Finding Strength in their Faith, a North Carolina Couple Navigates One Partner’s Transition

In the early summer of 2016, Sean Carroll was intently focused on relaxing, clearing the mind, and finding stillness. It was an intense time, one filled with tremendous work responsibilities, a divisive presidential election raging full-time on the news, and ongoing adjustments from a recent move to North Carolina. On top of all of that, Sean was physically exhausted: Severe anxiety made it hard to fall asleep, and once sleep finally came, it was interrupted by jolts of vivid dreams.

Sean prayed every night, eager to seek clarity from God on a question that had popped up over and over again for years. “God, if there’s a way for this to come out to the surface, please make it happen,” Sean prayed. “If this isn’t wrong, please bring it out for me.”

The following afternoon Sean’s wife Sarah approached Sean. She had noticed that her spouse was unsettled, like something was off, and a mutual friend had expressed their own concerns – about Sean’s health, emotional state, and more.

“Sean, is there something we should talk about?” Sarah asked.

And then, like floodgates that were no longer a match for the immense power within, everything came out – tons of information, concern after concern, Sean’s deepest repressed feelings, stored inside for so long, desperate for oxygen.

“When I have dreams, I see myself as a woman,” Sean said.

Sarah paused as she surveyed Sean’s male face, male haircut, male clothes.

“And how does that make you feel?”

It made me feel whole,” Sean said. “It’s how I’ve always seen and known myself.”

Sean remembered what she felt God say in response to her prayers earlier that evening: “You are who you’re supposed to be. I love you.”

* * * * *

“After that night, I started going to counseling and digging into my identity more, and the psychologists said that I was showing signs of being uncomfortable with my gender, showing signs of gender dysphoria,” Sean told Freedom for All Americans. “We kept talking about it, and later that summer we got to the point where I felt confident and was able to say, ‘No, I really am trans.’ And then we had to start learning what that meant for us, our marriage, and how our life would change. We went through a lot that summer, and Sarah was willing to pray and do the research alongside me.”

“It was a really rough year,” Sarah admitted. “It was really, really difficult. The first few months were a lot of soul-searching on my own – but it became very apparent very quickly that this was reality. I understood that. There wasn’t a question of ‘Should Sean figure out the best way to live?’ It was more, ‘Is this a sin, or is this not?’ and then I needed to figure out, ‘What is this like for us?’ I was still going to be there for Sean for whatever she needed, but could there be a marriage? It took a few months for us to understand this together, but I realized that God created Sean this way, and God still loves Sean.”

“Through all of it, we never wavered in our love for each other,” Sarah added. “The affection was always going to be there. The dedication was always going to be there, even when there was a question about whether our marriage would survive it. But I never thought about not supporting Sean during her transition. I was still going to be the biggest cheerleader. She’s my best friend. And so we stood side by side with each other, cried often, and naturally got to a point where we were talking about plans for a month out, or for six months out, or for a year out, or for the rest of our life. And that’s when I knew we had turned a corner and were imaging a future together again.”

Sean and Sarah recognize that their specific challenges are quite unique – most married couples don’t go through a gender transition together. But they also know that all relationships endure hardships, periods of discomfort, and moments where neither partner knows exactly the right thing to do. Together, all couples learn from each other and move forward.

“Lots of couples face growing pains similar to what we went through,” Sarah said. “It just looked different for us. Most couples get to a point where you have to evaluate your expectations of your partner, figure things out. Sean’s transition just forced us to look at those questions all at once and evaluate all of them at the same time, which can be a lot.”

They navigated each day, each week, each month carefully, easing Sean slowly into her public transition.

“We tried to do research every time we went out,” Sarah said. “We felt we needed to plan everything – how long to be out, where to go, who would be there, where the bathrooms are, if Sean would pass enough that day to go to a gender-designated bathroom. There’s a lot that goes into thinking about leaving the house, which can be overwhelming – but every time we left and dipped our toes in the water and had a good experience, we realized we could go back there. We realized that we didn’t need to always expect the worst. And when something bad happened, we saw that that was one of 100 times and we could properly say, ‘No, bad things like that happen the minority of the time, so let’s deal with that and move on.’”

