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.

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