Waking Up in Memphis

I woke up in a Memphis economy hotel with nothing but my wallet, a pack of Marlboros, and some clothes that were tossed carelessly over a chair. The morning sun peeked through the crack in the curtain and specks of dust hovered in the glow. I looked at my watch, pulled myself up and let my legs drop to the side of the bed. I stared at the dancing specks for a long moment as my mind replayed the recent events of my life.

Two weeks prior I had enrolled in an ex-gay ministry called Love in Action. This was my last resort before I finally gave up on the idea of going straight. I had come out as lesbian in 1991 in a family of strict Fundamentalist Christians, and I was overcome with concern about my eternal destination if I didn’t try everything I could to go straight. Now it was the year 2000, and I thought maybe the experts could figure out what was wrong with me, why nothing seemed to work to change my attractions to women.

It didn’t take long to discover that the “experts” were just as clueless as everyone else. The emotional hoops they put me through were far more traumatic than helpful. It was supposed to be a two-year residential program, but only two weeks after I got there, without any planning or forethought, I silently slipped out the sliding glass doors of the women’s residence home. I walked around the pool, through the wooden privacy gate, and slid into my baby blue Olds Cutlass Supreme. The car was almost twenty years old, but it was my only friend that night. I wasn’t allowed to use it while I was enrolled in the program, and the driver’s seat welcomed me back. There were a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do while I was at Love in Action.

When I first arrived, all my belongings were sifted through and sorted into piles of “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” depending on whether the house leader decided it had any ties to my life as a lesbian. Most of my clothes – and even my socks – were considered men’s clothing, so I had to go out and buy new clothes that fit within their guidelines. At no time was I to be alone, inside or outside the house, with the exception of 15 minutes of shower time in the morning. There was to be no use of alcohol or tobacco while in the program. I couldn’t have contact with anyone from home. Photos were confiscated and I was not allowed to view any sort of media – radio, television, or newspaper. Perfume and cologne were against the rules, and the guitar that my grandfather taught me to play was taken away because they feared I would use it to seduce other women in the house. I had regular group and individual counseling sessions where I would be asked to reveal my innermost thoughts and feelings so that they could be analyzed and discussed. This was a way to “cleanse the mind of impure attractions,” they said, but ultimately the things I said were used against me; the staff at Love in Action informed me that my attractions to women were predatory. That was the last straw. I had to get out of there.

The first place I went after I slipped out of the women’s residence was a gas station where I bought a pack of Marlboro Menthols. I pulled a cigarette from the box and jabbed it between my lips, peeled off a cardboard match and struck it sharply against the coarse surface of the envelope. The flame exploded and I drew it into the end of the cigarette, the tobacco glowing at the tip. I leaned against the hood of the car and decided that there had to be a better way to get into God’s good graces. I wanted to block out the last two weeks from my mind, to forget everything that I had been through. I wanted things to just go back to being the way they had been before I enrolled in the program.

It would be ten years before I ever spoke of my time at Love in Action. But as much as I tried to pretend that nothing ever happened, the trauma I experienced in two short weeks was enough to burrow into my soul like termites, slowly eating away at the lining of my subconscious mind. It seemed that every interaction I had with a woman, whether a close friend or a stranger at the grocery store, was suspect of predatory intent. I checked and rechecked my motives before pursuing an intimate relationship with a woman, not because I considered myself a predator, but because I worried that she might.

In March of 2005, after coming to terms with the fact that I am transgender, I transitioned from female to male, changing my name from Brenda to Brent. I was finally at peace with myself and with God, and I spent the next several years writing about my life and talking to people about what an authentic relationship with God can look like. In 2010 I enrolled in a Master of Divinity program at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, IN where I graduated in May of 2013.

The apology that comes from Exodus International is indeed a step in the right direction, although I am hesitant to pop the cork on the champagne bottle quite yet. Chambers is still referring to homosexuality as a temptation and a struggle, the same kind of language that has been used to claim that homosexuality can be changed. The only difference I see so far is that they are lowering their weapons; the condemnation still looms heavily in the air. The theology behind the ex-gay movement has not changed; until it does, damage will continue to be done.

