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To a sex change and back again, with myriad regrets

December 02, 2007|Kelli Kennedy | Associated Press

DELRAY BEACH, FLA. — High on prescription drugs and four days without sleep, Michael Berke raced his Harley to the megachurch where he'd found a home.

He barged into the church office, cursing loudly and wearing a mesh shirt printed with profanity. In his hands he held a picture of a woman with long, red hair and pouty lips.

"This is who I used to be," he said.

"And this" -- he gestured to his breastless chest, bald head and red goatee -- "is who I've become."

He was born a man. After a lifetime as a social misfit, he had transformed himself into Michelle, a saucy redhead. Then, three months ago, he had become Michael again -- with the financial aid and spiritual encouragement of Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale.

Now, he wanted to be Michelle again, and he blamed Calvary for making him the man he had become.

Looking for friendship

It has never been about sex. And the new clothes and 45 pairs of shoes were fun, but not fulfilling.

Berke wanted friendship -- the kind women have.

He dreamed of shopping together and gossiping in the bathroom. "I always admired how girls can hold hands, girls can hug, cuddle, and there's nothing abnormal about it. It's not sexual," he says. "The whole girl lifestyle is just so much more social and caring and loving and understanding."

His life had not been a happy one. Kids at school teased him because he was different, so he rebelled and often got in trouble.

Michael left home at 19, living on the streets and flitting from job to job. He worked as a techie for Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, followed by odd jobs at a veterinarian's office, tanning salon and nail salon. He drank, used drugs.

Berke has never felt comfortable around men -- he's repelled by the angry, macho, emotionless male stereotype. He isn't attracted sexually to men, either, and says he has never had sex with one.

In 2003, at age 39, he became Michelle.

He spent about $80,000, maxing out his credit cards on surgery and provocative women's clothes. He got a nose job, brow lift and fat injections in his cheeks. His primary-care physician gave him hormones, and after a year he got breast implants.

Michael kept his penis; that surgery cost too much, and he still identified himself as a heterosexual. (He's had relationships with women and says he's still hoping to meet one with whom he could spend his life.)

The transformation was easy, a dream. He had few friends as Michael and no steady job, so there was no awkward explanation to co-workers.

Michelle loved pretty things. She made friends easily and was a great dancer; Michael would have never stepped on the dance floor.

Michelle talked to her mom and sister for the first time in years. She even flew to Cincinnati one Thanksgiving and met her niece and nephew for the first time. She went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings for women and "completely emotionally understood and identified with their feelings."

But even as Michelle, the same old problems crept in.

"I was still the same person inside. Michelle was just the exterior," Michael says.

She was depressed and suicidal and prone to cutting herself. She threw up her food trying to fit into her jeans, eventually dropping from a size 12 to a 7. She struggled with drugs and alcohol, just like Michael.

By 2005, Michelle had tried everything else, "so why not God?" A friend invited her to church.

Turning to church

An evangelical church with about 20,000 members -- one of the largest in Florida -- Calvary Chapel has a reputation for embracing the homosexual community. Its several homosexual and transgender participants are not allowed to serve in church leadership, but are welcome to attend services where a Bible-based message teaches sex is supposed to be reserved for marriage between a man and woman.

Many evangelical churches have evolved from fire and brimstone preaching against homosexuals and transgenders and now view those members as having a psychological illness much like depression -- something that must be dealt with spiritually, says Melissa M. Wilcox, assistant professor of religion and director of gender studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

"The churches that only see it as sin would not be welcoming to someone like Michael at all," said Wilcox, author of "Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community."

"It's a way of living out their beliefs of you love the sinner and you hate the sin. Since the early '90s, that's increasingly been the direction that a lot of evangelicals have moved in . . . because it offers hope."

Michelle loved the upbeat music and the feel-good sermons.

Everybody seemed so nice. They put her in a special women's Bible study group so Michelle would feel more comfortable. Her new friends showed her videos about a gay man who became a woman and then a man again, and married a woman with whom he had children and lived happily.

You can have that too, they said.

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