Rev. Mike Wernick’s Coming Out Story: It Gets Better

In John Bradshaw’s PBS series The Family, he says that unhealthy (toxic) shame is the feeling, not that we’ve done something wrong, but that we are something wrong. That at the very core of our Being we are for all time and in all places, irreparably flawed. That even God cannot fix us; and because of how we ARE, God doesn’t even want to try.

As I grew up I was aware of an attraction to men, but I didn’t know what it meant or have any context for it, didn’t have any positive cultural models to emulate; and as I got older the negative stereotypes about being gay affected me deeply. I used to believe that “if only I could think this way about that,” or “have a different attitude somehow,” it would go away. But I didn’t know how to think or what attitude to have. I prayed that God would somehow tell or show me. I began to wonder if I was irreparably flawed. Then I started to hope that when I “grew up and got married” it would just vanish and go away. And so I fulfilled society’s expectations when I married in 1982, but those same-gender attractions gnawed at me and I fought against them.

I attended an Exodus International group for more than a year in Dayton, Ohio in the early ‘90s, hoping to effect some change that would help me maintain my marriage commitment and relationships with my wife and daughter; but I soon realized that the group’s process was about exiling their homosexuality, putting it “to the side somehow,” and ignoring it and trying through prayer and group support to replace it with heterosexuality. Crazy. Fortunately, the grounding I had in Family Systems Theory helped me realize that these efforts at fragmentation went against my goals of wholeness and integration.

In December ‘97 our new priest and h is wife arrived in Greenville, OH. I spoke to her at a Christmas party, and discerned something different about her. I learned that she was a Spiritual Director, and a few weeks later—I don’t know exactly how I knew except that it was intuitive—I knew I could pour my soul out to her about anything, and knew I was finally ready to tackle my sexuality regardless of the consequences. I was absolutely scared to death—there was so much at stake—my marriage (and its commitment) and my daughter; but I was also at a point where I knew I couldn’t not do it. I had a gut feeling that if I didn’t go through with this, the consequences of remaining stuck where I was were almost certain to create further dis-ease and kill me.

So she facilitated the process, and I embarked on a wilderness journey with God. The image was so vividly clear—God and I were going out somewhere together in what was for me totally uncharted territory; to a place I had never been; and I could do nothing but trust totally and completely in God's mercy and guidance and wisdom and love to get me where I needed to be. I had to risk leaving absolutely everything behind. I had to leave behind what I knew, or thought I knew; who I was, or thought I was; the relationships I had and what I thought they meant; had to risk being abandoned by my parents and family and friends; and the securities on which I relied. And I was willing, when I arrived on the other side of the desert, to be empty and empty handed; but I also believed I’d be more whole and better for it. I realized that I had to die to the life I had, in order to be reborn into a new one.

And my experience was almost as though the actual physical wilderness landscape was just beyond the visual reach of everything I saw around me. I went through my daily routines, to work (often with some difficulty), but I also felt the heat and uncertainty of the desert. I talked to my Spiritual Director about the emotional difficulty I was having, and the physical sensations that went along with it; but I also believed that the physical sensations were symptoms of something not being quite right; of my soul shouting in the direction towards what needed to be healed; and I felt concerned that if I masked those sensations with medicine, the process I was going through would be impinged or lengthened.

It was also suggested that I see a psychologist, and I chose one who practiced Jungian psychoanalysis; and I was scared by the prospect that I would finally have to let down my walls and let go of the control which kept others from really knowing me. But I also had to be sure there could be no other explanation for what I was experiencing. And after several months of therapy, my psychologist agreed that there was none. There were still layers of my self that were being integrated, but I soon arrived at the place where I could finally celebrate who I was.

And as I began to heal, I began to (finally and fully) realize that there was nothing wrong with me. The toxic shame was gone. The core of my being was not irreparably flawed. I didn’t have to change any thinking or attitude. I was already the way I needed to be. I could once-and-for-all let go of ALL of the draining effort that had gone into keeping me—and my family and friends—from knowing who I was. The ‘me’ the world knew, and the ‘me’ I had fought against inside for so many years could now both be the same ‘me.’ And on March 20, 1999 I said those words: "I am gay."

In the months that followed, I continued to speak with others who could provide counsel or relate to my experience and let me know what might lie up ahead for me. In that process, I was introduced to my partner, Joel. Like me, he had been married and had a child, was an Episcopalian, and we shared many things in common.

