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Houston Mennonite Church in Houston, Texas.

A Life in Transition Transcript

Nov 9, 2021

A Life In Transition

Hi, my name is Natalie Drew. First, I want to thank Marty and Houston Mennonite for inviting me here today. I’ve known Marty for almost 5 years now, and first met him as we organized an event for RAWtools back in 2017. But if you knew me earlier in life, you’d know just how unlikely this friendship would have been.

I grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist world. I say “world”, but in reality it is more a cult. The IFB world is rife with abuse of all sorts…mental, spiritual, and physical. It was in this world where I first began to realize that I wasn’t like the boys in my class. This was in the mid-1980s, so language like “transgender”, “gender identity”, etc. weren’t part of our vocabulary as a culture, and certainly not in the IFB world. Even if I did possess the vocabulary to put to words what I was going through inside, I lived in a world in which it would be impossible to be honest about my struggles. So that left me confused and having to repress that inner turmoil. Having to shove it into baggage and hide it deep in the darkest parts of my closet. Living like that as a child resulted in a crushing weight, which manifested itself in anger and violence. It’s an anger and violence that would haunt and define me for decades.

As I grew, I became more violent. I was in dozens of fights at school while in elementary. I was suspended, whether in-school or out-of-school, 5 times for fighting. And strangely, no amount of violence seemed to result in my fellow Christians calling into question my faith. While in college, this anger and violence boiled to the surface to the point that, on one night, I had even loaded a gun intent on finding and harming a gay person after my old youth minister was convicted of sexually assaulting a gay teen from our youth group. Thankfully, though, this act of murder I committed in my heart never became an act of real physical harm. But I was in a dark, dark place. I walked in darkness and not with God. I wasn’t in a place to recognize the evil in my own heart, so I sought a more “acceptable” outlet. I joined the military. I could be violent, and that violence would be honored in our culture. So, after graduating from Texas A&M, I enlisted in the Army with the goal of going into Special Forces. This would serve three purposes…it would allow me to indulge my lust for violence, but surely it would also “cure” me of these struggles with gender identity. It would also give me a proper job so Heather and I could actually get married. The Army and marriage would finally prove me to be the man everyone believed I was. After a fractured vertebrae in Basic Training, though, my dreams of Special Forces were no more. I became your standard infantry soldier. After Airborne school, I was assigned to the new airborne unit in Alaska. Heather and I packed up our apartment and began the drive from North Carolina to Anchorage.

Once in Alaska, Heather and I intended to enjoy life as a young married couple, but a positive pregnancy test in our first month in Alaska changed those adventures. Reagan was born in 2006. The “cure” that I hoped marriage and parenthood would provide with regards to my gender identity never materialized. In hindsight, I see just how unfair that was to Heather and our kids to put those expectations on them, especially when they still had no idea about my struggles. I deployed to Iraq in October 2006. Reagan was 18 months old when I returned from deployment, but due to training and deployment I had only spent 3 of his first 18 months with him. While the Army took me away from my family, even when I was home, I took myself away mentally. I was distant and angry before the deployment, but this became much worse afterwards. That closet full of baggage I had been carrying around for years only became that much heavier because of the PTSD. My mental health began to deteriorate. My anger became much deeper, and I had no joy. My back was almost in as bad of shape as my mind. My lower back gave out and spinal fusion was in my future. In the meantime, however, the Army treated this pain as they treat so many issues. They threw pills at the problem. Pain pills…sleeping pills…nerve medication…3 different antidepressants…I was a mess. I began working on my MBA during this time, and recall a fellow student who, near the end of the program when I was finally sober, commented about how strung out I used to look. I told her about the addiction that had me in its grips. It’s an addiction that caused me to have no real memory of my daughter, Abby’s, first year. Addiction…gender dysphoria…depression…suicidal ideation. This became my life. This was my life as I left the Army after being medically retired in 2010.

Civilian life was calling me. Looking back, this is when I really begin to see God at work in my life. First, I stumbled into a job in HR. For anyone who knew me at that time, HR would have been the last career expected of me. This job took us to Houston, and eventually to the decision to buy a house in Cinco Ranch. At this time, Heather and I could count on one hand the number of times we had been to church over the past decade. If you asked us, we would have said we were Christians, but in reality, nothing in our lives would point to that. But buying that house changed everything. It just so happened to be across the street from Cinco Ranch Church of Christ. Heather grew up in the Church of Christ, and with it being across the street from our neighborhood, we knew that both our parents would ask if we visited. So, we decided to check that box just so we could say we’d been. That decision changed our lives forever. I remember experiencing something in a church that I had never experienced before. I felt loved. From complete strangers. It wasn’t superficial niceness, but it felt like genuine love.

This sparked a fire in both Heather and I. We would lay in bed at night reading our Bibles. We really became fixated on the red letters. I would email questions to the preaching minister, Aaron. What my questions really boiled down to was “what if Jesus really was serious when He said these things?” This is when we first began to explore nonviolence. This was a challenge for someone who had been consumed with violence to the point of making a career out of it. I would read verses like Isaiah 2:4 about how in His kingdom, we would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We would learn of war no more. I would wonder that if we’re to be “missionaries” of His kingdom in this world, then shouldn’t we live out what that will look like here and now? I would read about how God is love, then begin questioning what it means to love. What love looks like. 1 John 4:7-8 tells us that God is love, and those who do not love don’t know God. I then would read works like Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd, and realize that to understand what love truly looks like, then we only need look at Christ hanging on the cross. While we were His enemies, He died for us. What does love look like? It looks like sacrificing your life, even for your enemies. I couldn’t reconcile violence, much less killing, with love.

