Friday, June 21, 2013

My brush with Exodus International left me exposed

Long before I was able to admit that I was transgender, I spent twenty-one weeks trying to apply the teachings of Exodus to myself.

In 1991 I became aware of a ministry at my brother’s church which was trying to help gays and lesbians change their sexual orientation. The director of the program was a very masculine looking woman by the name of Marjorie Hopper; she had a very painful, complicated and difficult story. For years she lived as a man and worked as a custodian until she was outed at work and her world came crumbling down. She had a religious experience and became a zealous anti-gay advocate, and eventually the director of the Living Waters program at Burnaby Christian Fellowship (BCF). Living Waters was one of the many ministries associated with Exodus International.

In those days, as I struggled with my gender identity, I was desperately hoping that God would heal me and take away all my feelings of inadequacy as a man. The word transgender was just then entering our vocabulary and there were new ways of thinking that, to be honest, scared me. I had spiritualized my struggle to the extent that I dared not apply such labels to myself for fear that I would be admitting defeat to the devil or that I would be jinxing things in my relationship with God.

Marjorie’s story intrigued me because there were aspects of it that resonated with me. But the differences were also so stark, that I found myself wondering if my situation had any similarities. The fact that she had reverted to living as a woman, even though she still presented very manly, and renounced her lesbianism offered me hope that God would be able to perform a similar miracle in my life. I wondered.

I first met Marjorie at Vancouver’s annual Missions Fest when she and some of the gays and lesbians who had gone through the Living Waters program shared their testimonies of victory. On one of their handouts I noticed the logo they were using as one that my late brother had designed for BCF before his death in 1985. The church was not using it anymore, but their Living Waters program had adopted it for themselves. I used this small detail as an entree and introduced myself to Marjorie and then proceeded to tell her I would be happy to design their brochures and handouts pro-bono.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Marjorie; she needed some graphic design. We arranged for a time to meet a few days later and with butterflies in my stomach and shaky, sweaty hands I used that meeting to come out to her. My admission to her was not that I was transgender, because I did not yet know what I was—I only confessed to wanting to dress up in women’s clothing. Though that seemed to be the less than the full story, that was all I could say at the time. She asked if I was attracted to men; the answer was (and still is) an emphatic no. We talked a bit more and she prayed for me. She suggested I consider joining her group, which was soon to start on a new 21-week series. There was a minimal cost to enrolling and I would need to make a commitment to attend all the sessions. I just didn’t know if the program would do anything for me since I did not struggle with same sex attraction.

My wife was aware of all of this and she knew I had volunteered to do work for Living Waters. Marjorie called one day to tell me that she had received some money from an anonymous donor who had designated it so I could attend the program. The card that contained the money simply said, “This is for my friend, Jim Salazar, so he can join your group.” Marjorie showed me the card the next time I saw her and I instantly recognized my wife’s handwriting. I thought that was really sweet of her.

That is why and how I was able to attend Living Waters. It was an awkward fit from the beginning—gender identity was not part of the discussion. We spent a lot of time looking at scriptures that related to being made in God’s image, having a healthy image of ourselves, dealing with abuse and painful experiences, and there was always sharing and prayer. This was all really good, but like I said, it was an awkward fit because I had little in common with the rest of the group and my experiences were vastly different. The one thing I did take away, for which I will always be grateful is that I was exposed to a very intimate form of worship, thanks to the many inspirational Vineyard songs that made up the first half-hour of each evening.

At the conclusion of the twenty-one weeks, my "problem" had not gone away and I was not really sure why, but suspected it had to do more with me than with God. I really wanted to believe that God had the power to heal me, but I just felt the my faith was just not strong enough. I had collected a lot more scriptures in my toolkit to use whenever I felt "tempted" or allowed my thoughts to derail, but that was it.

I wrote a letter to Exodus and shared a bit about myself. These were the days before emails were the de-facto method of communication. A few weeks went by before I received a short reply along with some photocopied pages on gender identity. I wish I still had them today so I could quote them for you word for word, but the gist of what they said was that people like me were autophiliacs and were inordinately in love with the idea of being women and suggested this was akin to the sin of idolatry; plain and simple, I had to repent and retrain my mind.

Okay, I may be challenged by someone who will deny that this was an official Exodus position, but it is what I remember getting out of those pages. The person who sent me the materials admitted in the short reply that their focus was more on gay and lesbian issues, but that I might find the attached information helpful.

Exposed...I started out saying I felt exposed by my brush with Exodus and you may be wondering why. The simple answer is that my hopes and prayers for healing and to be a "normal male" were dashed and now I had no shelter, I was on my own. This sense of helplessness, ironically, is what ultimately caused me to be honest and I resigned myself to the fact my struggle was never going to go away.

It’s hard to believe it has been twenty-two years since all this took place. Whenever I think about my timeline, and can’t help but wonder what my life would my like today if I had known then what I know now. I do wish I could have figured it out sooner; it would have spared me from almost seventeen years of additional distress. My only consolation is that the delay spared my wife and much younger sons from possible pain and I would not have been able to transition anyway for that reason alone. I just was not strong enough to take my secret struggle to the grave. In the end, accepting my true identity saved my life.