One year after we met, we moved in together. We attended an Episcopal church in Columbus, OH, and were active in its congregational life. And as I settled into this new life, this new me, this way of "being" that was now expressed on the outside, I began to hear God’s call to ordained ministry. I went through the discernment process in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, and began seminary at Bexley Hall in the fall of 2007. I graduated with an M. Div. in 2010 and was ordained as a priest a month later. And in 2011, I accepted a call to serve Holy Cross Episcopal Church and Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA), both in Kentwood. And in June 2014, the two congregations began to worship not only in the same building, but in the same worship service!

Joel and I were both born in New York, and in November 2013, to mark our thirteenth "anniversary," we went to Buffalo, NY (it was closer than Iowa) and were married by an Episcopal priest in a civil ceremony as part of an IntegrityUSA meeting. Five months later, here in Grand Rapids, my bishop blessed our marriage with about 130 family members and friends present. It does get better.

~ The Rev. Mike Wernick



We are excited to announce that GIFT Grand Rapids has been moving and shaping in 2019!  Our President/CEO, Jonathan Farman, has graciously accepted the position of Executive Director.  

Who better to tell about that change than Jonathan himself:

“Many of you may not know that for the past five years, I have been leading this organization as a volunteer.  During that time, I blended the responsibilities of executive director and president into any spare time I might find in my schedule.  Throughout this last lustrum, I have learned many valuable lessons about the role my leadership plays within this organization. This change in responsibility will allow me to focus on the day-to-day life of GIFT and hone in on programming; specifically, programming that continues the creation of safe spaces for LGBT+ teens attending Christian schools in and around Grand Rapids.  

As you can imagine, when one person is in charge of two significant roles within an organization, it can be hard to stay focused on the details.  With these new changes, I am excited to see GIFT flourish in new and meaningful ways. I am confident in my leadership and vision for GIFT and believe in demonstrating a mission that shares God’s love to all LGBT+ people of faith.  God is leading each step we take as an organization, and our eyes continue to be steadfast on the path He is creating in front of us. “

Thank you for believing in GIFT Grand Rapids!  We appreciate your support throughout this next chapter.  We are grateful for the prayers and positive energy that have been funneled towards us.  We ask that you continue to share our mission with schools and churches who are ready to create inclusive spaces within their walls.  If you know of LGBT+ individuals who require support and community, please send them our way!

BIG changes offer even BIGGER opportunities. Stay tuned for more to come.



Growing up “Queer” in Southwest Michigan can be hard.  Your parents may think it’s a sin or that you chose this.  They may be concerned about your relatives or church members’ reactions when they learn of your identity.  

Others of you may have really cool parents that embrace and celebrate your sexual and gender identity.

But it can still be hard.  

Self-Care is important regardless of your age.  

Too many unhealthy alternatives to self-care are easy to access: Binge drinking, promiscuous sex, or self-harm are some that many of us have struggled with.  Talking with supportive people, getting out in nature, physical activity, and spiritual practices can be helpful.  

Support with Other LGBT+ People

Some young people are afraid to go to a support group like the Adult Support Group at GIFT GR or a peer support group at the Pride Center.  Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) or similarly named groups may seem daunting, especially, if one is not Out to their peers or parents.  

Often isolation and loneliness is a big part of despair.  We need others.  Even the most introverted person needs support.  Sometimes when we are alone we can be our worst enemy with accusatory messages in our head.  

Although groups are not for everyone, I highly recommend you try one out.  You may fear further rejection but the members of these groups want you to join them.  For many, GSA’s and LGBT+ support groups are immensely healing.  Online LGBT+ youth groups and forums may also be a helpful resource.

Come out of the Closet when you are ready.  

Think of someone who would be safe to tell.  Consider how you could talk to them about who you really are.  Many young people report that their peers are accepting but they are unsure about some family members who may react negatively to their revelation. 

Jot down some thoughts before you introduce the conversation.  

Assume and imagine the best but prepare for possible negativity.  Make a plan on how to handle sharp words calmly.  Engaging in a debate will likely not be helpful for you or them.  Think of how you may want to react to negative responses.  Calmly. 

Be patient.  Your family member or friend may be completely surprised or may have been denying the clues of your sexuality or gender.  We need to allow parents and family members the time to go through their own coming out process.

I suggest saying positive, encouraging messages in your head as you press on.  

Show your parents information from the Family Acceptance Project.  

This resource provides information for helping parents who love their child but are not sure what they believe or believe that LGBT+ is not the right path for their child.  This information will help them engage in healthy conversation with you, show the love they have for you, regardless of your identity, and how to help keep your family together positively.  

Lastly, I highly recommend individual therapy with an LGBT+ affirming therapist or school counselor.  

