There, I said it. Today when I was walking at the park, I thought a lot about writing this post. During the walk, my heart rate belt stopped working. And when I finished, my exercise tracker said I had burned 666 calories. I wasn’t sure I would actually write this post. It likely will be unpopular with some of my friends. But I feel I must own my truth. After all, I did redo my website to better reflect who I am – added a section labeled “Authenticity.” My son-in-law, and perhaps closest friend, has been gently after me to write my ‘book’ for years and I have yet to do so. For far too long, I worried about what might happen if I truly exposed myself again. True, I have not tried to hide who I am, but I did not put myself in everyone’s face as I had once done.
So when my granddaughter came into my life, I decided I had to really live openly as a transwoman. I did not want her to ever think I was ashamed of who I am. And so I am writing my story, my book, blog post by blog post. All of my writing, both professional and personal, will be on my website for anyone to find. I no longer will worry about potential employers discovering I am trans, something I have done for the last 12 years.
For it was about 12 years ago that being a financially strapped doctoral student just took me down. I was desperate for a real job paying above minimum wage. One of my fellow doctoral students had landed a job at the United States Sports Academy and my committee chair asked her to recommend me for an internship there in the hopes it would lead to a regular job. And this student agreed with the stipulation that I would lower my ‘trans’ profile and clean up my personal website of all ‘gay’ material. Back then I was a founding board member of Bay Area Inclusion, a startup GLBT group serving the greater Mobile area. And I had designed BAI’s website and had links to it on my website as well as some of my personal writings about trans issues. So I gave in without hesitation. I wanted that job. I cleaned up my act, my website, not really understanding what I was losing as I gained that job.
For these last 12 years, I have been semi-stealth – open about being trans when necessary or desirable, but not in my professional life. I was too worried about getting a job again. And I had good reason to worry. In addition to being trans, I was OLD. I was 55 years old when I began to transition. I was 64 years old when I got my Ph.D. and began a serious job search – right in the beginning of the Great Recession. I did not want to give any potential employer a reason to quickly discard my resume’/vita. I kept my website clean and my trans activities off the radar. But I found no real opportunity at the major colleges. Stupid me did not realize that I could not hide my age from anyone who wanted to do a quick search online, or even a simple credit check. I did find an adjunct position at a good college and I am grateful for having it. I must admit I spent the bulk of the time after getting that job worrying that someone in the school would discover my being trans in addition to knowing how old I was and use that to make a decision to let me go. That did not happen, at least not yet, and I found that there is an out transwoman with a mid-level position in human resources –that gives me a bit of peace. So I added the Authenticity section to my website and began to post more honestly about myself. I still am looking for other jobs to give me a bit more financial padding and a parachute in case there comes a term when not enough students sign up for a statistics course.
Recently two things happened that bring me to ponder about my religion. First, several of the schools advertising positions for statistics instructors are “Christian” schools. They make no bones about being Christian and their job applications plainly state they expect faculty to be Christian and even further, to sign a statement agreeing to their religious philosophy and to ‘exemplifying’ it in my teaching. Although I’m not sure they would agree that a Roman Catholic is a Christian, I was tempted to submit the applications to those schools. I really want another backup job. But I didn’t submit to them. And the reason was the second thing that really got me thinking about religion.
Most people in the country are aware of the grandstanding by Judge Roy Moore over the same-sex marriage issue in Alabama. An acquaintance of mine is in the thick of that battle. He is a new LGBT leader who is trying to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Bay Area Inclusion. I sincerely appreciate his efforts as Mobile really needs an active LGBT support group. But we differ in the way to battle the likes of Judge Moore and the far right Christians who are so against equality for LGBT folks. What I am talking about is trying to fight the far right God with an LGBT God. Do you know what Tebowing is?
No, he did not actually get down on his knee – at least I don’t think he did as I was not there. But he did post on his Facebook page several statuses calling for LGBT folks to give thanks to God when the initial federal ruling favoring gay marriage came out and then asking for God’s help in fighting the far right religious hysteria that led to Judge Moore blocking gay marriage again. Now don’t get me wrong. He is more than entitled to his faith and to practice it the way he chooses. It’s just that I think it is wrong for a football player to publicly thank God when he wins. I don’t think God chooses sides in a football game. I don’t want a LGBT leader to do that either. I feel strongly that we GLBT folks should not think we can pray away the legal issues that face us. We will never win by creating our own church with its interpretation of the Bible and God’s wishes and placing that new church into confrontation with the far right. We are going to have to fight for our rights using rational thought and persistence, not prayers.
