“Things will be different for you.” These were the first words that were uttered into my ear the day I was born. They were said by my mother, who was motivated by a desire to break the cycle of oppression of women that had defined my family for generations. While she knew she was trapped in this system, she was determined that her daughter not be subject to the suffering she had endured.
This was a noble intention. The web of misogyny was thick and woven through all aspects of our family culture. It was universally understood that women were inferior. They were less intelligent, less reliable, less robust, less valuable than men. Women were only useful for satisfying sexual urges, and raising the children. The men, on the other hand, had the power, freedom, intelligence and strength. They were superior, and they knew it.
Through my own observations and my mother’s tutelage, I understood the need to avoid this family pattern. Yet there were no models or tools available to show me what a happy girl could be. So early on I decided it was better to be a boy than a girl. My mother claims that my first full sentence was: “I wish I were a boy.” I remember her responding to this desire by telling me it was a good wish; it meant that I wanted to be an independent, free and strong person in my own right. I would pray nightly that God would make me a boy. And each day I would act as if He had answered my prayer; I pretended that I was a boy everywhere I went.
There were two casualties in this early childhood reality. The first was my relationship with my mom. We were very close, well bonded and affectionate. But on a deep level, I understood I was not to be like her. I detached from her and, in a sense, rejected her because she was a victim of the very system she had instructed me to conquer. Choosing not to identify with my mother left a hole in me that resulted in a deep hunger for female intimacy, which surfaced later.
The second casualty was self-rejection; I forsook my own gender. Anything “girl” was abhorrent to me. I dressed like a boy, acted like a boy and hung out with the boys. I thought girls were weak crybabies. If I caught a hint of some trait in myself that I thought of as feminine (gentleness, compassion, delicacy), I nipped it in the bud. In so doing, I rejected my true identity. I spent my early adult years seeking that identity through physical and emotional unions with women.
Rather predictably, my refusal to identify as a girl did very little for my social life. I was an oddity, and fodder for ridicule. With each derogatory comment, the divide between my sense of self and my own gender became wider. I looked at girls and thought, “I am simply not one of them.”
The nail in the coffin came when I hit puberty and it was time for me to come to terms with myself as a woman. This process was thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. My parents’ marriage was falling apart. My mother left the home and left me alone with my angry brother and my disconnected father. My dad had spent his adulthood battling sexual addiction. In the chaos of marital disintegration, he gave himself over to his urges and exposed me to a sexual darkness that no preteen should see. Instead of calling out and blessing my femininity, he taught me that intimacy and emotional vulnerability had no place in the male-female relationship and that women are no more than objects of sexual desire.
At age thirteen I left for boarding school feeling lost, lonely and abandoned. I hated men but was alienated from women. In the chaos of my confusion, I started to fall in love with my friends. And it was not long before I found deep comfort and a sense of self in the arms of another woman.
As a freshman in college, I self-identified as a lesbian and considered changing my gender. Instead, by a miraculous act of God’s mercy, I became a Christian. I understood upon conversion that God intended for me to be straight, so I sought healing for my same-sex urges. Healing did not come quickly for me. Perhaps I was terrified to let Jesus redeem my sexual identity. One thing I knew: being a girl was not safe. I was afraid that He would turn me into one of those “pathetically weak girls.”
I simply did not trust God enough. So I tried to fix myself. Several years after my conversion, I attended a Living Waters program and gained profound insight into the nature of my struggles as well as excellent tools to walk forward in the healing process. I must confess that I missed out on much of the transformational power available in that unique setting. I would not let God really have me. In essence, I did not genuinely repent because I could not surrender to Him these core areas of my life. I was not yet willing to die.
After eight years of trying to make myself right, I finally came to understand that only Jesus could redeem my identity. For me, surrender meant leaving my job, separating from toxic communities, and moving in with an elderly couple who provided tremendous accountability and a safe place to die to my old self and let the true woman emerge out of the ashes.
It also meant facing deep pain, fear and need. Then I could welcome God’s healing power as He called me forward in beauty and grace. This transformation continues to this day. God, my Father, challenges me to stand in the truth of who I am despite lingering fears or old lies. Having claimed me as His own, He continues to rename me as His daughter.
This emergence has developed in the context of relationships. While learning to be alone and rest in Jesus’ profound love has been foundational, it is in daring to be real and engaged with others that I am discovering the ways in which my womanhood uniquely reflects God’s image in a broken world. It started with same-sex friends loving me, including me, and modeling healthy and powerful femininity for me. Opposite-sex friendships reflect my unique value as a woman back to me. As a wife and mother I am continually fascinated at the intuition, wisdom, compassion and capacity to nurture that wells up and out of me.
I no longer fear being a woman. Instead, I embrace it. Not because it makes me better than men, but because in my womanhood I can swim freely in the will of God. I am not fighting for myself or defending against danger because Jesus is strong enough to protect me. Instead, I listen for and respond to the voice of my Maker.
I view my struggle with my gender identity as a gift because it has taught me to stay at the cross in desperation and surrender. It has taught me that my feelings do not determine reality and that God is far more trustworthy than I could imagine. Most recently, as I have been reflecting on this journey of redemption, I have been struck by the poignancy of Romans 12:1-2:
In view of God’s mercy, . . . offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.