The Pride Center has a list of affirming therapists (including myself).  I suggest discussing with your parents your desire to meet with an LGBT+ affirming therapist.  I have found that the most effective therapy often involves parental guidance for part of the sessions.

Dr. Matthew Clark is a gay Christian, psychologist, advocate, writer, and speaker in Grand Rapids.  Currently, he works on the faith subcommittee of the True Colors GR initiative to end LGBT+ teen homelessness and a book to help parents and LGBT+ people.


June Blog.jpg

15 years ago, I was surprised by a conversation with my cousin who had recently tried to grow in sobriety and had been newly engaged to a love interest.  Unfortunately, her fiance had left, she was pregnant, and being coached by her parents to abort the child or adopt it away. “You can’t possibly provide a stable home for this child,” they told her.  

“What do you want moving forward?” I asked my cousin.

“I think I want to have this child.  I may not get another chance to have a family.”

That conversation began my husband Jeff's and my journey into “fatherhood” as we joined my cousin in co-parenting her son.  We knew that parenting alone is often tough and that the kids of single parents could face challenging futures. While not biological or dad by adoption for fourteen plus years, my husband and I have had the privilege to feed, clothe, teach, care for, coach, and mentor our "son."  

The first Sunday I took a baby carrier containing his sleeping self to Marywood for Mass, one of the Dominican Sisters asked if Jeff and I had adopted.  “No, we were adopted by him.” He quickly adopted them too. At Marywood, he learned how to sing, pray, and act kindly toward people who are vulnerable and in need. He also developed a love for elderly ladies who loved his smile and gave him candy every time they saw him.  

My husband and I have planned his birthdays, play time with friends, and vacations. We shared him fully in Jeff’s family and watched parents become “grandparents.” Love grew.  We upheld holiday traditions year to year and brought in new twists to keep him interested. He loves a feast, eating dinner with adults, and showing off his latest piano piece.  

We have more recently been entrusted with teaching him hygiene (shaving), choosing clothes that look good and fit properly, and helping him study for school subjects that are way over my head (algebra, geometry). We have seen how maturity brings joys, changes, and new experiences.  

We have watched him grow from holding our finger crossing the street to totally ignoring us at school events. We have seen him goof off with pals, have crushes on girls, and finding any way possible to be where all the action is happening.  

We are a protector, provider, guide, and mentor.  Are we dad?  I wouldn’t call us that, but he does.  His friends do too.  Jeff and I feel fortunate to be called upon to serve him as he grows into an amazing young man.   The wonder of watching him help others and develop great friendships makes the 2 am feedings and difficult homework all worth it.  

David Lincoln is from Grand Rapids and has been in a relationship for twenty-one years and married for one.  He has been a member of Dominican Chapel Marywood for 22+years and has previously served on the GIFT Grand Rapids board of directors.  He enjoys long conversations around a table full of great food.



As an out member of the LGBTQ+ community, I’ve had my (un)fair share of Bible verses quoted at me to try to convince me of the inherent sinfulness of my sexual orientation. The portions of scripture used for such events are almost always the same: a misinterpretation of the situation at Sodom in Genesis 19, an angry snarl of “abomination” from Leviticus 18, and the ever-popular “Well it just isn’t natural!” from Romans 1. These are the most typical clobber passages I’ve had to endure, but occasionally other parts of scripture have been thrown into the mix as well. I believe the strangest was the verse my Baptist pastor chose to share with me when I first came out.

I grew up in a Baptist church. Looking back, I can see that the preaching was theologically questionable, at best. And yet, that church is where I first learned to love God and to love God’s people. It was also where, as I grew older, I first learned that I was much more interested in having a girlfriend in the youth group than a boyfriend. I never acted on this interest, but instead waited until I was far away at a music school in New York to come out. I was 18 and I came out with gusto, complete with the requisite haircut for young lesbians in the late 90s. (In my memory it was something short, spiky, and ridiculous-looking to our 21st century sensibilities.)

When I came home for Thanksgiving break that year I was called into my Baptist pastor’s office to have a chat. The chat. To my surprise he didn’t jump right into the “You’re going to hell!” rant, but instead he just sat there behind his desk, and slowly and silently thumbed through his very large King James Version Bible - as if he were looking for just the right passage. When he finally started to read, I was fully expecting Genesis 19 or Romans 1. But he chose First Corinthians 11:15:

“If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”

Aside from a few disapproving glares and a little more mumbling about hair length, that was the extent of his contribution to our meeting. I left feeling equal parts annoyed, confused…and curious about the eternal fate of all the old ladies with short hair in that congregation.

