“My Journey of Faith and Gender”

I am honored that Pastor Jane invited me to offer this sermon here at my home church. During Epiphany season, we are exploring how we might experience the presence of God in our community, and this year we are using the image of the threshold as a special place of focus. Today I wish to speak to you directly from my heart, of my own journey. When I stepped across the threshold into this church community, you showed me how an alternative gender identity and a robust Christian faith can sometimes co-exist, even thrive, given the right circumstances, given enough open and loving hearts.

My story is both like and unlike those of other Transgender people and Trans Christians. Though I’ve known my whole life about an odd variance between my inner understanding of my gender, and what the world was telling me was true about myself, it is only in the last few years that I have been able to come fully to terms with that truth, or find some joy and peace in that truth. As I strode through the world, as the poet puts it, “the voices around me kept shouting their bad advice.” For many years, in fact for most of my life, I struggled as to how I might reconcile what everyone supposedly knew about me, that I was a boy, and then a man, with what my heart or mind or soul knew to be true, that I was a girl and now a woman. But how could that be true? How could someone with the body I was given, with the name I was given, with the sex stated right there on my birth certificate, be anything other than what my family and school and doctors thought they saw? How could I, as Mary Oliver was calling me to do, leave those voices behind and find the determination to save the only life I could save?

For much of my life, I tried to buckle down and act like boys are supposed to act, to “be a man,” or be the best husband I could be to my beloved late wife, and the best father I could be to our son. Now I would reframe those feelings to say that I was trying to be the best spouse and best parent that I could be, but in the moment, at the time, those options were not clear to me, not at all. Basic survival required that I accept the camouflage and protection of presenting myself to the world as an ordinary guy, with ordinary outsides and insides.

I was not always able to pull off that magic act of subterfuge. When I was only three years old, my parents took me to a child psychologist they knew. They were worried about my insistence on wearing my sister’s clothing. For a day or two perhaps they thought this was “cute”—but then they grew alarmed. I don’t actually remember any of that; it was related to me by that very same psychologist years later, when I was fifteen, and my parents sent me back to her based on some newer behaviors. Another early moment, that in this case has come back to me only through therapy, thus a “recovered memory,” is of my first day of kindergarten class. Schools are among the most gender-specific environments we have. At some point that first morning, our teacher said, “Girls line up on this side, and boys line up over there.” Instinctively, without any intention, or any hesitation, I lined up with my people, with the girls. There was laughter and tittering, and the teacher must have thought I was just clowning around. “Get on over there!” So, I hurried over to the boys’ line. Oh, my. An early life lesson in the need to hide my female identity deep down within me if I were to be safe. I wasn’t making a political statement, I wasn’t asserting my gender as a five-year-old, in the face of an uncaring world. I simply sorted myself out the way that felt most natural to me.

So I am thrilled these days when I see young children who have questions about their gender identity, or who know deep down within them that the gender they have been assigned is not correct. I’m thrilled with how those children are oftentimes—not always, but often—given the love, the understanding and support, of their parents, and the space to try to figure out what is happening to them inside. The opportunity to delay the onset of puberty until greater clarity is found is something I never had. Instead, when I was on the verge of adolescence, in about the sixth grade, I grew more and more confused about my feelings and what they could possibly mean. There was no language available to me to sort through what I thought I knew about myself. There was no internet to offer anonymous information or advice. Instead, I used the library to explore and attempt to figure myself out.

I love libraries! I have always loved libraries, and I had the fortune as a young person to have a mother who recognized my need to read, and who encouraged me to spend lots of time with books. Books were in many ways my escape from the realities around me. On many Saturday afternoons, Mom would drive my sister and me downtown from our suburban home, drop me off at the Milwaukee Central Library, and then go shopping for shoes, or to lunch with her friends. Starting at about age eleven, I began to use those Saturday afternoons as a time to do some personal research. I couldn’t possibly approach one of those silent library ladies for help in finding a book that would explain me to myself. Instead, I explored the various categories of the Dewey Decimal System, and finally found the closest thing I could to describing myself: I found books on human sexuality and psychology. Here I read about men who exhibited feminine behaviors, or had what were seen to be feminine personalities or quirks. That fit me, I thought. When I was bullied at school by other children with taunts of being a “femme,” or “girly,” or ”sissy,” these insults hurt me, of course. But the reason they hurt was because I knew the kids wanted them to be hurtful. Inside, I silently agreed with what the words literally, even more than my bullies ever did, or so I imagine. I knew I was a girl.

But back to the library and those books talking about feminine males in their scientific way. The books went on to explain that feminine thoughts and behaviors meant that these men were homosexuals, added that they were sick, perverted people who needed to be corrected, and their desires and behaviors straightened out, so to speak. This part did not fit me. Not only was I reluctant to consider myself to be a sick and perverted person, but even more so, I saw that defining part of being a homosexual male was an interest in other boys or men. I have never been drawn to men, throughout my life. My affections and desire have always been quite clearly female directed. I now identify as a queer woman of Transgender experience.

