Vica-Etta Steel: Life Transformed

Many of us wait for signs to tell us we’re on the right or wrong path in life. For Steel, it took what felt like a heart attack to finally push her toward living her most authentic life.

The former public school teacher-turned-vicar says the crisis ended up being due to anxiety, not her heart, but it was enough to make her finally sit up and take seriously something she’d been grappling with since childhood.

“I was a girl who had been socialized having to go into the boy’s locker room … but the woman was always there,” Steel says. Thankfully, Stella, her wife of 37 years, was right there with her as she made the transition to living openly as a woman. After the not-actually-a-heart-attack, her wife said, “‘We need to come out.’” And so Steel did.

There were people at her school who supported her transition, especially the students. Some things went well, but others less so. Eventually, the situation grew untenable and she decided to leave the profession, returning instead to the church she’d previously left entirely, unable to reconcile her identity with doctrine.

Fortunately, Steel found St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison and their open and affirming congregation. She began preaching just a year after joining the faith and also entered seminary, where she’s been enrolled for the past year and a half. In the meantime, she she has a weekly presence at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and a TikTok ministry, too. Head down to the Capitol Square on any given Saturday from late spring to fall, and you’re very likely to encounter Steel at what she calls her “card-table sanctuary,” handing out rainbow and transgender pride buttons and stickers, chatting with passersby, and singing songs.

In part to reach a younger generation of queer and trans folks, she shares daily reflections, affirmations and also sings on TikTok. Steel is thoughtful and frank, but always warm and welcoming, offering a sort of virtual hug to all-comers. Whether you’re Christian or not, or even believe in God, her approach is to share her own spiritual and personal journey in the hopes of helping others see a path forward for themselves.

Still, not every congregation — or location — is a safe space. She vets every church she visits, noting that just because they have a Pride flag up doesn’t mean it’s going to be actively welcoming toward her. Out in the world, too, there’s always an awareness that too many people still misunderstand and/or actively discriminate against transgender people.

“I don’t go anywhere alone,” Steel notes. “I always go with another woman who’s an ally.”

Thanks to her own internal sense of self, and allyship from friends and loved ones, Steel is continuing on her journey of personal and spiritual discovery.

“[My approach] is very much universalist. That means, nobody gives a damn how you particularly want to phrase things, except that it’s beautiful. Whether you say God or Buddha or Allah, or you just say the divine, or you say that nature is your religion. It’s beautiful, right? To believe in something. Have that faith,” she says. “The language of God, of decay and growth, is all saying ‘love.’ So how can we in our hubris claim we know anything? It’s not about knowing. It’s about feeling and believing.”

Read more of the Life Transformed stories here.

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