A God moment? I’ve had many, but the question made me think specifically of Jacob wrestling God, how he walked with a limp thereafter, and how his name became Israel. You could say I too wrestled with God, and in the end I too walk differently and have a new name!
My struggle with God was during the process I went through in reconciling my faith with being transgender. But I still wonder why the solution to my deeply private struggle require I make such public and outward changes?
I transitioned in 2008 at the age of 58, nine years after I was diagnosed with having acute gender dysphoria. The recommended course of action would include living full time as a woman for at least one year, hormone therapy, legal name change, and undergoing a final psychological evaluation before surgery would be authorized.
The prospect was daunting, not just for its enormous financial cost, but also all the implications and ramifications on my wife and three adult sons. Nothing new here; this is the common experience for us who transition late in life, who are married and have children. Each family deals with the news differently and in many cases, the adjustment is painful and not without negative consequences.
I knew all this and was prepared for the worst. But this was not what held me back and gave me pause for concern. What did God have to say about this? Who’s opinion was I going to listen to, my doctors’ or God’s?
Praying it away …
The way I had tried to deal with my dysphoria, from the age of twenty—when I placed my faith in Jesus—until the fateful day I was given the diagnosis, was by spiritualizing it. I fully expected that one day I would be normal if I exercised my faith, prayed, memorized scripture and worked hard at “retraining my mind.” Unfortunately, the thoughts and feelings of inadequacy as a man were persistent. It seemed like such a simple prayer for God to answer so that this internal private struggle would simply vanish and I could be normal.
All these spiritual disciplines paid off dividends, and if you were to look and me and my life, my family and how I was regarded by friends and family, you would have never guessed I was as torn up on the inside as I was. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being a husband and a dad; and I loved my life. The problem was that I never felt at peace in my own skin. This produced mountains of guilt and I felt totally defeated spiritually.
The word “transgender” was not available to me when I came out to my wife in 1980, about six years into our marriage. Maybe it would have made it a lot easier to explain how I felt and what I “feared” I was. Instead, all I could muster up was that I felt inadequate as a man; that I had feminine feelings and how embarrassed I was for being this way. I told her I sometimes wanted to be a woman and that I often found myself imagining what I would look like as a female. I went on to say that I wanted all these thoughts to go away and wondered if the reason God had chosen not to “heal” me was because I had kept this a secret from her.
I believed that when I married my wife, the two of us had become one flesh in the eyes of God. I concluded, therefore, that by not being honest with her from the start, I must have sabotaged this process somehow. How could I possibly expect God to hear my prayers? She needed to know the truth.
That was my logic. Our marriage went through an adjustment period, but gradually my wife allowed herself to stand with me in this struggle, and we fought the war together. I became very harsh with myself as I vainly tried to control my thoughts. Nothing worked; and as time went by, I lost hope. On top of that, I could not bring myself to tell my wife just how I was unraveling from the inside despite her love and best efforts to help me cope.
Unfortunately, our marriage ended the year after my surgery. I will always be grateful for how my wife gave me so much love and support, even before those challenging years of transition. In the end, she could not accept the loss of her husband. Sometimes the death of a spouse is easier to accept than having them change sex, I am told.
In my fundamentalist way of thinking, I needed to reduce things to black and white, cause and effect, dos and don’ts, to categorizing knowledge and wisdom into the world’s or heaven’s: the world’s is bad and heaven’s is good. My attempts to figure out why I was this way became a minefield of conflicting thoughts. I felt guilty for looking at “secular” (bad) information, and worried I would somehow jinx everything if I accepted these explanations. Unfortunately, I could find little that offered an explanation that made sense to me in “Christian” (good) literature.
Even getting myself referred to the gender clinic for a psychological evaluation became a struggle of conscience; it felt as if I was walking into enemy territory. But I needed to know once and for all if I could be fixed. The diagnosis was not a big surprise, I had suspected as much. But part of me was hopeful that doctors could somehow make it less overwhelming for me to live each day without the nagging self-loathing.
