The Day That Changed my Life Forever

The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Walking Towards Cordelia, available now at various online bookstores in both hardcover and paperback as well as Kindle.

In many ways, it's hard to believe that this took place seven years ago today.  I'm living with HIV.  I'm a survivor. In many ways, it doesn't feel like it, but in others, the anxiety that it brings is all too real.  My body's natural defenses against disease are shot and I may never recover fully.  This is my reality.  So part of my advocacy work includes a plea to get tested - because with this disease, symptoms may not appear until it's too late.  It almost was for me.  As it is, I was most likely weeks or days away from dying when- they caught it in- my system.


Chapter Eight

The road was dry and dusty where the man sat, dirty and disheveled on the steps of the church.  Here, he sat day in and day out, begging for money just to get by.  As people shuffled in and out of the church, they were careful to step around him, ignoring his cries for help - some even going out of their way to exit another way just to avoid him. 

“Please!,” the man cried out as the congregants walked past him.  Some, out of pity, dropped a few coins into his outstretched hand but did nothing to console or empathize with his pain, their superficial generosity only serving to ease their guilty conscience rather than help the man.  “After all,” they would tell themselves, “he must have done something to deserve this.”

The man collapsed in agony, sobbing into his hands and wondering how in the world he got here.  All alone.  Abandoned.  “There must be some reason,” he thought to himself, “there’s got to be a reason why I’m here.  All alone.  Unable to see.”  

The story isn’t full of details, but one can only imagine that after the discovery that this man was blind, his parents - and his world - turned against him.  No job.  No healthcare.  No help except the crumbs - the pennies - tossed to him as people hurried out of the doors of the church and on about their daily lives.  Now, at 30 years old, this man had begun to believe that he was born cursed.  Born with this punishment hanging over his head.  Born to be exiled.  Born to die alone.  Without hope.

“Why me?,” the man sobbed, “what did I do to deserve this???”

“Yes,” a voice asked from the darkness, “what did this man do to deserve this?  Was it his parents?  His grandparents?”

Realizing that he was the topic of this conversation, the man began to cower and back until he reached the temple wall and couldn’t retreat anymore.

“Neither,” came another voice, speaking with a sense of authority that caught the man off guard.  “There’s nobody to blame.  There’s nothing to point to.  Sometimes these things happen - but God, through everything, can bring glory and healing in its midst if you know how to look.  Watch.  I’ll show you what I mean.”

With that, the man felt a warm and soft compound being rubbed onto his eyes, with the instruction given, “go and wash this off in the pool of Siloam.”

Now, normally the man would question what was going on, but the voice spoke with such authority that he left, searching in the darkness for the pool, and, upon finding and washing in it, he opened his eyes to see for the first time.  

 

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It was the summer of 2013, and I had been hired by a local water park to play the part of DJ and emcee for their weekend fireworks shows.  In exchange, our family was given credit that we were able to use in the park for food and snacks on top of admission for ourselves and our friend.  It was a welcome respite for us from the summer heat that much of California’s Central Valley is known for.

Anyone who has been to a water park understands why it didn’t completely surprise me when I began to battle various MRSA infections after a few visits to the park, along with a scalp that began peeling and flaking with what would later become severe dermatitis.  And since that’s probably not that much of a surprise to you, it wasn’t for me, either.

Regular visits to the doctor led to a regiment of antibiotics and ointments, none of which helped.  The sores began to persist and become more frequent.  I began to battle with a few episodes of Bell’s Palsy, an ailment that caused half of my face to become temporarily paralyzed.  In fact, to this day I still have not recovered full functionality over the muscles in half of my face.

 It was a constant struggle to remain conscious as time went on, and fatigue began to take over my body.  Slowly, over three years and after several different medications that failed to work, my weight began to dwindle - until one day in the Fall of 2016, when I weighed in at 95 pounds and couldn’t eat because of massive sores that had begun to form in my esophagus.  Out of options as to what was causing everything, my doctor sent me to the lab for a round of blood work, and after taking several days off to rest, I tried to muster up the energy to head back to my full-time job as a web designer for a local design and IT firm.

I probably shouldn’t have made the effort, as it was later that morning when I received the call.  The type of call that everyone dreads.  The call from the doctor’s office.  My labs had come back in.

“Hello?”

“Yes, Darryl?  This is your doctor.  I need you to come in right away.”

“But, Doctor, I just got back into work after using up all of my sick pay - I really can’t afford to leave right now.  Can’t you just tell me over the phone?”

“No, I’m sorry - but we need you here now.”  There was an urgency in his voice that I couldn’t ignore.  My heart sank, knowing that it wasn’t going to be good news.

The next hour was a blur as I informed my boss that I was going to need to go to the doctor.  I gathered my phone and keys and walked out to my car to begin the mile-long drive to the doctor’s office.  I can’t say how long it really took me to get there, other than to say that time went in slow motion as I began to panic about dying - expecting that in a few moments I would be informed that I was dying of cancer. 

I began to cry, thinking of my children growing up in a world without me.  I began to worry about what still needed to be done at work and at home.  The panic began to overtake me as I pulled into the parking lot and made my way up the stairs to my doctor’s office.  The receptionist greeted me as I stepped inside, checked me in,  and before I knew it, I was sitting in the exam room waiting for the news that would forever change my life.

The room was abnormally cold that morning, and the protective paper on the exam table crinkled under me as I shifted my weight, nervously awaiting the doctor’s arrival.  After a few minutes, I couldn’t sit still.  I stood up and began pacing in the small room.  A slight knock on the door, the handle turned, and the door opened.  It was time.

The doctor stepped in, closing the door behind him.  He peeled the stethoscope from the dark skin of his neck, almost as if he needed to rid himself of everything sterile in an effort to connect with me on a more personal level.  I looked at him, trying to read his eyes for any sign of the reason for the urgency in his earlier call.

“Hey, Darryl - how are you feeling today?”  His voice almost sounded nervous.  Had he ever done this before — broken the bad news to a patient?

“I’m okay, I guess,” I replied shakily.  “Just wondering why you needed me here.”

“Well, it might be best if you sat down for this,” he said, motioning me back towards the table.