My experience with an ex-gay program was brief compared to the years that some people have endured spiritual, psychological and emotional trauma in the hopes of getting on the good side of religious elites by changing their sexuality. But my whole childhood was spent in an ex-gay Fundamentalist Christian environment where I was made to feel that something about me needed to be fixed.

It’s time to turn the focus on what’s really broken, which is the theology that demands that people change innate elements of their personhood in order to “be right with God.” God loves us, not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. Sexual and gender diversity must be celebrated for its beauty and its contribution to society before any apology will begin to make a difference.

From Doing to Being

Contributing Author: Emma, UK

I am deeply humbled by the process of transition that my transgender partner, Kate, is undertaking to become her true self. To watch her coming to life and living her life in colour instead of black and white is quite incredible.

But this is not 100% easy. Her mood can swing downwards as she faces challenges and then upwards as she overcomes those challenges with an upsurge of excitement. I liken this to the painful contractions of a re-birth of her new self. It can be difficult to see her go through it, but we have noticed that just when things seem particularly difficult, everything begins to get better again.

What I am learning from this process is to take a step back from “doing.” I can be mothering in our relationship which is not equal, appropriate, or healthy. For example, I would pick up the phone and make calls on her behalf like a lot of partners might do. However, if she wants this transition, she needs to take the active role and do things to overcome the difficulties that she faces in order to grow

Sometimes we can smother people by “doing” too much for one another.  We are givers and like to help, yet it can interfere and dis-able. We, ourselves, begin to fear and consequently transmit a message of “I don’t trust that you can do this” to the other. Instead, we should hold onto a space of love and compassion that says, “Yes you can!”

And Kate can. Now when she struggles, I take a breath and try not to chip in with advice (though old habits die hard!) I try to trust that she will find her way. And sometimes just when I am thinking, oh no, this is too hard, I find that she has, indeed, found her way through it!

I am incredibly proud to be walking by Kate’s side, and it is literally like watching her emerge from a chrysalis. By living into her true self, Kate has become more courageous and more determined. She has more fortitude, more beauty, and more energy as the strength of her spirit is making itself known. I have long felt that she was never truly fulfilled, but now I see her beginning to experience freedom as she spreads her wings and begins to fly. When people are true to themselves – when they are living with authenticity – it is an appealing, powerful, and transformational experience!

Transition as a Gift

Contributing Author: Andie, UK

Nothing is so profound as finding yourself, and yet we never stop to think about it. It reaches places you never knew were there, and yet is the most secure state of being you can imagine. Sometimes I think that “transition” is the greatest gift a human being can have. Transition? Think “from inauthenticity to authenticity” rather than from one gender to another because it isn’t that. The world is cruel about it; society cannot deal with it; some religious experience comes close to it, but it is not a common event in people’s lives.

When you come to understand and truly accept that your outer manifestation does not need to dictate your soul, you are freed. Not into a kindly world, but from all the frictions of having-to-be. Time and again, the story I hear from trans* people is one of not belonging, of knowing you are not what people expect you to be, and being unable to make sense of it. It is the source of self-hatred and anger and ultimately can be self-destructive. Gender-aligned people do not experience this. There are other reasons for similar feelings, of course, but this one is because of the way you were born. This is because society has not given you permission to simply be as you are, let alone find a remedy.

People asked me with kindly concern after my “courage” for “coming out”: “How are you?”

“It isn’t courage; it’s being. It isn’t coming out; it’s shaking off. How am I? If I had known for a moment that I was allowed to be this happy with myself, I would have done it long ago.”

I am not one who is fortunate enough to have kept my family. I still have an amazing sister and I have a son. The rest of my family has closed itself against me. So how can I possibly be so happy with myself? It’s because I really know myself at last and I also know what love is and what it is not. I know when love is simply filling in someone else’s self-image, and when it is knowing the other as other. It took losing all I held as most true and permanent – and realising it was neither – to really understand that knowing who I am, valuing that above all else, and seeing others as they are, is the only foundation for love and for life really lived.

