“Bill’s” Story: A Pastor’s Journey to Accepting a Transgender Daughter

The topic of gender reassignment has recently gained national attention as a result of Bruce Jenner’s transgender conversion. Also in the news are many other stories relating to legislative changes to adapt to the reality of transgenderism. Here are just a few ways in which transgenderism is working its way into the fabric of our culture:

  • The Department of Education announced that Title IX, part of a 1972 education legislation that bars sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funds, also applies to transgender students.
  • In 2011, the Internal Revenue Service announced that surgery and hormones for people with gender identity disorders now qualified for itemized medical deductions.
  • Nationally, cities, schools, and organizations are adopting gender neutral restrooms because 'women's' and 'men's' restrooms only acknowledge a two-gender system.[1]

An accurate estimate of the number of transgender people in the United States is not available. In May 2015, the US Census Bureau analyzed people who most likely were transgender, based on the fact that they had changed their name or sex with the Social Security Administration. Bureau staff also examined census records. According to a New York Times article, “It was novel because it was the first effort to use administrative data instead of survey data to learn more about transgender people in the United States.”[2]

Since the Social Security Administration was established in 1936, 135,367 people have changed their name to one of the opposite gender, and 30,006 also changed their gender accordingly, the study found. Of the 135,367, 65 percent were transgender men, and 35 percent were transgender women. From 2002 to 2013, the Social Security Administration required proof that genital surgery had been completed before people could change their sex in official records, but it no longer does. Of Americans who participated in the 2010 census, 89,667 had changed their names, and 21,833 had also changed their gender.[3]

“Bill” is a retired pastor who served a church in the northeastern United States for fifty years. He wishes to remain anonymous. A few years ago, his forty-seven-year-old son decided to reverse his birth gender by taking the necessary steps, including gender-reassignment surgery, to become a female. Here is Bill’s story about his journey from feeling a sense of loss to acceptance. It was by God’s grace that Bill and his wife effectively dealt with this unusual and initially troubling family development and regained their undying support and love for their child, just as Jesus would have them do.

It also empowered Bill’s energy and enthusiasm for his ministry following his earlier retirement. Regardless of your personal perspective on this issue or your interpretation of Scripture related to gender, this is a poignant and compelling story of God’s far-reaching love and compassion for the “other” and how that knowledge transformed Bill and his wife.


Bill's Story

This is a story that is hard to tell—not because of its outcome, but rather because it is so personal. It is a story about a journey I never expected, one that was a challenge to my heart and resulted from my son’s decision to take the actions required to be what he said he always believed he was: a woman.

I was born seventy-eight years ago. I was brought up in a family business and was expected to take over one day as the eldest son. The family-owned business was a seven-day-a-week work schedule with little or no opportunity or even much thought about going to church. My becoming a church member and then a pastor for more than fifty years is another story of God’s persistent love and of His gentle and not-so-gentle nudges.

My wife was born seventy-six years ago in northern New England to a working family. The family moved out West, then back to the Northeast, suffered through bankruptcy, and finally had a more stable lifestyle. She was brought up in a church, and her father was the church school superintendent. She has always been a beautiful, quiet, Christian woman whose base faith from childhood I envy.

We were fortunate enough to be brought together by a God-incident during my second year in seminary. She waited on me in a department store. Within six months, we were engaged, and we married within the year. Little did we both know how much we were one in faith and in our outlook on life. Our fifty-three years together have proven it an unshakable bond with a common faith, thoughts, ideas, values, love, respect, and concerns. It is through this faith that we met a surprise.

This story is about another part of life’s journey that was equally as unexpected as my being called into ministry or our meeting that day in a store. To get through this situation as a family required that we call on our faith together.

Our first child, a daughter, was a beautiful, gentle, loving, blonde, inquisitive child. Three years later, she was followed by the arrival of a tiny little towheaded boy as gentle and loving as a lamb. He was quiet and sweet. The years flew by, and the two grew together into the marvelous persons they were to become, faithful to Christ. Moving as pastors’ families do, to different churches, different communities, and schools, with different friends, these two little ones grew in more ways than we could imagine. They never gave us an ounce of trouble. They loved each other as they were loved deeply. Holding firm to our faith in Christ as a family, these would be the essentials that would bring us to where we are today in the challenge that faced us.

You see, forty-seven years after he was born, our handsome son is now a beautiful transgender woman.

