This year, even a confirmed Agnostic like myself may have been sending a few prayers out — just in case — as we worried about loved ones because of the pandemic and systemic racism; fear that the ‘rona’ might take someone we loved or that the racism that permeates our society might cause some knucklehead in blue or a red maga hat to go off on us or someone close to us. This year, like many others, has also been a tough one for our transgender sisters, but I’m happy to shed a light on a bright moment in history for our community. This past May 15th, Rev. Celena Spain was consecrated as the first openly transgender Bishop of the Episcopal Apostolic church. We took a moment to speak to the revolutionary Rev.
Tell me a little about yourself?
I was born right here in Philadelphia at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and lived in Philadelphia until I was nine and then I went to military school. My mom stayed here in the city and I got to come home on the weekends, holidays and over the summer. But I lived mostly at the school in Scotland, PA. It’s closed now but it was a really good school and I enjoyed being there. My mother had multiple sclerosis and when I was high school age, she needed to move into a one level house as she became wheelchair bound. So we moved to South Jersey and I came home and went to public school and that’s where I graduated high school.
You’re the first person I know that went to military school that young. My mother was shipped to a convent school when she was young, but she hated it.
I loved it. I like structure and order; I’m very regimented; I can be very free spirited within the limits of some type of structure. If I’d stayed there, my class would have been the last graduating class before they closed.
Any particular reason you were sent to military school?
It’s a family tradition. My biological father had gone there, my grandparents had gone there, and so my grandfather talked me into also attending as well. It was a school for the children of vets and as I said, I really enjoyed it.
Yes, I’m the youngest of 7. Only 6 of us are left.
Are any of them LGBTQ?
Uh, no. Not a one, they’re all the complete opposite of the spectrum, although like me, they are all in ministry, except for one, and he works at the church.
What did your mom do?
Because of her illness she was on social security. When she was in high school, she would just fall down all the time, randomly. Back in the 70’s and 80’s they didn’t know much about it, so after graduating high school, she went to one year of college and then decided it was too much to handle with all of her medical needs. But she liked to do puzzles and crochet, so she supplemented her income by crocheting blankets and quilts. I never really knew my biological father. He didn’t know how to take care of himself, never mind others. Now we text on occasion, birthdays or special events, but we’re not close. I was closer to my stepfather, but he stepped away to take care of his mental health after my mother passed away. It was a month after my brother passed away and he took it hard. When he did reemerge, he told me that it was painful because I look too much like my mother so we haven’t spoken much either.
Wow, interesting. So other than regimented, what were you like as a kid?
I grew up very fast because of my mother. While most kids were outside playing, I had chores that my mother couldn’t do. I learned to cook well before I was 9. And though we might not have had much, what we did have was always clean and neat.
So your mother was your 1st military advisor.
Yes! One of the reasons I was able to thrive at military school was because of her discipline. We were very close and I could tell her everything. Nothing was hidden. As an adult, I could talk to my mother about my sex life, my marriage, anything. My partner at the time was like, “That is completely weird!” But it worked for us. However, when I told her at 9, that I liked boys, she shut me down saying, “No, you don’t.” When I left military school and came back, I really rebelled. I was used to being in charge of my own things. I knew when to go to bed, how to get my schoolwork done, etc. Living again with my mom and dad was weird. And I was trying to find myself and so I founded the LGBT club at my school and pushed boundaries by wearing a dress to prom, and had my first same gender relationship. My mom was not too happy, she wanted grandkids and she felt this would kill her chances. My dad was the opposite, he was friendly to my boyfriend Andrew, and was very supportive of me. We eventually had a conversation and mom came around some.
What did you do after high school?
I enlisted in the military as a way to pay for college. I left for boot camp 20 days after graduation. I also got engaged to my high school sweetheart.
No, he and I dated off and on until I fell in love with a girl named Courtney. We got married and had 3 beautiful kids. I went to Liberty University and got my Bachelors in theology. I almost have my Masters, but I’m a few credits short.
Bravo! Were you in the service during “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”?
No, I started serving after Barack Obama was elected.
Oh, so it was recent! You’re a young-un! What drew you to the ministry?
My bio father and I didn’t have a relationship, but my grandparents on his side took care of me a lot and they were both heavily involved in the church. If the church doors were open, my grandmother was there. So I really got a sense of who God was for me. In military school, I was a junior deacon at the school church and would go with the pastor to his church off campus. That’s when I really felt the calling. I still have the bible he gave me.
Talk about your LGBTQ journey, it sounds like there were some twists and turns!
