Rhiannon Tibbetts feels she is exactly the person God wants her to be, although some of God’s followers think otherwise.
The 54-year-old Madison resident is a transgender woman and a devout Christian, two identities “often thought to be incompatible and generally considered at odds,” she said.
She has felt scorn from some conservative Christians, and alienation from some in the transgender community for sticking with her faith.
She chronicles those challenges with sometimes heartbreaking honesty in “A Sad Love Song to God,” her 2012 self-published memoir. A companion book, “Listening to God’s Healing Love Song,” just came out. Both are available for purchase at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s website.
Either book would make a fine introduction to the transgender community, which Tibbetts says “is about 20 years behind the gay community as far as acceptance by society.”
Born male, Tibbetts said she realized over time there was something different about her gender identity. She began transitioning to female in the late 1990s, and changed her name in 2003. (“Rhiannon” is the title of one of her favorite Fleetwood Mac songs.) She became legally designated as a female four years ago.
For the last 16 years, she has worked for a cleaning company, a job that allowed her to transition to female largely out of the public eye, she said. Last year, she graduated from UW-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social welfare.
Throughout her life, her faith has been unwavering, she said, though she understands how a transgender person could feel burned by religion.
“So many people in our community have had bad experiences,” she said. “It’s just sad we approach people from a stance of condemnation and intolerance when we should be going out with love and mercy to spread the Good Word to people.”
Early on in her transition, she sought counsel from a Madison pastor, only to have him throw Bible passages at her that he said confirmed God was anti-transgender. “I went to him with an open and hurting heart, and I left discouraged and disappointed,” she said.
When I asked how she’s been able to maintain her faith despite such experiences, she pointed to her books. “I try to be constructive,” she said. “I channel my energy.”
She has spent many years studying the Bible on her own and in study groups. She takes comfort in passages such as Acts 8:30-40, in which the Apostle Philip baptizes a eunuch, and Matthew 19:11-12, which speaks of people who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
“Jesus hung out with the misfits and outcasts,” she said. “He was not fond of people who wrapped themselves in religious righteousness.”
She has found a spiritual home at First Baptist Church on Madison’s Near West Side, a congregation that describes itself as “welcoming and affirming” on matters of gender and sexual orientation. “They’re very positive, very progressive,” Tibbetts said.
She often goes to the church during the week, praying alone in the sanctuary.
“It gives me a sense of holy quiet,” she said. “I feel embraced by God.”