crucifixion part one

Matthew 27: 45-46: From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of us know the story of the crucifixion. Growing up in the evangelical church it was used as a weapon to make those listening to the story feel so horrified by what Jesus suffered, because of them, that they would immediately dedicate their lives to Christ and commit to being better. I remember being told in horrific detail the manner of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. It was as if the gorier the speaker could make it, the more we would be convicted.

As I left the church I grew up in, I discarded the story of the crucifixion. I didn’t want to deal with it any more. A theology that centered around torturing an innocent person because of the wrongdoings of other people was a theology that made me sick. A God who demanded such torture to appease His wrath (and this God was always male) was a God I wanted nothing to do with. I no longer believe that God demanded the sacrifice of Jesus in order to save the world from sin. I believe instead in a more political act; one in which Jesus is so committed to his calling to speak truth to power that he willingly dies on a cross. His willingness to die doesn’t overlook the horror of the act, though, or the wickedness of political power systems that would kill an innocent person because he threatened their sense of themselves.

I realize that writing about the crucifixion as a trans* narrative invites all sorts of grey areas, so let me get a few things out of the way first: I am not saying that transition is as horrifying as being crucified or being tortured. Yes, there is pain involved, but in my experience it was nothing like what Jesus must have experienced (besides, I was given vicodin). Suffering of any kind should never be glorified. I want to be clear on this; there is a tendency to elevate people who have suffered simply because they have suffered. I believe this is the wrong approach. Instead we should elevate and celebrate people because they survived and work to eradicate suffering. When I speak of suffering in this way I am speaking about abuse, torture, disease, poverty. Over the years there have been theologies written that say one should embrace their suffering because Jesus suffered. It has been used to tell women to stay in abusive homes, to tell people that they shouldn’t work to eradicate the systems that cause poverty, that somehow they should be happy in their suffering knowing they’ll get a better deal in the afterlife. That to me is complete and utter bullshit and the complete antithesis of the Gospel. Pardon my strong language but I need to be very clear on this point before we continue. Sometimes in life we suffer but our suffering should never be glorified. However sometimes our suffering leads us to a better place, helps us discover strength we didn’t know we had. Those outcomes are positive, but it still doesn’t mean we should glorify suffering. Now with all of that said, let’s begin.

Medical transition is an interesting time. It’s definitely a journey and there are stops along the way. And in a way, it is definitely a crucifixion experience. When I say that I mean that it is a slow death. The person you were slowly dies and disappears.

My transition began by first coming to terms with the fact that I was transgender and realizing that I needed to transition. I told my partner and some of my friends. Then I began the process of seeking out counseling.
There is a lot of debate around the medical/psychiatric profession and transitioning. It’s a long and complicated debate that doesn’t entirely pertain to this subject so I will skip most of it here. But for most people, in order to transition, one must go through a series of steps including a certain amount of counseling (which sometimes involves a diagnosis of gender identity disorder (another heated topic of debate) before one can access medical transition. I was fortunate to live in a city that allowed people to transition on an informed consent model; you were briefed on what the risks were, what the effects were, etc. and then you signed a statement allowing treatment. For me, though, counseling was important on a personal level and so I took that route.

I entered counseling with a wonderful counselor. Most of my counseling involved talking about issues other than my gender identity. It was, in a lot of ways, preparing me for transition and giving me the emotional tools to do things such as come out to my family, deal with communication issues with my partner, prepare for the stress of transitioning while in seminary, etc. After several months of counseling my therapist wrote a letter stating that I knew myself to be male, knew the risks of transitioning and that I understood that transition was permanent. I took this letter to a doctor and got initial blood tests. Then I was prescribed testosterone and got my first injection. Over the next couple of weeks I was trained to inject myself and my transition began.

My process is to inject myself every week with testosterone shots in my upper thigh. I will have to do this for the rest of my life. The next step of my transition was trying to figure out how I could have my chest reconstruction (or top) surgery. Most insurance companies don’t pay for any part of transition (although some do cover prescriptions and some surgeries) and at the time I was not insured anyway so I was paying for everything from doctor’s visits to prescriptions out of pocket. Chest surgery would cost at least $5500 plus travel expenses, hotel costs, time out of work (at least 4 weeks), and other various costs. I was fortunate that I was in school at the time and was able to get extra student loans to cover my surgery. A year after I started testosterone I was able to get chest surgery.

Up until my surgery I wore something called a binder. It’s a super tight shirt looking thing (mine looked like a white t-shirt) that had extra paneling. It held my breasts tight against my body so they looked more like pecs. Then I usually wore two shirts over top to camouflage my chest even more. Even in the summer. The binder was uncomfortable and hot. It pressed into my sides and left marks. I had permanent bruising around my waist where it rolled up and dug into my sides. The testosterone gave me hot flashes in the beginning and that coupled with the extra shirts made life really unbearable for a while. Not to mention the sheer mental discomfort of having breasts. Ever since puberty I hated them, but once I began transition they were unbearable. I was fortunate to be able to get surgery so soon. It’s something I am grateful for every day. But the time spent waiting for surgery weighed on my mind.
Meanwhile I was doing my weekly shots and slowly beginning to change. My voice started to deepen, my fat started to redistribute, facial hair and body hair began to ever so slowly fill in and become visible. My muscles began to develop more quickly and even a little bit of working out went a long way. My periods stopped (which was a huge relief). I dealt with hot flashes and a cracking voice as I was pretty much going through menopause and puberty simultaneously.

