You have described your female life [after transitioning] as sort of a sobering awakening. Can you talk about what that awakening has looked like?
I think probably the biggest difference I see in my life is how much confidence I’ve lost — and sometimes with the simplest things. Because you’re just treated like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
I was taught to be confident. I was taught that I had the ability to control a room. And when you assume you’re going to be taken seriously, to a certain extent you’ll be taken seriously. You don’t lose things overnight. I’m tall. I dress in a way that causes people to say, “Oh, she might know what she’s talking about.” I speak up for myself, most of the time, pretty quickly. I’m White. And it took me a while to realize that my expertise is not going to be appreciated the way it once was.
I notice it particularly in the field in which I used to work, which is in starting new churches. The organization I led was one of the best in the nation at what it did. We could start these churches from scratch, and often, by year five, they would be averaging 500 in attendance. And, by year 10, 1,000 in attendance. We were good at what we did. But I was in a meeting last year where starting new churches was being discussed and kept trying to contribute. Finally one dear soul said, “We actually have a person here who wrote an actual book on this subject — that would be Paula.” So I thought, Okay, now finally they’re going to listen. And still, it was, like, wow: Nope.
Having insights from living both genders, how do you think people can make progress so that girls are raised to be more confident and people are trained to listen equally to the contributions of both genders?
You know, we teach our sons to be confident; we teach our daughters to be perfect. And I think one of the most important things is to teach our daughters to be persistent instead of perfect. Teaching them to be perfect actually works well right through college. They end up valedictorian. All is fine. And then they get out into the first job and a position opens, and there’s four requirements, and they have two of the four, and they say, “Well, I can’t apply for this, I’m not perfect.” And a guy comes along and has one of the four and says, “Yeah, I got this.” And gets the job even though he’s half as qualified.
The other critically important thing, which, to me, has been a major disappointment — I’ve just been surprised — is women don’t empower each other. They see each other as competition. I don’t get it: I’ve had more conflict with women in seven years as a woman than I had in 50 years as a man. Certainly, as an alpha human, I was not prepared to be seen as a threat so much to other alpha females.
Having had a background as a man with privilege for so many years, how do you find a way to share insights about privilege and confidence to help other women — without risking pushback against perceptions of mansplaining?
From the women?
Yeah. Who might say, Well, you have this privilege you’ve accumulated; we don’t have that.
Well, I’m convinced part of the reason my first TED Talk has had 4 million views is because very early in the talk, I say, “People ask me, ‘Do you feel like a woman?’ And I said, ‘Well, I feel like a transgender woman because there are things a cisgender woman will know I will never know.’ ” I actually get a little upset with trans women who try to say, “My experience is the same as a cis woman.” It’s like: Oh, come on. Do your work. Go back to your therapist. It’s like, you’re living in this little space between genders.
So I approach it from the perspective of, Hey, I had all that. And this is the amount of confidence I’ve lost. I understand how you might feel. And I’ve heard from women on all seven continents, including a scientist in Antarctica, in response to that first TED Talk. All of them basically saying thank you for validating my experience.
You’ve said that there are not many places in Western culture where women are more marginalized than in conservative religion. Given your leadership role for so many years in that conservative religious world, what advice would you go back to share with then-Paul and others, based on what you know now?
I pushed pretty hard on trying to get women into more leadership positions, but I just was too timid, too comfortable. We had to earn $4 million a year and got more money from the more conservative churches. Every time I would write for our national magazine on having women in preaching positions in ministry, there would be a huge pushback. And my editor would say, occasionally, “Oh, you just did that a couple months ago. Can we just hold off another month or two at least?”
I’ve had conversations with a couple women from my denomination that I worked with before, and I’ve asked them: Why are you staying? It’s not going to change in your lifetime, and it’s such a negative atmosphere. But I think a lot of the women are, as I was, loyal to what they grew up in. Certainly baby boomers. And so they just stay. A number of them have quietly been in touch with me post-transition. But they don’t want to publicly say that they’re in touch with me.
