In sixth grade, Erin Swenson was home alone and placed tissue under a shirt to simulate the feeling of having breasts. “A feeling washed over me, it was a blend of awe, desire, fear, and then shame. Something clicked, and it would follow me every day for decades,” she says in the first episode of her podcast, So Much More than Gender. Launched in August, Swenson tells the story of growing up transgender in the 1950s, becoming a Presbyterian minister and therapist, and fighting to keep her ordainment when she transitioned in the 1990s. Now, Swenson is retired from the ministry, but still practices once a week as a marriage and family therapist. We spoke to Swenson about the podcast, her journey, and ways for LGBTQ+ people to cope in this volatile political environment.
What made you want to tell your story on a podcast?
While going through my transition 25 years ago, I spent a few years unemployed on and off, so I thought I’d employ myself and write a book. Later, I rewrote the book, but I’ve never been able to really publish it. Someone in my writer’s group suggested I start a podcast. I thought that sounded easier because I love public speaking.
How have you adapted to going from preaching to podcasting?
My preaching style has always been intimate. When I gave sermons across the country or as an interim pastor, they were almost always built out of my own personal experience. I preached mostly about struggle and trying to understand what life is about and what the gospel really means. It wasn’t really fundamentalist. The podcast fits into that genre a little bit better.
Who would you say the podcast is for?
I really would like to reach people who have some curiosity about transgender experience but don’t have access to it. The podcast can provide an avenue for them to become a little more acquainted to what it’s actually like to be transgender. For transgender people, our lives are often full of obsession over gender. When we find the courage or strength to transition, gender shrinks back to its proper place and isn’t an overwhelming thing anymore. It becomes simply an aspect of life and not a daily obsession.
Has the podcast made you reflect on your life in new ways?
I’m beginning to understand things I struggled with that I wasn’t so aware of at the time. One of the things has been the idea of who God is. For me, God has moved a long way from being a benevolent benefactor of the universe to being more personal and woven into dynamics of human relationships so that God is more like love than anything else.
As a child, I saw myself as transgender kid struggling with how other people could love me as I really am. So I maintained my gender as a secret throughout all of my childhood and adolescence and into my adulthood. My ex-wife, Sigrid, became privy to it years into our marriage, and it wasn’t anything I talked to her about until late into the process. One of the things I discovered throughout transition is I could trust people to love me. People loved me because I was smart or I was accomplished: I earned four degrees, I built a sailboat, I learned to fly, and I did some work in the legislature. [But] they really were not accomplishments; they were compensations. The real thing I’ve managed to accomplish is to understand what it is to love and be loved, and that’s been worth every bit of the pain.
Many LGBTQ+ people can find the church alienating. What solace did you find in the Presbyterian Church?
The church was always my place, and I’ve never lost that feeling even when there were lots of people in the church who wanted me gone. I’ve always known people in the Christian church in my corner of the religious world are absolutely wrong when they talk about excluding LGBTQ+ people from fellowship.
I was luckier than my colleagues who are gay and lesbian in that the church didn’t have anything to say about being transgender. I could kind of ignore what I thought the church might be thinking about that. My ministry for the past 40 years has been a counseling ministry. Before I transitioned, I was working really hard with people to come to acceptance and to live more authentically while I knew I was doing anything but.
Was there a moment that made you realize you had to transition?
I had done a lot of things to try to cope with myself with busyness and accomplishments. But my depression was getting worse and worse as I got older. Sigrid told me she would be leaving me as soon as kids were out of the house. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me or had anyone else, but it was that my depression was killing her soul. When you have someone tell you that, it’s so heart-rending. That was the frame of what was about to happen.
One morning, Sigrid came into the bathroom while I was getting our younger daughter ready for school and mentioned she had to stop taking the estrogen pills her doctor put her on for menopause and was going to leave them in the medicine cabinet. I couldn’t help but look, and I knew they were the pills that transgender people use to transition, so I started stealing those pills one at a time. Almost immediately my depression lifted. I started cooking up a scheme to forge prescriptions to get hormones for myself. Then I woke up one morning and realized I was about to commit a felony. My license to practice counseling would’ve been suspended so my livelihood would’ve been taken away immediately. I realized I had been lying my whole life. I was just fed up. That was the day I started doing all kinds of things differently. I called a doctor in Baltimore who I knew was a worldwide expert in transgender people and started seeing a therapist. In my entire life, I had never planned to transition, but after a month, I knew I needed to. Had I known how hard it would be, I probably would not have done it. But if I had known how hard it would be and not done it, it would’ve been the worst mistake of my life.
When you transitioned, what made you want to stay ordained?
I had been ordained for well over 20 years, and my call didn’t really require me being ordained to feel like I was part of the church’s work in the world. The problem was my health insurance was tied to ordination and under my previous name. As a self-employed counselor with a severely disabled child whose medical expenses were typically hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, to lose [my insurance] would be an economic disaster. My committee tried to change my name with the presbytery and, of course, conservative members wanted nothing to do with it and said it needed further review. My committee finally came to me and asked if I would be okay if they could find a way to insure me and my daughter for the rest of our lives without my ordination.
At the same time, I met this transgender woman who called me up right after the first newspaper story about this. We had a wonderful breakfast together, and she told me about her life and getting involved in a Presbyterian church right next to her retirement community. I had never met another transgender Presbyterian at that point. She said, “I didn’t think God wanted me to join the church because of who I am, because of what I am. That’s why when I saw a newspaper article about a Presbyterian minister who was like me, I just had to meet you.” It was an experience filled with grace. There I was witnessing with her that church was in fact a place for her, and there she was witnessing I did have a call to move on with my ministry. So I called up the committee and said I had to stay ordained. It was a big risk. The vote was close. If seven people had voted differently, I would’ve lost my ordination.
As a therapist, how do you recommend LGBTQ+ people cope during this politically volatile time?
In my opinion, people are coping really well. Folks are finding new hobbies, like podcasting for me. Also being of service helps. We have a lot of people who come to Atlanta from other parts of country because they believe it’s some kind of oasis for transgender people to be in. While you love being considered a friendly place for your community, that also puts a lot of strain on it. I have several clients who struggle even in good times to survive because food and shelter are an almost daily fear, so pandemic makes it doubly hard for them. A lot of help is needed, and getting involved in programs like that is one way of coping. I’ve helped raise some money for the Trans Housing Atlanta Program.