This week I’m pleased to share Sarah’s transgender success story. Her story shows the loving embrace of a church family, a personal journey of discovery and fulfillment in living who she is every day. Sarah’s tale of joy and heartache was published in her church newsletter.
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Sarah’s Transgender Success Story
Sarah has been a member of St Aidan’s congregation for over a year now and has been singing in the choir for almost as long. On August 16th last year, Bishop David came to St Aidan’s to baptise and confirm Sarah: she is the first adult to be baptised at our church for some years. I talked with her at Claudelands Motel which she runs.
Sarah first came into contact with St Aidan’s when she approached Andrew to use the hall for a meeting of the Agender Group, a support group for transgendered people with which Sarah is involved. Sarah said to Andrew, “You need to know that we are all cross-dressers and trans people.” Andrew responded, “You are people of God and you are most welcome.” It was not the response that Sarah had anticipated.
It blew me away. That made me revisit my attitude to religion. I thought, “Maybe some churches don’t mind and some churches do mind and I was just lucky I picked the one that has no concerns about people like me.”
Sarah was brought up in “probably a Presbyterian church from memory” but didn’t go regularly. She was married for 33 years. “When I got married, my wife had a family and the family always went to mass so I started going to mass with her. I did it for her and I was very happy doing it.” Sarah describes her family: “I’ve got a family of ten: my wife, three children, four grandchildren and a son in law and a daughter in law.”
She speaks warmly about that period of her life. “I loved it. Being married and having a family made me feel normal. I was very isolated before that: lonely, introverted. I got free of cross-dressing for a year or so but it reared its ugly head again.”
After her marriage broke down, Sarah felt it was time to leave Whakatane: “About a year later the whole town knew I was a cross- and it was a small town. All of a sudden I wasn’t flavour of the month.” Sarah saw the Claudelands Motel advertised while she was in Tauranga “funnily enough”. Having had a motel in Hamilton in the early seventies and after accounting for 30 years, Sarah thought, “That’s something I could do easily. I’ve done it before”.
Since being in Hamilton Sarah has embarked upon the process of transitioning to a female.
Sarah’s a different person from what Bob was. A very different person. Most of my transgender friends say the same thing. I have one friend whose grandchildren say to her, “Gran, you’re so much nicer. You were really grumpy when you were a man.” She probably was because she had this huge secret she was carrying and didn’t have the same confidence.
Sarah’s family has found her decision to transition difficult, a reaction she understands both on a personal level and also in the context of other transgendered people.
My family were shocked. They were too close to the action I think. I can’t blame them. They polarised and supported their mother and that was fine, that’s what they should be doing but they excluded me totally and that was really painful. They’re fairly typical of how families react to suddenly finding that their dad wants to be a girl. Pretty hard to handle. I don’t know how I’d handle it if I was a child and my dad wanted to do that. I don’t think I’d have been any better actually.
While experiencing a sense of liberation, Sarah has undergone a painful period of grieving. “It took me probably about four years. Probably coming to Hamilton was good for me but I still had it.”
Sarah’s journey has changed her in many ways.
I’ve learned a lot of new values especially in the last two years. I was brought up thinking, “Don’t go near Catholics. Don’t go near gay people. Girls who get pregnant out of wedlock: don’t go near them.” That’s what my parents taught me.
I married a Catholic. My daughter is a solo parent; she’s 22. We supported her. I mix freely with gay people. Brilliant people. We’re a very small group in Hamilton so they support us wholeheartedly. I have a strong rapport with that community.
Sarah talks more about her granddaughter.
Gorgeous wee girl. When I got married I adopted my wife’s three children so I’d never watched a child grow up from zero to five. It was wonderful to be involved with that stage, to see this little girl grow up. I understand bonding now as well. I learned a lot.
My granddaughter taught our whole family. When she was really young she used to say, “I love you Mum”. The family picked up on it. Eventually we used to say it whenever we saw each other. Some of them have married and moved away now but we said it when we met and when we left. It’s beautiful: this little tot probably three or four years old taught the whole family to actually say that they loved each other. The love was always there but it was assumed. It’s so much nicer when you can say it.
