One of the interesting things about blogging on WordPress is that I can see the search engine terms that bring people here. (Search strings for porn sort of make me laugh a bit but only because I know I’d be sorely disappointed to find this kind of blog when I’m really looking for some steamy pictures or video.) I’ve noticed on more than one occasion that someone will come here looking for info about coming out at church, though, and with Easter looming on the horizon, I thought this might be a good time to summarize my experiences for others to learn from and adapt, should they be interested.

If I were in the business of giving advice, I’d say that the single most important thing to remember is that no two coming out experiences are the same. The same person won’t react to the same piece of news the exact same way twice, and so those stochastic variations make it almost impossible to predict whether a person would have better luck than I did transitioning in her church, or whether there’s a better way to handle the coming out process. Everything can be done exactly right, I’m thinking, and it can still go straight to hell.

I came out to our priest in early 2008, around the time I started seeing my gender therapist. At the time, I was really only telling people, including my parents, that I was seeing a gender therapist and that I was transgender. In retrospect, being less sure of who I was, or what I wanted, probably just made it easier for others to think this was just a phase I was going through. I don’t think they considered that I might transition, and so, despite my attempts at providing a warning about impending changes, I think everyone just figured I didn’t know what I wanted myself, and so they just ignored me.

Our priest, however, did take it seriously, and that helped me a lot, especially with respect to coming to terms with the possibility that my marriage would end. Not all counsel is pie-in-the-sky promises, and sometimes it’s those hard things that are most important for us to hear.

Anyway, over the course of that first year, as I started taking steps towards transition, some people at church started to notice. I had been dressing more androgynously, wearing nail polish (which was usually color coordinated with the liturgical season; purple for lent, green for the season after pentecost, blue for advent), and letting my hair grow out. A few parishioners tried to find out what was going on by asking “whats up with the nail polish?” I always just replied that I liked the color, which was true enough.

Part of the dodge was that I wasn’t ready to answer more completely– I was still coming to terms with myself and couldn’t fathom how to explain this to people that were practically strangers, or my uncertainty about how far I might go on the path to transition. Additionally, the fact that I didn’t always know the inquirers very well made me reluctant to share what was still very personal information with them. Despite the fact that they could see what was going on, it still wasn’t any of their business.

Shortly before I started my RLE in 2009, the rector of our old church contacted me and said that he’d been receiving more and more questions from other parishioners. I don’t know the exact content of the questions, but I’m sure it was some variant of “what’s up with Josh’s nail polish?” We had talked the previous year about the potential need for an announcement to let everyone know what was going on and decided to wait until it was necessary, which eventually morphed into waiting until my transition took on a mind of its own and took me with it. It got to the point that I had to tell people because I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’d been on hormones for 5 months by that time and had to wear a sports bra if I still wanted to be flat chested. This was a bittersweet thing. My body was starting to look like it should, but I still had to hide it.

By the time I was asked to make the announcement, I was almost itching for the chance. I just wanted the whole thing to be out and over. I wanted to just be able to dress how I wanted at church, which included wearing a nice dress that I had. I hadn’t started wearing bras under my clothes yet and I was still always stressed out about how I looked, especially when going to church. So, one Sunday towards the end of March, I stood up during the announcements and said the following:

Hi everybody. For those that don’t know me, I’m Josh. I’m up here because I know that people have been wondering about what’s been going on with respect to my appearance. It’s not easy to be up here, pulling out the ‘dog and pony show,’ so to speak, but I think this is the best and easiest way to inform the parish about what’s been going on with me. It is difficult for me to be up here, it is difficult to speak, but it is necessary.

For over a year I have been receiving treatment for a medical condition known as Gender Identity Disorder (GID). This means that I internally identify myself as a woman, despite having been born male. This is a known medical condition, not due to an overactive imagination, nor is it a perverse refusal on my part to be a man. It is not a choice—it is a condition. If I thought this were a choice, I would not have chosen to put myself or my family through this. This is not a moral or sexual issue—it is an issue of how a person identifies herself. I am doing everything I can to learn more about this disorder, what I can do about it and what my treatment options are.

Christine and I have met with the rector and his wife, who is also a therapist, on several occasions. We were referred to a therapist who is qualified and skilled in helping people with my condition, and have continued with that treatment.

Transgendered individuals such as myself go through a series of psychiatric evaluations, and are then referred to other doctors for medical care as appropriate, such as hormone replacement and in some cases, surgery. Surgical treatments are not always the final outcome and there are other possibilities for successful treatment of GID.

