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The Broken Cistern of Gender Dysphoria: One Pastor’s Story

The Broken Cistern of Gender Dysphoria: One Pastor’s Story
August 15, 2019

Benjamin Schulke is a bi-vocational pastor from West Michigan. He received his M.Div at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and B.S in Intercultural Studies from Cornerstone University. He is married to his beautiful wife Lauren, both whom love to serve their community through hospitality and coffee! 


"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” -Jeremiah 2:13 (NIV)

 

“I am not going to leave you, I’m not going to transition, but I need to tell you I can no longer hide the fact that I experience gender dysphoria.”

 

These were the words I spoke to my wife one morning after I finally came to grips with the tension between my sex and gender identity. I was a youth pastor in my last year of seminary, as well as in the process of being hired as an associate pastor at another church. How could someone like me experience these things? What was a follower of Jesus supposed to do with desires that were so shameful, especially in the church? What I didn’t realize in that moment was that God was choosing to answer a prayer I had been praying for years – “Jesus, do you love me as I am?”

 

I’ve grown tremendously in my faith since that fateful day. Regardless of the mess I feel I’ve become, Jesus sees me fully and still chooses to call me his. And with this rediscovery of the good news, I can’t help but want to proclaim his goodness on the rooftops. I’m certainly not the expert on gender identity, but I hope that God can use my story to help others understand.

 

As I have pondered what sharing more publicly might look like, I’ve often wondered how my story would impact others. Would the Church be able to see how Christ has met me through my story and hear how the gospel is good news for everyone, including LGTBQ+ people? Will the transgender community who has been treated so poorly by the church see my decision to not transition as a threat to their well-being?[i] How can I share my experiences in a way that people can understand and relate with their own brokenness as they pursue Christ?

 

 

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One place I’d like to start is in describing what it means for me to experience gender dysphoria (GD). I imagine many of you reading this are wrestling with how best to love and sympathize with gender dysphoric people, so I hope this will help provide a glimpse into what life is like for us. However, I must first clearly acknowledge that my experiences are my own, and GD is often felt uniquely and at different levels for each individual.[ii]I have to confess as well that I don’t know what it’s like to have crippling anxiety about my gender to the point of wanting to die. I grieve for those and pray that Jesus would heal and tend to the pain of anyone in such a situation.

 

So what is like to live with gender dysphoria?

 

For me, it is helpful to divide my experience with GD into the categories of social and body. Interestingly enough, the intensity of these feelings often vary from moment to moment and can sometimes be hardly perceived. Much like a volume setting for a stereo, some days loudly drown out everything else, and other days I can barely hear it. 

 

Social

 

The way I primarily experience GD is that I feel like an imposter within my own sex and my own body. Imagine walking into a party, but you realize that you’ve completely underdressed for the occasion. This is how I feel when I am around my own sex. There is this nagging feeling that something about me doesn’t quite fit in with men which goes away when I am around women. It’s as if I’m wearing glasses which color the world with a shade of gray, and if only I was born the other sex then that fog would lift. Then, my heart tries to convince me, I could enjoy life and friendships as such.

 

Body

 

For me, the dissonance between my body and what I expect it to be is the strongest part of my GD. As early as puberty, there have been times where I strongly desire to be rid of my male sexual organs and long for female ones. Body hair can also be a huge trigger for me. The thickness and amount of it on my legs, chest, and arms frustrates me often. I frequently grieve for the loss of hair on my head, as it is a strong reminder of my apparent masculinity. Additionally, there are many things about my body that seem wrong to me. Sometimes it’s noticing the depth of my voice, or how wide my shoulders are. Often, I hate how I fill the clothes I wear. This is especially true in traditionally more masculine outfits (looking at you, khaki pants and tucked in shirt).

 

Interestingly, I have also felt a sense of body envy when seeing other women. There is this deep sadness that falls over me where I recognize my hair will never look that way, my skin won’t be as soft or clear, or my body will never have that shape. In some ways there is jealousy, but in other ways it feels like my brain is associating what it is expecting when looking at a woman.

 

As I write down and share these experiences with a few friends, I can’t help but get the sickening feeling of shame. I squirm at the thought that I can’t control what readers think of me. In fact, as I read my own writing, I’m shocked at how strange some of these statements sound. I want to hide so badly, yet deep down I know that to do so is not the way of Christ. He has come that we might be free! To go back into hiding is to go back into darkness. While it may be painful to die to myself and show my weaknesses, it is worth the abundant life that vulnerability and truth bring.

