Elena Kelly

B.A. 1986, Bible; "First BJU 'Preacher Girl' Speaks Out"

Elena Kelly

Elena Kelly

I have several memories from my pre-school childhood. The two most determinative ones had to do with my sense of God and my sense of myself. The first incident occurred when I was just three years old. My adoptive parents were fighting. The shouting and commotion scared me, so I went back into my room and got down on my knees beside my bed as I had been taught. This time, however, for some reason I cannot explain, I prayed, “Heavenly Mother, if you can hear me, please make the fighting stop! The Heavenly Father doesn’t hear me.” Instantly the house went silent. No one had ever introduced me to the concept of a feminine deity, but since I was three, I have always known she was there for me.

The other memory that is imprinted forever in my brain happened at age five. Prior to that age, my mother had allowed me to dress up in her clothes, and she even took photos of me beaming with joy as I wrapped her luxurious garments around my small frame. But when it came time for me to begin Kindergarten, she refused to let me wear her clothes anymore. I was distraught, crying, and demanding that she not make me look like a boy, but she would not hear of it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was a girl, not the boy they all mistakenly believed I was.

All through my elementary and middle school years I was harassed and bullied by boys at school. I got used to them calling me “sissy boy” and “cry baby” but I never got used to the black eyes, bloody noses, and getting punched in the solar plexus. I ran away from home three times before I was 13, always searching for my birth mother, convinced that she alone could explain why I was so sure I was a girl. My parents committed me to a psychiatric hospital in Denver after the last runaway episode, and it was there I was introduced to the drug culture. Through drugs, I learned a new way to escape from the pain of my gender confusion.

Several years later I married, had a child, and left Colorado for northern California, specifically Chico. Within just a few weeks, two teenage girls came to our house, asking if we would let them take our four-year-old son to church on a bus. They were sweet and polite and eventually we relented and let him go. He loved it, and each Sunday he brought home papers he had colored and crafts he had made. Before long my wife and I started to wonder what they were teaching him, so we went to the little Baptist church to see for ourselves. The people were very nice and welcoming even though I had hair down to the middle of my back. Within a few months, my hair was cut short, and I was a Bus Captain myself.

A group of young men came to our church from BJU in the summer of 1981. They were wonderful! I talked to one of them, named Dan, after the service. I told him I always wanted to know the original languages of the Bible so I could know exactly what they said, instead of what some nebulous translator thought they said. And secretly I wondered if total dedication to God might finally take away my belief that I was female. So I convinced our pastor that I was called to the ministry, enrolled at Bob Jones University, packed the car, and with two sons and a ten day old daughter, we moved from Chico, California to Greenville, South Carolina to start our new life of dedication to the fundamentalist God.

Because I had gotten my Journeyman Electrician license before leaving California, I was hired to work in the Electrical Shop on campus, so I worked and went to school full-time. I must confess that I poured myself into the BJU environment, soaking it all up and practicing what I was taught. We began nightly devotions with our children at home, became active at Hampton Park Baptist Church, went out soul-winning weekly, and were totally devoted to the school. My wife and I renewed our vows in Rodeheaver Auditorium, and our children went to Bob Jones elementary and academy. Our youngest son, Robert Reynolds Jones Adkins was born in Barge Memorial Hospital in July, 1983. Fundamentalism had become my new drug as I attempted to destroy all thoughts of being a woman.

After graduation in 1986, I chose the most fundamentalist ministers for my ordination council, including our new pastor, David Yearick, our California pastor, Thurman Wisdom, Dean of the BJU School of Religion, a couple of others, and Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. I was accepted in the Church Planting program at BJU, and we moved to Aurora, Colorado and started our own church.

I did many things I was taught not to do in Church Planting classes, because after leaving school, I started to realize how much I had been taught was not in accord with what I believed. Within the first year, the church stopped taking money from BJU, began to have HIV/AIDS classes each Wednesday night instead of prayer meeting, and began to reach out to the homeless, the alcoholics and drug addicts, and the prostitutes that frequented that part of the Denver suburban area. And I became close friends with the clergy at Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies in Denver, often taking my family there for services and special events. After five years there, I resigned and moved our family back to California.