This has been, and still is a very difficult issue for me and my family to deal with. Owing to the lack of general societal acceptance of people such as myself, I have kept this issue hidden for many years. It has caused me a lot of pain. Being transgendered has cost me both friends and work. This is the price that people such as myself have to pay in order to be proper and whole.

I am still married to Christine. Although this has been very difficult for both of us, she has been very supportive of me. We do not yet know what is in our future, but we are fully aware of the issues and continue to take advantage of professionals to help work those issues out.

I realize that there may be some people in this parish who will not be accepting of my condition nor tolerate the decisions I have made, and will make, about it. While we may disagree, I hope that we can continue to work together and worship together. It is important to me that you know that I believe in Jesus Christ, put my trust in him, and want to serve him with you in this parish.

If there are parishioners who are uncomfortable with having me in a prominent position serving at the altar, I will step down from my ministry as an acolyte. I do not want people to be afraid or unwilling to place their children in a rewarding and fulfilling ministry because of me. I urge anyone who wants to respond to talk to me, Christine, or the rector. Regardless of how you may feel, I ask that you pray for Christine and me. Thank you for listening.

There are a couple of things I should point out. You might notice that I said surgery isn’t always necessary, which is a statement that needs to be qualified. Some people that are trans will transition socially but not seek surgery. Sometimes it’s a matter of being able to afford it, sometimes it’s a matter of their health, sometimes it’s just not the right thing for them. For myself at the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted surgery. I loved Christine, and thought that if everyone else accepted me as a woman, I could still be her husband.

That view has changed a lot over the last two years, and now I realize that it was kind of short-sighted. Of course I needed people to accept me as a woman, but I also needed Christine to accept me as a woman. More to the point, I needed to accept myself as a woman and I think the persistent desire to be her husband was a way of maintaining some stability in my life at the same time I was turning it upside down.

And over the last year, the surgery question resolved itself tidily: it wasn’t an all at once decision, and there wasn’t a pro and con weighing ceremony. It just solidified in my mind as the next logical step, the next thing I would do because I needed to and because I was ready to. I’m not sure I was ready to admit that to myself previously.

The other thing you’ll notice is that I volunteered to step down from my ministry as an altar server, which, if you’ll allow me to remind you, was part of what drove me to start writing about my experiences. I offered, and some of the people in our church took me up on it. At the time, it served a dual pronged purpose: it provided a way for others to increase their comfort around me– they wouldn’t have to worry about their kids being molested by a tranny, after all– and it also served as a barometer for how well I was accepted by the congregation. People can be really nice to your face, after all, and horrible behind your back. I knew that if it came to me stepping down, I’d probably leave the church, too. I offered, and expected to be asked to leave the church that same day. I offered, knowing I’d never go back if someone took me up on it. I hoped that people would be better than I expected.

After I finished reading the announcement, most of the congregation actually applauded, which really took me by surprise. After mass, several people came up to me and expressed support for Christine and me. Most of the people were really good to us. Things were a little tense for the first few months, but seemed to loosen up by the end of summer.

I had changed my name, people were being informed, and I made a point of not correcting parents or children when they misgendered or called me by the wrong name. I continually reminded myself that people needed to adjust in their own time and tried to be patient.

In October, I was contacted by the rector who stated that several people were asking for an update on my situation, and a few people were expressing levels of discomfort with how I appeared to be progressing: I heard that someone confronted the rector, demanding to know whether he approved of men wearing dresses in church. That I wasn’t a man didn’t seem to really matter much. But that’s just gender entitlement, and it’s not an experience that’s unique to the church we attended.

So, with my help, the rector produced a leaflet that was distributed on All Saint’s Day and was made available to all interested persons.

GENDER IDENTITY DISORDER (GID)
a statement from the Rector
November 1, 2009

One of Our Own
At the end of March, a man named Josh, a member of this parish for nearly ten years, addressed the congregation at the 9:45 a.m. Mass, and said, among other things,

For over a year I have been receiving treatment for a medical condition known as Gender Identity Disorder (GID). This means that inside myself I identify myself as a woman, despite having been born male. This is a known medical condition, not an overactive imagination, or a perverse refusal on my part to be a man… I realize that there may be some people in this parish who will not tolerate my condition and decisions I have made about it. While we may disagree, I hope that we can continue to work together and worship together. It is important to me that you know that I believe in Jesus Christ, put my trust in him, and want to serve him with you in this parish family… If there are parishioners who are uncomfortable with having me in a prominent position serving at the altar, I will step down from my ministry as an acolyte. I do not want people to be afraid or unwilling to place their children in a rewarding and fulfilling ministry because of me. … I want to do what is best for the parish. Regardless of how you may feel, please pray for … me. Thank you for listening.