How did it happen? Why did it happen? Why did it happen to him…to us? I don’t know if I can answer those questions, for they have to be lived out beyond answers.

Allow me to draw “the big picture” that comes together in our struggle, our journey, our coming to where we are today.

What Lies Behind Gender Issues?

I earned a master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology and pastoral counseling. I didn’t realize it at the time, but although I was doing so to aid my ministry, that education also contained the ingredients that would guide us through our future journey. In the early 1960s, the study of gender issues was in its infancy. I read and wrote papers on gender issues from a point of knowledge that neither I nor many others yet understood well. I actually believed early on, as did others, that such issues were a matter of personal choice and decision and that they were “curable.” But then I began to study more about the so-called “cures” that not only did not work but often resulted in permanent emotional disturbances or suicide.

That caused me to begin to question what may really lie behind gender issues that we did not understand. It also made me begin to ask myself as a Christian why we dared in society to categorize people who found themselves in gender struggles as “sick,” “deviant,” or “queer,” look down on them, and spew sick jokes. As a Christian and a pastor, it was my “job” to love others no matter what or who they were. After all, what claim did I have to being loved unconditionally any more than anyone else? I have made and will make mistakes. If I could be so loved, who was I not to love the same way—unconditionally?

For years, unknown to me, the Lord was already preparing me to finally be what I claimed I wanted to be: a follower of His way of loving, to be open and receptive to all God’s children—regardless. Obviously, that is not always easy. Sometimes it tests our very essence. As a pastor, I have met just about every type of person and have sought, as best I can, to care for them all, for I know that we all want and need to love and be loved. Each of us, as a child of God, is created and formed by God, belongs to the Creator, and is equal to others in God’s sight.

As more studies developed on the subject of gender, as more science unraveled a few more of the mysteries of human creation and its incredible complexity and beauty, I began to realize how absolutely marvelous God’s creation of the human being truly is and how everything is so intertwined. To think that one little difference in our basic structure separates us as male and female is sobering. Among all of us as males and females, we have some varying degrees of the other within us—more pronounced in some and more repressed in others. God created males and females from the same substance. Sometimes those gender differences between male and female are completely separated. But it appears that sometimes in creation they are not.

Finally, I Confronted and Accepted the Reality

All this history and awareness I experienced brought me, as God has done in so many ways in other life issues, to confront the eventual reality that our precious son was created as two parts of the whole. He was transgender. Even though it was a shock to finally know, God’s previous preparations—ever so subtle and diverse in my life—made the shock, though considerable, easier to journey through. That is not to say that we didn’t go through the normal reactions: Why him? What did we do wrong? Was it our fault? Maybe I did not play enough sports with him. Was he babied too much? How did we miss it? What will people say? Will we be looked at differently as a pastoral family? Will people avoid us? What do we do now? How do we react? What do we say? Those questions were all there and more, along with a large dose of unfounded guilt.

How did it happen? We found that it was a slow evolution in him as the years progressed. He was always slight, sensitive, hardworking, a bit of a dreamer, funny, loving, and aware of others. On his one side, he was a long-distance runner, joined the National Guard after college, went to officer training school, won honors in physical endurance, served in Iraq, and was awarded a Bronze Star. On the other side, a trend began but was well hidden back in elementary school. He and a little friend cross-dressed in secret. By the time he told us of his private journey, he was in college, and it had become a private way of life. It was hard not to dwell on the questions above about our part in his journey. As difficult as it was for us to understand what had transpired, we realized that his sexuality is not his or our “fault.” It is just who he is!

Our son got married before he left for Iraq and saw action. He was fortunate to marry a woman who knew his secret and accepted him from the beginning. Upon return from the war, the drive toward gender change continued to get much stronger. He became more uncomfortable in his male body and began to manifest more feminine traits, both emotionally and physically, as some medications were introduced. This part of the journey was perhaps the most difficult to watch, and we found it difficult to understand the what and why. He was our son, my buddy to work with and to rebuild car engines with, redo homes, build cabinets, go skiing, travel on mission trips, paint, and get dirty together. It was hard to see him otherwise in my mind. How could I possibly see him otherwise? Yet my son was becoming a woman. Once revealed, the transformation began to move more quickly.

