Trans Activist Led Anti-LGBTQ Evangelical Denomination for 35 Years: ‘I Have a Lot to Make Up For’
Paula Stone Williams opens up about her new memoir, As a Woman, and her hopes to make amends by spreading lessons of love and compassion
Paula Stone Williams is candid about spending most of her adult life as a prominent male leader in evangelical ministry, which, as she puts it, "teaches the LGBTQ+ population will go to hell unless they give up their sexual identity."
It was a lesson that Williams avoided confronting until after December 2013, when the married father of three announced plans to transition to Paula — the woman she'd yearned to be since she was 4 years old.
Now, in an exclusive interview featured in this week's issue of PEOPLE, Paula, who has risen to prominence as a trans-rights and gender-equity activist, opens up about the inclusive church she's founded, her new memoir As a Woman and her work now to make amends by spreading lessons of love and compassion.
"I better live a long time," says Paula, now 70, "because I have a lot to make up for."
Raised by a deeply devoted evangelical family, Paula remembers moving from state to state as her pastor father found work in different churches. Starting when she was 4, Paula asked God during her bedtime prayer to wake up as a girl because she knew she was "in the wrong body." But, besides secretly dressing up in her mom's clothes, Paula kept her questions about her identity buried.
"In the culture in which I lived, there was no way I could seriously think about acting on it," she writes.
For more on Paula Stone Williams' journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
Paula went on to attend Kentucky Christian University and, in her senior year, to marry the woman she loved, Cathy. That same year, Paula was ordained and her life as a conservative preacher and evangelical-Christian family man was set in stone.
By 1977, Paula had reached a high level with Orchard Group, for which she raised funds and started new churches. Eventually, she became CEO of the "church-planting" organization.
Even at the highest levels of evangelical ministry, Paula's dreams of transitioning continued. She confided in Cathy only that she sometimes found comfort wearing women's clothes in private. Paula didn't share the full extent of her transgender yearnings until 2010, when she was 62 years old.
After watching the final season of Lost, Paula knew she had to transition.
"The episode where Jack knows he's been called to die to save humanity — it was this overwhelming moment," Paula recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, s---. Paul is called to die. I'm called to be who I am.' "
While the news was hard for Paula's family, it was even rockier when she told the all-male board of Independent Christian Churches, a church organization with 6,000 congregations across the U.S., where Paula had built her career as a preacher, fundraiser, magazine editor and TV host.
Paula expected to leave. But she didn't expect all ties to be severed immediately.
"I thought one option would be for them to think to themselves, 'Oh, wow. I know Paula's character, so I probably need to study up on what it means to be transgender,' " she recalls. "The other option would be to say, 'Oh, transgender people are evil. I was wrong about Paul's character.' I thought that couldn't happen because I've known these people for centuries."
But it did. "And suddenly," she says, "to that world, I didn't even exist."
After being ostracized from the community to which she'd devoted her life for 35 years, Paula has found other places of belonging — and a whole new mission. The trans-rights and gender-equity activist has preached compassion and acceptance in TED Talks on YouTube, on Jada Pinkett Smith's Red Table Talk, at President Joe Biden's Inauguration prayer service and in her church, Left Hand Church, which she cofounded in Longmont, Colorado, in 2017.
Eight years after starting her transition journey, the activist says she is back on solid ground with her ex-wife, grown son and daughters, who had each needed time to adjust to Paula's transition. (Cathy moved out shortly before Paula's facial feminization surgery in July 2013.)
"We thought we knew what the trajectory of our family was going to be, and we had to re-create it," Paula explains.
In May, Paula and Cathy gathered with their family — including five granddaughters who call Paula "Grampaula" — to celebrate her 70th birthday in Hawaii.
Just as Paula has forged a new connection with her family, she hopes to impact her world in a new way — by supporting other trans people and influencing how evangelical followers view the LGBTQ community.
As Paula describes her church's guiding principle: "There's room for us all . . . no hate here."
As a Woman hits bookshelves on June 1.
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