This article has been a long time coming. I've known for a while that I'd write about my struggle with gender dysphoria some day, and I guess it's just that time. I'm sharing my journey out of a desire to bring understanding to those that do not relate to gender issues, along with hope and clarity for those who do understand. This article is specifically written with a Christian audience in mind, because I think they're some of the people who need it most, but I hope everyone can find it valuable. (I use gender and sexuality somewhat broadly so don't get too hung up on those words in this article.) My story is just one of countless unique stories out there, so do with it what you will. A lot of self harm and suicidal thoughts have been part of my past, especially in regards to the issues mentioned here, so it's very fulfilling to have my story given meaning by being able to share it with others.
Transparency has never been difficult for me, and to this day I don't know why. I try and use it as a strength. More often I'm fearful that I'm overwhelming people by being open, but as for the sharing itself I don't often care what people know about me if it's true. In terms of this article, it's not difficult sharing this information in itself, but my fear is someone didn't want to know certain details. To alleviate this fear for myself, I'll just let you know now: Some of the information in this article is sexual (and awkward) due to the nature of the topic of gender. If you are okay with a few awkward details, you are definitely welcome to join me on my journey.
I'm basically autobiographically psychoanalyzing myself as a sort of case study, and then explaining the processes I went through to understand and deal with the experiences, and finally some lessons that I learned. I think of psychology and people's stories much like Jung did of symbolism and dreams. He said "Learn everything you can about symbolism, and then forget it all when interpreting your dreams." I think what we need is much more the lessons for our intuition that come from hearing stories than we do a technical/scholastic guidebook or rules. The patterns are there, but they are much more organic and can vary dramatically from person to person. I'm going to lay out the many variables/experiences that my brain seemed to link together to make the conclusions it did. Then we’ll move to the discovery of it all, my resolving of it, and some other lessons to be learned.
I do think that, in regards to gender identity and insecurities, we see a common theme of negative experiences, and our mind churning to do what it naturally does: it tries to understand and explain them. Especially with the painful ones, we do what we can to find satisfying answers, and these answers often seem absolutely insane or silly to the people around us, but to us they are very real. Often times we aren't aware that these internal rules and dialogues are going on in our subconscious. Keep in mind: much of my story is written from the perspectives of my insecurities and feelings. These things are not what I necessarily believe, but belief and feelings don't always match, and my beliefs have also changed. This is the power of experience, the main way by which we learn and live.
In terms of our generally accepted sexual norms, I'm straight, meaning I'm romantically and sexually attracted to women. I've basically had no doubt for much of my life that I wasn't as normal as normal could be in regards to sexuality and gender. If anything, I was almost too straight, as I found men unattractive to the point that I pitied women for having to engage sexually with us. I knew rationally this was a little strange, but I had experiences occasionally that verified these feelings. (I sometimes call myself polyamorous, in that intimacy and love do not feel as restricted to categories as they do for other people, but that’s not as relevant to this discussion.)
As the story typically begins, I always was a bit different (I expect most everyone has felt this way), and a lot of the imagery I saw of male and masculine around me I just didn't fit. I cried really easily, and was often embarrassed by it at school when teachers made me cry. I snuck a few times and watched a "girly" anime early on Saturday mornings. I had a really tough time with any sort of physical pain, such as when guys would punch each other in the shoulders to be cool (and the dreaded phrase was "dead arm"). I was very into my emotions, I loved the giving and receiving of affection in all forms, and didn't like sports in any form. When I would dance, my body just naturally wanted to move a lot like how I had seen women dance, with emphasis on the hips. I also saw things associated with males I didn't want to be associated with, like seeing them be violent, jealous, competitive, sexually unsafe, or unsafe in general. I had a fear that people saw me as unsafe because I was male, that I would hurt them or abuse them or their kids. Masculinity meant destructive power, and I didn't want it. (These are some typical explanations of gender issues, and a common theme in people's stories, but only one piece out of many for my personal struggle.)
Another important element was my young looks. (This, in itself, is another case study of our brain struggling to interpret our experiences.) When I was young, I thought I was really ugly, and that's why girls didn't associate with me. I saw them talking to other guys at church, at school, and it felt like I didn't exist. Without exaggeration, girls my age had almost zero contact with me outside of needing something like a pencil from me. One day, I opened up to a friend, and he said "Shea, you're not ugly, but 16 year old girls don't talk to guys it looks like they'd babysit, even if the guy is 17." It hit me that day that he was right, my experience was just a natural consequence of looking so young. Yet, I've still struggled with self image issues until the last couple years because of that early "answer" from my brain, even after rationally disproving it many times. In its place (or in addition to it), I developed an anger towards my young looks, and was angry at God that he had made me so that I would naturally be alone. Thankfully, a summer camp I helped at right before attending Multnomah University was also very influential on my acceptance of my young looks and glorifying God for them. Yet, the damage had been done, the loneliness and self doubt had been introduced, and the effects would ripple outward in more than just pain.