My heart sank.  Here it was.  The prognosis.  I sat on the exam table, the white protective paper crinkling and loudly breaking the silence in the room as I adjusted to a place where I could be comfortable.  Well, at least as comfortable as one can be when they’re about to receive news like I was expecting.

“Well, Darryl, your lab work came back.”

“And…?”

“And I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you’re HIV positive.”

What I really heard was, “congratulations, Darryl - you don’t have cancer!”  A slight smile cracked over my face.

“Do you have any questions for me?,” he asked after a moment.

I shook my head.

“Well, I’m going to step outside now and return with more lab orders.”

I nodded.

The door opened and shut. 

HIV positive.  When did I…?  How did I…?  And then it hit me.  Ten years earlier.  That one fateful night.  And it was then that I felt the blood drain from my face and my stomach fall.  My past had finally caught up with me, and I had received the punishment for my sins.  This was my death sentence, and I could no longer keep it hidden.  This is what I deserved; after all, it was my fault, wasn’t it?

I took my first steps out of the office that day knowing that everything to come from here would be different.  I don’t even remember making it to my car, but I do remember picking up my phone and dialing my wife, who was at a gathering on the other side of town.

“Hi, honey,” she said.

“H-h-h-h-hi,” I stammered.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m at the doctor’s.”

“Did they figure out what’s wrong?”

“Well, um… yes.”

“And…?”

The words caught in my throat for what felt like forever before I was able to finally get it out: “They said I’m HIV positive.”

The Least of These

“What is that?” “Is that a man in drag?” “That’s a facsimile of a woman.”

Those are just a few of the comments that have poured in since an ad with my photo on it was posted for an upcoming luncheon with our local chamber of commerce, at which I am the featured speaker. And while the comments in and of themselves are hateful and ignorant, the existence of them isn’t. You see, as a transgender woman, I try and work hard to hold onto my own power — the power that allows me to exist in the world as a woman, whether I choose to reveal my trans identity or not. For me, the power rests in my own ability to make that choice — and for the ones who had left those comments, they had chosen to take that power away from me.

“I come from a life of privilege,” quips trans comedian Erin Mohr. “I used to be a man.”
The irony isn’t lost on me.

In many ways, I didn’t really understand the concept of privilege until I had lost it.

The automatic acceptance of teachings that are now brushed off simply because I’m a woman. The ability to get an oil change without having the mechanic — the same mechanic I had been using as Darryl — mansplain to me all of the services he recommended. The ability to use the bathroom without wondering if doing so would endanger my life or livelihood. Those are all gone now. The trade-off? The freedom to live as I was meant to. With the identity that had been struggling to break free for as long as I can remember.

In many ways, this concept isn’t lost to most Christians. We often talk about how God decided to put on flesh and enter into this world as a helpless baby.

The Bible even talks about how that was the plan all along. That Jesus existed with God the Father since the beginning of time. God lost His privilege in an effort to live out His destiny. To become something that was, in terms of what the world saw, less than God. And because they refused to believe that God could appear to them in the frailty of of a human being, they rejected him, made fun of him, tortured him, and killed him. All to show Jesus who they thought was in control. A statement to God about who really held the power.

As an out transgender woman, I’ve come to expect criticism.

And even in church settings where I sit and share my story with pastors and various church leaders, I hold the power. If they reject me, I am ultimately the one who gave them the choice to accept me or not — so no real harm done. I still walk away with my dignity and the knowledge that I have spoken my truth, and those who have heard it will eventually be held accountable for their choices. But in my decision to share my story and reveal my identity, I hold the power.

Then there are the times when I am not given that choice. When I am robbed of that decision, and it is made for me. Those are the times that hurt. Those are the times when the power is taken away from me, and flaunted in my face, in much the same way as the schoolyard bully taunts their victims after taking their toy or lunch money.

“Make me,” they sneer, ignoring your pleas for mercy. They know, in that moment, that they hold the power.

These are the reasons why the use of the “n-word” among Black people is acceptable while among white people it is reprehensible. The reason why, while I publicly speak about being assigned male at birth and transitioning later in life, being ridiculed by complete strangers without any prior context is painful in ways that it normally isn’t when those comments are received on posts when I publicly state that I am transgender. It’s all about power. It’s about flaunting the privilege that one has, and the lack that I have because of who I am.

It’s easy for us to look at what is happening in Ukraine and criticize Putin.

But in many ways, he has chosen to flaunt the power he holds through military strength to those around the world. And it’s scary to not know what is coming, because in that moment we are put in our place, realizing that we are at the mercy of someone who isn’t using their power to make the world a better place, but rather using it to try and remind us of our place. The question then that must be asked is how that same behavior and mentality is manifesting itself in our own lives — in the circles we keep, in the media we consume, and in the politics and politicians we endorse or oppose.

The struggle for myself, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, is the desire to see those who reject my trans identity and fight against my right to exist fall. There’s an inherit wish that I hold to be able to wield power over these groups and force them to accept the LGBTQ+ community or be shut down. After all, seeing that come to pass would ultimately save lives and create inclusivity, right? But I think, especially in the Easter season, that recognizing the ability of power to corrupt is vitally important to being able to move forward as a society.

Power is ultimately the issue that we face in our society.

Those with it aren’t willing to part with it, and those without it often cause pain in an effort to try and grasp at it when the opportunity presents. It’s an ugly cycle, and one that I don’t pretend to have an answer to. But, as it goes with any recovery program, the first step towards recovery is recognizing and admitting that there’s a problem.

That’s why I share these stories. It’s not for your pity. It’s not to get you angry. It’s because when we begin to listen to the experiences that make up our country, our eyes are opened to how we can do better. As author Maya Angelou once wrote, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

That’s the essence of the Gospel. The early Christians didn’t beat themselves up over crucifying Jesus. Paul didn’t mope about once he realized what he had done. They took that information and vowed to do better. May we all be such people.

 

No, Matt Chandler, Deconstruction is NOT sexy.