The rector and his wife, a Marriage and Family Therapist, have met with this individual once or twice a year for more than two years. During this time the rector has striven to learn about GID. Now that more than six months have passed since Josh first spoke to the parish, the parish family is due for an update. By design, nothing was put in writing last March. Now it seems good to do so. This written update for the parish family was written by the rector with contributions from our parish member. The contributions are indicated by being indented.

What It’s Not
To be transgendered is not a sexual disorder. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, activity, or desire; it is a matter of identity.

The first thing that people will usually notice about transgendered people when they begin treatment is that their appearance starts to look like that of the opposite sex in such things as dress. This is not having the paraphilia commonly called “cross dressing”, which is an attempt to connect with the opposite sex by dressing in their clothing. Transgendered persons dress in the clothing of the opposite sex because, for them, it is learning to identify who they really are inside. That is, cross dressers use an abnormal behavior to connect with the opposite sex; transgendered persons want to connect with themselves. The behaviors are identical but the motivations are completely different. One is a sexual disorder; the other is a monitored therapeutic treatment.

What It Is
GID is a kind of “birth defect”. There is neither choice nor blame involved in it. To be born with a birth defect like a cleft palate is obvious; to be born with a soul whose gender is different from, or at least out of balance with, the gender of one’s body is a highly complex defect that goes beyond the merely physical into the spiritual.

Peter Kreeft, in his book, Everything you ever wanted to know about Heaven but never dreamed of asking, has a chapter called “Is there Sex in Heaven?” In a section where he describes how we have sexual souls, he wrote, “A wholly male soul, whatever maleness means, or a wholly female soul, sounds unreal and oversimplified. But that is not what sexual souls implies. Rather, in every soul there is— to use Jungian terms— anima and animus, femaleness and maleness; just as in the body, one predominates but the other is also present. If the dominant sex of soul is not the same as that of the body, we have a sexual misfit, a candidate for a sex change operation of body or of soul, earthly or Heavenly. Perhaps Heaven supplies such changes just as it does all other needed forms of healing. In any case, the resurrection body perfectly expresses its soul, and since souls are innately sexual, that body will perfectly express its soul’s true sexual identity.”

What It’s Like

Explaining this is difficult; you get distillations such as being a “woman trapped in a man’s body.” Where that description succeeds in its simplicity is also where it fails. I have always felt like myself, though my understanding of that gendered person has never been anchored as firmly as the understanding that other people have.

When I’ve talked to people about being transgender, I am frequently met with blank stares—most people don’t actually think about or question their gender identity. I liken it to one’s digestive system—you don’t think about digesting food, you just do it, and probably don’t give a second thought to it unless something’s not working the way it ought. Even still, a person knows when they’re ill and needs to go to the hospital. That’s how I felt about my gender identity—I just knew something was wrong.

I started coming to terms with being transgender about two years ago. I was previously “ill” for nearly my entire life— I had felt since I was a child that I would have preferred to be a girl. I was not so naïve as to think that I was a girl, as I obviously wasn’t, at least not physically, but that didn’t alter the way that I felt about myself. I would frequently make believe that I was a girl, I definitely wanted to be a girl. I’m sure that like so many other transgender children, I prayed that God might make me a girl during the night while I slept. If God could make Adam fall asleep, and then make Eve out of a rib, then surely God could fix me overnight. It should be a piece of cake for Him, you see. As so many transgender people before me had already discovered, miracle cures are not usually a part of our experiences. We must make do as best we can, relying on medical professionals and our own certainties about who we are, and going from there.

For too long I felt incredibly alone. I felt like I had no one in whom I could confide. I wondered why God might have made me the way He did. I don’t have answers to all of my own questions, about what being transgender is all about. But I am quite certain that above all else, God sees me. My new chosen name, Jessica, is supposed to mean “God Beholds” and serves as a wonderful reminder of the fact that we are not alone. Knowing that God sees me and knows me, understanding that He is with me and that He loves me is an incredible comfort after so many years.

