Elaine Sommers is the femme name of a male Christian living in the Southwest of England. The aim of this booklet is to raise awareness and understanding of transgender issues in society in general and in the Church in particular.
Glossary – some definitions
Transvestite (or Tranny or TV) A person who feels the need to dress and appear as the opposite sex to meet an inner feeling of that gender. Most TVs are male-to-female (M2F).
Crossdresser (CD) The same, though many prefer CD to the clinical sounding transvestite, with its connotations of The Rocky Horror Show etc.
Transsexual (TS) A person who feels they belong in the opposite sex to their bodies. Again most TSs are M2F, with some F2M. Many TSs will only feel right and complete when they have transitioned, i.e. living full-time in the other sex. These will often, but not always, include taking hormones and undergoing gender reassignment surgery (GRS or ‘sex change’).
Transgender (TG) An umbrella term that includes all the above, indicating that all the variants are part of a gender spectrum, rather than in clear-cut boxes. This is the term now commonly used, although some still use it to describe those who have transitioned. TGs are part of the Transgender Community.
Elaine, you describe yourself as transgender. Which definition of TG describes you best?
I tend to use the umbrella term transgender, but if pushed to be more specific I am a crossdresser, not transsexual. However, it is too simplistic to see these as clear divisions, which is why I prefer to use the looser term transgender. I have recently heard of another expression – bi-gender – which may describe me more accurately.
Does that mean you are gay?
No, I am heterosexual and have no confusion about that. Transgender is about gender identity, not sexual orientation. It is estimated that the incidence of homosexuality in the TG community is similar to that of the general population. My own observation in the TG world bears this out. Confusion may arise because of the publicity given to drag queens (such as Lily Savage and the like), most of whom are gay. They tend to caricature and satirise women in an exaggerated and sometimes crude way. It’s misleading to consider them part of the TG community, as they are really part of the gay community.
Further confusion arises because TGs often frequent gay venues, simply because they are places where TGs can feel safe and accepted.
When did you start crossdressing?
I was about 12 or 13. I got this urge to dress in women’s clothes and experimented in secret. I thought I was the only person in the world who had these feelings. I dressed on and off over the years, but never dared to let anyone else know about it. I hated myself for being this way. I just wanted to be the same as everyone else. I became a Christian at 18 and thought that my TG side would go away. It didn’t. Even so, my spiritual life developed and flourished and I have been a practising Christian since that time.
Did you keep the secret from your wife?
No, I told her on about our third date. Of course, she was taken aback, but we were in love and it didn’t stop our relationship blossoming. A year later we married. We were both convinced that, as time went on, the transgender feelings would fade away. We were wrong. We discovered later that for most TGs, their situation lasts for a lifetime, and I was no exception.
When we started having children we felt it was important that my TG side remained a closely-guarded secret. Opportunities to dress were few and far between. When I did grab the chance, it always caused friction between us as my wife was very unhappy about my covert dressing activities.
Did you seek God’s healing?
If I had thought I was sick I would have sought healing. If I had thought I was demon possessed, I would have prayed for deliverance. If I had thought I was indulging in a sinful act, I would have repented and asked God for forgiveness. At various times over the years I convinced myself that I was in one of these situations, and tried to deal with each of them appropriately. At other times I managed to abstain from dressing for months or even years at a time. But deep down I knew that the female side of me was still there. In spite of much advice, counselling and prayer, there I was – a troubled and confused transgendered person. God had answered many prayers in my life concerning all manner of things, so why not this one? Why had I been dealt this card in life and couldn’t get rid of it?
What has happened since then?
Once the children had grown up, I got to thinking, why am I so mixed up about all this stuff? I started searching the Internet and discovered that there were thousands of people just like me, from all walks of life. Maybe it would be helpful if I could meet some of them and talk things over. So, calling myself Elaine, I ventured forth to a TG weekend function. It was a real eye-opener. For the first time in my life I found that my female side was accepted by other people, who understood exactly how I felt. That led on to being able to accept myself for what I am, no longer ashamed or feeling I was a freak. I also began to sense that God accepted me too, just as I was. I was able to bathe in His presence, freed from the burden of guilt that had surrounded me for so long. It was life-changing.
What do you actually do when you are dressed?
Part of my time as Elaine is spent at TG events and weekends, where hotels are group booked for the purpose. These are wonderful times for making friends, supporting each other, chatting, laughing a lot, some themed evenings, meals together, discos etc. They are invariably well-behaved gatherings and the hotels often comment what a pleasure it is to have our groups to stay.
The other things I do are just ordinary everyday activities – driving, walking, shopping, sightseeing, eating out, going to the theatre, going on holiday etc. I have also developed a new career as a female singer, providing cabaret entertainment at various TG functions and more recently outside our community, including singing in a choir as Elaine. It is totally different from my male singing, and I really enjoy the experience.
But I thought crossdressing was all about sex!
That’s how many perceive it. Early on in the life of a crossdresser there may be a sexual element in the act of dressing, but as time goes on that tends to be replaced with a feeling of peace, wellbeing and the pleasure provided by expressing the feminine feelings inside. As far as sexual encounters are concerned, I have yet to be propositioned by someone at a TG event. It may happen, but not at the sort of functions that I attend.
