Reading In a Season of Change

With so much that has happened within my identity, and coming to terms with someone I hadn’t known, I have been reading. A lot. I had to do my thing and read the work done on transgender people and the intersection of Christian spirituality.

For decades, I have been mentally and soulfully trying to find the place of peace in sexuality and spirituality. Gender and sexuality are separate aspects of our human lives. Our culture, especially in American Christianity, has forced the two together like peanut butter and transmission fluid on two pieces of tree bark to make a sandwich. In order to grasp my identity and hold my faith together, I read.

This is the list of media and a synopsis and/or reflection on each. Maybe some of you need to find something to grasp and hold identity and faith together. Maybe some of you are shaken by what I have discovered and claimed for myself and just need to know “How” or “Why”. Maybe some of you just want to expand your understanding. May these books serve you in the way that best brings you peace.

I need to begin with what really launched my biggest change. “Let It Go” settled into my heart. It began a string of Disney-originated songs from critical animated movies for my psyche. To hear Idina Menzel the first time sing this and to watch Elsa come out of her isolation and claim herself – I had tears in my eyes. That song stayed on repeat for a while in my mind and heart. Returning to it today, I realize much of that song has come to pass for me. Now if I could just wear that dress like she does.

The next was Moana. The entire movie was a huge messenger for me. It spoke to me about the place of calling, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the face of most of our churches today. But the song “How Far I’ll Go”, the anthem of claiming her vision for the future, reminded me that my calling is not shaped by the fears and limitations of the places I am appointed to serve. My calling is just that: it is a calling to something that is beyond the reef, in the open sea. I’m still wondering how far it will take me.

And then The Greatest Showman was released. I walked out a changed person. I have always considered myself an outsider, a weirdo, a freak. I always claimed it was because I was a nerd and geek. In reality, I knew deep down it was because I was a crossdresser. It was the fear of being discovered, the shame I held for something that truly was defining me.

I watched the overly positive portrayal of P.T. Barnum’s acceptance of his “freaks”. I watched them find a family, acceptance with one another. I knew that there would always be the mobs that wanted to destroy what I felt was good about me. I knew that I would continue to face rejection and fear or misunderstanding. But I had to look at myself differently. And I had to look for others who looked at ourselves differently.

Of course, no mention of The Greatest Showman is complete without the showcase musical piece in that movie. Keala Settle brought that song to the hearts and lives of millions of “freaks” and gave all of us a reason to proclaim “This Is Me” even in the pain of our scars, the faces of our enemies and the roadblocks.

That song was so transformational, I wrote about the intersection of the words of that song and chapter 5 of the Book of Romans in the New Testament.  

Okay, on to books. There have been many books over the years that I have always built my life on and around. I started with reading about homosexuality and faith and the Bible. There are tons of books out there. Some are good. Some are bad. My opinion is that if you can’t get to loving and accepting gays by reading the Bible directly, then start with these two books: Homosexuality: A Conversion: How a Conservative Pastor Outgrew the Idea that Homosexuality Is a Sin by Rev. John Tyson and UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of The Bible on Homosexuality by Colby Martin. Both give very earnest efforts to deal with the battleground verses. I call them battleground verses because they are the same territory in the Bible that both sides have laid claim to in clarifying the issue. In the process, the only thing that has been clarified is how much one side hates the other. And I use the word “hate” on purpose. There is no love in most arguments over who has the best transterpretation.

For a more down to earth and relatable approach to the subject of language, I MUST include my friend Stant Litore’s Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, and A Way of Reading the Bible as a Call to Adventure. Stant addresses the way that some stories and words and verses have been mistranslated and how they have created the exact opposite climate of how God intended the world to be.

One of my friends from one of my online support groups suggested I read Cheryl B. Evans book, What Does God Think: Transgender People and the Bible. I got it and consumed it very quickly. This is as much an attempt to share relatable approaches to the subject of gender and transgender issues as it is a mother trying to navigate the world-shaking reality that her child is transgender.

