A few months ago Libby Anne started telling me the extraordinary story of how her friend Melissa, who writes the blog “Permission to Live”, went from growing up in the Christian patriarchy quiverful movement to marrying via the bizarre retro-regressive courtship process delineated by that cultish movement, to discovering that her spouse (who was by this time a pastor) was secretly transgendered, to admitting to her own repressed bisexuality, to fully embracing her spouse’s desire to live openly as a woman.
Now, you can read Melissa’s intimate, extensive, eye-opening account of the whole gut-wrenching and (eventually) liberating process by which she and her spouse Haley overcame so much damaging messaging they had internalized from their churches and families their whole lives to now live and love more authentically. Below are links to all nine parts and the introduction.
In part 1, “A Secret Revealed”, Melissa describes what ran through her head the first time her spouse broached the subject of his atypical gender feelings:
I was surprised by how calmly I was hearing this, and yet at the same time I was freaking out. What did this mean? How could my spouse be saying he was a transsexual? He had never said anything about this to me! I had hardly any idea of what being transsexual even meant. In my sheltered upbringing the closest my parents had come to the topic was a veiled reference “transvestites” and how they were confused messed up people who refused to accept the way God had made them and were usually sexually abusive and predatory. But this explanation did not add up to my sweetheart sitting on the couch with me. My spouse was an intelligent, loving, creative person. He was gentle and caring. I could trust him with anything. He was a devoted spouse and parent. He was a pastor who spent hours every week researching and writing for heartfelt sermons and visiting and encouraging the elderly and sick in our congregation. And I knew I loved him.
That night, I think the most prominent emotion for both of us was fear [...] We held each other and cried together.
In part 2: “Research”, she describes the research she did to come to understand gender dysphoria and then her investigations into what various Christians had to say about it:
I googled things like “Christian and transgender” and “what does the bible have to say about transsexuals”. And I read through page after horrible page of links from ministries and groups who condemned LGBTQ people and insisted that they were deviant and would cause harm to children.
Many of these links said that they could help fix people with these perverse tendencies, but I still struggled to match what they were claiming with my Hunnie. These groups claimed that they had all the answers as to how these “perversions” were started, so I investigated, but all of the questions I bombard my spouse with met dead ends. He had never been sexually abused. He had never been exposed to explicit sexual materials. He had not had an abusive or absent father. He had not had an overly controlling mother, or a mother who wished he was a girl. I asked if he was gay, but while he admitting to having had same-sex attraction at times, he had always been more sexually attracted to girls, which had given him hope that maybe the gender dysphoria would magically go away if he just got married and had kids and had that role to fill, except it hadn’t. Even wracking our brains together, we just couldn’t get to the bottom of what had caused this problem, it just was.
I was encouraged to find that the teachings of the Catholic church were different than many of the Christian groups I encountered. They didn’t teach that being gay or transgendered was a special kind of sin that was extra evil or caused by anything. Instead, they taught that some people were born with these desires but God decreed that they must not act on them. This was a relief to me: being gay or transgendered was no different than any other struggle. I even felt encouraged in regard to the same sex attraction I experienced myself. Maybe I wasn’t evil or demon-possessed, I just had an unnatural interest that I needed to continue to battle, just like my spouse.
In part 3, she describes her spouse’s experience growing up:
As a little Christian homeschooled boy, there wasn’t much available information on LGBTQ people, but one day at about 11 years of age, he was reading a large illustrated history of the 20th century when a small paragraph near the bottom of the page caught his eye. The title of the section was “Man becomes Woman” and reading it with his heart thumping wildly, he realized that there were other people like him. The short story was about one of the first transsexual women who went public with their story, her name was Christine Jorgensen and she had transitioned back in the 1950s. Several times a week he would pull the heavy book from the shelf and open to the page with the story, to read again and again about Christine. He was not alone.
He brought up gay or trans people up in conversations here and there with the people in his life, looking for clues as to how they felt about the issue. Having repeatedly heard the common Christian attitude on these topics, he quickly started to believe that talking about how he felt would be sure to bring rejection from those he loved most, and maybe even subjection to painful therapeutic procedures pushed by Christian ministries to “fix” him. He desperately wanted to please his relatives and his community, he prayed fervently for the misgendered feelings to go away, but they remained. He wished that it would be discovered that he was physically intersexed in some way, because if his body was somehow both male and female perhaps it would become acceptable for him to live as a girl. But puberty hit right on time, and the torment got worse. His body was maturing further into what his brain told him was the wrong gender. There was nothing he could do to change it, and waking up each day to the body he hated got more and more difficult.