Also, an experience I revisited later and realized was formative for me occurred around 6th grade. There was a girl who had a crush on me, and wrote me a love poem I found in some Valentines after going home. I did not reciprocate the feelings, and was somewhat creeped out about it. There was also a girl I had a crush on, and my sister and mom made fun of me for it, and so I was very embarrassed and denied it for many years after. In my revisiting this set of experiences, I realized I developed an idea that any sort of "feelings" for someone would disgust them unless it was mutual, and so I began a pattern of avoiding any initiation of interactions with women for fear of them interpreting anything as me "liking" them.
You can see the mess beginning. I'm a person who, by nature, does not quite fit the definitions of a category ("male") he is supposed to belong to, relating more with the opposite ("female”). But rather than being able to be around the opposite gender as a way to cope, I lacked the skills developed normally to engage with females at all, and had a tremendous amount of fear. Both the external factor of my looks kept women away, and my own fears multiplied this effect. I was incredibly desperate for a romantic relationship, and incapable of acting out that despair in any way other than crying myself to sleep most nights.
When I began college at Multnomah University at 19 years old (looking about 15, of course), I started to have women actually approach me and treat me as a potential friend. It sounds silly to be so excited about, but for me it was mind blowing. I had an epiphany moment, that the aching loneliness for female intimacy wasn't necessarily a need for a "girlfriend," but for girl friends. However, the lingering "lessons" from past experiences added their opinions to the situation, and I started acting out in "non-masculine" ways (by, of course, my internal definition). The despair was still there, now just shifted to an idea of female friendships. I was also discovering that I was a physical touch person, that it was a basic way I needed for my value to be affirmed and to feel close to people. I realized this touch need, and the lack of its fulfillment, had likely added a lot to the painful feelings of loneliness. (This journey of learning about physical touch is another journey I'd like to tell about some day.)
Again, a lot of this subconscious reasoning a person doesn't realize at the time is happening, but they discover the underlying thinking in retrospect. So at this point, what was going on in my head was completely unknown to me until a couple years later. Basically, I saw that women seemed to associate very comfortably with each other, including being very affectionate and platonically physical, and then I saw them cautious around men (along with men not being affectionate with each other), and the idea set in of fitting in with the girls by being feminine so I could engage with them as a comfortable friend, so I could have an experience I desired but saw I was disqualified form due to my gender. I joked that I should just pretend I'm gay. I recall working at another summer camp, and three of my female friends were planning a girl's sushi night, and then they invited me. I was awestruck that I was welcome into their inner circle event and that I was regarded as safe enough to be invited. Of course, to them it was not such a big deal, but to me it was monumental.
At this point, though, I was still sure I was "heteronormative," with all my sexuality and gender feelings on the "default" setting. Then I took a class on abnormal psychology, and had a profound moment of empathy with a man in a video explaining his transgender journey. He spoke of sneaking into his mom's room and dressing in her clothes, which I had never done, but I could directly relate when he talked about how it made him feel safe. I had sympathy for homosexual men, but I couldn't relate to their desires at all. Yet a flood of empathy washed over me as I heard the man's story of transgender struggles. When I imagined sneaking and wearing girl’s clothes, it made me feel safe and comfortable. I went to lunch dazed and confused. I wasn't as "normal" as I thought I was.
Over the next couple years, I dove into the feelings. I recalled how I'd "jokingly" wore women's clothing in the past, and then when someone would say "you actually look kind of good in that" it would make me feel so fulfilled. I didn't think I'd actually look good dressed up as a woman, but I was realizing how appealing it would be to actually be one, and when I had looked attractive while coming close, it was extremely appealing. A gay friend of mine, after hearing about my discoveries, called me a "lesbian," and I again had that strange feeling of fulfillment. As I said, I considered just saying I was gay, and I realized later I had a portrayal of myself as "female" or "child" or even "feline" in order to make women comfortable being friends with me, as a way of dodging the perceived threat of maleness.
Now we get a bit awkward. Like most men (and many women), I've struggled with pornography. At times, I was into weirder stuff. Two types in particular stand out for this discussion, though, and that was women with male genitalia, and lesbians. I was often drawn to these features in pornography, and dealt with a lot of shame over it (along with pornography as a whole), but understanding the desire is very important in understanding the causes and the healing process. In regards to lesbians, I didn't like a lot of the mainstream pornography that was very "male oriented", but had to find lesbian pornography for lesbians, which was much more relational.
