Transgender Christians, Gays and Our Common Bond

Fun?! Who said being a Christian was supposed to be fun?! That is — if we define the essence of being a Christian as making Jesus Christ Lord. He accepts us — but many others, including many Christians, don’t. And resolving the differences is not fun.

Being a transgender Christian is in many ways similar to being a gay Christian. We face a number of the same issues, and some different issues as well. In some ways these issues aren’t any different than many other humans have faced — for instance, a Black American in 1900 attending a white church. “Why do they reject me?” “Why am I different?” “Why did God make me this way?” None of these questions are fun!

Usually one’s first experience of being transgender comes as a shocking confrontation from a parent — “No, you DON’T want to be a girl! Stop saying that or your father will spank you!” Or, it may be when a group of children is told, “Okay, children, all the girls over here and all the boys over there. Robbie! Learn to LISTEN! I said all the boys over THERE!” Well, I WAS listening! They just weren’t HEARING, a common dilemma of transgender childhood.

Being transgender is different from being gay in the sense that not only is there the dilemma of social and interpersonal expression, the transgender individual is usually in conflict with reality itself. Since early age they are told that they are not what they perceive or believe that they are, or who they know they are. Their literal knowledge of self as related to self and as self to others is challenged, and they are literally forced to behave as someone else — someone of “that other” sex.

As a young child I was frequently rejected or preyed upon by my peers. There seemed to be a small group of “us” who somehow found ourselves together. I was fortunate in that I progressed from pre-kindergarten through high school graduation in the same area and can now look back on the development of many of my “us” peers. I know that many found themselves to be gay at different points through our adolescence. I suspect that those who have more or less disappeared from contact are those who are transgender. Some are now apparently still in strong denial (I remember too much about them!). Some have turned out to be seemingly normal, nice family-oriented guys. Maybe they’re just not being honest with me!

I recently tracked down an old friend who I was sure was transgender — he’s the one that stood up screaming in frustration at a Boy Scout meeting, “We are GIRLS! We are GIRLS!” The scoutmasters were pouring out a plethora of macho-male role expectations that apparently caused my friend to hit overload. I was surprised, however, to find this friend, now in his mid-forties, as a family man, deeply involved in his very conservative Christian church and conservative lifestyle. He’s even involved in scouting, to my surprise!

For many of us, however, our story may follow his path — until we finally burn out. Whether my friend’s situation is an example of healing through Christian obedience or just one more example of what we go through trying to fit in and be “normal” in our gender role can be debated. Many of us, however, refer to those years as our years of extreme self-denial and suppression.

Being transgender is also different from being gay in the sense of one’s self-perception as a member of the opposite sex. Gender identity is a completely different matter than sexual orientation, although some transgenders are gay as well. The interplay of both factors leads to even further complications for the individual. It’s not just a matter of facing the fact, “Hey, I’m gay!” One’s whole being and existence is at stake, and many times the individual is not even aware of what’s going on, since the total reinforcement of their self-perception has been so incipiently and relentlessly defined by others until the person finally concedes.

Each transgender person deals with their dilemma in their own individual way, although there are some patterns. Those who are persistent since childhood through adolescence (defined as Childhood Onset) in their opposite-gender assertions tend to have surgery (or SRS- Sexual Reassignment Surgery, or the newer GRS- Gender Reassignment Surgery). Frequently these individuals are also gay — attracted to others of their birth-sex and also perceiving themselves as members of the opposite sex. Sometimes they go through a period thinking they are gay, while others never would call themselves gay but see themselves as heterosexual persons stuck in the wrong gender-body.

Those who somehow manage to find the strength to attempt to be successful living in their socially- and biologically-assigned gender role have some similar paths. They tend to force themselves to “be a real man or woman” and to live according to society’s definition. This frequently entails early marriage in the attempt to be normal in their social gender and sexual function. They tend to find themselves attempting careers in roles that are highly role-enforcing. Many males end up in the military or law enforcement, for example. Females find themselves trying to be the best housewife. Usually it is all in the desperate cry for acceptance.