 

In many ways, my brokenness may look different than yours. Gender dysphoria is not as common as other things people experience. But if I’ve learned anything from this journey, it’s that we are all searching for Jesus in the broken things we desire. These broken cisterns of ours may quench a small part of our thirst, but they are not the true living water. It is my hope that we can see one another not with shame and judgment, but rather love each other as image bearers of God for whom Christ has died. And perhaps, if we slow down to hear each other’s stories, we might just remember that the gospel is indeed good news.

 

 




[i] I’m using the term “transgender” here in accordance with the APA which defines it as - “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” This includes a variety of experiences and is not limited to those who have transitioned. I sometimes use the term for myself to describe my gender dysphoria, though the nuance of using this term to describe one’s identity is for a future post.

 

[ii] Typically, gender dysphoria refers to the experiencing of gender incongruence to the point that it interferes with daily life. I am using the term here to refer to this experience, but recognize that there is a spectrum of intensity. I would lead toward the mild/moderate side of this spectrum.

Comments

As a parent of a teen diagnosed with gd I thank you for offering your honest self. It is my desire that my teen find freedom in Christ alone.

I praise God that he has used my story to bless you. Freedom in Christ is costly but worth it. GD may never go away in your teen, but they can find true meaning and love in Jesus. I hope my story proves that, even if I am still learning to turn to him!

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Benjamin, Thank you for sharing this glance into your life. I appreciate your honesty and pray you write more. Please do not hide, we need your voice! Lenore: so may it be, I come into agreement and pray for that freedom for my adult son as well.

Tamra, I am so grateful that my openness has blessed you. I hope to write some more posts soon! Thank you for the encouragement. I receive it well! I will also say a prayer for your son.

Great article, truly great. My wife is a clinical psychologist and says GD is the most complex concern she deals with in her practice. No straight forward answers. Be interested to know whether your ideation of the female figure represents actual females across the spectrum. I'm a fifty two year old male - very fit and slim from 100km weeks of running - but am super amazed, and almost jealous of the 25 year old male runner physique. That taps into our wistful desire for youth as much as anything. Does ideation in GD have a female ideal (age etc), or is it the feminine in general?

Thank you for your comment. Even for someone who experiences GD, it can be tough to answer the many questions people have. As far as the ideal image, I believe my ideation takes more of a general female ideal than specific. One of the aspects of GD that I've read about in others' stories is that there never seems to be enough change when transitioning. One truly is never satisfied without Christ; we always seem to want what we don't have.

Dear Pastor Schulke,
Please tell us what scripture has allowed you to overcome these thoughts in the difficult moments and what in them ministers to you! Please tell us how you and your wife have stayed together and worked through these struggles together. Thank you for your openness with an extremely relevant and sensitive topic today.

Koola, I am glad to help shed some light on this topic. I am currently working on a blog post that will answer your first question more in depth. As far as being able to overcome these thoughts of GD, I am not completely sure what it is that you mean. If you mean how is it that I can endure the incongruence at it's worst, there are a few things that have helped me. I cannot say, however, that I have overcome GD. As far as the Scriptures are concerned, there are several to which I go. I often draw near to Matthew 16:24-27, which is the source of my longing to surrender these desires to Jesus and trust him for the eternal life I seek. I would rather struggle with GD and be in Jesus' arms, than to have gained the whole world. Another cluster of passages would be those centered on thankfulness (1 Thes 5:18; Col 3:17; Phil 4:6). So much of my GD focuses on hatred of my maleness, but I have been working to practice being thankful for the way God has made me. It is my hope that being thankful for what I've been given, even though it is not what I would choose, will help to renew my mind and cause me to look upwards towards Christ, rather than on my circumstances here. My wife and I are doing well, and I appreciate your concern! It was difficult to navigate at first, but we have tried to actively pursue openness with one another. While it may seem strange, this experience has helped to bring us closer together and see our marriage as more missional than before. Thanks again for asking good questions!

You are brave and God is kind to us in growing you to share your story. Praying for you, and your wife. Praising God for the security you have found in King Jesus and for his promises that in the world to come we will no longer be subject to such trials.

God is so very kind. Thank you for your prayers!

The body of Christ needs you and others like you! Thank you for sharing - you’re an inspiration!

Andrew, I praise God for these comments. I am honored to receive such kindness from you and the many others who have responded to my post. Blessings to you!

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