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.

 

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.

Listening to Learn

To be honest, when I came out, I never envisioned myself becoming any sort of activist. I never even envisioned myself living openly as trans. For those who knew me early on into my transition, they might tell you that I never really identified myself as trans or queer unless there was a concern about problems arising. Otherwise, I made it clear that I wanted to be seen as fully female. Even though I never really understood privilege at that point, I knew enough internally to recognize that living as a woman put me at a slight advantage socially over living as a queer trans woman. There was privilege in that understanding - and, much like when I first came to an understanding of what transgender was, I just didn’t have a word for it until it all began to fall into place.

Privilege is a funny word - for many of us, we don’t realize we have it until it’s gone.

I certainly didn’t. I still remember going to the mechanic - the same one I had used for years - after my transition. All of the sudden, the normal itemized list of needed fixes needed to be ‘mansplained’ to me rather than simply handed to me. I remember the first night I stepped back through the doors of an Evangelical church, and realizing that I might not be welcome there. I remember walking back through those doors several weeks later on Sunday mornings, realizing that I would never be able to fully be a part of community at the place where I met and had a life-changing encounter with God because of my identity. Privilege for me in that was simply being able to worship God wherever and however I wanted to. I knew I belonged to something bigger than myself - even though my faith was nowhere near as authentic as it is now - simply because I fit into the “norm” of what everyone expected. If you were to have asked me before if I felt like it was privilege for that to be my reality I would have told you no. It was just something I did. Privilege isn’t often realized until it’s gone.

So when we see the news this week and accusations of white privilege start being thrown around, it’s important to note that most of the people who live with privilege don’t realize that what you’re talking about is them. They don’t see it as privilege - it simply is. Being able to jog through your neighborhood without worrying about being killed is just normal life for you - in fact, it’s a painful exercise that you feel like you have to do to lose those extra 10 pounds so you can fit into the designer dress that you bought last year because you aren’t “privileged enough” to just go out and buy another one this year. The reality of privilege is that it’s often taken for granted until it’s challenged or gone.

“But Ellie, what do we do about that?” you might ask.

“I can’t help the way I’m born! Why are you calling me out and persecuting me - making me feel uncomfortable - because of something that I have no control over?”

I used to hate being called out like that. Being made uncomfortable. When we see the world through that lens, our discomfort can often be seen and taken as persecution - but let me assure you: it’s not. I used to see things like affirmative action as a means to diminish my ability to succeed in life. It used to make me think that I, as a cisgender straight married male, was the one who was oppressed. That somehow allowing someone else to have rights would take away from my own ability to exist in the world. I get it, I really do - but as I often remind people, “when we know better, we are called to do better.” (Paraphrased from Maya Angelou)

So what do we do with it?

There’s a LOT of anger floating around social media right now. For me, it’s reminiscent of what God says to Cain after he kills Abel: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10, NKJV) The riots and unrest we are seeing; the pain in the eyes of the people marching through our streets - they are the cries of the blood that has for too long felt the sting of oppression and racism. The reality of life without privilege. It’s easy to try and shut it out - but to do so is the spiritual equivalent of a child sticking their fingers in their ears and signing out loud to try and drown out the things they don’t want to hear. Doing so might relieve your pain for a brief moment, but it doesn’t change anything. The cries are still there - and the pain has intensified.

I realize that in writing this I am woefully inadequate to talk about the systems of injustice that my black friends experience. People have wondered how I went from a conservative Evangelical Republican to where I am now - and here it is: there was a point when I began to realize how much suffering there was in the world, I couldn’t ignore it. When I began to understand the pain because I was experiencing it myself, I couldn’t help but speak out. I began to hear what so many conservatives were convinced was true about the trans community - even though much of it was scare tactics that instilled fear that my very existence meant that they had to hide their daughters and wives. When I ask to be a part of women's’ events, the question that often gets asked is how they can ensure safety in the restrooms. I have to actively work - and in many cases, I have to go out of my way to use a restroom before arriving to the event and just hold it until I can find another one on my way home. Privilege. Who knew that the act of being able to use a bathroom without fear of intimidation, attack, or accusation could be privilege - but for me, it’s a privilege I no longer have. I talk at times to my friends about how I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use the local city pool - because even an accusation of me using the bathroom in their locker room could destroy my life.

