A Weekend in San Diego

A Weekend in San Diego

After an article appeared in the New York Times about his church and his relationship with me, my son was offered a book contract.  We haven’t talked a lot about the book. I know he has been working hard on it. I also know he is writing about his experience of my transition from his father to, well, I don’t know exactly what you’d call me. I suppose I am his “parent who is no longer his father.” It seems like Native Americans would have a word for that. Westerners do not.

The book is also about his leadership at Forefront Brooklyn, a church he started in New York City five years ago. Forefront Brooklyn is a daughter of Forefront Church, a congregation begun by the Orchard Group, the ministry with which I served for 35 years, most as CEO. Jonathan led his congregation into becoming a full membership church, a congregation in which anyone can serve in any position, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

Leading his congregation through that process necessitated his leaving the Orchard Group, which I know was painful for everyone involved. By the time that happened I was already gone, having been let go immediately after coming out.

One chapter of Jonathan’s book is about the future of the American evangelical church. He asked me to write a few thousand words that could be used in that chapter. My first draft is already finished. I used to teach a Doctor of Ministry course entitled, “Current Trends in the American Church.” I like writing about that stuff, and did it every week for 12 years at the magazine where I was editor-at-large.

This past week Jonathan also asked me to write about two specific days, one in the fall of 2014 and the other in the spring of 2015. Writing that section has not been easy. I’ve written 1400 words about each. I have not seen what he is writing about those days.

I didn’t think I remembered much about either day until I started thinking about them. There is an entire 18 months of my life that is kind of lost. I sometimes wonder if I will look back ten years from now and not remember much about my current life either. I thought it would take about five years to fully work through my transition. It is going to be closer to 10. I hope it is only 10. This stuff is not for the faint of heart.

I am actually not sure I am ready to read what Jonathan has written. I imagine it is going to be painful. I mean, the experience itself has been painful, so the memorialization of it is also likely to be painful. I know he will be honest about it.

People often ask if I am planning to write a book about my experience. I am not. I had a few offers from publishing companies, but I’m maintaining a counseling practice, planting a church, starting a church planting ministry and writing a weekly blog. Besides, I wrote nine books.  I’m not sure I have another one in me.

I had a lot of complex feelings when I was writing about those two days. On the days I was writing I was also speaking for the Mission Gathering Revive Conference in San Diego, an enjoyable weekend event. I wrote in the morning and late at night. I found I needed the grounding of a handful of new and old friends as I wrote. They helped keep my soul afloat.

I treasured my time with Fred Harrell, Brandan Robertson, Melissa Greene, Paulette Wooten and David Roberts. They are good souls, all, who are living honest and open lives. You need people like that around when you are doing soul work. They had no idea I was doing that particular kind of soul work, since I did not tell them I was writing about one side of a two-sided conversation about two difficult days several years ago.

I imagine sometime this week I will receive my son’s words on paper, the ones I am afraid to read. I may read them right away. I may ask Jen to read them first. You know Jen. I write about her a lot. I know my son will be gracious. It is in his nature to be so. But I also know the pain my transition caused. Telling that story will never be easy for any of us.

It means something to write in close proximity to others who have also made courageous decisions and are living with the consequences. They know the sordid tale of pain and the redemption that comes on the other side, but never soon enough and never when you expect it.

I am glad I was in San Diego with friends last weekend. I needed them. The creator and creation provide promptings and visitations when needed, reminders that we are never really alone.

And so it goes.

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Someday

Someday

I was warming up a cup of tea in the microwave and somehow dropped the cup and helplessly watched it shatter on the kitchen floor. The cup was one of my favorites. I purchased it when I was in Ireland. It was a Cath Kidston mug, and I love her designs. That particular style of mug is no longer available.

The mug was one of seven I own. I have given Cath Kidston mugs to Cathy, my girls, and my daughter-in-law. I’ve also given them to two of my close friends. I’ve never given a mug on a holiday or special occasion. I’ve just passed them along when it’s occurred to me to do so.

When I dropped the mug, I immediately started crying. I could barely catch my breath. I cried for a long time.  I wept as I swept up the pieces and carefully placed every last speck of glass on a plate. It is sitting on my dining room table, waiting for a miracle.

