Meet Natalie Drew: Christian, trans woman, veteran and pacifist

'I get asked a lot, why do I stay?' said Drew, a wife and mother of two. 'I stay because I truly believe Jesus Christ came, died and rose again the third day.'

Natalie, left, and Heather Drew at their house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

(RNS) — In many ways, Natalie Drew is like any other Midwestern mom.

The 43-year-old mother of two lives in a Michigan suburb, drives a 12-year-old minivan, volunteers at her church youth group and unwinds by watching “The Office” with her spouse.

But as a trans woman, veteran and pacifist with a self-described orthodox Christian theology, Drew shatters more than a few stereotypes. An influential voice on Twitter, Drew openly shares her story — with all its seeming contradictions — in hopes of humanizing the experiences of transpeople, who have increasingly become the target of heated political debate and legislation.

Described by friends as a quick-witted prankster who exudes mercy — “she makes everybody feel like she’s in their corner, even if she doesn’t agree with them,” said Southern Baptist Convention abuse survivor Hannah-Kate Williams — Drew regularly receives online vitriol from those on the right and the left.

Though openly LGBTQ affirming, Drew is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that voted in 2022 and again in 2023 to codify its opposition to homosexual sex. But Drew, a lesbian, has no plans to leave her congregation.

“I get asked a lot, why do I stay? Why do I stay in these spaces when I am not welcome there? I stay because I truly believe Jesus Christ came, died and rose again the third day. That is where my faith is,” Drew told Religion News Service during an interview in the home she shares with her wife and their two children.

Born in 1979 in East Texas, Drew was raised in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, a group of conservative churches that believe only the King James Bible is the word of God. Drew’s childhood was punctuated by physical and spiritual abuse, and her introduction to a vengeful God taught her that her salvation was in constant jeopardy.  

By the time Drew was 6 years old, she knew she was different from the boys in her Louisville, Kentucky, neighborhood. She’s described the feeling as a disconnect, like when the sound of a TV show is out of sync. But the only time Drew heard about LGBTQ people was in blasts from the pulpit or in news reels about the AIDS crisis.

As a teen, she remembers lying in bed, begging God for a miracle.

“I would pray, ‘Just give me this one. Let me wake up in the morning as a girl … And if you won’t, just kill me,’” said Drew. “The pain was just too much to bear.”

Natalie Drew speaks at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce on "Creating an Inclusive Workplace" in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Drew

Natalie Drew speaks at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce on “Creating an Inclusive Workplace” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Drew

As Drew got older, her repression manifested in violence. She estimated being in 50 fights in the fifth grade alone and later had to switch schools after setting off a smoke bomb.

In 1997, Drew’s impetuous nature found a home at Texas A&M University. During what Drew called “an embarrassing and shameful period,” she started a student organization around Southern heritage and even graced the cover of the Houston Chronicle with a Confederate flag on her backpack. Drew not only wielded racism for acceptance, she also embraced homophobia. At one point, Notre Dame ranked Texas A&M the second-least gay-friendly school in America, a designation Drew and her friends took as a challenge.

“We had T-shirts made up, very offensive T-shirts, about how gay people are not allowed at A&M, or Aggieland is what they call it. And, you know, we sold these T-shirts, and they were popular T-shirts,” said Drew.

“I figured if I can hate who I am enough, I can stop being who I am.”

Still, there were flashes of joy in college. Drew met her wife, Heather Drew, at a birthday party in May 2002. The two clicked almost immediately and were married in June 2004.

After years of facing penalties for her violent impulses, Drew had a plan for how to be hailed a hero for being destructive: the military. In the infantry, she was deployed to Iraq from October 2006 to November 2007, where her unit lost 54 soldiers.

Drew wasn’t left unscathed. She suffered a severe back injury, and, by 2010, she had medically retired from the military. Both of Drew’s children were born during her time in the military, but the challenge of parenting was heightened by her struggle with addiction, which took root while she was on a smorgasbord of pain meds, anti-depressants and other medications. The last time she took a Percocet, Drew said she was lying in the bathtub, slamming her head repeatedly into the tile backsplash behind her, a loaded gun in her hand.

“Heather walks in, and she’s like, ‘You know what, we’re done with this.’ And she goes in, she grabs all my pills, and she dumps them down the toilet.”

Drew credits her wife for saving her life that day, but two of her closest friends and fellow service members weren’t as lucky. Ricky Elder, whom Drew’s kids knew as Uncle Ricky, shot his battalion commander and then himself after suffering two traumatic brain injuries, learning he would be chaptered out of the army and being diagnosed with early onset dementia.

