Lisa Salazar was born in Bogota, Colombia in November 1950. She was the third of five children. They were a very traditional, comfortable and admittedly, privileged upper-class Catholic family. In the fall of 1960, her family moved to the United States and settled in San Jose, California.
The Salazar family was very close-knit and very affectionate. They were also a very typical Latin American family with very masculine men and very feminine women—where gender roles and stereo-types were clearly identified and enforced. This would be an issue that would dog Lisa all her life—from her youngest memories she had a persistent disconnection between how she felt inside and her body. This was a very secret and confusing conundrum; and as far as she was concerned, that was how it had to be. She was a very introverted child and never wanted to draw attention to herself.
The dominant story in her life was the fact that she lived with gender dysphoria ever since she can remember. She coped by learning to suppress and repress her internal chaos. In retrospect, she admits this issue dominated everything about her.
Her behavior as a boy was nothing more than a performance, she concludes. She mastered the role by meeting her family’s (and society’s) expectations. She wanted to please; she did not want to disappoint her parents and family.
This sense of shame avoidance at-all-cost complicated things and it is the reason why she never told her parents when one of her paper route customers molested her when she was almost 12 years old. This happened two years after moving to California. One reason she didn’t tell anyone was not for fear she would be punished, but that it would ruin it for her brothers and sisters; feared her parents would take the family back to Colombia, to say nothing of the shame it would bring to the family.
This situation repeated itself four years later when she was 15 years old; she was raped by a college student who engineered an elaborate scheme to corner her one summer day. But again, she never told anyone for all of the same reasons.
Lisa kept all this a secret until she was thirty years old. By that time, she had a B.A. degree in graphic design, form San Jose State, had moved to Vancouver to start a free-lance graphic design company and had married a young woman she met in a Bible study during the Jesus People days.
She survived those years, she claims, thanks to all the welcomed distractions of life, and as she explains, her creative work occupied her mind for hours. She managed not to crumble under the weight of her secrets.
By all appearances, Lisa was a devoted husband and loving father and was seen as a spiritually mature person by all who knew her. This was not only humbling, it also produced much guilt and she felt like a hypocrite—If they only knew, she worried.
She was now thirty years old and could no longer carry this burden any longer. In 1980, six years into her marriage, she wrote a letter to her wife. But she did not come out as transgender. The word transgender was not yet in use and gender dysphoria was not a condition she had ever heard discussed anywhere. All she could do was confess to feelings of inadequacy as a man, of having strong feminine feelings and, embarrassing as it was, she talked about her secretive cross-dressing.
She felt shame on many levels. She was ashamed for not having said anything to her sooner. She felt shame for her thought life—her fantasy life. She felt shame for cross-dressing. And she felt shame for the wasted dollars on all those purchased and purged items. Lisa begged for forgiveness and asked for her wife to help her fight the spiritual battle by praying standing together. Her wife was devastated but chose to support her husband.
Fast forward 19 years, she was now 49 years old. During those years Lisa tried hard to stay “sober of mind” by spiritualizing her gender struggle. But the struggle never went away, it intensified. She managed to get herself referred to the Vancouver General Hospital’s Gender Clinic and underwent six months of assessment. As a result of her diagnosis, she was offered help to undergo medical and surgical transition. Lisa could not proceed. She had unrealistically hoped there was some therapy or cure.
There was no doubt now that her struggle would never go away, but she could not pay the personal, social and economic price. She didn’t want to hurt and disappoint her wife, sons, and parents, and feared her career would come to an end. There was another impediment, her Christian faith. She had relegated what the doctors said to her as the “wisdom of men” and contrary to the counsel of the word of God.
Lisa had a “faith experience” in 1971 during the Jesus People movement that swept through many college and university campuses. she had stopped attending the Catholic Church by then and had lost any hope of finding meaning and figuring out who she was. In these first few weeks and months her new Christian experience, she came to believe and hope she was going to be made normal and that all my confusion and anxiety about her gender was going to be removed.
