Gender, Integrity, and Spirituality: A Personal Journey

For most of the first 40 years of my life I would not have said that I was a very spiritual person. Yet I was drawn to Quakerism as a student at Westtown School and during my senior year joined Westtown (Pa.) Meeting. I was powerfully attracted to the idea that there is something of God in everyone. It made such sense to me that “bad” behavior could be explained as not being aware of or able to listen to that of God within oneself. Change was clearly possible through a loving acceptance of the presence of God within oneself.

While I accepted this core notion of Quakerism, for a long time I was unable to establish a clear connection with that of God within myself. I attended meeting for worship regularly and felt a Presence within, but only rarely did I feel a clarity of direction or movement of the Spirit. Something seemed to be getting in the way of the spiritual work I had to do in order to be able to listen internally. Only recently have I come to realize that it was my lifelong struggle with gender that was creating a kind of blockage inside me.

I really don’t understand why, but I have a clear memory of knowing I was different at age four. I was playing a harmless game of dress-up with my cousin, when I realized that I wanted to be a girl all the time and not just for make-believe. As I grew older these feelings would not go away. I began praying each night: “Please God, make me a girl.”

Furthermore, I began having a recurring dream in which I was captured by some girls and put on a conveyor belt that led into a machine that magically transformed me into a girl. I was so pleased with the transformation that when the boys came to rescue me, I refused to go back through the machine and be changed back. I longed for either God or technology to make my dream real.

Instead, I began puberty and my body developed with large and very male features. It felt as though someone had played a cruel joke on me because it was quite clear that no one would ever mistake me for the woman I ached to become. My instinct for survival told me not to share these feelings with anyone, because I knew that boys were supposed to be boys. If they transgressed and dared to act too much like girls, they would be teased and perhaps even punished.

So I carefully hid that feminine spirit deep within myself. I worked hard to live up to what a “real boy” was supposed to be. In spite of my best intentions to bury my feelings, I was drawn to anything feminine, but especially to women’s clothes. Over time I accumulated a small wardrobe, which I kept hidden in a box in my closet. Sometimes in the privacy of my bedroom I would dress in those clothes and let my imagination wonder what it would be like to be a real girl. Periodically I was overcome with fear that I might be discovered and would throw away all my pretty clothes, vowing with determination never to let this happen again. But usually within six months I was at it again, experimenting with different ways to express the feminine spirit that kept bubbling up within me.

During adolescence I guess I was pretty confused about my gender and my identity. I was attracted to girls and wanted very much to have a girlfriend, but on another level I continued to want to be a girl. It just didn’t make sense. I coped by continuing to keep the “who am I” question buried deeply; I knew that I could not answer it. I did come across several references to transsexuals and transvestites, but the subject terrified me. I just wanted to be normal, not one of those freaks!

In high school I did not date much, but by senior year I became involved in a more serious relationship with a girl. Our relationship was off-and-on for a while, but after I shared something of my gender variance, our love deepened and eventually we married. I was neither very knowledgeable nor very articulate at that point about who I was or what I needed. I hoped that a loving marriage to an understanding person would help me to settle into my male role.

However my feeling of being differently gendered did not go away. Mostly it remained there lurking just beneath the surface, yet sometimes I simply had to express that inner reality. I began experimenting more seriously with clothes and with makeup, trying always to find the combination that would make my male body appear like the woman I felt like inside.

I also had a hunger to connect with others like myself and began to make contacts. I sensed that I would need a lot of support as I tried to cope with the powerful feelings that I had kept bottled up. After my wife and I finished our dissertations, she took a postdoctoral fellowship, and I began looking for work. During this transitional period my need to meet others like myself reached a high point. I joined a support group that met in a city three hours from where we were living. When I returned from my first meeting, I tried to share with my wife what had happened over the weekend and spent several hours in tears. I am not sure whether the tears were from the joy of finding a group of supportive new friends or from the fear engendered by a realization that my life had changed in some fundamental way.

I continued to seek out support groups for cross-dressers even after our move to Florida. Slowly I began to feel more and more comfortable about going out in public dressed as the woman I felt I was. There was still an almost mind-numbing fear of being discovered and the humiliation I was sure would follow, but I could not turn back. I knew that somehow I would find my way forward, yet the prospect of losing my family and friends was agonizing. Eventually my sense of internal disorder evolved into what some people have termed “gender dysphoria,” which is a state of extreme discomfort with one’s external gender. During this time, presenting myself as a man began to feel so wrong that I found it more and more difficult to function effectively in that role. I began wearing women’s clothes that were tailored to look like men’s clothes in hopes that this would assuage my burning need to express the woman inside me. But even this half step did not soothe my torment. I began to slip into a deep despair.

It was reading The Testimony of Integrity in the Society of Friends by Wilmer Cooper that helped me realize how my gender journey and my spirituality were intimately connected. Cooper’s analysis of integrity’s four parts (truthfulness, authenticity, obedience to God, and wholeness) cast a spotlight on my own lack of integrity. I was comfortable with the basic truthfulness part, but it was in authenticity that I suddenly felt completely hollow. By denying my authentic identity for so many years, I had created a huge roadblock for my self, for my spirituality, and for my survival. As I contemplated the illusory life I had created, I felt such distress that for a while it seemed I could not continue living. I sought out a therapist who had worked with other transgendered people, and he helped me come to terms with myself.