As I wondered why I was so fascinated by these elements in pornography, I realized that I had associated the giving and receiving of love and pleasure with types of genitalia (which may reflect some spiritual and/or scientific realities about sexuality). I saw in pornography these selfish, brutal men who were the receivers of pleasure, while women were the selfless givers. I found this idea entirely repulsive, and realized later that I had associated the male genitals with this idea of being a receiver of pleasure. Thus, lesbians were mutual givers of pleasure and love to each other, and the idea of women with male genitalia meant I could be a giver of pleasure instead of a receiver. Men in general were sexually hungry, objectifying monsters (though I didn't actually read this into individual men I knew, just the identity of “male” and how women perceived men), while women were more focused on "real" love, including in their sexuality. You can tack this onto the list of potential damages coming from pornography.
The real kicker of my discoveries about myself, where there's the big disconnect between those who have experienced identity issues and those who have not, is the description of feeling like this is "really me." This was what I'd heard many homosexuals say, and now I was having this same, difficult experience. As the idea that I felt like a woman inside became a thought, I felt such a strong resonance, a strong peace, a sense of security and safety at the idea. I think this, of anything, was the most terrifying experience. It was definitely the most difficult to come to terms with. Yet I couldn't deny it, and my empathy grew dramatically for people who felt this way about their own sexual orientation. Coming from a more conservative Christian background, I realized that there was more to the stories than I had seen them given credit.
You can see how all of these different elements came together to form my gender dysphoric experience. I lamented any of the male elements I believed would be assumed about me, such as violence, jealousy, control, lack of emotionality, etc. I found safety and affirmation in what I saw as the woman's world, of affection, physical touch, emotions, tenderness. My body moved like a woman's when I would dance how I felt came naturally, and their was so much appeal in having the anatomy and clothes of a woman. They were directly tied in my mind with this identity of tenderness I loved and wanted to exude. And when I was totally honest with myself, it just felt right. So... what now?
In contrast to this flood of feelings, I did hold a conviction that I was made how I was supposed to be, and this included my bodily sex. This doesn't apply to everyone necessarily, but I felt, based on my own relationship with God, that there was something more complex going on. Yet, the conservative right was ready to condemn me, diagnose me, fix me or accuse me of not praying hard enough, and left no grace for me to even consider any possibilities or go on my own journey. The progressive left offered me no understanding, simply wanting me to accept what they had accepted, being offended that I considered there might be an actual problem (because then they’d have to question themselves, too), not even considering that maybe every impulse should not be acted upon. I felt strongly that something else had to be going on, that the default answers on either side were lacking, that feelings of mine were lacking in reflecting reality and were pushing me towards wrong solutions, but were also conveying truth about myself. I felt answers and understanding should come before action. Of course, I tried "praying it away" and that didn't work at all, but I think I was meant for a journey (and that journey was the answer to the prayers). So I basically just held out, exploring my feelings, talking to people, and seeking understanding of myself.
The first step on my journey was simply to feel. I had to let myself feel, and not let shame block things out. I had to notice the experiences that triggered feelings of wishing I was a woman. (Just last week, a mom at my work expressed some concern to my female coworkers at the preschool where I work because "there was a man in here.") These experiences are key, and then you find the situations in your past that resonate with them, or the images you were given by media and culture. You have to ask what you actually believe about yourself, about the parts of yourself you doubt. Sometimes it takes writing some poetry (which I certainly did), sometimes it takes specific friendships, sometimes it takes hearing songs or watching movies. It was over the course of about 2 years that I discovered the background information I've been discussing, the patterns that lead up to my issues. Other things took longer, and I'm sure I'll be finding pieces inside myself for a long time to come. When you have no idea if you'll actually find those answers, it’s terrifying, and either way it takes a long time and a lot of self searching.
There are also things you find that you don't relate to that are just as helpful a piece of the puzzle. While I did find being a woman with certain female anatomy appealing, I didn't want to have a womb. I didn't want to bear children, to give birth, or to be a mom. I was completely sold on the idea of being a dad (which makes sense, having had a dad who was both strong and gentle). This made me realize how much the issue was not related to some biological switch in my brain, but much more an issue of "nurture." The issue was very much about relating to women.
I also discovered that I had felt women were attractive and men were not. I would see women, and they were captivating in their appearance. I wanted to offer that same to them and, in this way, felt inadequate. I recall one night watching a movie with some friends, and a scene with men in speedos left the girls in the room looking away grossed out, saying "ewww!" Then a scene with women left the men looking away because the women's bodies were so attractive that the men had to look away because it was so desirable. A plethora of experiences like this left me feeling that men were the gross one's and women were the attractive ones I wanted to be attractive, and not just as a way to feel good about myself, but as a way, again, to offer my future wife the same love she was offering me by being so beautiful. Thus, to be a woman was to be attractive.
