The Rev. Donnie Anderson – Submitted photo

Thanks, Donnie, and welcome to Ocean State Stories. Let’s start with Pride Month, June. Why is it important to celebrate it?

Many individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community still live closeted or semi closeted lives. Even people who will live their lives out fully often seek a lifestyle out of the limelight. Pride is a time when the entire community comes together boldly to proclaim that LGBTQIA+ people are here and here to stay. Pride events provide a safe space for people to gather and live out their true identities.

Pride is also a statement. A statement that demands equality under the law. It is an unfortunate reality that in the United States civil rights don’t just happen. History has taught us that civil and human rights usually require legislative solutions that ultimately become the accepted norm.  In our current political environment with over 500 anti LGBTQIA+ pieces of legislation submitted in state legislatures annually, a coordinated and well-informed response is necessary. Pride provides the environment and the opportunity to share information for both members of the community and its allies.

Has there been progress with acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ individuals in recent years in Rhode Island?

In a recent study, Rhode Island was named the top state in the United states for being a welcoming state for members of the LGBTQIA+ plus community. In the closing days of our recent legislative session, a bill passed by the legislature will protect families seeking gender affirming care for their children that come from states that prohibit such health care. This is just the latest indication of the specific and positive legislative efforts passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly to support the LGBTQIA+ community. Unfortunately, in recent General Assembly sessions, draconian Anti LGBTQIA+ legislation has been introduced into the Rhode Island assembly. Although those pieces of legislation have been soundly defeated, the fact that they are introduced at all is problematic.

The reality is that in recent years members of the LGBTQIA+ community have moved to the Northeast in order to be able to live their lives without fear. I remember talking to a young man several years ago who had been Rhode Island for a few months as a scout for several friends from the Midwest. His purpose here was to determine if Rhode Island really was a safe place. He was reporting back to his friends that indeed this was a safe, if not perfect, place to live. One of the difficult realities of people moving into our state is that it is putting a strain on the ability of the medical community to meet the needs of all those seeking gender affirming care. Hopefully this is an area that can be addressed in the near future.

But challenges remain. What are some of those?

I’ve alluded to some of those challenges in my previous answer. Perhaps the biggest single challenge right now is what’s happening at the local level. Individuals are running for school committees that want to change policies that currently support students in the LGBTQIA+  community. We have seen in the last couple of years movement on the part of some communities to do just this. We have also seen some communities step back from displaying Pride flags during June because they are afraid of legal complications. I was delighted to stand in front of the offices of the Rhode Island Attorney General as he oversaw the raising of the Pride flag. If it’s OK for the Attorney General to fly the Pride flag, why is there a problem for some local communities?

There is always a need for more well-informed allies to help provide truthful answers in conversations in all of our communities. There are a number of outright lies that are being propagated by social media. Because many of these social media ads are slick and cleverly written, people are often taken in. Only with the help of allies can we overcome the waves of distortion that are breaking upon us.

Now let’s get into some of your personal journey. You were raised in Rhode Island as a male, is that correct? If we had a time machine, what would we see going back to when you were a child?

If you went back to the 1950s, you would find a child living in a loving home with a mother, father, grandfather, brother and dog. As a child, my playground was the construction site for Cranston High School West. I attended Meshanticut Park Elementary School and then spent six years at Cranston High School West which was a Junior/Senior High at that time. Western Hills was a dairy farm. Although my family was not wealthy, we had everything that we needed. It was a good childhood.

You hold bachelor’s, master’s and Doctor of Ministry degrees. Give us some detail on those.

In 1970, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Education from Barrington College (now merged with Gordon College).  Over the years, I accumulated graduate credits from a number of universities, but eventually received a master’s degree in Religious Studies from Providence College and later a doctor of ministry degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary) in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.  

And you went on to become an ordained minister whose credentials are recognized by American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. Tell us about that.

Most of my career was in the American Baptist Churches USA denomination — a denomination I appreciate and cherish to this day. When I came out of the closet as a transgender individual, I was serving as the executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. When in, September of 2017, I shared with the council’s board of directors my journey, they graciously and unanimously supported my transition. It had always been my intent to finish my career where it began, in the local church. Being a pastor is not what I do, it’s what I am. Although I was not concerned about being thrown out of the American Baptist denomination, I knew that there were no churches ready to accept a transgender woman as pastor. During my last couple of years at the council, I went through the process of having my ministerial credentials recognized by the United Church of Christ. Of all the Christian denominations, the United Church of Christ has been, by far, the most accepting of clergy in the LGBTQIA+ community. As I retired at the end of January in 2020 I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity to pastor a United Methodist Church in Provincetown, Mass. In order to do that, my ministerial credentials had to be approved by the United Methodist Church. I served that church for a brief period of time until COVID and some other personal issues brought that service to a close. In the end, my ministerial credentials have been reviewed and approved by all three denominations. I now serve as the minister of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford. I have been serving that church for over three years and love both the people of the congregation and working in New Bedford. I’ve grown to enjoy the brief commute between my home in Providence and New Bedford.

You also serve on several boards and commissions. Can you list some of them?

I currently serve on two state commissions in Rhode Island: The Martin Luther King, Jr. State Holiday Commission and the Rhode Island Commission on prejudice and bias. On the Martin Luther King, Jr. State Holiday Commission, I work on the annual state essay contest related to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I serve as the Co-chair of the Rhode Island Commission on prejudice and bias.  In Massachusetts, I serve on the committee that plans the annual New Bedford commemoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and serve on the patient family advisory committee for South Coast Health.