But this isn’t about me, though I’ve rattled on enough about myself. It’s about privilege. The privilege that you have but may not realize. Perhaps you read through what I shared and are beginning to realize things about the trans experience that you never knew. You never thought about the fear that strikes my heart when I need to go to the bathroom. The pain that I feel knowing that there are some church communities who will never accept me fully into their family. It’s my reality. And by reading my story, you’ve learned something. Perhaps it will change the way you approach the subject of trans rights. Of bathroom bills. Of how trans people are seen in your church community. That’s what knowledge does. That’s what listening does.

This is why I urge you, in the midst of the pain that is screaming from our communities right now, perhaps the call is to listen.

Not to respond in anger. Not to claim that your discomfort is some sort of persecution. Listen to the reality that my black friends are sharing. The stories that they tell. Because chances are, when we begin to truly recognize the pain that we never knew was there - pain that comes with things that we tend to just take for granted - we can begin the path of healing.

Selah

Wait.  Pause. Look back.  Ponder.

“But I don’t want to!,” my mind races, knowing that in doing so, I’ll end up reliving some of the most painful moments of my life.  And yet…. There’s a voice that leads me on - a still small voice that guides me through my Facebook timelines for the past two years - from a time when I was dying of AIDS to a time when I found freedom in embracing who I am.  From the time when my marriage looked as if it would survive the pain and changes I had brought into it to the day when I, in tears, packed everything I could into my GMC Safari and drove through the rain to Southern California, leaving everything behind in Fresno.  From the time when I thought coming out would mean never being able to set foot in an Evangelical church again to a place where I am actively seeking places to worship and grow in my faith.

Two years.  A lot can happen and change in two years. 

I still remember the day that changed everything: October 13, 2016.  I was sick; barely able to stay conscious for the work day, let alone once I arrived home.  It was that morning that I got the fateful call from the doctor, telling me that he “needed to see me right away.”  I can still sense the urgency of his voice. I remember the cold, sterile, feel of the room as I waited for the doctor to come in, all the while thinking that I was dying of cancer or some other nefarious disease.  It’s probably for that reason that I didn’t seem phased when he finally did come in to inform me that I had tested positive for HIV. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was the deafening sound of my entire world falling apart around me.  It could have been just the pure exhaustion that was overtaking me. I don’t know. But the reality of it wouldn’t really hit home for a week or so, when the numbers came back and told me that I was close - possibly even a month - away from death.  

I’ve often thought about the events leading up to that moment.  The years spent away from church while my body, unbeknownst to me, harbored this deadly disease.  The shame, guilt, and self-hatred that I carried with me for so much of my life, thinking and believing that, even though I was married to a woman and raising children of my own, that I could be gay - and that no matter how much I did in ministry; no matter how close I thought I could get to God - there was nothing that could take away those feminine behaviors, emotions, feelings, and mannerisms that came so naturally if I let them.  

In the weeks and months to follow, I would eventually begin a regiment of medication that would help to nearly eradicate the deadly virus from my system and start rebuilding my immune system.  Funny thing, though - being that close to death often makes one reflect on life. And as questions surrounding my identity began to swirl, the eventual revelation would end up being that I wasn’t gay - I was transgender.

I still can remember reading and rereading the stories of the trans people who had shared their experience with the Guardian, and how I found myself in tears after realizing that I wasn’t alone - that the stories shared in this article were my own story.  I remember, not too long after that, driving to the local LGBT Center in Fresno, where I uttered the words, stumbling over them for the first time:  “I think I’m… I think I might be… I’m struggling with being transgender.” I didn’t want it to be true. I spent time wondering if I could overcome it by being more male - but try as I might (I tried to even get into sportsing for a while there), I knew I couldn’t shake it.  The realization was setting in, and not long after I came to accept it myself, I found myself taking steps to come out to my wife, my family, and then my doctors as I started to take steps towards medical intervention.

In August 2017, it became official as my name and gender officially became Eleanor Anne Dote, female. 