I found in my searching my stories in the past, of young looks, negative reactions to romantic feelings, the inability to relate to the image I saw of “maleness” from society, etc. I saw the doubts about myself it introduced, that I was scary or dangerous, that I was unwelcome, that I had to emphasize certain parts of myself and ignore others to have women be my friend. I saw how pornography had added bad layers of thinking to my mind, and was part of my understanding of male/female interactions. I realized that “woman” had become an ideation of the perfect way to be safe, comfortable, affectionate, emotional, dance how I wanted, be friends with women, and in a way, to be the female element for myself I wasn’t receiving anywhere else.
It was a huge blessing that God has made me a fairly transparent person, because being heard and connected with was step two in my journey. I longed to share with people, being a verbal processor and a fan of intimacy, but I was afraid of the reactions at the strangeness. There was actually a more accepting attitude building among my college peers about homosexuality, but several times I opened up about my own issues, there was disgust and repulsion. It was surprising. Once, there was a gender conference at Multnomah to discuss people's sufferings in regards to gender issues. There was a discussion group after where people were asked to share their stories, and after several women had spoken, I began discussing pains I had encountered, and was then shut down because I was male and "couldn't possibly understand what being hurt based on your gender was like," that I was just deceiving myself. (Another future article I would like to write is based on experiences like this.) The black and white thinking on both political sides gave me no help. Thank God, I did find those handful of people that actually gave me grace and understanding, and allowed me to verbal process my discoveries and pains.
Healthy female friendships, and the affirmations that came through them, were step three in the journey. Insecurities about ourselves develop when we have strong or repeated negative experiences. As I often say with psychology or anything, the opposite of the cause is the solution. Thus, in having poor relationships with women being a piece of my struggle, having quality relationships with women was a part of the healing. Having women who were close to me, who treated me as valuable even without a sort of romantic attraction (which actually felt objectifying and also affirmed that I needed to be the "gross" masculine parts I didn't like) was very healing. I also use the wisdom "you don't go shopping when you are hungry" to explain a lot of psychology, because what happens with an unmet need is you feel as though you need a solution much more extreme than the actual need. A hungry person buys more food than they need to, and a lonely person likewise seeks extreme solutions. Sometimes this solution is an embrace of “normal” (many men act hyper masculine to deal with the developmental issues), and other times, like in my case, it is much more a rejection. I'm happy I didn't follow the maritally idolatrous advice of many oversimplifying Christians that I just needed a girlfriend, because I would have just created a new extreme that wouldn't help me heal.
The affirmations happened many different ways, and happened all along the course of my journey, some even just this last year. First of all, seeing men as these sex hungry monsters that use women for their own pleasure, it was very healing to find out that many women struggled with porn, that most women liked sex, and that a lot of them... were very horny. Some surpassed me. This helped me feel a lot more comfortable with my own sexuality. I wouldn't have to lower my sexual drive with a future spouse, but could be in a give and take relationship without swapping genitals.
Many experiences contributed to alleviating my belief that women saw me as scary or that I was unwelcome being close to them (again, unless they had a romantic value from me, though this was mainly in abstract). When one friend asked me to be in her wedding as a bridesman, it was very healing. At one moment, I was holding her hand to comfort her before she walked down the aisle, and as I looked around at her and the bridesmaids, I realized I was the only one in the bridal room crying. And I loved it, because that's me. At that same wedding, one of the bridesmaids was very friendly with me, and we hit it off really well. I could feel this appreciation for me as a whole person. It didn't feel restricted to "just friends" or the opposite of being fully romantic, but it just felt like I, as a whole human being, mattered. It destroyed the dichotomies created by where I did and did not fit society's definitions, and left me feeling whole and adequate, as Shea.
Shortly before these, though, was what was probably the most influential friendship. One female friend of mine was very accepting of me in my effeminate side, and let me wear her clothes at times, and appreciated my extreme hip movements because she'd never danced with a guy who could keep up with hers. I felt fully loved and embraced in this “effeminate” self. Yet... she was personally strong, much stronger than I, and though I felt like I was already fully adequate in her eyes, I could see she wanted me to be strong, too. It had felt in the past like there was a dichotomy between these two types of people, the gentle and effeminate, and the strong masculine. Most people's actions had affirmed that they only wanted one or the other. With her, though, I saw that either was welcome, yet both, together, was most ideal. And slowly, experiencing grace no matter which way I acted, I slowly was able to destroy that barrier in my mind between these two concepts, and was able to be closer to what, again, was a full and true Shea. The wedding experiences shortly after only reaffirmed these experiences.
