Faith & Fight: Barbara Satin Spent Decades Advocating for Trans Inclusion in Church Communities

Photo Sarah Whiting

I knew from about age four or five that I had interests and feelings that were a mixture of masculine and feminine, and that was not something that I saw in the other boys I hung around with,” says Barbara Satin, a trans woman and the recently retired faith work director of the National LGBTQ+ Task Force. “There were no models for me to emulate, nor even a vocabulary to help me name what I was experiencing.

“I hid my gender confusion by being as masculine as I could be so nobody would suspect what was really going on inside my mind and body,” she says. “I went into the Air Force to train as a jet fighter pilot. I know lots of trans folks around my age who joined the military — what could be more macho than that? After the Air Force, I came back to Minnesota and fell in love, hoping that the love of a good woman would cure this terrible yearning I had.”

That didn’t happen.

Satin says her life as a father and husband was filled with love and joy. She had a successful business career, and was an involved and influential leader in the Roman Catholic Diocese and a civic activist.

“But, like so many of my peers, the fear of being revealed as a transgender person was always present: fear of losing your family, fear of losing your job, fear of losing your status in the community and all the positive things you had accomplished being lost when your secret is discovered,” she reflects.

Satin was sixty years old when she started to explore her gender journey.

“All of it started with an insightful question from my second-oldest son, a psychotherapist. Over a beer and a hamburger he asked, ‘What’s going on in your life? You have changed from being the loving, thoughtful dad we all knew to being more harsh and judgmental.’ I told him something I had never said to anyone: ‘I am transgender, and I guess I am having problems trying to make sense of this in my life.’ His response was to put his hand on mine. ‘We have been waiting for you to tell us. Thank you.’ He suggested I talk with a therapist,” Satin says.

As a devout Catholic who spent time in the seminary in her late teens, Satin says she knew that there was little room for women in leadership in the Catholic church and absolutely no acceptance of a transgender person.

“I soon realized that so much of my faith life had to do with worshiping with others. I needed a community to make my spiritual life meaningful. That is when I began to look for a welcoming worship space and found Spirit of the Lake United Church of Christ in Minneapolis,” Satin says.

The congregation at Spirit of the Lake was primarily LGBTQ+ — the first in a major Christian denomination. Satin quickly felt at home and became a leader. Through Spirit of the Lakes, she was part of the United Church Coalition for LGBTQ Concerns, and played a role in the church’s 2003 decision to affirm the inclusion of transgender people in its ministry.

Satin also helped lead the church’s development of Spirit on Lake, a LGBTQ+ senior housing development in the Powderhorn Neighborhood of Minneapolis. The affordable facility was the second of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 2013. Over the past few years, residents who identify as LGBTQ+ continue to make up 60 percent of the population.

“Within our congregation at Spirit of the Lake and our broader LGBTQ+ community, we saw many seniors who were living in situations where they were isolated or in fear that their sexual orientations or gender identities would open them to harassment or cause them to lose their housing,” Satin explains.

LGBTQ+ focused housing “is in short supply,” Satin says. “While some additional projects now exist across the country, this is still a major issue for the queer community.” Isolation is a challenge for all aging seniors, and LGBTQ+ seniors often lack traditional familial support systems.

In a 2018 AARP survey of 85,000 aging LGBTQ+ adults, more than a third of lesbian, gay, or bisexual respondents were worried about being forced to hide their sexuality or gender identity to find good housing, and more than half of gender expansive or transgender participants had this fear. Black and Latino LGBTQ+ Americans reported fears about abuse in long-term care facilities due to their race and sexuality or gender identity.

In 2014, Satin created the Trans Seminarian Leadership Cohort, which is still the only program of its kind. In 2015, she was invited to the White House to talk about housing concerns for LGBTQ+ seniors, and later that year was one of three LGBTQ+ people invited to participate for the first time in the White House Conference on Aging. In 2016, President Barack Obama appointed Satin to the Presidential Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In January 2021, she participated as a prayer leader for President Biden’s Inauguration Breakfast.

Before her retirement in 2021, Satin recruited faith leaders in eight states to meet with Senators about the importance of passing the Equality Act.

In 1993, Minnesota was the first to amend the state’s Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Twenty-one other states have since followed suit. Satin says the Equality Act would “offer these protections across state lines.”

The bill would extend federal civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, housing, credit, the jury system, and federally funded education and health care programs. It also prevents an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including restrooms, locker rooms, and dressing rooms, that are in accordance with their gender identity.

Satin points out that many states are currently introducing and passing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and a majority are aimed at the trans and gender non-conforming community.

“The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills in Southern states are just the latest effort to erase our identity,” Satin says. “Texas [and Alabama] are leading the way toward treating any effort to provide support or care to trans people as a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment whether you are a parent or a professional caregiver.”

When anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is passed, hate crimes spike. 2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans and gender-nonconforming people, with 47 murders tracked by the Human Rights Campaign. “The endemic violence that transgender people, particularly women of color, face in this nation continues to grow,” Satin adds. For 21 years, Satin has led annual memorial services in Minnesota for those who have been murdered in the past year, “simply for living their authentic lives.”