It was on that day that I came out officially on my Facebook page, although I had dropped plenty of hints long prior to that.  And while I officially came out on Facebook in 2017, I still find that I’m continually having to out myself to various people in my day to day life.  I still have to come out to church leadership in an effort to help avoid any awkwardness further down the road. I come out to those at work because I don’t want to put them in the uncomfortable spot of dealing with their own suspicions or those of our guests.  Coming out is a never ending process - and while sometimes it is easier for me now than it was at the beginning - it’s still not easy because it brings with it a level of vulnerability that risks rejection, animosity, or even physical violence. I have to be aware that some spaces aren’t safe for me to enter alone, not to mention that simple things I took for granted before - walking alone at night, for example - are no longer safe for me as Ellie.

There are so many stories I could share from the past two years, but most of all, I pause today to look back, reflect, and share that through it all I see God’s hand molding and shaping me into who I am today.  That through the pain comes peace. That, as it’s often been said - we need to remember that resurrection only comes from Good Friday.  

So today, on National Coming Out Day, I want to encourage you.

If you’re facing questions about your own identity - if you feel like God does not value you with everything you bring with you - know that you are loved by God.  Know that God’s not up in heaven saying, “well, when I created you and died on the cross for you I had no clue that you’d be doing that.”  He has you EXACTLY where He wants you and loves you right there.  Is that where you’ll stay? No. But in the midst of the struggle, He is there.  

For those of you who aren’t dealing with your own identity, at some point, someone is going to trust you enough to come out to you.  It might be someone close to you. It might be a coworker. It might be someone you pass in the store or your barista. When it happens, know that it requires a level of trust, and how you respond will have a major impact on their lives.  For some - too many in fact - it’s a matter of life and death. If God’s not surprised by where they are and doesn’t recoil in disgust - perhaps it’s time we listen and love.  

I am so extremely grateful for the people who have shown me such acceptance and love over the past two years.  I know that doing so hasn’t come without risk on your part. But through it, I believe we have all become a better community for it.  

Here’s looking forward to the next few years.  But for now, I will sit today and pause to reflect on the goodness of God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made in His image.  And that His image is truly bigger, grander, and more infinite than any of us could ever picture or imagine. Reflect on that. Selah.

Preparing the Way

Now the people were waiting expectantly, and all of them were questioning in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I am is coming. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with[a] the Holy Spirit and fire.
Luke 3:15-16, CSB

Two weeks ago, in the lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of John the Baptist. When we enter the story, we see John’s ministry taking off to the point where many were following this weird man from the wilderness. They even began questioning if HE was the Messiah they had been waiting for. It was in that moment that we see John address the gathering crowd, basically saying, “listen, I’m just a simple minister. I am here to point you to God and to repentance.”

As I read through that text, I was reminded of the conversation that I’ve been having with some people via Twitter over the news that broke recently about a pastor in northern California who had drawn heavy criticism for their marquee, which read, “Bruce Jenner is still a man. Homosexuality is still a sin.”  In this particular conversation, the question was asked of me why I felt the need to “obsess over my gender identity. After all,” they said, “the fact that you mentioned your identity means that you worship it. My identity rests in God alone.”

I don’t know if any of you have felt the same way about what I have been sharing, but what I felt compelled to write about this morning is the idea that John the Baptist didn’t reject his identity as “the Baptist.” He used it, and his growing popularity, to point to Jesus. Do I lead with my identity as a queer transgender woman? Yes, but not because I worship who I am. I lead with it for a few different reasons:

I have found that if I don’t lead with it, I am setting myself up for hurt and rejection.

I have heard from numerous people that I am very feminine, and that if they hadn’t known, they would have just guessed that I was a woman. After all, I dress feminine, my mannerisms are feminine, and outwardly, I look feminine. Yet at the same time, I know who I am. I’m not about to hide it. And at some point, my self-consciousness will take over, and I’ll end up blurting it out. At that point, what happens, especially if I have already begun forming relationships? Many times, I am dismissed - sometimes told to just go away. Thus, I have learned that the safest thing for me to do is to lead with my identity to know right away if this is a safe space or not.

I have seen the hurt that the LGBTQ+ community often associates with church.

For many within the LGBTQ+ community, the hurt is very real. They aren’t finding themselves in a place where they can accept the love of God because it comes with spoken and unspoken conditions. Even at that, many aren’t even hearing about the love of God over the people around them telling them that they’re going to hell. I prioritize my identity as a queer transgender Christian woman for them. I believe that they need to see other people like them that are working to expand the Kingdom of God as originally designed for ALL - no conditions. Sorry, but I simply don’t believe that Jesus is up in heaven saying, “well, when I died on the cross for your sins, I certainly didn’t know that you’d be doing that.” And yet, the Bible tells us, while we were YET SINNERS ourselves, Christ died for us.