When I return to this moment, and to the countless other challenges along my faith journey, I can easily stay stuck in annoyance and confusion…or anger or sadness. All of these seem appropriate at times, but today as I look at this strange verse in First Corinthians I’m intrigued. Today I’m not interested in exegeting the passage or curious about what it would mean to apply a queer hermeneutic to it. Today I’m simply caught up in the poetry of the words, and what they echo back to me when I put them in conversation with my lived reality as a person of faith in the LGBTQ+ community.

“Her hair is given her for a covering…”

My Christian faith has been a journey of delightful discovering. I’ve discovered faith communities that have fully embraced me. I’ve discovered that my faith and my orientation are mutually compatible. I’ve discovered that staying in relationship with people who disagree with me can sometimes help with the process of reconciliation. Four years ago, I discovered gifts and graces that have led me to pursue a call to ministry. Over the last three years I have attended seminary and pursued ordination, discovering all sorts amazing things about my faith.

“Her hair is given her for a covering…”

My Christian faith has also been a journey of intentional uncovering. Coming out was, and continues to be, a spiritual practice – an uncovering of who God has created me to be. Pursuing ordination in a denomination not yet ready to fully accept me as an ordained minister has raised all sorts of issues with covering and uncovering. I’ve been told over and over again to cover myself, to divorce my wife, to hide and lie so that I can serve the church. But each time I speak the fullness of the truth of who I am (a Christian lesbian), and who God is calling me to be (an ordained minister), the Spirit uncovers deeper insight about what God is up to in my own journey and in the church.

“If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”

Some days I feel like I still don’t know who I am or where I’m going or who God is. But I do know that God is with me, and that I am God’s beloved. And I absolutely know that I don’t want to be that woman with the glorious long hair – because, for me, God is all about uncovering!

Dr. Joan Van Dessel will graduate in May with an M.Div. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. She currently serves as Director of Music at Genesis United Methodist Church in the Grand Rapids area . Joan and her wife have two nearly perfect dogs, Samson and Lily.


The visible me photo.JPG

I have to admit; it is hard to believe that I first started coming out ten years ago. 2008 seems like such a different time. As I stepped out of the closet with those tentative first steps, I was not quite sure what to expect. Would people accept me? Would people even know what it meant when I told them I was a transgender woman? There were so few resources for me, besides some internet connections. Despite being a student at a fairly conservative Bible college, I still forged forward knowing that I had no option but to be authentic to myself.

It seemed that at every turn I was “the first.” I was the first transgender woman any of my friends had ever known, and I was the first openly transgender student at my college and seminary. I was visible, and I felt the pressure of making sure that I was setting a good example - knowing that my actions would impact future trans people. It was a heavy weight, and it was what pushed me into activism around transgender education in 2010. 

I remember the first time I heard about Transgender Day of Visibility, from Rachel Crandall- it’s inventor. It seemed like a great concept- a chance to celebrate trans folks. It seemed a good counterpoint to Transgender Day of Remembrance where the community so heavily felt the grief of lost lives. So in 2012, the organization that I worked with partnered to work on transgender education during March. 

When doing activism, it can sometimes feel like we are not making a huge difference. But here I am, ten years after coming out, and now Transgender Day of Visibility is celebrated around the world. I also think about how it is also not enough to just make us visible. That visibility has also led to increased hate crime rates, and "bathroom bill" legislation. With visibility must come continued organizing and work for a better world for all transgender people. 

We can make a difference- I can look at the community in West Michigan and see the difference that education and activism by so many individuals have made. 

As a trans person coming of age in the early 2000’s, I was lucky to have the internet for processing my feelings- and that enabled me to understand myself sooner. Having visible trans people makes a difference. I can only imagine how encouraged a young me would have been to see someone like Jazz Jennings on television.  Visibility has enabled people to move towards a healthier life.  


Ember Kelley is a Master of Divinity student at Chicago Theological Seminary. She lives in Grand Rapids with her wife and two kids. In the past, Ember has been on GIFT GR's board and has worked as an intern. 



Growing up in the South, being black and being religious went hand-in-hand. I didn't know a single black person who claimed to not believe in God. (That is not to say that I went around to all of my black classmates with a clipboard and religious survey in hand, but take my word for it). Spirituality felt ingrained into my very core, in my DNA. 

And because of this, I do not remember a single moment in which I did not believe in God. I saw Him in the beauty of nature. I saw Her in the love of my family. So when my feelings for guys developed, around the same time that puberty hit, I took the most obvious route to me at the time: I tried to pray it away. 

It didn't work. 

