Religious Legalism Meets Cross-Dressing

In my gender community debut at the Texas “T” Party in early 1996, I described my journey to become a complete person. As I spoke, the memories of the pain I had endured from repeated rejection came flooding back. I had seen the impact on countless others and promised myself I would never forget. If you haven’t personally experienced that type of pain it is easy to pass by unaffected. One of my jobs is to help others sense what we have experienced.

The ridicule and rejection of cross-dressers as expressed by mainstream society is so strong that the most consistent advice I have received from others was to never tell anyone! There is an incredible fear that we will lose our wives, our children, our jobs; everything of importance. That fear becomes even more palpable for those who wish to have a personal relationship with God. We are extremely hesitant to bring the question to our minister for fear of being branded as a sinner, excluded from the church and separated from God. So most of us say nothing and continue to hide causing still more guilt, shame and pain.

Some friends advised me not to bother trying to talk with religious leaders about our issues claiming that they wouldn’t listen. I hoped that assessment was overly pessimistic but when my newsletter urged religious leaders to Let The Walls Fall Down in love, most of the bricks fell on my head. I used to think of Bible thumpers as people who pounded on their Bibles to make a point but these people pound their Bibles on the heads of anyone who disagrees with them.

Without learning any personal facts about my situation nearly 80%, 42 of 54 clergy, labeled my cross-dressing as sinful and requiring repentance. I was stunned by the overwhelmingly negative and often violent nature of the responses. If that was the reaction when they acted “out of love” as many insisted they were doing, I shudder to think what it would be if they didn’t love me. These extracts demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.

In each case I sent a follow-up email pointing out that only one Biblical verse addressed the issue, that commentators gave multiple interpretations of the meaning and that most concluded it wasn’t about cross-dressing per se. Given that, I concluded that a blanket condemnation is not warranted, that each case needs to be viewed separately and that dialog is needed to understand the situation. In turn the clergy branded me as rebelling against God, failing to accept His Word and suffering from a serious relationship problem with God.

So what’s the story here? Am I an honest seeker of the truth or just a rebellious critter who wants to shape the Bible to fit my own agenda?

This newsletter encourages thinking and questioning. We may feel more comfortable if we don’t but seekers of the truth must challenge conventional ideas. That probing is difficult but serious inquiry will either validate the truth of the existing views or lead to better understanding. My request of religious leaders is to read this material without firing off an immediate reply. Please take the time to pray and seek God’s will on how He would have you proceed.

Getting Smacked With the Verbal Ruler

My early religious training was administered by Catholic nuns in grade school. The vehicle was the Baltimore Catechism. The method was to memorize the questions and answers or experience the splendor of a ruler across the knuckles. I didn’t need to think. I didn’t need to study the Bible. I just had to regurgitate the answers on demand. Trouble was my brain kept thinking up new questions. Sister’s response was if I even think of another question, it is a mortal sin and I am damned to Hell. So I learned the answers. I learned to keep my thoughts to myself. I learned fear and guilt. Hardly the best foundation for a relationship with my Creator.

Religious conditions didn’t change much for me until I encountered the Jesuits at Marquette. “What does it say?” was replaced with, “What do you think?” When I stumbled about uncertain how to respond to this new concept, I got smacked with a verbal ruler. “Look! God gave each of you a brain. He expects you to use it. I’m going to teach you how to use it, not what to think. Now, what about…?” We were expected to challenge assumptions and validate logical steps. We were taught to draw on a wide variety of material developed by people with differing yet knowledgeable views and then use our own critical thinking abilities to make informed decisions. I was starting to learn to express my thoughts. I was starting to unlearn fear. Once I started on this path, return to the old one was impossible.

A fundamental aspect of good logic is to carefully examine the authors’ assumptions. If I accept their assumptions and they employ sound logic, I will find myself forced to agree with their conclusion. Many writers gloss over their assumptions or never state them explicitly. I want mine to be clear so you can assess them. My assumptions are that:

  • God is my Creator
  • The Bible represents God’s Word and helps direct my life
  • Scripture must be interpreted in light of the times and circumstances in which it was written
  • There will always be a certain amount of ambiguity in Scripture
  • No single scholar or religious group has the definitive word on all Scriptural meaning
  • It is my duty as a Christian to obtain as much insight as possible and remain open to hearing the views of others even if they are different from my personal beliefs

The religious community’s response to “Let The Walls Fall Down” honed in on Deuteronomy: Chapter 22, Verse 5, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, and a man must not wear women’s clothing.” and said it clearly identified me as a sinner who needed to repent. They said failure to acknowledge my sin left me in a state of rebellion against God.

