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?
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.
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.
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.