While hot meals are being served to the homeless in the downstairs gathering area, Rev. Peter Beeson and I talk in the historic second-floor chapel, the large space flanked by stained-glass windows and full of original details that Beeson, an architecture buff, is quick to point out.
The pastor is warm, with a measured and eloquent way of speaking that makes it clear he would give a great sermon.
When he first came to Hoboken to preside over the church in 2014 he was Rose Beeson. He came out as transgender last summer and took the name Peter soon after.
A Story to Tell
Last summer part of the worship included a series that focused on personal stories of resurrection. Congregants talked about times when God brought them hope and healing.
“One of the members of that team asked me to share a story,” Beeson says. He had previously shared that he is transgender with a few parishioners in private but had never found the right time to come out to the congregation and was still known to most as Pastor Rose. “It was sort of like the stars finally aligned in the right way,” he says.
This wasn’t Beeson’s first time coming out. Beeson grew up in Arizona and attended a conservative Evangelical church. From an early age he was drawn to religion and wanted to be a pastor, but the most a woman could hope for was to become a Sunday school teacher or missionary.
“Back when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was sort of wrestling with coming out for the first time,” Beeson says. “There was very limited conversation about even gay or lesbian and what there was was rife with stereotypes.”
Beeson waited until after moving out of his parents’ home to come out as gay. “Even today in 2018, something like 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT because they’ve been kicked out of their home,” he says. “When I came out to my family they were not surprised. They weren’t thrilled, but they did their best to be supportive.”
Still, Beeson had trouble reconciling being Evangelical with being queer, the term that he claimed before transgender. He even tried conversion therapy.
“I did look into that on my own,” he says. “If God is good and Scriptures tell us that homosexuality is bad, then I should fix this.”
Beeson joins many top biblical scholars who no longer interpret Scripture as saying that homosexuality is wrong. He notes that conversion therapy on minors is illegal in a number of states. “It is so damaging to people,” he says. “I never experienced any of the stuff like electro-shock therapy. I did certainly work with some groups where they spoke a lot about seeking healing for broken relationships and that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered.”
Gender presentation was another aspect of conversion therapy. “The basic argument was if you seek to develop strong female friendships that are nonsexual, and if you wear high heels and makeup you will become straight,” he says. “Obviously that has nothing to do with sexual orientation. So I wore heels and makeup, and lo and behold, that did not make me straight,” Beeson laughs. “I was performing female drag and actually kind of enjoying it, but it did not feel like a natural expression of who I was.”
Eventually Beeson left conversion therapy. “I arrived at the point where I thought, ‘If we claim to worship a God that is good and gracious, God is not going to create someone who is inherently broken and wrong. And if there is some super power out there that intentionally creates things that are broken and wrong, then they’re being sadistic, and I want nothing to do with them.” Beeson left the church behind as well.
Five years later, while living in Phoenix, Beeson often noticed an old church with a big stained-glass window on his work commute. “I love historic buildings, architecture and stained-glass windows,” he says. “So one Sunday morning, after service had started, I made sure to show up 15 minutes late because I didn’t want to see anyone at the door. I figured I hated all these people, who I had never met yet. I just wanted to see the building.”
Beeson reflects on that day. “It was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment. Saul is this very devout Jewish Pharisee, and his task was to hunt out and destroy the early Christians. So he’s riding along on his horse, and in a bolt of light, God knocks him off his horse, blinds him, and he ends up becoming Paul, one of the primary founders of the early church. It felt like that moment for me, because the light was coming in the second-story windows. It was so beautiful. The pastor was giving a really good sermon talking about God’s compassion and mercy in ways I hadn’t heard before. I was hooked.”
Beeson found LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Lutheran church and worked for even more inclusion. From there Beeson went on to seminary, a four-year Master’s program that he completed in San Francisco. After working as a pastor in the D.C. area he got a call about a church in Hoboken that was looking for a pastor.
“Saint Mathew Trinity has had a long history of having a public statement that they’re open and welcoming to LGBT people,” Beeson says. “We had a couple of the first same-sex weddings when they became legal here in New Jersey.” This gave Beeson confidence when he came out as transgender last summer. “The congregation, theoretically on paper, would be really on board.”
Walking the Walk
Once Beeson told his story, the support was real, and they decided to share his story with the community.
“We had a diversity educator from Stevens come in back in January to do some sort of basic trans 101 training for the congregation,” Beeson says. “We did it as an adult education opportunity. A lot of teenagers came who were really excited that their church was sort of leading the path.” Diversity Educator Jaquis Watters led the class.
In February the congregation celebrated with Beeson in a renaming ceremony. He picked Peter because he was inspired by Saint Peter’s persistence. The ceremony was led by Bishop Tracie Bartholomew of the New Jersey Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church In America.
“The bishop and the Synod officials have been incredibly supportive both of the congregation and me,” Beeson says.
Hoboken on Board
“I think it’s really an exciting time for Hoboken,” Beeson says, noting that the current mayor is the first Sikh, and the previous one was the first woman. “Here’s this little tiny town outside of New York City that’s making history in so many ways. Mayor Bhalla just signed an order to make city-owned bathrooms gender-inclusive single-stall. It’s interesting to see the diversity in the flux of newcomers and folks who have lived here for generations.”
Saint Matthew’s Trinity sets an example.
“It’s a testament to the strength of the congregation that we really haven’t had anyone leave,” Beeson says. “There are a handful of publicly out trans clergy people, but there are very, very few who have transitioned while serving a congregation. This is a new experiment the congregation and I are finding together. We’ve had a couple of new people come because they know that it’s a place where they can be safe and be themselves. I’ve had a number of pastors asking advice on how to support their parishioners, and parishioners and seminary students asking how to reconcile being trans with being religious. It’s really a privilege to be out and more public for these people who can’t be.”—07030