Ever since I went to a Halloween party hosted by my friend’s church youth group in the 6th grade, I’ve been almost inseparable from my identity as a Christian. From the time I was in middle school to the time I came out as transgender on my Facebook, I could be found at church at least two days a week. I grew up in a Catholic household, but we weren’t really too involved at church. Then, our family friends, who had a Catholic father and a Baptist mother and were heavily involved in both churches, started to invite us to events at their Baptist church. Going to this church was a whole new experience for me. They had uptempo music with electric guitars and a drum set. They had a pastor who wore Hawaiian shirts and told jokes and talked about football every Sunday. Most importantly, they had a youth group that was actually fun, unlike the tedious CCD classes I was used to taking. It was here that I truly found my place in the church, it was here that I stopped saying “the church” and started saying “my church.”
Now, I never gave up my Catholic identity, I still went to mass every week for a long time and even today I go on Holy Days of Obligation. Being Catholic is too tied into my identity as a Chicana and as a member of my family to ever truly give it up. My parents raised me to believe in a loving God, one who doesn’t judge, punish or hate gay people or women or non-believers or people who have abortions. But I was constantly reminded that most of the Christians around me didn’t think that way. Whether it was my pastor saying “Now, all I’m going to say on the topic of gay marriage is that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” (yes, he actually used that horrible cliche in a sermon), or it was the Pope saying that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to be parents, or it was learning that my church offered gay reparative therapy for a time, I was constantly bombarded with the idea that followers of Christ were not cool with the idea of queer people.
Because of this, whenever I had inklings that I might not fit neatly into the traditional gender binary or the heteronormative narrative that I was being taught twice a year when my church had its “Sex and Marriage” series, I would do my best to ignore those feelings and say that they were just a phase. But by the time I got to college, they were still there. I was starting to go online and do some research about trans* women. I was learning that it wasn’t so strange to feel the way I felt. I was pretty sure that I had found who I really was. But then, during my first year of college away from home, I started to feel extremely depressed and suicidal, in large part due to my dysphoria and hiding in the closet. So I decided to move back home where I knew I had a strong support system of friends and family.
When I did, I got even more involved with the Baptist Church. I became a youth group leader, I taught Sunday School, I worked at the church’s coffee bar; I was one of the most recognizable faces in the congregation. In public, I had to keep mostly quiet about my opinions on gender and sexuality, but I also knew that if I really was trans* and a lesbian, I would need to gather as many people on my side as I could. I started quietly asking around, finding out my close Christian friends’ opinions on gay marriage and other queer issues. Soon I got more bold. I started having arguments with the youth pastor about how men and women should act and dress. I taught Sunday School lessons about how the Bible said that we should accept and love gay people. I would have open discussions in the church on Sundays with members of the youth group about how the verses in the Bible about homosexuality are mistranslated and taken out of cultural context. I even started dressing and acting more femininely. I dyed my hair pink, started wearing light makeup when hanging out with certain friends and added some more androgynous pieces to my wardrobe. I wanted to see how far I could go without actually coming out as transgender.
By the time I decided to finally come out to everyone at church, I was the longest serving member of my church’s youth staff, helping out there for six and half years. I also taught Sunday School for close to five years and was heavily involved in many other ministries. I was prepared for all of that to come crashing down. I was pleasantly surprised at what actually happened. I got messages of support from my friends at church ranging from “Love you and support you!” to “I am happy for your faith and I will pray that God gives you continual strength!” I even got several messages from parents of the youth I had served with who said that they were proud of me and would always support me no matter what. I was overwhelmed by the support I was getting online. I thought to myself, “These people really are showing me Jesus’ love.” My fears of walking into church and being met with hatred and judgement were relieved.
That is, until I talked to one of my friends. I had worked with his mom in the youth group for years and I was extremely close to his family; I spent more time at their house than probably any place but my own house, my job and school over the past seven years. When I asked how his mom responded, I was told that she started yelling that I was accusing God of making a mistake. That I wasn’t really a woman. That I was doing something horribly wrong. That’s when my fears started coming back to me. I called up as many friends as I could to go to church with me. If there were going to be people there who would judge me and attack me, I wanted to have people there who I knew would support me and love me and back me up.
