On Christmas Eve I attended Candlelight Service at a large nondenominational church to which my brother belongs. It was the first time I had been to church since beginning hormonal transition from female to male 6 months earlier. I was really hungry for a powerful message as I sat there in that cavernous space which had once been a huge curling rink but was now transformed into a strong and loving faith community. Going through Advent without a church had been more disconcerting than I ever expected. Even the kids were eager to go to church.
The pastor chose to begin his sermon with the words of John’s gospel rather than the accounts traditionally referred to for a Christmas Eve service. Namely, he began with, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” He went on to describe the light coming into the world and to recall how the Word became flesh and lived among us. From there the pastor went on to list all the multifaceted and wonderful things Jesus is to the world. This year, more than ever, the opening verses of John’s gospel (John 1:1-18), which I have heard and read so many times, resonated deeply and set the tone, not only for my Christmas celebration, but also for my reflections on the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
To understand why those words spoke so clearly to me at this time, I have to look back to childhood. I can remember my mother trying to instill in me the importance of praying in Jesus’ name, saying that it was only through Him that one could access God. Not only did that upset my sense of fairness that a poor child in some other part of the world who had never been introduced to Jesus should be condemned to die and face an unspoken end, but I found it hard to approach Jesus when I felt such a close relationship with God on my own. It seemed to me that Jesus was in the way. I talked to God, I trusted Him like the loving parent I needed. God was someone whom I truly believed loved and accepted me no matter what deformed and peculiar reality lay inside me.
And I knew that that there was something terribly wrong inside, a malformation I envisioned to be of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde proportions, a corruption that only a firm faith in God could save me from.
I was my parents’ firstborn and only daughter. Two years earlier my sister, Catherine, had strangled on the umbilical cord and was stillborn. She was, my mother believed, an angel. The first angel mementos entered our house the Christmas after Catherine’s death and every year we endeavored to find more wonderful and perfect angels for mother — no easy task in the years before angels became a New Age collectible of choice. So, into these angelic footsteps I stumbled. My mother even went as far as to tell me that the only time the gender of one of her children mattered was when I was born. Having lost a daughter, she longed for another. Two sons followed me. But, being a daughter was my responsibility, the grounding on which I was certain my parents’ love depended. How then to tell them that inside me, looking out from my very eyes, lurked not a girl, but a boy?
Unlike many female-to-male transsexuals I was not rugged and tomboyish, insisting on male names and dress. Rather, I wanted to be a girl and was disheartened by my gender ambiguous name and the fact that my mother insisted on a practical pixie cut for my fine hair. I was sure that someone somewhere would look too closely and see “the boy.” I wanted him hidden, buried, gone from my consciousness. I studied girls, watched how they walked, copied the way they talked, and looked to all the world like a girl, but never felt like one. As I grew up, I did manage to push the boy into the background. Being attracted to boys myself was great relief. If I liked boys and better yet, if they liked me, I had to be female, right? I dated. I got married. I enjoyed typically “feminine” pursuits such as sewing even though, for some odd reason, I always felt better about such hobbies if I knew that there were at least some men who pursued them, too. I didn’t gravitate to stereotypical male careers but nonetheless ended up in an almost entirely male department of philosophy. I was accepted to law school and decided not to go because I wasn’t sure how I would present myself as female in such an environment. Instead, I got pregnant and threw myself into the role of mother and housewife. But having babies did not settle the uncertainty deep inside me and I began to wonder if there really were women in the world like me. Depressions and mild manic episodes followed and to make a very long story short, I finally ended up committed to a psychiatric ward at the age of 36, totally distraught about sexuality and gender.
Where was God in all this? Until I was released from the hospital, He was right beside me. I never questioned God. I had even considered the seminary at one point. I had been very active in various churches and nondenominational organizations. I never doubted the existence of God until I was diagnosed with a mental illness. Armed with lithium and the conviction to forget all my nasty delusions and concentrate on being a “good housewife,” I came home with my faith in shreds. Was God merely a symptom of mental illness? Had this heavenly Father, whose very breath had warmed my soul as a child been nothing but an illusion? I was hurt, angry and frustrated and above all I was confused. Could I be a lesbian if I wasn’t even very fond of women? Why then had I felt like a boy in a girl’s body? Why did I not feel female inside? What kind of truly corrupted being was I that these feelings were not going away? Did God not love me at all?
I would like to report a miraculous moment of truth descending from above with bright light and angelic choirs but in reality, God slowly and steadily, even stubbornly, put my feet back on the path and showed me that He had, in fact, been walking beside me all along. I returned to church, this time back to the Catholic Church, where I had grown up, and for a long time I sat there grumbling to myself, daring God. Until I came to know the fact that there were individuals born female who felt like men and had transitioned to live successfully as men, sometimes even as gay men, I was uncertain as to where I fit in. I had to reconcile my mental illness, my questions about sexuality and my fear that my church sanctioned marriage might end against a backdrop that is not always welcoming to these ideas. Despite many extremely difficult and pain-filled moments the doors that God has opened, the people He has put in my path, the way He has looked after my ex-husband, my children and myself is testimony to my faith that this journey is the one I am meant to walk.
