Emptying my shoe

Emptying my shoe

I can’t imagine where I’d be had I not found my Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Suzi Chase
I can not walk more - shoe with pebble in it - Stock image

© Manuel Faba/istock

© Manuel Faba/istock


How did I get here? How could I have gone so quickly from a warm loving family to a barren empty flat?

Those questions echoed in my mind’s dank chambers as I surveyed the unfamiliar living space. Floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes obscured stark, bare walls. Could the pieces of my shattered life ever reassemble into something resembling normal? Nothing was normal, and maybe never would be again after the metaphorical hurricane that had laid waste to my life.

That hurricane had a name. Transgender.

People are far more comfortable allowing the messy business of a gender transition if it is presented by storytellers as a foregone conclusion from the start. But reality is nowhere near that neat.

The media would have you believe transgender people “always knew” their gender. The news shows us story after story of little girls knowing in their hearts they are boys, or boys asking to wear dresses and play with Barbie dolls. Even if this knowledge goes unexpressed for decades, we’re led to believe, their gender was obvious to them from a young age.

People are far more comfortable allowing the messy business of a gender transition if it is presented by storytellers as a foregone conclusion from the start.

But reality is nowhere near that neat. I spent the first fifty years of my life with no earthly clue I might be transgender. An observer might have found my teenage preference for female friends unusual, but I did not. Teenage gender norms and those of the liberated era in which I was raised allowed anyone to be friends with anyone else, and I put together a rich social life.

Things changed after graduation. People began pairing off, and social overtures toward single women were generally interpreted as romantic. Finding friendship among females became more challenging. However, I made the best of my opportunities, getting married and raising two children. I was mildly uncomfortable with my role as husband and father, but since I had never really felt like I fit in anywhere, that seemed unsurprising and certainly not an indication of anything unusual about my relationship with gender.

As a married man, I found that developing friendships with women was nearly impossible. I couldn’t come up with any way of approaching women socially without looking like I was interested in an affair. Luckily, my wife and I were great friends, keeping the loneliness of my married years partially at bay. I had family and career to keep me busy, so it was not until age fifty that I turned my focus toward the gaping holes in my social life.

I set about putting together the puzzle pieces of what until then had seemed unrelated traits. My reading habits involved almost exclusively books written by, for, and about women. While awaiting the doctor, I invariably chose the women’s magazines. My favorite movies featured stories about strong women who overcame adversity, and my favorite songs tended to be those from female artists whose mighty voices sang of feminine empowerment.

I also began for the first time to examine a feeling I’d had since my teen years: regret that I was not born female, with a female body. I would frequently try a thought experiment: Would I give up everything to magically become a woman? The answer invariably came back “yes.” I would gladly trade my own life for just about any female one.

My wife supported my explorations until the clues began to suggest I might be transgender. “If you transitioned, I’d probably leave you,” she told me one night, and I did not object. I certainly would have been upset to find myself suddenly married to a man, and I understood why remaining in a marriage with a woman would not be her choice.

So I was cautious. I tested the waters, first presenting as a woman in public and then joining a transgender-friendly women’s reading group. A realization took shape: I was far more comfortable as my female self. Female social interactions seemed “right” in a way that male interactions never had. I began to see my female life as the “real me,” while the prospect of spending the rest of my days as a male looked unbearably dreary. I was conscious of a part of my being that demanded I be true to it by living as a female. I could no more change it through an effort of will than I could my height or eye color.

However, many whom I took into my confidence urged me to save my marriage by remaining in my male life and avoiding disrupting my family. I had survived a half-century as a male, surely I could survive the rest of the way.

After much soul searching, I still couldn’t agree. Imagine you are on a long hike, feet throbbing with discomfort. You soldier on, because everyone on the hike is complaining. But then you all take a break, and you find that your shoe is full of pebbles, while everyone else’s shoes are clear. You realize that, though no one’s feet feel fine, it’s been far worse for you than for others. A simple solution exists—remove your shoe and empty out the pebbles.

What would you say to those who remind you that you’ve hiked this far, surely you could hike just a little farther? That the hike is more than half done, and you’d inconvenience everyone else, who would have to wait for you to untie your shoe and then lace it back up again? What would you do? Would you just finish the hike, knowing that every step will hurt, or would you beg their indulgence while you emptied your shoe?