I had been living in Stockton, California for seventeen years when I received a DVD from Netflix named Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink). As I watched the male child struggle with gender identity, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t alone in these feelings. I searched the Internet and learned all I could about transgender people and how they came to cope with the truth of who they are. I finally knew what I was and what I could do to reconcile my birth sex with my gender identity. I began my transition from male to female on June 6, 2008, one week to the day after seeing that DVD.

Never before in my life, with the possible exception of pre-school, had I felt so alive, so authentic, and so happy to be alive each moment of every day. It’s not that I didn’t face huge obstacles and encounter numerous problems, but now that I knew why I was different, I could embrace that difference and live each day with confidence. One of my first thoughts was that there had to be others out there suffering needlessly. So eight months after I began my transition, I founded the Stockton Transgender Alliance and began to reach out to this community of almost 300,000 people. The Alliance folded into the San Joaquin Pride Center in October, 2011, and continues to help over 100 transgender people, their families and friends as they and their loved ones go through the transition process.

In December, 2010, I realized that there were many very spiritual transgender women that I knew, and I ultimately founded a multi-faith “convent” (called the Order of St. Hildegard) for transgender-identified women to pursue their own spiritual path and perform works of social justice. It has been very well received here in our own city, and has attracted the attention of other affirming and welcoming congregations all over northern California. Currently it is a convent without walls, but we have been offered a space at a church in San Francisco which we are not currently ready to accept.

The idea of being a nun in a convent was a dream of mine as a child until puberty crushed all hope. At age nine I met a Catholic nun who taught me to pray to Mary, and in my teens, I studied Hinduism and learned about the Goddess. I still correlate femininity with the Divine. How could I not? She has been with me since I was three.


  1. nathanohm says:

    Elena, your story is so full of grace and acceptance of the divinity that is within you. No fundamentalist school of thought could overcome the being and person that you are. I love your courage to make the male to female transition and be a prophetess of truth and wisdom. I believe the heavenly mother is smiling down on you and all of us.

    • Elena Kelly says:

      While I very much appreciate the education I got at BJU, my inner voice told me that it was OK to take what worked for me and leave the rest. I have always been connected spiritually, and my theology has evolved and changed over the years. In fact, it was at BJU where I was told to question all my beliefs. I just didn’t arrive at all the same conclusions as they wanted me to at BJU. Divine Mother is more persuasive to me than anything else I have encountered. Thank you so much for your kind comments.

  2. Anne says:

    God bless you! I know ‘they’ are listening and answering your prayers. My partner and I have been together 27 years and many of our neighbors are BJU folks. Honestly, I have lived in my home for far longer than they have been in the neighborhood, but all of them are polite and kind to us. One of the guys is very protective when he sees us doing ‘man work’ lol. I signed your petition…. THANK you for setting up this site. I was sent to Tabernacle Christian School for a couple of years myself. Not my best memories for sure… Thank you again!

    • Elena Kelly says:

      Congratulations on 27 years. How sweet that your neighbor looks out for you! I have been blessed with good neighbors before and since my transition. I didn’t set up the site, Colin, Jeffrey, Keturah and David did, but I am honored to be able to share my story here, thanks to Jeffrey’s invitation. Oh, and I am grateful that you survived Tabernacle!

    • Elena Kelly says:

      Thank you Lauren! As the song goes, “what a long strange trip it’s been!” And it ain’t over yet! I wish you all the best!

  3. Thanks for sharing. In your story you state that you wanted to go to BJU because “I always wanted to know the original languages of the Bible so I could know exactly what they said, instead of what some nebulous translator thought they said.”. I am curious to know what conclusions you arrived at with regard to what the Bible has to say about homosexuality – in the original language. I have several friends who I care for deeply who are gay and I desire to understand what scripture says, in context, so that I can better relate/love them as God would have me to do. Can you tell me your thoughts on this or recommend a book that would help understand?