From my perspective, it is wonderful and life-saving that young Trans people can, in some cases, if their families and doctors are supportive, delay their puberty, with all its permanent changes from a more or less androgynous child’s body to a strongly sexed adult body. But for me, puberty was actually a relief. I had no notion that I could ever escape my prison as an apparent male. I thought I would just somehow have to live with the confusion and the pain. So when puberty arrived, and my body and voice altered, and gave me a more clearly masculine shape and sound, I was relieved. Now I could pass more successfully as the young man that my family and society thought I was. I could hide more safely in the camouflage of masculinity.

And that is what I did. At age eighteen I met and fell deeply in love with a young woman during our first semester in college. I ended up marrying Kathleen on the day we graduated, back in May of 1975, nearly 44 years ago. I was able to tone down my inner turmoil for a while, as I gladly and sincerely played the part of a loving husband. Kathleen was not to know the truth about my inner gender identity until near the end of her life. As the years passed, I had come to see all too clearly that coming out to one’s spouse as Transgender, or Transsexual, or whatever term was used at the time, sounded the death-knell for one’s marriage. I valued my strong and loving marriage relationship far above my uncertain ability to ever come to terms with my gender identity, and so I hid in the shadows from the person who was closest and dearest to me. Not a situation that one would have wished for, but a tactic and approach that allowed our life together to thrive and our mutual care and connection to deepen over the decades.

When I told Kathleen’s sister “Betty” about my gender identity, she asked, “But how do you know that you’re female?” I had a snappy retort in mind, but I held back at first and instead explained that this was something I knew deep within myself, in that place where we are really “us.” Where am I? Who am I? Why am I? These are the types of questions Trans people ask ourselves basically all the time. Where is the “me” part of me? I told Betty that it is my heart or my soul that tells me that I am female. I can’t locate it anatomically, but it tells a story much more truly than do the more visible parts of me. Then I asked her my question in return: How did she know that she was female? Betty found the question confusing. Of course she’s female! What else could she be? That combination of consternation at the question, and certainty about her gender identity, was an excellent indicator that Betty was NOT a Trans person. Because that question about my gender had been hounding me throughout my entire life, and my ultimate certainty about its answer was won only at great cost. Betty’s difficulties in understanding what I was saying were quite understandable. She had known me since we were teenagers, she had known me under a different name and under a different guise—a dis-guise, as it happened—and it takes considerable time and effort to replace these strong images and memories with something more up-to-date and authentic.

A major downside of my strategy, however, my way of hiding, had been to plunge me into a netherworld of darkness. I felt I was invisible, or at least, a central and crucial part of me was kept invisible to everyone else. I was caught in what I think of as a twilight zone of absence—present, but also not present to those around me. A woman, but a woman in hiding, unable to represent any gender with full authenticity. It was a strangely numbing experience, living in this twilight zone of absence, and it led to decades of melancholy, sometimes edging into despair.

When Kathleen did learn from me about my gender dysphoria, as we grappled together with her six-year-long journey with fatal cancer, she responded with all the love and care that I could have hoped for. Of course, she also felt the impact of surprise, and grief, and doubt that such a revelation coming so late in one’s marriage would bring. Her only request to me was that I delay any transitions or announcements until after she died. Of course, I honored her request, and waited until after her death in 2013 to share my story, even with my family and with any but my closest friends. Not an easy process, to be sure. But the most fascinating aspect of what’s happened to me since then is how my stepping across a metaphorical threshold from obscurity into the light as to my true gender identity has woven together so closely with my return to church and to a newer and deeper understanding of my relationship with the divine.

Once I gained the ability and courage to show myself to the world more fully and with greater authenticity, I developed a deep yearning to return to church, to find a congregation and worshiping community where I could be open and real about myself. As I explained at the time to my sister, I needed God to know me as Melissa. As she puts it in her own way, I came back to God. My statement that I needed God to know me as Melissa might reveal a rather weak idea of God’s love and understanding, I know. Surely God knows our truths, if anyone or anything does. But somehow, for me, being seen and accepted within the visible Body of Christ as a child of God, as myself, by my fellow Christians, was so very important. It was crucial.

The Body of Christ, discussed in today’s passage from First Corinthians, is a fascinating metaphor for me. It has both positive and negative connotations. For Trans folks, our bodies are where the greatest discomfort and distress and confusion are found. I know that many people have issues with their bodies, for all sorts of reasons. As for me, and other folks who fall outside conventional norms of gender identity and gender expression, people talk about us as “having been born in the wrong body.” That’s kind of the way it is, but also, it’s not. In so many ways, for humans, our bodies are ourselves, or they should be. There are strong impulses these days, especially among women, to find acceptance and joy in our bodies, as they are. Here in church we are sometimes called to focus our spiritual experience through bodily practices. And this is good. But when there is a severe disconnect between who we are inside, and what our physical body signals to ourselves, and to most anyone and everyone we might encounter on a daily basis, the tension builds up and the stakes can grow to be enormously high.