That book unlocked a door that led me down a rabbit hole of discovery. The Bible and the Transgender Experience: How Scripture Supports Gender Variance by Rev. Linda Tatro Herzer burst open my eyes to new ways of looking at familiar Bible characters and stories.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture is perhaps the most scholarly book I read in this area of discovery. Dr. Mark A. Yarhouse brings the mind of psychology to bear on the subject and presents some of the scientific foundations for transgender experience. He also brings the faith of a more conservative Christian perspective into the dialogue. While it is more scholarly and at times challenging, I believe Dr. Yarhouse is attempting to be fair in developing a path forward in bridging difficult waters of conservative Christian perspectives with transgender persons.

Before anyone accuses me of attempting to pad my nest with affirmative writings, I also read counter-argument writings. Two that stood out were God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker and Homosexuality and the Church by Howard A. Snyder. I will not criticize these works because they come from well-meant places of faith and understanding and scholarship. What I found, in reading them from the perspective I now read all things, is I now am standing on one mountain and they are speaking from another mountain. I have visited that mountain. I had a cabin on that mountain. But I have moved. My cabin is now on another peak. I hear them telling me about their view from their perspective. I just can’t see that point of view anymore.

There are two other books that have been extremely helpful. Unashamed: a Coming-Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians by Amber Cantorna is a practical guide for how someone who wants to or is in the process of coming out can navigate the challenges. It also offers helpful guides for family or allies who may be trying to navigate the challenges with their LGBTQ loved ones. It tries to make a connection to the very real needs of those who are struggling to find a place for themselves in a world that seems to turn upside down around them.

The last is Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. In her work, the beauty of sex is the creation of God. She also brings to the forefront that the Church may be the place to start new conversations about sex. As someone who believes that sex has been demonized and made shameful by the same people who respect a God who created sex, I believe it is necessary to reclaim the conversation.

I am still finding reading material. There are a lot of emerging thoughts about transgender people. Until there is space for all of us at the table, I continue to read.

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This is Really Me…graphic information of an uncomfortable type enclosed.

I am a transgender woman. I am a male to female transgender person. I lived a male life publicly and professionally because people could not handle things that stretch their concepts of gender, sexuality, and appearance. Oklahoma, where I lived when I came out, is very much a regressive state when it comes to accepting transgender people. Crossdressers are still mocked. Bathrooms are still sacred ground. Boys are boys, girls are girls, and there this no room for anything else. It was only a short time ago that a 12 year old transgender girl in rural southeast Oklahoma was threatened publicly with violence, including castration, for using the girls bathroom. I grew up 50 miles from that town.

I am going to back up here and tell you my story. It may be too much information for some to handle. If so, you read at your own risk. There is intimate information of sexual and possibly offensive nature. You have been warned!

How did I come to identify myself as a transgender woman? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen over a year. It has been an ongoing struggle of self-identification throughout most of my life. It was a journey of discovery that began early in my childhood, transformed in my teenage years, and has been refined in my adulthood. I am still discovering what it means. Writing this down is part of making a map of the journey so far. I will be able to see where I have been. Maybe I can catch a glimpse of where I am going.

Maybe the earliest hints of what would become a way of expressing part of who I am began in infancy. Mom always said I loved to play with the satin edging on my blanket. Satiny materials are my favorite items to wear. The feeling is soothing and comforting, even now. Maybe it had to do with the image of me, standing next to my female cousin, both of us wearing dresses. Could those early events have been stepping stones? Who knows?

No one knows, really. There are no hard facts on what leads to people to experience gender dysphoria or crossdressing. Some evidence points toward hereditary links. Some evidence points to in utero chemical influence. Some evidence leans into the way that the neural network of transgender brains work. Some evidence points to post-birth family influence. I don’t know what chemicals were influencing the development of my body. There is some possibility that my mind and soul were shaped by the abuse and leaving of my father. Who knows what could have contributed to the image of myself I have created.

What I know is that early in my life, wearing women’s clothes was natural. It felt right and brought me a sense of self that nothing else has in all of my experiences. 

