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Lutherans Elect First Openly Transgender Bishop Megan Rohrer

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Reverend Megan Rohrer has made history. They've been elected as the first openly transgender bishop in any mainstream American denomination - preferred pronouns they/them. But...

MEGAN ROHRER: My hunch is that my new preferred pronoun might be bishop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The 41-year-old Rohrer will lead the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And as they told NPR's Melissa Block, they see their path-making election as a way to inspire hope.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: First things first, when you're a bishop, you get to wear fancier garments. And Pastor Rohrer says folks in their community are already busy designing. They warned the bishop-elect, just so you know, our taste is very extravagant. Is that OK?

ROHRER: It made me laugh because I just thought, like, why wouldn't a queer pastor want the most sparkly yarn or embroidery thread ever on their tailored outfits? Like, I've been on "Queer Eye." Like, get the nice one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THINGS JUST KEEP GETTING BETTER")

WIDELIFE: (Singing) All things just keep getting better...

BLOCK: In Rohrer's appearance on "Queer Eye" last year, we hear them urging a conflicted gay Lutheran pastor to fully celebrate his identity within the church.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUEER EYE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And you get to preach openly in ways that generations only dreamed of.

BLOCK: For Rohrer, the fact that they, a transgender pastor, have now been elected bishop fits neatly with the roots of the Lutheran Church in the Protestant Reformation.

ROHRER: As Lutherans, we pride ourselves on being ever reforming. And this is certainly a reformation moment if I've ever seen one.

BLOCK: And Rohrer hopes it's a moment, especially for transgender people, that will change and even save lives. They've heard this before.

ROHRER: There's almost not a week that goes by that someone doesn't reach out to me on social media and say, I chose to live today because I knew you existed.

BLOCK: Rohrer says the pressures on transgender people are especially dangerous now, with so much anti-trans legislation being proposed and passed around the country.

ROHRER: The weight of having people debate your dignity, the weight of angry, faithful people. Being the loudest for some people is too strong a weight to kind of hang on. And my hope is to be a voice that provides hope for people.

BLOCK: Rohrer knows well how it feels to have your identity attacked. As a teenager in South Dakota, they were kicked out of a church youth group when they came out as a lesbian. The abuse continued later at a Lutheran college.

ROHRER: There were some people who tried to throw holy water on me to - I don't - exercise something or people who would be in the same religion classes as me and sing hymns whenever I would walk by. I didn't ever know what to do, so I would just sing harmony on the hymns.

BLOCK: And there were worse attacks both there and later when they became pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in San Francisco. So what might happen now that Rohrer is becoming bishop?

GENE ROBINSON: What will come towards them is a lot of vitriol and hatred. I can't describe to you how cruel and awful some of that is.

BLOCK: That's Bishop Gene Robinson. He broke barriers himself in 2003 when he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

ROBINSON: At the same time, they will experience this support and moving understanding and willingness to be in the trenches with them to not only withstand this but to thrive in the midst of it.

BLOCK: And maybe, just maybe, Pastor Rohrer says, this becomes a moment for a dwindling Lutheran church to grow.

ROHRER: I won't miss this opportunity to say, hey, join us in prayer, and join us in the pews. And if you are someone who's been longing for a moment like this, then come give the Lutherans a chance.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.