[The following, the text of a spring 2007 fundraising speech on behalf of Mare Island's St. Peter's Chapel, is offered here as a re-introduction upon the re-opening of a long dormant website. Hopefully, it will answer in advance those who might ask: Who is this Vicki Gray? Where is she coming from?]
Once upon a time – actually, twice upon a time – I ran for city council in Vallejo. I had been energized by the efforts to save Mare Island. I lost, but Mare Island won…and so did we.
During my campaigns, one of my flyers asked "Who is Vicki Gray?" Having read it, one lady exclaimed "Your life reads like Forrest Gump's – always in the company of great people, on the edge of great events!" Yes, I did march with Martin. I did earn a Bronze Star in the Mekong Delta. In the Department of State, I did brief Secretaries of State and Presidents. I did earn a Ph.D and teach at the National Defense University. And once I was a man.
But you know all that. Is that, however, all there is to Vicki Gray? To any person? A resume…of things we did? Are we what we do? Or who we are?
Those are all questions that were swirling in my head when Myrna asked me to speak today and say something about myself and a life so shaped by the Navy and the Church. And, so, the title: "From Destroyer Deck to Pulpit." It's a title I cribbed – shamelessly - from Martin Niemoeller, a World War I submarine commander who became a leader of the Confessing Church in Hitler's Germany. On the eve of being sent off to Dachau, he wrote a book called From Submarine to Pulpit. He has always been a hero of mine.
Another hero of mine and one of my favorite theologians is the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis. Toward the close of his autobiography, Report to Greco, he describes "three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers. One: I am a bow in your hands, lord. Draw me lest I rot. Two: Do not overdraw, Lord. I shall break. Three: Overdraw me, and who cares if I break! Choose!" I guess I fall into the third category, though the choices were not mine, but God's.
Today, I'd like to talk about those choices – God's choices – the events, the strains, the losses – that have made me – for better or for worse - who I am.
Again, I've done a lot of exciting things, participated in small ways in big events, and had my share of worldly accomplishments. But far more important than what I've won is what I've lost. As I'm sure many of you have also experienced, we become – we are – what is taken away from us. As we go through life – if we are honest – we find ourselves being peeled…like an onion or an artichoke. And – if we are lucky – we are like one of those brightly colored Panamanian molas in the hands of God, allowing God to cut through life's accretions, always leaving what's important of each layer, but cutting through relentlessly, skillfully, to the core, the heart, the essence of what we are intended to be – something bright and beautiful.
In my case, God has cut deep and with sometimes wild abandon. I've lost a lot. In Vietnam, I lost my innocence. Then I found and lost the love of my life. And, toward the end of her life, I lost myself, or, at least, a great part of myself. But, in the process, I developed a sense of what was important, what had to be held onto. I leave it to you – and to God - to judge whether what I held onto is worthwhile, bright, or beautiful.
At the start, I didn't think about such things. Isn't that always the way of youth, so full of innocence and optimism? Growing up in the Bronx wasn't always easy. We weren't rich and I wasn't very healthy. But I did go to a good school – Fordham Prep -and, after the Naval Academy, escaped to a life at sea on the deck of a destroyer.
But, even then, the clouds were gathering – our national struggle with civil rights and my personal struggle with my gender identity. They both demanded attention. Then came Vietnam, a cloud, it seemed with silver linings. I would make the world safe for democracy and prove to the world and to myself, that I was a man…and a damn tough one at that.
Oh, I was tough. The Bronze Star citation says so. But Vietnam, like any war, was never like a John Wayne movie. My narrow world of jungle canals was more like "Apocalypse Now," a dark nightmare that still sends shivers up my spine. Death – up close – has a way of doing that.
Two weeks after I got there – to Long Phu or, as I call it, "the place I learned to cry" – my counterpart was killed, shot between the eyes at pointblank range. Worse yet, I had already killed my first human being and, soon, the killing became a blur.
There was, however, one death I will never forget. We had received a lot of fire from a notorious island – Cu Lao Dung. I called in an airstrike and soon the shriek of the jet was followed by a series of thuds, bright orange balls of flame, and black clouds that reeked of gasoline. Then, in what has become a recurring personal nightmare, a young woman emerged from the stinking black cloud of burning napalm we had just unleashed, paddling toward us in a sampan,. We stopped her. Caked with mud and soot and tears, she looked much older than her years. Reaching into the bottom of the boat, she held up a tiny chunk of something – black, still smoking – the remnants of her baby. She broke down shrieking – growling - to God and to us! The sound still rattles in my head.
But Vietnam also brought me a far happier dream – a dream of love. It began one September Saturday in 1965, when Vic, a young naval officer on his way to Vietnam, encountered Mimi, a school teacher, four years younger. We fell madly in love.
"Thank God for Vietnam," I've often thought, for it left me with a stack of letters – hers and mine – that attest to the authenticity and urgency of young love. Just weeks after my return to "the world" we were married in Carmel on January 7, 1967. Over the years, neither of us forgot the clarity of each other's smiles that day or the honesty of our shared vow – "Till death do we part."
It was a vow that was tested by the same familiar trials that millions of married couples endure. They were trials, however, that were trumped by a full measure of happiness, adventure, and worldly "accomplishment." We travelled the world and dined and danced with presidents and movie stars, and lived, in every way, abundant lives.
