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As a Woman

What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned

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A moving and unforgettable memoir of a transgender pastor’s journey from despair to joy as she transitioned from male to female and learned about gender inequity, at home and in the workplace—perfect for fans of Redefining Realness and There Is Room for You.

As a father of three, married to a wonderful woman, and holding several prominent jobs within the Christian community, Dr. Paula Stone Williams made the life-changing decision to physically transition from male to female at the age of sixty. Almost instantly, her power and influence in the evangelical world disappeared and her family had to grapple with intense feelings of loss and confusion.

Feeling utterly alone and at a loss after being expelled from the evangelical churches she had once spearheaded, Paula struggled to create a new safe space for herself where she could reconcile her faith, her identity, and her desire to be a leader. Much to her surprise, the key to her new career as a woman came with a deeper awareness of the inequities she had overlooked before her transition. Where her opinions were once celebrated and amplified, now she found herself sidelined and ignored. New questions emerged. Why are women’s opinions devalued in favor of men’s? Why does love and intimacy feel so different? And, was it possible to find a new spirituality in her own image?

In As a Woman, Paula pulls back the curtain on her transition journey and sheds light on the gendered landscape that impacts many in the LGBTQ+ community. She urges men to recognize the ways in which the world is tilted in their favor and validates the experiences of women who have been disregarded based solely on their gender, while also acknowledging how she was once like those men who are blind to their privilege. With equal parts humility and confidence, Paula shares her lived experience of both genders and offers a truly unique perspective on the universal struggle to understand what it means to be male, female, and simply, human.

This reading group guide for AS A WOMAN includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Paula Stone Williams. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

As a father of three, married to a wonderful woman and holding several prominent jobs within the Christian community, Dr. Paula Stone Williams made the life-changing decision to physically transition from male to female at the age of sixty. Almost instantly, her power and influence in the evangelical world disappeared and her family had to grapple with intense feelings of loss and confusion. Feeling utterly alone and at a loss after being expelled from the evangelical churches she had once spearheaded, Paula struggled to create a new safe space for herself where she could reconcile her faith, her identity, and her desire to be a leader. Join her as she shares her incredibly journey of love, loss, and, most important, rediscovery.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. “We can either spend our lives searching for comfort or we can spend our lives searching for meaning. Rarely will the two lead to the same conclusion” (page 76). Why does Paula perceive these as mutually exclusive? Do they always have to be? If not, where can the two intersect?

2. “We don’t dream in mathematical equations. We dream in stories. A story has the power to change a person’s life, and that story upended mine” (page 86). In this metaphor, what is the mathematical equation? What is the story?

3. Paula often refers to the “death” of Paul, or of “grieving” Paul. What does death represent here? Who or what exactly is dying?

4. “Everyone was in excruciating pain, and it had all been sourced by me” (page 99). Take note of Paula’s choice of the word “sourced.” Does she place the blame on herself? Is she at fault? Is anyone at fault?

5. In social justice, an ally is defined as a person who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone else who doesn't hold that same privilege.” Following her forced departure from the Orchard Group after coming out, Paula encountered some challenges with getting the money she was rightfully owed. The CEO of the tax firm and the nonprofit she mentions helped her gain that money (page 134), and in doing so were allies to Paula in facing the transphobia of the Orchard Group executive committee. Who are Paula’s other allies, whether they help her directly, indirectly, vocally, or silently? Keep note of all the allies so far and that appear over the course of the book and discuss the role they play in Paula’s journey.

6. On page 138, Paula says “Evangelicals reject others because they are afraid . . . that a [pastor] could come out as transgender frightened them.” What do you think is frightening to evangelicals? What did Paula’s authentic existence threaten for them?

7. “Living authentically is not only a gift to our own soul; it frees the generation behind us to live their best life” (page 172). What is Paula referring to specifically here? Can you think of ways she internalized her parents’ pain? Can you think of ways you may have internalized your own parents’ pain? What does it take to break that cycle?

8. In recounting her experience on an American Airlines flight, Paula says (on page 179) “this was the first time the two halves of my life merged.” Speak more to the uniqueness of this moment and what made this different from any other instance post-transition, both in a literal sense but also in a greater sense.

9. On page 189, Paula says “Yes, I am a woman, but I am White, well educated, and a professional,” and on page 194 says “all men . . . have more privilege than the women in their respective worlds” in response to working-class men questioning the existence of their male privilege. Here, Paula acknowledges how someone can simultaneously be marginalized (such as being poor, trans, a woman, etc.) while also being privileged (white, a man, wealthy). Discuss the presence of that duality in Paula. Now discuss the presence of that duality in you, if it exists.

10. Paula discusses her transition from being an older man to an older woman, with the former being the more privileged within their gender, and the latter often being the most overlooked in their gender. Explain how Paula experiences not only misogyny and transphobia, but also ageism, and the ways in which people of marginalized identities have completely different experiences at different intersections.

10. In Chapter 18, Paula asserts the importance of spirituality to her. How has Paula’s idea of, and connection to spirituality changed over time? What does it mean to her now? What does it mean to you?