What does this mean? It means that I have gained validity and that all my relationships with other people have changed forever. I am who I am, not what anyone else would like me to be in order to complete their own self-image. I am free at last to learn to love myself, and therefore to really give love in return.

Know Thyself

AIDS RibbonToday marks World AIDS Day. Do you know your HIV status? No matter whether you are monogamous or non-monogamous; married, partnered, or single; straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or pansexual; transgender or cisgender; African, Asian, American, Canadian, Mexican, European, or of mixed descent; having sex with or without condoms… If you have been sexually active with anyone, get tested. If you have used any needles that have not come from sterile packaging for injection hormones, silicone, or drug use, get tested.

Protect your health. Protect your partner. Know your status.

You Have The Right

Trans* Voters: Don’t be intimidated by the voter ID laws. Presenting as your authentic gender, but don’t have your ID changed to match? Go vote! Your gender appearance doesn’t have to match the legal name listed. Your voice and your vote matter! Don’t let anyone deny you that right!

Family & Friends: Four Stages and Four Tips

Happy National Coming Out Day!

On this day last year, we explored and honored people who are gender diverse in each of their own unique places along their coming out journey in Outed Wear. Today, we shift the focus and address our family and friends.

If you have a partner, a brother, sister, parent, child, aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend, then you have coming out decisions! You, too, are in a coming out journey. Istar-Lev (2004) proposes four family emergence stages:

1)    Discovery and Disclosure: Your have recently learned that your friend or loved one does not identify as their birth-assigned gender. You may feel shocked and devastated.

2)    Turmoil: You may feel stress and conflict with your trans-identified loved one. Subsequently, you may either withdraw or engage in heated conversation over this matter.

3)    Negotiation: Determining that this matter will not disappear or change, you may begin deciding what aspects of this transition you are willing to adjust with and what limits you will set.

4)    Finding Balance: You find a way to integrate your trans-identified loved one back into the routine, rituals, and normal functioning of daily living.

As you move through these phases (and you may not visit each one), give yourself permission to reflect on your thoughts and to process your emotions. As you come to a place of balance and peace, you can help others normalize gender diversity and further the cause of LGBT+ equality. Here are four tips to guide your journey:

1)    Share your story. While you don’t have to make a public service announcement about the dynamics within your family, it doesn’t have to be a secret either. When your co-workers ask about your weekend, don’t censor yourself. Speak openly and honestly about what you did and with whom. This may require stepping out of your comfort zone at first. Trust that it gets easier with time.

2)    Stand up for inclusion and equality. There is no reason to stand for derogatory remarks or jokes. Inflammatory comments can be redirected to a suggestion to be more respectful and inclusive of people’s differences. Consider speaking up on behalf of gender identity statutes and legislative issues, voicing support for your loved one.

3)    Show your support. Be there for your friend or family member in their big life events. Help them plan their wedding. Attend their birthday celebrations. Include them at holiday events. Creating a space of warmth and safety will help promote comfortability.

4)    Make yourself available. Be willing to talk with other friends or family members who may be struggling in their coming out journey. You have likely moved through the process so you can relate to them in a one-on-one way, providing a different level of support and understanding.

The transgender experience is still an unfamiliar paradigm to many people. However, the more we talk about it, engage in meaningful dialogue, and normalize the experience, the sooner we can decrease oppression, raise self-esteem, and provide adequate care for the community. Your coming out story can help make that difference!

~ Julie Walsh

To Be or Not To Be…

You’ve been thinking about it for a long time. You know that your body is a lie to everything you know and feel about yourself. The name that people call you makes you cringe.

It’s time, you think, to finally do this. You reveal your identity to a few close friends and family members. To your surprise, many are supportive! And so some of the people around you start calling you Anthony instead of Anne. You begin introducing yourself this way and using the restroom where you belonged in the first place.

But you begin filling out job applications and you’re not sure what to write. With no legal backing yet, do you write Anne, even though you’re an Anthony? Do you select the box for male or female? How will you navigate the conversation with the manager who is filling out federal forms and insurance information? Will the manager offer understanding and support or just laugh and show you the door?

