Traveling in a foreign country is always an illuminating experience. Some years ago my minister friend, Nancy, and I were invited by a bishop in a small eastern European country to come visit him. The bishop, Albert, knew that Nancy was gay and that I worked closely with the LGBTQ community. Having met Albert years before, we knew he was a progressive sort. What we didn’t know was how openly he could safely discuss matters of sexuality and gender identity in his conservative world. We soon found out.
After we had been in the country for a week, Albert asked for a private conversation. He said he had a delicate situation on his hands and needed our help. A young man in the church had been coming to Albert for counseling about his gender identity disorder. This person thought he might be a woman trapped in a man’s body, but had no one to talk to about it except the bishop.
Albert knew that Nancy and I both had experience working with transgender people. He confessed great compassion for the young man’s struggle, but also said his church and culture were not ready for an open conversation about such issues. He wondered if we would meet with the young man and Albert would serve as the translator.
When Joseph entered the bishop’s study he looked frail and embarrassed. We greeted him as warmly as we could given the fact we did not speak his language and he did not speak English. After some small talk we ventured into asking questions about Joseph’s struggle with his gender identity. The more we talked the more Joseph realized we were sympathetic to his plight. He opened up to us and explained his dream was to travel to England or Canada and have gender reassignment surgery. This did seem like a dream given the fact Joseph had acknowledged earlier that he had never even dressed in women’s undergarments because he could not afford them.
When Joseph departed the three of us lamented that there was not something more tangible we could do to help him in his distress. Then I had a thought. Here was a young man who believed he was a woman, but he had not ever worn women’s clothes. It seemed like a basic first step would be to help Joseph find some clothes and see how comfortable he was wearing them in private. So, I blurted out, “Let’s go to the store and buy Joseph a bra and some panties.” Albert and Nancy looked at me strangely, and I realized we were about to venture off the map in terms of traditional caregiving. However, they finally agreed there was little to lose.
When we arrived at the department store Nancy and I headed for the women’s clothing section and Albert went in the opposite direction. Not only was he a well known figure in this town, but he was still wearing his clerical uniform. Apparently he decided it wouldn’t look good for a bishop to be seen shopping for lingerie.
Nancy and I began gingerly picking our way through the bras. We quickly realized we had a problem. Joseph was tall and very thin, not a description that would fit either one of us. As I held one bra up to Nancy and asked if she thought it would fit, she turned red and said, “How would I know? Does it look like I have ever fit into a bra that size in my life?!” At the very moment I was holding the bra up in front of Nancy, Albert came around the corner and saw what was happening. He let out a audible yelp and ran the other way.
In the end we decided on a bra and panty set that we thought might fit Joseph. He seemed grateful for the unorthodox gift and we later put him in touch with a therapist who could provide additional support.
It is easy to forget that the private struggle gay and transgender people endure is not just an issue in our country. All over the world there are LGBTQ individuals living in much more repressed cultures who have few safe places to discuss their situation. In the battle for universal human rights, compassionate people like Albert, and brave souls like Joseph, need all the support we can provide. Even if that support is sometimes of an unusual and lacy variety.