In part 4 on “When It Doesn’t Add Up”, she describes some political awakening that started to happen:
At this point I still believed that God was not OK with people “acting on unnatural desires,” but if people really were just born with these issues, and did not get them through any desire or action on their part, then why were religious people trying so hard to make life difficult for them regardless of the religion these people were a part of? And how was it alright for a government to be enforcing laws based on any religion? I thought about how scary it would be if an employer decided my spouse was too feminine and fired him and we had no legal recourse. How was this an OK law? I was horrified that people could have their children taken away from them simply because they didn’t fit into a nice little religious box and play up what society had decided was the “norm.” How did that have anything to do with their ability to love and care for their child?
When I tried to talk about this new understanding with people I knew, they were shocked. Some of them became visibly angry and accused me of abandoning my religious beliefs. In one conversation with one person, I tried to explain why I felt it was wrong for landlords to be able to deny people housing based on their sexual orientation, the reply I received was this:
“Melissa, think about it. If you could only afford to live in one apartment complex in town, and there were gay people living there, would you really want your children exposed to that?”
My heart sank into my gut. To this person LGBTQ people were perverts, a menace to society and a danger to children. If this person knew my spouse’s secret, or even my own same-sex attraction, would they feel safe having us around their children? Would this person feel we were unfit to have children ourselves? To most of the religious people I spoke with, giving all people equal rights meant that they were giving up religious rights somehow.
He had begun to relax and be himself more. He started letting down his guard and not double checking how he was moving his hands when he talked or worrying that the way he crossed his legs was “too feminine.” He started buying his own clothes, choosing colors and styles that were closer to his sense of self than the pants and polo ensemble he had been letting me buy for him. We joked that he had enough style for both of us; I tended to be very practical in my clothing choices, comfort being my highest priority, but he actually cared about how he looked and that began to be reflected in his sense of style.
The dad who used to come home and usually disappeared into the basement to play video games had turned into a parent who played on the floor with the kids every day. He wanted to be involved in their day to day lives. He was learning how to feed them and dress them, he started taking them for bedtime walks bundled up in the wagon in the pajama’s each clutching a bedtime snack and their blankies. He would talk about how 3 babies seemed to be more work than 2, and I would laugh at him and explain that to me this was the easiest parenting period yet, because he was parenting them alongside me for the first time. He stopped complaining that grocery shopping was women’s work and began going with us to the store on his day off, I didn’t have to shop alone with multiple babies and toddlers anymore.
Genuine smiles had been few and far between during the last few years, I used to have to tickle him to get him to give a real smile for pictures. Now he was smiling all the time, and laughing. Instead of shrugging and vaguely referencing a life led by whatever ministry dictated, he was dreaming about the future again. [...] It seemed so natural for him, that it didn’t feel strange to see him painting the kids toenails and then painting his own.
I started to talk about my own journey a bit, talking for the first time about the girl I had had a crush on in my early teens, saving a sticker she had given me in my jewelry box after she moved away. The times I had fought the sudden urge to kiss several different girls I knew, totally confused as to where the strong feelings had come from. How I had watched as friends talked about this or that cute actor and felt that they all looked alike to me, so I picked the hairiest and “manliest” actors I could to hide the real truth. How I had asked my mom what she had found attractive about dad, and when she said it was his broad shoulders, that became what I told people when they asked what “my type” was. How I had asked my parents about same-sex attraction and received answers that made me feel even more alone. How I had patted myself on the back with purity culture pride for being so completely in control of my interactions with and feelings for men. I knew that the only path that was acceptable was to get married to a conservative homeschooling Christian man and have his children, and I had felt so despairing of all the young men I met, none of them seemed right for me. But somehow my spouse and I had forged a relationship despite it all.
The more we talked, the more we realized how our secrets had affected our marriage as well. The evangelical marriage books I had read about how to serve my husband best and discover “what he truly wanted” had completely backfired since he was nothing like these books insisted men were. All of the behaviors and mannerisms he had tried to keep up because he had been told they were manly were now gratefully dropped. We started communicating about what we liked and who we were and longtime sexual hang-ups in the bedroom began to collapse. We laughed about the times I had pointed out an attractive girl to my spouse in the past, and times I thought he had been being silly when he put on an article of my clothing and asked how he looked. How had we not realized these things about each other sooner?