I’ve seen the suicide statistics.

Did you know that for those inside the church who are dealing with LGBTQ+ issues, the chances they will commit suicide goes up 38%? I’ve had well-meaning Christians tell me that this is a sign that the LGBTQ+ “lifestyle” is against God. That “those people wouldn’t be suicidal if they were just following God’s natural order.” Yet for me, the depression doesn’t come from my identity - it has been incredibly freeing to come out and live my life as my authentic self. The depression comes from the fact that I long for community. Somewhere to belong. Friendship. Relationship. And, more importantly, community who will pray with me and encourage me in my walk with God. Yet, far too often, this is not the case. I’m told by most churches that I am not biologically female, so I can’t be a part of their women’s ministry. I’ve been told by some pastors that I am not even welcome at their church when I am “living in willful disobedience to the Bible.” Friends, rejection hurts. Period. Full stop. And when we reject people - even with perceived sin - we block people from relationships, and in doing so, a tangible example of the immense love of God. And so, the depression, loneliness, and confusion sets in, and suicide for too many is seen as the way out. I share my identity because I NEED to realize that visibility helps lessen that sense, and gives people who are dealing with LGBTQ+ issues a beacon of hope to tell them that they aren’t alone. But it wasn’t always that way.

When I first came out and began my transition, there was a point in time when I didn’t want to openly identify as transgender.

At the beginning, I fully embraced life as a woman. Period. There was no “transgender,” because the implication was that I would never be able to fully identify as a woman if I had to qualify that with the label of trans. And so, in an effort to fit in with the women’s groups that I had found myself in, I began my transition process by completely trying to disassociate myself from the trans community. While that lasted for a little while, I quickly found that it wasn’t feasible, as I kept feeling the need to disclose my identity as a caveat to make sure that I wouldn’t find myself attached to a new friend only to have them run the opposite direction if they ever found out. A few months later, I turned to YouTube and recorded a video in which I came out publicly for not only my friends, but for the world to see.

More and more, though, I began to find myself gravitating towards stories of other trans experiences. I laughed with Jazz as I watched her explore life as a transgender teenager. I cried, overcome with emotion, as I watched HBO’s “The Trans List,” and listened to the stories of other transgender people who had fought the same struggles I had growing up. I read a number of different books, watched YouTube videos, and searched on Google to find more - until I realized the reason I was doing so: the overwhelming sense of community. That I wasn’t alone.

It is that sense that draws me to a space where I feel compelled to share who I am, especially in light of my faith. Do I feel like the title of queer trans woman needs to be prominently a part of my life? Only in that I pray that it points to God. If I can save one life by sharing my story and connecting to someone in the church who feels like the only choice they have is their gender or sexual identity versus death, then I believe God is glorified. We lose nothing in talking about it - but yet, we find ourselves constantly in a space where our identities tend to matter more than God. We’ll call ourselves Christian, but do we allow that identity to point others to Christ, or do we just use it as justification to treat others as inferior while still boasting in who we are? The lectionary reading suggests that perhaps we have our different identities so that we can use it to point to Christ.

Here’s the thing, though - not one identity is any more meaningful than the other.

We’ve got to start living like that’s the case. The Apostle Paul writes about this in his letter to the Ephesians when he says, “He (God) gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Eph. 4:11-13, CSB) We are to be working towards unity so that we can reach maturity and the fullness of Christ in our midst. We lose that if we begin to even think for a moment that certain people don’t belong because they don’t make us feel comfortable. God doesn’t call us to comfort. God doesn’t even promise safety. He promises hope. And that, my friends, is a promise that is given to each and every person we see each day.

By Their Fruit

“If there is no repentance….
...if they profess to be a Christian, then you have to alienate them….
You have to turn them over to Satan, Scripture says…”
John MacArthur answering the question, “what do I do if my adult child comes out to me as gay?”

