TransNation: TV�s Transgender Evangelist
Sister Paula Nielsen, 'America’s foremost transgender evangelist' was born in Portland, Oregon in the late 1930s. Considering herself 'psychologically a woman,' Nielsen transitioned to a female identity in 1963. She remembers things being quite different for transsexuals in Sixties.
Nielsen, “America’s foremost transgender evangelist,” was born in Portland, Oregon in the late 1930s. Considering herself “psychologically a woman,” Nielsen transitioned to a female identity in 1963 while she was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She remembers things being quite different for transsexuals in Sixties.
It was during that period that Nielsen became a patient of Dr. Harry Benjamin, the sexologist who coined the word “transsexual” and first established the recommendation -- still in effect -- that a patient be eligible for gender reassignment surgery only after they’ve lived and functioned as member of their target gender for at least a year.
However, Nielsen notes, “Back then, a man ‘impersonating’ a woman in public could be arrested. The only time drag queens could… feel comfortable going out in drag was on Halloween. Trans people back then -- in order to get acceptance -- usually, after transitioning, would have to go live in a total straight world where nobody knew them.”
In fact, for nearly a decade Nielson admits she, “pretty much stayed away from the gay community altogether,” fearing someone might “drop the dime on” her, outing her as transsexual. She relocated to Los Angeles and started a new life in circles where “nobody knew that my identity had been otherwise. They thought that I was biologically a woman. For the first time in my life I really knew what it was like to be accepted, and not just tolerated.”
Still, Nielsen acknowledges, there was always a “fear hanging over my head that my employer was going to find out and I was going to lose my job. When I came out of the closet later and became totally open it was nice to have that lifted.”
It was after Nielsen returned to Portland in the 1970s that she came out and joined the local Metropolitan Community Church. In 1981 she began regularly performing a nightclub act at the city’s legendary drag club, Darcelle XV.
“I’ve always had a side to me that was an entertainer,” Nielsen explains. “Somebody told me one time, ‘Well you can be a preacher or an entertainer, but you can’t do both’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah? Just watch.’ Entertaining people and making them laugh and helping them forget their problems is, in my mind just as spiritual as anything any preacher does behind the pulpit.”
Ironically, Nielsen traces her preaching career back to her 30th high school reunion. Invited to present her nightclub act, Nielsen recalls stepping on stage in full drag and launching into her performance. “I realized, after about 10 minutes… that this wasn’t the audience for it and that I’d made a mistake.” Nielsen dropped the nightclub act and began to preach. When she was done, Nielsen says, “I walked off that stage with dignity; even though there were some people in the audience who turned their backs on me -- literally. ”
A year later, Nielsen met Pastor Naomi Harvey, an openly lesbian Pentecostal pastor who invited Nielsen to appear as a guest on her local television show. “Up until then,” Nielsen says, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as public access television.”
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Harvey suggested Nielsen could start her own show. A year later, she did. “And,” Nielsen adds, “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Launched in December 1987, the Sister Paula (sisterpaula.org) television ministry continues broadcasting on cable access today. It’s garnered Nielsen a faithful audience, coverage in The Oregonian newspaper and People magazine and appearances on TV shows like the Joan Rivers Show, The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn, and Saturday Night Clive on BBC.
Five years ago, the show went off the air briefly when Nielsen could no longer afford to produce it.
When fans petitioned her return, Nielsen explains, “I just said to the Lord, ‘If you want me to be back on TV then send somebody else to produce it.’ A few months later he did; Daniel [Spiro] has been producing the show for me now consistently for four and a half years. He also is at work on a documentary. I couldn’t ask for a more loyal, faithful, responsible person. As long as he’s willing to do it and as long as I have breath and my Bible, I’ll do it.”
Since then Spiro has set up a Sister Paula web site where he posts podcasts and video clips of the show. “Now I get mail from people all over the world,” Nielsen enthuses. “That’s the amazing thing about the Internet -- its global!”
Mostly the response has been supportive, she says, “There are more and more people in all the churches taking another look at their traditional positions on homosexuality and changing them.”
Currently at work on an autobiography, Nielsen reveals, “I almost died three and a half years ago from a heart attack and had open heart surgery. I believe the reason my life was spared was that I have to leave a legacy and a story for future generations. I want people to read about me [in] a hundred years. I really feel the documentary and the autobiography are both a part of that legacy.”
The next episode of "Gender Blender," the show co-hosted by trans author Jacob Anderson-Minshall, is November 18th 6-7pm PST, on Portland, Oregon's KBOO 90.7 (streaming live at kbooo.fm) . Reach him at [email protected].
Miss the last "TransNation"? Read it here.