Additionally, over the last couple years, I've made friends with several girls who “like” other girls. Regardless of the traditional ideas of Christianity, God has blessed me so much through these friendships. In my mind, I certainly had ideas that, of all the people who would dislike men, lesbians would want nothing to do with me. So to have them enjoy my company, to have them tell me how safe they feel around me, it's been shattering even further to those past held beliefs about myself. It is beautifully ironic to me that they, of all people, have helped me follow a more traditional Christian value of not trying to switch genders. It is because, like Christ, they know that the greatest commandment is love.
Now we get to the very difficult issue of the "true self" experience. I'd like to think my view is the most holistic approach, validating the many different perspectives and experiences in regards to these difficult issues. Basically, I think that when we look inside and see that place that feels like the true self, we really are seeing that: the true self. The main issue is that it is natural for human beings to doubt themselves over society, because what is one person against "common sense?" Of course, as we grow, we realize that much of society’s standards are bogus, but usually by the time that happens, we've already internalized these standards, and what we feel like is a fight with society is really a battle with our own internalized beliefs. So the real issue is that much of what we see is the real us, but the definitions are what we need to change, not ourselves. I also think that our sufferings and pain are a key component to us as human beings. That's our story. Thus, those desires and "false" answers that come out of that pain feel very close to our real identity because they are, in a way, part of it.
Thus, step four becomes redefining "male" and "female," and in my opinion, throwing out masculine and feminine as any sort of objective words or standards. I still use them because I find them helpful, but in using them I call myself feminine, because they are cultural constructs. (I think there's a small truth to them, but we'll get to that later). As I came to the realizations I've been describing, I basically had to start looking at myself as the standard of male, without letting myself dip into the need to change myself to feel comfortable. It's not a clear line, obviously, but it did become more clear as I worked on the other steps, especially understanding myself. I started to realize that many of the things tied to gender dysphoria were actually things I liked anyways, but I didn't realize that there may be a desire that's part of my nature multiplied by nurtured issues (thus, back to the shopping while hungry analogy). As I let myself be myself, casting off both the cultural definitions, along with the gender dysphoric reactions, I felt more "me" than I ever had, and more peace, hope, and confidence. I even found new things I enjoyed that were considered feminine after a lot of healing from the gender dysphoria, such as flowers. (It breaks my heart that it's not normal for women to give men flowers, and I'm thankful for the friend who did give them to me!) I love pretty much all colors, and it's so nice to be able to enjoy the color pink without feeling a tension between either society or dysphoria.
I've realized that the real Shea could be described as a hybrid of masculine and feminine, though the reality is I was always me, and I just got split with a false dichotomy. I've been learning that there's clothes that are somewhat feminine, but I like them as much as some of the male clothes I like, and it’s because I genuinely like them in a “male” way, but in my own kind of male way. I'm thankful for my female friends who help me find the clothes I like, and the positive feedback they've given. It may come as a shock to many, but there's many women who healthily enjoy men in clothes not traditionally ascribed to men. Some women like men in makeup, some like men in heels, and some like men in dresses! Of course, it's really tough to find what is the true Shea when I'm reacting to the extremes of the gender dysphoria. I think, had I chosen to embrace my transgender feelings and start identifying as female, it would have been nice for a year or two, but then I would have been back where I started, with the same problems and not knowing myself. The acceptance I was encouraged towards by the more liberal was likely just as poor an option as the “girlfriend” strategy taught by the more conservative. Now I've found peace. There's still tension often between me and society, and I actively work to do what I can to be a proponent of cultural change, but I am much more comfortable in my own skin, shape, personality, and identity. Being "male" no longer means being anything other than Shea.
One other way I overcame my reactions was forcing myself into male activities I was uncomfortable with. At one point, I was invited to play some 2v2 basketball, which I had never done (nor wanted to). And in that moment, I felt as if God was saying "You can be anyone you want to, but you shouldn't be ruled by fear. If you don't like sports, don't do it, but maybe do it this one time to overcome the fear." So I did. And it was great. I still don't care much for it, but now I'm not afraid of looking like "that kind of guy" and now I don't play just because I don't enjoy it very much. The reality is, society's definitions are good for us neither when we restrict ourselves within them or restrict ourselves outside of them. Either way, society's poor definitions end up ruling us.
I think one of the biggest lessons in all of this is: life is complicated. Things are complex, and can't be shoved in tiny boxes, especially when it comes to the deepest elements of ourselves. Many people who identify as transgender or gender dysphoric will read my story here and not relate to any of it, because the experiences, sufferings, and identities of each person vary so much and work themselves out in a myriad of ways. I do see a common theme of suffering and the mind's attempt to correct the perceived issue, but that's about it for anything potentially "universal." My goal is not to have you walk away with some sort of toolkit to "fix" people.