I always came back to those red letters though. I would read what Christ said in Matt 5:44-45, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”. The “so that” speaks so loudly. It is a condition. If you are to be a “son of your Father”, then one need to love their enemies. Or as The Didache said, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.” Love turns enemies to friends. It’s the only way to truly change hearts, and this understanding changed everything about us.

I was hooked. The fire was lit. Now I just needed to find an outlet. This is when I found RAWtools. Given how important of a role Isaiah 2:4 played in my transition from soldier to pacifist, it was only fitting that RAWtools resonated with me immediately. For those who don’t know, RAWtools turns guns into garden tools. They live out Isaiah 2:4. They are true missionaries to the kingdom. I found Christian Peacemaker Teams, and was even able to spend two weeks in Palestine listening to the stories of those living under military occupation and apartheid. Two weeks of listening, living among, and learning from Palestinians and Israelis who are striving for peace and nonviolent reconciliation. Throughout this period of spiritual growth, though, I still suffered tremendously. Maybe I had hoped that becoming addicted to something honorable would ease the pain of gender dysphoria and depression. It didn’t.

Suicidal ideation engulfed me. I’ve lost close friends to suicide. The wounds and scars don’t go away once you leave the battlefield. They stay with you, and the war never stops. The battlefield merely changes. This neverending war took Ricky. It took Will. The pain of their loss may have been the only reason why I didn’t lose that battle myself. But my struggle was less with combat-related PTSD, and moreso with the gender dysphoria. It was unrelenting. I could no longer hide it. I had come out to Heather. I had come out to the kids. But this is something that I hadn’t been able to fully process in 30+ years, so they were far behind me in this department. I would come home from work, crawl into bed, and just cry. I was beyond miserable. It was torture. It was hell. It had become so bad that I had asked Heather to just sit with me while I take pills and slowly fall asleep. I was terrified of dying alone. I was even more terrified of Heather or the kids finding me. I just wanted all us to sit there, say goodbye, and hold my hand as I fell asleep for good. This was the last straw. The problem had become too great. This is when we decided it was time to at least talk to a doctor about hormone therapy.

Even that wasn’t easy. I had so much spiritual baggage that had to be unpacked. How can I reconcile transitioning with my faith? What about Genesis 1:27? I truly believe, because of who Jesus showed us who the Father truly is, that God loves me and His heart is broken when we suffer. I knew God didn’t want me to die. He’s a God of life. He gives life and gives it abundantly. But I knew living this life of fraud, pretending to be a man, made me want to die. I wanted the opposite of life. Then I heard of a literary device that was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture called “merism”. It’s a broad view of a conception that is conveyed by two distinct parts of that conception. For example, Genesis tells us God created day and night, but we know he created dusk and dawn. Genesis tells us God created seas and land, but we know that there are marshes, swamps, rivers, and lakes. We know that God is the Alpha and Omega, but He’s also everything in between. God created male and female…yes. He also created everything in between. He created transgender people. He created intersex people. He created us all.

So I had the peace that I had prayed for with regards to this decision. Heather and the kids were on board. They saw my mental health improve almost over night once I started hormones. I never thought I would socially transition though. Especially after moving to College Station. The dysphoria was better, but it was still there. I was still living my life as a fraud. Any step in our transition, though, had to be taken as a family. If Heather or the kids were not on board with a step, I didn’t take it. We moved to College Station in 2018, and I assumed I had taken all the steps I would take. I thought the depression was manageable. It wasn’t. It began intensifying, although never reaching the point of suicidal. I couldn’t take it anymore, and in the fall of 2019, with Heather’s blessing, I came out fully to my coworkers and on January 6, 2020, I stepped into the world for the first time ever as Natalie. As I told myself that day, 2020 would be greatest year ever.

This step was such a liberation. When I thought I would be rejected by those we had gone to church with, or those who I had gotten to know closely on social media, the exact opposite was the case. The people from Cinco Ranch, the people from Sugar Grove Church of Christ, the people on twitter…they all wrapped their arms around me. I know many may not agree with, or understand, my decision to transition, but they’ve shown me nothing but love. They’ve never misgendered me. We’ve also found this amazing community on Twitter (hi! WCT folks!) that have shown us that chosen family is family. We’ve grown so close with these people. We’ve met a few, will likely never meet thousands, but they are all family nonetheless. They’ve helped deepen my faith. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t without cost. While we’ve been shown nothing but love from those we went to church with, we’ve also lost so many family and lifelong friends. There are nieces and nephews we can’t see because of who I am, and the fact that Heather loves me for who I am. But for everyone we’ve lost, we’ve gained 100. We’ve also found a new ministry, as people reach out who are standing where we used to. In the church, married, but struggling with their gender identity. We’ve counseled couples just by sharing our story. Where I feared rejection, we’ve actually found a way to serve God and love others. Best of all, there’s no more suicidal ideation.

I very well could be wrong on matters of nonviolence and who I am as a transgender woman, but I also know that perfect theology is not the criteria of sincere faith. God is a God who accommodates and meets us where we are in order to maintain relationship with us. We see that throughout scripture. So I rest in that. I rest in the knowledge that God is love. That His love is so much bigger and more radical than one can ever imagine. My hope is in that love. I’m alive because of it. I am who I am because of it. I know that love can transform any darkness into light. As a violent, homophobic, and transphobic combat infantry sergeant turned pacifist transgender woman and follower of Christ, I know just how transformative it can be.

Finally, while I’m up here, I want to end by thanking specifically Heather and our kids, Reagan and Abby. I’m here because you all loved me relentlessly through this. You all loved me when I tried to prove how unlovable I was. You make me a better person and the woman I am today. If grace is receiving something you don’t deserve, then you all are evidence of God’s grace in my life. I love you all. Oh, and hi Lynell & Dan! See y’all in a few weeks!