“You and I are living in a day and age where deconstruction — and the turning away from, or leaving the faith — has become some sort of ‘sexy thing to do.’  I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ — actually — that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from.  But if all you understand Christianity to be is a moral code, then I totally get it.”
-Matt Chandler-

The clip from that sermon has made its way around the internet in recent days, and while there are many people who are criticizing Pastor Matt and his words, I’d like to call into question the bigger picture here.  I’d agree, Mr. Chandler.  It’s almost impossible to deconstruct from Jesus, especially for those who have truly experienced the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.  That’s why so many of us still try to hang on in the margins — because even though the institution of the Church has closed its doors to us, we know that there is goodness and hope within the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I will contend to you that the reason so many of us are deconstructing is because we have seen the Church close its doors and act as gatekeepers to the very grace and mercy that you preach about.  We have seen families torn apart, lives ruined, and lives lost because of the refusal of churches like yours that continually tell us that we’re “too sinful” to exist within the walls of your community.  That our identity is akin to shouting outside the city gates, “unclean!”

Yet we KNOW from the Bible that this isn’t what Jesus is all about.

That Jesus went out and spent time with those that the Church wanted to shut out.  That Jesus dined with tax collectors and preached salvation to the prostitutes.  He listened to the condemned.  He embraced the people on the margins, and challenged the Church to do the same.

THAT’S what deconstruction is all about.  It’s not sexy.  It’s necessary.

Because as we sit in the rubble of our faith, condemned by leaders like Matt Chandler, we refuse to let go of the Truth of a God who still loves us and calls us to Himself.  Deconstruction is realizing that at the core of everything is Jesus, and the rules and added piousness that they add as requirements is akin to the way the Jewish leaders had expounded on the Ten Commandments to the point where thousands of laws had been written, complicating the faith to the point where it was no longer communicating hope, but rather a burden.

Want to talk about allowing people to experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ?  Then I challenge you to ask yourself how your church is doing that to the divorced.  To the single mom who is struggling to make ends meet.  To the immigrant.  To the person who loudly proclaims that “Black Lives Matter.”  To the gay or queer person in your midst.  The trans person.  These are people who have been looking to the church and saying, “we’ve heard about this Jesus — will you allow us in so we can experience Him too?”  Only to be turned away as a threat to your community.

Deconstruction asks the question of how we can help tell the biggest story of God in our world.  I’d wonder if you see it as a threat only because it challenges the limits that you and your theology has put on a God that refuses to be contained in a box.

In many ways, what’s important to know is that deconstruction is often a response.

“A response to what,” you might ask?

A response to trauma.  A response to knowing that there is hope and healing to be had in the Gospel, but also learning to separate that from the rejection and marginalization that comes with religion.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a podcast called, “The Rise And Fall of Mars Hill,” by Christianity Today, which outlines the ways that Mars Hill, a once popular mega-church pastored by Mark Driscoll, rose to prominence and fell to the pride and arrogance of its leadership.  While I won’t take the time to go into detail about the podcast here, I’d highly recommend taking the time to listen to it.  For many like myself, the trauma is all-too relatable.

As I sit and ponder my own faith and deconstruction journey, I have to stop and grieve the reality of it all.

The reality that I will never be able to experience my faith in the ways that I had spent so much of my life engrossed in.  Ways that I aspired to lead others to.  I grieve the fact that the stories shared on the podcast of abuse and trauma are not limited to Mars Hill.

They are stories I share too.

Stories of a senior pastor, who while working as his associate pastor, decided to post about our family and his “concerns” about what I was doing to his public bulletin board group — dedicated to fishing.  When we found what he had done and confronted him, our family was the one blamed because of our “inability to forgive for the betterment of the congregation.”  We left the church, and he remained pastor there for several more years.

Stories of a pastor who got so angry at typos and missing Oxford commas when I was the church’s graphic designer that I would be scared to come into work on Monday.  It would be there that I developed an ulcer and a problem with acid reflux.  Yet, the church elders routinely excused his angry outbursts and biting criticisms — as well as his sons’ — by stating that it was simply “the way God made him,” and “that’s just his personality.”  I was let go after it was found that I couldn’t support the church’s leadership and ministry, and it would be one of the last times I would step foot in a church for over a decade.  Meanwhile, he still resides as the founding pastor of the church.

Then there are countless stories of pastors that I’ve met with since coming out; some of whom I’ve ministered alongside in the past.  Pastors who told me straight to my face that who I am is an abomination; something to be repented of.  Pastors who try to explain away why I wouldn’t be welcome to seek Jesus in their community unless I was a faceless stranger who just blended into the background.  Back on the margins.  Back in the shadows.

No, deconstruction isn’t sexy.  It’s necessary.  It’s a necessity because at my core, I still believe in Jesus.  I still believe in a God who loves me.  I still believe in the Bible.  But I can no longer believe that without also acknowledging the ways that the Church continues to hurt and traumatize those who don’t fit within its walls.

The God I believe in cannot — and will not — be contained.

He continues to defy explanation.  It’s the reality we celebrate at Christmas.  That God — creator of the universe — would allow himself to become a vulnerable baby, born to a teenage girl who would be accused of scandal.  A woman who herself would become marginalized simply because she said “yes.”  And yet, in that marginalization, is Christ born to us this day.

An open letter to my Evangelical friends

Over the past year, Adventure Church - part of the Foursquare denomination - has been trying to push forward with their purchase of a theatre building in an area that is known to be a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community in the Fresno area.  The Tower Theatre has been used to host the annual LGBTQ+ Reel Pride Film Festival, as well as numerous drag shows and the like, and the insensitivity to this cultural icon that the church has shown as they have fought to move forward with this purchase has further damaged any possibility of a relationship between the LGBTQ+ community.  With this acknowledgement, some of the affirming pastors in the Fresno area invited conservative church leaders to listen to the voices of those within the LGBTQ+ community who had been affected by this move.  The following is the letter that I submitted to be a part of that conversation. I decided to share it here in hopes that it might spark more conversation beyond the Fresno area.