My desire is to help people be gracious and humble. Coming into this article, you may not have had any idea the strange things going on in my head at the phrase "gender dysphoria," and hopefully this has left you with an idea that we really don't know without listening well what is going on inside of other people. I'm very good at self analysis and at articulating myself; how much more so do people who aren't as good at these things need patience, grace, and love? Remember, the world is infinitely more complex than your understanding of it, especially in regards to people. Practice listening well.
What about gender? What about male and female? What are masculine and feminine? I've thought about these issues for a long time now. There's obviously the biological side of male and female. Is there anything else? Is the rest all a social construct? Personally, I think there is a difference beyond the biology of male and female, and I like to put it vaguely and mysteriously like I think it belongs: gender is spiritual. I don't think we can describe or define it in any human language, but it is something that is just there, that we experience, almost like a “people flavor” (Yum!). I don't think it's a spectrum, either, and I think people that believe it is are still tacking too much onto the words male and female, trying to understand it within constructed definitions. I think it's a really simple concept that we don't get to understand, we don't get to boss anyone else about, we just get to enjoy. It definitely isn't something that should make us feel restricted.
In fact, this is one of the big lies and dangers of our cultural definitions. Once we start defining gender, we exclude or decrease anyone who doesn't fit that role. Suddenly, we act like gender is something that can be lost simply by how we behave. Suddenly, a man is less male because he cries, or because he's not into cars. Suddenly a woman is less female because she doesn't like dresses, or because she gets scrapes and cuts. We use horrible phrases like “man up” or “quit being a girl.” This, in my mind, is a huge cause of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is not caused by behavior, but thinking it is caused by behavior can actually cause it! The negative beliefs about ourselves and categories are the cause, while behavior is a red herring.Whatever gender is, it certainly can't be lost or earned. Again, I think it's something we can't define, and it shouldn't make us feel limited, but instead, it should leave us feeling more free.
I have another theory from all of this. Some people give a scale of heterosexual to homosexual, but I think that there is a point on the opposite side of heterosexual that I call hyperheterosexual. It is where a person has too strong of an attraction to the opposite gender, and finds their own gender repulsive, in themselves and/or in others. I would certainly use this word to describe myself. I haven't derived many implications from this idea, but it's a work in progress (and could be totally untrue).
Another lesson I've learned in all of this is that your coping mechanisms are usually reflections of your true self. This is missed by many who are looking at psychology through black and white thinking, attempting to “purge the bad.” The reality is, when we experience trauma, our minds look for a solution among our existing skill set. Thus, a guy who's true self fits the masculine stereotype, but had similar experience to what I did above, may become extremely masculine. I have a "feminine" personality, a child-like spirit, and have been told my spirit animal is a cat with a dog personality. As I said above, I would react with presentations of myself as feminine, childlike, and feline, and this is because those elements did reflect part of my true self. Instead, in finding our weaknesses, we should also find our true selves and our strengths.
It breaks my heart that we are so afraid of sexuality in Christian culture. Our sexual attractions and deviations from the norm are so revealing about what is going on inside of us. Sexuality is the deepest form of intimacy, so it makes sense that of any place that could reveal what issues we are having in regards to intimacy, it would be sexuality. The types of porn we have struggled with, discussed in the proper context, can be very revealing and a fruitful path to healing if we can discuss and discover why they have been so appealing. In as much as you feel comfortable, please try to be non-reactionary to discussions of deviance from what is considered sexually normal. If people have moral convictions about pornography and certain sexual acts, not talking about it will make it worse, not better. Many people need to have those conversations.
It is also important to know that, when discussing gender and sexuality, attraction and identity are two entirely different issues (though often correlated). The way you feel about and identify yourself is very different from what you find yourself attracted to. There are masculine gay men and flamboyant gay men. There are masculine straight men and flamboyant straight men. To stereotype an effeminate guy like myself as gay is not reflective of reality. I do think, however, we see some correlations, because people who experience one of these issues often end up having negative experiences that lead to another. I will not attempt to speak for a universal "cause" of homosexuality, but several male friends of mine have said they were naturally "effeminate", and thus rejected by men they knew, which lead to their struggles with homosexuality. Going back to the first conclusions, life is complicated.
I often hear people talk about the need for community, or rebut that with a need to have confidence in oneself, or rebut that with the need to rely on God. Personally, I think these arguments are kind of silly. We need to play our part, we need other people to play theirs, and we need God to play His. His is, from my perspective, a given. Ours is our choice. The role of others... sometimes it just isn't there, and we suffer. No level of confidence in ourselves will make up for that. Locking up your heart and labeling it "confidence" to make up for a lack of human connection will not work in the long run. As C. S. Lewis says, that is the definition of Hell. All three elements are valid needs.
