In October, LGBT Americans observed National Coming Out Day, which serves as a call to be out and proud and a recognition that showcasing your identity is an empowering act that can also help change anti-LGBT attitudes. But one’s religious beliefs can sometimes complicate coming out. The Advocate has interviewed people from a variety of faiths about how their religion affected their coming-out and vice versa. In the fourth and final (for now) installment in this series, we speak to a transgender man who’s a candidate for ordination as a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Leo Bancroft belongs to one of the most accepting mainline Christian denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — but nonetheless, he had fears about coming out as a transgender man.
“I was so afraid of what God would think of me and what people would think of me,” says Bancroft, now 42, about coming out as trans a few years ago. “I don’t know where that fear came from.”
He grew up in the ELCA, which in 2009 voted to ordain out gay and lesbian clergy, including those who are partnered, and has ordained several trans ministers as well, in keeping with its stances against anti-LGBT discrimination. His home congregation at the time, St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Beaverton, Ore., a Portland suburb, even made a point of being welcoming. But still he had trepidations.
Bancroft says he didn’t realize he was trans until he was 37. “When I first realized it, I spent a lot of nights crying myself to sleep,” he says. “I had a lot of internalized transphobia.” The first Sunday after he realized this turned out to be Easter, he recalls.
“I really wanted to quit going to church and just kind of walk away,” he says. But he had a few volunteer roles, so he had to keep showing up.
“I anticipated rejection and judgment, and thankfully none of that happened,” he says. “I’m very grateful I was in a church that received me so warmly.”
Coming out, he says, has been liberating in many ways. “I found myself to be much more confident and courageous and have a better level of self-understanding, not just of gender, but what makes me me,” he says.
Part of what makes him him is the call to be a minister. Bancroft had felt the call as early as age 17, and he has pursued it to varying degrees while working in tech support. Now he’s close to ordination, having earned a master's degree in theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University’s Berkeley campus in California and finishing his coursework for ordination at Berkeley's Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and its Theological Education for Emerging Ministries program.
He currently leads an LGBT ministry, the Flame, in Portland. “I see my call to share God’s exuberant love for everybody in the world,” he says. He wants to show people who’ve been told they can’t be Christian and queer that “none of that’s true – that they are a delight to God just as they are.”
“We really come together at the Flame as a healing faith community,” he adds, noting that the ministry also welcomes people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. “We want to make sure everyone knows there’s a place at the table for them,” he says.
Another part of his identity is a rather unusual physical fitness regimen. After having top surgery in 2014, he started taking lessons in trapeze artistry. There are several circus arts schools in Portland, and he takes classes at one called Night Flight Aerial. “I just found it to be a really friendly and accepting community,” he says. “It helped me further come into my own body.” Some members of the Flame have come from the circus world, he says.
For others considering coming out in their faith community, he notes that it’s different for everyone. If their community “is not safe, if it’s belittling, if it’s causing them harm,” he says, they should “gauge their ability to navigate that road.”
But Bancroft, despite his fears, found nothing but acceptance. “I’m truly grateful to be in a denomination where our own bishop is so supportive,” he says, noting Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s welcoming attitude. “I’m grateful to be called into this church.”
He’s aiming to be ready for ordination next June. “I think a Pride Month ordination would be really fun,” he says.