Those who do attempt to carry on in their assigned gender roles frequently fall back on their religious faith or beliefs in order to strengthen and reinforce them in their socially assigned role. This was my own path. As a late teen I found myself in a dramatic spiritual experience or awareness. Looking back, it was actually the feminine side of me breaking through and finding that I was accepted totally for who I was before God, and that the spiritual teachings of Christianity (as opposed to its traditional religious expression) coincided with who I was internally — caring, serving, giving, sharing, supportive.

Unfortunately, I was gradually “led” by those most influential in my life to serve God fulltime — but according to their definition. I found myself attending seminary (for which I am now grateful) where I gradually found myself losing my sense of self and spirituality as it reinforced the male-gender role of “becoming God’s man.”

Smothering in a pastorate, I wondered how I could at least be myself as an expressive, creative, spiritual human being. I finally ended up becoming an Army Chaplain for nine years. No one was going to define my spirituality or religious beliefs for me in this wider social millieu. However, I became highly successful in letting the Army “make a man out of me.” I came away with many wonderful experiences and a wealth of learning. I also found myself beginning to crumble as I grasped out in desperation trying to find the “real me” before God in the roots of my spirituality where I first found Him or where He first chose to reveal Himself to me in Spirit and in Truth. I hadn’t realized how intertwined my spirituality was with my feminine psyche and self-identity.

Eventually, I believe all of us who have attempted this path into adulthood (called Adult Onset) come to a point where we either crash and burn and are forced to deal with our dilemma, or we find a way to live out the rest of our lives in total denial — by living according to externally imposed definitions of self.

Suicide is a major risk for the transgender. More recently, with greater social awareness that such a thing as “transgender” exists and with increased support, many have been saved from this tragedy. Having one’s whole being challenged over and over takes its toll, and I feel badly for those who end up in the throes of desperation commiting suicide. However, I feel nearly as bad for those with gender identity issues who spend their whole life in denial or unaware of what it is that’s down inside somewhere haunting them. They are striving for acceptance but may not even understand why. My friend may be one of these.

As a Christian, however, I feel badly even more so for those who live in denial and who use their beliefs as a reinforcement for the externally-imposed role and definition of self. I feel that they never find the true freedom God can give and never experience the total all-acceptance given to us who call upon the name of Jesus Christ and stand before Him in total nakedness, just as we are. Avoiding suicide or self-awareness by confining oneself to a lifetime of role-imprisonment is not my idea of God’s plan for our lives. Perhaps this is where my old friend is now, sadly.

It is no wonder, however, that many never find themselves. Gender identity is not a choice — it is determined prior to birth but it’s not obvious to the naked eye. Usually it entails the actual brain formation, where the gender identity is fixed around the sixth or seventh week of fetal development! Since male and female brains are extremely different in structure and function, putting the wrong one in the wrong body is something like putting a Macintosh computer chip into an IBM or vice-versa, or cramming a Beta videotape into your VHS VCR — chaos and conflict! Coming to an awareness of “why am I like this?” manages to elude many. They live their lives adapting rather than growing. Hopefully, greater strides and efforts in gender awareness and education will open the door of self-awareness and self-acceptance for many in the future, as well as acceptance among society.

In a sense I feel that God has given me this gift (as some would call it) or curse (as others would call it) as a challenge toward my ultimate growth and toward His eternal purpose. It has had its blessings and its pains. Most of the conflicts tend to be where the pain becomes evident. However, I can now trace many of the blessings and joys in my life back to the fact that I am transgender — born in a male body with a female brain, and many physical female traits as well — how many sixth grade boys get to be voted “second largest breasts in the class!”

It is no wonder that many abandon their simple faith and search wherever they can find a religious or spiritual system or non-system that allows them to define themselves as who they are, in full acceptance. Even for us who prefer to make the choice to be Christians find acceptance difficult — whether acceptance by our churches or families, or whether our own self-acceptance before God in light of our beliefs or intrained doctrines. Making Jesus Christ Lord of our lives presents an added dimension that is at times extremely difficult for the transgender — and which can become extremely rewarding as well as we find His way for us.