I set out to see what steps I needed to take to reclaim integrity and live an authentic life. I knew that in taking them I risked nearly everything that I held dear. I might lose my wife, my children, my spiritual community, and my career if I proceeded. I also knew that if I did not, I was not sure if I could continue living. One day in the midst of this agony I tried to vent some of my pain through exercise. As I struggled to take each step, I heard a quiet voice telling me firmly, “Lift it up, Petra! Lift it up!” This sudden sense that I was not alone and need not carry the weight of this decision by myself, lifted my spirits and gave me the courage to continue. I asked for a clearness committee from my monthly meeting to help me discern whether this was in fact a leading. The committee met with me for six months and explored the nature of my leading as well as the probable impacts of my following it on my family and on the meeting. At last the clearness committee helped me see that my children were unlikely to stop loving me for being an authentic person and that the meeting community would welcome me no matter what. This discernment helped enormously, but I knew that I still had to face the difficult issue of whether our marriage could continue if I began to live as the woman I knew I needed to be.

This period was probably the hardest for my wife and me. The love between us was and continues to be wonderfully deep, but gender is such a fundamental part of marriage that it changes everything. I was extremely fortunate to have a partner whose love was tenacious enough to allow us to spend long hours trying to vision how we might enable our partnership to survive. But she was clear that she did not want to be married to a woman. And as I became clearer that this is just what I am, it slowly became clear that this was an insurmountable obstacle.

I did not feel I had the strength to take the next step. I lengthened my daily prayer and meditation sessions to a full hour each morning, seeking the divine guidance that we had invoked in our marriage vows. How could I take action that might cause the dissolution of my marriage and the possible breakup of my family? But could I continue living if I did not acknowledge my increasing certainty that I needed to live at least part of my life as a woman?

In my seeking I discovered the group of Quakers known as FLGC (Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns) and was welcomed into this amazing spiritual community where I found a powerful refuge and source of strength. The depth of the worship within this community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Friends who have struggled with similar issues of authenticity and identity allowed me to reach new spiritual depths within myself. In one meeting for worship I had an incredible experience of my journey unfolding before me that I have come to realize was a kind of vision. In it, I had to follow my path through the woods and even over a cliff, but eventually I emerged into a beautiful valley below. There was a profound sense of having to move forward, and this gave me the strength to be fully honest with myself and begin the process of gender transition.

During the next summer I was on a visit to my wife’s family in the mountains and felt so clearly the beauty and companionship that I would be missing if my marriage ended. I became sad and withdrew a bit from the family. When an unfortunate misunderstanding caused me to be excluded from a hike to the top of a mountain, I found myself falling into a deeper despair than I had ever known. My mind kept replaying a hike of the previous day in which I had crossed a raging river and then walked along a very steep cliff—except this time when I came to these dangerous situations I let myself drop from a cable car into the torrent and be swept away. Later I saw myself sliding off the cliff to fall hundreds of feet onto the rocks below. I wanted so much for these events to have happened so that I would not have to face myself.

After everyone else left, I went out and stared at the mountains and wondered whether I should take one of the cars parked nearby and find a cliff to put an end to my suffering. Besides, I reasoned, throwing myself off the cliff would test the reality of the vision I had had during FLGC worship. Suddenly an image flashed into my head of Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple where the devil tempts him by saying “. . . throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you’. . . .” (Matt. 4:6) As I was contemplating this image, I suddenly felt a warm, loving voice once more that said simply “I am with you, I am always with you.” With a huge sense of relief, I sat back in the summer sunshine and felt all my death wishes fade away.

I knew suddenly that God was with me on this path to authenticity. Indeed, in following it in spite of my fears and tears, I was taking a first step in understanding the obedience part of integrity. I can’t pretend to have reached a place of wholeness; the breakup of my marriage still feels like a gaping hole in my heart that can never be filled. And the pain of the dissolution of our relationship continues to be very intense for me. For over 20 years I had come to depend upon another person for my solace and support, and now that presence was being tenderly, but firmly, withdrawn. I have tried to learn from that pain and strive to understand it as a way of maintaining a connection with God, but it is a continuing journey. I am grateful for the love and understanding of my children, my parents, and the rest of my family whose unconditional love has been a blessing.

I have given up asking why, and I am concentrating on becoming the woman that I have always needed to be. Because I am physically large I am aware that I cannot be unobtrusive. I try to project the strong and confident woman that I am becoming and avoid unnecessary stereotyping, but I am also aware that my very presence is part of my witness. Gender is just not the simple dichotomy that our culture would have us believe. While many people suffer from the oppression of rigid gender expectations, it is those of us who physically transition across accepted gender boundaries who become the most visible targets for hatred and intolerance. As I continue along my journey, I am acutely aware of that visibility. I place my trust in God that the openness of my journey will increase understanding for my transgendered sisters and brothers, whatever it costs me. Knowing that a wide circle of Friends is holding me in the Light makes each step a bit easier.

Petra L. Doan

Petra L. Doan, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, is engaged in teaching and research in Third World Planning. She is a member of Tallahassee Meeting. © 2002 Petra L. Doan