I am so grateful and honored to be invited to offer a guest sermon here at Lyndale UCC.
Today I wish to speak to you directly from my heart, of my own journey, in the context of
November 20th, the approaching yearly day of remembrance and resilience for folks like me,
people who share a reality of Transgender experience. The day is especially devoted to holding
in our minds and hearts those who have been murdered for being Trans over the past year. I
don’t want to linger on that awful reality of Trans experience, but instead to explore how an alternative
gender identity and Christian faith can sometimes co-exist, given the right circumstances,
and enough open and loving hearts.
My story is both like and unlike those of other Trans people and Trans Christians.
Though I’ve known my whole life about a strange variance between my inner understanding of
my gender, and what the world was telling me was instead to be true about myself, it is only in
the last few years that I have been able to come fully to terms with that truth, to find joy and
peace in that truth. For many years, in fact for most of my life, there was a battle within me
about how to reconcile what everyone supposedly knew about me, that I was a boy, and then a
man, and what my heart or mind or soul knew to be true, that I am a girl and later a woman. But
how could that be true? How could someone with the body I was given, with the name I was
given, with the sex stated on my birth certificate, be anything other than what my family and
school and neighbors thought they saw? So, for much of my life, I tried to buckle down and act
like boys are supposed to act, or “be a man,” or be the best husband I could be to my dear late
wife, and the best father I could be to our lovely son. Now I would reword those feelings to say
that I was trying to be the best spouse and best parent that I could be, but in the moment, at the
time, those options were not clear to me, not at all. Basic survival required that I adopt the camouflage
and protection of presenting myself to the world as an ordinary guy, with ordinary outsides
I was not always able to pull off that magic act of subterfuge. When I was only three
years old, my parents took me to a child psychologist they knew. They were worried about my
insistence on wearing my sister’s clothing. For a day or two perhaps they thought this was “cute”
— but then they grew alarmed. I don’t actually remember any of that — it was related to me by
that very same psychologist years later, when at fifteen my parents sent me back to her based
on some newer behaviors. Another early moment that has only come back to me through therapy,
thus a “recovered memory,” is of my first day of kindergarten class. Schools are among the
most gender-specific environments we have. At some point that first morning, our teacher said,
“Girls line up on this side, and boys line up over there.” Instinctively, without any intention, or
hesitation, I lined up with my people, with the girls. There was laughter and tittering, and the
teacher thought I was just clowning around. “Get over there!” So, I hurried over to the boys’ line.
An early life lesson in the need to hide my female identity deep down within me if I were to be
safe. I wasn’t making a political statement, I wasn’t asserting my gender as a five year old, in
the face of an uncaring world — I simply sorted myself out the way that felt most natural to me.
So I am thrilled these days when I see young children who have questions about their
gender identity, or who know with certainty that the gender they have been assigned is not correct.
I’m thrilled with how those children are oftentimes — not always — oftentimes given the
love, the understanding and support, of their parents, and the space to try to figure out what is
happening to them inside. The opportunity to delay the onset of puberty until greater clarity is
found is something I never had. Instead, when I was on the verge of adolescence, in about the
sixth grade, I grew more and more confused about my feelings and what they could possibly
mean. There was no language available to me to sort through what I thought I knew about myself.
There was no internet to offer anonymous information or advice. Instead, I used the library
to explore and attempt to figure myself out.
I love libraries! I have always loved libraries, and I had the fortune as a young person to
have a mother who recognized my need to read and encouraged me to spend lots of time with
books. Books were in many ways my escape from the realities around me. On many Saturday
afternoons, she would drive us downtown from our suburban home, drop me off at the central
library, and then go shopping for shoes, or to lunch with her friends. Starting at about age
eleven, I began to use those Saturday afternoons as a time to do some personal research. I
couldn’t possibly ask one of those forbidding library ladies for help in finding a book that would
explain me to myself. Instead, I explored the various categories of the Dewey Decimal System,
and finally found the closest thing I could to describing myself: I found books on human sexuality
and psychology. Here I read about men who exhibited feminine behaviors or had what were
seen to be feminine personalities or quirks. That fit me, I thought. When on the playground I was
bullied by other children with taunts of being a “femme” or “girly” or ”sissy,” these insults hurt
me, of course. But the reason they hurt was because I knew the kinds intended them to be hurtful.
Inside, I silently agreed with the literal meaning of the words even more than my bullies ever
did, or so I imagine. I knew I was a girl.
But back to the library and those books talking about feminine males in their scientific
way. The books went on to explain that feminine thoughts and behaviors meant that these men
were homosexuals, meaning that they were sick, perverted people who needed to be corrected,
and their desires and behaviors straightened out, so to speak. This part did not fit me. Not only
was I reluctant to consider myself to be a sick and perverted person, but even more so, I saw
that the defining part of being a homosexual male was an interest in other boys or men. I have
never been drawn to men, throughout my life. My affections and desire have always been quite
clearly female directed. I now identify as a queer woman of Transgender experience.