In the decades that followed, she spiritualized her struggle and embraced Evangelicalism, hoping God would remove the confusion and the accompanying desires from her life if she was diligently used all the tools in her toolkit:
- See this was an attack on her person from Satan
- See this as her thorn in the flesh
- See this a spiritual battle
- She needed to retrain her mind
- She needed to die to self daily, moment by moment
- She had to plead the blood of Christ
- She needed to lay her struggles at the foot of the Cross
- She needed to memorize Scripture
- She needed to have faith
- She needed to pray without ceasing
In 2006, this theological impasse was settled and she finally sought help from the clinic in late 2007 and began to disclose to family, friends and clients of the changes that were coming. To her delight, she was offered many words of encouragement and praise for being so courageous, which she found ironic since it seemed like an act of desperation on her part. But she held off telling her mom and dad, who at the time were 86 and 91 respectively, and her three sons, who ranged in age from 25 to 32. She came out to them in May 2008.
Things began to move rather quickly, says Lisa, and she embarked on her social transition in July. She had been on HRT for six months by that time. Lisa was approved for surgery in March 2010 and it seemed like life was not going to be over after all. Unfortunately, despite all the assurances and encouragement from clients, Lisa found herself underemployed one year after her surgery. Her wife also asked for a divorce and they sold their townhouse, split the proceeds and went their separate ways.
There have been other unforeseen and surprising consequences. Lisa had expected her life to unfold quietly and without fanfare. She hoped to fade into the woodwork, live a very private life and not draw any attention to herself. But her life is anything but private these days. She discovered she had a voice when she published her memoir in 2011, Transparently: Behind the scenes of a good life. This resulted in invitations to speak, to share her story and present workshops, often to church groups and communities of faith.
After trying for two years to find new clients or to be hired as an in-house graphic designer, she was desperate. In a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend, Lisa was asked, “If money wasn't an object, what job description would you like to have?” She answered, “I would offer my services to non-profits and charities who need help with their branding and marketing. I love to do graphic design, and I would do it for free. But I know that's not the question you are asking... let me think.” After some humming and hawing, she surprised herself when she blurted out, “I’d like to be a chaplain to the transgender community!” Even as the words were coming out of her mouth, she wished she hadn’t said them. The words sounded so pompous and presumptuous, she wanted to take them back. Despite Lisa’s protestations, her friend encouraged her to find out what she had to do to become a chaplain and told her to “Google it!”
That is how Lisa discovered Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), which led to a Master's Degree in Public and Pastoral Leadership from Vancouver School of Theology (VST). She graduated in May 2015 and continued with CPE training until March 2018. She now works as a multi-faith Spiritual Care Practitioner with Vancouver Coastal Health at a complex care hospital.
Surprising to Lisa is that almost every person with whom she interacts with today on a professional or personal level, with the exception of her amazing family and a couple of close friends, have only known her as Lisa. Sadly, all her ex-clients and friends and acquaintances from her former life have gone cold.
To say that she is living a second life is not an exaggeration. She has had to let go of certain dreams and realities in order to exist. This sense of loss and the reimagining that has made it possible for her to continue is at the core of her ability to come alongside those experiencing loss or are trying to make sense of life. In Lisa’s words, “I count it a privilege to journey with folks who feel safe with me and trust me enough to let me walk next to them.”
Today, Lisa is non-denominational and sees the hospital where she works as a Spiritual Care Practitioner as her current community of faith. She is reluctant to call herself a Christian and prefers to simply identify as a follower of Christ. Her reluctance stems, in part, from the qualitative study she conducted as part of her MA titled, “Transgender Spirituality Pulse Survey.” Says she, “I saw the hurt and the alienation trans persons have experienced, thanks to family, friends and those who claim to be Christian.” This caused her remove impediments that would keep her at arm’s length from those she feels called to advocate for and help.
Her writings include:
Transparently: Behind the scenes of a good life (2011, Amazon)
Roots of Rejection, Roots of Injustice: Digging deeper into society’s negative response to transgenderism
and gender nonconformity and how it intersects with dogma (2013, Academia.edu)
Thomas Merton: transforming loneliness into solitude, the source of our compassion (2014, Academia.edu)
Transgender Spirituality Pulse Survey (TSPS): A qualitative & quantitative study (2015, Academia.edu)
(This biographical statement provided by Lisa Salazar.)
Biography Date: February 2020