I am a board member of the Southern New England Conference, United Churches of Christ, a board member of the Association of  Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and one of the co-convenors of the Jewish/Christian Dialogue sponsored by the National Council of Synagogues and the National Council of Churches.

In the recent past, I have served on the boards of Family Service of Rhode Island, Pride in Aging Rhode Island, Vice-Chair of the State Advisory committee for the United States Commission on Civil Rights and Chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus.

You write on your website that “Every life has defining moments. For me, one of the most significant of those moments was in 1956 when at 9 years of age I tried to talk to my mom about what I was feeling.” What were you feeling? And what was her response?

As I look back on that time, I remember being excited to share something special with my mom. I didn’t just blurt out one day that I thought there was something different about me. I thought a lot about it and planned carefully what I wanted to say. My expectation was that my mother would be delighted and want to have a conversation about what I was feeling. When I approached her and her response was not one of openness and joy but rather concern and a declaration that there would be no further conversation about this topic, I just shut down inside

Years – many years – passed. Then, when you were 69, you came out to your family. What was their reaction?

To say that my family was shocked at the news that I was transgender would be an understatement. I thought that I’d been leaving clues everywhere about what was going on inside of me, but clearly that was wrong. It was beyond devastating for my then-wife and my two adult daughters were filled with confusion and questions. The reality is that as I shared this news with people, no one seemed to have suspected that I had been keeping a secret. My former wife became a supporter of my transition and although we are no longer married, I cherish her support.  My relationship with my children and grandchildren is wonderful and I am filled with gratitude.

When I first met you many years ago as a staff writer for The Providence Journal, you were the Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. I applauded when I learned that you had come out as transgender, but there were others who did not. Please give us some detail – and speak to how others also have experienced the negativity that you did.

I have been so very fortunate because SO many people have been supportive but from the moment that my journey became public, there have been horribly negative comments. Some formerly close friends no longer talk with me, and it is heartbreaking. Nasty things are posted on Facebook and other places, but for every negative comment there are 10 positives. I am blessed. 

As word was getting out about my journey, my phone rang one Saturday afternoon.  he voice on the other end said: ‘Hi Donnie, this is Gina Raimondo and I just heard of your transition. I just wanted you to know that I am happy for you and ready to help in any way I can.’ I share that story because it truly meant a lot to me and it is representative of the reception that I have received from so many of our state’s leaders.

Not everyone experiences the positive response that I have.  I believe that much of the acceptance I have known is the result of privilege. I am well educated, economically comfortable and I am white. My story is NOT the story of many and that is why I try to do all I can to stand up for my community. There are well-organized and funded forces that are seeking to “eradicate” our community. I cannot sit idly by and let those forces go without opposition.

You write that you’ve “been told many times that I am the first transgender person someone knows, to which I reply, I am the first OUT transgender person you know.” Break that down for us please.

The reality is this:  There have ALWAYS been transgender and non-binary people in our midst.  In some cultures, our community is welcomed and even honored. In the United States, that has not been our reality. I personally believe that much of the ignorance is due to the Christian Church. The single most oppressive institution in this the Christian Church. Not all churches are like this, but those of us who truly welcome all are in the minority at the present. In this repressive atmosphere, many transgender and non-binary persons remain closeted. I know many people before I came out and most of them would say that they had never met a transgender person. Until, that is, I came out, but they had known me for years  That is true of many others as well.

Another powerful passage on your website is “Often when people think of the stories of transgender people, they focus on the journey to transition (gender affirmation) with little attention paid to the new life transgender people experience. Without question, I believe that I may be the most blessed person on the planet. It is a joy to share with gatherings that I am living life as the person I was always meant to be.” Anything you want to add?

It is true that the early days of gender affirmation can be filled with many obstacles and much pain and that tends to be what much of the focus. We need to also look at the changes that take place in people’s lives as they live into their authentic reality and the joy that results. It is amazing.

We must note that you have published a book, “Seven Sundays with Donnie.” Can you give us an overview?

I hired a talented young man to write my story. Many of the stories of gender affirmation are written from the first-person point of view. I wanted my story to be told from the perspective of a person observing my journey and include the observations and thoughts of those who know me. Seth Chitwood did a great job of recording my journey that I hope will be helpful for those who want to better understand the transgender journey and to encourage others to move forward in their own unique journeys and find true joy.

And lastly, isn’t acceptance of everyone regardless of their gender identity, race, economic status. ancestry and zip code, a core value of Christianity and other religions?

Well, that’s what they say. Let me focus on the Christian Church.  I have never been to a church where it does not claim that ALL are welcome, but all too often there is a big BUT in that welcome. Often, in order to truly be welcomed in, one has to conform to some VERY rigid community norms.  ithout that conformity, the welcome can move from warm to cold to hostile.  A number of Christian groups are going out of their way to make clear their hostility. For example, last year the US Conference of Catholic Bishops essentially declared war on the transgender community when it issued a statement on gender affirming care. For people who are part of religious groups that genuinely care about our community, it’s time to get off the sidelines and declare their allyship. I was gratified by the number and diversity of the religious groups at Rhode Island Pride this year. It is a wonderful gesture, but so much more is needed.