Have you met other TG Christians?
For a long time I thought that I must be the only TG who was also a Christian. But once I started attending events, I came across more and more fellow-believers from all sorts of denominations, including ministers, deacons, lay readers and lay people. There is also a TG Christian group that I have now joined which holds retreats twice a year. There seem to be more spiritually hungry TGs than you would expect to find in the general population.
Are you aiming to live as a woman full-time?
No, I am very happy in my male role as a husband, father, grandfather and work colleague. I am CD rather than TS and have no desire to live full-time as a woman. However, I would like to be able to express my female side as and when I wish, without deliberately offending or embarrassing anyone.
Why did you decide to ‘come out’?
After many years I became tired of all the subterfuge and deception that had to be employed to keep this side of me secret. I decided that I couldn’t face the rest of my life looking over my shoulder and wondering if I was about to be found out. This, and the fact that I had become much more comfortable with the positive aspects of being Elaine, convinced me that I should make the irreversible step to come out. After all, what was there to be ashamed of?
It took a lot of deliberation, heart-searching and prayer to make this decision. It was a risky thing to do and as a couple we weighed up the cost. My wife had strong reservations about it, but in the end assured me that if I felt it was what I should do, she would support me whatever the outcome.
Having made the decision to go ahead, we realised that we would have to tell people in a particular order, starting with our children and their partners. Then it would be our respective siblings and their partners, followed by our friends. After that my work colleagues would be informed and finally the vicar, elders and members of our church. We feared that it would be this last group that would react the most strongly. We were right.
And what was the response from each of these groups?
As far as our children, families, friends and work colleagues were concerned, the general reaction was very positive and loving. This level of support meant an awful lot to us. When it came to the church members, it was a bit like lighting a tinder box. Most people at least gave us their assurance that we were still friends and they would care and pray for us. But they were also shocked by the revelation and that I was daring to continue to ‘engage in my chosen lifestyle’. Some of the letters we received were hostile and hurtful.
After many months of discussions and negotiations with the leaders of the church, I was told that I could still attend the church, but would not be permitted to participate in ministry in any way, including worship-leading, which I had been doing for many years.
We felt that we couldn’t carry on under these conditions, as we really wanted to continue serving God to the full. So it was with great sadness that we decided to leave our church. But how were we to find a new church family? Would every church react in the same way? Would we be spiritually homeless? Well, with the help and advice of our Bishop, we were put in touch with a local church that was prepared to take us in, no strings attached. We were quite open about my Elaine side, and people seemed to accept us as we were. We are now established with our new fellowship and have started to contribute to the ministry, including music in worship, which is a real privilege.
Are you planning to go to church dressed?
No; in our current circumstances I think that might cause confusion in the fellowship. However, in principle I don’t have a problem with worshipping and praying when dressed, and have attended many churches as Elaine. I believe it’s important that I am able to express my spirituality as Elaine, as much as in my male role. When I’m dressed I often feel more open to God and what He’s saying to me.
What are the downsides about being TG?
Almost all of the problems of being TG centre on people’s negative attitudes towards the subject and to those who are transgendered. The result is that the TG internalises everything, leading to feelings of shame, inadequacy and rejection and the horrors of being seen as abnormal or a freak. This can often have a devastating effect on personal relationships, as wives or partners may be unable to come to terms with their other half’s female identity and their need to crossdress.
Wives may only find out about their husbands’ secret after many years, which adds feelings of betrayal and deceit to the equation.
Crossdressers may be driven into extreme secrecy, with constant fear of discovery. This can produce great tensions, anxiety and sometimes depression. They may also try total abstinence, with ritual purging of all female clothes and the decision to ‘give it all up’. This rarely works and usually leads to frustration, misery, upset and the inevitable sense of failure when the dressing starts up again. The stresses and strains of all this can lead to mental health problems and sometimes suicide attempts.
But is there a good side to it all?
Yes, definitely. If one could eliminate all the negative attitudes described above, what is left is quite positive. The transgendered community is made up of an interesting and wonderful group of people and I feel privileged to be part of it; I have gained many close and trustworthy friends. The social gatherings that I attend are full of genuine caring people and are always relaxed and enjoyable times. Many partners attend too and they never cease to impress me with the love and support they give their other halves. The President of the Beaumont Society (the national organisation of the TG community) said recently that she felt privileged to be ‘gender gifted’ and to have the best of both worlds, male and female! I am beginning to explore this concept, to see if TGs can actually contribute something to society that others can’t.
The challenge of transforming one’s male appearance and behaviour to be more female needs a lot of creativity and ingenuity. For some it’s a nigh on impossible task, in spite of expert skills in the use of clothes and makeup. But in the end, it’s not so much about whether you can ‘pass’ in public but whether you feel comfortable in your female gender role. Being able to pass as female in public is a bonus.
Doesn’t that result in confusion?
For those who encounter a TG there can be much confusion. Are they male? Are they female? What’s going on? That situation is made worse if we think of everything in tight compartments and that we must squeeze everyone into one of them. But life isn’t black and white and it is more helpful to loosen up and see that there are more varieties and shades to humanity than we realise.
