Williams, Jonathan S. and Paula Stone Williams. “She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption”, William Knox, Westminster, 2018.
A Father’s Confession
Jonathan S. Williams was three months into pastoring a new, evangelical church when his father, Paul, confessed that he was transgender. His father was a prominent evangelical pastor who soon became Paula, and Jonathan’s life and ministry went into a tailspin. Jonathan felt betrayed by his mentor and confidante and scared that his church would lose funding and support if Paula’s secret was exposed. He sunk into depression and alcoholism.
“She’s My Dad” follows Jonathan’s long journey toward reconciliation, forgiveness, and acceptance of his father as well as his church’s journey to become one of the fully LGBTQ-inclusive, evangelical churches in America. Jonathan and Paula provide insight and encouragement for those with trans family members and show us how to empathize with the feelings of loss and trauma and understanding that even being LGBTQ-affirming doesn’t mean the transition of a family member will be easy. Jonathan writes “of his family’s continuing evolution, the meaning of remaining loyal to one’s father even when she is no longer a man, the ongoing theological evolution surrounding transgender rights and advocacy in the church, and the unflinching self-scrutiny of a pastor who lost his God only to find God again in his father’s transition.” Of course, the message here is love and acceptance.
Jonathan Williams shares the story of his father’s transition and discusses its impact on his own life. Both parent and son, before becoming ministers, were involved in a church building organization, a movement within Evangelical Christianity, and they had both based their entire lives around the church.
The story begins with the reader in the middle of issues with the description of Paula’s trip home to New York to come out to the family. This is a family full of pastors, all members deeply involved with their church. Paula, then Paul, recognizes this and describes his situation clinically, explaining that transgender identity is no longer recognized as a psychiatric disorder. Williams doesn’t tell us how the rest of his family responded, but he himself is shattered. He essentially goes through the different stages of grief as he struggles with losing his father.
“There’s no way to know how to react. We now live in a culture where those who identify as being transgender receive greater support, but behind this there is a family that does not understand.
Paula’s story is fascinating in that she is a member in and a leader of an ultraconservative community. But this is not Paula’s story; it is Jonathan’s.
Paula, of course, immediately loses her job when she comes out as transgender and Williams recognizes and realizes that he too would lose his job if he “came out” as the accepting son of a transgender woman, so, at first, hides this from his church. He struggles to reconcile his relationship with his parent and with his ultraconservative community. He begins to drink heavily. He tells a select few people in his life about his parent’s changing identity but is disappointed when they focus on his parent’s side by celebrating Paula’s courage and perseverance.
What Jonathan is saying to us is that other people are affected by a transition and that today’s narrative does not include having one’s father, brother, sister, mother, child, or spouse become a completely different person on a neurological level. .
Williams’ relationship with his parent is strained in the months after Paula initially came out to the family, but he works through his feelings and eventually the two regain their close and loving relationship. Williams has to make some difficult career choices and eventually leaves the church-building community to focus on a progressive church that is welcoming to the LGBT community.
Williams goes on to discuss his ideas about reconciling his Christian faith with the need to love and accept his parent. It is awful and very sad that the Evangelical world has no place for people like Paula. Williams points out that the Bible only has a few passages that could possibly be referencing homosexuality (and actually do not reference it at all). By leaving his old community and career, Williams shows great courage.
The final section of the book discusses, in depth, certain passages in the Bible. “Williams puts the Bible in its proper context of an ancient text that should be treated as a living document rather than literal truth. He points to the US Constitution as another example: we should not take the words of eighteenth century white men as absolute truth but use it as a guide. He outlines some interesting theories about what those Bible passages that seemingly condemn homosexuality actually mean, and points to some similar passages that had one meaning thousands of years ago and a completely different meaning today, such as the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story and passages condoning rape and slavery. This section of the book reads a bit like a Bible study, but Williams again demonstrates his strong sense of narrative structure by bringing us back to a final scene that mirrors a passage from earlier in the book, at a baseball game, where he concludes that he is at peace with his faith and that he and his parent have a wonderful relationship again.”
Anyone who has gone through the transition of someone they love should read this. In fact, everyone should read this.