Jonathan, first and foremost, I want you to know how much I appreciate you agreeing to participate in this interview. Thank you for being open to sharing your heart, and your time with me today.
Jonathan: Thanks so much for your willingness to do the interview! I appreciate your time.
Donna: It’s my pleasure, Jonathan. Before we delve into your book, She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption that was published this past November, what do you say we talk about the elephant in the room? You and I have already had this discussion, but for the benefit of our readers that may not know “Queer” is a word that the community chose for themselves, I want clarify this for all who has read, or will read your book. I was confused by the usage of the word to identify gay people. I have never liked titles or stereotyping anyone. You probably weren’t expecting the message I sent to you, but you were gracious in responding. The following is the gist of my message and your response to me.
Donna: “Jonathan, I have to ask you about the choice of your terminology used in your book, She’s My Dad. The specific wording is “Queer.” Each time you used the word, I thought how odd for the lead pastor of a diverse church to use such a derogatory word, and you used it over and over again. And then I bombarded you with a sampling of the use of “Queer” in your book:
“A handful of queer church members…”
“Every single day I encounter someone who is queer.”
“So many in the queer community are presently marginalized, hurt, and even dying for attempts to live out the truth of how they are perfectly created in the image of God.”
“…with regard to queer theology…”
“Christians have been failing the queer community for generations.”
“With a couple other queer friends, we decided to do a little gathering to welcome in some other queer Christians.”
“Queer identifiers at my church talked about meeting Paula at the Conference of the Gay Christian Network.”
I want to understand why you chose the use of “Queer.” The heart loves who the heart loves, regardless of gender. You may have a very good reason for using “Queer” in your book, and I truly want to understand. Would you please reconcile this for me, Jonathan?”
Jonathan: “In terms of the usage of the word, “Queer” I actually spent a ton of time working to pick the right word! There are a few people I mention in the book who all identify as LGBTQIA. There are many in our church who identify in the same way. I asked very specifically about the language I should use around LGBTQIA identifying groups and people. Almost unanimously, I was asked to use the word queer. A couple of leaders in our church even started a group for LGBTQIA identifying Christians, and they named the group, “Queer Communion.” I’m including an article that wasn’t around when I was writing but talks about the reclaiming of the word. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php. This was an intentional attempt to do what is “right” or acceptable for all LGBTQIA identifying people. Thanks for bringing it up. I appreciate it.”
Note to Readers: I may be wrong, but I got the feeling, after reading the article from the Columbia Journalism Review that the self-proclaimed term “Queer” is more of a geographical aligning. If you have anything to add regarding this being the new self identifying word, please leave a comment below. I encourage everyone who read, or reads Jonathan’s book and finds themselves feeling offended by the term queer to read the article provided by Jonathan, which does an excellent job of putting the use of queer into perspective.
Donna: Jonathan, I have a follow-up question to your response. You indicated that, “A couple of leaders in our church even started a group for LGBTQIA identifying Christians, and they named the group, “Queer Communion.” Does this mean that queer Christians take their communion separate from the rest of your congregation?
Jonathan: No, not at all. Everyone is invited to the communion table regardless of identity, gender, orientation, or any other reason. No one is turned away from the communion table. The name Queer Communion comes from the literal meaning of the word, “Communion.” It means, “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”
Donna: Thank you for reconciling this issue for me, Jonathan. I visited Forefront’s website and was reading about your church when I came across, “We are a progressive Christian community striving to cultivate a just & generous expression of Jesus Christ in New York City. We’re more interested in asking good questions than having all the right answers.” I read and reread this sentence over many times, and I couldn’t help but think that if only more churches became more interested in asking good questions than having the right answers, maybe our nation would not be so divided. I understand this is probably a change that came after you wrote your book, She’s My Dad, and working your way through a dark place to arrive at a more accepting, diverse, forgiving, and loving place within your heart and mind. How long after writing your book, did it take you to arrive at the place where you knew it was time to change your church’s vision of being more inclusive?
Jonathan: Our church started in 2012 with that tag line. At the time, it was more of a reference to my more progressive views on scripture/bible. In the American Evangelical community, people often say that the Bible is a book of answers. However, it’s a library filled with people working to imagine and reimagine God in different times, cultures, and places. It should provoke us to ask questions. That’s what we were aiming for. In terms of our LGBTQIA affirming stance, we were not affirming from the get go. The organization that helped to facilitate our church launch was not an affirming organization. We were financially supported by bigger churches across the U.S. that were not affirming. I was privately affirming of the LGBTQIA community at the time, but it was in a very privileged way. I was happy to quietly support that community so long as it cost me nothing. I wasn’t willing to change our stance in our church early on because it would’ve cost me people, money, friends, etc. I wasn’t willing to give that up. In reality, I was just a neo-liberal white guy with privilege. Affirming my father would’ve cost me the same things, which was one of the many reasons I initially didn’t want to affirm her transition.
