I will never forget the moment I saw Sheena for the first time. We had known each other for years. We had spent time together, but I had never actually seen Sheena. I hadn’t even seen a picture of her. I was nervous about our first meeting and wondered if I’d recognize her. I summoned a picture of the last time we were together and tried to imagine Sheena. But when she finally came walking up to me, I did not recognize her. Who was this beautiful, elegant, radiant woman? Surely not the same person I used to know.
Sheena was a fundamentalist Christian who had fathered 11 children before transitioning genders in her late 50s. I first heard about it through mutual friends who spoke of demon possession and called upon us Christians to pray for deliverance. There was talk of spiritual intervention and staging an exorcism. The therapist was to blame, he put sinful thoughts into our friend’s mind. Or maybe it was due to the demonic dome over Santa Cruz. Maybe both. There was panic and disbelief, grief and anger. Everyone talked about our poor confused, potentially possessed friend and how hard this must be for the wife, the children. And then I received an email from our friend introducing herself as Sheena.
I reacted like everyone else, refusing to believe, holding on to my picture of the old person. But as I read the email, a second time, a third time, I saw her childhood through her eyes, how she always wanted to be a mother, how she would pray to Jesus every day that he would make her like all the other girls. Sheena’s story broke my heart and my worldview. I began to re-think gender. And as I thought about gender, I thought about sexual orientation. And as I thought about sexual orientation, I thought about my religion and I saw how we treated people like Sheena. I wrote to Sheena and we exchanged many emails as she went through the process of transitioning genders, and I began my transition out of my religion.
Sheena’s wife left her and filed for divorce. Most of her children turned against her and shunned her. Her Christian friends either ignored her or prayed for her repentance. I was the only friend who knew her before and stayed with her through her transition.
I met with Sheena often and we talked about our new friends. She had found a community of progressive Christians and she began volunteering with an LGBT group, speaking at events. She was transformed. Her life-long struggle with depression a thing of the past, she glowed, she laughed, she became social and outgoing. Sometimes she’d giggle like a teenager, talking about going out on first dates. She had found herself, she had become alive.
Then her wife came back out to California to finalize the divorce. And in the courtroom, at the very last moment, she changed her mind. She said the Lord had revealed to her that divorce was an even graver sin than tolerating Sheena’s gender. And so the divorce was called off and they moved back in together.
A few weeks later I sat in a restaurant with Sheena and her wife, the two of them holding hands, and looking very much like a young couple in love. Sheena discussed going to San Francisco for the pride parade when her wife launched into a monologue about “those gays” and their sin and the abomination of homosexuality. They continued holding hands and snuggled even as the litany went on. How many people have had the experience of going out for dinner with their transgendered bi-sexual friend and her homophobic fundamentalist Christian wife?
Even though her wife wouldn’t fully acknowledge her transition, Sheena continued to be happy. She found ways to speak out, ways to stand out for herself, ways to be seen for who she truly was. And she continued to love. She loved her wife and her children, regardless by which name and pronoun they called her, she loved her friends, and she loved Jesus, knowing he accepted her for who she truly was.
Earlier this year Sheena passed away, and I know as a Christian she considered it “going home”. As I went to the funeral, I knew her family would remember her under her old name and gender pronouns. I was reminded that funerals are not for the dead, but for those still living. Little was said of the Sheena I knew, but much of the father and husband she had been, the family she had raised. There were confessions and reconciliations as estranged family members met for the first time in decades. I spoke briefly of the Sheena who opened my heart but mostly left the family to their grief, their memories, and their reunion.
But this weekend her name was among the Beloved Dead, read aloud for hundreds to hear. I cried for her and I shared her story in sacred space. Her name was in the prayers of All Saints Sunday. I will share her picture, laughing as so often, I will share her story, I will share her name.
I remember a courageous woman. A woman who was not afraid to be honest. A woman who stood up for what she believed. A woman who risked everything to be her true self. A woman who was willing to lose the world in order to find herself. A woman who was elegant, genuine, charming, and beautiful. A woman who inspired others and loved with patience and depth. A woman whose memory will always put a smile on my face. Her name was Sheena Renee Adams.
What is remembered, lives.