their own agenda of what they’d like the LGBT community to advocate on their behalf, and to actually go and talk to their congress people. That’s the progression of how the project has unfolded.
That history with the National Council of Churches is new to me.
Most people haven’t heard it because there’s this movement in contemporary churches to pretend that there’s never been a history of pastors being supportive of the gay and lesbian community. I don’t know if that’s just people who are trying to whitewash religious history, or if it’s also a sense of people wanting to feel excited that they’re doing something new.
To switch gears a bit, I saw that you grew up in South Dakota. What’s the narrative thread that connects that South Dakota childhood to your street ministry in San Francisco?
I think there are a couple of threads that come out of that. One is that almost all the homeless people I work with in San Francisco are from the Midwest or from the South. They’re individuals who are either kicked out of their families or believed their communities wouldn’t support them, so they didn’t even bother coming out because they thought it would go horribly. So even though my family had better resources for supporting and loving me, a part of my work with the homeless is out of gratitude that I had a more receptive family than other people have.
Another part is that when I was five, my parents divorced because my father’s alcoholism became so violent and difficult to manage. There was a period of time when we lived with my aunt. We could have been considered homeless if we would have chosen to identify that way. I have memories of standing in the food line and getting our WIC block of cheese. And as part of a latchkey generation, when my mom was working, I loved hanging out in the library. But it wasn’t until years later that I learned that other people who are hanging out in the library are often homeless people who have no other place to go. So while my narrative isn’t the most extreme version of how people end up homeless, it touches upon some of the same pieces. I think that when you grow up as a small kid waiting in the food lines, it’s easier to see yourself serving in the food line. It doesn’t feel like such a foreign thing. A lot of things that could have been negative baggage become healthy baggage when I work with the homeless as a pastor. All the things I had to learn as a kid having an alcoholic father make me really good working with people with a lot of addiction issues. Thank goodness I’ve been able to do a lot of self-care work and a lot of healing from some of that childhood stuff. I think there’s a kind of intuition that children of alcoholic parents have to know about when things are safe, or ways to finesse a situation so it doesn’t become violent.
Where does your resolve come from to do this work?
My college in South Dakota was really homophobic. I had to move off campus for three months because I was getting death threats and football players were threatening to rape me and religious folk were trying to throw holy water on me to exorcize gay demons. I didn’t see myself as an optimist, but I’ve always been the kind of person who, in the midst of those dark moments, had something like a mystical sense of God being with me. No matter how many people told me that what I was doing was wrong, or that I needed to choose a different path, I always had this deep sense that nothing I could do could separate me from God’s love. And I think that’s the same kind of resolve I have in working with the homeless. I have this deep belief that in the midst of what might be someone’s worst moment, God is with them and for them. When people have said there will always be queer homeless youth because there will always be a family somewhere that’s not safe, I’ve never felt that could possibly be true. I have this sense that if people just knew the stories—in the same way coming out helped advance rights for queer adults—it could make life better, and that we could be part of change.
For more information on the Unity Banquet, visit htuc.org.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.