As I fought harder and harder against my feelings for other boys, my spirit grew more and more distressed. Everything was telling me that my feelings were wrong. My dad preached against it from the pulpit. My only gay relative died of AIDS when I was three. And like most Christian families of the South, my immediate, extended, and church families were all overwhelming conservative about their beliefs of the Bible. 

In addition, I had to deal with homophobia that had nothing to do with spirituality. In the black community, there is an additional level of disgust and shame towards gay men. Black men are strong, masculine, tough. Black men aren't supposed to do anything that would damage that image. Dancing Ballet? Playing the Flute? Figure-skating? Not for my black son. A black man wearing a dress and makeup? Only done for laughs, i.e., "Madea", "Big Momma's House", and Sheneneh from the TV show "Martin". Even from a young age, I could see that the gay black role models were hard to find in the media. 

Ergo, family and church were no-gos. But I also couldn't talk to my school friends about it, at least not when I wanted to do so. I wasn't one of the lucky kids with a cell phone, and no one ever seemed to be logged into AOL Instant Messenger when I was in a crisis. And even if they were, how did I know that I could trust them with my secret? 

So, the torment continued. I cried and I prayed. I was well-known among my circles for the epic crushes on girls that were honestly induced by loneliness and perpetuated to hide my true identity. I watched everything I said, did, or even thought, because I didn't want to be found out. I wanted a change to come down from Heaven, hit me like lightning, and fix it all. 

Finally, after months of despair, a change did come. I realized that I couldn't change who I was and was not supposed to do so. Because of this, I felt peace within me that I cannot even begin to describe. If you have felt it, then you know what I mean. The moment I truly accepted myself for who I was and for who God made me, it felt well within my soul. 

Today, though I've long been out to friends, classmates, and coworkers, I'm still not out to my family, besides my older sister. Coming out will not only challenge their religious beliefs about homosexuality, but also their views on what it means to be a man in the black community. And though the gay black role models have become slightly more numerous than in the past, I still feel the pressure from my race to be masculine rather than to be me. 

But if my relationship with God is strong, if I know that I am as loved by God and created to be exactly who I am as they are, then what is it that I fear? 

Danny Jones is a musician, an artist, and an avid reader, who finds his greatest joy in both performing on stage and teaching music at the elementary and middle school levels. He formerly lived in Grand Rapids, but now resides in San Diego, California, where he attends an LGBT-affirming church called Missiongathering.


aaron-burden-304587 (1).jpg

I was recently given a necklace with the word “Ally” stamped on it. “Ally” in the sense of allied, allying, being an ally. I thought the title was perfect. This is who I am, and also what I do.

But, what does this word actually mean?

Ally is a verb: to unite, to join, and to connect through a mutual relationship. Ally is also a noun: a person who associates with another for a common purpose, someone who supports or cooperates. In biology, an ally is a plant, animal or organism that bears an evolutionary relationship to another –often as member of the same family.

I am not a gay Christian. I am simply a Christian. I represent a Christian who has walked alongside my LGBTQ brothers and sisters for well over a decade. This journey has changed me. This journey has opened my heart in ways I could never have imagined. I found that the biological definition of ally fits me well: an organism that bears an evolutionary relationship to another –often as member of the same family.

It pains me deeply that often other people of faith start with difference instead of the beautiful alignment that happens when we share a profound love of God.

We are from the same family, the family of God. We belong to each other. We need each other. We have a tremendous amount to learn from one another.

This question was recently presented to me: I have found that most Christian allies are affirming to the LGBT+ because they, at some point in their life, were treated as less than by the greater church.  It doesn't mean that allies understand what it's like to be gay, but they can at least understand the struggle.  Have you found this to be true in your life?  

Honestly, yes.

I was raised in a series of conservative, Evangelical, non-denominational churches; every one of these was led by a straight, white, man. In my high school youth group, the youth pastor’s wife told me that it was right and Biblical for women to subservient to men. I attended a Christian college where all of the spiritual leaders on campus were men. As a young woman with strategic and leadership gifts, I was overtly and subtly told that I could attend church and be a Christian, but there was a limit to how I could participate in a community of faith. My full self was not welcome. This is a horrible feeling and one that I am slowly reconciling.

Being an ally helps.

I think many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters feel this same way. They are often (but not always) welcome to be in churches or Christian groups, but only if they do not insist on being their true and full selves.

I fully believe that God created us, loves us, and deeply desires us to show up. Show up with our full selves. All of us. Every part.

I also fully believe that gay Christians are special. Gay Christians have helped me heal in my own pain of rejection and the questioning my gifts, and they have also shown me great courage in pursuing faith with God regardless of the horrible things said and done in the name of God. I am inspired by my LGBTQ family.