I have a hard time crying. Throughout my life I have needed some kind of prompting to bring me to tears. Movies have been pretty reliable over the years, but to the best of my recollection, this is the first time tears have flowed after the breaking of glassware.

My life is hard. Yours is too, I know. Why do we think we deserve more? Why do we take umbrage at the realization life is not fair? It is certainly more fair for white middle-class Americans than it is for countless other people groups. Why am I so offended by my losses? That is a problem to be contemplated on another day. For today, I will just cry.

So many of the lives of people I love have been shattered. Some have been shattered through terrible tragedies; some through illness; some because of decisions I have made. There is too much pain in the world.

Given the general sucky nature of life, I do not understand why fundamentalists feel the pressing need to contribute additional pain to the experience. One would think religion would be in the business of providing comfort, not inflicting pain. This weekend I was with friends in the Pacific Northwest who have experienced incredible pain at the hands of evangelical Christians. You can see their wounds healing. I know they could see mine. I’m sure they could also see the occasional far away look in my eyes.

I very rarely look at comments posted online about anything I have done. It’s not helpful to one’s self-esteem. Yesterday I happened to see a comment someone made about my TEDxMileHigh YouTube video. They wrote just two words – “nightmare fuel.” It took me a minute to understand what they were saying.

My first thought was that it was probably the comment of a fundamentalist Christian. I have my own prejudices. Whatever the source, it is not an unusual response to my story. I live it out every day. I wonder what kind of pain the commenter is in that would cause him or her to want to inflict pain on another. What deep pain do I trigger in his or her own life?

The truth is I am tired of the losses. My life has been shattered and I am afraid I cannot put the pieces together again. But that is only how I feel today, as I look at the hopelessly broken shards of glass on my dining room table.

Tomorrow will be a new day. And maybe tomorrow I will be able to say with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

The Tentacles of Authenticity

The Tentacles of Authenticity

There is Once Before a Time and there is Once Upon a Time. When one is transgender, the break between living as a male and a female is a continental divide. For those in one’s inner circle, it becomes their Once Upon a Time, when the narrative changes forever. Everything before is seen through a glass darkly.

What do you do with wedding albums, scrapbooks and family photos? It took me awhile, but pretty much every family picture has been taken down. Well, only the ones that included pictures of me. Maybe the day will come when I put them up again, but that feels a long way off.

You don’t think about these things when you are in the throes of depression, wondering how you can stay alive as you struggle with your gender identity. You just want the pain to stop, and the only acceptable way for it to stop is to transition. You are thinking one day at a time, and the rose-colored glasses of denial get you through.

I was talking with two friends who came out as gay shortly after I came out as transgender. We are all from evangelical backgrounds. My friends were noting the differences in our experiences. The friends look the same as ever. They have pretty much the same friends, minus the evangelicals who cut them off. At work and in the neighborhood, all is well. That is not my story.

I was not able to keep my work, and even if I had been, I would have arrived at work as a different gender. We are a gendered society, and that is not easy for anyone, regardless of whether or not they have assigned a moral value to your decision to transition.

A number of my neighbors are friendly and warm, but an equal number avoid me, which is not the experience of the two friends with whom I was speaking. And maybe most significantly, though the lives of their families have been greatly disrupted by their decision to come out, my friends still look the same to their children, and play the same parental role. Only their marriages experienced the kind of disruption that occurred in my broader world.  (Of course, that alone is enough to play havoc with everyone’s sense of well being.)

At this point, my family is beginning to find a new normal. Because of their grace, I have been included in their lives. But the tentacles of authenticity reach far beyond family, co-workers and close friends. They reach out to the farthest reaches of my social interactions. When you are in the midst of the struggle, those tentacles are barely a passing thought. But with the passing of time, they become the struggle.

I had to think about whether or not I would be allowed at the funerals of my parents. I have had conversations with them. My father asked if I would preach the funeral should my mother die before he does. I explained that I could, but the majority of people who would attend would be extremely uncomfortable, if they came at all. He struggled to understand.

The youngest child of dear friends passed away last week. He was one of the kindest and most precious humans I have ever known. I wanted to jump on a plane and return to New York, but none of the extended family has met me as me, and this time needs to be about grieving, not about the family friend who transitioned genders. So I remain in Colorado and hold my own private vigil.