How does one respond to such a journey, never dreaming that it might begin and not knowing where it would end? Unfortunately, too many families disavow their transgender child, which leads to family disruption, emotional problems, incredibly stressed relations, shunning, and all too often suicide. Between my wife and me, I think I had the harder time—I felt like I was losing my son. Maybe it was because I was now alone as the male in the family. Maybe it was because I thought I was losing my buddy. My wife, though she too struggled, was able to be her loving self. It is strange to say, stranger yet to feel, but here “he” was, and yet still he was not…he was a she! Still, no matter what the form, there was still the same sweet, caring, loving person, a child of God, our child, a son, a woman.

God Was Preparing Me All Along

Thank God for all the past experiences, the past teachings, the past relationships that prepared the way unknowingly for us that in turn have brought us to our being an even stronger family because of this journey.

Perhaps the most telling time in our journey together was when our son entered the final stage of gender change by surgical means. My wife and I refused to think that we would have him go alone to a distant state for the surgery. Together we decided that I would go to be with him as he became a she. It was, with God’s grace and insight, a most unique experience in many ways, to say the least. The most vivid memory I have was the night before the surgery in my hotel room, weeping at the pending loss of my son, thanking God for the son I had, and also thanking God that although his body may change, he was still my same child within, and we were together. God, as always, in infinite wisdom and love, surrounded us both in those next days of recovery with loving, caring people who made no judgments, withheld no caring, and touched us both by their very presence. It was a sacred and precious time that I shall never forget. The Lord was present in our midst.

We Are to Love Others Unconditionally as
God Loves Us Unconditionally

In a world fraught with intolerance that has forgotten or has never known the central message of Christ to love as loved, to forgive as forgiven, to judge not lest you be judged…we share a deep concern for our child’s safety. In one church our child attended, he was told to leave. How sad, how un-Christian. We feel sorry for them. We know there is still so much confusion and lack of knowledge about transgenderism. But by and large, among the people we know and who care for us, and those who care about our son, they have been loving and accepting beyond our expectations. We know it is difficult for them to understand, but we have sought to encourage questions and to answer them as frankly as we can. In the meantime, the Lord led my son and his family to a little United Methodist Church that has accepted and loved them for who they are.

God has been good and faithful to us all through this journey. Without God’s guidance, we may not have had a happy ending to this journey, as others have not. But God is and has always been at work within us, seeking first to remind us of God’s unconditional love for us, and secondly calling us to love others in all the diversities of humanity as we have been loved. Without this understanding of God’s unconditional love/grace by which we are each held by God, what would we become like as people? How precious it is to know, how humbling it is to realize, the power and fullness of God’s grace offered to us, and through us offered to others.

The following verses remind us that everything is in God’s master plan, and it is not our job to worry about such situations:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
— Philippians 4:6–7
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
— Romans 8:28
In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.
— Job 12:10

My Take on Bill’s Story

One of the most difficult parts of being an intelligent, well-meaning human is that it is difficult for us when situations happen that are beyond our control. We often blame ourselves or think that if only we were more diligent or clever, we could have found a way to avoid the unexpected outcome. But we are not in control; God is.

No matter what your interpretation of biblical passages relating to gender, Bill’s story is a very poignant one relating to his and his wife’s reactions and ultimate acceptance of their son’s transition. It is indeed a story about realizing, and then extending, the unconditional love of God’s grace in their acceptance of their child’s decision. I hope and pray that by posting the pastor’s story, it will advance the quality of discussion on the topic and the understanding of the real nature of God’s grace.

Time for Personal Reflection

  1. Think of a time in your life when something extremely important to you did not turn out as you hoped it would. How long did you agonize over the unexpected outcome until you finally accepted the situation? If you could do it over again, to what extent would you accept the result more readily? How do you bring your faith into that process?
  2. Do you think God is sending a message to us or testing us when a situation occurs that is so far outside our realm of understanding that we cannot comprehend, understand, or agree with it? What do you believe is the appropriate reaction?
  3. What is your current perspective on the issue of nontraditional sexual orientation, including transgenderism? How do you believe the Bible directly or indirectly addresses these issues? Because there is no reference to such practices in the New Testament, how do you think Jesus would respond and treat the LGBT community today? What should our Christian response be to them?

[1]. “’Transgenderism’ Brings Chaos from Order,” Focus on the Family website, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/sexuality/transgenderism/transgenderism-brings-chaos-from-order.

[2]. Claire Cain Miller, “he Search for the Best Estimate of the Transgender Population,” June 8, 2015, The New York Times website, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/upshot/the-search-for-the-best-estimate-of-the-transgender-population.html?_r=0.

[3]. Ibid.