The changes were sometimes unbearably slow. I would look in the mirror and see nothing happening. Then sometimes I would catch glimpses of the person I was becoming and be filled with such joy. But the process was painful. My acne was out of control and very painful. I was still having people use the wrong pronouns for me, I still didn’t know what bathroom would be safe to use. I still had a chest that I hated and didn’t feel right in my clothing.
Surgery had me out of work for about six weeks. The recovery was at times painful. In the beginning I had drains in and couldn’t shower. That was probably the most miserable week of my life. The drains were incredibly painful, I couldn’t move very much and I just felt gross. After the drains were out things got progressively better, but healing still took time. I couldn’t reach up very high, I couldn’t lift or carry anything heavy. Driving was painful. I wore a padded vest pretty much 24 hours a day for a month. It was uncomfortable and constricting. The wounds took time to heal and the scarring even longer to fade.

This transitional time was a death in a lot of ways. I was dying to who I had been; I was becoming someone new, someone unrecognizable. I was in between in a lot of ways; not who I would someday be but no longer who I was. And those are just the physical aspects of transition, there were also mental things that happened that I wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t explain as they were happening. It’s to that aspect of transition that I turn next.

crucifixion part two

Transition is, by it’s nature, both intensely public and intensely private. In the Passion narrative there are parts that Jesus has to face alone. There were moments where his friends could not accompany him, moments when he was the only one experiencing the pain and suffering. Even though, in the end, all of the people involved would be transformed, they were all transformed in their own way.

Before I began to transition friends who were further along in their transitions or post transition tried to warn me about what a head trip it could be. They warned me about things I would experience that I couldn’t really prepare for. In many ways I wrote them off. In some ways I didn’t realize the truth of their advice until much later in my transition. The truth is that transition isn’t just physical, it is also mental. My friends could see my physical changes, they could hear my voice crack and see my scraggly facial hair, but they couldn’t understand what was going on in my mind and I had a really hard time letting them in.

I soon found that words didn’t come to me as easily as they once had. I found myself often with that feeling where a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite remember it. I realized that I was becoming more visual; I would see images that before would have done nothing for me and now left me aroused. I realized that I was more willing to speak up in class, but that even in my willingness I had a harder time making my point. As an intense introvert I needed even more time along to process the things I was feeling and experiencing.

I was consistently watching men and trying to understand how they acted around one another. I realized that there is a fine balance in making eye contact with another man; you look away too fast and you might be seen as an easy mark for violence, you look too long and you might invite violence. How do you appear not afraid but also not too forward?

I couldn’t always anticipate my moods and I was exhausted a lot. I withdrew from the world because I couldn’t bear to have someone get my pronouns wrong. I didn’t want to be introduced to new people or deal with party situations because they were uncomfortable. I began to really question whether or not I wanted to be out as a trans person or whether I wanted to simply be male.

As I became more comfortable in my own skin there was an element of peace in my life that hadn’t been there before.

But nothing happened overnight. It was all a process. Mostly a painful process. Painful as I tried to get people to understand and they couldn’t. Painful as I dealt with anxiety over giving myself a shot every week. The pain of the actual shot and muscle soreness. Fear that I would no longer be able to sing, or that because I couldn’t think of the right words I would lose my ability to write.

And through all of this there was the dissolution of my marriage, brought on by my transition. It was incredibly painful to have the person who had been my biggest supporter decide she could no longer be with me because I was becoming the person I was meant to be. Without going in to all of the details, it was an incredibly hurtful time. She was watching the person she loved die and couldn’t handle that.

Even though I knew that what was coming was going to be worth it, the process, in many ways, simply sucked. And as I was going through all of this physical and mental upheaval I still had to attend classes, do my homework, go to work (where I was a bartender at a steakhouse; try explaining your gender transition over the noise of political news and sports and see how well it goes!) and try to keep my marriage together. Needless to say something went better than others. I had patient professors for the most part and friends that helped me to get through. My schoolwork definitely suffered and so did my class attendance. I was lost in my own head a lot of the time. I poured out my thoughts in my journals when I could and watched television when I couldn’t. I tried to do things that brought me joy and reminded me of why I was doing this. I will say, though, that from the second I took my first shot of testosterone I never once questioned whether or not this was the right decision. I knew that I was doing the right thing. Even as things happened that I wished were different, even as outcomes came about that I wished I could change, I still knew that I needed to transition and that this was right.
There were dark moments where I wondered if I would make it through. There were dark moments where I worried that I would never be accepted by my family and would lose them. I worried about flunking out of seminary. I worried that my wife was going to leave me. I worried that I would never get to be in ministry and had to deal with the loss of a job that I feel to be my calling but which I am unable to do because I transitioned. There were moments where, while I knew this was the right decision, I still felt abandoned and forsaken. Moments where I couldn’t see anything but my own pain, moments when I wondered why this had to be my path. Moments when God was silent.

In the passion narrative it says that there was darkness over the whole land. Sometimes it felt like that. Like there was only darkness and pain and I was completely alone. That’s the hardest part of transitioning; being alone in the journey. The fact that even though it’s public, there is so much changing that no one can see and you feel like you’re in the dark.

You crucify your body because you have no other choice. Because you know that it’s the only way you are going to survive. Because even if there is no resurrection, there is no life in the way you’ve been living.