The first time I ever tried on women’s clothing happened when I was 6-8 years old. It was in my grandparent’s house. My grandfather was at work. My grandmother operated a beauty shop in her home. I found my grandmother’s panties and bra. I slid them on over my clothes. But once in place, something seemed to click within me. I remember sneaking into the bathroom and trying her undies on a few more times over the years. It is strange that it was only my grandmother’s clothes. I don’t remember ever trying on my mother’s clothes until a few years later. 

The next experience of “difference” happened just before my teens. It may be my first memory of transgender association. It involved my Star Wars action figures. I remember playing in my room with Luke and Leia. But instead of hero/heroine or rescue, I imagined a scenario where Luke was body switched into Leia. It was a strange scene to play out. But even more strange was that I remember thinking, “I wish I could do that.” The idea of switching to a girl’s body seemed to resonate in my heart. 

When I began to find my sexual drive, I found my stimulus in the place many young boys did: catalogs. JCPenny and Sears were the main sources of tantalizing imagery in those tween and early teen years. I had found a stash of my step-dad’s Playboys, but they were not easily available. And to confess, at that early age, I was more interested in the cartoon comic strips than the glossy photos. But the catalogs had sections where my fertile, hormone-induced mind was introduced to the female form. It also introduced me to a broad range of fashion in lingerie. I learned the styles and cuts. I saw the colors and various materials. I wanted to wear things like that, to be able to dress in beautiful and sexy things. The stimulation I received was as much about what I could look like as what I saw. 

This perhaps fueled one of my earliest recurring fantasies. As a young and not very suave lad, I did not have much luck with the girls around me. There was one older girl who occupied my imagination. My fantasy involved being stuck in a department store, with her, and we were able to try on clothes in the lingerie section. Not the typical boy fantasy, I’m sure. 

Lingerie became my focal item. It is fair to say that I created a fetish around it at that time in my life. I began to experiment with my mother’s lingerie. Panties, bras, and pantyhose were the only items I had access to. As my sister got older, she brought more frilly items with lace and satins. I was nearly caught a few times, but I don’t believe I was ever found out. My mother and sister were both shocked when I revealed my crossdressing to them recently. 

When I entered college, crossdressing took a hiatus. I was, perhaps, too busy with school work and developing a career path, trying to work and socialize with people for the first time, and dating – real girls. I didn’t find the outlet for it, even though I was living on my own and had the power to purchase what I wanted. It seemed to be all behind me, a phase I had passed through and matured out of. Then, one night, a girlfriend and I were fooling around and she said something that kinda shocked me. “Do you want to trade underwear?” Had I had a presence of mind, I would have responded with some confessional statement of having loved wearing those things since childhood. In the sex hormone-induced delerium I was in, I just responded, “uh-huh”. That night re-ignited my desire and longing to dress again. But it was short on fulfillment and opportunity.

When I got married, to a different person, I never confessed my crossdressing. I attempted to broach the subject. This was the days when thongs were becoming the thing to wear. I really wanted to try some, and my wife had a few pair that I had worn. I suggested buying women’s since men’s thongs were not yet popular in mainstream stores. That was quickly dismissed as negative. I was left to secretly wear her things. Especially the one pair of underwear I desire above any other, even to this day.  I love the lingerie of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s as my favorite period: satins and hi-cut panties, flutter and lace trims, bikinis and thongs, and of course teddies.

The other thing that I had access to was my wife’s wardrobe. I began to see the beauty and design of women’s clothing. I moved from wanting to wear only lingerie to wearing dresses and other feminine articles. As I shopped for my wife, I saw things I wanted to wear. I began to imagine what I would look like. 

I also found the internet. It was something that wasn’t easily accessible to me until I was married. And it was Pandora’s box of discovery. Crossdressing and transsexual and shemale imagery was accessible. I began to see the world as more than just men and women. There were many different expressions in between. Not all of it was wholesome. Not all of it was encouraging or healthy. It was all part of understanding myself better. 