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To the Pastors of Fresno and the Central Valley:

Hello! My name is Ellie Dote, and I am a queer transgender Christian woman. I have also spent almost half of my life in Fresno before moving back to Southern California following my divorce in 2018. I realize that for many of you who are hearing these words, the idea that I would call myself a Christian while also clinging to my identity as a queer and transgender woman is foreign or even downright blasphemous. But I would ask you for a moment to consider the reasons why.

I’ve spent most of my life in Church. Like many of you teach, I believed that I was saved by Grace. That my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior meant that I had received the promise of eternity in Heaven as opposed to eternal separation from God in Hell. I also believed that as a follower of Christ, I was to share that good news — the Gospel — with those who needed to hear the same message of hope that I had.

For years, I poured my life into the idea that if I was just that much holier… if I spent more time in church… if I “saved” just one more person — God would help me to overcome my own sinful desires and even questions. That I’d be able to truly become the man of God that I was supposed to be. Until that all came crumbling down in 2008 after years of abuse from church leadership, resulting in burnout that all but destroyed my ability to trust any sort of Church leadership.

It was in that context that I finally allowed all of the questions surrounding my own identity — questions that I hadn’t allowed myself to ask for most of my life. Of course, those were questions that I couldn’t ask within the Church. Church wasn’t a safe space for me to even admit that I “struggled” with the possibility that I could be gay or even feminine. Church was the place where men were supposed to be men: strong leaders, sports fanatics, and unemotional — everything I wasn’t. So with that, combined with my own understanding of what the Church had taught about homosexuality, I left to find answers in the shadows.

As one thing led to another, I ended up in a moment of indiscretion that would end up with me contracting HIV — a disease that went undetected for many years until it had almost taken my life in 2016. As the reality of everything began to set in and the truth of my actions came to life, I finally was forced to come to terms with the identity that I had been trying to hide for decades: I was transgender.

Now, remember — at this point in time, I was separated from the Church. I didn’t believe that there was a place for me there — not that God didn’t love me, but rather that the Church was just a place where I was going to end up burned again and again. I didn’t think that I’d stay away forever; but coming out seemed like it would mean that I’d be locking the door and throwing away the key.

And so, recognizing that I’d been away from the Church for 10 years already, I came out, understanding that while I believed God loved me, I would no longer have a place where I would find community or acceptance where others would believe that God loved me as I was.

That all changed in 2018 when a friend of mine invited me to a women’s event at Northpointe Church. It was a moment when, even after spending years in ministry and not experiencing it, I honestly felt the presence of God and heard the voice of God calling me to come home. And even with that being said, I didn’t feel that God was calling me to do so by giving up my newfound identity within the LGBTQ+ community.

Since that time, I have done a lot of studying to try and understand where I fit within God’s plan and to try and find a place where I could enjoy that within the context of community and church. During my time within the Evangelical church, it was always taught to me that the goal was to win everyone into the Kingdom of God — and that we were to do so with our love.

Yet so much of what Evangelical culture has become known for now is exclusivity and a lack of tolerance for anyone who doesn’t fit within their box of what “normal” is. Over the past four years, I have worked to counsel several members of the LGBTQ+ community who have felt that God had left them simply because the church — and even their families — had turned their backs on them. One of them had even started living on the streets here in Fresno and selling her body because her parents had kicked her out at the age of 13 for being transgender.

Over the past several months, many of us within the LGBTQ+ community have watched as what we felt was a safe have for us in the Tower District become a battleground over the “rights” of Adventure Church to open their doors in a venue that has historically hosted such events as the Reel Pride Festival and drag shows.

Does Adventure Church have the right to be there, barring any legal ramifications based on the sale of the building? Sure. But I would ask you, if the goal is to love our neighbor, how is it loving for a church whose denomination clearly states that homosexuality is a sin to force their presence into a community where the LGBTQ+ community has found sanctuary?

Equally disturbing is the fact that the leaders of Adventure Church are unwilling to have a conversation with us regarding their desire to move in. In many ways, the witness of the church has become akin to the person on the corner of Blackstone and Shaw holding the cross emblazoned with the word “repent” and shouting through his bullhorn that we’re all doomed to hell. Is it truth? Yes. But is it loving and an effective way to let people know that God loves them? No.

Since coming out, I have sought to have conversations with several pastors throughout both the Fresno and Southern California area where I now live. I may have talked with some of you. In each of those conversations, I expressed my desire to grow deeper in my relationship with God by being a part of the church community. And in nine out of the ten conversations I had, I was told in no uncertain terms that I while I’d be welcome to join in on a Sunday morning, being a part of the community — especially in women’s ministry — was out of the question. Had I not found connection with the people at Woven Community, I don’t know if I would have given up or not.

I am happy to report that I am now growing happily in my relationship with God at an affirming church here in Southern California. Yet what continues to trouble me are the thousands of people within your communities who are hurting because of how the Church has sought to exclude them and disregard their feelings every step of the way. These are people who will never darken the doorway of your church because your actions have spoken loud and clear that you are expendable. That their lives — and eternities — aren’t worth your own rights and comfort. People who truly believe because Christians have told them both through their words and through their actions that they are not worthy of God’s love.

Before he left this earth, Jesus told His disciples to “go out into all the world, making disciples.” Throughout His ministry, those disciples came from all backgrounds — people that the religious wouldn’t even go near. Yet those were the very people that God chose to build His church. It’s very telling then, that every single one of the pastors that I have spoken to has told me that I am the first transgender person that they have ever met. It means that the Church isn’t doing enough to go out into the world. It also means that when they do, they need to do so in a way that leads to the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

As it stands right now, the fruits that the Church has been bearing when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community have been death, destruction, pain, sorrow, and homelessness. Is that really the place we should be? I have a hard time believing that this is where God would want the Church to be. But I can’t make that call for you. It’s up to you now to do something with the knowledge you’ve heard today. And that, my friends, is a choice that is completely between you and God.

Thank you for allowing me to speak my mind openly here.

Your ministries are doing good work here in the Valley — but I think it’s time that we start casting a vision for the biggest picture of God, and working to tell that story. It’s a story that’s even bigger than the one that’s currently being told.

