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A transgender woman finds support where she least expected — from a Montgomery County church and town

Love in Action United Church of Christ in Hatboro helped usher Jennifer Angelina Petro through a turbulent period of transition and, Petro says, "saved" her life.

Jennifer Angelina Petro, center, gets a hug from Love in Action Church member Patti Leamon, left, during the "Passing the Peace" at Sunday services.
Jennifer Angelina Petro, center, gets a hug from Love in Action Church member Patti Leamon, left, during the "Passing the Peace" at Sunday services.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photograph

When Jennifer Angelina Petro walked into Love in Action United Church of Christ in Hatboro for the first time in early 2017, she sat in the place she felt most comfortable: toward the back, near the door, "in the chair closest to getting out."

Two years earlier, Petro had come out as transgender, which upended her life. She left her teaching job, and lost her home. She was on the verge of divorce and plagued by thoughts of suicide. She didn't expect to find refuge in institutional religion, but as an LGBT person of faith, she wanted to try.

Petro felt so at home at Love in Action that she not only joined the congregation but cofounded an LGBT support group based there. In May, representing the church, she stood before the Hatboro Borough Council to urge passage of an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

She was not the only one in transition that night. So was Hatboro, a quiet Montgomery County town of 7,400 residents. An earlier antidiscrimination measure had gone down to defeat with a mayoral veto, but the emergence of a second signaled an evolution in the 303-year-old borough, which in November elected its first female mayor.

"For me, these ordinances are about the future of our children and generations of the LGBT population," said Petro, 50, of Bryn Athyn. The message that everyone should be treated equally, with respect and dignity, should start in kindergarten and go "all the way up."

As a nondiscrimination bill has languished in the Pennsylvania legislature for more than a decade, 51 of the state's 2,562 municipalities have taken it upon themselves to pass their own measures, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Lower Merion, Phoenixville, Upper Darby, and Doylestown. Petro wanted Hatboro to be counted among them.

It was in this town that she found the church that she said "saved" her when she was battered by rejection.

Born in Detroit, Petro — then Joseph Anthony — was raised in a troubled Catholic household by an alcoholic mother and a father given to frequent rages. She describes her childhood self as "an effeminate little boy" who raided her mother's closet; her parents tried to change her with a regimen of testosterone injections.  Petro began to explore other religions as a teen, in part to escape a reality that terrified her.

"I always had this feeling of being trapped and confined," Petro said, "but I attributed it" to the abusive childhood.

In 1994, Petro married and soon moved with wife Amanda Rogers to Huntingdon Valley and then Roslyn, where they raised three boys. In therapy for depression, Petro went to a thrift store after one particularly intense session and bought women's clothing, in the hippie, flower-child style that Petro sports today. "I was happier than I was in years," she said.

Prayer and soul-searching led Petro to realize "I was a woman."

The transition was foundation-shaking, but Petro's wife and three sons supported her through it.

"Our marriage is over," Amanda Rogers said, "but our friendship is so deep, I think our relationship is better than it's ever been."

Son Sam, now 22, said, "You never anticipate anything like this, but we rolled with the punches." He added: "But there really weren't any punches. It was just, 'This is who our dad is now.' "

In the process of coming out, though, Petro left her teaching job at a private grade school, shattering the family's financial stability. She moved into a one-room basement apartment in Bryn Athyn and traveled to Philadelphia, seeking out LGBT groups and trying to understand her new identity. But she felt alone against the taunts hurled at her whenever she ventured out of her apartment.

"I'm a 50-year-old, hairy Italian woman who is never going to pass," said Petro, who remains unemployed.

She was hospitalized twice for depression and battled suicidal thoughts, but improved with medication. In early 2017, a therapist suggested she seek out an LGBT-welcoming church for a sense of community. Petro searched online and found Love in Action.

At the time, the congregation, formerly in Bucks County, was formulating its own new identity. It had been founded in 1957 as Warminster United Church of Christ. For years, some members had tried to pass a resolution that the church welcomed the LGBT community, but the attempts had floundered amid controversy. In 1985, the national denomination had called on its congregations to declare themselves open and affirming, although individual churches weren't forced to do it.

"Churches have done an extraordinary amount of harm and continue to do so [to the LGBT community], but to have a place where there's an invitation to be part of a church or denomination so that you can answer the call of God is life-changing," said the Rev. Louis Mitchell, a UCC pastor who is transgender and serves as executive director of Transfaith, a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit that supports transgender spiritual leaders and believers.

When the Rev. Josh Blakesley was named pastor of the Warminster church, some congregants encouraged him to revisit the issue. He invited speakers from LGBT groups and held discussion sessions. Some members left the church, but those remaining voted to become "open and affirming." The church purchased two pride flags to fly outside the building. Within a week, one was stolen.

The declaration, however, drew new people to the church and increased diversity in the congregation. Shortly after the vote, members decided to sell their Street Road building, which had become increasingly difficult to maintain. They eventually moved to an office building along Hatboro's York Road business district, where the average Sunday attendance is 50. A huge rainbow flag flies out front. That is where Petro found them.

"I was there for community," she said. Before she knew it, "I  was hugging people."

"It was great to be in a church with other trans women, trans men, and gay couples," Petro said. The church gave her a gift card to help see her through her financial struggles, and members assisted in moving her to a third-floor walk-up in Bryn Athyn. Along with the support group, Petro took part in establishing a homework program for queer youth.

Earlier this year, the daughter of Hatboro Mayor Nancy Guenst visited the church and told her mother about it. Guenst served on the Borough Council eight years ago when a measure was introduced to create a commission to review discrimination claims — an initiative advocates argued was needed to extend protection to the LGBT community.

Guenst, a Democrat, had voted in favor of that proposal. It passed, 4-3, only to be vetoed by then-Mayor Norman Hawkes, also a Democrat, who contended the issue "is much better handled on a state vs. local level."

Guenst left the council in 2012 after serving six years.

Hatboro has always been welcoming, Guenst said, but the vote "always stuck with me. It was very upsetting, so when the mayor's race came around, I thought, 'I have to' " run for election.  She won the November 2017 contest, as did four Democrats who now hold the majority on the council. In March, the borough also hired its first female borough manager, and two weeks ago, the 128-year-old Enterprise Fire Company elected its first female president.

In March, Guenst introduced the antidiscrimination proposal and invited members of Love in Action to speak at hearings. At the mayor's invitation, Petro addressed the council on May 21, an evening she recalls as "terrifying," for while some residents passionately supported the measure, others just as passionately argued against it.

"I was the elephant in the room. Everybody knows I'm trans, and they would turn to me and read these Bible quotes about me being a sinner," Petro said.

Later in the meeting, the council passed the measure by a 4-3 vote.