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Retired Cape transgender pastor: God told me, 'I've got you'

In her sixties, pastor Paula Degree came out as a transgender woman. Her church dismissed her. 'I am me,' she tells CAI.

At 66, a married father of three and church pastor in Connecticut had a revelation: He was meant to be a woman.

When she came out as transgender, Paula Degree was dismissed from her church, and kicked out of her house.

That was seven years ago. Degree has since retired to Dennis Port where, as a transgender advocate, she lives "alone, but not lonely."

Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary spoke to Degree about her faith, settling on Cape Cod, and the misconceptions people often have around gender identity.

Patrick Flanary: Paula, you were a married man in your sixties when you identified as a transgender woman. This occurred to you in a therapist's office. How did that moment come to be?

Paula Degree: It came to a point where I felt I was hemmed in by two walls closing in around me. And it took me a while to break those walls down. I had been thinking about the whole transgender thing but it just didn't make any sense to me. And finally, one day in the office, everything broke down and I was able to say "I am transgender."

PF: Who did you tell first? Did you tell your wife or children?

PD: Yes. My wife was the first one, and she pushed me away and said, "I'm not a lesbian, get out of the house." And I understand that. I fully do. It is so very difficult for so many people. It's especially a shame when it happens with young kids.

PF: You came out in your sixties. How young is too young to come out as transgender as a child?

PD: There is no youngest age. Kids know. They understand. And there's a misconception that, all of a sudden if a parent accepts that, there is some kind of a medical intervention. And that's just not true. The best route for parents is to get some counseling to understand what is going on, and there's a big test: Is the child consistent, insistent and persistent in their demands that they are another gender?

PF: Let's talk about some of those misconceptions. People will often ask: Are they trying to draw attention to themselves? Are they mentally ill? Are they confused?

PD: They say we're crazy, but every reputable psychiatric group in the country and around the world agrees we're sane. If we have mental problems, it's caused by lack of acceptance. Our suicide rate is something like 40%, and for children who are not supported it goes up to 60%. It's caused by people who will not accept us as who we really are.

PF: When your wife pushed you away, was there ever a time when you were able to have a meeting of the minds? Did you ever talk through it, and have you been able to have any sort of relationship since?

PD: I think it's at a point now where maybe we could. Things were so very intense at the time: We went through a divorce and had to split property, and that was very difficult. When we transition, everyone around us transitions. And it is not necessarily an easy thing. I can't even imagine what it would be like to have a spouse come up and say, "Oh, by the way, I'm not the gender you married."

When I came out I had so little idea of what was going on, other than I knew I was transgender. I could not explain it well. I've done an awful lot of introspection since then, and I have learned an awful lot about myself and about being transgender.

PF: Can we talk about who Peter was, and who Paula is?

PD: First of all, I won't use that other name. I forgive you for using it. I'd just as soon not use it. I don't deny that I was that person. But this is me, this is the real me. There is not a significant difference, other than the fact that I'm happier than I've ever been in my life because I know who I am. Do I really know what it is to be a man? Do I really know what it is to be a woman? How do you define that anyway? I am me.

PF: What's the best way to ask someone what pronouns to use? Because it feels a bit of an awkward question but it's a necessary one, isn't it?

PD: It is, and probably the best way to do it is, "Hello, I'm Paula. My pronouns are she/her." That's inviting the other person to give their pronouns. This is normalizing in a positive sense, making people feel comfortable.

PF: You're a retired teacher and reverend. When you began identifying as a transgender woman, that ended your relationship with the church in Connecticut. How did that test your faith?

PD: It didn't test my faith. Once I understood myself to be transgender I knew that I was not going to be accepted in that church. They handled it in a much meaner way than I had expected. At some point early on, I felt the presence of God. It's not like I sat down and had a conversation with God, that's not it at all. But I just had a sense that God was telling me, "Look, you're doing the right thing. I've got you." And that sense of God's presence was every bit as clear and forceful as it was in my initial call to ministry.

PF: And it's been seven years since you've come out?

PD: Yes.

PF: You moved to Dennis Port six years ago. Has the Cape been more welcoming than you expected it to be?

PD: I was concerned once I started living as myself. And when I first started going out in public, it was up here at the Cape. I remember going to the supermarket, and I thought it was amusing that while younger people just ignored me -- I was just like any other shopper -- with older people it was almost like parting the Red Sea. They would just kind of stand back as I went down the aisle. And I understand. It was like, "Who is this person?" I did find that people are very, very accepting here.

PF: What question do you get asked most?

PD: In the groups I associate with there are very few questions. And I actually wish there were questions because I know that when you get to know someone, it's very difficult to hate them.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.