I was a “cradle Catholic,” baptized as an infant into the Roman Catholic Church by parents who had converted as adults. I attended a good Catholic grammar school and got all the tee shirts to prove it. I checked off all the required sacraments. I made my first Confession and first Communion right on time. I was confirmed by the bishop. I have all the right Catholic names: Donald Byrn Michael Jude Wright. I got married in the Church, although there was an asterisk on my marriage because my wife refused to convert or sign the promise to raise our children as Catholics.
Even later, in 1956, when we moved to the eastern part of Birmingham, I attended Mass every Sunday and holyday and was a regular at Catholic Youth Organization. I was a good, active Catholic. I was not allowed to become an altar boy because the parish priest knew of my trans issues, though back then the word had yet to be coined.
When I started school at Blessed Sacrament at a ripe old 5 years, I quickly learned that I had to follow Church rules. When I repeatedly lined up with the girls and played with the girls at recess, I was taken to the rectory where I was to receive “instruction” from the parish priests. That instruction consisted of frequent beatings with a wooden paddle and threats that I was going to hell – the Church was big on that back then – if I did not straighten up and be the boy God made me. I think it took all of a month of daily beatings for me to get the message that I should hide away my girlish feelings and be the boy they demanded me to be. I learned to pray a lot; I favored Mary, obviously, and wore out many Rosaries asking her to take away the confusing feelings I had and the sadness I felt each day when I woke up still a boy. Even when I went to the Air Force Academy, I attended Mass every weekday morning and Sunday. I continued to pray the Rosary. The sadness and confusion never left me. But I kept the faith. I trusted that God would heal me soon; how could he not? I was praying.
My breaking point came just after our honeymoon and I began flight training in California. I just broke down and couldn’t go on anymore. One night at our little house on the base, I took a knife and tried to cut my wrists. The Air Police were called and I was hauled off first to the base dispensary and then to the Navy base at the Presidio near San Francisco where the nearest military psychiatric facilities were located. There I found a good hearted navy psychiatrist with whom I could open up. So I told him the truth – that I felt trapped in the wrong body. Fortunately, he was not unsympathetic but he was in the military and his strong recommendation was that I bottle those feelings and never mention them again. He told me the country had invested a lot of money in me and that, with the Vietnam war killing off flying staff quickly, I was needed to serve. He put me back on flying status and returned me to Mather where I fell back into the routine of the school. I sucked it up once again.
But my strong religious feelings were gone. God and Mary had let me down and I no longer trusted them. We began to attend Mass less frequently at Mather and by the time we got to my first real duty station in Florida, we no longer went to Mass or any church. And that was the way I saw church, something not to be trusted, until my daughter was born in 1975. My mother, of course, wanted us to have her baptized as an infant but I resisted. We did not go to any church until my daughter started pre-school and we – my wife really – wanted to have her in a ‘good’ school. Given that the public preschools in Mobile were atrocious, we put her in a church school that was highly recommended by friends. As she grew up, we occasionally attended services at whatever church was associated with the school we had her in. She attended a Baptist preschool; a Methodist grammar school for grades 1 through 4; and finally a Catholic school for 5 through 8. But I drew the line whenever I felt pressure was being placed on her to join a church. I wanted her to make that decision when she was older and wiser.
It was finally at Auburn while she was in her doctoral program that she decided she wanted to be baptized in the Catholic Church. She called me at work one day, told me what she wanted to do and asked me to take Communion in Auburn by her side. And I did, even happily, though I did not enjoy the requisite visit to the confessional at Christ the King Church in Daphne. Once again I opened up to the priest and had the Bible slammed in my face; I was going to hell if I ever gave in to my gender dysphoria.
Shortly before I began my transition I met someone I trust completely, a wonderful Catholic nun who was working in New Orleans. She was about my age and was just starting a new ministry for her order. She wanted to work with gays and lesbians; she did not know about transpeople at first, but had met an energetic trans-activist, Courtney, who inspired her to shift her ministry to focus on transfolk looking for spiritual help. Courtney knew I had issues with the Church’s attitude toward GLBT people and introduced the two of us. I can’t use this sister’s real name as the Church still frowns on religious who do not strictly adhere to the ‘correct’ approach to LGBT issues. I’ll use the pseudonym, Sister Monica, she uses in some of the articles that have been written about her, here and here
Sister Monica played a major role in getting me safely through my transition. Prior to meeting her, I was convinced that I would go to hell if I ‘gave in’ to my feelings and transitioned. And at the same time, I knew I could no longer live as a man. I was going to die because I was so hemmed in by the Church even though I had long since stopped going to Mass. She taught me to think that the Church was not the old men in Rome who interpreted God’s words and intent and laid down the rules for Catholics. The Church, she said, was really the people and that there were congregations that would accept me for who I really was. Of course this did not happen after just one conversation. It took many months of hard work, including several long retreats at her home. On one of those retreats, she convinced me it would be safe to present as a woman at Mass. And I finally believed her. We went to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, ironically a black Catholic congregation, and I, for the first time, had Communion as myself. After that, I made many trips to NOLA just to go to Mass with Sister Monica and the good people at St. Joseph’s. I even found the courage, albeit with her prepping the way by checking out the priests attitudes, to go to Mass by myself in Mobile at Corpus Christi Church. But try as I might, and even with the countless prayers of Sister Monica and her order for me, I never really felt comfortable there. Not that anything awkward or bad ever happened at Corpus Christi; it didn’t. I just could not get over the damage that had been done by earlier priests and the fear that, given then Pope Benedict’s extremely negative attitude toward transfolk, that sooner or later one of the more conservative parishioners would call me out during Mass. I had this image of trying to take Communion and being refused by the Deacon; Sister Monica did not check him out and he gave off strong, conservative vibes every time I saw him. Just in case, I always made sure to get in a line for Communion away from him.