It would have been wonderful to grow old together, to live "happily ever after." But such endings happen more often in fairy tales and B movies than in real life, and, what passes for happiness is, as often as not, ephemeral tinsel. Our epiphany of that truth came much too early or, as we later thought, just in time. For, in the real tests that followed, we found salvation and produced something beautiful.
Those real tests were life-threatening, life-changing, and, ultimately, life-affirming. They were breast cancer and something called gender identity dysphoria. The latter - my confusion - was something we struggled with together for much of our married life. Mimi's cancer overtook us much more suddenly – on an April morning in 1988. They were tests that intertwined and defined our last dozen years together. We found ourselves engaged in prolonged grieving, having to say "Goodbye" to each other in multiple ways.
Making our way "home" to California in the midst of it all, we found ourselves at St. Paul's in Benicia. Mimi was recovering from chemo-induced heart failure, and I, still "in the closet," was embarked on the final stages of the transsexual journey. We knew there would be more, traumatic changes, but, for the moment, felt secure in a church that brought us the solace of a loving family, and a pastor, Harold Clinehens, who stretched our spiritual envelope. Our "outing" could wait…or so we thought.
But we were being pressed – by the growing intensity of my obsession; the growing, self-destructive depths of the depression that accompanied it; the growing need to be honest with family and friends; and the growing sense that our time to do so was limited. We prayed and cried together and determined we would share our truth. We could do no less with those we loved, and, given a new found understanding of Grace, knew we had nothing to fear.
And, so the unfolding began. Each step of the way, it became easier to begin with the simple, declarative "I am a transsexual." So, we began, our disclosure to Mimi's mom, Adrienne, who replied, relieved it seemed, "Oh, that's not so bad; I was afraid you were getting divorced." And, then, there was my Ash Wednesday confession to Father Harold, who replied "I don't see any sin in this," adding honestly, "I don't understand it, but we'll work our way through it together." And we did…together.
I remember vividly my first day at church as Vicki. You want guts?! Mimi had them, as she walked before me to communion. It was a breeze for me, thereafter. Mimi was always there before me; I sensed Christ there behind me; and we all smiled on the way back. Mimi was there, too, that morning, when in our prayer group, someone insisted on speaking his mind about my "sin." She held my hand, as I held his, as he read from his Bible about how I was an "abomination." I will never forget the trembling and perspiration of his hand and the coolness and firmness of Mimi's.
The loss of Vic was not easy for Mimi, or for me. We both grieved his quickening disappearance. For Mimi, Vicki was never an adequate substitute for Vic, but she was always there, each step of the way, supporting me as a wife, teaching me as an "older," wiser sister, loving me as a friend and soulmate. And, in the vulnerability of her own illness, she unknowingly kept me from feeling sorry for myself, from imploding into the self-centeredness that afflicts too many transgendered people. She was always there to allow me to care for her…as she cared for me. And, together, we incarnated an "issue." "Here is transsexuality," we said. "Touch us. Feel us. Interact with us. Above all, love us, as we love you."
And Mimi and I loved each other, too…till the very end. As she lay dying, I said a lot of inane things. And, selfish to the end, I asked, "Do you still love me?" All she could manage through her morphine haze was "Uh huh." But that was enough! I pressed her hand. She smiled. We had kept our vow.
Toward the end of our life together – Mimi's and mine – I got to know the British writer Jan Morris, also transgendered, and her beloved Elizabeth. In Conundrum, she said of their marriage: "It was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say, to the power of mind over matter – or of love in its purest sense over everything else." Nor did ours have a right to work. But it continues to work – like a dream – in those shared dreams that we – Mimi and I - retreat to each night. (Am I in hers or is she in mine?) And, in those love-filled dreams, I sense eternity.
Mimi died on an April afternoon – much like today. It was 2000. God had cut this mola to the core. There was nothing left to reveal. I had reached an end of sorts – a bottom – a widow now, Mimi's ring upon a necklace, no one to care for, not knowing what to do, waiting. For what?
The next summer, I set out on a two-month search for answers – a Celtic pilgrimage to rocky cliffs and islands on Ireland's westernmost edges and to the very top of Scotland. I visited lots of beautiful - and empty - churches, but found God strong and well in the most god-awful places. And, in myself, I found new strength and purpose.
There had to be more to life and church than what I found when I returned. It was September 2001. The shared grief we all endured that second week and the death of a dear young friend a month later shook me hard. I found myself shaking my fist at heaven and shouting "What in the hell are you doing up there!" No I didn't hear the response, But I felt it. It seemed to say: "Quit the whining! Life is tough. Get on with it."
And get on with it I did. I soon found myself at the Episcopal School for Deacons at Berkeley and, after a long and arduous process of discernment and affirmation, I was ordained last December at Grace Cathedral. As a result of that and my various ministries in San Francisco, I've faded somewhat from Vallejo's struggles. Now you can find me at St. James in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco – doing this - preaching. You can also find me with the ladies of Pod D in the San Francisco Jail, among the chemo patients at UCSF Mt. Zion, and, if you were there last Sunday, leading morning prayer on Justin Hermann Plaza.
Life is rich and life is good. And, toward the end, I can report, like that Greek poet, "I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet. Full of wounds, all in the breast, I did what I could…."
And, at the end, I will report – what more can any of us say – "I tried."