Donna: As you know, I read and reviewed your book, She’s My Dad. However, For those who have not read Jonathan’s book, or my review, can read my review HERE. Jonathan, would you mind giving our readers a short synopsis of your book?
Jonathan: My Dad was (and in some ways, still is) my hero. I had no idea that my dad struggled with his gender identity for most of his life. It came as a huge surprise when my dad told me that he was transitioning to the female gender. The book tells my journey in reconciling and reinventing the father/son relationship. I describe what it meant to come to terms with my own issues, my own privilege, and my own grief apart from my father and by working through my own schema, expectations, and shortcomings was able to affirm my father’s true identity. Within the story of my father’s transition and the redefining of our relationship is the story of the Evangelical Christian Church. My father and I both worked within the Evangelical Christian Community, and her transition brought about a reckoning for the both of us. Do we leave Christianity all together? Do I publicly affirm all in the LGBTQIA community even if it means losing a lot of people, money, and friends? We eventually decided to do just that. We affirmed the LGBTQIA community and in fact did lose friendships, people, and financial backing.
Donna: I read several book reviews of your book, and I was put off by some of the insensitive comments. Until someone has a family member that comes out as gay (or queer), transgender, loving someone of a different race, or anything else that is not considered “the norm,” these people will remain clueless and hurtful. I felt your pain just as I felt Paula’s pain. As you say in your book, and I’m not quoting as I don’t have your book in front of me at the moment, your dad had taken you to a hockey game when you were 13, and a fight broke out. While you swore and pounded on the plexiglass, your dad sat in his seat with legs crossed “clapping politely.” You indicated at this point that you looked back at your dad and thought your dad could be a woman. That’s powerful, Jonathan. Was this the only time that you felt your dad, your best friend, your mentor, and your hero could be a woman? It felt to me as if you intuitively knew, but you did not want it to be true. Did you consider that your dad may be a woman at any other time in your young life? I believe it was 25 years before Paula finally stopped fighting the fight and somehow found the courage to be who she always knew she was. This nearly broke you. How did you manage to hold on, to continue being a husband and father, and a church leader? A third generation church leader at that.
Jonathan: The negative feedback is interesting to say the least. I briefly describe in the book something called, “Aperspectival Madness.” That basically means that people love hearing about other people’s truth so long as it is beneficial to them and their narrative. People love hearing about my dad’s transition and applaud her for it, and rightly they should. But my perspective around the pain of navigating my father’s transition isn’t necessarily beneficial to someone on the outside looking in. It taints the “feel good” part of the story. Hence the negative reactions and comments. What’s fascinating is that there has not been one negative reaction from anyone who has transitioned or who has had a loved one that’s transitioned. I get tons of messages from those people thanking me for articulating some of the same pain and grief they felt. What they know is that transition is a good thing. It allows people to live authentically. But regardless of how good it is, it does change the family dynamic and redefining the family does bring about some pain. The funny thing is that my father is so thankful for the book because she truly believes it will help other families navigate gender transitions in healthier ways.
As for the other parts of the question, I can honestly say that was the only time that I thought my dad might be a woman. Like I say in the book, it was his smile. It was a smile that didn’t feel at home in his body. I’m not sure how else to describe it. I forgot about it after that and didn’t think of it again until he told me the news of his intended transition. I’m not sure how I managed to hold on. I got into some really bad habits during that time, drinking too much, not being present with friends and family, etc. There are a couple of things that I believe were healing. First off, my wife was absolutely amazing. She was really strong and gave a ton of herself to my grief. I’ll always be thankful for that. Secondly, after finding out I jumped into therapy. It was during therapy that I was able to figure out some of my own issues around my father. I had many moments of self-discovery that allowed me to parse out my grief and understand that not all of it was caused by my father’s transition. Lastly, I had a great staff at our church. They were wholly supportive of me during this time. It definitely made the church work easier.