Every time I am asked to speak at a public gathering, those doing the asking have had to think about the impact my presence will have on their church, social club, company or non-profit. Extensive conversations were necessary before I got the invitation. I didn’t think about that before I transitioned.

It is easy for this kind of post to appear as a “Woe is me” kind of self-indulgence. That is not my intent. It’s just that I am constantly finding new levels of awareness. I ask, “When will life be normal again?” The answer is never. There is only a new normal.

If psychotherapy alone were adequate to treat gender identity issues, I’d be all for it. But most of the time it is not. It is a necessary part of the process, but it provides no cure. Some are able to get through life without transitioning. I wish I could have done the same. I could not.

For those of us called to transition, to that painful authenticity, we must extend grace to ourselves. That is hard to do when you come from a religious world that has judged you harshly. But if you keep your eyes on your Creator, God’s love is enough. And on your better days, you can say with Dag Hammarskjold, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”

Feeling Blessed

Feeling Blessed

I was talking with my friend, Ben Cort, who was a fellow-speaker at the TEDXMileHigh Wonder event in November. Ben is a national marijuana policy expert, the author of Weed, Inc., and a frequent speaker on addiction issues.

After we had coffee, Ben wrote, “One of the things I kept coming back to was the difference in the reception we each have after changing our lives to live truly. I was thinking how important it is to me when I receive praise/recognition from people because I changed my life. (Ben has been in recovery since 1996.) I draw strength from it. Your story is pretty much the opposite, yet you are somehow leaning into it. I went from feeling heartbreak for you to being pretty damn stunned by your strength.”

Most of the time I do lean into my life. As I said in my TEDx talk, “The call toward authenticity is sacred; it is holy; it is for the greater good.” I lean into my life because I have a lot of LGBTQ brothers and sisters whose lives are far less blessed than my own, and I want to speak a word on their behalf. None of us asked to be who we are. We just are. Yet there are so many within the religious world and on the political right who, because of our current political environment, feel more and more comfortable publicly opposing our civil rights.

There is an even larger group that does not begrudge us our existence, but they would rather not have to interact with us. For them, it is easier to act like we’re not here. They have their civil rights, and don’t particularly want to be reminded about those who don’t.

When I step onto a public platform, it is that second crowd I most often face. They are not hostile, just indifferent. As Ben suggested, I do not begin with an audience that is sympathetic toward me. Arms are folded across chests. People walk out. I have to win over the audience. Usually, I do win them over, and the response is wonderful. But I’m not going to lie. Every time I stand before an audience, I am afraid.

Part of that is a good thing. I have always been frightened to speak in public. I do not want to waste people’s time. I want to add value to their day. If I have not prepared adequately, every person in the audience is going to know it. I should be nervous. But there is a difference between normal nervous and vulnerable nervous.

Ben’s audience wants him to succeed. That he knows his stuff and is an engaging speaker helps, but he usually begins with an expectant audience. That is not the case for me. Whether it is a crowd of 5,000, a university classroom or a dinner conversation, I often begin with a skeptical audience, and it’s tiring.

Ben’s email named something I have not consciously acknowledged. I no longer begin pretty much anything with a leg up. But here is the thing. Half of the world’s population knows what I am talking about. Women have always had to face the world without a leg up. And women of color know it better than anyone else.

Much as I would love to, I will not allow myself any self-pity. I had decades of entitlement and thousands of speeches with an audience eager to hear my words. Who am I to complain?

Privilege is interesting. Most people don’t know they have it until they lose it. Ben Cort is the rare white male who sees more than a glimpse of the privilege he has been given because of his gender and race. Come to think of it, I have a number of those men in my life. There is Mark and Eric and David and Michael and Dave and Jon and Aaron and Colby and my own son, Jonathan, and a lot more that come to mind now that I am naming names.

They have all caught a glimpse of what I am afraid I missed when I was a male. They have a sense of their own privilege, and they are doing what they can to make my way easier. There is quite a contrast between these men and most of the men with whom I formerly worked. I am grateful they protect and empower me. Indeed, I am blessed.