Cowboy for Christ
An excerpt from Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith. Read more for just $4.99.
I came of age as a God-fearing transgendered horse wrangler, which is not as surprising as it may sound; we gender-variant folk often fling ourselves toward some semi-hostile, straight and narrow home-away-from-home. I was only seven or eight when I heard the tale of grandmother’s Chicago Tribune coworker, Nancy Hunt, who published her autobiography the year I was born. My grandmother told me how Nancy, a male-to-female transsexual formerly known as Ridgely Hunt, had joined the military to assert her masculinity. Ridgely’s enlistment was a last-ditch effort to succeed as a male. It was a sort of once-and-for-all, make-or-break gender trial undertaken with the belief that Uncle Sam, if anyone, might be able to transform this feminine creature into a man.
I understand the principle. I remember my welding teacher towering over me as I placed my project—a lap joint: two pieces of metal stock welded one over the other—in his custom-made double vise. I watched the big man grin sadistically while using a foot pedal to increase pressure until the thick metal snapped in two. If the metal broke along one of the welded seams, I’d fail. If the metal broke elsewhere—not along the weld—I could proudly place the useless remnants of my project in the pocket of my leather apron and move on to the next assignment.
I think of young Private Hunt like that, shipping off to Korea with steely resolve, not knowing if he would manage to hold together his masculine image long enough to die at the hands of enemy soldiers—in which case he would have passed his gender trial. His mother could proudly bury the remnants of his body under an American flag before she moved on to her next project.
Nestled awkwardly among the Heritage Series classics on my family’s bookshelves was an inscribed copy of Nancy’s transgender memoir, Mirror Image, published in 1978. On Saturday mornings, when my grandmother was in the garden and my grandfather was out garage-saling, I would carefully remove the book, glancing furtively down the hallway before ducking into the bathroom.
I returned to Mirror Image often, trying to soak up some of Nancy’s transgender savvy. Her company offered great comfort, even when sought only in the solitude of the cold downstairs bathroom. And the bathroom seemed an appropriate as well as a discreet place to contemplate this tattered scripture. My grandmother claimed to have been one of the first women to use the facilities at the Tribune Tower alongside Nancy, asserting proudly that she just did not understand the inordinate discomfort felt by her coworkers. I often sat on the toilet for the greater part of the afternoon, emerging only when I heard my grandfather roll up the garage door, signaling he needed help unpacking his spoils.
It’s difficult to say how conscious I was of my identification with Nancy Hunt. I remember feeling sympathy for her even while I was confident I would grow into an honorable if often-unshaven cowboy. I did not anticipate the betrayal that took place when I hit the double digits: not only the realization that I wouldn’t get the rawhide man’s body I had thought was my physical inheritance, but also an awareness of the widespread expectation that a feminine social orientation would come just as easily to me as to any tom-boy-grown-older. Transgender theorist Jack Halberstam describes adolescence as the shrinking of her world. For me, that shrinking happened when my grandfather caught me reading Mirror Image in the bathroom and returned it to the shelf, where it would collect dust for the next decade.
Junior high school was, of course, hellacious. “Are you a boy or a girl?” kids would ask, sometimes jeering, sometimes in earnest. Try as I might to achieve a passable femininity—shaving my legs, wearing hoop earrings, keeping my hair long, clasping a useless bra across my flat chest—I knew as well as they did that I was a failure. The harder I tried the more obvious it became.
I began to work out, lifting weights and riding my trusty mountain bike twenty or thirty miles each day. I drank Ensure to gain weight and carried my grandfather’s fishing knife, still hoping I’d become that rough-and-ready cowboy that I had grown old enough to realize I was not expected to be.
But it was only at Christian camp that I found not only a way to trade my bike for a horse, but also a modicum of acceptance. It was my megachurch-going
mother’s idea to send me at age ten to the Wisconsin Northwoods for a summer of frolicking and fundamentalist indoctrination. For the counselors, I provided the ultimate Christian challenge. One may quite rightly suppose that getting ten-year-olds to raise their hands at revival meetings is not all that difficult. This is likely part of the reason the counselors did not declare their spiritual victory immediately after I repented of a decade of accumulated sin, accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Neither were they satisfied when I slipped backwards into the baptismal vault, dutifully if clumsily making a public proclamation of faith before Pastor Jim could manage the words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” From me—the illegitimate and masculine daughter of a woman who had not until midlife wrested free from the grip of Catholicism—the counselors’ satisfaction demanded serious commitment to remedial education in the ways of the Good Book. They urged me to return to the camp annually as a volunteer member of the support staff, and I was promised personalized “discipleship training” in exchange for twelve daily hours of hard manual labor. This annual exodus from suburban life and commitment to camp ministry would provide evidence that the tree of my Christianity was indeed capable of bearing fruit.