What’s the Treatment?
Much can be done to help transgendered persons, and sometimes people can learn to accept their status without sex-change surgery—depending on how severe the disjunction between body and soul is, among other factors. Sometimes sex-change surgery comes toward the end of treatment, but is often years away from initial diagnosis. Even then, all one can do is change the appearance of the body and, to a very limited extent, the functions of one’s body. The DNA, however, remains with the gender of the body with which one was born. There are some things that cannot be fully healed in this life; the Christian who suffers from such things can only endure and persevere on the path of sanctification with the burden he has.

Transgendered people, whether or not they have undergone the surgery, will, to some extent, always on Earth be strangers to their own humanity. Gender is our first identification in the world. When that primal identification turns out to be disordered, then one’s self identity is shaken at the very core of selfhood.

Over the last year and a half, I have been seeking counseling to deal with all the complexities. I have spoken at length with my Priest about these issues, and have received counseling through individual therapists as well.

My doctors and therapists diagnose me as having Gender Identity Disorder (GID). My acceptance of certain treatments has been based on my understanding that the best way to treat a transgender person is to have that person live in their gender of identification, not their birth gender. For me, this means that I have been living as a woman for almost a year. As part of this process, I have also changed my name from Joshua to Jessica. Since the summer I have been living what is called a Real Life Experience (or a Real Life Test). The purpose of this experience is to see whether cross-gender living is an appropriate long term solution to my GID. I live and present myself as a woman all the time, have legal identity documents in my new name, have a job, and have a home.

As I continue my transition, my experiences reinforce my identity as a woman. Just as a person knows they’re ill, so too does a person know when they’re getting better.

I would love for everyone to accept me for who I am. But I am also realistic. I know that not everyone will understand, and that acceptance is not always automatic. Regardless of how anyone reacts, the opportunity to be myself at long last has made me incurably and relentlessly hopeful so I will continue to believe the best of everyone, hoping that we can all move forward together from this point.

This Is Hard
Of course it is—for everyone. Family, friends, co-workers, and others who know a transgendered person can react in a number of different ways, but probably no one is indifferent or has no reaction at all. Most people are made uncomfortable to one degree or another, and that discomfort can last a long time—quite possibly always. Lack of sufficient factual information, fear, assumptions, or pre-judgment can cause great harm and hurt to many people.

I have friends, many who knew me previously as Joshua. While there have been periods of adjustment for everyone involved, I am happy to say that I am statistically unusual—I have not lost my home, my job, or nearly any friends as I have moved forward. I personally know people who have lost everything they held dear. While the loss is always heartbreaking, most transsexuals consider it a price that must be paid, not an optional cost. In order to live authentically as who we are, there are always sacrifices.

What Should We Do?
The best we can do as a parish is to ensure that this individual’s standing in Christ is secure. This is really the only solid and dependable thing anyone may have no matter who they are. The only possible place of solidity for anyone and everyone is in Christ. “Once you were no people, but now you are the people of God.”

At this point, it is okay for parishioners to call me Jessica (in fact, I welcome it). For those that feel unable to make that adjustment at this point, I would respectfully request that they at least cease using my male name. Individuals who are uncomfortable can call me Jess or “J” or just nothing at all. A hand on the arm or shoulder or a “Hi” will work just fine.

There are many things in life we cannot understand, and we just have to accept those things while remaining in Christian love. Ultimately for most people in the pew it is a question of whether they will 1) dedicate themselves to loving Jess “as is”, without prying into things that are personal, 2) realize that they do not know all the details of her situation and not jump to erroneous or prejudicial conclusions from partial information or guesswork, 3) ask questions when they have questions to ask, and 4) trust the Rector as chief pastor in the congregation to minister to all without compromise of Christian standards.

I realize that my transition has been a big adjustment for our parish family. I would first like to extend thanks and gratitude for the kindness and generosity that so many people displayed when I spoke in March. I have always felt like Blessed Sacrament is my home and I am very pleased to have been so well accepted and supported by people of the parish.

What Should We Tell Our Children?
A few people have asked what they should tell their children.

I suppose that I don’t really feel comfortable telling anyone anything about what to do with their children, but here’s what I know from hearing other people like me speak about their experiences:

If children ask questions, such as “does Mr. Josh think he’s a girl?” the discussions others have had usually take the following form—“I’m sick, and I’ve been sick for a really long time. I have a birth defect, and that means I was supposed to be a girl, but I was born a boy instead, so I’m going to the doctor and they’re going to make me better and help me to be a girl as I was supposed to be.” Parents may add more detail as age-appropriate.