I don’t hate the Catholic Church; I miss it terribly in some ways. But even with good Pope Francis, I don’t yet see a real change in the Church’s attitude toward trans or even toward gays and lesbians for that matter. In many ways, the Catholic Church is among the far right wing and I do not see that changing anytime soon. Perhaps when the Pope calls for women to be ordained as priests, I’ll rethink this decision.
Along my path to acceptance, I met another wonderful woman of the cloth, Julie Two Sues. Julie was then pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Mobile. I had come out to Mobile in a big way back then. I had published a lot of information about myself being trans on my website and given the url to my ex-boss, Hap Myers, to use as a source of information to help my former co-workers understand what I was doing. Of course, that turned out to not be a smart thing to do. Not that Hap did anything wrong. But word of my being trans spread quickly among BCM’s 1100 employees – I was after all the Executive Vice President. And soon I found myself agreeing to an on-camera interview with one of the local TV stations. “Local engineer and highly visible businessman, former Air Force pilot, church-going family man is a woman!” You get the idea. My ex-wife really appreciated that move. Not.
Anyway, one good thing to come from that was that Julie saw the interview and tracked me down. She called and invited me to make my ‘testimony’ to her church the following Sunday. And I agreed, even though, being a Catholic, I had no idea what a testimony was. “Just tell your story” Julie reassured me. So I did. And I got a great reception by the congregation that I learned were primarily gay and lesbians who too felt unwelcome at their old churches. After that, I made regular visits to services at the MCC church and attended many of their social events. Even though my strict Catholic upbringing caused me a little concern – Catholics were warned about getting too close to protestants- I began to think I had found a church home. But it was not to be.
Julie was ‘fired’ by the MCC congregation in Mobile because she wanted to adhere to her understanding of the MCC’s core principles. I knew it happened in protestant churches, but I had never experienced, a congregation firing their minister. Catholics don’t and can’t do that. It seemed that enough of Julie’s parishioners wanted a change of direction to more of a Pentecostal or Charismatic approach instead of the ecumenical approach Julie favored. Only after I attended one of the services at MCC after Julie left did I discover how different those two approaches were. And I no longer felt comfortable at that church. It was just too foreign.
So I gave up on organized religion in that I did not attempt, save one or two more tries at Corpus Christi and once at an Episcopal Church, to go to regular services. Cornerstone MCC may have changed since I was last there. And I am aware of a relatively new church, Open Table, that is ‘inclusive.’ But I am wary of start-up churches with a ‘better’ interpretation of the same old Bible. Far too often, I can see the gleam of power in the eyes of their ministers. They just cannot stop from pushing their members to proselytize non-members; they dream of their own personal jet.
I still consider myself a Christian, or more accurately a Catholic, though I am convinced the ‘real’ churches do not welcome me. I do not feel any animosity toward any church. I just feel something is off there. Occasionally, when Sister Monica comes back to NOLA for a visit, I will go to Mass with her at St. Joseph’s. But that is not often. Almost daily I see or read of atrocities committed in the name of religion. And that bothers me. What is happening overseas frightens me, as I’m sure it does most rational people. Granted they are extremists, but they are religious extremists; they are not secular extremists.
Closer to home a day does not pass in which the religious right does not propose or pass legislation aimed at punishing those who disagree with their distorted biblical view, whether it be contraception, women’s bodies or LGBT equality. Even our continued hang-up on race and immigration has a biblical origin in America. As long as we continue to mix religion with our politics and laws, I don’t see things getting better. I see an accelerating downward path toward war here at home and overseas. For there is not a war against religion in America; there is a war by religion against individual rights.
And I just can’t do God that way anymore.