A girl in a boy’s body, that’s me, I thought to myself as a sensitive, tenderhearted, 5-year-old boy.
Somehow I just knew it. And I also knew there was something wrong with that, so I’d just have to keep it to myself. After playing dress-up with my six sisters, I’d get to wear their dresses when no one was looking. I’d be the princess in secret. Relief. Other boys had dreams of playing in the World Series; I dreamt of becoming a fabulous woman with a handsome boyfriend.
I definitely couldn’t tell my father, one of those ex-Army, too-tough guys. He was an alcoholic, and there was always the threat of violence. He’d never understand—indeed, he didn’t when I told him at 14 that I might be gay. He regaled me with tales of his glory days, beating up gay men in downtown Cleveland when they showed interest. I quickly recanted and knew I’d have to live this one out alone. He was ashamed, and passed that on to me.
After a brief encounter with the gospel when I was 18, only to be told I’d lost my salvation for being gay, I went back to that identity with a vengeance. Soon after I decided to join the Navy and leave Ohio for good. I spent the next several years in San Diego, where I immersed myself in the gay community. More relief.
Fake It Till You Make It
I eventually met a sailor named Tom Cordell, who was interested in doing a Navigator’s Bible study with me. While I agreed to do it (he was good-looking), I didn’t tell him I was gay and transgendered. I’d work as a Navy cook during the day, meet with Tom, and memorize his verses. Then I’d go home to my people, where I’d cross-dress and engage in drunken immorality. No one was the wiser. It was the perfect double life.
I even got baptized in 1977. It was at a megachurch where the well-known pastor advised those struggling with being gay, “Fake it till you make it.” So I double-downed on my commitment to play-acting. The Navy sent me overseas, and I decided to finally leave this lifestyle behind. I’d also decided that since God didn’t care much for me and my kind, I’d find a nice girl, marry her, and eat the crumbs of her blessings. And I’d continue faking it all the while.
I met Linda at an Overseas Christian Servicemen’s Center in the Philippines. She worked as a school nurse on base, was interested in ministry, and had a beautiful singing voice. We blended well, and I liked her. That was all I needed. I eventually proposed, she said yes, and we got married.
We moved to Dallas in September 1979, where I started at Dallas Bible College. Life was going to be great . . . except for this nagging same-sex attraction and desire to be a woman. I couldn’t shake it. I tried and tried to deny it, but it wouldn’t go away. So I faked it harder.
After we found out we were pregnant with our son, I decided it was time to let her in on my secret. I told her I’d been lying by keeping this from her. She was, of course, devastated. I desperately tried to reassure her, to no avail.
I started meeting with a pastor who then met another man struggling with similar issues. Then another. I met a few others and before long it became clear there was a support group forming. We started a ministry to gays and lesbians during the AIDS epidemic of the mid- to late-’80s. It was a frenzy of expectation, trying to help so many desperate souls stop behaving recklessly. I was doing all I could do to white-knuckle it, to live up to my own demands, and to pretend as best I could. I couldn’t allow my veneer to crack, lest I fall completely apart.
Which eventually happened.
Failing at Faking
Boundaries failed. People got hurt. Relationships crumbled. Eventually I left the ministry, then the church, and finally God. I was diagnosed as bipolar and depressed. I’d been disowned by my family. I gained a lot of weight. I smoked two packs of Marlboro Reds a day. I was agoraphobic and hadn’t left my house in years. I essentially abandoned my dear wife. I had failed my sons. I proved myself useless, hopeless, helpless.
Late one night when Linda was at a conference and my sons had gone to sleep, I started writing my letter, razor blades at the ready. “I’ve faked it as long as I can fake it, and I can no longer make it.” I was in the middle of my final instructions for her when she walked in the door much earlier than expected, thwarting my plans.
She had been to a grief conference, ironically, and said she had a list of 40 things I’d never grieved in my life. I told her I wasn’t going to grieve them. Living through all that sorrow and shame hurt badly enough the first time; why go through it again? But at her insistence I gave it a shot. The verse came to me almost audibly: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4).
So I began grieving that day for real. And I continue to this day. I’d thought Christians were supposed to forget what lies behind, but this was different. I recalled all the abuse, the put-downs, the bullying, the humiliation, along with all my faults and failings. That’s when I realized Jesus could have stopped it all, but he didn’t. He must have had something better in mind.
Fingerprints on Every Page
Redemption. That was what he was planning for me. So that night I became a mourning person: “Tears are for the evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Our mourning informs our “morning.” By not being afraid to feel the pain that comes from sin, sorrow, shame, and suffering, we find reconciliation and redemption. In fact, we find what we were hungry for all along: Jesus himself.
As I think about that terrified little boy 50 years ago, it’s as if I can hear Jesus saying, I know this brute of a daddy and other bullies and abusers are hurting you deeply, but oh, just you wait. Wait and see how I use this, not only to embrace you, but to give your life such value, such meaning. You’re going to have something so good to share, a way to love others, a way to preach me. It will be worth it. You feel like a victim now, but I’m going to make you so much better than if all this had never happened to you in the first place. You’re actually going to end up more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37).
I can embrace my story because I have been embraced by the Author of my story.
I repented and was able to love Linda as the man I was designed to be. I now get to be a real father to my three sons. The only reason I even get to write these words is the result of that story. And I do mean get to. What joy! I can rejoice in my story today—all of it—because Jesus’s fingerprints are over every page. I can embrace my story because I have been embraced by the Author of my story. To now get to go to my counseling office each morning and watch our Savior mend wounded hearts is “joy inexpressible and full of glory!” (1 Pet. 1:8). Indeed, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
It’s not about having dramatic stories, but desperate ones. I was a mess. I still am. But thankfully, Jesus loves a good mess.