This week is National Transgendered Awareness Week, culminating in tomorrow’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. Most of us have probably only heard about transgendered individuals through the media, like Sophia on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.
I met Becca — born Ben — when we were both members of a college Christian organization at the University of Oregon. I recently learned that Becca was officially transitioning from male to female and I asked if she’d be interested in answering a few questions about her experience and Becca graciously agreed to answer.
Most of us don’t get the opportunity to ask someone what it’s like to be in this situation, so I wanted to seize the opportunity to spread some awareness. Becca, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, opened up about her experience growing up while living as a boy, the transition process, and how her relationships with people and religion have been affected.
I believe Becca really is the epitome of living life with faith and grace.
An Interview with Becca Rivka
AN: When did you first realize that you felt more like a girl than a boy? Did something specific happen or was it more gradual?
BR: Before I answer, I should amention that this is just my story, and my story does not speak for all transgender people. We are a diverse bunch.
It was very early, and there is no specific moment in my memory where I “realized” I felt like a girl rather than like a boy.
It just sort of felt like this perpetual dissonance. I remember wondering why I wasn’t wearing feminine shoes like the other girls in my Sunday school class, and I kept imagining my penis turning into a vagina at a very young age. I often just wanted it to go away, but I was also very shy and was aware that I was atypical, so I was too afraid to voice this and kept it secret, though I found that it was very difficult to do throughout my life.
What does it mean to you to “feel like a girl” versus a boy?
For me, it means having this constant dislike for my “boy parts” and consistently feeling drawn to “female” things as part of my persona. It means that I identified myself as a girl internally, and I remember trying to convince myself privately that I was a boy and not a girl, but I would keep saying “I’m a girl” when I was alone. There were some moments in my life where this almost came out of me in public places. Hiding this, as I said before, was very difficult.
When you realized that you identified as a girl, what did you do?
Well, as I said before, identifying as a girl was something that just seemed like something I always was. It goes back to my earliest memories. I always knew that I was different. I was smart enough to know that according to society, I was a boy, that I had “boy parts,” but none of this sat well with me. I saw myself as a girl.
There was one time when I was seven years old when I finally got the courage to ask my mom, “Mom, do you think I’m really a girl?” It was a very scary thing for me because I was very afraid at what she would say, or whether she would think I was crazy. She responded with, “Of course not!”
When I came out to her last January, I asked if she remembered this episode, and she didn’t. She probably dismissed it as just something kids say. But it was a huge deal to me.
I never really brought it up again because of that response. And I felt like I had to hide it. But hiding it felt like trying to push a beach ball under water. I would go and dress in my mom’s clothes in secret when she wasn’t around, and this was something I started doing as early as 7 or 8. I would sometimes pray for God to turn me into a girl or just take whatever this was away.
I was scared to death to share this with anyone, especially my parents. I was afraid they would try to put me through some program to “deprogram” me or something.
You’re going through the transition process right now. What is that like?
It’s hard in it’s own way. It’s not a very comfortable process. But it is so worth it. I am finally becoming more comfortable with who I am because of it.
I’m still in the beginning stages, and there is still a lot more to my journey, but it is so refreshing to finally start showing people who I really am.
I began going in for some laser and electrolysis appointments to permanently remove my facial hair in January of this year (2014). There will be many more appointments like that before my beard is permanently gone (it usually takes a grand total of 200 or so hours of electrolysis to permanently remove a full beard).
Because it’s also expensive, it may take a few years before I’m done with that process.
Also, I started taking hormones in July (estrogen and anti-androgens). My breasts are growing, and my body is gradually taking on a more feminine shape. I’m also training my voice to raise the pitch and sound more naturally female.
Also, it will take a while, but I’m in the process of a wardrobe change too. Lots to learn, lots to come. My journey really has only just begun! The other day I went in for eyebrow waxing for the first time. The ladies there were very nice.
I’ve had people call me “ma’am” from time to time and correctly use pronouns like “she” or “her,” which just make me feel right at home for the first time. It’s so refreshing when people listen to me instead of look at me, judge me, and try to dictate to me.