Today, this inspiration has moved me into other areas of ally-ness.

As an ally I have traveled into a war zone in Eastern Congo, I have held the babies of dying mothers in AIDS clinics, I have provided platforms for women to share their voices when they have been labeled “voiceless.” I have become a vocal proponent of things like needle exchange and overdose prevention, global orphan care overhaul, and the ethics of diversity in leadership. I have found new courage each time to reach across the barriers that divide us to say “me too” and “we are in this together.”

Aligning myself with people often found on the margins has altered my life in more ways than I can count. Jesus constantly chastised the self-righteous religious leaders and chose to associate with those on the margins.

Perhaps becoming an ally is a window into what it means to be more like Jesus.

Ruth Bell Olsson is an activist and ally who lives in Grand Rapids with her partner Jeff and three children: Zinnia, Oskar and Kagiso.
Ruth holds degrees from Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Her background includes work with churches and their outreach efforts, board positions with several local non-profits (including many years with the Grand Rapids Red Project), and global consulting with Bethany Global. Ruth currently writes and speaks on a variety of topics, her ally-ness being a favorite.


Photo by  Markus Spiske  

Photo by Markus Spiske 

This may seem like an odd story for Advent, the 4-week season leading to Christmas, but please stick with me.

The week of Thanksgiving I was working on one of my brother’s Christmas tree lots in South Florida, and a middle-aged woman named Isabella arrived to look for a tree. She soon told my nephew and me that she does not celebrate Christmas because she is Jewish, but she wanted to buy a tree simply because “they are beautiful.”

Isabella then relayed a story that captured my attention. She had been telling her 13-year-old daughter that they would not be buying a tree for the holidays because their family is Jewish. Her daughter replied, “Do you think I’m going to forget who I am just because of a tree?” Isabella replied, “You’re right. Let’s get a tree!”

Isabella recognized her daughter’s wisdom, and it’s wisdom that could serve us well during this busy holiday season. December is a time of mixed emotions. It can be joyful, celebratory, and heart-warming as we attend various Christmas events. But it can also be exhausting, lonely, and depressing.

Sure, there are tips (see below) for staying healthy and happy over the holidays, but the foundation for such life-giving experiences is, I believe, remembering who we are.

We sometimes forget our true identity. For example, we get duped into thinking we are, most importantly, consumers—that we will be happy if we buy the right stuff. Or we feel that our identity is based on our appearance, finances, job, friends, or partner. Or we try to achieve some mythical, magical experience of the holidays that is unrealistic or impossible. Predictably our experience fails to match our expectations, and we end up depressed.

Or we feel hurt by our families because they don’t fully accept who we are as gay or transgender. In fact, I have heard many sad stories from gay people who experience tension or complete rejection by their families during the holidays. Such experiences can leave us feeling disappointed and hurt.

Could it be that we suffer in these ways, in part at least, because we have forgotten who we are?

And who are we? What is the core of our identity that we need to remember? Most fundamentally, we are beloved children of God. In fact, God loves us so much that God was born as the baby (whose birth we celebrate at Christmas). God became human in Christ! God loves us so much that God became one of us.

If we know that most importantly we are beloved children of the Creator of the universe and that God is intimately present with us, then everything we do flows out of that identity. We can act and rest with a calm assurance of being loved before we do, buy, or possess anything.

So we can let go of trying to achieve some unrealistic holiday experience because we can just rest in the realization that God loves us. We don’t have to “shop till we drop.” We don’t have to wear ourselves out with Christmas events frantically. Sure, let’s do some of these things—but only in a healthy, balanced way.

What are some practical tips that flow out of remembering who we are? Because God loves us, we can love ourselves and those around us. Here are a few possible ways:

  • Set realistic expectations so that you don’t end up disappointed. It’s silly to think that Christmas is always (or ever) going to be an emotional high with wondrous family dynamics.
  • Focus on being gracious, loving, and generous to others because it does bring us joy when we focus on others rather than ourselves.
  • Say yes to gatherings that are life-giving and say no to those that are life-draining.
  • Eat plenty of healthful foods, and eat sweets and drink alcohol in moderation (or not at all).
  • Join a gym, exercise at home, or take up a winter sport.
  • When you face stressful situations during the holidays, stop and say to yourself, “Remember who you are—a beloved child of God, who became one of us in Christ.”
  • Set up an Advent wreath with a Christ candle in the middle and four candles around the perimeter. Each week of Advent, focus on a theme of that week’s candle: hope, peace, joy, or love. Each evening light the candle(s) of the week and read a Scripture passage with the theme of the week. (I just go the, type in the word of the week, and pick meaningful passages with the subject.)
  • Focus on Christ! Read Scriptures about Christ, attend a Christ-centered concert, pray, give to others as Christ provided to us.