Sincerely,
Eleanor Anne Dote

The Danger of Amplifying Misinformation

It should come as no surprise that Tucker Carlson says outlandish and shocking things, many of them based on out of context quotes and data to outright lies, using questions to accomplish one goal: raise doubt.  It’s gets so bad at times that Fox’s own lawyers argued successfully that Carlson “is not stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”

So why then, you might ask, would I even bother to spend the time to research and write a rebuttal to a segment that aired earlier this week about Transgender people?  This story, based on a 60 Minutes interview from this past weekend about transgender people that decide to “detransition” are the type of rhetoric that throws the transgender community — including myself — into the spotlight as people who are being duped by a fad.  That this is some sort of life that we’ve chosen, and that compassion isn’t something that should be considered in how so many in Conservative circles  — many of whom are in Tucker’s audience and looking for reasons to justify their discomfort with the LGBTQ+ community — have historically and continue to treat the trans community.

It wasn’t that long ago that my dad passed away, and as part of the process, the mortuary posted an obituary that we provided in which I was identified by name as one of his daughters.  Imagine my own surprise at how, when looking at the guestbook a few days later, I found that someone had decided that it would be the perfect spot to declare that my dad didn’t have two daughters, but a daughter and a son, calling me by my former name, Darryl.  Much of the mentality that drives hurtful actions like that are the result of the rhetoric that people like Tucker Carlson espouse in an effort to appease their audience.

With that as the backdrop for this post, I wanted to take a moment to address both the 60 Minutes piece entitled “Health Care Challenges for Transgender Youth,” as well as Tucker’s segment from a couple nights ago.

First off, it’s important to note that this all takes place against a backdrop of increased legislation against transgender people in our country.  

For many, those who are questioning their own gender identity do not have adequate access to therapists and doctors that can accurately diagnose and treat gender dysphoria for a number of reasons, the most glaring being that covering transgender services is a hotly debated issue for insurance companies and providers.  Some states have gone so far as to even push for medical providers to deny trans people basic and life-saving medical services if doing so “violates their religious beliefs.”  With that in mind, people are having to look for resources that may not be reputable to ask the questions and receive treatment.  

In the 60 Minutes piece, Leslie Stahl interviews Grace Lidinsky-Smith, who within months of seeking help, was receiving hormone treatments and a double mastectomy.  Tucker, in his segment, went on to raise the “concern” that this was the way trans healthcare is being handled in our country.  That is categorically false.  Grace’s story is tragic.  During the course of her interview, she states that she told her doctors that she wanted to transition to being male because she was tired of being female, and thought that life would be easier as a male.  If I had given that answer to my own doctors, it would raise a lot of red flags that would at the very least put the idea of hormone treatment on the back-burner, let alone push the idea of surgery further down the line.  In my own experience, the questions are invasive.  They deal with how my gender dysphoria has been historically experienced.  What effects had it had on my life up until that point?  How had it manifested itself?  Simply stating “I’m tired of being male” wouldn’t have been a valid answer.

It took me a little while and several phone calls before I was able to get my hands on hormones, and three years before I was able to receive my breast augmentation surgery.  In fact, one of the requirements to start hormone therapy was that I needed to live fully as female-identifying for a few months before hormones would even be considered.  One more year beyond that, and I’m finally on the books to get facial feminization surgeries, and several more months of electrolysis — the painful removal of hair follicles around my genital area using electricity to kill and cauterize each bit of hair — before I am eligible for vaginoplasty.  

So for both the 60 minutes segment and Tucker’s segment, the two main detransitioners are admittedly examples that went against scientific and ethical guidelines that have been set out.  But is that really the fault of the victims here, or is it the fault of a community of people that is working as hard as they can to make gender dysphoria treatment as difficult to access in a way that is safe and regulated?  I would argue the latter, but as Tucker tends to do — I’m not here to tell you who to blame.  I’m just asking questions.

Starting right off the bat, Tucker’s segment began with the headline, “Powerful Sex Hormones Given to Kids.”  That, my friends, is categorically untrue.  

I don’t know how to state this any more clearly, but PREPUBESCENT KIDS DON’T TAKE HORMONES, AND MINORS NEVER GET GENITAL SURGERY.  

Children who identify as transgender are, however, eligible to receive hormone blockers prior to puberty that act as a sort of “pause” button on the changes that come with puberty until they are at least 18.  And to further refute Tucker’s claim that these are “drugs whose long-term effects we may not know,” the Pediatric Endocrine Society and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health both endorse the use of puberty blockers in transgender children, stating that they are a safe and effective way to treat gender dysphoria in children.

Carlson ended his segment by pointing to a quote from a 2016 memo entitled, “Proposed Decision Memo for Gender Dysphoria and Gender Reassignment Surgery” which reads, “Based on a thorough review of the clinical evidence available at this time, there is not enough evidence to determine whether gender reassignment surgery improves health outcomes for Medicare beneficiaries with gender dysphoria.”  What Carlson failed to mention was that the determination was made based on insufficient input from the transgender community.  They requested the need for further research, and admitted within the next paragraph that “Knowledge on gender reassignment surgery for individuals with gender dysphoria is evolving.”  It was with that understanding in mind that the scientific community recommended that “gender confirmation surgery be covered on an individual claim basis.”  It’s now five years later, and time has passed.  Research has been furthered, and we know a lot more now than we did five years ago about the effects of gender affirming surgeries.  It’s life-altering, and life giving to many in the trans community.  Will there be those who regret it?  Yes.  But those stories are in the minority, and it’s time that we stop giving them a major platform — because the stories of a few are being used against the majority of trans people as a means to justify transphobia and laws that are targeting our ability to live a peaceful life as the gender that we were supposed to be all along. 

Does gender affirming surgery help cure trans people of depression?  No.  

To be honest, I still struggle with it myself.  The majority of it, however, isn’t because of my transition and identity — there is great joy that I have found in embracing who I am — it’s because so many people are bent on using whatever weapons they can against me and those like me to push us further out into the margins of our communities.  It’s because I have had to work hard — sometimes on a daily basis — to prove my worth.  Because the communities that I had previously found to be life-giving were now places where I was shunned and seen as a threat.  

Do I discount the stories of those who detransition?  Not at all.  

