biographical,  queer spirituality,  transgender experience

Vexing the Vainglorious Ashe Van S.

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that I’ve been very vulnerable about my transition in ways that many (if not most) people could find awkward.

When I started my transition, I committed to do so publicly. I’ve shared pictures of myself trying to look pretty. I’ve made videos addressing questions people ask or reflection upon negative reactions I’ve received. I’ve also been transparent about my thoughts and feelings, even difficult or uncomfortable feelings.

Sometimes I’ve focused on critiquing social systems. Other times I’ve focused on the insecurities and pain that have come from the trauma of internalizing the harmful messages communicated by those social systems.

Throughout that, I’ve gotten all kinds of comments and messages from people upset about how narcissistic, attention-seeking, vain, arrogant, deceitful, greedy, etc. I know, more or less, where it comes from. I’ve made similar judgements before and have little doubt that a 36 year old Mark, even though he was trying his best and had lots of wonderful qualities, would have thought the same things about 46 year old Ashe.

A 36 year old Mark wouldn’t have sent a message though. Not because he was so righteous, but because he was deeply conflict-avoidant. It is something I’m still trying to unlearn.

This morning I received another such message. I’m not going to share what they wrote, but I feel liberty to summarize and give my response in it’s entirety since they are my words. I’m not sure how helpful sharing it is, because doing so often invites more judgements and accusations, the most common of which is that I’m “playing the victim card” in a selfish ploy for attention and personal gain.

Just to give you a summary: Someone I know only through Facebook messaged to remind me that they’ve supported my work in the past. However, I’ve become attention-seeking in such an off-putting way that it diminishes that work. They expressed frustration without I’ve been using my personal Facebook page as a public forum about something that should remain private. I’ve made everything selfishly all about me, becoming unreasonably upset when Facebook friends question my transition, angrily unfriending those who challenge me, etc. They concluded by asking: “When was the last time you actually asked about anyone else’s welfare and needs and journey?”

My stomach sank when I read their message. I sat with my feelings a bit before writing a response, which I’ve added below, with only slight editing to fix typos and make things clearer.


Dear X,

Here are some things that I want you to consider:

1) Yes, I expect people who want to follow me, personally, on Facebook to unconditionally support me in my gender transition. Just like I would any other significant, life-changing, and entirely valid thing.

2) Notice that I’m posting all of this stuff on my personal Facebook page and trying to limit how much that stuff finds its way over to the Center for Prophetic Imagination page.

3) Nevertheless, the feminist saying “the personal is political” applies here. Black activists, for example, weave together their political analysis with their personal experience for obvious reasons. And this is important in light of the violence against them personally and systemically. That’s why #BlackLivesMatters exists. The same is true for other marginalized groups. And it is true for me. Though not all in the same way or to the same degree.

4) I could be mistaken, but you seem to fall into a very common trap of thinking that things like gender/sexuality are private. That supporting queer people amounts to “letting people do what they want in the privacy of their own homes” or “folks should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies or with how they dress so long as they aren’t pushy about it.”

So then, my being public and pushy about it is egotistical attention-seeking, a sign of my rageful instability, and/or some sort of character flaw. I fundamentally reject that way of seeing things.

5) For as long as I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve used it as a pulpit/platform to confront oppression. I was doing so from the position of being a white heterosexual Christian man.

While I’ve always pissed people off, people respected that I did so from a place of deep vulnerability. I’ve always tried to adopt a sort of confessional/penitential posture for what it means to have white, Christian, American male privilege in a society exploited and dominated by white supremacy, Christian supremacy, Capitalist colonial imperialism, and patriarchy.

I adopted that posture for my own healing. But I did so in an intentionally public way as a form of faithful witness: to not only challenge oppression, but to do so from a deeply personal and vulnerable place.

6) I’m doing the same thing now, but in a way that is even more personal and vulnerable. Directly challenging patriarchy, heterosexism, transphobia, etc isn’t something new for me. However, the way I’m addressing it now certainly is.

I “embody” the transgender experience in a world that violently (in a literal way) rejects trans people, ESPECIALLY transfeminine people.

Transphobia isn’t just a sentiment. It is pervasive, systemic, public, and very harmful. And since the world is made for cisgender folks (those who “fit” the identity that they were assigned at birth) it is hard for them to understand just how antagonistic the world is, constantly, for transgender people.

