“I feel very well-loved here. As the first trans person, sometimes there is a burden of representation. Sometimes there are questions about terminology, pronouns. But I find that the curiosity is always respectful, and it’s always addressed at trying to love and know me better and love and know the LGBTQ+ community better.”  

It did not take Riley much time to find his niche in the seminary, including what he describes as a “vibrant queer community and robust ally network.” As a Southerner from a small town, Riley found a natural sense of home. He was pleasantly surprised, however, by the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives within the seminary. “There are people from all over: California, Bermuda, Malawi. There are different theological orientations, Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, liberation theology. It’s interesting to see the mix, the dialogue. People feel free to be themselves. I like to think we bicker in love.”

Riley feels that Sewanee is uniquely positioned for a changing Church and a changing world, particularly as a Southern institution. “The weight of Sewanee’s history is looming right now, because it’s something we’re taking seriously,” he says. “We’re challenging and rewriting some of the old myths, breathing the gospel into some of the painful and wounding parts of this story. There’s something magical about being in Sewanee and the South, that so much of the work that needs to be done is happening here and now.”

For those who are interested in Sewanee—especially queer people—but unsure about a seemingly traditional and Southern space, Riley says, “Come visit. Do some introspection—are you prepared to come listen and learn before you try to fix things? For those interested in the work—gentle, slow, long-haul kind of work—the opportunities abound here. The new frontier of queer activism is the South. And because we’re the South, the Church has to take a leadership role. Sewanee has the unique ability to translate the queer movement into a southern vernacular that will help us be more effective in the South at large.”

Published August, 2023