Twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday. Once a week in elementary school. Twice a week in high school. Four times a week in college (except for that “special” week which had sixteen). And those are just the full-fledged sermons. Eighteen years of weekly Sunday School. Sixteen years of Christian schooling, including twenty-four semester hours of bible class in high school and fourteen in college. Five years of AWANA. Four years of bible quizzing. Six years of youth group. Vacation Bible School, The Wilds, Northland, and countless other Christian summer camps—year after year. Mission trips. Church choir. Bible studies. Prayer groups. Revival weeks. Missionary conferences. Family devotions at home. Christian radio in the car. Christian friends. Christian family. Christian environment. Christian everything.
It’s like awakening to find yourself on a treadmill stuck at very high speed. There is no safe way to dismount, so you run for your life. You’re so consumed by the running that you don’t even have time catch your breath and ask, “Why am I running, anyway? How did I end up here? What would happen if this thing stopped?” You just run and begin to accept the treadmill as a normal part of your life. After all, you don’t know any different.
I was twenty-two years old before I was allowed to ask the question, “Who am I?” That’s not a privilege afforded to those in the culture in which I was raised. It would be fair to say that I had very little choice in the substantial aspects of my life. I was not free to choose my religion, my schooling (including college), my activities, my friends, my music, my philosophy, my politics, my lifestyle, my gender.
Perhaps that last one surprised you. Nobody gets to choose their gender, right? Yes, I suppose that’s true. Mine just happened to be wrong.
It’s difficult to think back to when the feelings came. Running on the treadmill consumed my life from early on. But the feelings were there whether I could recognize them or not.
It happened when I heard the red-faced preachers give their passionate diatribes on the divine appointment of strict, traditional gender roles. It wasn’t that I was a particularly feminine (or masculine) boy, yet these would leave me steaming inside. Only in the occasional, brief moment of clarity would I wonder why none of the other boys seemed to care.
It happened when I hit puberty. All of my peers were eager for it. My teachers told me that it was normal to be proud, to be excited at becoming a man. I wanted to be normal. So I pretended that I was.
It happened when I became aware of my sexuality around that same time. As I stood in front of the mirror, crossing my legs to hide my genitals, I had no idea what I was doing or why. It just felt right for some reason. I passively assumed that every boy must feel the same way. I went on with my life.
It happened when I started high school, eager to form new friendships. Naturally, I was drawn to the girls in my class. Consider my rude awakening when it was revealed to me that guys and girls couldn’t have platonic relationships. I exasperatedly resented the heavy restrictions placed on mingling of the sexes, and not for the same reason as the other guys in my class.
It happened when I went to college. Being forced to join a “society” and interact with people of my assigned gender, it became so readily apparent that I didn’t fit in. I hated their rowdy games, their ruthless hazing antics. It was more than the activities, though; it was an acute difference of mentality. I skipped meetings and turned myself in for the demerits. “How good the girls must have it,” I thought.
It happened every single day.
Every day that I wondered why I was so frustrated, alienated, and alone.
Every day that despite my intellect and talent, I had no drive to succeed, no vision of a future, no self-esteem whatsoever.
Every day that I would watch girls passing by and feel so utterly torn up inside. “It’s not fair,” I would think, then suddenly catch myself. “What’s not fair, exactly?” I’d ponder almost subconsciously. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way they get to dress or act or socialize. They have everything in life; I have nothing. It’s just not fair.”
Yet these thoughts were often drowned out by other things—by the treadmill. I had no time to deal with my personal issues. I was busier feeling guilty that I couldn’t conjure the desire to pray or read my bible.
Throughout everything, however, I managed to keep a generally positive, even cheerful, demeanor. I overcompensated for my own self-hatred by doing everything I could to make others like me. “Nobody likes a miserable person,” I’d constantly remind myself. So I made the best of what I had and put on a smile in public. At home, I escaped from the real world using video games. In those games, by the way, I would always play as the female avatar.
When I graduated from BJU in 2010, I still had neither an idea nor a concern about my future. Almost by default, I applied to graduate school (at a public university) and got accepted. Soon after I arrived I began to make contact with a person I had never been allowed to meet before—myself. It wasn’t sudden or profound, but slow and somewhat unexpected. Some would say I began to change. Others would say I rebelled, rejected my heritage. The truth, however, is that for the first time ever in my life I began to see my own personhood through the smoke of unrelenting religious guilt and indoctrination.
Several things occurred during my self-discovery. For one, I felt a growing discontent with my gender. I still didn’t fully recognize it as such, much less know how to deal with it. If my upbringing succeeded at one thing, it was at keeping me astonishingly sheltered.
During this same time, I underwent a spiritual disillusionment. I had fully claimed Christianity as my own up to that point, even defending it and becoming known as a theologian and an apologist. Despite having serious misgivings about Christian doctrine (notably its overt misogyny and degrading views on women), I chose to cope by rationalizing my way to a personal theology which, while frowned upon by the religious authorities, was good enough for me to suppress my cognitive dissonance. As time went on, I found that the more I discovered about reality the more I was forced to amend my theology. Free from BJU’s pervasive atmosphere of guilt and enforced conformity, I eventually found the courage to call it the charade that it was.