But this is still a hard process. I have to go in to see the doctor every month to see how things are going. Sometimes I have to endure things like “microaggressions,” and being around guys at night sometimes is a lot more nerve-wracking to me (but it depends on where I am and who the guy is or how he is acting).
What has it been like explaining your new identity to people who knew you as Ben?
It’s been a roller coaster, and probably still will be. And it always depends on the person, their level of compassion, and their ability to deal with change. People who knew me as Ben end up transitioning just as I am, though for people who knew me as Ben who have not seen me for a long time, it may be a challenge for them as well, but I take each of those encounters as they come and on a case-by-case basis.
I believe in explaining this with grace, though it is still quite hard for me to open myself up to that method, as people can still be abusive, hurtful, and condescending in what they say, depending on who it is.
I am always making myself vulnerable when I talk about this. It’s incredibly difficult to talk about when people refuse to listen to my story, but I try to remember to love others even when it is very hard.
You and I met through our Christian youth group. How has being transgender changed your relationship with God and also your relationship with organized religion?
I’m so glad you asked that question. I could spend paragraphs on that question, but for now, I will give you a more condensed version of my reflections on this.
The biblical text I used to beat myself up with while I was growing up was Psalm 139:14 (the verse in which the psalmist thanks God because he knows he is “fearfully and wonderfully made”). This verse often gives comfort to people. But for me, I saw it as a tool to punish myself, and for the longest time, I felt oppressed by that passage.
So I often thought that God was massively disappointed in me and saw me as a huge liar or pretender. Thankfully, I grew up in a family that would often talk about God’s grace, but talk is not the same thing as experience. I had no means to experience God’s grace tangibly about this area in my life because I was scared to death to talk about it with anyone, especially Christians, and especially Christian men.
The church would hardly ever talk about this. If I found anything on it at all, it would almost always be negative or disapproving. Sometimes I would find websites authored by affirming Christians who said they were transgender and had come to a place of accepting themselves, but I had such a hard time getting to that place myself. None of them seemed to address Psalm 139:14, and again, I had no one to talk to about this.
When I went off to a theological grad school to do work in the biblical languages, it was during this period that I began to rethink some things. It was a very gradual process, but I began to encounter some literature written by others like me, and it started changing my perspective even on the text of Psalm 139:14 itself.
I began to see it differently. I began to realize that we have no issue giving medical treatment to others suffering from other medical issues, and we realize they are no less fearfully and wonderfully made because of those.
Do we think conjoined twins are less fearfully and wonderfully made when the decision is made to separate them? Do we think intersex people are less fearfully and wonderfully made when we give them surgery to help them function better in their gender identity?
I’ve had to face some very uncomfortable opposition from some others in the church now that I’ve come out, and I will probably still face more. But I am understanding Psalm 139:14 differently now. It is no longer a whip with which to flog myself into submission. I now believe that God knew about my trans-ness from the time I was formed in the womb. Why does God put us through these things? Why didn’t God just make me cisgender (that is, having agreement between my assigned sex and gender identity)? Why did I go through all this? I don’t know. And I fall on the mercy of the Almighty.
But I have experienced real, tangible grace because of coming out as trans. I have received grace in unexpected places. And it makes me all the more eager to share it with others.
What do you think is the most common misconception of transgender people?
I don’t even know where to begin on this question. I don’t think I can identify a “most common misconception.” There are many common misconceptions, and I’m not sure which is the most common.
I would say a big one is assuming that one transgender person speaks for all transgender people. Another big one is conflating “being gay” with “being transgender.” Being transgender is about the gender one identifies as. Being gay is about sexual orientation (to whom one is attracted sexually).
There are a lot of misconceptions I’d like to cover here, but they are too numerous to mention.
This is a good resource (I strongly resonate with this myself) if you want to learn more about misconceptions about transgender people.
Much love to you all! And thanks, Allison, for letting me answer these!