My God moment by moment
The turning point in reconciling my very conservative beliefs to what the doctors were telling me was not one single “aha!” moment. It took several months in 2006 when I began to look more closely at what it was Jesus said about eunuchs. Ironically, the one verse I had used for years was part of this discussion between Jesus, the Pharisees and his disciple; but I had taken it out of context.
I won’t go into all the arguments I pondered at the time, but at the end of this grueling process, I finally felt I had permission to proceed and that God did not condemn me. I now had other questions to ponder, such as: why doesn’t God answer all our prayers, and why did he choose not to “heal” me? But as I considered how universal these questions were and how I was not the only person who had pleaded with God for years to change something that seemed to be broken, I then began to see how perhaps I had missed his answers to my prayers all along.
Yes, I had a very specific request: I wanted to be normal. What I meant by that was that I did not want to be struggling with my gender identity; I wanted to be at home in my own body. This meant that I would one day be content to be a male, plain and simple.
Then, I considered how I lived in a time and place where my condition, if you want to call it that, was understood by the medical profession, and that there were countless clinicians and specialists who were invested in making the lives of transgender people more livable. Was this not to be recognized as a gift from God and an answer to prayer? It is no different from recognizing that each year there are medical advances that help those suffering from life-long ailments and conditions that had previously been life sentences.
Any one of the hallmark discoveries which have made it possible for people to live longer, happier lives, such as the discovery of insulin—it dawned on me how we consider these advances as answers to prayers, as gifts from God. Why, then, could I not accept that the medical and surgical options the doctors recommended for me were his way of answering my prayers? There it was, the crux of the matter. God did answer my prayers, but not as I expected. One question that remains unanswered, however, is why the solution to my deeply private struggle required such public and outward changes.
Oxymorons and true religion
Transition was no cakewalk. It was a frightening time of adjustments and navigating unchartered waters. No amount of reading other people’s stories can prepare you for some of the things one has to go through. The first time you present yourself to an old friend or acquaintance, the nerves are enough to kill a million tapeworms. Gradually, I began to discover that many of my fears were unfounded. I was not rejected, ostracized, or abandoned. I was fortunate.
After my transition, I have had the privilege of meeting and corresponding with countless other trans men and women. Sadly, for far too many, rejection has been their bitter experience. More disturbing is the fact that so many of those doing the rejecting and judging are Christian families and friends. It is no longer a wonder to me why so many trans persons want nothing to do with church, or with God.
That is not to say transgender persons are not spiritual; far from it. My experience within my faith community may not be the norm, I admit, but if we are to ask what true religion is, we would then need to say that loving justice, embracing mercy and walking humbly with God is it. Simply put, to love others as we want to be loved. Whether my new friends claim to be Christian or not, I sometimes see more of this type of love in action among transgender persons than among some of our detractors who do claim to be Christian.
Since I published my story in 2011, Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life, in which I share my journey from childhood through to just after my gender reassignment surgery in March of 2010, I have received many letters. They tell me my book is the first one they have read that talks about faith and being transgender. Why is this significant, you may ask? The reality is that for many, being a transgender Christian is an oxymoron, a contradiction. I am touched by these letters, some of which have come from transgender Christians who have yet to come out and are terrified that they will lose everything if and when they do — family, church, jobs, etc. This saddens me deeply.
The young transgender girl (11), Sadie Croft, who wrote President Obama after his Inaugural Address, hit the nail on the head. Disappointed the President had not mentioned transgender persons when he talked about equality, she said:
“It would be a better world if everyone knew that transgender people have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.”
When this becomes true, what a God moment that will be!
Until the age of 58, Lisa Salazar lived a life that was complicated by the fact that she was born male. She envisioned a very private life after her transition in 2008, but her life is anything but private these days. She shares her life journey in her book, Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life, and also maintains a blog. http://lisainbc.blogspot.com Lisa also gives workshops on transgender issues and is a board member of Canyon Walker Connections. Her advocacy is directed towards the church. “Whether you like it or not, the church continues to influence politics in both the U.S. and Canada. If pulpits continue to spew out misinformation regarding LGB and T issues, the longer it is going to take to see real change happen,” she says.
Follow her blog at lisainbc.blogspot.com.