Paula Stone Williams addresses a gathering of TED speakers at the TEDSummit 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (photo courtesy Paula Stone Williams)

Call Me Paula

By Lisa Truesdale

Paula Stone Williams often gets mail addressed to “Paul.” She understands when it’s just junk mail addressed incorrectly because of outdated mailing lists.

“But usually,” she says, “it’s an arrogant statement of superiority from a religious person intent on correcting my sinful ways. I never cease to be amazed at the confidence of fundamentalists.”

Williams’ perceived “sinful ways,” according to those fundamentalists, can be traced back to 2013 when she came out as transgender, changed her name from Paul to Paula and began living life as a woman.

At the time, she was working for a large religious nonprofit organization, writing for a religious magazine and preaching at two large megachurches. After she came out, she was promptly fired from every single one of those jobs.

“I wouldn’t be welcome to preach at any of those churches today,” she says. “Not as transgender and not even as a woman.”

In 21 states, you can’t be fired for being transgender, Williams explains. But in all 50 states, you can be fired for being transgender if you work for a religious organization. She learned that the hard way.

Finding Her Way

Williams says she can trace her gender awareness back to her earliest memories, around age 3 or 4. She didn’t yet know the word “transgender,” of course, but she believed that a “gender fairy” would appear and ask whether she wanted to be a boy or a girl—and she was prepared to declare “Girl!”

“I didn’t hate being a boy,” she says. “I just knew I wasn’t one.”

“I was once a successful, well-educated, white American male. Now I’m a woman, and I definitely get treated differently by society.”
–Paula Stone Williams
(photo courtesy Paula Stone Williams)

But the gender fairy never arrived. And though she felt conflicted, she proceeded with her life as a man, getting married, having children, building a distinguished career and experiencing what she realizes now was “white male privilege.”

After losing all of her jobs, struggling to gain acceptance from her conservative parents and dealing with the pain of shattered friendships, Williams retreated into a very private existence at her home in Lyons. Then, over the next year, things started to change. Her parents eventually came around to the idea that they now had a daughter instead of a son, and her relationships with her former wife (of nearly 40 years) and their three grown children continued to strengthen.

And then, just when she thought she’d never deliver another sermon, she discovered Highlands Church in Denver, a very inclusive church that welcomed her with open arms. She began preaching regularly once again, made lots of new friends and soon realized, “I love the church more now than before I was ostracized.” Last year, Highlands Church joined with two others to start Left Hand Church in Longmont, where Williams now serves as the Pastor of Preaching and Worship.

When she’s not preaching, Williams speaks around the world on the subject of gender inequity, and also presents a talk with her son, Jonathan, who is a pastor in New York City and the author of “She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption.”

One of her solo TED talks has been viewed on YouTube more than 2 million times. In it, she says, “There’s no way a well-educated white male can understand how much the culture is tilted in his favor.” The differences between the ways men and women are treated astounded her so much, in fact, that she finds herself apologizing to other women for once being a man. But that doesn’t stop her from keeping a sense of humor about it all, which she injects into her sermons and TED talks.

“I get my hair cut less often now, but it costs ten times more,” she laughs. “And what’s with women’s clothing? Do the size numbers really mean anything?”