Just like folks without disabilities struggle to understand how shitty the world can be for folks with disabilities. Just like it is easy for white people to feel like their Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, etc friends are over-reaching.

Transphobia is a largely acceptable form of hate, still present in mainstream entertainment in ways that isn’t as socially acceptable or polite for some other forms of bigotry.

The church bears greater responsibility for this bigotry than any other single institution (which I could get into deeper, but this is already a long response).

8 ) Rewind to September. After 45 years of deeply mistaken assumptions about myself, I realized I was transgender. I didn’t “choose” to be transgender. I didn’t “become” transgender. I was always transgender.

A lifetime of moralistic messaging around sex and masculinity kept me from even considering the truth about myself. This deeply ingrained self-hatred caused anxiety, depression, and an unhealthy relationship with my body.

It was so deep that, even after my beliefs changed and, as a result, I became an “ally” in support of queer friends, I still didn’t have a clue that I was queer.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the truth dawned on me.

It was a lot to process. I had to decide if I wanted to “come out” or keep it a secret.

I personally know people who have been “closeted” for years. Nobody besides a handful of people know their truth. They are so afraid of losing friends, being kicked out of their church, or being rejected by family, that they keep it secret, even though it is painful for them.

I personally know trans people who have come out only to have those fears realized. I personally know people who have been violently attacked because they’re trans. And, outside of my direct experience, but far from uncommon are youth who, because they came out to their parents, were kicked out onto the streets.

And though it is rarely talked about outside of queer communities, transgender people experience violence four times as much as cisgender people and that increased violence is directly tied to transphobic bigotry. And transfeminine people are, in particular, targeted.

For all of the talk about how trendy it is to be queer these days or how progressive society is around gender/sexuality, 2021 was the deadliest year for trans people.

So there I am in September. I “came out” to my closest friends and some of my family. Of course, I came out first to my spouse. She’s been astonishingly supportive and understanding.

I reached out to my queer friends for advice. I felt a lot of fear and confusion. I’m from rural Minnesota. A lot of my family voted for Trump. I work in the “Christian world” and my livelihood requires fundraising, which has always been hard for me.

I knew coming out publicly was a risk. But I was in a unique situation. I came up among charismatics, attended a evangelical bible college, and an evangelical seminary. I understand the very transphobic world of white American evangelicalism very, very well.

My views began to while still at seminary (not because of that they taught, but because what they taught started to bother me so much). I entered the world of radical Christianity, where because of doing things like writing books, doing podcasts, planting a church /starting an intentional community and travelling around to speak and stuff, I’ve developed a bigger “platform” than most folks in ministry.

My ministry has always been wrapped up in a prophetic response to oppression, both the way it takes shape in the structures of this world, but also in the way it slips into the nooks and crannies of our minds. And here I was, finally understanding the depths to which transphobia, patriarchy, homophobia, etc had imprisoned my mind.

I had to ask myself “How do I faithfully bear prophetic witness?” and “How do I name the principality of cisheteropatriarchy?” (if that term is new for you, googling it and reading the Wikipedia page gives a good overview)
After some discernment with others, I decided to be entirely public about my transition, aggressively. Even if it upset people. Even if it meant lost relationships and lost income. Even if it opened me up to continuous criticism, accusations, and judgements.

And so I’ve been pretty loud about this stuff. I’m trying to push against a society that covers over all of this stuff with a blanket of quiet shame or, if it comes to it, silences it with violent force.

I’m trying to vulnerably share my experience of this so that other folks with similar experiences realize that there’s nothing wrong with them.

It isn’t just altruistic though. I am also doing this for me. To tell the world (and myself) that my queerness isn’t a shameful thing. It is actually a sacred thing.

I want to bring all of the invisible links in the vast chain of cisheteropatriarchy to light until everyone around me grapples with the role they’ve played in forging it, so that we can ALL play a role in dismantling it. Not just queer people slowly hacking away at it in the privacy of their own homes.

9) Final point, I promise. I get why it might seem strange for me to harp on this one “issue” in a world with lots of other issues. If I chose to spend the rest of my life focused on this stuff, it would be ok. However, this isn’t my path long-term. In this season of my life, I will continue to reflect and write and speak and act as I continue with my transition. Slowly, it will become less front-and-center.