There was a time in elementary school that I remember when the pressure that many of my classmates had to be accepted to the district’s top performing academic school was immense. It might still be, I don’t know. Either way, I remember one of my classmates inviting everyone to a birthday party at Disneyland, and when he didn’t make it in, he had to call and cancel those plans with his friends. Other students were caught cheating, others dealing with physical abuse - all because of the expectation of grades.

Had one of those children committed suicide, who would get the blame? In most cases, even in the church, the parents, right? We’re taught as parents - even in the church - that we need to love our children unconditionally. That withholding love over unreasonable expectations on grades and success is detrimental to not only the well-being of our children, but to their faith, as we as parents are to demonstrate the unconditional love of God to them on earth.

If that’s the case, then why is it that this week alone has brought not one, but three different people into my life who are dealing with rejection from their parents for their identity as gay or transgender?

Why is it that the National Runaway Switchboard in 2005 was reporting that 42% of homeless youth nationwide identify as LGBTQ+?

I sat this weekend with two of the leaders of our local transgender group, Trans-E-Motion, as I heard heartbreaking statistics of how local shelters and organizations are turning away LGBTQ+ people due to a shortage of resources. These men and women - many in the transgender community - are forced to live on streets, risking illness and death, many of them raped, beaten, or turning to sex work just to survive. But then one has to ask the question, what is causing this? Where is the breakdown?

Locally, the Fresno City College student newspaper, “The Rampage,” detailed the story of Kaede Acuña, a local teen who identifies as non-binary transgender. At the age of 14, they came out as lesbian, at which time their mother kicked her out of the house. They spent 5 days in a local park, surviving off of school lunches, before moving from house to house, spending nights on the couches of friends and bouncing back and forth between home and friends depending on how her mother felt at the time.

Kaede’s story isn’t unique. In the transgender community, 1 in 5 people who were surveyed in the U.S. have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Amber Cantorna, author of the book, “Refocusing My Family,” openly shares her experience of being cast out by her family when she came out. Her dad, an executive with Focus on the Family, to this day does not have contact with her because of her “sin.” Garrard Conley, author of the book, “Boy Erased,” which was made into a major motion picture in 2018, faced similar issues with his own family who sent him to “reparative therapy” as a way to try and get him to turn away from his own same-sex attractions.

More often than not, these heartbreaking stories find their basis in faith and harmful theology. People like John MacArthur, Franklin Graham, John Piper, and Dr. James Dobson use their voices to urge Christian parents to abandon their children if they identify as LGBTQ+. Christians lash out in anger against progressive authors like Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker for embracing a theology that affirms the gay and transgender communities, and oftentimes the affirming voices are drowned out against the objections of conservative Christians who are shouting them down. Even in writing this now, I wonder if my voice will ever make any sort of difference as a queer transgender Christian woman.

I guess I have to wonder, is this overwhelming suffering truly coming from God? I can’t honestly believe it is. And what do we do with the idea that it’s the love of God that brings us to repentance - if we also believe that the love of God is experienced in the very community we are being ostracized from?

I don’t have all the answers, I admit that.

But to see the pain and suffering happening at the hands of some of the biggest names in Evangelical Christianity today…. It absolutely breaks my heart. It isn’t God. It can’t be. If it is, then how can we account for the 38 percent increase in suicidal ideation for youth struggling with LGBTQ+ issues in the church over those who did not claim religious affiliation?

In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus warns about the false teachers who are to come, saying, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20, CSB)

At the point in time when I was first coming to terms with my own gender identity, I was absolutely scared. What would coming out with this information mean to my marriage? To my family? To my friendships? And, even though I had been away from the Evangelical community for 10 years, there was an immense sense of loss, as if I needed to choose one or the other. Problem was, if I chose the Church and decided to stay in the closet, I wouldn’t have had the willpower to overcome the illness that was putting me close to death. At the same time, choosing to come out and accept that this is what I had been dealing with for all of my life meant that I would no longer be welcome at so many places that I still had a deep affinity for. For me, it finally came down to a decision that I had been hurt enough by the church - and that whatever pain would come from them would no longer be a surprise or an attack on my character. As that realization began to take root in my own life, a sermon one Sunday from the pastor of the United Methodist/United Church of Christ community I have been serving at solidified it all when she spoke on the issue of the LGBTQ+ community, asking, “COULD God have made people this way?”

It was a question I had never considered.