For the TGs themselves, being transgendered can certainly produce some confusing dilemmas. But as I have said, there are positive sides to it and life can be enriched by this extra gender dimension that others find hard to imagine.
You might also think that my female side erodes into my maleness, making me a feminised man. In reality it seems to be the opposite. When I have been Elaine and then return to my more usual male life, I feel a bounce in my step and a sense of well-being that enhances the confidence and enjoyment of being a man.
So what about Deuteronomy 22.5? ‘A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this’ (New International Version)
Ah yes, that verse… Well, it has haunted me all my life, but in recent years I have seen it in a different light. Read this verse in conjunction with the other laws around it and consider the historical context of the time. Explore it with an open mind, noting particularly that it applies equally to women as men. Now there are still conservative Christian groups in this country that will not permit women to wear trousers, as they are ‘men’s apparel’. This might raise eyebrows for most of us, but at least they are being consistent in adhering to both parts of the verse!
I believe that to take isolated verses like this out of context and apply them literally to modern-day life misses their true relevance for us and can be dangerous. Since I have studied this verse at length and put it in perspective with the rest of Scripture, I find nothing morally wrong in expressing my transgender nature, nor does my heart sense any need of repentance.
But surely it is not honouring God?
If it was not honouring God, then it must be dishonouring God and wrong. That would be sinful and therefore in need of repentance. In addition to the guidance we have through the Bible I believe that God has given us a special gift to guide us through life, and that is our conscience. If we as Christians think or do anything which disturbs that conscience, then we know straight away that it’s wrong, even before checking with Scripture. God has given us this ability and we ignore it at our peril. Provided we listen to His voice and follow Him day by day, He will tell us when something is wrong. This is my experience over the years in all aspects of life, and I have had many opportunities to put this principle to the test. When it comes to crossdressing, my conscience is not troubled, and I fail to see anything inherent in what I am or do that dishonours God. But as with all areas of my life, I must always be open to God to ensure that nothing dishonourable creeps in.
Why don’t you just stop doing it?
If you were to ask me: Could you stop drinking tea and coffee? – I would say yes. I would miss the good feeling that a nice cuppa brings, but I’m sure I could do it.
If you asked: Could you stop engaging in any form of music – playing, singing or even just listening? – I would also say yes, but it would a much harder task, as music is an integral part of my life and something that expresses deep feelings and emotions. It would be taking away a rich and meaningful side of me.
If you ask me to stop expressing any part of my female side, that would be harder again, because it goes even deeper into my being. I have been down the road of abstinence and denial many times and it has always resulted in tension, stress and misery, as it suppresses a vital part of me. I really have no desire or leading to go down that road again. I have come to terms with my situation by accepting the way I am, without self-hate or shame. I am at last free from that great burden of guilt (looking back I would say false guilt) that has dogged me for much of my life. I can now face my God in total honesty and thank Him for loving me just as I am.
How do you expect me to react to your telling me you’re TG?
One thing is certain: I cannot possibly dictate or demand how you respond. Judging by my experience so far, reactions vary considerably. Some people have no problem with it at all, others are uncomfortable and then there are those who believe that it is totally against God and who pray fervently for my healing and/or deliverance.
By being open about my TG nature, I hope to encourage people to think through the issues involved on a deeper level. Whilst the initial response may be negative, I hope that in time and with further reflection, a more open attitude may develop, so that transgender people can be accepted as they are, even though they are ‘different’.
I ask people to consider the whole issue and take time to learn more about it first hand, rather than maintain old stereotypes. I am happy to discuss things at any time, or provide further written material.
How should the Christian Church address transgender issues?
There has been a lot of discussion in General Synod and the Evangelical Alliance (EA) about homosexuality, but not so much on transgender issues. There is an EA booklet on transsexualism, focusing mainly on the rights and wrongs of gender reassignment. I believe that the TG debate is much wider than this and that other aspects need to be considered. People like me, who have dared to come out into the open, have an opportunity to contribute to this debate and to help church leaders understand some of the problems that TG Christians face. If the Church could discover a more conciliatory and accepting stance in relation to TGs, then much of the bitterness and anger that many transgender people feel concerning their fellow-believers and God could be dissipated. Some of the stories I’ve heard from TG friends about rejection and condemnation make me weep. Could we not get alongside these dear people that God loves so much and share with them the hope and peace in which we believe? That is certainly what I am aiming to do.
Where do you see your transgendered journey going in the future?
It’s always difficult to be sure. I hope to continue to express and enjoy my femininity, rather than struggling against, fighting and denying it. I also hope that I will be able to help others to see that TGs can be responsible members of society and need not be feared, avoided, ridiculed or despised.
I hope to become more involved in sharing and explaining the transgender world with anyone prepared to listen, whether in the Church or society at large.
I long for the day when we in the TG community are accepted and respected by those who are not themselves transgender.‘Faith, Gender and Me’’ published by Elaine Sommers © 2009 Printed copies of this booklet or additional information can be obtained from firstname.lastname@example.org