When you transitioned, you said you lost thousands of friends — not to mention your jobs.
Yeah. Almost overnight. I was so naive. I thought, Well, these people have known me — a lot of them — for four decades. So they’re going to think to themselves, Gee, I guess I need to study up on what it means to be transgender because I certainly know Paul’s character. The last thing I expected was for them to say, “Oh my goodness, we’ve been wrong about Paul for 40 years.” And yet, that’s what the vast majority [did]. It was devastating to me. It still is devastating.
I think I’ve received either a nice email or letter from maybe 40 people of the thousands and thousands I knew. So these people are just gone from my life, just completely gone. One of my mentors, thank goodness, is still there. And one megachurch lead pastor still gets together with me. That’s it. I saw that one megachurch pastor just last month and we had a delightful evening together. But then I just sat in my hotel room and cried because he was updating me on all of the people and all the huge things that have happened that I thought surely someone would have told me. Someone would have said to me, you know, “So-and-so died” — but they hadn’t. It is really as if I don’t exist.
Do you think people will come around?
It’s such an insular culture — and I think more so today, even, than it was seven or eight years ago — that, no, I really don’t expect it to change. I don’t think that many of those people are going to come around.
You know, I find it utterly fascinating that, whether you’re talking about Catholic bishops or evangelical leaders, the two social histories they’ve chosen to focus on are a women’s right to choose and LGBTQ issues, which, in a totally straight, patriarchal society, cost your leadership absolutely nothing. You don’t have to give up anything if those are your social positions. You know, what if we choose systemic racism or economic inequality? No, see, then [we] might have to give up something.
I mean, look at the poor trans kids right now. I preached a sermon a few weeks ago talking about a law that had been passed. When I started [writing] the sermon on Monday, five states had passed laws. By the time I preached it on Sunday, it was eight. And several hundred different laws pending — 12 in Texas alone.
People talk about the importance of proximity to understanding issues and feeling compassion for others. While your story has touched millions of people, in terms of educating the people right around you, proximity to somebody who is transgender didn’t have that effect.
No. You know, I get paid big dollars to speak at universities — I’m blessed. And I have said to Christian universities, I will come pro bono, and I will pay my own expenses. One took me up on it. And there was such an outcry against it that when the psychology department scheduled me to come back the next year, the president said, “No, you can’t — ever.” And it was so tragic to me because, you know, kids came up and came out to me during my time there.
What advice can you give young people like that? Acknowledging that pain, you’ve mentioned what Gene Robinson, the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, said to you.
Oh, God, yeah. I can still see exactly where we were standing. He said, “The pain, it accumulates. It accumulates.” Because it does. It’s hard. Because you lose your tribe. You lose your community. And then you got to start from scratch. And attacks are almost always from the right, and usually from the Christian world. So I put students in touch with the Q Christian Fellowship, which is a large, progressive organization that kind of skews younger. I’m on their board. We have a lot of resources for Christian kids who’ve been through the wringer. And if I have a chance to talk with them a little while, I usually will just say, “You know, there are other schools you can go to that are also focused on great spiritual growth that will not marginalize you.” I want to help them navigate through and be able to get out of that world.
Speaking out and sharing what is personal opens you up to attack — that is a hard journey. But do you feel like you are walking in your purpose?
I do. I really do. People said, “Why didn’t you just kind of disappear? You could have.” And I said, “Oh, no. I’ve been a part of the problem for too long. I thought working from inside I was accomplishing a lot.” I wasn’t. I say often: “I better live a long time because I got a lot of s--- to make up for.” And so I really feel like it’s a responsibility. And I can handle it. You know, that poor teen should not have to leave the state of Arkansas — or somewhere else — to get estrogen. That kid can’t handle it. Let the attacks come against me. Not that kid.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.