Every single person has a journey and an experience all their own, and those stories are ones to be heard.  At the same time, it is not fair for those stories to be used as weapons against those whose stories and journeys vastly differ.  They are not the standard, and as the 60 Minutes piece pointed out, they are more a call for us to have the conversation surrounding gender dysphoria and its treatment brought to the forefront.  Our inability to provide quality healthcare and therapy is having disastrous results, and it’s a good argument as for why healthcare providers and insurance companies should cover transgender care processes. 

At the end of the day, here’s the question that needs to be asked: are we, as transgender and gender non-conforming people, to be seen as worthy of love and community?  What are the fears that you hold to that cause you to think that someone like me is out to get you?  Is it simply because I’m different?  Because you don’t understand me?  Humanity has had a long history of what happens when we begin to fear others simply because they’re different.  My own ancestors were imprisoned here in the United States during World War II because it was thought that they were people to be feared.  Fear can make us do things that we regret.  

How do we combat this?

Listen.  Hear the stories and experiences of those who are transgender.  People like Paula Stone Williams, Laura Beth Buchleiter, and Kai Shappley.  Spend time getting to know us, and stop getting your “facts” from people who make their money off of breeding fear.  This isn’t limited to trans people.  It’s all people.  Those that we don’t understand.  Get to know us.  And it might just change how you see the world.

Now you see me... or do you?

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

The words rang out around the world as we watched with tense anticipation and baited breath, jaws and fists clenched – expecting the worst. The collective sigh that we all breathed was palpable, and tears of joy began to flow down the faces of those gathered in the intersection where George Floyd uttered those now three famous words: “I can’t breathe.” But this wasn’t a joy that was based in happiness. No – nothing would bring back the life that was taken from the world in front of our very eyes. This was a joy that was based in hope. A hope that, for the first time, a white police officer was held accountable for the taking of a life. A hint that, at least in the eyes of the twelve jurors, the life of a black man does matter.

The joy would be short-lived, though – for as the verdict rang out, the news was also juxtaposed with the reality that a sixteen year old girl had been killed at the hands of the police in Colombus, Ohio. Mi’Kiah Bryant. And it wasn’t long before the narrative was uttered: the girl had a knife. As if that justifies the taking of a life without question. I watched the spark of hope in the eyes of so many of my black siblings flicker with the realization that the guilty verdict of George Floyd’s murderer was an abnormality; a false sense of security that was shattered as if to say, “no, your life is still in danger. You are still under our control.”

It’s a sense that I know all too well.

As I write this, 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been reported as murdered in the United States, the majority of them Black and Latinx transgender women. More than 82 bills have been introduced into legislation across the nation to question how much humanity our elected officials are going to be granting to me as a transgender woman in America.

At the core of what we are seeing across the nation is the question of just that — our humanity.

The question that is ultimately held by those in power. This is the system we have inherited: a system that was built by and held by White America — namely the White Christians — when the first settlers arrived from across the Atlantic. Yet, at the same time, I find it strangely antithetical to the ministry of Jesus, who time and time again reminded even his disciples to check their own privilege, and to recognize that the image of God resides in “the least of these.” Yet, it was that very ideology that threatened the Empire of Rome and the Church – and so they (we) killed Him. Interesting that He would die a death of public asphyxiation at the hands of the State because He was deemed “a threat.”

But isn’t that what we do?

What is it that makes us look at the Black person walking down the street at night and call the police or wonder if we’ve locked our car, while not doing that for the White people? What is it that causes the Black community to think that they cannot call the police – who are tasked with the job of protecting and serving ALL Americans – out of fear that they will become the next hashtag in a long line of victims, only to be forgotten the next week when another name takes their place? What is it that causes me to double check myself every single time I walk into a public restroom? That tells me that I shouldn’t say a word in there because it’s the octave and timbre of my voice that tends to out me as transgender? It is a fear that is based in knowing that I am considered “less than” by those who have been granted power over me. It is the fear that is based in knowing that if I were to be murdered at the hands of the police that there wouldn’t be a collective mourning, but rather a justification that would be offered as if to say, “I told you so,” in essence justifying the fears of those who try and segregate me into places and areas where I can be ignored.

It is with that understanding that I begin to realize that my ability to survive and be seen as a queer transgender woman is inherently tied to those who are struggling to do the same as a person of color. It is a call to name the fears that plague our society; the fears that have been used for far too long to dehumanize and justify discrimination against us.

A few years ago, when I was still living in Fresno, I attended a meeting for “Be the Bridge,” a ministry aimed at advocating for racial understanding and reconciliation at a local Southern Baptist Church. In this church (which had thousands of people who walked through their doors every weekend), only a handful of people showed up to the meeting. This same church would be one of many in the area that would tell me that I was not welcome to be a part of the women’s ministry, despite spending hours of my time talking to them and sharing about my experiences and desire to learn how to be a better woman of God. Why? Fear. Fear that their acceptance of me would cause others to question their faith. Fear that their allowing me into their spaces would make other women uncomfortable. Fear that, knowing that I was attracted to women, would cause me to seduce or even assault the other women in the group. I’ve heard and experienced so much of it in the four years that I’ve spent since coming out.

Ask a good number of Privileged Christians if they think that racism is still an issue in our society today, and they’ll refer to how the Civil Rights era was decades ago — and that we’ve come a long way since then. Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as racist, but if we were to ask people of color in our world, the sad fact is that you would be hard pressed to find many who would honestly say that they have never experienced racism in their life. Same with the women in our lives. Most of them would honestly tell you that they have at some point in their life experienced some type of harassment or feeling of being less than just because of their gender. And don’t get me started on those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. What makes things worse is that the greatest named offender are those who call themselves followers of Christ, even at times using the Bible as a means to justify their actions.

Power is a funny thing, isn’t it?