In the end, I reluctantly and with much trepidation decided that, while I wished I could have remained as I was for the sake of my marriage, it was asking too much of me to insist that I spend the rest of my life pretending I was someone I’m not. I needed to change, and if my wife left me because of it, I couldn’t control that and shouldn’t try.

That decision shattered our marriage. After months of vitriolic wrangling we decided she would buy my half of the house. My daughter, then a junior in high school, remained living with her. I moved into my own place, my wife furious that I’d chosen transition over her. My son was away at college by then, so for the first time since getting married I was living alone.

I had been cast from paradise. My new fabulous life as my female self had come down to barren walls and brown cardboard boxes. I needed to rebuild my life. But where to begin? How could I find a place where my brand of newly minted femininity would be supported?

Some weeks earlier, I had attended a gathering of transgender people at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Baltimore. There, I had run into someone I had worked with years earlier. She wasn’t transgender, but was there as a member of the church. She was eager to give me a tour of the historic building, including the magnificent sanctuary where William Ellery Channing gave his famous sermon. When she learned that I didn’t know the first thing about Unitarian Universalism, she gave me a brief primer and read me the seven Principles. I recall thinking it was remarkable that they seemed to express almost precisely my own personal values.

However, I was raised Jewish, a religion that has seen itself as under siege since its inception. Jews are trained to resist the draw of other religions, seeing conversion as a betrayal of not just our faith but our very culture, our families, friends, and traditions. So I had filed my knowledge of the UU Principles among the general factual trivia that clutters my mind.

During those early days of living alone, though, feeling adrift and disconnected, the idea of joining a faith community began to seem attractive. I looked into some of the Reform Jewish congregations in the area, but I was not enticed. They appeared more focused on the observance of rituals than any real spiritual exploration.

I got a much different impression visiting the website of our local UU congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, “UUCC” to pretty much everyone. I found myself registering for a Get Connected class, and on a windy February morning I took a seat in a makeshift circle of chairs at the center of a seemingly cavernous sanctuary in Columbia’s Owen Brown Interfaith Center. By the time the class started there were ten women seated there, and we were joined by a young couple a few minutes later. The first order of business involved introductions. As we went around the circle, I was astounded to find that among the ten original women, five of us were queer, including the assistant minister leading the class.

What I heard that day convinced me that UUCC was a great fit. I left intending to take advantage of all the social, spiritual, and educational opportunities I had time for. The only events I planned to skip were the weekly services. My childhood memories of synagogue involved excruciating hours listening to interminable chanting in Hebrew about the greatness of God. The only spiritual experience they seemed to offer me came from the overwhelming relief when they were finally over.

While leaving the Get Connected class, I said as much to one of my fellow students, who also came from a Jewish background. She persuaded me to give the service at least one try. So on a Sunday morning in early March 2014 I first heard the senior minister, the Rev. Paige Getty, preach.

The topic that week was “family,” and the service included testimony by members of three dissimilar families. One involved a blended family and the trials and rewards of merging their two households. A single woman told of her life, and a gay man spoke of initially being rejected but then finally accepted by his partner’s mother. Getty painted an expansive view of the world, one where diverse family structures contribute to beauty and variety. So sincere and affirming was her message that my eyes weren’t dry for a moment during the entire hour-long service.

Fast-forward to the present, and nearly every friend I have I met at UUCC. I never miss a chance to hear Getty preach if I can help it, and I look forward all week to the lazy lunches after services, discussing the sermon, current events, and what’s going on in our lives, or just kicking back and enjoying our food. I teach religious education classes every week, have helped lead services, and have participated in reflection groups, fun feasts, game nights, and other events too numerous to name. When I had gender-confirming surgery, I came out as transgender to the entire congregation during the sharing of joys and sorrows. I spoke of my excitement and fear, and I was met by an outpouring of support and a promise from a lay member of the Pastoral Care Committee to call me frequently during my recovery period.

As I write this, I have just returned from three days at a spiritual center after participating in the annual UUCC women’s retreat. During one of the fascinating workshops there, it occurred to me how amazing it was to bask in the love and support that warmed that all-female space. And how unremarkable it felt that no one had ever questioned whether, as a transgender woman, I belonged there. The subject simply hadn’t come up.

I can’t imagine where I’d be had I not found UUCC. My life would certainly lack much of its richness. The dark, lonely period after my separation now seems a distant memory.

Adapted with permission from Testimony: The Transformative Power of Unitarian Universalism, edited by Meg Riley (Skinner House, 2017).

Listen to this article