Do you have a secret? How big is it? How do you think people will respond if they find out?
It wasn’t always clear to Santiago Salazar that somewhere inside him was a Lisa that would someday—a long time into the future—show herself to the world. After living the first forty eight years of life as Santiago, a married, heterosexual man and father of three children and devout Christian, Santiago was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a term that describes the challenges, and opportunities, that some have with sexual identity. But it would take almost ten more years to reconcile this diagnosis with her Christian faith before she could decide to transition to womanhood. For someone who had been a husband and a father, it was the beginning an amazing new life…
Disclosure, revelation, exposure, or whatever word you may have for it, is a visceral, frightening process to go through. Especially if the information is so sensitive, some would prefer death by flaying. But in fact, that is what disclosure is all about, peeling away the layers that hide the “body” of truth. Perhaps that is why it can be so traumatic.
On October 2007 I began disclosing to family and friends that I had been diagnosed with acute gender dysphoria—that I was “transgender.” I had already lived eight years with this verdict; it took me that long to reconcile myself and my faith to my diagnosis. The news was a shock to everyone in my life; only my wife had known my secret.
Ever since I put my faith in Christ at the age of twenty, I had prayed to be normal and coped with this secret, ugly, persistent, cursed and yet unnamed condition by spiritualizing it; maybe it’s more accurate to say by “demonizing” it. (I had no name for it because the word transgender was not coined until around 1990.) But not even placing my faith in a savior and doing all the things a Christian “soldier” is supposed to do, like putting on the armor of God and claiming victory over a defeated enemy, did nothing to stop the battles from raging.
The amazing thing to me, as I look back on those years, is how this conflict was so well hidden from view. It’s as if this war took place on another planet or in a parallel universe. The curtain was drawn and the wounds were shoved deep down to hide the evidence.
There is this idea among Christians that if you act right, look right and live right, everything will work out. It’s not true. Didn’t Jesus accuse some who held this view of being nothing but white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones? That is how I felt: squeaky clean and spiritual on the outside and complete chaos and confusion on the inside; integrity quotient: zero.
Let me try to bring a more positive note to this conversation to make my point. Instead of thinking about a horrible secret, let’s talk about a wonderful, beautiful secret. One that gives you goosebumps just thinking about it. Maybe it’s how you felt the first time you fell in love with someone and nobody, but nobody knew—especially the one by whom you had been smitten. (If you’ve never felt this, let me tell you, it’s ga-ga-land amazing!)
Now, think back and try to recall some of the emotions you felt and how the palms of your hands sweated and your heart raced every time you thought about them. Then recall the moment you told them and how that felt. If you are anything like me, you may have felt a combination of nausea and ecstasy—all at the same time, followed by a moment of surreal transcendence.
Still thinking about emotions, now substitute this secret love with a horrible secret, one that instead of giving you goosebumps, makes you cringe and gag with shame. Now imagine picking up the phone to tell the person(s) you love the most this explosive truth. What emotions might you experience?
Physiologically, you may experience some similar things, such as a pounding heart and nausea, but also fear. Not just any fear. I’m talking about the kind of fear that may propel a person to jump from the twentieth floor of a burning building. The kind of fear that is extremely irrational on one level, and extremely logical on another — the logic that says, “This will spare you any more pain.”
Now imagine having to repeat this disclosure a dozen, or even a hundred times. Could you do it?
Coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) can be this traumatic. While disclosure may be one experience that’s common to all LGBT persons, it is several levels more intense for transgender persons.
The reality is that for most, the process has to be done twice; once when you disclose that you are transgender, and once when you present yourself for the first time as the gender you identify as. In my case, as a woman.
The sense of vulnerability is akin to disrobing in front of people. Then, just when you think the whole world knows or has seen what you look like, you get a call from an old friend (or distant relative, or client) who knows nothing about your new life and needs to meet with you. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before, even if everything turned out okay, it’s just as heart-stopping scary every time you do it. There is no thrill in it; you just want the earth to open up and swallow you whole.
In many ways, it’s much easier to deal with strangers with whom you have no history. It’s counterintuitive. The truth is that it’s our family and friends, the ones who should be our source of support, who can inflict the most pain.
I have been thinking a lot about this lately, not just because it has happened to me again recently, but because I get several emails each week from total strangers who bare their souls and tell me their secret, including pastors and church leaders. These men and women are terrified of what will happen once their secret is out; it’s the primal fear of abandonment and rejection.
When as many as 50% of transgender persons are rejected by their families, many of them wonderfully squeaky clean on the outside church people, you can understand why 41% of transgender persons admit to having attempted suicide at least once.
I am therefore deeply touched with the level of trust these frightened souls place on me — most of all, I admire their courage — for I know their heart was racing and they felt nauseated as they wrote their email and pressed “SEND.”
If you have previously thought being transgender is a deviant lifestyle choice, let me ask you: Who would choose such a thing, given the gloomy statistics?
If the abandonment, rejection and judgment of transgender persons is ever going to end, I believe it will be up to people of faith to make that choice. It really is in our power to love and embrace.
That’s what the Bible shows us, and it’s what I had to do for myself.
Editorial Note:Here’s the letter Lisa wrote in 2007, and updated periodically, to disclose to friends.
She is the Vice-President of PFLAG Austin, and her “Mom, I’m Gay” book has been endorsed by The Human Rights Campaign and others. Sharon Groves, PhD, HRC’s Religion & Faith Program Director says, “I often get asked by parents for resources that can address the struggles of raising LGBT sons and daughters without having to leave faith behind. Susan Cottrell’s book, Mom, I’m Gay, does just that. This is the kind of book that parents will love.”
She and her husband have been married more than 25 years and have five children – one of whom is in the LGBTQ community. She lives in Austin, Texas, and blogs at FreedHearts.org and here in IMPACT Magazine’s FreedHeartsand Jesus Blog columns.