“It’s something that should have been avoidable if they had been able to handle these issues in a responsible way,” Drew said.

When the Drew family moved to Houston, Texas, in 2010, they found reprieve in the nonviolent teachings of Cinco Ranch Church of Christ. Adopting pacifism was a relief for Drew, who had seen the fruitlessness of violence firsthand.

Heather, left, and Natalie Drew at their house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

Heather, left, and Natalie Drew at their house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

“It infected everything about our worldview — how we disciplined and raised our children,” Drew explained. “The one thing I couldn’t let go of, was, I could be nonviolent with others, but I was having problems applying that to myself.”

By 2016, Drew’s depression and suicidal ideation were back in full swing. She was lying in her bedroom when she took her wife’s hand and made an agonizing request.

“I remember looking at Heather and saying, we know where this is going. My biggest fears are dying alone, and y’all walking in on my lifeless body.” She then went on to plead, “Let me take a bunch of pills, and y’all sit with me as I drift off, let me say goodbye to y’all. And let me get out of this pain.”

That’s when Heather Drew knew it was time for medical intervention.

Drew was soon diagnosed with gender dysphoria and prescribed low-dose hormone replacement therapy. When the Drews told their kids, then 6 and 9, they agreed that after two months, each family member would vote on whether to proceed with the treatment. All had veto power. “We transition as a family, or not at all,” Drew recalls telling them.

Though initially, Heather Drew said, she fought her spouse’s transition, she heard a persistent, small voice instructing her to lean into love.

“I kind of viewed seeing the doctor as treating gender dysphoria,” Heather Drew recalls. “The point was to keep her alive. I wanted her here. But then I started to see her grow into who she is. And it became about wanting to see her thrive.”

Heather Drew has written about how Drew’s transition was also a transition for her. For a long time, she was hesitant to call Drew her wife, afraid of how others would label her. Heather Drew’s attraction to her spouse is unrelated to Drew’s gender, she said, and eventually she decided it was more important to honor her wife than to fret about how others might try to define her sexual orientation.

“That’s what I want to see out of this, to help spouses of trans people who come out see you don’t have to leave. Your partner is the same person. It’s OK to stay with them, love them and walk through this experience with them,” she told RNS. “And seeing them finally love themselves is beautiful, and it’s a privilege to be able to walk alongside somebody going through that process.”

Once on hormone replacement therapy, Drew said the dense fog that had engulfed her suddenly lifted. Years later, on Jan. 6, 2020, Heather Drew paused to pray with her wife as she was leaving for work. That day, Drew delivered a three-hour presentation to her managers, this time presenting as Natalie — the same her, she said, but without the layers she wore to hide who she was.

Hannah-Kate Williams, left, and Natalie Drew. Courtesy photo

Hannah-Kate Williams, left, and Natalie Drew. Courtesy photo

That February, Drew came out on Twitter. Today, she has 16.5K followers, and the platform has allowed Drew to increase awareness of Christian trans folks and to be a resource to others. But her high visibility has a downside, including death threats and attempts to track down her church and employer.

Drew was eager to be closer to some of her Twitter friends when the family moved to Grand Rapids in fall, 2021. But the high density of reformed churches in the area was off-putting, given her poor experience with Twitter users who’d labeled themselves “reformed.” After stumbling into one Christian Reformed church, Drew was moved to tears by instructions for a youth camping trip that said students would be assigned tent space based on gender identity.

The church may not have pride flags outside or even an official policy on being LGBTQ affirming, “but they have welcomed us because we are people who want to serve God. They welcomed us because we showed up,” said Drew. She and Heather Drew became members in November 2022. In June 2023, the denomination voted for the second year in a row to affirm the confessional status of its position that “homosexual sex” is sin. Drew’s church is currently deciding next steps.

“It’s sad that a denomination may see fracture because one side wanted to raise their contempt for queer people, including queer Christians, to a confessional level,” she said.

Today, Drew no longer feels resentment toward God, even as she puzzles onlookers with her LGBTQ-affirming universalist theology she believes is consistent with the ancient creeds she loves. Though at first she wrestled with the theological implications of transitioning, ultimately, she came to believe God would rather her be alive as Natalie than dead as who she was.

“I believe the Bible, which says our God is a God of life. I know where I was, and I truly believe God would rather me be alive today. Could I be wrong? Of course. But so could anybody,” said Drew. “We are all flawed people trying to understand God. I try to rest on that.”

This story has been updated slightly for additional clarification.

This coverage is presented with the support of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

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