It’s nice that people are addressing you by your new name and calling you sir, but it feels a little strange. And the restroom? Wow! That’s a different culture! The confusion and the fear and the anxiety are overwhelming. You knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s taking an emotional toll you didn’t expect.

You’re stuck in the middle. Half of your associations know you as the same old person, but the other half is getting to know the true you. It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. You begin to doubt yourself and ask questions like, “Can I really do this? Who am I kidding? Am I just fooling myself?” So you decide it would be easier to give it up and go back to living as Anne, resigning yourself to live with that pain instead. At least you know what to expect and how it feels, you figure.

Making the decision to transition is a bold step. The first few months, in particular, are especially challenging as two genders are integrated into one. Consequently, it is not uncommon to begin living as your authentic gender, and then step back into your birth-assigned gender role. While it’s not who you are and how you want to live, it’s familiar and doesn’t feel as intimidating.

This is not a sign of failure. The transition process doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. Neither do many big changes that happen in life, really.

For example, Brent has been a truck driver for most of his career. A couple years ago, he quit his job and began his course work in seminary to become a preacher. Now most of our friends and associates know him as a preacher, even though he’s not there quite yet. In order to make ends meet over the summer, though, he returned to the trucking industry for a few months while school was out. He didn’t identify with this job position any longer and it wasn’t in line with his goals and aspirations. But it was familiar to him, and it was a step that he needed to take to achieve the bigger picture of becoming the preacher he knows himself to be.

Sometimes you just have to get a few more things in order before taking the final step. Maybe you continue to live in your birth-assigned gender until you have found a physician to prescribe hormones or to sign off on a letter; or maybe you wait until can legally afford a name change. Perhaps you need more time to process the journey with a counselor or a friend. It may, at times, feel discouraging that it’s not going as quickly or as smoothly as you had hoped.

This doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to being in this position forever. Take the steps that you can and keep a healthy perspective on where you are going. Undoubtedly, you will move into your own identity and experience true fulfillment. And the process you had to go through to get there? It will all be worth it!

~ Julie Walsh

Baby, It’s a Mystery

Many times in my life, I have asked God the “why” questions. Why did I lose that job where I was so effective? Why can’t people understand the concept of transgenderism with better ease? Why do we have to wrestle with the health system for adequate medical treatment? Why is there tremendous suffering in some parts of the world?

As I work through these challenges and tough questions, it has become natural to even question the existence of a God of the universe. But, then, I have considered how I think about God through the eyes of my own cat, Baby.

You see, Baby doesn’t understand why I take her to the vet to get her sides squeezed, her skin poked with sharp needles, or allow a stranger to insert a cold thermometer in a place that hasn’t seen the light of day. But her fear is obvious as she howls in the car all the way there and cowers in the corner before the meanie in the lab coat can get ahold of her.

Baby has no idea what the high-pitched screaming alarm was that tore through the apartment complex where we lived or why we darted into the rain for refuge. She was confused when she was left in the company of strangers and their pets for several months during my transitional move to a location that didn’t allow animals.

Baby can’t comprehend why a fully clawed kitten began living in the same house, quickly establishing her place as the alpha cat when Baby was perfectly content being an only child. She was equally not amused when her social rank was lowered even further when a rescue cat was added to the mix. Consequently, hissing, spitting, growling, and scampering feet are still the sounds that abound within the household.

You and I can understand the rationale behind these circumstances from our perspective as the humans who care for our pets. We look after our pets’ health and safety, and we help them to mature into their full potential. Yet there is a gap in her ability to understand so it remains a mystery to Baby.

How much more of a gap exists between God and us? When we experience fear, pain, confusion, and unhappiness we often balk at the mysteries of God. Yet our God loves us and wants to see us live into our full potential. In doing so, we need to humble our spirits to the mysteries of God’s ways. We need to be patient to the ways in which God will shape and mold us by carefully removing our impurities, leaving behind a beautiful creation. We need to maintain a lowly spirit of gentleness and kindness, ridding ourselves of pride. And we need to treat one another with dignity and respect, all within a spirit of humility. Consider the depth of the ways God is working in your life that you cannot begin to comprehend, and take a moment to say thank you for the mysteries of God’s ways.

~ Julie Walsh