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Transgendered minister keeps the faith
Rev. Michael Sharp shakes hands with the firm, easy grip of a confident man.
Looking down at his thick fingers and the dark hair peaking out from beneath his wrist cuffs, most people would never guess that he used to be a woman.
But indeed, less than 10 years ago, Sharp's drivers license listed him as a female.
Sharp, 57, is now married with three stepchildren. He is a part-time pastor at the Wayside United Church of Christ in Federal Way.
Wayside Church, a member of the United Church of Christ, stands out as a liberal church in a religiously conservative community. In 1991, Wayside adopted an anti-discrimination policy regarding gay and lesbian congregants. In 2005, the policy was amended to include transgender people.
While the United Church of Christ as a whole accepts gay and lesbian congregants, it is up to each individual congregation to pass its own policy. Such policies are more common on the East and West coasts.
In Federal Way, Wayside is the only church with such a policy, said pastor Dennis Hollinger-Lant.
"There are a lot of denominations that view homosexuality as a sin and we don't believe that," Hollinger-Lant said. "I just think God created people equally and we just need to learn to accept that... God accepts everyone."
Wayside Church also holds holy union ceremonies uniting partners of the same sex.
The United Church of Christ has historically been a progressive church. It was the first church to ordain a gay minister in the mid-1970s. The church ordained the first African-American minister in the 1700s and the first female minister in the 1850s.
At a national gathering in 2005, the United Church of Christ went on record saying it supports gay marriage.
Sharp didn't have any problem marrying his wife legally because his driver's license now lists him as a man. It was not considered a gay marriage.
The name change was among the first things Sharp did when he transitioned. He changed his name with the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Health. He also changed the name on his nursing license and with various other institutions.
Co-workers at the local hospital where Sharp works as a nurse were very supportive, he said.
After the name change came hormone therapy. Within two weeks of taking testosterone, Sharp began growing facial hair and thick body hair.
Then there was a mastectomy.
"I couldn't wait to get rid of those offensive breasts," he said. "I used to call them my birth defects. Everybody knows if you have birth defects, it's OK to correct them."
Transgender people refer to the mastectomy as the upper surgery. There are a variety of lower surgeries people can have on their genital area. Sharp will not reveal whether he's had any lower surgeries.
Surgeries for sex change can be tremendously expensive. Insurance plans don't cover the procedures because they are considered elective.
"For a transgender person, there's nothing elective about it. We do whatever we have to do to become whole," Sharp said.
Keeping the past quiet
Sharp knew something was different about him when he was a young girl. He hated dressing up and he never felt comfortable wearing makeup or fixing his hair. He was more interested in playing army or working in the shop with his father.
As he grew up, he found that he was sexually attracted to women and he began to live his life as a lesbian.
"I assumed then if I was only attracted to women, I must be a lesbian and a butch," he said.
From about the age of 30, Sharp was very androgynous in appearance. At times he was harassed.
"People would come up to me and grab my genital area to find out if I was male or female," he said.
Today, most people who didn't know Sharp before the transition don't know he used to be female. It's not obvious by looking at him and he doesn't discuss it much. He doesn't talk about what his name was before and he doesn't show pictures.
When he goes to the men's locker room at the YMCA, Sharp is careful not to expose any difference.
"The first time I went to a men's restroom scared the dickens out of me that I'd be discovered and beaten to a pulp," he said.
Sharp's 15-year-old stepson knows that Sharp used to be a woman, but it doesn't bother him, Sharp said.
"We told him but I think he's forgotten. I'm just dad now," he said.
Still, Sharp aims to keep his past quiet for his stepson's sake. He fears his stepson could get assaulted in school by bullies who found out.
"I would hate to have my son not feel safe because of who I am," he said.
Sharp's wife considers herself bisexual, Sharp said. She was previously married to a man.
"I used to walk around saying 'God, I hope you find me a bi woman because I don't think anybody else will know what to do with me," Sharp said.
Among Sharp's most difficult struggles as a transgender person have been those he's had with religion. He fought to become an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church as a woman in 1976. Later, he left the church after the threat of being excommunicated for being homosexual.
"The church that I had known had preached the gospel of fear and was spiritually abusive," Sharp said.
He eventually found the Wayside Church in Federal Way.
"That church has been the most healing experience," he said. "It's a healing place. The people are accepting."
These days, things are going well for Sharp. He hopes that people learn from him that transgender people are not freaks.
"We're normal people with normal lives. We don't want to harm anybody. We just want to have our own lives. To live and love," he said.
People who are opposed to homosexuality based on religion often quote a verse in the Bible that says it is an abomination for a man to lay with another man as a woman.
"Two gay men in love are not laying with another man as a woman. They are laying with a gay man in love," Sharp said.
"For me, the Bible is very clear that God doesn't care who you are," he said. "God loves. God welcomes. God forgives. Because we've all sinned."