Faith & Religion: LGBT Atlantans who won fights to remain in their denominations

Swenson said that her reason to stay with the church during her transition, despite backlash from some, was at first because she needed to have medical insurance to cover costs for her disabled daughter.

“When I transitioned I was a husband and father. And we have two daughters, the younger being severely disabled,” Swenson said. “I had no way of providing insurance without keeping my ordination — at the very beginning I was not able to let go. If I resigned I would lose our insurance and the possibility of being insured would be nil.”

She told her community the situation and a Presbyterian committee agreed to try to find a way to let her resign but also keep her insurance.

But after a newspaper article in 1995 splashed her story all over Georgia and across the nation, Swenson began receiving calls — some mean, but many supportive. And it was after hearing personal stories of hidden transgender people in the Presbyterian Church that she knew keeping her ordination was her calling.

While she admits that she sometimes had doubts about staying with a mainstream religion, Swenson said that the Presbyterian Church had been a safe place for her when she was growing up and struggling with her gender identity.

“The church was one place to go and feel safe,” she said.

Pastor Bradley Schmeling

When Lutheran minister Bradley Schmeling fell in love with Darin Easler, also a Lutheran minister, the two began a committed relationship. Easler moved to Atlanta in 2005 to be with Schmeling, and Schmeling’s congregation at St. John’s Lutheran Church welcomed the two with open arms.

But when Schmeling told his synod bishop about the relationship, a battle began within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on whether openly gay clergy in committed relationships could serve. In early 2007, Schmeling was put on a church trial and that summer he was removed from the clergy roster.

The trial made national headlines and was another example of the debates taking place within numerous churches and denominations about how LGBT people fit into a church’s overall mission.

Schmeling said he felt at many times he wanted to leave the Lutheran Church and perhaps go to a more LGBT affirming religion. But after a protest at the churchwide offices in Chicago, when he saw people inside the building showing their support for him, he knew it was more than “us versus them.”

“We talk about the church as a monolithic block, but it is diverse with lots of different opinions,” he said. “That helped frame things for me. I knew I wasn’t alone in my work to change things.”

Another important factor in Schmeling’s decision to stay with the Lutheran Church is the overwhelming support he got from his congregation. While he was removed from the clergy roster, the congregation wanted him to remain as their pastor. And he did.

In 2010, the denomination voted to allow gay clergy in committed relationships to remain in the church. Schmeling was officially put back on the rolls.

“The Lutheran Church as a whole is not a moralistic tradition. The church’s primary focus is the unconditional love of God. When a church starts there, it’s easier to be in disagreement,” he said.


Top photo: Presbyterian Rev. Erin Swenson (left) made national news as the first known mainstream Protestant minister to keep her job during a gender transition. Pastor Bradley Schmeling (right) was the public face of the fight to allow gay clergy in committed relationships to serve in the Lutheran Church.