I wish you God’s blessing during Advent this year! And remember who you are!

GIFT GR Founder and Chaplain, Jim Lucas, provides pastoral care and counseling, leads support programs, and organizes life enrichment events for LGBT+ people and allies. He frequently speaks in college classes and promotes the full inclusion of LGBT+ people. Jim is a graduate of both Calvin College (BA) and Calvin Seminary (MDiv). He completed four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and has been a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains since 2008. Jim also serves as a chaplain for Spectrum Health.



Hi! My name is Kim Kunze and I am a clinical psychologist in Grand Rapids, MI. If you have never interacted with a psychologist, don’t worry, my hope is to give you a bit of an inside look at what it might look like to work with someone in my profession while (before, during, after) you are going through a gender transition. There are a lot of different terms for people who do the work I do: therapist, counselor, social worker, psychiatrist, gender therapist, shrink and etc.

Why should I try therapy?

There are a lot of reasons that my clients come to see me (client is the word I use to talk about the people who I treat; some therapists say ‘patients’, some say ‘patrons’). Maybe your doctor told you that you need to see a therapist before you can start to medically transition (starting hormone blockers, hormone replacement therapy, or surgical interventions). Maybe you have a friend who recommended that you go to therapy. Maybe you just want some help with exploring your identity.

Proving yourself

Some of my clients (many, in fact) are brought in by well-meaning and loving family members, guardians, partners, or friends to ‘make sure’ that the client is really transgender. That is a tough situation for my clients to be in. As a cis-person, I often try to imagine what it would have been like if I needed to prove to my parents that I am a woman. What if I had to work really hard to convince my parents to let me shop the ‘pink aisle’ at the store, or to buy and wear feminine clothing? Then I try to imagine what it would be like to engage in this process over and over again in many other situations with many other people. When a client is brought in by family or guardians in order for the client to address matters related to gender diversity, I often recommend that the family engage in their own therapy so they can learn how to best support their loved one. It is extremely important for a client’s living environment to be safe and affirming. Sometimes, lack of support, rejection, or even violence creates huge problems for my clients.

Gender identity is complex, beautiful, and ever-evolving (yes! Even for cis-people!). And not all transitions require an observable change.

Finding a therapist and making the first appointment

I recommend doing a bit of research to seek out specific providers. A lot of community LGBTQ centers have lists of providers who are known to be knowledgeable and supportive of LGBTQ needs. When you call the provider, be specific about what you need.  For some people, this is intimidating and stressful. It can be a lot easier to make this first call if you know that the provider you are seeking to meet with is transgender/gender nonconforming affirming.

The intake coordinator, receptionist, or therapist will ask you for your demographic information. Unfortunately, a lot of billing and medical record programs require that medical providers use the ‘legal’ name of a client. For a lot of TGNC folks, this is their dead-name. You can always tell the intake coordinator your ‘legal’ AND ask that they make a note to refer to you by the name and gender you actually use.

The intake coordinator will either schedule an appointment for you, or take your phone number so they can coordinate with the provider you are seeking to see. You will often have some preliminary paperwork to complete at or before your first session, which is usually about an hour long. It does help if you come early or complete the paperwork before your appointment, because an hour may feel like a lot, but it goes quickly.

First session

Your therapist will greet you and bring you to their* office. The therapist will ask you questions about why you are there and follow up with questions about your life history. If the therapist asks you something that you don’t want to talk about, tell them that you would rather not address that issue or you want to come back to that later.

Therapy? Letter? Both?

If I know you are here to see me because of a TGNC-related matter, I usually start out by trying to get a clear picture of whether you need to see me for a letter of recommendation for medical transition, if you have a mental health/emotional/relationship matter you need to resolve, or a combination of both. Some TGNC-affirming therapists have a policy to only write letters for people with whom they have a therapeutic relationship (i.e. they don’t do evaluation-only sessions). It’s important to address this right away so you can quickly move on toward someone who can provide what you need.

How many sessions will it take?

Speaking of quickness, it is perfectly okay to ask your therapist about the typical duration of the treatment you are seeking. If you are seeking a letter, don’t hesitate to ask the therapist what they need to know about you in order to support your desire to have a medical intervention. Every client is unique, but I usually will have a time range in mind by your second or third session. I always hope that my clients know how much I want to collaborate with them and, if timing is feeling off (too fast or too slow), tell me. I think most therapists feel the same way.

