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A change of body, mind and soul

Transgendered people seek nothing more from churches than a genuine welcome

By Jocelyn Bell

Would you like to hear me sing?" Michelle Hogan stands by the grand piano in the sanctuary of Wesley United in Cambridge, Ont., and hits the play button on a stereo perched atop its closed lid. A few bars of music introduce an 18th-century Italian aria and Hogan begins to sing, her soprano voice rich and comfortable.

Hogan has been studying voice for almost three years and has managed to extend her upper range by several notes. She likes to practise in the sanctuary, not just for the acoustics but because this church is home. Baptized here in 1953, she grew up singing in its choirs and attending its Boy Scouts and Venturers clubs. After showing off her soprano voice, Hogan reveals its other side. "This is the voice I use when I'm really annoyed," she says, her voice sliding down into a deep and booming bass left over from her former life as Michael.

It's been four years since Hogan underwent sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. "May 6, 2003. My second birthing," she calls it. The procedure cost $15,000 and the entire bill was paid for through fundraising efforts at Wesley United. For Hogan, becoming a woman ended years of torment. "I was just in the wrong body," she says with a heavy sigh. "It's basically a birth defect and it just wasn't me.

Hogan is one of nearly 50 transgendered or "gender-variant" people who attend United Churches across Canada. Some find a warm welcome and full acceptance into the life of the church. Others encounter mere tolerance -- or less. Though their numbers are small, they may be the next group to stretch the United Church's ability to welcome and accept diversity. "Transgendered" describes anyone whose gender identity differs from the sex of their birth, from occasional cross-dressers to those who have undergone surgical sex change. The phrase "trapped inside the body of a man/woman" is the one most commonly used to describe the experience. Though it's treated psychologically, medical science is beginning to prove that talk therapy isn't the cure, much to the relief of those who've been labelled sexual deviants and worse. The medical explanation is this: during the eighth week in the womb, ovaries or testes are formed. They pump out estrogen or testosterone, wiring the body -- including the brain -- to be female or male. One theory is that the brain gets too much or too little androgen, and winds up different from the body. In other words, a female brain trapped inside a male body, or vice versa.

Researchers have estimated that anywhere from one in 500 to one in 30,000 people feel estranged from their bodies. Sex reassignment surgery, considered the only "cure," can cost tens of thousands of dollars. While some provincial health-care plans still absorb the price tag, most have delisted the surgery -- and faced human rights tribunals as a result. Transgenderism is inching its way into the mainstream through films such as the Oscar-nominated Transamerica and Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry, along with Jeffrey Eugenide's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. But as with many things sex-related, the church lags behind.

Marissa Cannon, a member of Centenary United in Hamilton, was attending a Pentecostal church in the city when she decided she could no longer live as a man. It was a decision that would cost her her church, her job, her marriage and her relationship to her children. "They said, `What you're doing is wrong, you need to get back together [with your wife], you need to pray a lot.' I was like, `No, I need to sort out why I'm this way in a loving, caring environment where people understand me,'" the 47-year-old Cannon recalls.

Deuteronomy 22:5, which states that it's an abomination for men and women to dress in each other's clothes, hasn't helped transgendered people find a place in Judeo-Christianity. Nor has the Genesis story. "There's a real concern in the Hebrew Bible about maintaining differences between things, whether it's the fibres you wear or transgressing sexual roles," says Professor Donald Boisvert, who teaches religion and sexuality at Montreal's Concordia University. "It's very hard for Christians to think outside those boxes."

Cannon was raised in a conservative church outside London, England. "For a long time, I thought, I don't understand why God would make me this way. It seemed to me that it was wrong. But then, how can something be so wrong but be so right at the same time?"

Support for gender variance exists in the Bible, too. In Acts 8, Philip meets a eunuch on the road to Gaza, tells him about Jesus and baptizes him. "That's one of the first conversions to the new church," says Boisvert. Though a eunuch is not the same as a transgendered person, "it certainly is someone who transgresses traditional gender boundaries."

It's hard to ignore the obvious: that God calls us to love, says Rev. Lynn Godfrey of Centenary United, discussing the high rate of suicide and depression among transgendered people. "I don't know how we cannot be compassionate with people who are trying to be who God created them to be."

Rev. Roy Holton of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont., has ministered to many gender-variant people in his congregations over the past 30 years: "As a church we have to become educated, learn the language and the attitude of acceptance. And be willing to share the journey. . . . Once we're open, it becomes relatively easy to accept them." Centenary United, an Affirming congregation since 2002, now has about 12 transgendered people in the pews. "They just started showing up," says Rev. Wayne Irwin.

The first time Cannon went to church, Irwin introduced himself with the question: "Are you a hugger or a shaker?" She chose a hug. "And what a hug," she says. "It was incredible. He made me feel so welcome."

Lisa, who withheld her last name to protect her son's privacy, is a 54-year-old male-to-female who occasionally appears as Larry. When a friend invited her to a dance at Centenary, she hesitated at first but then decided to go as Lisa -- in a full-length strapless gown. "I danced with every single person and became good friends with all these people.

And then I started coming to the church." Centenary gave her a nametag with Larry on one side and Lisa on the other. "They said, `You can come here any way you want.'"

When Linda Wooton's friend John Harrison of Sarawack United in Owen Sound, Ont., organized a fundraising campaign to help her pay for male-to-female surgery, two area churches declined to display "Helping Linda be Linda" pamphlets in their narthexes. Even so, individuals from other United churches in the city donated $1,600 -- enough to pay for an orchidectomy (removal of the testicles). Wooton, 63, had the surgery last July, which has spurred breast growth and softer skin. Her home church, Central Westside United, issued her a new baptismal certificate. "It was my first ID, my first official document with my name on it."

Back in Cambridge, Hogan remembers 2000, the year she decided to return to church as a woman. Her mother had received notice of an upcoming photo session for Wesley United's directory. Hogan wanted to be photographed too, but as Michelle, not Michael. She went to talk to the minister at the time, Rev. Roy Holton, "because I didn't want to alarm anyone." Holton accepted her with open arms and copied a letter she had written about her transition to members of the church Board.

Not long after she'd returned to church, Hogan was invited to a meeting with about 12 church members. "They basically said, `We wish to support you in your transition: spiritually, socially, emotionally and, if you need it, financially.' It struck me so hard because I wasn't expecting it," she says, choking up. "They taught me what Christianity is about."

The support group at Wesley organized fundraising, eventually raising the cash needed for Hogan's surgery. As she convalesced, Hogan realized how important that help had been and started the Torchlight Gender Support group in September 2003. These days, about a dozen people from all over southern Ontario meet at the church monthly to discuss gender-identity issues. Two members have fully transitioned with support from the group. Another Torchlight chapter has started at Centenary in Hamilton, and Hogan hopes the day comes when support groups are dotted across the country.

Others are working diligently to bring transgendered issues to national prominence in the United Church. Ruth Bramham was the first transgendered representative on Affirm United, the United Church's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered support network.

A member of Newtonbrook United in North York, Ont., Bramham dreams about the next General Council, in 2009, passing a resolution stating that it affirms and welcomes people of all gender identities.

"The message first and foremost is that we are not freaks. We are normal people," she says. "The United Church is seen as being an open-door church. Don't slam the door in our faces. Are you just going to tolerate us or are you going to embrace us as fellow church members?"

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