Of course, there are selfish and arrogant and insecure strands in how I’m going about this. Transitioning is a very raw process that nobody can really understand unless they’ve gone through it themselves. But it is deeply ironic to me, to the point of being absurdly funny, how much I’ve been accused of arrogance, selfishness, deceit, and all sorts of things in the past months. This is the most vulnerable, honest, accessible, non-reactive, patient, and compassionate I’ve ever been.

I think these strong reactions are a type of projection. Because of who I am, what I’m saying, and what I’m growing into, it raises all sorts of questions and challenges all sorts of assumptions.

Please understand: I’m not saying that these reaction mean you (or anyone else who strongly reacts) is deeply closeted.

But, as your initial post gets at, my setting boundaries on Facebook upsets people’s sensibilities. Why is that? Me broadcasting my needs angers people. Why is that? My strong challenge of the way “self-denial” is twisted and embraced as a virtue evokes anger. Etc.

And so it is that it makes sense to you to send me a private message, asking me to keep it confidential (without asking first), suggesting that I am attention seeking, that I flaunt my queerness, that I am unwilling to accept challenges, that I am angry, demanding, and selfish.

Even ending with the question: “When was the last time that you actually asked about anyone else’s welfare and needs and journey?”

These past few months have been intense and painful. Not just because of my transition. Even if that weren’t a factor at all, it would have been the most intense few months in my life. Even if I were so transfixed with my own stuff that that I didn’t ask about anyone else’s’ welfare or needs or journey, that would be entirely ok. It is ok for people going through a difficult time to get a bit self-absorbed about it.

I suspect you would generally agree with that sentiment, but, perhaps, not in my case. That’s why it is hard for me to read such a question (and the rest of what you wrote) as minimizing my experience. To feel like I’m making a big deal out of nothing.

Nevertheless: Of course I ask about other people’s welfare. That is a strange sort of accusation. Of course I haven’t abandoned the people I love to deal with their challenges alone. When a need is made clear to me or someone asks for help, I help them. Even these sorts of posts that irritate you have caused folks to reach out, folks who are closeted and needing support. Folks who have struggles and feel like I’m there for them.

But I assume your question is rhetorical. I doubt you want me to go into a list of my acts of altruism and compassio

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that I’ve been very vulnerable about my transition in ways that many (if not most) people could find awkward.

When I started my transition, I committed to do so publicly. I’ve shared pictures of myself trying to look pretty. I’ve made videos addressing questions people ask or reflection upon negative reactions I’ve received. I’ve also been transparent about my thoughts and feelings, even difficult or uncomfortable feelings.

Sometimes I’ve focused on critiquing social systems. Other times I’ve focused on the insecurities and pain that have come from the trauma of internalizing the harmful messages communicated by those social systems.

Throughout that, I’ve gotten all kinds of comments and messages from people upset about how narcissistic, attention-seeking, vain, arrogant, deceitful, greedy, etc. I know, more or less, where it comes from. I’ve made similar judgements before and have little doubt that a 36 year old Mark, even though he was trying his best and had lots of wonderful qualities, would have thought the same things about 46 year old Ashe.

A 36 year old Mark wouldn’t have sent a message though. Not because he was so righteous, but because he was deeply conflict-avoidant. It is something I’m still trying to unlearn.

This morning I received another such message. I’m not going to share what they wrote, but I feel liberty to summarize and give my response in it’s entirety since they are my words. I’m not sure how helpful sharing it is, because doing so often invites more judgements and accusations, the most common of which is that I’m “playing the victim card” in a selfish ploy for attention and personal gain.

Just to give you a summary: Someone I know only through Facebook messaged to remind me that they’ve supported my work in the past. However, I’ve become attention-seeking in such an off-putting way that it diminishes that work. They expressed frustration without I’ve been using my personal Facebook page as a public forum about something that should remain private. I’ve made everything selfishly all about me, becoming unreasonably upset when Facebook friends question my transition, angrily unfriending those who challenge me, etc. They concluded by asking: “When was the last time you actually asked about anyone else’s welfare and needs and journey?”

My stomach sank when I read their message. I sat with my feelings a bit before writing a response, which I’ve added below, with only slight editing to fix typos and make things clearer.


Dear X,

Here are some things that I want you to consider:

1) Yes, I expect people who want to follow me, personally, on Facebook to unconditionally support me in my gender transition. Just like I would any other significant, life-changing, and entirely valid thing.

2) Notice that I’m posting all of this stuff on my personal Facebook page and trying to limit how much that stuff finds its way over to the Center for Prophetic Imagination page.