I mean, COULD He have? Could all of this just be something that God allowed to happen to me? I began to embrace that idea and started to study more about gender dysphoria, the state of being disconnected mentally from the physical gender one is. All of it began to add up, and I even began to consider that the UMC/UCC church was a place where I would have to give up my Evangelical past and embrace a more liberal theology.

Even with a supportive and affirming community around me, there was still a sense of deep loss, as if by disappointing the Evangelical community I had held so tightly to for many years meant disappointing God Himself. The thought burned at me for a while, even before I came out to anyone - including my own wife. I remember being in a state of utter despair when she would go to work, praying in my moments of lucidity that God would take this struggle away from me. Pleading with God. Trying to bargain. Wondering if it was just going to be better to allow the illness to overtake me and forget this entire episode.

These are the thoughts that run through my mind, even now as I struggle with so many aspects of my life and coming out. And while I couldn’t imagine life any other way, it’s still painful.

The question is, “does it need to be?”

These are the fruits that have been borne by ministries that do not affirm and embrace the image of God in the person who identifies as LGBTQ+. Socially? I’m well adjusted. Better adjusted, quite honestly, especially in light of where I once was as Darryl. But in terms of my faith? It’s been a struggle, and it pains me to know that I am not alone. Not by a long shot. Friends, families are being torn apart. Lives are being destroyed. Faith and salvation are being called into question - and for what? Because we’re afraid? Because it makes us uncomfortable? Because it’s outside of the norm of what we believe is “normal?”

Jesus routinely had words about that. From His ministry with the marginalized and outcast to the sick and the sinners…. He called ALL people to Himself. And it was in encountering Jesus that the lives of these people were changed dramatically. Yet, the changes weren’t always welcome or accepted. Remember the man at the pool of Bethesda? (John 5:1-16) Jesus healed the man, yet the religious leaders got upset that He did it on the Sabbath. We’ve GOT to remember and realize that it wasn’t the religious leaders that changed people. It wasn’t the congregations that brought repentance. It was when Jesus encountered these people.

So, how can people in our communities encounter Jesus? By welcoming them. By embracing them and letting them be an active part of our faith communities. By sharing the stories with them and allowing them, in community, to draw close to God. Yet, too often, the wall is built even before the LGBTQ+ person even can step foot in the door. “Not welcome here,” is the message proclaimed. Or, more commonly, “not welcome here unless you’re willing to change.”

The people Jesus came into contact with - they had no idea that they were needing to change any aspect of their lives. They asked and were compelled to change because of how God met them where they were at. The real sin, then, is when religion and our own ideologies block people from that place where ALL can meet God where they are at. No questions asked.

“You shall know them by their fruits.”

What are the fruits of your ministry? Of your church’s ministry? We say that the Church needs to be “Jesus to the world.” Are we? Something to think about.
homeless man holding a white bread, close-up

Coming Home

At some point in my journey to find a church home, I lost count of how many churches and ministries I had approached.  Though I never really get used to asking the question - “am I welcome here?” - the answers are even harder at times to accept:

“Of course you’re welcome here… but as far as women’s ministry, no, I’m sorry.  We don’t see you as a woman.”

“I appreciate your bravery in coming here, but I can’t allow you into the life of our church.  You have to understand that the path you have chosen is directly in violation of God’s word, and until you are willing to repent of that, then we can’t allow you to be here.”

“Why don’t you try (insert name of liberal affirming church here)?  Even though we don’t believe that you’re making the right choice, you might find someone over there that will help you connect.”

Some pastors were quick to point out that while they would welcome me and wish there was a place in the women’s ministry, my presence would be divisive at the very least, because people “just don’t know what to do with the issue of transgender.”

It’s not that I blame them completely for this.  For a long time, the LGBTQ+ community has historically kept the church at an arm’s distance, and vice versa.  The few times that the church and LGBTQ+ community have met publicly in the middle have been full of fire, heated arguments, and hurt.  It’s not any surprise, then, that one of the common threads that I have found within every pastor I’ve visited is that they have never encountered a transgender person in their life.  And because they don’t know the stories - because they have never encountered or listened to the pain - they have formed theologies and policies around an entire group of people that they don’t even know, let alone know how to do ministry with.

