I was born Matthew Walter Ward in June 1971 to two loving parents. I was born with what was then a little-known condition called gender dysphoria, but growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in suburban Maryland to a quasi-Catholic Mom, I knew this condition would remain hidden for years to come.
At age 13, Mom and I moved to rural Florida, where a new friend invited me to attend church with his family. It was at that little church out in the middle of nowhere that I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior.
I did not attend church often, but I read my Bible and prayed some. Civilized society slowly became more accepting of LGBTQ people throughout the 1980s, but transgender people were still mocked in the media. In church, they were condemned as homosexual perverts, which fed my inner turmoil.
Humans tend to believe a lot of things about themselves that are inaccurate. These beliefs can often lead to shame, self-loathing and self-esteem issues. I had a corner on the market.
For many years, as an adolescent and an adult, I would cry myself to sleep, begging God to let me wake up in the right body.
By my mid-teens, most of my friends thought I was gay. They assumed my predilection for female clothing was just an expression of my gayness. Only my friend Dawn knew better. To her, I was Nicole. She was the first person I ever felt truly liberated around, but when she moved, I had to hide my face once again.
I tried so hard to be a guy for my mom’s sake, so God wouldn’t hate me, and so I wouldn’t be laughed at. The image I created for myself eventually led to my arrest and conviction for crimes against my very nature. I was 20 years old.
I immediately cried out to God from my cell, and he flooded me with a sense of peace I’d never before experienced. I decided that if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison, I would do it serving God.
In my new allegiance to God, I was allying myself to the church and its occasionally flawed beliefs. Many well-intentioned believers told me that my dysphoria was a choice and a sin, but that God would deliver me from it. So I buckled down, prayed and fasted, resisting temptation on every corner.
But it was only a matter of time before I — now Michelle — demanded freedom. I turned away from God and the church and finally began living my life as a female.
My independence was short-lived though. Before long, I was back before God in heart-wrenching sobs of repentance. I would renew my vows of commitment to him.
I went on to repeat this cycle many more times. I felt like a broken hypocrite. A lot of people mocked me and expected me to fall again. I never let them down.
Over the years I began noticing patterns in my gender dysphoria. It was strongest between November and March, and every four years it would become completely unbearable.
Because of my feelings of hypocrisy, and my disappointed church family banning me from the ministries I was called to, I learned to compromise: I would have secret relations with guys and keep my church family oblivious to them. This worked for several years.
I was housed at Hardee Correctional Institution, where I engaged in programs surrounded by friends and church family. I led several ministries, mentored, taught classes and oversaw our runner’s club. People looked up to and respected me.
Then it happened. The chains of secrecy became unbearably heavy and the dysphoria hit with a vengeance.
I was stripped of my ministries and most of my positions. I angrily prayed to God, “You made me this way. Why is it so wrong to be who you made me?”
That question began my journey toward grace. He spoke softly to my heart, “Michelle, who told you it was wrong? In my kingdom there is no male and female. It is about your spirit.”
It hasn’t been perfect since that conversation. I still deal with haters. Last year I had a brother get up in church and read every anti-gay scripture in the Bible, then call me out by name and tell me it was wrong for me to sing or speak at all in the service.
Progress has been made though. Few people agreed with him and our staunch Southern Baptist volunteer has started to call me Sister Michelle.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.