“I like Southern hospitality,” the Rev. Dawn Flynn says on camera. “I like the laid-back attitude of the South.”
She sits in the front of her Gastonia church, New Life MCC, red carpet covering the floor and a pulpit in the background. She pauses, the cross around her neck shifting slightly.
“Granted, it’s not a place where I would want to wear a tag around my neck saying, ‘I’m transgender,’ because it would be asking for people to kill me.”
Flynn, along with three other current and former North Carolinian clergy members gathered in the Byrum Welcome Center on Wake Forest University’s campus on Oct. 3 for a screening of Proper Pronouns.
The in-progress documentary opened the OUT at the Movies International LGBT Film Fest in Winston-Salem, kicking off the series of 27 films with a focus on transgender clergy members.
“There’s only approximately 30 ordained trans clergy in the country,” Flynn told Triad City Beat.
The group caught the attention of director Meg Daniels, a cisgender woman, during her time in the Documentary Film MFA program at Wake, while in the company of Liam Hooper, one of the first transgender men to graduate from the university’s divinity school. While filming, Hooper worked as a minister, and has since converted to Judaism.
The camera pans over the cobblestone paths and wooden bridge near Old Salem in Winston-Salem. A church with white-slatted walls holds a small, somber congregation. Tealight candles flicker as Hooper looks over the group. He reads from a stack of paper, rather than a verse or a book.
“I am going to read the names of the trans people who have been murdered, today,” he says.
Each name he reads receives an echo, an affirmation from the people in the pews. Each person walks forward and leaves a small glass bead in a jar, with a wish or a short prayer.
Many of the subjects found the filming of their experiences asked them to be vulnerable. For Pastor Mykal Shannon of Dynamic Faith Ministries in Asheboro, the film allowed a chance to further his goals in raising awareness about LGBT lives in the church. He sees ministry as a chance to not only preach non-denominational Christianity, but to address the causes of the issues people pray about with his own actions.
“How else to be more authentic and transparent than to be in a film?” he said to TCB.
On screen, he marches on a city street among a sea of people. Off on a sidewalk, counter-protesters shout, armed with accusations of sin and signs that read, “America’s Judgement is coming,” in bold letters. Yet, Shannon and others walk past, unperturbed.
He makes his way up onto a stage at the end of the road, the crowd falling silent.
“I am a black man, in a transgender body, in the Bible Belt with a pulpit as a platform,” he asserts. “And I intend to take a stand.”
The Rev. Debra J. Hopkins insists that the experiences they offer up must be acknowledged as being affected by all facets of their identities, including race.
“I’ve always believed in our story being told accurately,” Hopkins said to TCB. “Those voices needed to be heard.”
The leader of Essentials for Life Ministries in Charlotte, Hopkins gives sermons and runs There’s Still Hope, a nonprofit that provides resources and emergency shelter to homeless transgender people.
“We’re all cut from the same cloth,” Hopkins said.
The camera follows Hopkins around her home. She leads the crew into her room and pauses by the closet door. Swinging it open, the hooks on the door can be seen, robes hanging from it. The reverend rifles through the clothes, searching for a particular item. She finds it, raising her hand with the hanger in it up high, and showing off the stole and collar with her free hand.
“That’s the robe,” she says, grinning. “I’m proud of this robe.”