Finding a definition for “transgender” is itself difficult. Not only are there definitions given by the medical and psychological communities, there are terms used within the community itself that sometimes overlap but have different definitions. Talk about confused!

The textbook definition of our condition is called “Gender Dysphoria” which is defined as “…the desire to be, or the insistence that one is, a member of the opposite sex… [and] … persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.”

There are “cross-dressers”, some who include themselves as transgender and others who don’t. These are usually heterosexual or bisexual males who have no wish to change their biological sex but enjoy dressing as or emulating the behavior and role of a woman. “Drag queen” is usually reserved for those who tend to be gay and extremely flamboyant, usually hoping to attract another male lover.

There are “transsexuals” — and I believe that most who call themselves “transgender” are transsexual, or cross-gendered, by definition. However, the media and pop-culture definition is “someone who had their body changed to the other sex.” In reality, only about ten percent of those defined as transsexual ever have surgery.

Then there are the rest who prefer to be called “transgender” for a number of reasons. These are the other ninety percent of what I would call transsexual or cross-gendered. These are the people who choose a myriad of avenues in expressing their gender. Some simply confine themselves to cross-dressing due to family, employment, medical histories that would not allow surgery, or a number of other situations. Some simply allow their other-gender expressions in their own privacy but not in society. Some go the full length except surgery in becoming and living as members of the opposite sex.

Where are the Christians? All throughout the spectrum. I know Christians in every level of the transgender world — cross-dressers, post-op transsexuals, transgender people but abstaining due to family, transgender and living in the opposite role, and even those who live in one gender role by day and another by night!

Being a Christian and transgender doesn’t seem to dictate any particular paths or solutions to one’s gender dilemma. What makes Christian transgender folk different? Several details.

First, the issue of making Jesus Christ Lord — finding one’s path not in a self-seeking manner but in a heartfelt and many times painful, turbulent struggle of prayer and searching is an appropriate response to feeling God’s acceptance. However, the rejection faced from others and even our own selves toward our body is where the struggle for Lordship takes place. One might say that the most common experience of transgender male children is the prayer, “Please Lord, make me wake up as a girl!” At least there’s a faithful start!

The trauma of finding one’s own self-definition as opposed to the gender role relentlessly forced upon us, along with the frequent experience of rejection by one’s closest social supports — parents, friends, siblings and churches — leads many transgender people to abandon their faith. The lack of acceptance faced daily can blind anyone to the overwhelming love and acceptance available through Christ. Perhaps this is why Jesus focused much of His earthly ministry on the downtrodden and rejected.

It is not uncommon to find transgender individuals turning to spiritism, universalism, witchcraft, or whatever spiritual expression they can find that includes rather than excludes them. By nature, transgender people tend to be rather spiritual people. They find a way to express that, one way or another, in whatever route offers acceptance.

Take a look around in the average church. You will probably find that there is a disproportionate number of females. There seems to be something about the female brain that makes it more open to spirituality. The male brain tends to use one hemisphere at a time, focusing on the task at hand. The female brain tends to orchestrate and call upon both hemispheres jointly. This is sometimes why females seem indecisive — they’re just processing more data in a myriad of dimensions!

This same brain structure lends itself to the cliche’ “female intuition.” The female brain tends to see more than the obvious and to sense beyond the five senses. This, in turn, tends to predispose the female brain toward spirituality, an unknown or unseen dimension.

Now — to confuse things even further — each person has their own blend of gender traits. There are some males with highly feminine gender traits and yet they are not transgender. They feel appropriate as males. The same is true of females — there are highly-masculine-trait females who are comfortable and appropriate within their birth-bodies. Hollywood enjoys portraying these out-of-type people in movies and television shows — the female hardcore Army sergeant barking orders or the male housewife are good examples.

I must state at this point that almost all of my experience and learning in the transgender area is among and about biological males (commonly called m2f’s). I have had little exposure to biological females (commonly called f2m’s or ftm’s) despite my efforts. I can’t speak authoritavely on the causes or course of their transgender feelings but the issues presented are similar. Transgender males tend to be very extreme on the gender traits scale — scoring very high on feminine traits (I have a small sample of data that averages 96 percentile) and very low on masculine traits (5 or less percentile!). These people aren’t nearly as obvious in society as one might think.