For Christians, there's an honest look we have to take of ourselves as a culture, especially in American Evangelicalism, as a major contributor to gender dysphoria. My dad brought me a magazine once about the cultural changes in regards to gender happening in America. In it, there was an article about a child born as a boy who felt like a girl, who was helping make a book for other children, and they said "I felt like a girl's brain in a boy's body." I looked at my dad and said "Who told this kid what a girl's brain felt like?" It is common for us as human beings to look to justify ourselves, and sadly, Christians forget that this is the opposite of faith. When homosexuality became more accepted and normalized in America, Christians wanted to justify why they opposed it, and thus emphasized their own rigid definitions of gender in order to justify why kids need one mother and one father. Sadly, these definitions are generally false, and the generations who do not fit are being wrecked by them, along with leaving Christianity behind them. We’ve made gender discussions into this scary either/or, when it’s much more often about accepting all of ourselves. The solution is not to make a person accept the made up standards of “masculine” or “feminine,” but simply to let them engage with all of who they are. We’re upset at transgender people for not playing by certain rules, but we made the rules up and are pretending that they are authoritative. If there are authoritative rules or guidelines, people might actually be open to them if we’d stop claiming our own were objective.
Honestly, had I written this article a few years ago, it would be very different, not just because of healing I hadn't done yet, but mainly because I would have written it trying to fix people. However, I've recently converted from Evangelical Christianity to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and it's changed a lot about me, including ideas relevant to this subject. I think a lot of people will find these perspectives helpful, and they are very key to my journey, so I include them here.
From an early Christian perspective, the main issue with human beings was not that they were law breakers, as if God was some legalistic judge. Their issue is that they were selfish. They were viewed as sick with this selfishness, and the reason they were separated from God was not because God pushed them away, but because they rejected love, which is the very being of God. We are simply unable to relate to Him without learning to love, like a kid who is mad at a parent while the parent is trying to love on them. As C. S. Lewis said, the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. The main way we learn to love is by denying ourselves. This comes through accepting suffering, fasting, forgiving enemies, etc. There was also no dichotomy of spiritual vs physical, or picking certain things to be sinful. Anything in creation could be sinful because we could be selfish and clutch on to it. Thus, the Christian lifestyle was about removing selfishness to make room for Christ.
This means, from an Orthodox perspective, that regardless of heterosexuality, homosexuality, gender dysphoria, or any other issue, the main goal is to deny ourselves and focus on love, not to obey rules. Rules are there to reflect love, but even the early church knew there would be exceptions based on love and the rules being at odds with love. I'm blessed that I find the practice of sexuality I feel called to as comfortable, as I know others who are attracted solely to the same gender but feel called not to act upon this desire, which is a lot more difficult than the path I have before me. I am very proud of them for following their convictions (and they do not have to marry anyone, either). From an Orthodox perspective, this is nothing to be ashamed of, but it will push a person closer to Christ and is an opportunity to share in his sufferings. It is a martyrdom, in a way.
This also means there is no shame. Responsibility and remorse over certain actions is good, but I believe shame is when we degrade and devalue ourselves, which we should never do. Shame is us attempting to sit in God's seat to judge ourselves. I also think we should not feel any guilt for our desires. We may need to take active steps to overcome them, but I had no control over my gender dysphoria, and even if I believe I shouldn't act on those feelings, I have no shame, guilt, or responsibility for having them. I did not choose them. I feel the same way about homosexuality, pedophilia, and sexuality in general. Do not feel ashamed or guilty for what you feel. Then, in regards to actions, if you act unlovingly and poorly on those feelings, do not feel ashamed, and only feel healthy guilt (responsibility) to correct your wrong, ask for forgiveness, and do better in the future, still with no shame.
I also believe that everything is beautiful, and that sin, or the lack of love, is never as strong as the beauty in everything. It has effect because God has given us free will, but there is always beauty to be seen in everyone and every act. As someone who, if I struggled with homosexual desires, would feel called not to act on it, I feel there is still beauty in the loving relationships between people of the same gender, even if sexuality is involved. I see so much love, care, and healing in the relationships of my LGBT friends.
A strong view of the original Christians was that God had each person on their own journey, and it was not our place to judge. Who knows what God is doing in the hearts of each person? We all have issues and struggles, and he deals graciously with us, one problem at a time, so as not to overwhelm us. Each of us has something He wants to challenge in us, but is waiting until we are ready. To judge anyone else because of their life decisions is not our business. I like to give the example that, if a friend told me he was dating a prostitute, I'd say "That's probably not a good idea." And yet, God had the prophet Hosea marry a prostitute. We do not know what journey God has each person on. In the Orthodox view, it is our job solely to cultivate our own hearts to love through obedience to Christ.