In any case, despite how I feel today, that it is wonderful and life-saving that young Trans
people can, in some cases, delay their puberty, with all its permanent changes from more or
less androgynous children to strongly sexed bodies, for me puberty was actually a relief. I had
no notion that I could ever escape my prison as an apparent male. I thought I would just somehow
have to live with the confusion and the pain. So when puberty arrived, and my body and
voice altered, to give myself a more clearly masculine shape and sound, I was relieved. Now I
could pass more successfully as the young man that my family and society took me to be. I
could hide more safely in the camouflage of masculinity.
And that is what I did. At age eighteen I met and fell deeply in love with a young woman
during our first semester in college. I ended up marrying Kathleen on the day we graduated,
back in May of 1975, more than 43 years ago. I was able to tone down the inner turmoil for a
while as I gladly played the part of a loving husband. Kathleen was not to know the truth about
my inner gender identity until near the end of her life. As the years passed I came to see all too
clearly that coming out to one’s spouse as Transgender, or Transsexual or whatever term was
used at the time, sounded the death-knell for one’s marriage. I valued my marriage relationship
far above my very uncertain ability to ever come to terms with my gender identity, and so I hid in
the shadows from the person closest to me. Not a situation that one would have wished for, but
a tactic and approach that allowed our life together to thrive and our love and connection deepen
over the decades.
A major downside of such a strategy, however, this way of living, was to plunge me into a
netherworld of darkness. I became invisible, or at least, a central and core part of me was invisible
to everyone else. I was caught in what I think of as a twilight zone of absence — present,
but also not present to those around me. A woman, but a woman in hiding, unable to represent
any gender with full authenticity. It was a strangely numbing experience, living in this twilight
zone of absence, and it led to decades of melancholy, sometimes edging into despair.
When Kathleen did learn from me about my gender dysphoria, as we grappled together
with her six year long journey with cancer, she treated me with all the love and care that one
could hope for. Of course, she also felt the impact of surprise, and grief, and doubt that such a
revelation late in one’s marriage would bring. Her only request to me was that I delay any actions
or announcements until after she died. Of course I honored that request, and waited until
her after death five years ago to share my story, even with my family and close friends. Not an
easy process, to be sure. But one of the most fascinating aspects of what’s happened to me
since that autumn five years ago is how my coming into the light as to my true gender identity
has been wrapped up so closely with my return to church and a newer and deeper understanding
of my relationship with God.
Once I gained the ability and courage to try to show myself to the world more fully and
with greater authenticity, I developed a deep yearning to return to church, to find a congregation
and worshiping community where I could be open and real about myself. As I explained at the
time to my sister, I needed God to know me as Melissa. As she puts it in her own way, I came
back to God. My statement that I needed God to know me as Melissa might reveal a rather
weak idea of God’s love and understanding, I know. Surely God knows my truth, if anyone or
anything does. But somehow, for me, being seen and accepted within the visible body of Christ
as a child of God, as myself, by my fellow Christians, was so very important. It was crucial.
The Body of Christ is a fascinating metaphor for me. It has both positive and negative
connotations. For Trans folks, our bodies are where the greatest discomfort and distress and
confusion are found. I know that many people have issues with their bodies, for all sorts of reasons.
People talk about Trans folks “being born in the wrong body.” That’s kind of the way it is,
and also not. In so many ways, our bodies are ourselves, or they should be. But when there is a
severe disconnect between who we are inside and what our physical appearance signals to us,
and to our families, and in fact to everyone we encounter on a daily basis, the tension builds up
and the stakes grow to be enormously high.
When I told my sister-in-law “Betty” about my gender identity, she asked, “But how do
you know that you’re female?” I had a snappy retort in mind, but I held back at first and explained
that this was something I knew deep within myself, in that place where we are really
“us.” Where am I? Who am I? Why am I? These are the types of questions Trans people ask
ourselves all the time. Where is the “me” part of me? I told Betty that it is my heart or my soul
that tells me that I am female. I can’t locate it anatomically, but it tells a story much more truly
than do the more visible parts of me. Then I asked her my question in return: How did she know
that she was female? Sally found the question confusing. Of course she is female! What else
could she be? That combination of confusion about the question, and her certainty about her
gender identity, is an excellent indicator that she is NOT a Trans person. Because that question
about my gender had hounded me throughout my life, and my certainty about its answer was
won only at great cost, Betty’s difficulties in understanding what I was saying are quite understandable.
She had known me since we were teenagers, she had known me under a different
name and under a different guise — a dis-guise, as it happened — and it takes considerable
time and effort to replace such images and memories with something more up-to-date and authentic.
Let me direct our attention to the Bible verses that I asked to be featured today. First are
the famous passages in the opening chapters of Genesis, where we see traditional gender binaries
encoded. To start off, however, God says to someone in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make human
being (adam in Hebrew) in our image, according to our likeness,” and then we read, “So God
created humankind in his image, male and female created he them.” Does this suggest a human
being undivided by gender, or rather a species marked by gender difference? Possibly the
first option was intended, at least in principle; that’s how some Jewish and Christian interpreters
understood the passage back in the day. But a few verses on, in chapter two, God newly creates
human being as a single entity from the clay, a person still named Adam, meaning “human
being,” but now marked as male in the grammar of the text. This individual turns out to be a
rather lonely fellow, however, so after some failed experiments in creating a suitable animal
companion for him, God extracts a female, Eve, meaning “Life,” from Adam’s ribcage. This action
precipitates and defines a more radical gender binary between male and female, only partly
overcome, or perhaps actually emphasized, by the final verses of Genesis chapter two, which
make the comment, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and
they become one flesh.” There’s the conventional Biblical nuclear family, in all its particulars.