On November 4th, 2012, I put on one of my favorite blue dresses, curled my hair and spent extra time on my makeup, making sure that I wasn’t overdoing it for church. I had been in public as Melínda several times before, but it had always been at costume parties, with close friends who I was already out to, or when I went out of town. This was my first time going out in public in my hometown in front of a large group of people. By the time my friend Richell came to pick me up for church, my stomach was all the way down in my painted toenails. The first person who greeted me at church smiled, shook my hand, and called me by my birth name, giving me very mixed signals about what I should expect. After that, I started getting hugs. Parents, my friends, and members of the youth group started coming up to me, telling me how great I looked and how happy they were for me. Several people told me that they had suspected something for a long time or that they had never seen me look so comfortable- that I seemed like I was glowing.
But not everyone was happy for me. As a part of the sermon, the pastor asked everyone to write the name of someone on a paper fish and hang it on a net on the wall. These were people that were in our lives who didn’t know God. We were put in that person’s life, our pastor told us, to show them God. One of the youth who had been learning about the Bible from me for the past four years came up to me and told me that she wrote my name, and that she was excited to be praying for me. One parent glared at me the first time we saw each other. Later during church, she looked at me and her eyes started watering. Her friend put her arm around her and gave me a dirty look as they walked away. This was a woman who worked with me on the youth staff for years and who had some children I had taught in youth group and Sunday school and other children I was best friends with. That afternoon I found out that the Pastor had talked to my brother before church and asked him if I was being serious with all this stuff or if it was just “some Halloween thing.” I’m still not really sure what he meant by that.
Over the next few weeks, I went back to church many times. Every week more and more people were supportive of me. Some people from my church even friended me on Facebook for the first time after I came out. But the leadership felt another way. The pastor asked to meet with me, saying that he wanted to talk to me about my “life journey and my worldview.” When I finally got up the courage to meet with him face-to-face, he mostly talked about how he was worried that I was a “secular humanist” who didn’t believe in God. After I assured him that I still believe in Jesus, he started talking to me about how God created marriage for one man and one woman and how some parents complained about me working with the youth, so if I wanted to keep serving in any ministry, he and I would have to have many more meetings before that could happen. He also said that he would have to talk to the church elders and parents before deciding if I was going to be allowed back. Going to church was suddenly less fulfilling and a whole lot more conditional.
At the same time that my relationship with the Baptist church I was so deeply involved with was reaching a crossroads, I was actively avoiding the Catholic church. I knew their stance on queer issues and I had less friends to support me there. The next big step for me in my transgender church experience came around Christmas time. We drove down to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with my grandparents and other relatives. Both my father’s family and mother’s family are Catholic, so even though I had been happily accepted by all of them, I was very nervous to go to Christmas Mass. I had gone to church many times as Melínda, but never to a Catholic service, let alone at a church where the only people I know are the 20 members of my family.
We arrived in LA only a few hours before we had to head off to Mass. I was nervous and worried and running on little sleep, so I gave in and decided that I would just go to church as a guy. Luckily, my mom noticed how sad that idea was making me, so she suggested I go and get changed and dress however makes me most comfortable, not what I think the people at the church want me to dress like. I opened my suitcase, put on one of my dresses, took a deep breath and headed to Mass. When I first got there, I nervously sat down and tried to keep to myself. I only looked up when I was being introduced to family friends or greeting my extended family. Before Mass started, one of my cousins came up to me and said, “I like your dress, you look very beautiful.” As soon as she told me that and I realized that everyone was being nice to me, I calmed down and smiled through the rest of Mass.
When I came back to Idaho, I knew that I was done with my old church. If my membership there was going to depend on whether or not I was willing to go sit in weeks and weeks of meetings with the pastor and elders, my membership wasn’t real. Their willingness to accept me as long as I didn’t shake the boat too much was in direct opposition to God’s unconditional love. So I asked around and found out that there was a local church where a lot of the queer Christians that I know go. My friends and I decided to check it out at the beginning of the summer and right away we could tell that they were super welcoming to the LGBTQ crowd. In the announcements they asked who wanted to march with the local queer group in the upcoming parade, they have a queer woman presiding over the service and a gay man leading worship. I felt way more comfortable here than I had felt at church in years.