I was not surprised, therefore, to find in a study of people in careers and their testosterone levels that pastors had the lowest levels. There may be something biological that predisposes people toward spirituality. It may be the structure of the brain, or it may have to do with yet another dimension, hormone balance, that contributes to who we are as unique individuals before God.

As Christians and transgender people, however, the path is made difficult not only in our expression of sexual preference as is frequently the dilemma of gays, but in our total presentation of self. A gay Christian can choose to be covert and go home to their own sexual expression. The transgender Christian has the added burden knowing that in order to be who they know themselves to be before God and in Spirit and Truth, their whole being — body, social role and existence on this earth — is in conflict. Unfortunately, even if they fully resolve their dilemma through surgery and complete transformation to the opposite-gender role they find that they are frequently haunted by their past history and are rejected by churches.

It is true that many gays find their social expression of themselves under attack — gays and transgender people share similarities in many traits which would cause them to be labeled as effeminate. I still drink with my li’l ol’ pinky sticking up and frequently found myself the brunt of jokes even when I was highly successful in portraying a normal male role. We share many of these traits in common.

However, in order for the transgender individual to “come out” or to be honest to self (let alone to God!) the expressions and changes that take place are far more cause for rejection in society and especially in churches.

I have heard on more than one occasion of a transgender person deciding to attend church en femme’ only to have gay or lesbian members of the congregation complain that the person is going to destroy all the progress made by the gay/lesbian members within the church! What they fail to realize that it has usually been the gay/lesbian efforts to educate and gain acceptance that has prepared the congregation for yet a greater challenge — a transgender person!

I see the acceptance of transgender persons as frequently owing itself to the foundations of the gay/lesbian communities and as a crowning achievement, not a detraction. Many transgender people as well as gays can share horror stories of trying to break the ice among their own churches, only to find certain rejection, loss of positions or frequently being booted out of the church altogether. Gays and transgender people are both at-risk for this lack of acceptance.

Since many churches and traditions tend to see transgender people as a sub-class of gay lifestyle, the rule of thumb seems to be that if they reject gays, they reject transgender people too. If a church focuses on issues and “Scriptural doctrine” then rejection of either lifestyle is almost certain. If they are able to focus on God’s overwhelming love and the believer’s salvation by grace alone, then all of us have a chance of finding a place of worship, fellowship and acceptance there.

Ironically, despite their own struggles with Scriptures, churches and rejection, many transgender people are also non-accepting toward gays! Well, maybe not toward gays as persons but toward the expression of gay sexual activity. This is usually based on their understanding of those Scriptures which traditionally are understood to condem gay sexual practices. Although these transgender people have come to their own terms with God they may still have difficulty with these Scriptures if they are of traditionally conservative biblical persuasion.

Others, such as myself, have in the past looked askance at gays for several reasons. First, we transgender males are not infrequently assaulted during our growing-up years with the accusation that we are gay because of our similar self-expressions, body language and interests. Second, if we are transgender and yet biologically heterosexual we have usually had our share of come-ons by confused gays of our birth-sex. Either can contribute to a transgender person’s gay-shy attitude.

What does it mean to be transgender and a Christian? A whole lot. And the gay community has the experience and background to understand us better than any other, and vice-versa.

As Christians, transgender and gay/bi/lesbian, we share much in common — our self-struggles, our coming-out, our fight for acceptance among families, society and churches, and our common faith and spirituality, regardless of how we express it.

I believe that we have a lot of learning to do about each other, and that we have much to contribute to each other as well. Tolerance of our differences is important, not only because we share the same Lord as His Servants but because we share many of the same sufferings and persecutions for being who He created us to be — accepted by Him.

This tolerance (at the very least) or full acceptance (at the greatest) appears to be coming as we focus first on the first thing — being Christians — and secondarily upon what we share in common. Only then can we accomplish what needs to be done in order to bring about this same tolerance or acceptance within the Body of Christ, whether we are gay, transgender, Black, Native American, geniuses or sheer morons, or just a little bit different!