Previously I had looked up several interpretations, found multiple views and concluded it was not an absolute condemnation of cross-dressing. That level of analysis was enough for me at the time but was inadequate now. Since I am not a Biblical scholar and can’t compete with religious leaders on detailed Scriptural interpretation I turned to existing Bible commentaries. I was determined to find out what they had to say and gather all points of view. I finally stopped looking after 30 commentaries.

Here’s a summary of their interpretations with the number of each shown in parentheses:

  • Pagan religious connotation (12)
  • Deviant sexual practices or moral issues (9)
  • Maintain proper distinction between the sexes (8)
  • Part of a collection of laws with a common theme (5)
  • Definitely not about simple cross-dressing (5)
  • Magical connection related to disguise or deceit (4)
  • Related to armor or wartime attire (3)
  • No comment (3)
  • Hard line literal interpretation to be applied to all cross-dressing (2)
  • Doesn’t apply because we aren’t under the law (1)

A handful spoke with authority by making absolute statements. About one-third offered multiple possible explanations hence 52 interpretations from thirty sources. Over half used qualifiers such as likely, may/might, possible/probable, seems, some or suggests/suppose. With that diversity of opinion, how can anyone insist that their view is the correct one and impose it on others without allowing any questioning? Rather, I believe that this diversity supports my contention that a blanket condemnation is unwarranted.

Some still insist on taking this verse literally without qualification or interpretation. If they say it is wrong for a man to wear a dress, then logically they must also say it is wrong for a woman to wear pants, suspenders, a vest and a tie. Virtually everyone applied the rule vigorously to men yet ignored it when dealing with women. How can that be justified?

Continuing with literal interpretations, two other verses are curiously related to clothing. Verse 11, “Don’t wear clothing woven from two kinds of thread: for instance, wool and linen together.” Why isn’t there a great disturbance about wearing shirts and blouses made of polyester and cotton? Verse 12, “You must sew tassels on the four corners of your cloaks.” Wearing tassels today is more likely to be associated with a burlesque show than a religious expression. Why didn’t anyone mention these verses?

Verse 22 is really interesting, “If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lie with the woman and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.” If you brand a cross-dresser as an abomination aren’t you similarly required to put adulterers to death?

Finally, verses 28 and 29 state, “If a man finds a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver and she shall be his wife; because he has humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.” Are we to force every man who seduced a virgin to pay a dowry, marry her and prohibit a divorce for his lifetime?

If anyone chooses to take part of one verse literally, then they must take the others the same way. We have only discussed six verses from one chapter, and I don’t know anyone who consistently follows the literal interpretation of all of them. The Torah has 5,851 verses and some make even these situations appear mundane. Are we to take them all literally as well? If we don’t take them literally, what should we do? Consider these alternatives:

For Religious leaders

  • Stop rushing to judgment by condemning all cross-dressing as a sin requiring repentance
  • Start dealing with these hurting individuals with love and compassion by discussing the issue constructively
  • Help these men achieve a personal relationship with God

For Cross-dressers

  • Stop silently accepting the pronouncements of religious leaders regarding cross-dressing and use these materials to open a dialog
  • Start seeking an accepting church home — see my quest for some ideas
  • Be honest about your issues and seek constructive solutions rather than hiding

In a recent Greg Evans’ “Luann” cartoon, the husband is watching her at breakfast. Without saying a word he mentally critiques her every action — using regular coffee instead of decaf, an extra spoon, lots of cream, leaving toast crumbs in the butter, not wiping up a spill. Finally Luann turns and says, “You’re being ‘Judge Mental’ again, aren’t you?” Far too often we fit that judgmental mold. Wouldn’t it be better to fit the loving mold of Angela Michaels, a member of my gender family, who said, “Love is — Not worrying about the difference.” We can choose whether to build the walls between us and God higher or to help them fall down. What will you choose?


My catechism experiences and battering because of cross-dressing aren’t unique. For those who have felt the sting of legalism, shame and guilt in a religious context, help is available. A good place to start is the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen.

For those religious leaders who find themselves trapped in the role of the abuser, the same source offers help in breaking that role.

God loves us all and His healing is always available.