One of the Christian college students Angel Collie met last year asked him a question that almost stumped him. "'How can you justify having sex with another man?' I was like, how do I answer this question?'"
A 21-year-old transgender man covered in piercings and tattoos, Collie is used to personal questions. He's getting used to being yelled at, called a sinner and a pervert, and being told he's going to hell. He listens without yelling back, which is part of the training in nonviolent social justice he received to participate in the Soulforce Equality Ride, a two-month bus trip to Christian college campuses across the country. The Equality Riders spread their message that gays, lesbians and transgendered people should be accepted and loved by the church. The message is simple, Collie says: "We're human beings just like you are. There are people here at your school who are suffering, who are gay, and you need to reach out to them and love them like Jesus would."
After four years of taking testosterone, Collie now looks and sounds like a young man, thus the underlying assumption of the student's question. Collie decided not to talk specifically about sex—they weren't there to do that—so he took the opportunity at the campus forum to "break down the binary" of gender. "I said, I don't really see gender in terms of male and female, black and white. I see it more in terms of a spectrum. I said, you're putting me too much in a box here, and you're definitely putting my partners too much in a box. I'm going to fall in love with someone based on their heart and soul."
Collie has devoted himself to LGBT activism and to preaching a Christian message of love and acceptance. "I've really found that calling to ministry," he says, "and what Micah 6:8 says, 'Love mercy, do justice and walk humbly.'" He's participated in the Equality Ride for the past two years. When he's not traveling, Collie lives with his mother in Bunn, surrounded by the tobacco fields of Franklin County.
He's been arrested six times along with other Equality Riders for setting foot on campuses such as Liberty University, Baylor University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary without permission from the administration. Collie keeps a pair of plastic handcuffs in his room as a souvenir, along with a scrapbook and photo album of the bus trips.
Each stop recalls stories of verbal confrontations with unwelcoming people as well as supportive words from students grateful for the message they were bringing. Some campuses did allow the group to give presentations. At Abilene Christian University, Equality Riders were even treated at the school clinic when they became ill. There was one constant on each campus, Collie says: Over and over, the riders heard stories from gay students who were afraid that coming out would mean expulsion and the loss of friends, family, church and everything they knew.
"If there's one message I want to get out there, it's that God loves you. You are worthy. Also, there's a huge part of me that wants to take that back into my community, the trans community and gay community, and say, 'Yeah, Christianity has got a really bad name and it's hurt a lot of people, but it doesn't have to be that way.'"
Collie is also trying to make a place for trans people within the gay community. In 2006, he was the only trans person among the 32 Equality Riders. This year, there were four among 53. One of the challenges for the trans community is that many of those who make the transition successfully don't want to be "out," they want to be "stealth," to live as the gender they feel they were meant to be without anyone thinking of them otherwise.
"They transition and then they're male, that's who they are. It's almost like they completely put to death that feminine side," Collie says. "And for me, that's not an option, because it would be denying a part of my history and a part of my self and a part of my experience. I see it more as a gift that I've been able to experience the world in terms of what it's like to be perceived female and also experience the world and what it is to be perceived male. I've also seen how it's helped my ministry, in a sense, because it helps me in how I relate to other people."
When the Indy first profiled Collie four years ago ("A different kind of education," June 11, 2003), he was 17, had just finished high school and recently begun taking testosterone. He planned to attend college and become a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination founded by gay rights activists in 1968. Religion and activism were the driving forces in his life, and they were deeply intertwined.
Since then, his voice has deepened. The shape of his face has become more masculine, and there are hints of sideburns on his cheeks. His waist is straighter—the hormone has changed the distribution of weight in his body. That's not the only transformation to his appearance: Already tattooed and pierced even at 17, Collie's arms and legs are now covered with tattoos, and the piercings in his face and ears have multiplied.
Collie's story is similar to that of many other young trans people. He grew up as a blond-haired, blue-eyed tomboy who chose tae kwon do over dance lessons and went to church every Sunday. He began to encounter trouble as puberty betrayed the image he had of himself. He came out as a lesbian—a first step for many trans men—and tried, unsuccessfully, to start a Gay Straight Alliance at his rural high school. administrators were unsupportive and put Collie in in-school suspension when he was being teased. Meanwhile, the Baptist church Collie's family attended kicked him out after church members tried unsuccessfully to have him committed to a mental institution. Desperate to help her child, Collie's mother, Mary Helen Phelps, enrolled him in a recently formed high school for gay and lesbian kids in Dallas. He graduated from Walt Whitman Community School in 2003, then moved back home to Bunn.
The physical transformation is an ongoing process. He continues to take regular doses of testosterone. Two years ago, he had a hysterectomy, a procedure that became increasingly necessary as the dueling hormones in his body put him at a significantly higher risk for cancer. He wants to get "top" surgery, to have his breasts removed, but can't afford it yet. He does not plan to get "bottom" surgery, to create a penis, because, he says, "it's not perfected." Four years ago, he says, he often tried to compensate for the disconnect between his body and his identity by playing up the "masculine side." "Now, I feel like I've kind of begun to feel comfortable with myself as I am."
But the process hasn't been easy for Angel's mother. Despite Phelps' unflagging support, she had a hard time with the hysterectomy—she fears she might never have grandchildren—and she still hasn't let go of the female pronouns, something Collie teases her about. But the hardest thing for this mother to bear is the fear. The names Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena are always on her mind while her child travels the country in the "big gay bus" (as mother and child both jokingly call it), confronting and being confronted by hatred and intolerance. She worries that Angel will get attacked while using a men's bathroom.
"I'm proud of her," Phelps says of Collie's career as an activist. "I sort of figured Angel would never have a conventional job. I figured that she could make a living somewhere with the tattoos and body piercings, it just wouldn't be in Franklin County," she laughs. "It's scary still at times. I know she's always on the front line."
"She-itis," Collie says, smiling. "You hear it?"
Collie sees his life's work as educating and spreading a message of love—to the Christian community and the gay community. He has a part-time job with the MCC church which he hopes will lead to a full-time position in the months ahead. He gave his first sermon on Mother's Day this year at an MCC church in Pennsylvania as part of a weekend of transgender education. Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve's creation, he meditated on the balance of masculine and feminine in each of us.
"We are fearfully and wonderfully made," Collie says, quoting Psalm 139:14. "God knew our days before we were ever here. And if so many people are praying for so long to not be gay, at some point you have to realize, you're not in control, God's in control, and you have to let go and realize, maybe this is what God made me to be."