Reasons why a medical transition might not be recommended for you

There are a couple of mental health conditions that worry medical providers when someone is seeking any type of medical intervention (even bariatric surgeries or organ transplants). It can be frustrating or awkward to feel like you must prove your readiness or to prove your gender identity. Sometimes clients aren’t completely forthcoming during their sessions, because they don’t want to be denied the opportunity to medically transition. I understand the motivation behind this, but, if you have  a therapist who is knowledgeable and affirming of TGNC identities, it really will only hurt you to hide important details about yourself.  It is especially important to let a therapist know if you are struggling with suicidal ideation, self-harm, hallucinations, substance abuse, or trauma. For some people, going through the medical transition helps to alleviate their mental health symptoms.

It’s very important to collaborate with your therapist. I have recommended to some clients that they get a bit stronger in management of a mental health issue before pursuing transition. These are often difficult conversations. However, if you have a therapist who is affirming of and educated about gender diversity, and they are recommending that you wait before transitioning, this is being done with your wellbeing in mind. In most cases, your therapist is saying ‘not now’ to your medical transition rather than ‘no’ or ‘never’.  

I believe you

It’s important for you to know that I tend to believe that what you say about yourself is true. My job is not to prove that your gender identity is real. Parents often want some assurance on that matter, but you could change your mind each time you come to see me, and I am likely to support you on your journey toward discovering and verbalizing your identity. When I write letters of recommendation for medical gender transition, my job is to give your doctors a bit of information about whether or not you are of sound mind (not hallucinating, not delusional, able to make decisions for yourself or with adequate guardianship support) and able to handle the changes (follow instructions from the doctors, take general care of yourself, handle increases in stress, handle related adjustments).

As a side note: having a history of psychosis, suicide attempts, substance abuse, or other mental health concerns should not eliminate you from having access to medical interventions. If something like that is part of your current experience or your past, your therapist is going to explore whether or not your symptoms are reasonably controlled so you can have a successful response to the medical intervention.


You may have heard of WPATH, or the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. They are an important organization that works hard to develop standards of care for professionals who assist TGNC persons in their transition or identity development. WPATH currently has Version 7 of its Standards of Care. It can be helpful to look through the WPATH website to get an idea of what is recommended for different providers:

Basics of the therapy gender assessment

The purpose of a psychological assessment is for the therapist to be able to have a broad understanding of your history, your readiness for medical treatment, and to come up with a treatment plan to help you meet your goals. WPATH recommends the following factors to be covered by your sessions with a therapist.

  1. The therapist should support and empower you and your identity.

  2. The therapist often will assess you for ‘symptoms’ of Gender Dysphoria according to the psychological diagnostic manual (the DSM-V). Not all therapists and medical doctors require a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria because there have been tons of cases in which a TGNC person has not exhibited severe discomfort with their bodies or identities- yet, they may still desire/require a medical intervention.

  3. The therapist might need to help you with referrals for other psychiatric, medical and/or surgical needs.

  4. The therapist will explore whether there are any other concerns, specifically mental health concerns that might interfere with your ability to engage in treatment. If you have possible concerns, the therapist will help you to figure out how to control those issues so you can proceed with a medical intervention.

  5. The therapist will assess whether or not you seem to be able to make reasonable decisions about your own care.

Specifically, your therapist may want to know about your childhood development, gender identity, sexual orientation, trauma history, prior mental health treatment, prior hormone treatment, social support, finances, substance abuse history and your understanding of the medical interventions as part of the transition process (if you are seeking a medical intervention).

Questions for the therapist

Here are some questions that might help you to get to know your therapist and to know whether or not the therapist can help you. It’s always okay to get a second opinion; especially if your providers do not seem to know much about TGNC identities and medical interventions.

  1. Are you LGBTQ affirming?

  2. How many transgender or gender nonconforming clients have you worked with?

  3. How do you support and advocate for your transgender or gender nonconforming clients?

  4. Do you write letters of recommendation for medical transition?

  5. Are you affiliated with WPATH (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health)?

  6. Do you write letters of recommendation for people who do not want therapy?

Questions for people who need a letter of recommendation to support a medical gender transition:

  1. Ask the therapist what they need to do in order to feel comfortable with writing a letter supporting medical gender transition.

  2. Ask if the therapist has written such a letter before.

  3. Ask the therapist if you can read the letter before they send it to your doctor.

* I use ‘their’ instead of ‘him and her’ as a way to be respectful of all gender identities.