The only problem is that they might put a little too much effort into welcoming the queer community. The first Sunday I went there, the first three conversations I had during coffee hour after church were about a parishioner’s gay relative who lived in San Francisco, Prop 8 coming before the Supreme Court and gay marriage in California. All of these conversations were started by other people without any prompting from me. It could just be that they were a small church and weren’t used to having a group of newcomers show up on a random Sunday, but it was still a little strange. Even though the coffee hour conversation was a little repetitive, I still had a good time. My relationship with the church was starting to turn around.
That relationship hit a huge hurdle later in the summer when one of my good friend’s wedding was coming up. Before she moved to another town for a teaching job, she and I had been very close. She was one of my best friends at the Baptist church and I even looked up to her as a Christian role model. We worked together in the youth group, we were in the same small friend group and we would hang out on a regular basis. When I came out she offered her love and support via Facebook. A few weeks later when she was back in town visiting, she saw me at church, gave me a big hug and told me I looked beautiful. I was really looking forward to her wedding. But then, just a few weeks before the date, I got a Facebook message from her.
She said that she wanted her wedding to “honor God” and that she and her fiancé didn’t think that I was doing that. She misgendered me and used my birth name throughout the message and told me that she didn’t “condone” me coming to her wedding as Mey. This, according to her, was not showing partiality, and she was expecting all of her guests to honor God under the same set of rules. However, those with less visible “sins,” such as divorce or premarital sex or atheism were still invited. She did, however, invite me to come if I were willing to dress and act like a man and pretend like I had never come out as the real me — as a woman. She said that as long as I was not following God, I was not welcome, and I guess the only way she could tell that I wasn’t following God was if I were to show up in a dress and lipstick. And that’s where the problem lies. Unlike so many other things that many Christians consider to be against God, being transgender is, for many of us, a very visible thing. When I went to church for the first time after coming out, everyone could see the change and was constantly reminded that I was now a sinner in their eyes.
In addition to being judged for being a “sinner,” I’ve had a lot of people assume that when I was coming out, I was also renouncing my faith. I’ve had to explain over and over again that there are plenty of transgender and other queer Christians. I’ve had to tell people that no, me being trans doesn’t mean that I think God made a mistake. I don’t even want to think about all the people who have told me that they still love me, they just don’t support my decisions and that they know that this isn’t what God wants for my life. I’ve never understood this clearly what people mean when they say “love the sinner and hate the sin.” And it isn’t a good thing. They spend an awful lot of time focusing on the sin that they hate so much and not enough time focusing on the “sinner” that they’re supposed to be loving. I have no time for churchgoers who are going to judge me or tell me that I’m being a bad Christian for being who I am. I was taught that I am Wonderfully and Fearfully Made, and that means that my transgender body is wonderful and is exactly what God had in mind when They made me. In fact, that thought is one of the things that keeps me going in hard times. God created me to be transgender and queer, and so I have to remember, as the Bible says, if God is for me, who can be against me?
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for crimes that included dressing like a man, but it’s for those same actions that she was canonized by the Catholic Church almost 500 years later. Now, I’m far from being a saint, but I like to think that if she can be celebrated and honored by the church for challenging gender norms than so can I. Or at least I can find a place that will fully welcome me for being who I am.
I currently still have a very complicated relationship with the church. I absolutely don’t want to belong to an organization that condemns people like me or even has second thoughts about me being a full member because of my gender or sexuality. I’m not sure when I’m going to find another church that I’ll feel as at home as I did at my last church, or if I ever will. I still very much believe in and have a relationship with a God who doesn’t judge and instead welcomes everyone into Their loving arms. In fact, it’s my relationship with God that has given me the hope and strength I’ve needed to make it through some of my darkest moments of depression and dysphoria.
I’d like to be able to find a group who wants to share in that hope and faith with me. I’d like to be able to sing and share meals and pray together and work together to make our community a better place. I’m still looking for that place, and sometimes I run into groups who would rather judge me or flat out refuse me a place at the table than welcome me in. Those aren’t the type of Christians I want to identify with, and those aren’t the type of Christians I want to sit in church with. So I have to hold onto hope that I’ll be able to find a church that will celebrate my transness with me, that will celebrate my queerness with me and that will see that I too am created in God’s image.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.