It was in the attempt to understand her family’s experience of the process of her changing gender that led to Sarah coming to worship at St Aidan’s.
My oldest daughter who’s 48 wrote to me. It was about a year ago, about June, and she wanted to know how Bob [Sarah’s former name] felt hurting all the people that loved him so much so I sat down and poured my heart out. Wrote about four pages and cried and cried and tried to go through it from their perspective, to understand how they felt. That was very good for me because I only knew how I felt. Because I had probably been quite selfish, you know “Nobody loves me” and all that but they were finding it very hard as well. Their mother was very sick. They were going through all sorts of negative problems. So I tried to understand that.
We’ve written probably two or three times but it’s still a struggle, I think.
Sarah wanted to “give thanks” for the renewed connection with her daughter. Having already met Andrew, she thought, “I’ll go to the church down the road”. Sarah felt immediately at home. Sarah asked Yvonne if she could go to choir practices to learn some of the hymns that we sing. Yvonne saw her opportunity: “Sarah, you’ve got a good voice. Join the choir.” “I’d love to” Sarah replied. “That was the best catalyst. I quickly became what I thought was quite an integral part of the congregation. It was wonderful. I just loved it.”
Music has always been an important part of Sarah’s life. When she was 52, Sarah played the role of St Andrew in a musical. It had a great impact on her.
A lot of my learning about the story of Jesus is through singing in Jesus Christ Superstar in Whakatane. I learnt more about Christ’s last week on earth doing that than ever I had learned going to church. It was brilliant. I learned a lot about me. I loved the music; I loved the story.
I was just a bit part. I also learned to sing through that. When I started it was just awful. After three and a half months’ rehearsing my voice wasn’t brilliant but it was OK. So that was amazing. I wish I’d done that sooner but at least I’ve done it. Music’s a real passion for me; it always has been but I couldn’t express it. Now all of a sudden I can.
Yvonne also played a key role in Sarah’s spiritual journey. Yvonne noticed that Sarah didn’t receive the sacrament and asked her if she was baptised. As Sarah didn’t think so, Yvonne suggested she consider it. Sarah discussed the matter with Andrew, an encounter that has led Sarah to revise her perception of clergy. “I kind of had these people on a pedestal. I thought, “You don’t give them your life stories or your shortcomings or anything like that”. She found Andrew to be different.
I said to him, “Andrew, I’ve never ever talked to a minister of the Church the way I talk to you. That means I’m totally comfortable.” I never ever was before. I shared everything with him. That was part of my growing, I think. He’s a lovely guy to talk to. As I was talking to him I thought, “This path’s been set out for me to come through all these pathways to finally find this place of peace and tranquillity.”
Sarah had become “very sceptical about religion. I had the belief that no denomination had any people like me and spent six years with that belief.”
I enjoyed it so much. That was why I was baptised. If you’d said to me two years ago, “You’re going to be baptised” I would not have believed it. I call it my second transition. It was such an important event in my life. Coming out was important too but being baptised and confirmed, it was such a beautiful thing, it was wonderful. It has revolutionised my perception of religious faith.
As those of you who were present will remember, after being baptised by the Bishop, Sarah got up in church and spoke.
I went back through my life and I said to the congregation, “I want to thank God for guiding me to be here on this day. I think God’s been guiding me to this place for some time”. I said, “I want to thank everybody here because I’m still here now because you made me so welcome.” I was proud to be part of God’s family.
It was the first time that Sarah had spoken about her faith. It marked a change for her.
I just didn’t feel comfortable talking publically about God. I can’t tell you why. Maybe because I didn’t have a comfortable rapport with God. I have now. I’ll talk about him anytime basically. I feel it’s totally different. Because I was going to church but it wasn’t really getting through to me. I went to mass for over 20 years. I probably didn’t ever listen to one sermon. I listen to Andrew’s sermons. Every time he speaks he brings in something unreligious and turns it round into his sermon for the day. He’s got you in the palm of his hand! I think he’s brilliant. I listen to every sermon. It’s so much more meaningful for me.