11. “As a man, I struggled with my feminine side. As a woman, I spent my first several years trying to deny my masculine side” (page 212). Do you believe everyone has masculinity and femininity within them, regardless of their gender? What are ways in which both can exist simultaneously and in contrast with one another, in Paula, but also within you?

12. Paula describes certain moments wherein she feels a “continuity between Paul and Paula.” What does that continuity refer to? How can that be juxtaposed with her desire to leave Paul behind?

13. “Whenever you have a group that judges all others to be wrong and not a part of the truly enlightened, you have a form of fundamentalism” (page 219). How does Paula describe the limitations of religious fundamentalism? What are ways in which fundamentalism and rigidity can manifest in other aspects of our lives, beyond religious and political beliefs?

14. In describing her experience with evangelical Christianity’s approach toward sex, Paula says “if you could convince people that the most desire is something sinful, and you were the only one able to forgive those sins, you could pretty much guarantee retaining your power” (page 227). What do you think this concept of “sin” is meant to evoke? How does this desire to retain power fundamentally influence the nature of relationships within the evangelical community?

15. On page 236, Paula says “joy and happy are not synonymous” and goes on to paint vivid examples of each. What do you think is the primary difference between the two? How do they both function uniquely to serve us and enhance our lives?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. On page 170, Paula says “Paul is not my deadname” referring to the concept of former names that some transgender people choose to abandon and reject after adopting a new name. Do you have any friends or loved ones who are trans? If not, do you have any favorite trans celebrities? If you don’t, try doing some research on any public figures who are trans and have shared their story. In the case of the individual you chose, what was their coming-out story? Did they transition? Did they change their name? How do they view their previous name? How do they describe their transness? Use this as an exercise to attempt to understand the ways in which the trans community is not a monolith, and each trans person’s story and “framing of the past” (page 166) may be different. (Please try to use any information that is readily available so as to avoid subjecting trans individuals to any uncomfortable, triggering, and/or unwanted conversations.)

2. “Maybe someday we will know more and be able to relieve the suffering of individuals and families.” What could this potentially look like? Discuss with your book club and come up with a resource that could help LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. Using the information, you gained from As a Woman, and research of your own, this could look like guidebook on how to support someone in your life who comes out. Think of other resources that the LGBTQ+ community, either locally, nationally, or internationally could use, whether educational, emotional, financial, etc.

3. Paula frequently explains her spirituality with the idea that “the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy for the greater good.” What are ways in which Paula’s story has inspired you to practice authenticity in your own life? What are other aspects of your life, work, community, and even book club that could embrace authenticity more? Discuss whether you think the “default” in which modern society often operates should be more encouraging of authenticity? Why or why not?

A Conversation with Paula Stone Williams

Q: After having written a few books, what inspired you to come out with this memoir?

A: All my earlier books were written in my previous life and were for the religious market. When I transitioned, I was a well-known evangelical leader. I knew I couldn’t slip quietly into the night. Embedded in my identity were responsibilities. I always knew it was important to tell my story, and from the time I transitioned I had an inkling that I might tell it through a memoir.

Q: Which parts of the book were you most hesitant about sharing? Were you able to overcome those feelings?

A: Chapters 14 and 20 were the ones I was most hesitant to share. Chapter 14 was difficult because at the time I was writing it, the chapter was still a fresh wound. But I also knew it was important. I am still amazed that I’ve had more conflict with women in six years as a woman than I had in sixty years as a man.

Chapter 20 was tough because it is so intimate. I thought it was important to write about the one area in which the greatest changes have occurred—how I experience my sexuality.

Q: You have had the opportunity to experience vastly different worlds within what is quite a divided country. Do you think it is possible for different people to reconcile such different belief systems?

A:I do believe in the power of narrative to lessen our cultural divide. Humans do change their minds, but not unless information comes to them in a nonthreatening way. Few are frightened by a good story.

Q: Did you learn anything new about yourself when writing this book? If yes, what did you learn?

A: The most important lessen is that I am more resilient than I realized. This was a tough journey, but I made it all the way through to dawn.

Q: What do you hope transgender readers will take away from this book? What about cisgender readers?

A: I am hesitant to suggest lessons for transgender readers, because each story is uniquely its own. When you hear the story of one transgender person, you’ve heard the story of exactly one transgender person. I can’t pretend to speak for other transgender people.

For all readers, including those who are cisgender, I hope the story draws them into a deeper understanding of their own journey, and the hero they are called to become.

Q: Do you believe understanding, acknowledging, and celebrating transness will allow for a greater understanding of the world?

A: Gender is a spectrum. We all have both male and female characteristics. I hope celebrating transness, as well as those who are nonbinary, will help us all feel more comfortable with where we are on that spectrum.

Q: What are your hopes for trans representation, both in the church and in general, for the future?

A: I long for the day in which being transgender is no longer the main thing that defines me, but is instead incidental to my life.“She was a parent, spouse, and pastoral counselor who tried to love well. And, oh yeah, she also happened to be transgender.”
Photograph © Rebecca Stumpf

Dr. Paula Stone Williams is an internationally known speaker on gender equity, LGBTQ advocacy, and religious tolerance. She is also a pastor and pastoral counselor in Boulder County, Colorado. Paula has been featured in The New York Times, TEDWomen, TEDSummit, TEDxMileHigh, Red Table Talk, The Denver Post, New York Post, New Scientist Magazine, Radio New Zealand, and many other media outlets. Her TED talks have had more than five million views.