That encoding became instrumental in disguising difference and enforcing conventionality.
The story of Adam and Eve is an important backdrop to the Apostle Paul’s ruminations
about human being and our fate. Paul pictures Christ as either the New Adam or the Last Adam
in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, teaching that Christ is somehow a replacement
for that initial, flawed creation. Paul makes no mention of Eve, so perhaps he imagines Adam as
representing all humanity, and thus Christ as also fully representing all of us. This notion gains
some support from the baptismal formula that Paul quotes at the end of Galatians chapter three
— there is no social or gender difference, he claims, in the Body of Christ, no longer Jew or
Greek, slave or free, male and female — instead, we are all one in Christ Jesus.
This text, with its assertion of Christian identity being no longer male and female, is seen
by many Trans and gender non-conforming Christians as a text of liberation, something that
frees us from the necessity to express ourselves as specifically male or female in a specific cultural
way. The passage can motivate a strongly feminist reading, that gender difference has no
legitimate place in church life. But it also has its troubling aspects for someone like me. As
someone who has struggled for what seems like forever to gain the ability to assert my identity
as female, the notion that participation in the Body of Christ somehow erases that truth, covers
my womanhood back up with a pretense, perhaps, of equality, I am wary. Christ’s body is on
one level at least for most intents and purposes a male body. As the traditionalists do not tire of
telling us, Jesus was a man. We may no longer be Jew or Greek, or slave or free, male and female
in Christ — but somehow the image of a free Israelite male predominates. In our setting,
the corresponding image is of a privileged, white cisgender male. I would hope that as we strive
to look beyond difference, especially difference that works to oppress and silence too many of
us, we maintain the ability to see and celebrate how we as individuals actually move and experience
About four years ago I started to feel a powerful yearning to find a community where I
could feel the divine presence and experience the welcoming love of God’s people, to be seen
and known as a Trans woman. I decided to experiment by visiting First Congregational Church
UCC in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood near the U of M campus. A friend from work thought it
might suit me. And wow — was she ever right! From the first moment I walked in the door that
summer, I felt welcome in a deep and personal way. No one there knew me. Someone read a
poem by Mary Oliver, someone sang I’ll Fly Away, accompanying herself on the banjo, and
someone else mentioned that the special offering that month was designated to support Out-
Front Minnesota. The congregational singing was glorious. I could not have felt more welcome
or at home. That was my first day, visiting my first church. I never even thought of attending a
I began to understand that I could find full acceptance of my gender identity only when I
found God’s love and acceptance expressed in community. In some ways I believe that God
was calling me to godself, calling me both as a woman, and as a Christian. My experience of
God is strongest in church, as we gather, listen, speak and act, together. Epiphany season is
the most meaningful part of the church year for me. That’s we reflect on the impact of the arrival
of God’s child in our world, and how we might best find the divine presence among us. For me,
my epiphany, my sense of the presence and love of God, comes in moments quite like this one
— when we gather and open ourselves and our hearts to all the possibilities our creator seems
to have put before us. That is why, I am guessing, that the hymn “Lord, You have come to the
lakeshore,” speaks so powerfully to me on many levels. It is a hymn suggested that we sing during
Epiphany, for one thing. Music activates feelings and emotions in me that my tendency to be
overly intellectual sometimes dampens. I also love lakes. More importantly, the hymn draws
from the story early in the Gospels of Jesus walking along the shore of Galilee, encountering his
first disciples, calling them to abandon their livelihoods, their fishing boats, and follow him into a
new and unknown future. Jesus calls them to abandon what they are used to, perhaps to leave
their own hidden zones of absence, to step out with him into an uncertain future. When that
hymn is played and sung, I feel myself caught up in that process of divine call and human response.
“O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and kindly smiling, you’ve called
out my name.” Melissa! “Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me, now with you I
will seek other seas.” I hear these words right down in my hopeful Transgender heart. Jesus
has “called out my name!” God searches me, God smiles when she sees me, God calls me by
name. God sees me, Melissa, the real me.
I believe that God sees you, too. God knows all of us, we are seen in our superficial,
outer appearances, but also in our deep inner places of struggle and hope. I’ve been focusing
this morning on myself, on my own story of loss, alienation, and more recently now finding
God’s smiling love in community. But I know of course that we all have our personal difficulties,
our boats laden with all sorts of burdens. I invite you to join me in leaving those boats behind us,
on the lakeshore, to go search with Jesus for those other seas.
Thanks be to God our Creator, to Christ our Redeemer, to the Holy Spirit our Teacher
and our Comfort. Amen.