But what of Jesus? At times I am acutely aware that I speak of God with more ease than I speak of the “Word made flesh,” His Son, or as the disciples answered without question when asked, “Who do you say that I am?”… the Messiah. It makes me feel anxious to hear others speak of coming to know God personally through Jesus Christ. I already know God, is He not right there beside me even sometimes gently pushing me onward from behind? And, after all, is Jesus not God, are they not the same? Rightly or wrongly I suspect that for me, the fatherly image of God was so much more important when I was younger. My own father was distant and is still a very difficult man to please. I have tried but, in the end, my brothers and I have all tended to respond to his distance with distance of our own. But, I also believe that God is wise and reaches out to each of us in the way we need to be reached. He must have known when I was young, the lonely path that lay ahead of me. He must have seen the mood disorder and the gender dysphoria, and He also must have known how much my parents had wanted a daughter. I suppose I like to think that God wanted me to know that He would be there for me. As I imagine is the case for so many other GLBT Christians, my life has been fundamentally and completely a journey of faith and, as far as I know, that journey is not over yet. There is much work to be done.
Now that my transition has started, I have begun the process of moving from life as a woman to life as a man. I am beginning to become aware of the potential of this same process to strengthen my relationship with my own brothers and with my heavenly brother, Jesus. The role of daughter was, for me, something that loomed larger than life. No matter how successfully I appeared to have mastered the role it remained obscure. I even dreamed of having my own daughter so that I could teach her to be a girl and in doing so finally come to understand the mystery of womanhood. And of course I have an ultra feminine, totally self- confident girl who has never need a lesson in “girlness.”
To any comfortably self-identified man or woman reading this my insecurity probably sounds incredibly dramatic. I am aware that it must be very difficult to imagine what it is like to have your internal sense of your gender so at odds with what your physical body tells you and the rest of the world about your gender. Add social gender roles to the equation (and I came of age in the ’70s at the height of feminism), and one can feel confused and overwhelmed, or at least I did. At home my brothers resented the fact that I had my own room and were certain I had privileges denied them on the basis of my gender. In the world I was made to feel inadequate because I did not naturally gravitate to social groups of women, extol the virtues of female writers and artists or even question whether Ottawa’s Museum of Man had a sexist name. My friends signed up for women’s studies and I stayed away telling them, with some embarrassment, that I actually liked men.
Now, twenty some years later, my decision to live as a man has nothing to do with social advantage, rather it has everything to do with being at peace internally and perhaps finding myself. As a single parent, working a menial labor job and dependent on the financial support of my ex, I am hardly reaping the financial benefits of being male. In a way I have irreparably distanced myself from other mothers and yet I never will be my children’s father. I am moving from the normative identity of heterosexual female to gay male, not exactly a classic step toward social acceptance. I face a lifetime of hormone therapy and several surgeries and yet, I feel very positive about what I am doing. Every day I am happier and more in awe of God’s love and presence in my life. It shows in my children, both of whom have special needs and have shown marked improvement in school this term. I have talked more frequently and in more depth with both of my brothers in the past few months than I have in maybe 20 years. My mother has promised unconditional love and shows it by gently supporting me, talking to some of our relatives about what I am doing and, most impressively for me, buying me men’s clothing for Christmas. My father is, well, I am on his email list again and I have decided that since he is 73, I want to be patient and loving toward him and not let past bitterness block whatever relationship we might have.
And, finally, as I write this I realize that in all of these small and precious blessings, in the gift of family and friends, there is Jesus. That, in the ability to see the minor miracles in every day life, to cherish the joys amidst the difficulties and challenges of life, I do know Jesus. And especially, as I look forward to life as the person I was meant to be, in a body that feels like it is mine, I may be able to begin to appreciate why I once gravitated to God as a spiritual father who was, for me somehow “up there” or removed from the existence of the flesh which caused me so much unexplained distress and confusion. Jesus, as the Word made flesh, the Son of God, I was not ready to fully embrace.
At the moment, I feel very much like a 41-year-old adolescent on the cusp of manhood. Puberty revisited, this time the way my brain was programmed to experience it. Exciting and scary, just like the first time, albeit with added responsibility of fulltime job and parenthood. Perhaps this is the perfect time for me to reflect upon and renew my relationship with Jesus. And find out who He is for me as I find out who I am.
A writer and editor based in Calgary, Alberta, Joseph M. Schreiber is the criticism/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine and a former editor at The Scofield. He writes a blog at https://roughghosts.com.