So, to combat my fear of my children growing up with gay parents, I once again turned to education. I started reading about non-traditional families and one of the stats that startled me was that over 50% of families today did not fit the traditional standard that I had been led to believe was the only healthy family. There were many children being raised by single moms or single dads. Often parents divorced and children spent time living with either parent at different times. Children today are being raised by grandparents, foster parents, and widowed parents. My kids certainly wouldn’t be the only ones with a “different” family. Studies showed that the child’s emotional well-being and healthiness had more to do with how they were respected and loved and cared for as individuals than the exact set-up of their families.
I began reading more and more about LGBTQ parents. I read the stats on how their kids did in school, and how they matured emotionally. I read books written by people who had grown up with gay or lesbian or transgendered parents, and listened to their perspectives. The stats were encouraging, and most of the hardships involved with growing up with LGBTQ parents seemed to come from the pressure from society to conform and the prejudice that created, not the parents themselves. In fact, the divorce that commonly took place after the revelation of sexuality or gender identity questions seemed to have more impact on the children than the sexuality or gender identity questions themselves. The parents and the kids seemed to have the normal range of personality traits and issues that any family would have. Why would our kids be any different? We didn’t hit them, we would accept them and love them whoever they were or whatever they wanted to be. Their emotional health and well being was a top priority for us, and would continue to be so. Did it really matter that their dad would have a unique story? Normally, if a parent had a medical condition that hampered their ability to be happy and productive, society would bless and encourage their seeking treatment. Why should my spouse’s condition be any different?
We had been talking about how to leave ministry for some time now. We knew that this denomination was no longer a good fit for us at this point in our lives. We had too many unanswered questions and we did not want to cause distress or confusion for the people we were serving. We had managed to pay off our debts and were hoping to pull together a little cash to leave ministry and start over.
We continued serving the church we had taken a call to over a year before my spouse had even come out to me. Despite either of our questions, we officially adhered to the churches’ teachings, remained faithful to their understanding of the Bible, and sought to serve faithfully and wholeheartedly. And yet, it was not enough, living our lives more authentically instead of trying to fit the pre-determined stereotypes was making people uncomfortable. My spouse had pierced his ears, carried a purse, and let his feminine side show. Unknown to us, some church leaders began to keep tabs of things they didn’t like, and when a parishioner saw my spouse out shopping wearing eyeliner the leaders cracked down, talking about how being a feminine person was a serious concern, an attack of the devil. They demanded that my spouse be more masculine. My spouse had continued wearing professional dress while on the job, including removing earrings for church events, but they wanted him to be masculine even on private time. Giving up who he felt himself to be and going back to playing the game of people pleasing was not an option. When my spouse wasn’t repentant or ashamed of being feminine, we decided it was best to part ways.
the word acceptance has served me well as a reminder to accept relatives where they are at, as well as the reactions from family and friends as we’ve come out. Telling our parents and friends about the changes in our lives was probably one of the scariest things we have ever done. But it was time, we were no longer unsure of what direction we were headed, and it was getting awkward to be tripping over my own spouse’s name while on the phone with someone who didn’t know the whole story.
We expected the worst, and it has been hard. We’ve had some hurtful statements, but many of our family and friends have responded more with sorrow and confusion than hate and anger, and that is encouraging. As much as we love them, if they are hurt by us living our lives there is nothing we can do about that. We try to love and accept them where they are at, even if their beliefs tell them that we are horribly wrong. It is not our job to try and educate them or make them change their minds. That has to be their journey just as it has been ours. We love our families, and we hope to continue relationship with them if they want that.
One of the things that has surprised me the most has been how many people have expressed shock that we are monogamous. It is as if they think being gay or transgender somehow means you no longer have the ability or inclination to be faithful to one person. We have been married for seven years and neither of us has ever cheated on the other. Furthermore, neither of us are interested anything other than monogamy. We are happily married and partnered in life. My spouse is a woman attracted to women, and I am a woman attracted to women. Everything we have been through together has only made us closer as a couple. Why would we want to leave each other?
Thankfully, the kids have adjusted well. They have gradually switched on their own time from calling my spouse “Daddy” to calling her “Dee.”
These are all just snippets of longer posts, I recommend reading each blog post through for the whole story and to pass it on to others.