For the first 54 years of Barbara Satin's life, almost every decision she made was centered around trying to "wash away" her transness: she went to seminary, joined the military, got married, none of which worked. "I made the decision to leave my marriage and go live as Barbara Satin and figure out who this person really is," she says, eventually meeting a therapist whose words would prove life-changing.
"I went as Barbara and basically sat down and opened up my head and just let everything come out, all the things that I had been hiding for, at that point, 60 years. She said, 'You have lived your life as though you have been cursed by God. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe this is a blessing from God? And that maybe God has blessed you with this gender identity?' I hadn't ever thought anything positive about what I was doing and I realized that it hadn't been much fun living life as being cursed by God. I thought I would try and live it as a blessing from God."
Since then, Satin's devoted her life to what she calls her "ministry of presence", making sure that trans people are a visible, respected, and celebrated part of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the larger faith communities of which she's a part. Last month, she retired as the Faith Work Director from The National LGBTQ Task Force. Satin's also served as the first out trans member of the United Church of Christ's Executive Council where she was part of the church's 2003 decision to affirm the inclusion of trans people in the church's ministry.
In 2016 President Obama appointed Satin to the Presidential Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and in 2021 she served as one of the prayer leaders at President Biden's inauguration breakfast.
"It's part of my DNA," the 87-year-old says, "I work to try and make things better for people, including myself."
Jeffrey Masters: I don't know any other trans people who are your age, 87. The way the general public talks about being trans, it can be presented as this new thing that kids have just invented when we know that’s not true.
Barbara Satin: Well, to some of us, it was just invented because when I first began to realize that I had something going on, I was maybe five or six years old. I was born in 1934 and we had no words for what was going on. I came out, basically, at 60. And I came out at a time when we were just beginning to be understood, so it's been a new experience for me. Although I've lived it all my life, I didn't know what I was living.
JM: Without language back then, how were you thinking about your gender? How would you have described it?
BS: I got great satisfaction out of watching and seeing and experiencing, whenever I could, things that were feminine. But I had no connection of that to anything more than just, "David, you're weird. Something's wrong with you." I knew that these weren't homosexual feelings. As David, I didn't have attraction to other men, but I knew that I would be perceived or understood by others if they ever realized my feelings, that I would be called probably homosexual or queer or fag.
Basically, my authentic life was pretty much lived as a lie. I hid most of what I was feeling and occasionally, when I had an opportunity in later years, to experience being as feminine as I could be, I treated that as something very bad and sinful and something that I really should never do again and always did again.
JM: When you were alone, were you finding ways to express your gender?
BS: Yeah, I would. Living at home as a young adult, it was very difficult. But I would find something at a Goodwill store and stash it, find a place to put it on and just feel glamorous and then feel really terrible about doing that. It was a very conflicted time in my life. When I graduated from college, I began working in the corporate world, doing public relations. I also fell in love and hoped that by be being married, that being with the love of my life, that I would wash away all these temptations and feelings and I realized at about four to five months that they still were there. And so now what do I do?
When I retired from my business career at 54, I began realizing that I needed to understand who this person was inside of me. I was trying to figure out, how do I understand who I am without actually being able to live that? So I made the decision to leave my marriage and go live as Barbara Satin and figure out who this person really is.
JM: Did you tell your wife that that was the reason?
BS: Not at the time I left. I eventually did. My second oldest son, after I've been retired for a couple of years, called me and asked me if I would go to have a beer and a hamburger with him and just chat. And I thought, "Well, this is my son going to ask Dad for some advice." And it turned out not to be that at all. It was my son saying, "Something's going on with you that we're really concerned about because you are so different. You are more harsh and critical, short-tempered, and that's just not you. What's going on?" And I said to him, "Jamie, I'm going to tell you something, I've never told anybody. I'm transgender." And there wasn't even a pause and he put his hand on mine and said, "Dad, we've been waiting for you to tell us." They had figured it out.
My son said, "Would you ever think about going to see a therapist?" So he arranged for me to go to a therapist and at my first appointment with her, I went as Barbara and basically sat down and opened up my head and just let everything come out, all the things that I had been hiding for, at that point, 60 years. She said, "You have lived your life as though you have been cursed by God. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe this is a blessing from God. And that maybe God has blessed you with this gender identity?" I hadn't ever thought anything positive about what I was doing and I realized that it hadn't been much fun living life as being cursed by God. I thought I would try and live it as a blessing from God. And basically, that's what I've done for the last almost 30 years.