One of Sarah’s transgendered friends, Cindy, heard she was being baptised.
She said, “Why didn’t you invite me?” I said, “You knew I was being baptised. I’m not the sort of person who pushes my religion towards anybody else. I don’t have that kind of personality but if you are going to be there I’d be delighted”. So she came.
Sarah has spoken to many people since about her experience at St Aidan’s and her journey with God.
I would never invite anybody unless they ask because I think it’s very personal and a lot of people get very uptight. But if they ask me, I talk about it. I’ve told hundreds of people about being guided to go to church and being in the choir and getting baptised. They are all really significant bits of my Christian life.
Five years after moving to Hamilton, Sarah is still enjoying her job and loves working with people. She has found a home here. “People here are brilliant. The public generally in Hamilton are absolutely amazing. I notice the odd glances and that sort of thing. I can wear that. I’ve been abused once in two years. I think that’s pretty good. I’m incredibly happy.”
The experience of being openly transgendered in the motel was quite challenging.
A lot of people didn’t know how to handle it. I don’t even bother telling them now. They can work it out. If they do want to know, they’ll ask. There’s a photo of me in my office and they’ll ask, “Is that you?” And that can lead into a discussion. That’s happened quite a lot and people are so positive. They give me so much respect and say, “Hey you’ve been really courageous doing that”. It is courage but it’s not a choice. It’s in here. [Sarah points to her heart.] But not a lot of people know that.
It’s caused in the early weeks of pregnancy. We all start off female. There’s a rush of hormones to the foetus and that sends messages to the brain to say what the sex of the child is. My chemistry was obviously malfunctioning. They did tests in the States six years ago. It wasn’t known when I was going through my stages.
Sarah has reached a certain peace about her relationship with her family.
I’ll always love them and still feel sad about it but it’s in a better perspective. I probably won’t see them again but I won’t beat myself up about it. I did for a long time. That’s a process you have to go through. They’re special people and they’re people I’ve spent most of my life with. Thirty three years is nearly half of my life. But I think I’ve moved on.
There have been surprises. Sarah describes an incident that happened relatively recently.
My 18 year old granddaughter came and saw me two years ago. It was incredible. I got this phone call one day. She said to me, “Is that Sarah?” I said, “Yes”. She said, “It’s Kelly” “Kelly who?” “Kelly Stannard” That was my original surname. I bawled my eyes out. I cried and cried and cried. I just didn’t believe it. Then she came and saw me. She said to me, “I’ve been trying to find you for five years.” She said to me, “Why does the family hate you?” I said I didn’t know. Hate is an emotion close family and close friends do feel towards trans people. I didn’t know that at the time; I was shocked. I said to her, “What are you going to call me? You can call me Bob; you can call me Grandad. My choice is that you call me ‘Gran’” because they call their other grandma “Nana”. She said, “Gran. I will never ever judge you or your friends”. This is an 18 year old. Isn’t that beautiful?
Sarah is closely involved in supporting other people in similar situations as herself.
My motivation is to help other transgendered people. I have a particular empathy for young people because I believe that young people are the most vulnerable people of all. Their parents don’t understand what’s going on, their schoolmates ridicule them. There is one in Hamilton now who dresses from female to male at high school. He’s such a shy young guy. He is introverted, unsure of himself. He struggles.
Sarah sums up:
Finding support at St Aidan’s was not something I ever expected. I went to see the lady in the office and Andrew happened to be there. That was the catalyst to go to church but it’s the congregation that has kept me there.
Being here and doing what I’m doing now is just wonderful. I keep saying, ‘It can’t get any better’ and all the time it gets better and better and better. It’s incredible. It’s been an amazing journey for me, quite amazing.
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