Donna: To the negative reviewers I say they did not take into consideration how close you were with your dad, so much so that you followed in his footsteps, but you were also a husband and a father to a four and six-year-old, at the time. My heart went out to you and Jubi when it came time to prepare your daughters for seeing GrandPaula as a woman who had taken Grandpa’s place. I felt the tension as if I were in the room when Paula walked in as Paula and not Grandpa, and your daughters continued to color at the table. I also felt the anxiety you and Jubi were experiencing as you encouraged your girls to say hello. There’s no script to prepare parents for preparing their children for this type of change, but I respect you and Jubi for the way you prepared your daughters. Of course, we have to give credit to your youngest. When she looked up at Paula and asked, “Grandpa, do you have a penis?” I laughed and laughed. Out of the mouths of babes, right? You said it best, “Our youngest daughter gave us a gift.” This was one of a few times I laughed out loud while reading your heart-wrenching story. The other times I laughed, I wrote about in my review and these instances are as follows:
Specifically, “My mother and her three sisters toured the country, raising support for churches in New York. They sang about the love of God and how New Yorkers needed that love more than ever.” I also laughed when you wrote, “My mother inhabited New York but never truly lived in New York. Her family considered the largely Catholic makeup of the area to be dangerous, given that “Catholics weren’t Christians at all and worthy of damnation.” But there was little else to laugh about in your book, Jonathan. I don’t have to tell you that.
Jonathan: There are parts that didn’t make the book that I still find funny. In hindsight, some of that humor might’ve given a needed break to the heaviness of the story. But yeah, I tried to be true to the pain and frankly our family didn’t spend those early days laughing all that much. We went to visit family this spring, and my wife remarked that it was the first time in 6 years that no one cried during a visit! We laughed about that. When Paula and I speak together we find ourselves laughing a lot. I think laughter comes from a place of peace, and we’ve found that peace in the past couple of years.
Donna: I felt your pain, as well as Paula’s pain. It’s not every day that a father announces that he is a woman and has always known he was a woman from the time he was a child. You admitted to mental illness running in the family. I can personally relate to this. It’s a genetic gift handed down. Paula suffered from anxiety and depression, as did you when you learned that your dad was someone else. How are you doing today, Jonathan? Are you still battling anxiety and depression? And what about Paula? How are Paula’s anxiety and depression? Has Paula ever indicated that she made a mistake by coming out transgender? From the videos I’ve watched, Paula looks as if she is someone who has been freed and is flourishing. I realize this does not negate the pain and suffering everyone experienced. Have you found your inner peace with the transition, Jonathan?
Jonathan: Anxiety and depression run in our family. I struggled with anxiety before my dad’s transition, and I think I’ll always deal with that. I’ve learned to manage it with therapy, medication, and conversation. The one thing that I’ve learned to do is to talk about it and destigmatize it. I talk about it on stage all of the time. The more we talk about it and bring anxiety and depression into the light, the more it becomes as common as the cold. I personally think that Paula is much happier now. It shows me how much she’s leaning into her true identity. That is most definitely a silver lining to this story. In terms of inner peace, I think I’ve made peace with her transition. I talk about the Hebrew word, “Tov” in my book. That word means, “For its intended purpose.” I stand by that word. I think my dad’s transition is for its intended purpose. Sometimes that brings joy, other times it brings pain. Regardless, I’ve made peace. I think that my father’s transition is not something that will ever be neatly wrapped up. There are too many things that have changed and continue to change. Regardless, there is peace in the midst of that.
Donna: Jonathan, who is Paula to you today? In the acknowledgment section of your book you write, “Dad, it’s never easy, but you’ve been only gracious. Thank you for your wisdom and compassion, which let me find myself in your story. You let me bare my soul and, in the process, your’s too. With that soul baring came opportunities for anger and frustration. Instead, I received only encouragement to move forward on this journey. Thank you for that gracious love. It means the world. You’ve let me heal, sometimes at your expense, and for that I’ll always be grateful.” Is Paula dad to you, or is dad gone and Paula is now Paula? How have you made this emotional transition? Have you and Paula discussed who she is to you now? We know she is GrandPaula to your girls, but who has she become for you, Jonathan?
Jonathan: I think in a lot of ways she’s still my father. The personality is still there for sure. When I asked what I should call her, she said, “Call me dad. I’ve always been your father.” I believe that’s true. In many ways she still plays that role. There are parts of us that are a ton alike. She’s not the same father that she was before. I’ve had to do a lot of work to differentiate my father from my own identity. That part has changed for sure. It’s uncomfortable for me to think of Paula as my mom. I have a wonderful mother who continues to play that role. To call Paula, “mom” negates the role my mom continues to play in my life.