Yes! So we left off when Courtney and I got married. She gifted me with 3 beautiful kids, who are the apples of my eye. Two girls, one boy, they’re all bad and I love ‘em. There came a point where we knew it wasn’t going to work out, I’d been the best husband I could be, she’d been the best wife, but it still wasn’t working. We decided that for our mental health, our spiritual well being, etc. we needed to get divorced. At that point, I looked at my life and said, now is the time for me to discover who I am. I stopped serving as the pastor at my church and a few other places and spent time meditating and figuring out who I was inside. I started realizing that I was a transgender individual and started dating Kris, who identifies as female. Before we’d started dating, I had spent some time dressing as a woman in secret. One day I said, “Honey, what if one day I told you that I wanted to be a woman? And she said, “Okay. I love your soul, not how you appear.” I left it alone, and then asked again at a later date. I kept doing it until she finally said, “If you really want to be a woman, would you just do it already, because you’re really irking my nerves asking me every week.” From that day on, I’ve been on the road to self discovery and identifying as Celena. She took me shopping for clothes and I transitioned socially and then in the workplace, and now I’m transitioning medically.
Fantastic. Now when you were wearing dresses in high school, did you have an inkling?
Being in military school, I was sheltered and didn’t know much about LGBT life, and I identified as bi. I didn’t know the difference between sexuality and sexual identity. I enjoyed being a rebel and having guys hit on me, but I think I was doing it more as a statement. Because the school said I couldn’t.
Growing up in the church, did you experience any homophobia?
I had a brother and sister in ministry and we all started together over 10 years ago under the same leadership. When they started their churches I vested in, I’d sometimes drive over 300 miles to be there on a Sunday just to support them, and I would drop everything if one of them needed me. When I transitioned, I did it without any fuss, I just started signing my name as Celena. One of them asked me, “What’s Celena?” and I replied, “It means heaven or the moon” and they said, “No, who is it?” and I said, “That’s me, I’m transgender.” She blurted out, “What?!?” and I said, “Have you not been looking at my facebook pages? I have been chronicling my transition.” She told me she glanced at it and thought that Celena was my sister or something. From that point on she has not asked me to do anything with her church.
And my sister and I don’t talk to this day because of my lifestyle. And that’s fine. It’s a case where someone takes faith and beliefs and fuses them together so that they’re inflexible, but I believe that your love should be first and foremost and then the concern of who or what we are should be second. In every major religion, the most important mandate is to love. Period. It amazes me that people can put their beliefs/faith above the ability to love someone.
Someone who surprised you with their support?
I called a friend of mine to let him know about it, because prior to my transition I was made a bishop in our church. I took a 2 year sabbatical and stopped all contact with everyone. When I was ready to come out as Celena, I didn’t warn anyone, I just jumped in head first. I called him to say that I’d spoken to people at the church, most were staying and still sought guidance from me, and some were leaving, but I had made the decision to step down. He looked at me and said, “You’re not leaving” and I said, “Yes, I am. Do you not understand what I just told you? I’m transgender.” And he responded, “You’re NOT leaving. Because if I let you leave, I will be letting you walk away from what I believe God is calling you to do. This will take time to adjust, but you came to me and it would be wrong of me to say that I couldn’t stand by you.” He’s been my biggest supporter all along.
Are you recognized as a bishop throughout the church?
Yes, the way our church is set up, through apostolic succession, even if people don’t agree, they still must address me as a bishop. [Laughing] Which has really pissed some people off!
How have your kids adjusted?
They were the last to know. When I had them with me, I would still present to them as my old self for the longest time. I wanted to give my ex-wife time to adjust and for us to be prepared for whatever questions they might have. I sat my daughter down and said, “How I present myself to the world is going to change.” “Okay” “I am transgender, do you know what that means” “No” “It means that I am a female” “You’re going to be a woman?” “Yes, I’m going to start looking like a woman.”
She got excited and said, “Then do I get to wear makeup now?” “Um, okay.” She’s been on board ever since! Now we shop together and put on makeup together. My son took a little longer to come around, his fear was that we’d lose our “Guy time” together, but he now realizes that we have “Us” time and is good with it. The kids decided they didn’t want to call me Dad anymore so they call me “Ima” (pronounced eye-mah). It’s Aramaic for mother. All three are my biggest defenders now. If one of the other kids asks why they call me that, they’ll say, “She used to be my dad and now she’s my mom!” If someone says, “That’s weird” they’ll tell them to shut up and mind their own business. So I have to jump in and say, “Don’t be rude!”
What do you like to do outside of the church?
I love music, I like playing the piano and the guitar. I love to read and I absolutely love theater. I’m a thespian, I’ve done over 1,000 hours on stage. I don’t act anymore, but I love going to the theater any chance I get. I can’t wait until Broadway and local theaters start up again!
What was a favorite toy?
A slinky. I lived in an apartment complex and I loved walking to the top of the stairs and sending him down all the flights.
Was there a time when you lost or questioned your faith?
Yes, I’m always questioning my faith. As we grow and evolve I think it’s important to check in and ask, is this still what I believe, is it who I am? I call it DTR, defining the relationship.
When was the last time you danced?
We have our “good food dance”, that little rock you do when something’s really tasty. Out of the house, May 15th, after my consecration at a church in Newark, NJ. They had a little ball and Chris and I danced together.
What are you looking forward to as the curtain lifts from this pandemic?
I’m currently helping with services at Imago Dei MCC in Aston, but fingers crossed, I’ll be starting services in the William Way Community Center in September and I’ll be speaking at the Transgender Wellness Conference in Philadelphia. I hope to meet new people at both places!