Category Archives: For Friends

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.

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.

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

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

A Difficult Question To Answer

When we finally decide to come out as transgender to friends and family, we might have a portfolio of explanations and arguments on hand, ready to answer all the questions people will launch at us. “When did this happen?” “Are you insane?” “Is this your way of getting attention?” These are only some of the questions we have to contend with, and there are a hundred more where those came from. But there is one question that we are usually not prepared to answer: “What can I do to help?”

While this question conveys the kind of open-hearted response we all want to receive, it’s a hard question to answer if we’re not prepared for it. “What can you do? Um… I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”

In fact, there are plenty of things our friends, co-workers and loved ones can do to support us on this journey, so here are a few ideas:

  1. “I need you to be there for me.” While this may seem obvious, it’s a good place to start when putting your needs out there. Being there for you does not mean trying to “fix” you or change your mind. It just means being present with you as you navigate this unfamiliar terrain.
  2. “If you have questions, just ask me.” Many people are afraid to ask questions, for fear they might offend us. And to be fair, there are some trans* people who get very defensive when questions are asked. This would be a good time to talk about what kinds of questions you welcome and what kinds you would rather not answer. Remember, the more questions they ask, the more comfortable they will probably feel with your transition.
  3. “You could read this book…” There is no better way to help someone than by educating one’s self about the issue they’re dealing with. Find a book or two that you think would be helpful for someone who has questions, and then be ready to recommend them. You can also direct them here, to TransFormation Ministry, where they can read some blogs and write to us with any questions.
  4. “Just be careful not to ‘out’ me. I want to share this news in my own way.” It is important for your loved ones to work through their own feelings about your transition, and in order to do that they might need to talk to someone. But talking to people you have not yet come out to could cause more harm than good. You might recommend they talk to a therapist or trusted friend who can maintain confidentiality.
  5. “Check out the local PFLAG chapter.” This is a great resource for someone who might be struggling with your transition. If there is not a PFLAG chapter in their area, you can suggest they find a PFLAG group on Facebook, anywhere around the world.

These are only a few ways you can answer when someone asks how they can help. If you have more ideas, leave a comment and tell us how you would want someone to help when you’re in the process of coming out. This might help others be more prepared for the one question they were least expecting!

Taking My Own Advice

“I need someone to tell me what to do.” Callie stood by my pickup truck with a frown wrinkling her forehead, her teeth worrying her lower lip. A big decision lay before her, one that had the potential to change the entire landscape of her future, and the implications paralyzed her. She had sought counseling from her pastor and advice from a friend, but no one was giving her what she really wanted – permission to say yes. She wanted someone to tell her that she should put her money where her mouth is and go for it.  She wanted someone to say that God would open doors for her and pave the way with road signs. She wanted someone to convince her that saying yes would be like the explosion of a starter pistol, and that the gates would fly open and her life would take off down the track, leaving doubt and hesitation in the dust.

But no one was saying those things. Her pastor laid out some steps to guide her in discernment; her friend said he would support her, whatever she decided. And when she asked God… well, God was even worse! God wasn’t painting any billboards as far as she could see! What was wrong with everybody? Couldn’t they see she just wanted to get a simple yes or no answer?

In the book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer talks of leading retreats. “From time to time participants show me the notes they are taking as the retreat unfolds. The pattern is nearly universal: people take copious notes on what the retreat leader says, and they sometimes take notes on the words of certain wise people in the group, but rarely, if ever, do they take notes on what they themselves say. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.” Later he says, “We need to listen to what our lives are saying and take notes on it, lest we forget our own truth or deny that we ever heard it.”

If you are like Callie, you search high and low for someone to tell you what decision to make, and you are anxious to hear what they have to say. This is a positive first step and one that can affirm your initial quest for feedback. But once you have asked others for their opinions, the person you really need to listen to is yourself. You probably already know what you need to do, but maybe you don’t trust yourself to make this kind of decision – one that carries life-changing implications. You want to talk to a professional, someone who can swoop in and organize all the clutter in your brain, stuffing random pieces of your life into neat stackable storage containers, color coded and adorned with sticky labels. Once your brain is organized, maybe then you will see the signs you’re looking for to guide you in the right direction.

The thing is, you are the most qualified person for this job. Make an appointment with yourself and have a notebook handy to take notes. Ask yourself what your passion is, what your strengths are, where your weaknesses lie, what challenges you, who motivates you, what you want to do before you die. What you tell yourself will be very important, so don’t miss a word of it. Just for a moment, stop asking other people for advice and start attending to the advice you would give yourself.

