Saturday, 5 April 2014

Interview with Julie Nemecek

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rev. Dr. Julie Nemecek, an American transgender activist, lecturer, professor, ordained Baptist minister, and Presbyterian Church elder. She was born in Chicago, Illinois but Michigan has been home for many years. In 2007 she hit the national headlines when she was fired from Spring Arbor University when she came out as a transgender professor. In 2008 Julie was appointed co-executive director for the LGBT civil rights organization Michigan Equality to become the first transgender person to serve as executive director for a statewide civil rights organization. Hello Julie!
Julie: Hello Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Julie: I am 63 and retired, but still active for LGBTQ rights and equality. I will have been married 42 years this June; have 3 boys – all married – and 5 grandchildren with another on the way.
Monika: In 2007 you made headlines for being fired by Spring Arbor University after saying you were going to transition into a woman. Are you still bitter about that act of discrimination?
Julie: Not really. I have had a lot of support from former colleagues and students. It was mainly the Board that had issues (fearing lost revenue and/or students). I worked for 18 months AFTER they knew I was trans and transitioning.
We reached a mediated settlement to my Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint after 13 hours of negotiation over two days. They knew they were in a difficult position because they taught the standards of care that I was following and had admitted a transgender student to a graduate program based on her Christian witness.
One positive outcome was that their act of discrimination brought me over 100 media interviews in 2007 including Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and even Christianity Today. This, along with two other highly publicized trans stories in early 2007, had a collective impact of bringing trans issues to the forefront of public thought.

Monika: You are a staunch adherent of LGBTQ rights. Could you name some of your initiatives in this respect?
Julie: Be glad to. I have served on the National boards of PFLAG and Soulforce. I was the first trans person to be the executive director for a statewide LGBTQ rights organization (Michigan Equality which later merged with another organization). I have spoken at most of the state universities in Michigan (7/8), some of the private colleges, and a handful of community colleges.
My spouse and I have told our story at more than two dozen churches; where I also often preached. I have spoken from the steps of the State Capital Building to a crowd of over 3000. I have lobbied at the local, state, and federal levels. I have communicated with hundreds of transgender people in person and via email. I do what I can to help people understand transgender issues.
Monika: You are an ordained Baptist minister and Presbyterian Church elder. Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Julie: I don’t believe God was merciless or cruel in creating transgender people. I believe God made trans people as part of the rich diversity of God’s creation. The first gentile convert to Christianity was a gender variant person; a eunuch (Acts 8).

At an LGBT New Year's Eve party.

Monika: In one of my previous interviews, Lisa Salazar indicated that transgender persons are said to be some of the least likely to become involved in religious institutions (like church) since most have been rejected and judged by their Christian families, friends, and faith communities. Would you agree?
Julie: I agree in part. Many churches have been willfully ignorant and very cruel. Joanne and I were asked to leave the church where I usually preached whenever the pastor was ill or absent. 
They were unwilling to try to understand the diagnosis or the standards of care. Fortunately, a former colleague of mine asked her pastor if we would be welcome at her church. The pastor said, “By all means.” We began attending there shortly before our story made the front page of the local newspaper. When the story came out, we were warmly welcomed. We became members shortly thereafter and now both of us serve as elders.
Monika: What is the general attitude of the Presbyterian Church to the transgender phenomenon?
Julie: Better than most churches. I know of two transgender pastors in the denomination (PCUSA) and there is a very active group of people pushing for more open and affirming churches receptive to LGBTQ people.
Monika: Is there any reference to transgenderism in the Bible?
Julie: Like many things in today’s culture there is nothing specifically about transgender people in the Bible. That said, the Apostle Paul noted that for those in Christ “male and female” no longer make a difference.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Julie: No, other than from books. I later met the two authors that had been of greatest help to me – Donna Rose and Jen Boylan – both were very gracious and humble people.

At a Transgender Day of Remembrance service in 2012.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Julie: The loss of some “friends” was difficult, but compensated for by new friends. Being considered a “heroine” to others was very uncomfortable to me. I was just being me.
Donna Rose actually helped me come to peace with the “heroine” role. She said some people need others out a little farther ahead of them and to them, you are a heroine. With that helpful understanding, I got over being uncomfortable about being addressed that way.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Julie: It is getting better and it is happening much faster than gay/lesbian acceptance happened. Some states have moved to provide equal protection in employment and housing for transgender people as have most of the top businesses in the country. The rate of change is astounding.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Julie: U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden called transgender rights exactly that. Like many frontiers, this one is still often rough and hard-going, but to be recognized as a new frontier is powerful and encouraging.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Julie: I am very active in politics and do believe transgender people can make a difference. Every year the National Center for Transgender Equality has a lobby day in Washington D.C.. Well over a hundred trans people descend on the offices of congress to tell our stories, advocate for rights, and try to make a difference. Yes, we can make a difference.

On a trip to Antigua, Guatemala.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Julie: My spouse, while remaining a woman, had to “transition” with me for our marriage to remain intact. She had a hard time, at first, with the idea that others would consider her a lesbian, but she was able to move beyond that so much so that she changed careers from surgical nursing to social work by adding two more degrees; earning her Masters in Social Work at the age of 60.
Her career goal is to work primarily with transgender people and their families. She is an awesome woman. We are more in love than ever.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Julie: I do try to keep up with my outfits but, at my age, fashion is more about comfort than style.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Julie: I have about 80 pages done and am SLOWLY working on such a book.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Julie: I expect to continue to speak out, inform, and lobby as much as I can. Honestly, I am hoping that others will move to the forefront and I can support them from behind the scenes.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
Julie: Three things: (1) get trans-informed professional help, (2) get to know other trans people (even if it is just by email), and (3) be who you are.
Monika: Julie, thank you for the interview!
Julie: My pleasure.

The Rev. Dr. Julie Nemecek is one of Michigan’s leading voices on transgender issues. Dr. Julie served as senior pastor in three churches for over 20 years before moving into higher education. She reached the rank of associate professor at Spring Arbor University then Lansing Community College before retiring from teaching in 2013. She continues to speak at colleges, churches, and LGBT events as well as providing training and consulting services.
Dr. Nemecek served on the national boards of Soulforce and PFLAG. She is on the advisory board of Trans Youth Family Allies (TYFA) and is an honorary board member of Inclusive Justice Michigan.
Julie has been married to Joanne for 42 years. She has three sons, four grandsons, and one granddaughter. She has delivered a baby; climbed a mountain; gone spelunking; parachuted from a plane; cooked a 12-course dinner for six; shot a 78 in golf; traveled internationally to England, France, Guatemala, Ireland, India, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland; and visited 48 U.S. states.

All the photos: courtesy of Julie Nemecek.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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