The more power we have, the more we’re able to get away with in our world. The less we’re a problem because there’s always someone “lesser than” that will be blamed. So why a post, you might ask, on a blog that’s really dedicated to my own experience with the LGBTQ+ community? Because power is something that affects us all. There are moments when, in some places, LGBTQ+ people have power over others. And that power has been wielded against others unjustly. I’ve seen it and experienced it myself when I identify myself as a Christian in many of my own LGBTQ+ circles. The immediate sense that I should be judged and considered “less than” because of my religious views hurts, and with that comes the realization that my voice carries with it less importance because of it.
We talk about equality. We talk about ending systems of oppression - that sets us up against each other in a scramble to gain power. And once we’ve got that power over other people, it’s incredibly hard to let it go. And yet that’s what the example of Jesus continually calls us to — to let go of our power, and in our humanity, considering ourselves less than those around us so that all may be lifted up. And those who have less power? Well, they’ll need to be lifted all the more to reach the top.

I hope it’s not too late. Several of the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance. Each name that is broadcast on the news; the hashtags that we read on social media… they’re all an opportunity for repentance; a call for us to examine how we, in our own privilege, have contributed to a system that has allowed another person to die at the hands of another — and to either repent of that, or justify it. The time has come for us to repent.

What will YOU do?

The Currency of Fear

Like many of you, I watched in horror as we saw the crowds of protestors descend on the Capitol building in an effort to undermine our democratic process. That horror turned to sadness and heartache as the realization set in that this wasn’t a surprise. This is where we have been preparing to go, and not just for the last four years — as Kristin Kobes Du Mez outlines so elegantly in her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

“Evangelical fears were real. Yet these fears were not simply a natural response to changing times. For decades, evangelical leaders had worked to stoke them. Their own power depended on it. Men like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, and countless other lesser lights invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection. Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, “the homosexuals,” the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants — and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity.” (p. 13)

What we witnessed on January 6th was a culmination of how White supremacy has entitled and created a culture in which this type of behavior is justified when it feels endangered. And where is this fear coming from? What are we to do about it?

Fear.

It’s a perfectly common emotion — one we’ve all experienced at one point or another, and one that drives how we approach life. The fear of flying following the 1986 plane crash that ended with the two planes that collided over our neighborhood on opposite sides of my street in Cerritos drove me to avoid flying as much as possible until a trip in 2019 to Orlando helped calm my nerves. The fear of being crushed in a collapsed parking structure during an earthquake led me to try and park as close to the top as possible whenever I could. Fear at times is healthy — it keeps most of us from doing strange and dangerous things, such as eating raw fish that is still moving at a sushi restaurant. Yet, for those that know how to manipulate those fears within us — that is where we begin to see toxic power taking root.

In the 1930’s, bad economic times and a fear of socialism became the driving force that led people towards the promises of a rising star named Hitler. Promising to create a great Germany, Hitler pointed fingers at the Jewish people and other minority groups as the ones to blame for their economic woes, threatening that Germany would never be great until those groups had been driven from the land. The “new Germany,” the Nazis promised, “would have no class, religious, or regional differences, and the political strife and dissension that characterized the Weimar parliamentary democracy would end. In theory, neither birth nor economic status would be obstacles to social, military, or political advancement.” (State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, p.9)

Fear of not being able to reach the promised land and what could happen if they failed drove the Germans to support a murderous regime that cost the lives of over six million innocent people.

Fear can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps that’s why God, throughout Scripture, continually tells us to not be afraid. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more,” He told a crowd of followers in Luke 12:4, warning them to be on guard against the religious elite. The ones who had created a culture of fear-based religiosity.

“My father,” Jesus explained, “remembers the very sparrows, so how — considering you are worth more than many sparrows — much will the Father remember you?” (Luke 12:5-6. paraphrased) In the same sermon, Jesus also told the story about a man who wanted to work as hard as he could to conserve grain for many years so that he could ‘take life easy’.” The man planned an elaborate scheme to build bigger barns to store his surplus so that he could eat, drink, and be merry without worrying about the future. Yet God said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:16-21)

I think it’s interesting how so much of our culture and life are obsessed with preparing for the future — a future that may not be guaranteed. What’s even more interesting is when that preparation distracts us from what God says is truly important — loving the least among us, all the while forgetting that the wealth we might experience is a blessing from God.

D.L. Mayfield, in her book, The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power, says it like this:

“In the Bible, wealth is a blessing from God — but it is one that can make us forget our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable. It is a blessing and a curse; both of these things are true, and because of this dual reality economics is a core preoccupation of the biblical tradition. Old Testament laws were very much concerned with how the people of God would live together in covenant community: it was assumed you would be close to those who were poor, and therefore you would be more likely to be invested in their future… God’s ideal economy banks on the idea that you shall know your neighbor who is suffering and that you shall be compelled to do something about it.” (p. 15)

In the aftermath of this week’s attack on our nation’s Capitol, I took the time to listen to the news coverage between all of the major cable networks. MSNBC and CNN focused on the outrage and pain; the betrayal the American people were feeling at a leadership that had seemingly incited a mob to storm the heart of our Democracy while pundits like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham continued to stoke the fear that the media’s outrage was going to cost Americans their freedom. Two nights later, their conversations turned to denial that these were acts perpetrated by their viewership and that the “Radical Left” were threatening our First Amendment rights. Fear.

What is it that you are afraid of?

Are you living in a way that is afraid of your future, or are you looking to move forward in faith for what God is calling you to? God will NEVER call you away from loving the “least of these.” Jesus continually spoke out against those who would try and keep all of their belongings instead of giving to the poor and taking care of the most vulnerable of our society.

“But Ellie, what if I have nothing left?”

That, I would argue, is where faith comes in.

During the Old Testament times, while the Israelites wandered through the desert, God sent down manna from Heaven; a daily sustenance that would provide the people with just enough for their day. Try to save some for leftovers, and it would turn rancid.

I wonder how many people tried that. And how many people carried around rancid manna with them “just in case,” because it was “better than nothing” if the supply ran out.

Are you carrying around rancid manna? Perhaps this is your chance to purge that out, to look inside of your own life and faith, and to ask yourself if it is one that is driven by fear, or one that is driven by love.

May God help us on the path towards repentance.

Putting Words In My Mouth

Have you ever been in a place where someone has just assumed something based on something you identify with? Perhaps it’s your gender. Your sexuality. The color of your skin. Or, if you’re like me, it could be your faith.