Authenticity and gender play a key role in the Bible stories of creation. The first human being, Adam, created in the image of God, is apparently either both male and female, or is possibly neither male nor female, just like God the creator (in my view) lacks gender (other than the grammatical gender markers of our human language). It is only later that a woman, Eve, is separated out from Adam, who was till then the singular and undivided human. The Apostle Paul pictures Christ as either the New Adam or the Final, Ultimate Adam in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, where he teaches that Christ is somehow a replacement for the initial, flawed creation of humanity. Paul makes no mention of Eve, so perhaps he imagines Adam as representing all humanity, and thus Christ as also fully representing all of us. This notion gains some support from the baptismal formula that Paul quotes at the end of Galatians chapter three. There is no social or gender difference, he claims, in the Body of Christ—we are “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female”—instead, “we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This text, with its assertion of Christian identity as being no longer male and female, is seen by many Trans and gender non-conforming Christians as a text of liberation, something that frees us from the necessity to express ourselves as specifically male or female in a specific cultural way. The passage can motivate a strongly feminist reading, that gender difference has no legitimate place in church life. But it also has its troubling aspects for someone like me. We should note that when Paul repeats the formula in the Corinthians passage that we read today, he retreats from his message of gender equality, he omits the claim that in Christ there is not male and female. As someone who has struggled for what seems like forever to gain the ability to assert her identity as female, the notion that participation in the Body of Christ somehow erases that truth, covers my womanhood back up with only a pretense, perhaps, of equality, I am wary. Christ’s body is on one level, at least, a male body. As the traditionalists will not tire of telling us, Jesus was a man. We may no longer be Jew or Greek, or slave or free, or perhaps not male and female in Christ—but somehow the image of a free Israelite male predominates. In our American setting, the corresponding image is of a privileged, white cisgender male. I would hope that as we strive to look beyond difference, especially difference that works to oppress and silence too many of us, we will also continue to see and celebrate how we as individuals actually move in and experience the world. As we say, “Every body is welcome here,” whatever our differences.

About four years ago I started to feel a powerful yearning to find a community where I could feel the divine presence, and experience the welcoming love of God’s people, to be seen and known as a Trans woman. I decided to experiment by visiting right here, at First Church. It’s not that I knew anyone who worked or worshipped here at the time—it was a dear friend from work, who attends UBC, who thought First Church might suit me. And wow—was Gayla ever right! From the very first moment that I walked in the door, when I stepped over that threshold on that summer morning three-and-a-half years ago, I have felt welcome among you in a deep and personal way. Someone read a poem by Mary Oliver; Mercedes sang I’ll Fly Away, and accompanied herself on the banjo; and Cynthia Hendricks, I think it was, mentioned that the special offering that month was designated to support OutFront Minnesota. The congregational singing was glorious. (I didn’t realize at first that I had sat down right in front of the choir’s soprano section!) I could not have felt more engaged or at home. That was my first day; I was visiting my first church. My First Church! I have never even imagined visiting any other church.

I began to understand that I could find full acceptance of my gender identity only when I found God’s love and acceptance expressed in community. In some ways, I believe that God was calling me to Godself, calling me both as a woman, and as a Christian. My experience of God is strongest here in this place, as we gather, listen, speak and act, together. Epiphany season is the most meaningful part of the church year for me. This is when we reflect on the impact the arrival of God’s child might have in our world, and how we might best find the divine presence among us. For me, my epiphany, my sense of the presence and love of God, comes in moments quite like this one—when we gather and open ourselves and our hearts to all the possibilities our creator seems to have put before us. That is why, I am guessing, that the hymn “Lord, You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore” speaks so powerfully to me on many levels. Music activates feelings and emotions in me that my tendency to be overly intellectual sometimes dampens. I also love lakes. More importantly, the hymn draws from the story found early in Mark’s gospel of Jesus walking along the shore of Galilee, encountering his first disciples, challenging them to abandon their livelihoods, their fishing boats, and follow him into a new and unknown future. Jesus calls them to abandon what they are used to, perhaps to leave their own hidden zones of absence, to step out with him into an uncertain future. When that hymn is played and sung, I feel myself caught up in that process of divine call and human response. “O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and kindly smiling, you’ve called out my name.” Melissa! “Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me, now with you I will seek other seas.” I hear these words right down in my hopeful Transgender heart. Jesus has “called out my name!” God searches me, God smiles when she sees me, God calls me by name. God sees me, Melissa, the real me.

I believe that God sees you, too. God knows all of us. We are seen in our superficial, outer appearances, but also in our deep inner places of struggle and hope and joy. I’ve spoken this morning about myself, sharing with you my own story of loss, alienation, and how I now find God’s smiling love in this community. But I know of course that each of us has our own personal difficulties, our boats laden with all sorts of burdens. I invite you to join me in leaving those boats behind us, emptied of care on the lakeshore, to go search with Jesus for those other seas.