I began to understand that I wanted to look more feminine, not just in clothing but also in physical appearance. I wanted to experience what women experience, the good and the bad. I identified with women more than men in many areas of interest and subjects of conversation. I appreciated the beauty of women in appearance and dress and I wanted that for myself. Sexually, I wanted to be romanced and cared for and made secure and beautiful. I wanted to please my partner for her satisfaction and that brought me satisfaction. My pleasure was found in being pleasurable to her. And I wanted to be on the receiving end of sexual penetration. I wanted to know what it was like to be the one who received another’s passion intimately. I knew what that meant physically for a male. I wanted to experience it as a female. That is when things began to click that I wasn’t just a crossdresser.

I questioned my sexual orientation. I was attracted to and loved having sex with my wife. I knew I was heterosexually orientated in that regard. I was also interested in being made love to, by a woman with assistance or by a man. I began to question how bisexuality worked. And when dressed, I was interested in being sexual with a man or with another crossdresser. That is where things moved outside of my realm of understanding. I didn’t know how attraction could move that far. And I still don’t.

I came out to my wife in about 2002 that I was a fetish level crossdresser. That resulted in a “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t talk about it” detente. It also was in the midst of a sexual drought between us. We had sex less and less often. Months stretched into a year between encounters. Dressing was my only avenue of sexual intimacy. After many years of this, I finally came out again (2013) to my wife and explained that dressing made me feel good about myself. It wasn’t just a fetish. It was about being me. 

We came to an understanding and set boundaries. I could wear underwear made for men that were patterned after women’s lingerie, but only panties. I wasn’t allowed to wear bras or anything else. And the panties couldn’t be ultra-feminine. Laces and materials were approved. Colors were questioned. When I bought a pair of pink briefs, she retreated from accepting this agreement. When I confessed my interest in getting some bras made for men, she broke off the understanding. So I made the promise that I would not dress if it made the difference in saving our marriage. 

It didn’t work. Our marriage was spiraling downward. We finally decided that it wasn’t going to work any longer. We had both reached the end of changing for the other. We had both achieved a place where we couldn’t be ourselves tied to the other. For me, I felt that I now had the freedom to explore my female side. My coming out to confidants, family, and friends has been liberating. Finding a supportive group of crossdressers to ask questions has been affirming. Buying the items that I want without complete secrecy has been refreshing. But the journey is not at the end.

In September, after our divorce was set, I began to question what my identity was. I had been married more than half of my life. I had been a father for two decades. I have been a pastor just as long. All of those things were coming unraveled. I wouldn’t be married any longer, but single. My boys would be going their own ways, so I would be living alone without the need to supervise them. The church I was serving had demolished my remaining sense of being called to local church ministry. My identity – who I was/am/will be – was wide open to discovery.

The process to awareness that I am transgender happened swiftly, but only because the foundation and framework has been part of who I am all along. I began to think that after the divorce, I can wear what I want without anyone to judge me, around the house. Then I broadened that to the idea that I can wear what I want around the house all the time. It wasn’t too long that my thought jumped to going out in public would be possible, as long as it wasn’t in my professional setting. Finally, I realized, this isn’t about crossdressing. This is about my identity. If I desire wearing women’s clothes (and I try to emulate women’s behaviors while dressed), and I am okay with going into public, this can’t be just a fetish or sexualized concept. 

What I feel while dressing, what I desire in dressing, is a confirmation of a broader identity than just a male/masculine identity. It is an deeply ingrained sense of being someone else. But it isn’t the end of me. I may be someone in between. I may be completely this beautiful, happy feeling lady I love so much. By the way, her name is Genevieve Bergman. She is named for some of my ancestors. One a female. But she is real. And she is me.

This is me. The person I see in my mind when I envision my true self.
I’m not drop dead gorgeous, but I’m beautiful. 
I’m not graceful and elegant, but I’m gentle and fragile.
I’m not going to steal anyone’s heart, but my heart has been broken and needs to heal.
I don’t want to be seen as a freak, but I realize I live in a culture that can’t handle what it doesn’t understand.
I want to be loved unconditionally for who I am, but I know that I will be loved conditionally only as people can associate with who I have been in the past.
I am trying to be fair to everyone, but in the process, this beautiful lady doesn’t get her chance to be treated fairly.
I’m happy when I am like this. Happier than I have a right to be.
I’m complete when I am like this. That wholeness threatens people’s image of who they think I should be.

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