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Discovering Abby and Becoming Myself

06/24/2015 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016
Abby Jensen

It was the day after Thanksgiving 2006. My entire extended family had gathered at my brother's "cabin" on the banks of the South Fork of the Snake River for a traditional turkey dinner the day before. My mother and step-dad went home to Pocatello after dinner, but the rest of us stayed overnight, sleeping on couches or wherever else we could find a soft spot.

I started telling people I was going to transition over the Labor Day weekend. After much worry and discussion, I decided the best time to tell my family would be when everyone was together for Thanksgiving. However, I didn't want to disrupt Thanksgiving dinner, so I told everyone that I had an announcement for the family that I wanted to make the next day.

My father died of cancer in 2000. A few years later, my mom remarried to a man she had known since high school and whose wife had died a few years before. They reconnected at the Baptist Church I attended as a child. I had only met him briefly and was a little nervous about his reaction because of his Christian background. It didn't help any when the first question he asked of one of my cousins he hadn't met before was, "Have you been saved?"

I was already living mostly full-time as Abby by then, so it was torture being there with everyone and pretending to be the guy they all had known for so many years. (I was 53.)

Plus, everyone was curious and asking about my announcement. I simply told them they would have to wait.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving dinner went well. I even managed to not be totally shutdown with worry about what would happen the next day.

The next morning, after breakfast and coffee, I gathered everyone together in the living room. There were 20 or so people there, some of whom I didn't know very well. I sat on the hearth, facing them with one of my daughters on each side of me. (I had told them and my ex a couple of days before. All was well with them.)

I had written a long, and (I thought) heartfelt letter to read, so I could be sure that I said everything that I needed to say. I told them about how difficult and sad my life had been and how I had embarked on a spiritual journey to learn how to be happy, something that I had never learned.

It was that journey that led to me peeling off the layers of fear and shame that had protected and cut me off from the world. Underneath, I discovered Abby.

I cried as I read the letter. There wasn't much emotion on the faces listening to my words. After I finished, everyone was quiet. My sister, an evangelical missionary who has helped found churches all over the world, told me she didn't agree with what I was doing, but still loved me. She gave me a hug and we parted.

My older brother and I had never gotten along very well, but we saw each and our families from time to time over the years. Just before I left, I said goodbye to my brother. He shook my hand and said, "Good luck." He hasn't spoken to me since.

I planned to tell my mom alone so we would both be more comfortable. I had two hours of driving to Pocatello in which to ponder what was about to happen. After I arrived, my mom and my step-dad sat on the couch; I sat across from them. I started reading the same letter I read to the rest of my family, but I didn't get very far before my mom interrupted and asked, "Do you have any pictures?" I had prepared for that question before I left Arizona, so I sat between them and began scrolling through the pictures on my laptop. Within five minutes, my mom was talking to me about shoes and hairstyles and electrolysis. I was so grateful there was no drama.

My family was never much for hugs, but that night, as we were going to bed, my mom gave me a hug and said, "You do whatever you need to do to be happy, and we'll adjust." And they have.

The next spring, my mom got to meet me as Abby for the first time. They had a summer place in northern Arizona, so I arranged to spend a weekend with them there. Shortly after I arrived, some neighbors from the local church my mom and step-dad attended stopped by. I, of course, was a little nervous about meeting strangers, but my mom didn't miss a beat. She turned to them and said, "This is my daughter, Abby." I couldn't have asked for more.

I became a member of the Unity Church in Prescott, Arizona in 1995. Before I attended as Abby for the first time, I warned the pastor and a few others, but I was still a little nervous. As it turned out, my first Sunday as Abby was Mother's Day. When I walked in, the greeters handed me a yellow rose, as they did with all the other mothers. As I found a place among in the sanctuary, I remembered that the pastor would ask all the mothers to stand to be blessed by the congregation, just as he did with the fathers on Father's Day. I debated whether it would be better for me to stand with the mothers or the fathers. It didn't take long to decide that standing with the mothers on Mother's Day was likely to cause less consternation.

So, when the time came, I proudly stood with the other mothers.

Five years later, I moved to Tucson to work for the Pima County Public Defender. I quickly found a church home at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church. The first Sunday I attended happened to be the church's anniversary celebration. As the pastor recounted some of the church's history, he told how St. Francis had become one of the first Reconciling Ministries 25 years before, and, then, he said the word "transgender," a word I had never before heard uttered in church.

I was hooked and have been there ever since.

The next spring, I became a member of St. Francis, so I could become more involved. Again, without planning, the Sunday when I and the other new members were presented to the congregation was Mother's Day... again! It felt like perfect symmetry to be there on the anniversary of my transition six years before.

This year, I went again to St. Francis on Mother's Day and quietly celebrated my mother's love and the love I gave myself by becoming myself.

This post originally appeared on Reconciling Ministries Network.

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