I came to the conclusion that the Christian worldview is a pitiful representation of even those things we know about reality. In my Ethics class at BJU, we were taught that there was a liberal agenda to destroy the God-ordained categories of male and female. An example of this was the International Olympic Committee’s debate over the criteria of what constitutes each gender for competition purposes. This was preposterous to our Christian instructor. “God created Adam and Eve, and that’s all there is! And furthermore, we can determine which is which by a simple chromosome test.” Or so he told us. But I found on my own that there are a whole host of intersex conditions which categorically disprove that claim—conditions like de la Chapelle Syndrome which results in an XX person being born anatomically male, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome which results in an XY person being born anatomically female. The ideology presented to us seemed simplistic, even naïve.
And that’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. In the same area of sexual development, I also learned that a human fetus by default develops as female and that, to become male, hormones have to suppress the femaleness and develop maleness. In other words, Eve did not come from Adam. Adam is the altered form; Eve is the original. The more I understood the more it became clear that the author of Genesis was woefully misinformed about biology and human sexuality.
I do not judge anyone for their personal beliefs, but for me, I recognized that Christianity was part of my repression, not part of my identity or my intellectual conviction. I was now able to express what I knew to be true without the need to reconcile it with some unfalsifiable and self-declaredly infallible claim. It was one of the most freeing, burden-lifting realizations of my life — a significant part of my journey. But I hadn’t fully arrived quite yet.
I cannot remember the first time I saw or heard the word “transgender.” I think it must have been in college at some point, possibly when Soulforce visited our campus in 2007. The closest thing I had ever been exposed to was the occasional glimpse of TV shows like Jerry Springer. Although somewhat intrigued, I didn’t know any better than to see the individuals as they were portrayed—as a spectacle and a joke. Meanwhile, in my religious environment, the subject was practically never talked about, and certainly not as the abomination that homosexuality was made to be. Perhaps because it was so exceedingly unthinkable that it was beyond mentioning.
One noteworthy exception came from a guest speaker in one of my classes at BJU, an alumnus who was now out in the “secular” workforce. He came back to tell us tales, to prepare us for the big, scary, devil-filled world out there. His recounting met a climax with a story about a certain coworker named Jeremy. One day, as the story went, a department meeting was called, and Jeremy was seated at the head of the table. It was announced that Jeremy was in the process of becoming Jennifer and that everyone should be respectful and supportive of her. As the speaker related the moment to our class, his face contorted slightly with disgust, as if this were the ultimate portrayal of depravity in our world.
I subconsciously absorbed this and many other narrow-minded attitudes toward gender that were embodied around me. Even more than that, however, I was devastatingly affected by the teachings on self-worth. I was taught from the earliest age that the self is desperately wicked, irreparably broken, and needs to be “put to death.” It sunk in so deep that I thought my gender dysphoria was just punishment for my sinful self, a thorn in my flesh. I was born male, and that was my burden to carry. To wish otherwise would be selfish and morally wrong.
I now know that teaching to be an insidious lie. There is no reason for me to be ashamed of who I am, nor for anyone to be ashamed of who they are. That’s not a new-age platitude, as I was taught. It’s just human dignity.
Until I could reach that point, my unresolved gender struggles would become consuming. I spent hours of every day reading, thinking, researching, discussing, and pouring out my thoughts and feelings in writing. I learned about the condition of being transgender and the overwhelming amount of scientific research and evidence behind it. I learned that transgender people are just normal people, with lives and families and jobs and hopes and aspirations, not at all like the sexualized caricatures I had seen in the media. I learned what I had always wanted to hear but nobody ever told me—that not every girl is born in a typical girl body and raised as a girl. And for those in that situation, transitioning to live as a girl is not only considered acceptable, it is deemed psychologically and medically necessary by numerous professional organizations, including the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association.
Still harboring the fear and shame I had so long been conditioned by, I continued to doubt my identity. I sought out the assistance of therapists and the consolation of supportive individuals I met through the internet and at school. Their words were a balm to my fundamentalist wounds. They of course couldn’t tell me my identity, but what they gave me was even better—the unconditional love and acceptance I had always heard about growing up but never experienced. And that was all I needed. Because deep down, buried under the years and years of pretense, I knew exactly who I was. Even as I took those cute little “What is the gender of your brain?” quizzes online, I found myself hoping desperately that the answer would come back female. Finally, I had the self-assurance to admit that my instinctual desire was itself the answer I was looking for.
What an overwhelming relief that admission was. It was as if all my life was leading to this moment, a sort of foreboding that I couldn’t quite pinpoint before. Now everything made sense. My previous desperate attempts to articulate my complex and contradictory self were now easily summarized in the statement, “I’m a girl.”
And, oh, how proud I am to say it.
My story doesn’t end here. I’m still very early in the process of my transition, but I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been. Not that coming to terms with being transgender has solved all my life problems. Hardly! Becoming my true self just sets me at the beginning. I’m on my way to acquiring what most people have the luxury of being born with—a body and perception that matches my identity. There are still struggles, but the important thing is that I know who I am. And after twenty four years of my life, I am finally starting to claim it.