I'd been very active within the Catholic Church. I was the Chairman of the Archbishops Council in the Minneapolis St. Paul Archdiocese and all sorts of good stuff. I'm very proud of the things that David accomplished in his lifetime, just as I'm very proud of the things that Barbara has accomplished in hers. I don't want to erase David. I want to celebrate David while I also celebrate Barbara.
When I left, I realized that there was probably no place for Barbara within the Catholic Church and so I left the Catholic Church and began living a spiritual life on my own. And that didn't satisfy me in many ways, simply because I missed the idea of worshiping with a community within a faith congregation.
JM: It'd be easy to think you would swear off religion altogether after that. What kept you coming back?
BS: I think it's the life that I had lived both within my birth family and within my own family; it was always God-centered and that meant a lot to me. And I realized that part of what made that so meaningful to me was the sense of community that you have with others that are worshiping in the same faith community. I found an LGBTQ church in Minneapolis called Spirit of the Lakes and it was the United Church of Christ Congregation, which was started as a queer community church.
And when I walked in the door on a June morning, I quickly realized that it was an LGBT church but they had never had a T member, the trans part of it. In fact, the music director at the time was quite appalled and came up to me about six months later and said, "You walked in the door and I thought you should not be here. You should go someplace else." And he put his arms around me and he said, "You are the best thing that's happened to this church in many years. Thank you for being here." That and a number of other things made me realize what my calling was going to be.
JM: What year was this?
BS: This would be the late 1990s, 1996, '97. I realized, all I did was tell my story and it had an impact on people to get to know someone who is transgender and what it means in their lives and the blessings and the sufferings that go with that, but also the authenticity that it brings to their lives to be able to live that fullness of who they are.
JM: And that was your calling.
BS: It's what I basically have made my ministry of presence. I realized that my ability to be out and at that time, that still was a challenge. My ability to be out as Barbara had an impact on people, some of it good, occasionally some of it bad. For the most part, it was good. And I had an openness to be willing to talk to people about who I am and what is inside of me.
JM: Is 'ministry of presence' a term that you created?
BS: Actually, a young seminarian had used it about me, something along the lines of, "What you're doing is like this ministry of presence." And I thought, "Wow, I wanted to be a minister and I'll just take that on." When I first began exploring who Barbara was, I became involved with a trans group in the Twin City area called City of Lakes Crossgender Community and we had about 400 members. But you'd never know it because we met in the basement of a gay bar in St. Paul and you never knew when the meetings were going to be or the time because it was so secret. It was a scary time for people. They wanted the opportunity to be together and to be with people like themselves and to talk about their concerns, get fashion tips and makeup hints, and all that type of thing.
I eventually became the president of the organization and I kept getting comments from people, "I'm not gay. Why are we in a gay bar?" I realized that part of our problem as a trans community was the fact that as part of this LGBT acronym, the LGB part of it didn't care or understand who we were and they needed to.
So I left the City of Lakes group and I began to make it my job to become active within primarily gay organizations. I don't think there's more than maybe one or two gay organizations within the Twin Cities that I wasn't on their board because I felt it was so important for them to have an understanding of who we are and to actually see somebody and interact with somebody and to know and respect a trans person as a positive role model for their organization.
I've been on activist groups, I've been on philanthropic groups, I've been on HIV/Aids groups. If there was a gay group that I knew somebody who was part of it, I would ask them, "Is there any interest in having a trans person on that board?" That was the early part of my ministry of presence, which at that point I didn't realize was a ministry but it was so important for the trans community to be visible to the LGB community and it's not as though the trans community is separate.
And it's been a marvelous experience a the National LGBTQ Task Force because we focus on the idea of helping churches understand why it is important for them to be welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ people and we have been very successful in that. Then the next step was to take that affirmation and take it outside of the four walls of the church and take it out into the streets. For many religious denominations, that's how you live out your life, to actually be active and proactive around issues and that's been this delightful trajectory that I've been on for the last 14, 15 years.
JM: As a spiritual and religious person, has that colored how you think about death and what happens after?
BS: I want both David and Barbara to be honored. I have a large contingent of people who know who I am as David and all the things that I've done as David. They in many cases have no understanding of Barbara. And so I'm going to be cremated. I'm going to have two funerals. David will have his funeral and probably the bells and whistles of the Catholic Church. And Barbara will have her memorial service, whatever that might be within the United Church of Christ.
I've done some really wonderful things as David, things that I thought could just disappear if people found out who I was. I'm not concerned about that now because I have shown as Barbara that I do the same things. It's part of my DNA, whether I'm Barbara or David, that I work to try and make things better for people, including myself. And I want to share that to whoever wants to come and, not mourn, come and rejoice with me.
This is the first episode in LGBTQ&A's new LGBTQ+ elders project. New episodes come out every Tuesday.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay.