I have vivid recollections of cross-dressing since the age of five. Virtually every reference I heard or read was derogatory, so it seemed prudent not to tell anyone. Instead, I attempted, unsuccessfully, to submerge my feelings and drive them out of my life. As the years went by, my secret became unbearably heavy.
Then, in my early forties, a great burst of lightness entered my life. I was convinced it would permanently displace the heaviness. Through a mutual acquaintance, I met my wife-to-be on a commuter train and we quickly became friends. She was warm, friendly and non-judgmental. Over time, like turned to love and, with our marriage, a deeper love developed that was as close to unconditional as I have ever experienced.
But, even with Marsha’s loving presence, cross-dressing didn’t become a thing of the past. It steadfastly refused to go away. I previously thought that it simply filled a void in my life. Now my life was full, so why didn’t it go away? I didn’t understand.
So, at age 50, I embarked on a quest for the truth about my sexuality and emotions. Eventually I was able to understand that cross-dressing was an integral part of myself, that it was neither good nor bad, and that I had to balance it with all of the other aspects of my psyche and my life.
My relationship with my wife was built on truth and openness. I had come to feel safe telling her everything – everything but this! Despite my fears, I knew that I had to tell her about my cross-dressing.
My story was a difficult revelation for both of us but, instead of pulling away, she drew even closer. We talked. And we talked. And we talked. In time, she was able to accept my cross-dressing as just another aspect of the man she married. She showed herself to be God’s greatest gift to me. She loved me just the way I was.
While working out the issues related to cross-dressing, we realized that it would be valuable to share what we had learned. So, I wrote The Bliss of Becoming One!, which became a best-seller for cross-dressers.
With the publishing of the book, I began to become active in the gender community. At our first gender conference, my wife said she felt as though we were attending a professional women’s business meeting. Everyone was beautifully and stylishly outfitted including matching shoes and handbags.
At the workshop where I was speaking, I described my journey to become a complete person. As I spoke, painful memories surfaced among the participants of the rejection that they had endured. I witnessed the impact of that rejection: lost relationships, escapes into drugs and alcohol, ruined lives of quiet desperation. The fear is all too real that we will lose our wives, our children, our jobs – everything of importance – if anyone learns our secret.
Personally, I was at peace, but I was determined that I would never forget the suffering of others. Contrary to the well-meaning advice from other cross-dressers never to tell anyone, I vowed that I would try to tell everyone. That day marked my renewed commitment to continue to reach out to help other cross-dressers and their families and friends to deal with their suffering and unnecessary anguish.
The roots of our suffering begin early in life. Like many of us, I was conditioned from childhood to believe that the way things were was how they were supposed to be. I learned to be guarded in my personal interactions, to be suspicious of anyone who was not like me and to place them “over there” where they couldn’t affect my world. As a cross-dresser, I personally discovered what it meant to be treated differently because most of the world mirrored my attitude and behavior by placing me “over there” because I was different.
I realized that if I wanted the attitudes and behaviors towards people like myself to change, I would have to take the initiative to reach out to others. So I learned to tell my story to others with whom I had a relationship. By sharing intimate parts of my life, a deeper bond usually developed. Telling my secret story made it safe for others to tell theirs and many did. Telling instead of hiding increased our mutual understanding and made both of our burdens lighter.
Telling our stories can be all the more traumatic for cross-dressers seeking a place within a faith community. The desire of most Christians who cross-dress is simply to be accepted as members of a congregation. We are hesitant to confide in our clergy for fear of being labeled sinners, excluded from the church and separated from God. As a result, most of us say nothing and continue to hide the truth, thus re-enforcing our guilt and shame.
On my journey, I have had discussions with hundreds of religious leaders and have been dismayed by their overwhelmingly negative reactions. A large segment of Christianity still selectively uses Deuteronomy 22:5, the only biblical passage that appears to directly address the subject, to automatically condemn cross-dressing:
“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abominations unto the Lord thy God.”
Literalists use this verse to brand all male, but not female, cross-dressers as sinners in urgent need of repentance. Mention the word cross-dresser and their strong condemnation gushes forth. If the cross-dresser fails to repent immediately, he is characterized as being in open rebellion against God.
I researched 30 commentaries regarding the verse. The scholars varied widely in their views, and most qualified their position or provided multiple possible explanations. A surprising number said that the verse has nothing to do with what is commonly known today as cross-dressing. The prohibition was most frequently attributed to pagan religious ceremonies or deviant sexual practices. Since none of those conditions applied to me or to the cross-dressers that I knew, I thought the issue should be settled.
The spiritual realm, including a desire to be part of a supportive church, has always been a crucial component of my life. While I had become comfortable with my cross-dressing, the church did not occupy the same comfort zone. In my search for a supportive church home, I contacted nine local churches of various denominations asking if I could be accepted as a cross-dresser. Most avoided answering me, and several said no. Only one responded positively.
I began attending services there in ordinary male attire and connected with the pastor. I took the class for prospective new members and subsequently joined the congregation.
The pastor was an outstanding orator who encouraged members to take action. I made several proposals for programs to address cross-dressing but received no reply. After several months, he finally agreed to meet. He confirmed that it was OK for me to have become a member. He confided that there also were several gays and lesbians in the congregation. He stated, however, that it would not be appropriate to discuss any of this openly because the congregation was “not ready.” I was devastated. I thought that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was awful, but this was even worse. I had done everything I could to fit in, and it still wasn’t enough to be openly accepted. With great sadness, I left that church.
Months later a good friend suggested that I visit a church which she knew was gay-friendly and would likely be open to me. After my recent investment of two years waiting for church acceptance, I was very bold in approaching the pastor. Surprisingly, she said it would not be a problem (was it significant that the pastor was a woman?). I began attending on a regular basis, again dressing in male attire. After several months I decided to join.
During the membership ceremony, the pastor read a statement prepared by each person, and mine announced to the entire congregation that I was a cross-dresser. The reaction was scattered applause followed after the service by many open expressions of support. The church had a committee on reconciliation that led an annual Sunday service. That year I became a very active participant. During the months that followed, I took on the leadership of the committee and was able to conduct several workshops on cross-dressing and Christianity. The audiences were large and appreciative.
The overall experience was an unbelievable high, one that reached its pinnacle after one of my workshops. I live in the San Francisco Bay area where the 49ers are football kings, but I’m from Wisconsin; Green Bay Packer green-and-gold blood is in my veins. As a result, I took a lot of good-natured ribbing about being a “cheese-head.” In the social hall after one of my workshops, a female member of the congregation approached the group with whom I was speaking. She winked and asked if it was more difficult for me coming out as a cross-dresser or as a Packer fan. The group dissolved in laughter. It was the most loving embrace possible. I felt truly blessed.
Unfortunately, however, the congregation’s denomination still considers homosexuality incompatible with Christianity. So, just beneath the surface acceptance, significant tension still exists within the church regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. My pastor and I agreed that seeing a cross-dressed person whom they already knew and accepted, might help our members to better understand those issues. We announced a repeat of the prior year’s workshops. The only difference was that Richard had led them the year before, but this time I would be dressed as Rachel.
To my surprise, by simply putting on a dress, I had inadvertently created a litmus test for just how open the congregation really was. I had crossed an unstated line. Some church members embraced the idea of a cross-dresser but not the visual reality of actually cross-dressing. To them it was acceptable to have LGBT members as long as they looked and acted like everyone else. A man wearing a dress certainly didn’t meet those criteria. Some left the church while others withheld their donations. No one knew quite what to do. I voluntarily pulled back from my committee leadership position, announced my readiness to serve in any capacity and awaited the next step.
For more than a year that step has been to stand still. The church’s membership stabilized, but the subject of reconciliation was shifted towards the back burner. If the clergy push forward, it could cost them their jobs and livelihood. If lay leaders push too hard, it could cost them their official positions in the congregation. So it has been less costly to church leadership to quietly ignore a transgender person and gently nudge him towards the margins than to openly confront the issue.
This would be just another sad story if it were an isolated instance. But similar stories occur in every denomination in every town, and they add up to a significant spiritual problem.
Christians talk about taking the Gospel into the world. First, however, we must implement it within our churches. Jesus succinctly stated the Gospel message by saying that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor and made it clear that everyone is our neighbor. If we listen to much of the current rhetoric coming from the church, one could reasonably conclude that being gay is the greatest sin. If we listen to Jesus, though, we would know that the greatest sin is the failure to love. Of that sin the church is most decidedly guilty!
If followers of Christ are to be known by their love for one another, what are we to make of the institutional church? During its history, it has failed to love blacks by supporting slavery and then segregation. It has failed to love women by consistently relegating them to the back of the ecclesiastical bus. And today it consistently fails to love LGBT people often not even recognizing us as Christians.
The Gospel is absurdly simple to articulate but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Learning to love and accept Christians who look and act differently, lies at the heart of the Gospel message. The issue isn’t merely about loving gays and lesbians. And it certainly isn’t about being comfortable. It is about loving all of God’s children!
Dan Schutte’s song, “Here I Am, Lord,” recounts much of the world’s suffering and poses God’s response as: “Whom shall I send?” The refrain asks: “Is it I, Lord?”
As one who has experienced rejection by the institutional church, I feel challenged to answer God’s call by saying, “Send me!” Meanwhile, the church demonstrates a chronic failure rate in answering that same call. That failure continues to have an extremely high personal cost to those of us in the LGBT community. And, if the church fails to end its hypocrisy, the long-term cost to its credibility as an instrument of God’s love will be immeasurable.
Richard Molling is a married heterosexual cross-dresser who began seeking community at age 40 under the name Rachel Miller, which is the pen name he used to publish The Bliss of Becoming One! Integrating ‘Feminine’ Feelings into the Male Psyche Mainstreaming the Gender Community in 1996. An accomplished speaker, Molling has worked for four decades to increase understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.