3) Nevertheless, the feminist saying “the personal is political” applies here. Black activists, for example, weave together their political analysis with their personal experience for obvious reasons. And this is important in light of the violence against them personally and systemically. That’s why #BlackLivesMatters exists. The same is true for other marginalized groups. And it is true for me. Though not all in the same way or to the same degree.

4) I could be mistaken, but you seem to fall into a very common trap of thinking that things like gender/sexuality are private. That supporting queer people amounts to “letting people do what they want in the privacy of their own homes” or “folks should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies or with how they dress so long as they aren’t pushy about it.”

So then, my being public and pushy about it is egotistical attention-seeking, a sign of my rageful instability, and/or some sort of character flaw. I fundamentally reject that way of seeing things.

5) For as long as I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve used it as a pulpit/platform to confront oppression. I was doing so from the position of being a white heterosexual Christian man.

While I’ve always pissed people off, people respected that I did so from a place of deep vulnerability. I’ve always tried to adopt a sort of confessional/penitential posture for what it means to have white, Christian, American male privilege in a society exploited and dominated by white supremacy, Christian supremacy, Capitalist colonial imperialism, and patriarchy.

I adopted that posture for my own healing. But I did so in an intentionally public way as a form of faithful witness: to not only challenge oppression, but to do so from a deeply personal and vulnerable place.

6) I’m doing the same thing now, but in a way that is even more personal and vulnerable. Directly challenging patriarchy, heterosexism, transphobia, etc isn’t something new for me. However, the way I’m addressing it now certainly is.

I “embody” the transgender experience in a world that violently (in a literal way) rejects trans people, ESPECIALLY transfeminine people.

Transphobia isn’t just a sentiment. It is pervasive, systemic, public, and very harmful. And since the world is made for cisgender folks (those who “fit” the identity that they were assigned at birth) it is hard for them to understand just how antagonistic the world is, constantly, for transgender people.

Just like folks without disabilities struggle to understand how shitty the world can be for folks with disabilities. Just like it is easy for white people to feel like their Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, etc friends are over-reaching.

Transphobia is a largely acceptable form of hate, still present in mainstream entertainment in ways that isn’t as socially acceptable or polite for some other forms of bigotry.

The church bears greater responsibility for this bigotry than any other single institution (which I could get into deeper, but this is already a long response).

8) Rewind to September. After 45 years of deeply mistaken assumptions about myself, I realized I was transgender. I didn’t “choose” to be transgender. I didn’t “become” transgender. I was always transgender.

A lifetime of moralistic messaging around sex and masculinity kept me from even considering the truth about myself. This deeply ingrained self-hatred caused anxiety, depression, and an unhealthy relationship with my body.

It was so deep that, even after my beliefs changed and, as a result, I became an “ally” in support of queer friends, I still didn’t have a clue that I was queer.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the truth dawned on me.

It was a lot to process. I had to decide if I wanted to “come out” or keep it a secret.

I personally know people who have been “closeted” for years. Nobody besides a handful of people know their truth. They are so afraid of losing friends, being kicked out of their church, or being rejected by family, that they keep it secret, even though it is painful for them.

I personally know trans people who have come out only to have those fears realized. I personally know people who have been violently attacked because they’re trans. And, outside of my direct experience, but far from uncommon are youth who, because they came out to their parents, were kicked out onto the streets.

And though it is rarely talked about outside of queer communities, transgender people experience violence four times as much as cisgender people and that increased violence is directly tied to transphobic bigotry. And transfeminine people are, in particular, targeted.

For all of the talk about how trendy it is to be queer these days or how progressive society is around gender/sexuality, 2021 was the deadliest year for trans people.

So there I am in September. I “came out” to my closest friends and some of my family. Of course, I came out first to my spouse. She’s been astonishingly supportive and understanding.

I reached out to my queer friends for advice. I felt a lot of fear and confusion. I’m from rural Minnesota. A lot of my family voted for Trump. I work in the “Christian world” and my livelihood requires fundraising, which has always been hard for me.

I knew coming out publicly was a risk. But I was in a unique situation. I came up among charismatics, attended a evangelical bible college, and an evangelical seminary. I understand the very transphobic world of white American evangelicalism very, very well.

My views began to while still at seminary (not because of that they taught, but because what they taught started to bother me so much). I entered the world of radical Christianity, where because of doing things like writing books, doing podcasts, planting a church /starting an intentional community and travelling around to speak and stuff, I’ve developed a bigger “platform” than most folks in ministry.