Twenty-five years ago, I began the journey away from the Catholic faith I grew up in and started to dip my toes in the waters of Conservative Evangelicalism. It was a tumultuous time, and there was a lot of wrestling with my faith and how this would affect so many things in my life - but the thing that stands out to me the most were the various conversations that I had with Evangelicals within the community went. Some of my closest friends were more understanding, allowing me to walk the journey one step at a time while I asked questions and wondered what each step meant.

Others were not as subtle about their desire to see me convert to their faith and system of beliefs.

They approached me and began asking me questions in an accusatory tone, telling me that, as a Catholic, I must believe this way. That I must pray to Mary. That the Saints intercede on my behalf to Christ. That whatever the Pope said was infallible. I could go on and on with what they told me, and while they did get some of their accusations right, they honestly didn’t understand — and they didn’t care. They simply approached me with their preconceived notions of what they were certain I believed and stood for as a Catholic, and began their conversations with me in that manner.

We like to do that, don’t we? We enjoy putting people into boxes of our own creation. It helps us to understand and compartmentalize people that we don’t quite understand. People with backgrounds and cultures that are different than our own. There’s a power that comes from that. From assuming that you know about the rest of the world - and then assuming that with knowledge comes power.

At the core of this is the simple reality that we are ALL different.

The story of how I got here may be different than yours. My goals and calling in life are different than yours. And assuming things about my story based on your own experience or reading without learning about me first does both of us a disservice. It severs the relationship, offends, and starts everything off by communicating that you aren’t even willing to bother to get to know me.

I’ve said it before, but the entirety of Scripture rings with a thread of love. Of how God has been on a constant quest from the Garden of Eden to be in relationship with us, and how He also is working to do so by bringing us into relationship with each other. The more and more this happens, the closer we get to Shalom — wholeness — and the closer we get to God.

So with that setting the stage, I want to ask: how are you approaching the issue of politics in our current culture? When you see the Black Lives Matters protestors in the street, do you immediately find yourself in a place of disgust, assuming that you know their plight and cry? When you see a Trump sticker on the bumper of a car while driving on the freeway, is your first thought one of blessing, or do you make assumptions about the driver? Those automatic assumptions are things we all are guilty of. It’s hard for me to not assume that Trump supporters are against me because of the Republican platform stance against the LGBTQ+ community. But what if someone is a Trump supporter for another reason?

I spent several hours over the past two weeks watching, listening, and reading about the DNC and the RNC. As a self-avowed progressive, I have to admit that I was more encouraged by the DNC than the RNC, so there is a bit of a bias there. But what I noticed upset me the most was listening to the Republicans take the stage and tell their viewers all about what I, as a Democrat, want to do to America. Several of the speeches warned of the impending doom that would come with Biden as president. Of how the Democrats want to “destroy all that you [as conservatives] hold dear.” The effort was made to once again reduce me and my story to assumptions without even taking the time to listen to my story. To hear what got me to this point, having spent most of my life as a conservative Evangelical Republican and then a few years as a Libertarian before switching to the Democratic Party two years ago.

I could share stories of how I, as a queer trans woman, have seen and been on the receiving end of discrimination based on the fear that people have heard from conservative talk shows. How the time I spent before I left Fresno talking to volunteers in our local refugee ministries opened my eyes to the plight of many of the people seeking asylum in our country. And the more I listened, the more I began to see that the lives of people cannot be reduced to a single talking point. There is a humanity there if we just take the time to listen and care.

Jesus set the example for us in this.

He constantly urged the religious people of His day to leave the comfort of their homes and the safety of their synagogues to see and hear the stories of those on the margins. The Woman at the Well. The man at the pool of Bethesda. The story of the Good Samaritan. Every single one of those stories was meant to open the eyes to a space beyond the external issues that came with assumptions. They’re the stories we hear each week at church — and yet are we open to hearing the call that God is making away from our comfortable spaces and the echo chambers of our own friends and party, or are we locking ourselves out from that empathy?

It’s the crux of what we see in Matthew 16, when directly after Peter’s confession of Christ as Lord and being praised for it, we see him not wanting to leave the comfort of that moment to think about the sacrifice it would take. In the blink of an eye, we see Jesus go from praising the revelation that Peter has to the point that He gives Peter the “keys to the Kingdom,” and names Peter as the cornerstone of the church, and in the next, Peter falls from that space to a place where Jesus is rebuking him and saying, “Get behind me, Satan.”

I don’t know about you, but that brings a bit of comfort for me. Because at the end of the day, it’s not the last mistake Peter would make, and yet the Church still recognizes him as their first leader. At the same time, it’s also an eye-opening challenge to me that draws me out of the complacency where we’re raising our hands in worship and in the next moment upset and angry because we are pulled out of the warm happy place where we feel God is happy with us to a place where we realize that things aren’t going to go the way we want.

We have the opportunity now to have conversations.

To listen to each other. To hear the stories of how we got here. And to ask ourselves the question, how can we make the world a better place? Want to help make America a better place? It doesn’t begin with platitudes and party platforms. It begins when we listen to the individuals around us and actually caring about how we can lift them up. It begins when we open ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong. And it begins when we put aside our stances of moral superiority and assumptions and take a posture of being willing and open to listen.

As a Christian, I used to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 all the time: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” What I’m recognizing now is that God is calling His people to make sure that other people are humbled. He isn’t asking for us to force morality on others. He’s asking each and every one of us to approach Him in humility. In realizing that we don’t have the answers. That we’re not above anyone else. And that we are just as much in need of God’s grace than the next person. Perhaps it’s in that stance that we begin to see the face of God in the person that we have been told to fear all of our life. The person of color. The poor person. The rich person. The police officer. And when we begin to see that and live accordingly, God hears that prayer and heals our land.

So are you approaching this election season? Beth from the Pantsuit Politics Podcast said it so well in a recent podcast when she asked if we are voting for our own comfort, or if we are taking a step back and looking at what is the best for the entire world. May that be where we land with the conversations that we continue to have in the coming weeks and months. Is there a place for both? Yes. But both are necessary for shalom. And we must never forget that shalom is the goal.