I can’t help but wonder what Mary and Joseph felt as they began to announce that Mary was pregnant with the baby Jesus.  Everyone knew they were not married. Everyone could see Mary’s baby bump as they travelled through the town. I wonder if they were allowed in temple to worship.  I wonder what they heard from the temple leadership. If they found acceptance or isolation in their greatest time of need.

The Bible tells us that they went to the city of Bethlehem to register for the census because Joseph was of the house of David.  Yet, they couldn’t find a place to stay. They went from door to door in a city that was supposedly full of relatives. And nobody had room.  I might be reading into it too much, but I wonder how much of that was just because of the stigma that came from the couple expecting a baby outside of wedlock?  That information followed Jesus into his adult life (John 8:41) - so it was pretty common knowledge. I have to wonder how common that knowledge was in the months prior to Jesus’ arrival.

One of my favorite stories of all time is Anne of Green Gables (hence the Ellie “Anne”).  I remember how the town of Avonlea reacted to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert taking in the little orphan girl - the sense of judgement, not only for Anne, but towards Matthew and Marilla for keeping and loving the little girl.  Times don’t change. Thinking of Rachel Lynde (the town gossip for you heathens who don’t know Anne of Green Gables), I begin to get a clearer picture of how the news surrounding Mary and Joseph’s pregnancy spread throughout the region, perhaps even preceding them into Bethlehem.  The redemption of the Green Gables story, however, is that Anne works her way into the hearts of the townsfolk, helping them to learn to embrace her quirkiness and vivid imagination - effectively changing the town by her presence.

All of that to say that when I found a church that embraced me as I am, everything changed.  I had no clue how incredibly overwhelming that would feel. I wasn’t prepared for the floodgates of emotion to open, realizing that THIS.  This is the Church, welcoming the stranger. Inviting in the weary traveller, just as they are. And who I was wasn’t an issue.

You see, as much as I said I didn’t mind going to churches that were welcoming, there was always a sense of concern and trepidation.  Was someone going to say something? Would I be misgendered? Then there was the sense that, while I was invited to the main gatherings, I was left out of anything more intimate.  The place where closer community happens. It’s much like the idea that if my family were to be having a picnic lunch at the park with everyone else, I’d be welcome, but when it comes to family dinner, well… sorry.  That’s where the line is drawn.

I have to say that at some level I get it - theology for many Evangelical Christians dictates that when God created humans, He created them male and female.  With that literal reading, the immediate reaction is that my biology states that I am male. A more thorough study of that section of Scripture brings up some major questions, which is where I reconcile my Biblical faith with my identity as a trans woman.  First, the Bible doesn’t specify that he created men and women. It says that He created people, male and female. (Gen 1:27) This also takes place before the entrance of sin into the world. The sin that brought so much change - pain in childbirth, sickness, death…. (Gen 3:16-19)  So then, the question becomes, within the context of sin, is it possible that God created me female, and that through sin, a chromosomal abnormality occurred which put me in a male body? And if that’s the case, my outward transition is only serving for me to draw closer to what God intended for me in the first place.

That being said, I do understand that this is a conversation that NEEDS to be ongoing.  I do understand that not every congregation is ready to embrace the LGBTQ+ community in its midst.  I don’t agree with it, but I also know that forcing an issue brings division, and division brings with it hurt and more anger.  So before you go out to your pastors and ministry leaders demanding that LGBTQ+ people be let in, I would challenge you to pray.  Pray for your leaders, because I honestly believe that God has raised them up to be in the places where they are. They have been entrusted with the shepherding of their flocks, and will answer to God for how they stewarded that responsibility.  From there, I invite you to start a conversation. The most important thing, however, is that conversation brings with it a willingness to listen. A sense of humility. And a learning heart. Help your leadership to know that there’s a real person behind the labels we are so quick to generalize.  And that person - whether they believe the same as us or not… whether they look like us or not…. No matter what. They are bearers of the image of God.

Oh - and one more thing?  Opening the door, even just a crack, can help invite the reality of the presence of God among us into your churches.  In the end, Joseph and Mary found shelter in a stable, and it was there that the Christ child was born. Even with that small gesture - no matter how crude it may have been - Christ’s presence was ushered into the world.  Who knows what will happen when we even take one small step in faith to embrace those we don’t understand in our midst rather than judge. For when we talk about Christ coming to this earth, He truly came for ALL. (John 3:16-17)

Countryside Road