In scripture, we do not see a myriad of rules about gender. Generally, the rules are the same for both. We are all called to love, and we are told love is patient, kind, etc. There's no attributions of any traits to a specific gender. We even see God described by female analogies, and it was always taught that He is without gender. There's the command specifically of husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands, but we see countless times throughout scripture that love and submission go hand in hand. They are not a gender specific job. Personally, I think it's as simple as this: If you are male, and you seek to deny yourself and love, you will be a Godly man. If you are female, and you seek to deny yourself and love, you will be a Godly woman. You don't have to follow some specific rules based on your gender. Be yourself, take up your cross, and learn to love.
Sometimes I dress up to “look like a girl” because I think it’s funny. I like dressing up as things I’m not, like goth, for the heck of it. Other times, there’s clothes I actually like, even as a male, but almost a specific kind of male that just hasn’t been allowed to exist in general society without calling them a woman. But in either case, these types of clothes or behaviors don’t have to do with a reaction to pain, with an inadequacy, or with trying to change myself. It no longer rules me. No fear is associated with the act. I'm me because I'm me. I focus on denying myself and taking up my cross daily, on learning to love and treat those around me better. I don't have to worry that I'm gonna break some "code" and be the wrong gender. I am surrounded by women both strong and tender, who love me and tell me I'm handsome, tell me I'm beautiful, who tell me and show me they trust me, who are sexual and not afraid. I'm surrounded by beautiful men who I like to jokingly flirt with, because to the pure in heart, all things are pure. I am much more confident that someday I'll be a good husband, and some day I'll be a good dad. I'll submit to my wife and she'll submit to me, we'll love each other and teach each other, and I'll be a strong and protective father, who is emotional and gentle with his kids. I've still got healing to do, but I'd like to think I've come a long way. I'm a lot more comfortable being Shea.
Thanks for reading my story. It's been an intense journey, especially the last 6 years as I've explored the gender dysphoria. It's a blessing to me to be able to share it with you, and just to have it written down! I hope it will help you in your own journey towards love (and He who is love), both in finding your true self, and in loving those who are seeking to do the same. Your true self is who Christ made you to be, and the journey to Him, and to love, is the exact same journey as the path to your true self. The kingdom of heaven is within you.
If you ever have any questions or thoughts, feel free to message me on Facebook, where I'm listed as "Thaddeus Patrick Layton." I’m not easily offended, so you are welcome to disagree with my thoughts (or dislike my amateur writing skills). If you've got friends you think could use some guidance, I may not have much to offer, but send them my way and I'd be happy to chat with them!
I want to add a note based on a conversation I had during the draft stages of this article. If you find that, in reading some of the earlier parts of the article, it sounds so strange and unfamiliar to have the insecurities I discuss, you need this article. If you find yourself thinking that even if you don’t relate to society’s definitions, it doesn’t bother you, so “why does it bother him so much,” this is exactly why you need this article. If you have fit in socially all your life, you will not have doubts about these traits, even if someone questions them. But when a majority of what you have to work with is bad experiences, it is the only thing your brain has to go on. If a person is raised being told they are stupid, they will believe it. If they take an IQ test and score high, they might start to change their minds, but they will still feel stupid. Their brain may even start to think that IQ is a different kind of smart/stupid scale than the one they grew up being called, and the one they were called is more important. If you find yourself unable to relate to women, your brain will take all the variables it has experienced to come up with an answer, and then a solution. To the people that experience insecurity, those pains are very real. Time makes them sink deeper and deeper, like a stick in mud, and the further it sinks, the harder the idea is to get out. Also, our insecurities are not based simply on doubts about ourselves, but doubts about relationships. You can believe something positive about yourself, but feel no one sees it. This is just another answer the brain gives to deal with experiences, accepting both the philosophy of self confidence, but combining it with the reality a person has faced. Basically, I’m saying again that life is complicated, and that if you find these concepts to be so strange because “Shea is definitely not threatening,” it should definitely reinforce in your own mind how much you need to hear people’s stories. You may also have some insecurities you don’t even realize are personal because you’ve read them into everyone else, or attached them to a gender or some other category. This should ring much more true for Christians, because we supposedly believe God is in control, and yet we have fears and worry every day. Don’t we know God is in control? We are human beings who, without even a conscious effort, are affected by our experiences. This is also why faith is not a single, one-time prayer, but a journey of slowly experiencing God and being affected by that experience.