It also seems important to let kids come to terms with things in their own timing. If they want to continue calling me Josh, for example, I might have to deal with that for a while. If a child asks what my name is, it’s appropriate to say, “Her name is Jessica.”

If there are more specific questions that any of the parents have, I’d be happy to answer them. I don’t have a lot of experience in this area as I don’t really have contact with any of the children in my family, so it’s hard for me to think of questions and answers a priori.

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Shortly before that Sunday in December when I was asked to resign my ministry, I was approached by one of the younger altar servers. I had been serving with her and two older kids during mass that day, and the older children continued to call me Mr. Josh. I don’t know if it was weird for them, but it was weird for me– it was getting to the point where I didn’t turn around every time someone called out, “Josh!”

So, I imagine this little girl heard me being addressed as “Mr. Josh” and got a little confused. So, after mass she came up to me and asked, very politely, whether I was a boy or a girl. I replied “I’m a girl. My name’s Jessica.” I pointed out my name on the schedule of servers so she’d know that it was me. Her only response was, “Oh. Okay.” And then she took off, possibly to correct the other kids who were still calling me Josh. She came back a few minutes later and asked, “Ms. Jessica, may I help you empty the thurible?” Of course I agreed.

I think that was one of the final straws– the parents of the two older kids I served with that day were two of the three people who confronted me and asked me to resign. I imagine their kids were being told on one hand that I was a man named Josh and being told on another that I was a girl named Jessica. Rather than explaining the situation so the children understood though, those parents decided I should step down from a ministry that I had participated in for the better part of 5 years.

Part of me understands their actions, even though I think it was the wrong thing to do. I understand that some people are unable to deal with some things, and I understand that some people just can’t go down this road with me. That was part of the rationale for offering to step down. I don’t want to force people to accept me, but I also knew that I’d rather not stay in a place where I couldn’t be accepted.

Part of me is hurt that it took so long for people to speak up, though as I’ve already noted, people need to adjust at their own pace. I continued to serve for nearly 8 months, thinking that maybe I was being accepted as myself, thinking that I dodged a bullet and then realizing that wasn’t true in the least.

I remember Christine crying when we discussed it and she said, “I wish we had just been kicked out in March. It would have been easier than being led on.” I share that sentiment, though I don’t know how strong it is for either of us anymore. At the same time I felt led on, I also realized that those people needed to adjust in their own time, as I pointed out above.

I’m going to refrain from discussing moral conflict and liberty, or offering any further exegesis on the matter. What I can tell you is this: I came out, was as honest with people as I could be at each individual point, and there were people in the church who couldn’t accept me and who couldn’t get past the fact that I used to be a man.

For a person who’s not as well known, they may have fewer problems at being recognized. And of course, I was in a very conservative parish. The church we’re at now is a bit more liberal (there is an LGBT group) so I don’t know how something like this would go over there. That there are LGBT people in prominent positions within the church makes me feel like it would be less of a problem, but one thing I think to bet on is that acceptance is never 100%.

The last bit of advice I’d probably offer is that coming out at church is both freeing and terrifying. I wouldn’t recommend it unless the person was willing to leave the church should things go bad, but most of transition is like that: we must be willing to sacrifice everything in order to save anything.

———————–

One additional edit– I don’t agree with the rector’s position re:crossdressing. I think crossdressing is a perfectly normal expression of a person’s personality– pathologizing it hurts transgender people of all stripes, including transsexuals, because then you have to differentiate the perverts from those for whom it’s okay.

There are rules against crossdressing in the Bible (well, in the Christian Old Testament), but nothing, AFAIK, that most Christians would consider broadly applicable today. We have compromised on most of the ancient laws of the people of Israel, which is possibly as it should be– we’re not Jews, after all (at least most of us aren’t). We eat shellfish, wear clothes made of mixed fabrics, cut our hair, and do not observe any laws about ritual cleanliness (unless you don’t allow your wife in the house when she’s menstruating each month). What makes the rules about sexual purity more important than the others is purely speculative guesswork on my part.

I would venture that Fred Clark at Slacktivist would say it has something to do with an oversimplification that has hurt the church quite a lot in the past several decades– the tendency to equate morality with sexual purity. As I’ve said before (and elsewhere), there’s more to being a Christian than just following some 5000 year old rules, and as a result, there are too many people that are not only putting a cart before a horse, but using a cart with only one broken wheel.

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