Fearing above all else the dead faith decried by Jesus’ brother long before I was even so much as a nervous twinkling in my unwed mother’s eye, I entered the workforce the following summer as an unpaid eleven-year-old, quite willing to spend six days each week mucking horse stalls as a junior wrangler at the camp’s North Star Stable. Of course, my desire for living faith might not have kept me returning for so many years had I been called to serve as a lifeguard or a dishwasher; but the Prince of Peace sometimes puts his beloved children in just the right places, and I looked ever to His service, feeling my oats as a Cowboy for Christ.
More than a few trannies have taken solace in the performance of bizarre religious rites before settling into their niches as misfits in the mainstream world. Gender Outlaw author Kate Bornstein, for example, won her stripes as a seafaring Scientologist aboard a salvaged navy vessel commissioned to transport L. Ron Hubbard safely to and from any land that would allow him ashore. Two decades later, I set out to earn my spurs as a citified Calvinist astride a narcoleptic Tennessee walking horse predestined to transport middle-aged Midwestern women and their reluctant but submissive husbands safely back to the barnyard after a five-mile scenic loop through the Nicolet National Forest.
Indeed, I submitted easily to the discipleship training that was to seal the success of my conversion. After all, nobody was more invested in asserting my femininity than I was, and to that particular end the Christian counselors were my most faithful allies. Their lessons on “Proverbs 31 Womanhood”—“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies…”—consisted in large part of practical feedback on personal grooming. Since wranglers were supposed to wear jeans and T-shirts, and since devout young ladies were not allowed makeup, perfume, or excessive jewelry, I had little difficulty following the dress code. Jesus did not adorn himself, and neither would I.
Overall, I found Bible camp femininity much less inhibiting than any suburban junior high school femininities I encountered. Charm is deceitful; beauty is vain—I could get my rope around that. In fact, I took so well to this code of feminine strength and honor that I felt a little self-righteous around my cabin mates as they struggled to look sexy without appearing immodest and to walk the fine godly line between frigidity and promiscuity during pizza dates at the canteen. I basked comfortably in this self-righteousness right up until I met my first girlfriend.
She had untamed red hair and an attitude to match. I was sitting on a soggy bale of hay, exchanging evening prayer requests with a friend next to an especially loud and hungry bonfire when Whitney Layne returned to camp from a summer spent spreading Christ’s gospel in the Amazon basin. I had hardly noticed this girl the summer before, but I remember well when she emerged from the Oconto River astride her chestnut horse, Vindicator, and trampled my every Protestant hope. I didn’t see her coming at all. And it’s a good thing, because I might well have betrayed my terror with an unbecoming scream had I not been shocked into silence at the sight of this intense young creature bareback atop her small Arabian gelding, red ponytail and red horsetail trailing high as the two bounded over the hay bale next to me, clearing the hungry flames at my feet with a yard to spare before galloping into the twilit horizon. I don’t know if I was in love, but I was certainly in awe of this mysterious missionary girl whose horse forded swift rivers and leapt over campfires.
My boyhood was gone as quickly as she said this and I said yes—my nights filled with kinky, clandestine sex. At the time, I managed to reconcile this fact with my belief in the New Testament as the God-breathed template for a healthy life. Yes, what Whit and I did was something I knew should be kept to ourselves, something I knew the camp leaders wouldn’t understand. Still, I somehow thought our behavior was not sin. This was not anything like the sex or the sin or the sadism I’d been so thoroughly warned against. Stay away from the boys, I’d been told—we’d all been told. No couples off alone, no riding double-bareback, and a Bible-width between you when you share a pew. I could do that. And so even as I spent my nights bunked up with a whip-wielding cowgirl, I still hoped I would one day blossom into a comfortable womanhood and walk gracefully down the aisle with a handsome and godly fellow.
Even if I had not been invested in the Proverbs 31 myth, however, I would not have been able to explain my experiences. I had heard kids at school joke about bondage, but I wouldn’t have thought to apply the term to my summer camp hayloft antics with Whitney, who was my boss at the stables. I didn’t think too hard about why, even while I tried my best to elude her, I thoroughly enjoyed being caught in the loop of my boss’s lariat, knocked to the dirt, and secured to the wall of a box stall where, for as long as my precocious young dom deemed appropriate, I would thrash in vain, choking occasional requests for mercy through the dusty bandanna wadded up in my mouth. Even while I was afraid, I appreciated being forcibly immersed in the water trough, or having my wrists bound with the leather straps we all kept handy, or receiving a crack on the ass with a riding crop or bullwhip, or—most of all—being derided for my incompetence around the barn.
Just like the cowbois in the more interesting queer porn mags, I wore leather chaps and carried a rope everywhere I went. These should have been clues, but I was oblivious to my slant. Perhaps many otherwise curious adults are too horrified to partake in such pleasures, are not ready to see in themselves what they’ve been told is perverted. I know I was spared for a long time from the need for self-effacement or self-denial largely because of my ignorance of such terms as “flogging,” “caning,” “BDSM,” “power play,” “Fem-Dom,” and the like. I didn’t know a schoolboy scene from a shoe fetish, and was thus free to engage in all manner of erotic indulgence.
