A gender journey
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, wearing a mesh shirt printed with profanity. In his hands he held a picture of a curvy woman with long, red hair and pouty lips.
"This is who I used to be," he said.
"And this" &
he gestured to his flat 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.
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 and a strained relationship with his parents 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 as a nail technician. 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.
2005, Michelle had tried everything else, "so why not God?" A friend invited her to church.
An evangelical church with about 20,000 members &
one of the largest in the state &
Calvary Chapel has a local 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 Dr. Melissa 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.
They said "you'll be able to meet a wonderful woman and get married and that's what pulled at my heartstrings because I really wanted that," Michael recalls. "I thought I was doing the right thing."
the time Michelle first met Calvary Chapel Pastor Bob Coy, she was self-conscious about the D-sized breasts she'd had for over a year and had started wearing baggy men's shirts to hide them.
During the altar call one Sunday, Berke found God. And several weeks later, Michelle told church leaders she wanted to become a man again.
"This is a man with tears in his eyes who asked for help," says Coy, a bearded, charismatic leader whose own story is one of redemption from drinking, drug-taking and the excesses of life in the music industry.
Church leaders spent weeks counseling Michelle. They brought her to their thrift store, allowed her to pick out a new wardrobe of men's clothes for free, says Craig Huston, a church employee. And they arranged for a plastic surgeon, a member of the church, to remove her breast implants at no charge.
When do you want to have the surgery, the doctor asked.
"Tomorrow," Michelle joked.
The doctor penciled her in for 10 a.m. And just like that, Michelle was gone, Michael says sadly.
The regrets came quickly.
Michael turned to the Bible and other theological books, but found more questions. He questioned the validity of the resurrection, and the belief that there was only one true religion.
Three months later he stopped going to church and started partying again. He downed handfuls of pills and chased them with vodka in what he said was a suicide attempt.
That's when he rode his Harley back to the church and confronted the leadership. Michael, now 43, says he was cajoled into the decision to become a man again; he was the church's "pet project."
Coy says the church had no agenda with Michael. He asked. It helped.
"I'm aware of the legal ramifications and the spiritual ramifications if someone was forced to do anything," Coy says.
"Anything that we have helped Michael with, he's asked for. The hours of time that different leaders have spent pouring into his life ..."
Like the time Michael bought a motorcycle and lit it on fire. The church sent the bike ministry over to help. One of the guys even lent Michael his bike, says Huston.
"He goes in these waves where he goes from one emotional extreme to the other," Huston says.
He says Michael was the one who asked for the surgery and pressed to have it done quickly.
"We encouraged him, but he initiated it," Huston says.
Looking at Michael today, it's hard to tell Michelle ever existed or that he still longs for her.
His head is shaved. There is a faint, rainbow-shaped scar on his forehead where he had the brow lift.
His red goatee is long and gnarly. He favors jeans, muscle tees and black combat boots. His mannerisms aren't feminine, his voice is low, his gaze direct.
He attends a couple of Narcotics Anonymous meetings a day, just to get by.
Sitting in the Delray Beach home his estranged father bought him, Michael listens to opera and chain-smokes Camel Reds. He talks about Michelle's favorite strappy heels and pink lingerie like they are old friends. She loved to shop and nearly bankrupted Michael, he says. Her clothes went to her best friend, Rachel; it's too painful to keep her finery around now.
The only reminders are in Michael's bathroom &
a hot pink rug, butterfly towels, a vase of flowers and a white vanity mirror where Michelle did her makeup.
Realistically, he knows he can't become Michelle again.
"If I do it again people are going to think I'm even more unstable," he says. His mom and sister stopped talking to him, he says, when he switched back to Michael.
He talks about going back to college to study psychology or maybe writing books about his life. He doesn't work, relying on money from his father and disability checks from knee injury.
He vacillates moment to moment, between depression and hope.
"I still struggle just living on a daily basis," he says.
Then, minutes later: "Maybe I just need to meet the right woman and have a relationship. Really I'm without any sense of direction right now."