Donna: You wrote the following profound message in your book, “As a pastor, I still struggle with the God of my younger years. That God is separate from God’s people. That God is often angry, in search of a better humanity. That God shows grace to the chosen; but that God of my childhood chose only 3 or 4 percent of the world’s population. It was up to me to get other people to believe in that God. That God killed his son because that God didn’t see me worthy.” You go on to say, “I worked hard to shed that God. It took years before I saw the God I know now: mysterious, infinite, unimaginable, and infinitely loving, gracious, and proud of God’s creation.” I believe it was this very God that you speak of that got you through the darkest days of your life, and Paula too. You also indicated that there are times when you wonder if you may be wrong. If you believe in the wrong God. Where are you today with your belief in the God that you did not know until later in life, Jonathan?
Jonathan: I think indoctrination in an angry God was in some ways a childhood trauma. That might be too strong of an idea, but the gist is there. I was very afraid of God. While it makes no sense for me now, I still struggle thinking that I might be wrong. God might still be that angry God. Then I remember it’s the trauma talking. My favorite quote right now is a famous one by the theologian Paul Tillich. He says that, “God doesn’t exist. God is the ground of all existence.” I think that’s the God I believe in now. Every other version of God feels really small. Any part of God that I think I can comprehend or understand feels small.
However, when I look at the Bible I see a couple of themes that emerge over and over and over again. Always take care of those less fortunate, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, etc. And God always moves towards a more loving and inclusive view of humanity. That is true throughout the Bible. For that reason I tend to attribute the ideas of love and grace to God.
Donna: Jonathan, near the end of your book, you ask yourself if you have any business leading a church. You question whether this is your calling or your fathers. And you ask, “Do I believe in the good work our church is doing, or am I simply following in my father’s passion and journey?” And you ask yourself, “Is it possible that I need to find a new line of work in order to find my own uniqueness?” Have you found the answers to any of these questions yet, or are you taking it day by day?
Jonathan: I think at some point I’ll need to leave the ministry. I happen to really enjoy what I’m doing right now. I love the church community that we’ve created. But yes, I think I’ll need to leave and do something different. That’s a long way of saying I’m taking it day by day!
Donna: Jonathan, thank you for allowing me to delve so deeply into your journey. It is not my intent for you to relive the pain you’ve already lived through. I think you are one hell of a man, and I am sorry our schedules did not align while I was in Brooklyn so we could sit down together and talk. But as I walked the streets of Brooklyn, every time I saw a Dunkin’ Donuts, I pictured GrandPaula with a granddaughter swinging and dancing from each arm, just as they had done with their Grandpa and you walking behind with your head full of thoughts, and your heart full of love. You wrote something that I have remarked on before, and it will always remain with me as there is no more authentic truth. You wrote, “The harder one falls, and the later in life, the longer it takes to heal, The scars don’t go away.” I wish nothing but the best for you, your family, and for Paula. Thank you again for doing this interview with me.
Jonathan: Thanks so much! I appreciate your questions, your thoughts, the time you took to ask the questions, and your heartfelt responses to the book and my story. I’m genuinely appreciative. I hope we get the chance to meet in the future!
Donna: Yes, I do hope the opportunity presents itself for us to meet in the future. It was just my bad luck that we could not coordinate our schedules to get together while I was in Brooklyn this past April. I would also very much like to meet Paula one day. After watching videos of you and Paula, she seems to me to be an incredible woman that has been freed and appears to be very happy. God bless you and your family, Jonathan.
Note to readers: If you have not read She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption by Jonathan S. Williams, I highly recommend that you purchase his book and read it with an open heart.
She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption by Jonathan S. Williams was published 11.20.2018
Jonathan S. Williams Bio (From Forefront):
“Jonathan is the Lead Pastor at Forefront. He serves on the board of the W/ Launchpad, an organization dedicated to starting progressive Christian Churches. He also serves on the board of Left Hand Church in Longmont, CO. He holds an M.Ed from Eastern University in Urban and Multicultural Education.
Jonathan is a writer who covers religion and spirituality, current trends, and LGBTQIA inclusion and justice. Jonathan has written for the Huffington Post, Faithfully Magazine, The Christian Standard, and many more. Jonathan has been featured in the New York Times, the Christian Post, and in Rebel Storytellers. He’s spoken at national events including TEDWomen18, Wild Goose Festival, W/ National Conference, Eastern Christian Conference, and Exponential National Conference.
In 2016 Jonathan was named one of the “Top 40 Leaders Under 40” by Christian Standard Magazine.
Jonathan currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, Jubi and two daughters. He enjoys a good beer, a better story, and despite years of disappointment, roots for his beloved NY Mets.”
For those interested in hearing from Jonathan himself, I am providing two interviews for you to get to know Jonathan S. Williams better.
Justin Douglas Interviews Jonathan S. Douglas: