The Rev. Dawn Jennifer Flynn was called to pastor Charlotte’s New Life Metropolitan Community Church in February. Her return to ministry — she was a previously United Methodist minister — began after a long personal journey. Originally from Michigan, Flynn, 65, has lived in the South since attending graduate school at the University of Georgia. She calls herself “The Bug Lady,” having studied and worked professionally as an entomologist. qnotes recently sat down with the pastor to learn more about her journey and her book, “God Does Love Me: My Trans Journey To Finding My True Self,” in which she tells her story. We also discussed her love for bugs and her return to ministry. Our interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Are you originally from Charlotte?
I’m originally from Michigan. I now consider myself a southern belle because I moved South to go to graduate school at the University of Georgia in 1970 and never went back.
What did you study in school?
At the University of Georgia, I got my masters in entomology, which is the study of bugs. I’ve been an entomologist professionally for 40 years.
A lot of people are freaked out by bugs. What about them interests you?
Yeah, a lot of people are freaked out by them. Originally, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I couldn’t get into the vet school, because, how can I say this, the dean was very closed minded. He only wanted certain kinds of people to be in the vet school at Michigan State. I was trying to find some other allied area in natural history. I took a bunch of biology classes and took a bug class and fell in love with it and stayed with it. I got my bachelors in biology and when I finished that, I wanted to get a masters in an area that would relate to animals. There is a field of entomology called medical and veterinarian entomology which is the study of the control of insects and ticks and mites that transmit diseases to man and animal.
After studying entomology and working professionally in the field, how did you come about your call to ministry?
I moved to North Carolina in 1982. I didn’t have a biology job. I was working in a pension company as a computer support analyst. While I was working there, I got the call to investigate going into the ministry. I started taking classes at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte and I went through the program for the Methodist church in Gaston County. I became a local pastor and was appointed to a church in Lincoln County in 1997. While I was there I went to Duke Theological Seminary on a special course of study for five years. It was while I was in the Methodist church I was asked to leave.
How did your transition out of the church occur?
I’ve known I am transgender since the age of eight. I knew I was different. But because of growing up in the Lutheran church, I was taught to be who God created you to be and so I constantly did everything I could to try to “be a man.” I got married the first time, didn’t work. We had our first son. It still didn’t work. I had a second son and it still didn’t work. I married a second time and that didn’t work. All these tryings didn’t work because I was trying to be the sex I was given at birth. While I was serving my second church, I was asked to help a friend with the Relay for Life fundraiser in 2007. They had a womanless beauty pageant to help raise money for cancer. She couldn’t get anyone in her church to do it and she asked if I could help her. I had never appeared in public as a woman before, so I was scared, but I agreed to do it and I did well. But, then my next church found out about it. They notified the church and I was reported as, quote-unquote, parading around town as a woman. Of course, that wasn’t true. The church said it was inappropriate activities for a minister. They pretty much bullied me into surrendering my credentials. So, I left the Methodist church in September 2008.
How did you handle the situation?
My friends left me, my wife was ready to leave me. My church left me and then they said God didn’t love me because I was living in sin. I had nobody, so I asked why I should even live. In November 2008, I was going to take my life.
When did you begin to come out as transgender?
I told one person, a friend at work who was totally accepting, when I did the womanless beauty pageant. When I did that, I realized this was who I was and came to embrace it. I was going to commit suicide, but God came to me in a dream and told me to talk to this person I had never met before. This individual happened to be a therapist for transgender people. I saw her in April 2009 and she said, “Dawn there’s nothing wrong with you.” She brought me to the point where I could understand. She restored back to me my feeling that I had value as a person. At that point, I decided to embrace it. The next month, I started hormones and began living as a woman part time. I came out, full time, in November 2009.
You’ve written a book about your journey. Why was it important for you to share your story?
You’re probably going to ask, “Really?”, but I’m going to say it — God told me to. God said you have to write a book, you have to lay your story down, people need to hear your story, especially those who are transgender in the church that have been rejected and been told that God didn’t love them. The Spirit gave me the title, “God Does Love Me.” I’ve heard from many people who have read the book and others who have heard me speak. Two people told me that they had planned on committing suicide within a few days before coming to hear me and they changed their minds because I gave them hope. More people need to tell their stories. There aren’t enough people doing that. We all need to do that in our own way. There are too many transgender people because of the persecution we face who stay in the closet. They need to feel the freedom to step out. We can only be who we are meant to be if we are true to who we are.
How did you return to the ministry?
I was encouraged by my therapist to go back to church. She said it was too big a part of my life. I started investigating some churches that were LGBT friendly. I ended up going to MCC Charlotte. I was totally accepted, enveloped, loved, embraced and supported. I went and stayed there until I came here. While I was there, the minister there, the Rev. Catherine Houchins, told me it was time to go back into ministry again if I felt the nudge. She told me about the position here and told me to apply. She told me, “Dawn, you probably don’t realize it now, but you are not complete until you’re back in ministry again. Once you’re called and anointed, it’s irrevocable.” I had served as pastor of congregational care at MCC Charlotte. Once I was back in the pulpit, I was reaffirmed in Rev. Houchin’s statement. She was absolutely right.
When you are not working and preaching, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I study my bugs. I’m one of 14 world authorities on a group of insects. I’ve studied them for 40 years. I’m very much involved. I just published a new paper. I love to be with my bugs. It’s still very much an interest. I tell people when they ask me, “Dawn, how can you be a minister and a scientist? It seems like an oxymoron.” No, it’s not. The more I study science and the more I study my insects, the bigger my God gets, not the smaller. The more I see, the more I understand, I just marvel in it and it strengthens my faith.
What is your favorite passage in Scripture?
Jeremiah 1:5, where God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” That has a very special meaning for me. God knew I was going to be transgender even while I was in the womb and he has provided the opportunity for me to use that as a tool of ministry. The other one that’s really special for me is Galatians 6:10, which says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” That’s been my mantra. I feel that as a minister that’s what should lead me, that I should be available to help all people at all times. : :
more: Read more from our interview with Pastor Flynn, including more about her journey, her love of coffee and her book, in a special online only feature next week. You can purchase Flynn’s book online at Amazon.com.