The thing you are called to is authenticity. When you allow yourself to answer that call, you will not only discover the sense of fulfillment you are looking for, but you will also find your path to authentic purpose in the world.

Coming Out With Respect

Coming out to my parents was hard enough, but I had a lot of explaining to do when I told my friends I was going to come out by way of email. “Why don’t you just tell them in person? Are you afraid of what they’ll say?” some friends wondered. “It’s so impersonal,” others complained. “I’d at least call them on the phone if I were you.” But that was the thing… they weren’t me.

Coming out is often a difficult conversation, and there are a number of reasons I choose to address difficult conversations in writing. First, when it comes to this kind of thing, I write much better than I speak. When I get nervous, I stumble around my vocabulary, bump into awkward phrases, scramble for misplaced words, and choke on emotions that crawl up my throat and make my eyes water. What’s worse, if I mess up and have to correct myself, I come across as uncertain and apologetic, which is not at all the display of confidence I want to exude. When I write, I take my time to collect just the right words; I line them up like soldiers on the page, in exactly the order they need to be. If any get out of line, I whisk them away with the delete key, and no one even knows they existed. By the time my words reach their destination, they’ve been tweaked and polished and they march in step, all the way to the end of the page.

Second, when a conversation takes place in person, there is a lot of opportunity for someone to interrupt me, especially if I’m busy searching for words. I might have practiced my speech in the mirror a hundred times, but as soon as my loved one interrupts with a rebuttal to something I say, my prepared speech is out the window. Now I have to put my speech on pause in order to argue a point, and who knows if I’ll ever get to say the things I prepared. When I deliver my thoughts in written form, they all arrive intact and on time. If my loved one needs to stop reading for one reason or another, my words will wait in perfect formation until my loved one is ready to look at them again.

Finally, when I’m talking to someone in person and they start to cry, it completely derails me. It makes me wonder if I should step away and let them have some privacy. If we’re in a public place, my loved one might feel embarrassed and ashamed of their tears. When I came out to my parents, I wanted them to be able to express whatever emotions came over them. It was important that they be allowed to grieve and to process this information at their own pace and in their own way.

My decision to come out via email had nothing to do with fear or cowardice. My friends thought I was being disrespectful in my “impersonal” method, but the truth was I was showing respect the best way I knew how. It was showing respect not only to my parents, but also to myself. I wanted to respect my own strengths and give myself the best chance to say everything I had to say.

It’s your coming out. You need to decide how to make it work best for you. In the end, what matters most is not how you come out, but that you respect yourself in the process.

Are You Sure…?

When I first announced my decision to transition, some of my well-intentioned friends and family responded with shock and uncertainty. They had never heard me talk about my gender; now I was telling them I was going to have a sex change. Understandably, they worried I was making a rash decision. But many had no idea what to say or how to say it, and they wound up saying the first thing that crossed their minds before considering the appropriateness of their comments: “This is so sudden; don’t you want to think about it for a while? Have you considered counseling?”

They might have been trying to help, but the questions only made me defensive. It seemed they wanted me to get their approval before I followed through, and in some cases I felt I had to defend my mental clarity. In reality, many people have thought about this decision for more than twenty years before doing anything. It may seem like a quick decision, but it rarely is.

Others feared that transitioning was a response to traumatic experiences: “Are you transgender because you were abused as a child?” They might have been asking from a place of deep concern, but it doesn’t come across that way. While it is true that some transgender people have been abused as children, it’s also true that others have not. Approximately one in four people have experienced abuse – a percentage far greater than that of the transgender community. There is no correlation between abuse and gender identity.

With many living as lesbian or gay before deciding to transition, some people are tempted to ask, “Why don’t you just keep living as a gay/lesbian? It’s easier that way.” I presented as lesbian until I was 32, and while I truly enjoyed being a part of the lesbian community, I just did not feel right inside. I was a man, and in some ways I felt like an imposter. It sometimes seemed like I was misleading people into thinking I was someone I was not. The easier road is not always the most authentic one.

So how can you respond when someone tells you they want to transition? First, try not to jump to a fear-based reaction. If you are uncertain what to say, try, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” This allows the transgender person to open up without feeling defensive. When you feel genuinely concerned about the suddenness of the decision, you could say: “I’m glad you told me about this. How long have you been feeling this way?” This will give the person a chance to share their internal experience and process with you.

If transgender issues are foreign to you, it’s okay to admit that. You don’t have to know all the answers. You can simply acknowledge, “I honestly don’t know what you’re going through and I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. But your journey is important to me. Let’s keep talking so you can help me understand.” Ultimately, remember to focus on affirming this person you care about and frame your questions with care so they will feel respected, valued, and loved.

~ Brent Walsh