Until one of the deacons caught me lavishing Whitney’s bare and salty beltline as she leaned back against a pile of sweaty saddle blankets polishing leather in the tack room, I was quite free, indeed. During the ensuing interrogations, I publicly denied any kind of sexual interest in girls (What?! She’s like a sister to me—my sister in Christ!). I recounted my devotion, my service, their lack of solid evidence. The director, who called me out on the back barn porch and addressed me with his arms crossed, could hardly prove a long-standing sexual relationship. Still, my welcome at Bible camp was clearly limited to the end of the summer at best.
Privately, I had to agree with the director. I held up my desires to the holy light of God’s word and, yes, they were out of line with His will. I may have failed as a camp wrangler, but I could get right with God.
When Whit and I left the camp without plans to return, we didn’t tell our friends we’d been caught getting it on in the barn. We cited frustration with transient staff and milky sermons. We said we wanted community; we craved meat and potatoes. So the following summer—after I finished high school and Whit dropped out of missionary school—we moved to Whit’s hometown, where we joined an even more conservative church. That’s what I needed in order to be the God-fearing woman I was meant to be: more rigidity, more support. Whit may not have been like-minded, but she didn’t stop me.
We moved onto a chunk of abandoned farmland with hopes of establishing a community where we could live with our chosen family. After a summer of sleeping on World War II army cots in a broken-down dairy barn, we built a twelve-by-sixteen-foot home out of construction work-site leftovers and windows salvaged from the town dump. Eventually, we put up an outhouse and managed to convince an ornery electric pump to draw sandy brown water from the dying well twice each week, providing just enough for the horses to drink if the weather cooperated. Several former camp wranglers moved in, and we took turns working outside jobs to cover expenses. Those not working elsewhere would while away their hours gardening, gathering wild edibles, singing hymns, swapping stories, painting, building furniture, or lounging near the river. Twice each year, we hosted weekend-long drug- and alcohol-free gatherings, inviting believing and nonbelieving friends and family from all over the country. Artists and thinkers of all ages who couldn’t attend the busy gatherings often stopped by to break up their travels for a few days. It was a lesbian-feminist paradise—without the sex.
For several years, we lived this relatively asexual life on our queer Christian farm amidst a community of suspecting townies. Our church friends recognized our devotion—I tried even harder at Proverbs 31, wore dresses every week, wanted nothing more than to marry a wispy future pastor named Darryl and have his biblically named babies. I could be a country preacher’s wife, surveying fields, keeping my vineyard tight and my candle burning. I slept chastely alongside Whit every night, but it was Christ’s body that kept me warm as I waited for Darryl to fall for me. It wasn’t my job to rush things, the church women told me.
And Darryl did call, though I can’t say whether he was into me. Who knows?—maybe it would’ve been different had Whitney not erased his phone messages, or had my peers supported the match. It would’ve taken a village for me to marry a Christian boy, and as helpful as my elders were, the other young singles saw something else in me. I didn’t belong with this or probably any church boy.
“You’ll make a good wife someday,” my pastor said once as I gave him a ride down a back road. I could’ve melted to my truck seat. I can still, right now—after years of skin and submission and girls and women and fuck this and goddamn, years of firemen and pool games and pierced nipples and Times Square and porn and Anne McClintock and feminist critique and trans-support groups and trans-social groups and San Francisco and emergency rooms and years of every other un-Christlike thought and desire—feel molten just thinking about that moment. I remember exactly the back road, the direction of the morning headlights, the cold coffee, the certainty, the gravity of his words, the relief they provided, the relief he knew they provided, the smell of hay and shit in the cab, the trailer full of Tennessee walkers pulling the truck slightly into the shoulder. Was it the walkers, or was it—did I just hear him right?—yes, he said wife, he said good wife, he said someday. Yes—in this lifetime, a good wife.
Outside our tight circle of church friends, though, we were recognized as women living together and not dating men. Outside church, that meant dyke.
Until the fourth year of commune living, when I spent enough time off the farm to take a few college classes—enough time to fall for and hook up with a female instructor more than twice my age—I still thought the townies were wrong. I thought I had defeated my twisted longings. When the professor turned out to be too warped even for my tastes—consensual knifeplay is one thing; drunken gunplay quite another—I turned back to my redheaded domestic partner and acquiesced to her unspoken but ever-present request that we put the queer sex back in our queer relationship.
Which is how eventually my top dresser drawer came to contain a camouflage cock and how Darryl’s sister, who was curious, and one of my Christian roommates, shocked Darryl away from me for good and how I finally gave up trying to conquer certain desires of the flesh. Some would call it coming out, or liberation, or failure.
What would I call it?
Ever the fundamentalist, I defer to the original text. I just couldn’t do Proverbs 31. And back in the day, my lap joint broke along the welded seam ten times over and the shop teacher chucked my final attempt into a pail full of failed projects and turned away without saying a word. And eventually Nancy Hunt’s welded seam came apart, too, and there was only the jagged remnant of the original stock. And though I never did learn to make a passable lap joint, I’ve noticed that it rarely matters.
An excerpt from Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith. Read more for just $4.99.
A version of this story also appeared on DoubleX.