“This is a book for anyone who’s ever needed to make a change, and let’s be honest, that’s all of us. So, let Paula be your guide. Her beautifully told personal story mixed with her acute observations about privilege and authenticity will leave you feeling open and hopeful.”

– Briar Goldberg, director of Speaker Coaching, TED Conferences

“Paula Stone Williams’ critical questions about gender, personhood, and place are relevant to anyone. Her writing insightfully reveals aspects of our gender socialization and culture that often go unexamined, but that need to be talked about, challenged, and changed.”

– Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger

“When I was a young pastor, a teenager dared to confide to me that the authentic person inside didn’t match the gender of the body seen by the outside world. I wish As a Woman had been available to me then. It not only helps us understand the experience of many of our neighbors; it also inspires us to listen for the "sound of the genuine," as Howard Thurman called it, in others—and in ourselves.”

– Brian D. McLaren, author of Faith After Doubt

“Paula’s storytelling is artful, funny, and inspiring. If you look like me—middle-aged white American man—you’ll understand your unique super-power to make our country better for our mothers, sisters, and daughters as well as everyone else who doesn’t look like us.”

– T. Scott Case, cofounder and CEO, Upside

“The honesty with which Paula tells her story is the foundation of all true art. It is an imperfect journey riddled with betrayal, sadness, and true loneliness, but Paula never doubts the love she has for her family, her community, or her faith. These stories are the kind that we all need to share.”

– Sean Hanish, writer and director, Return to Zero and Saint Judy

“This book is nothing less than an audacious, gripping, and profoundly real journey that speaks to the mind, heart, and soul. As we grapple with what it means to love people as Jesus did, As a Woman provides poignant insights into the beauty, complexity, and deeply intersectional nature of all God’s children. What’s more, Paula’s brilliant writing, discerning reflections, and incisive wit make this an important and accessible read. It will teach you lessons about loving yourself, God, and others—and challenge you in all the right ways.”

– Joshua J. Dickson, director of Faith Based Initiatives, Biden Campaign

“Powerfully and tenderly written with a poetic flair, As a Woman is in the end surprisingly practical for anyone ready to examine their own presuppositions about faith, power, sexuality and gender.”

– Joe Boyd, cofounder and CEO, Rebel Pilgrim

“The only thing more emotional than reading about Paula’s unceremonious severing from her job after coming out as transgender, is following along in awe as Paula took those shattered pieces and shows that truly death does not have the last word. And while her story inspires us to live for the truth of who we are, it is her unique insights into the differences between living as a man and a woman that empowers us to live for the greater good of all. What Paula has done in As a Woman is magnificent.”

– Colby Martin, author of UnClobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality, and co-pastor/founder of Sojourn Grace Collective, San Diego

As a Woman is a heart-rending and brave spiritual memoir of gender transition. Reading Paula Stone Williams, I wept then understood; felt angry then empowered. This book is ultimately about the joyful triumph of an authentic and faithful life, a profoundly human and humane story of love and justice.”

– Diana Butler Bass, author of Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Lord, Way, and Presence

As a Woman is a masterful and unflinching story that will challenge the ways in which you see the world, other people, and even yourself. Anyone on a journey of discovery will feel at home in Paula’s book.”

– Katrina Mathewson, screenwriter and co-chair of the Writers Guild of America’s LGBTQ+ Committee

“Perhaps no human experience is as misunderstood today as that of the transgender person. That means we are called to listen and learn—first from transgender people themselves. I pray the world may begin to pay attention to the stories of people like Paula, and open our hearts to their struggles, concerns and dreams.”

– James Martin, SJ, author of Building a Bridge

“Paula’s book is an essential read for any human who takes seriously their obligation to help close the gender equity gap. If understanding is the first step to action, then reading what Paula has to say about succeeding on both sides is the best place to start.”

– Cindy W. Anderson, Global Lead, Engagement & Eminence, IBM Institute for Business Value

As A Woman, at its simplest, is a story about bravery, and what it takes to follow one’s heart and authentic self despite the consequences. The impact of Paula’s transition is palpable, as she details losing the power, privilege and prestige that came with being an Evangelical Pastor, a successful CEO, and a man. However, it is through Paula’s unique lens - her life experiences on both sides - that she is able to so acutely pinpoint the realities of gender bias.”

– Caitie Bradley Shea, CEO, Outspoken Agency

“Fired, robbed, disowned and dismissed by the evangelical Christian world in which she once rose to power, Paula could have become bitter. But instead, she chose to become better—more thoughtful, more understanding, more self-reflective, more conscious of other people’s lives. Hers is a spiritual journey worth joining.”

– Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free

“Paula is one of the most courageous individuals you’ll find. Her wisdom is expansive yet graceful, and her story reveals an authentic journey that we can all learn from. In the end, she reminds us that at the heart of everything is love.”

– Jeremy Duhon, curator, TEDxMileHigh