My ministry has always been wrapped up in a prophetic response to oppression, both the way it takes shape in the structures of this world, but also in the way it slips into the nooks and crannies of our minds. And here I was, finally understanding the depths to which transphobia, patriarchy, homophobia, etc had imprisoned my mind.

I had to ask myself “How do I faithfully bear prophetic witness?” and “How do I name the principality of cisheteropatriarchy?” (if that term is new for you, googling it and reading the Wikipedia page gives a good overview)
After some discernment with others, I decided to be entirely public about my transition, aggressively. Even if it upset people. Even if it meant lost relationships and lost income. Even if it opened me up to continuous criticism, accusations, and judgements.

And so I’ve been pretty loud about this stuff. I’m trying to push against a society that covers over all of this stuff with a blanket of quiet shame or, if it comes to it, silences it with violent force.

I’m trying to vulnerably share my experience of this so that other folks with similar experiences realize that there’s nothing wrong with them.

It isn’t just altruistic though. I am also doing this for me. To tell the world (and myself) that my queerness isn’t a shameful thing. It is actually a sacred thing.

I want to bring all of the invisible links in the vast chain of cisheteropatriarchy to light until everyone around me grapples with the role they’ve played in forging it, so that we can ALL play a role in dismantling it. Not just queer people slowly hacking away at it in the privacy of their own homes.

9) Final point, I promise. I get why it might seem strange for me to harp on this one “issue” in a world with lots of other issues. If I chose to spend the rest of my life focused on this stuff, it would be ok. However, this isn’t my path long-term. In this season of my life, I will continue to reflect and write and speak and act as I continue with my transition. Slowly, it will become less front-and-center.

Of course, there are selfish and arrogant and insecure strands in how I’m going about this. Transitioning is a very raw process that nobody can really understand unless they’ve gone through it themselves. But it is deeply ironic to me, to the point of being absurdly funny, how much I’ve been accused of arrogance, selfishness, deceit, and all sorts of things in the past months. This is the most vulnerable, honest, accessible, non-reactive, patient, and compassionate I’ve ever been.

I think these strong reactions are a type of projection. Because of who I am, what I’m saying, and what I’m growing into, it raises all sorts of questions and challenges all sorts of assumptions.

Please understand: I’m not saying that these reaction mean you (or anyone else who strongly reacts) is deeply closeted.

But, as your initial post gets at, my setting boundaries on Facebook upsets people’s sensibilities. Why is that? Me broadcasting my needs angers people. Why is that? My strong challenge of the way “self-denial” is twisted and embraced as a virtue evokes anger. Etc.

And so it is that it makes sense to you to send me a private message, asking me to keep it confidential (without asking first), suggesting that I am attention seeking, that I flaunt my queerness, that I am unwilling to accept challenges, that I am angry, demanding, and selfish.

Even ending with the question: “When was the last time that you actually asked about anyone else’s welfare and needs and journey?”

These past few months have been intense and painful. Not just because of my transition. Even if that weren’t a factor at all, it would have been the most intense few months in my life. Even if I were so transfixed with my own stuff that that I didn’t ask about anyone else’s’ welfare or needs or journey, that would be entirely ok. It is ok for people going through a difficult time to get a bit self-absorbed about it.

I suspect you would generally agree with that sentiment, but, perhaps, not in my case. That’s why it is hard for me to read such a question (and the rest of what you wrote) as minimizing my experience. To feel like I’m making a big deal out of nothing.

Nevertheless: Of course I ask about other people’s welfare. That is a strange sort of accusation. Of course I haven’t abandoned the people I love to deal with their challenges alone. When a need is made clear to me or someone asks for help, I help them. Even these sorts of posts that irritate you have caused folks to reach out, folks who are closeted and needing support. Folks who have struggles and feel like I’m there for them.

But I assume your question is rhetorical. I doubt you want me to go into a list of my acts of altruism and compassion. Those stories aren’t mine to share anyway.

n. Those stories aren’t mine to share anyway.

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Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk (they/them) is the Executive Director at the Center for Prophetic Imagination. Ashe is a writer, teacher, organizer, and spiritual director. For nearly 15 years, they have sown seeds of subversive spirituality throughout North America. Ashe is the author of such books as That Holy Anarchist, unKingdom, and A Wolf at the Gate.

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