“Coming out together was really interesting,” Sean said. “Really what was on both of our minds was that it wasn’t just one person coming out and transitioning – it was about how we were going to be perceived by our family and our friend group and everything, together as a couple,” Sean said. “We had to talk through when we wanted to share things and include people in our journey so that we could say goodbye to the least number of people that we could. Sometimes I wanted to move through everything really fast, but I saw that if I went too fast, there wasn’t going to be anybody on the train with me. I needed to learn how to take a step back and realize that throughout this process, Sarah had my back, so we could go at a smarter pace. I can’t imagine transitioning by myself without having Sarah by my side.”

* * * * *

Sarah and Sean have been partners for a long time.

Sarah Carroll

They met more than a decade ago at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia and connected quickly, bonding over their faith and desire to build a better world. Through their shared ministry, they became involved in their community, local and global, working side by side.

“I’ve always been a planned-out person, and I knew when I gave my heart away, it would be forever,” Sarah said. “So before meeting Sean I got to know people really well and kept my eyes open, but I never really committed to a relationship. Sean and I became best friends and without realizing it I fell in love. In fact we said ‘I love you’ before we officially started dating. Once I realized I was in love there was no going back for me, I was all in.”

Soon, they were engaged, and they married the week after Sean graduated from college. While Sarah finished school, Sean took a job as a youth pastor, and when she graduated they moved around – first to Southern Maryland, then to Ann Arbor, Michigan, then finally to North Carolina in the summer of 2015. Moving frequently has helped the couple learn to rely on each other – how to pick up their lives, relocate, and start fresh.

Sarah is originally from North Carolina, so their return felt like a place where they could settle and live for a while. But within a year of their move, they saw North Carolina thrown into the national spotlight for the General Assembly’s passage of HB2, the first-of-its-kind law that targeted LGBTQ people for discrimination, dismantled local non-discrimination protections, and most horrifically, restricted restroom access for transgender people. The national conversation around the law raged for weeks as businesses pulled their investments, entertainers refused to perform, and major athletic events like the NBA All-Star Game were canceled. Legislators dug their heels in over the law, including Governor Pat McCrory, up for reelection.

“The hardest part about when I came out is that it really was in the throes of the election here in North Carolina,” Sean said. “That really had a big impact of how I would perceive stuff. I would be watching TV and see Pat McCrory’s ads screaming that trans women were predators, and I wasn’t sure if people would show up to picket who I am in a public place.”

In 2017 North Carolina lawmakers took anti-LGBTQ action again by forcing through a false repeal of HB2 – while the new legislation, HB142, repealed the anti-transgender restroom restrictions, it placed a years-long moratorium on municipalities passing LGBTQ protections, among other discriminatory measures.

Even without HB2 or HB142 North Carolina would remain one of 32 states where LGBTQ people are not fully protected from discrimination. There are no explicit state laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ North Carolinians in employment, housing, or public accommodations. The realities of discrimination weigh heavy each day on Sean, Sarah, and thousands of other LGBTQ people in the state.

* * * * *

Throughout their journey, Sean and Sarah have often found themselves turning to their faith, which has always been a central part of both of their lives.

“Faith is at the core of who we are,” Sarah said. “It plays a huge role in how we make decisions and how we live our life. We’ve gone through ministry together and we’ve had some cool opportunities to work with a refugee family and do ministry there.”

Sarah’s father is a pastor, and her home was very “faith-centric,” influenced by many different denominations of Christianity. “I had influence from evangelicals, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists – many different ways that people walk with God in the Christian faith.”

Sean grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian family, attending church multiple times a week. “As the first-born child, there was a lot of pressure in high school for me to go and be a pastor, and I felt I had to live up to everyone’s expectations,” Sean explained. “I majored in religious studies and ethics and worked as a youth pastor because faith was so important to all of the things in my life.”

In some ways pressures from the faith community complicated Sean’s thoughts on her gender. “That environment had a negative impact on my experience being trans,” she said. “Jesus and me were always cool. I got that and understood His love for the people on the fringes. But whenever I shared struggles about being trans with other pastors, they would say, ‘That’s you not paying attention to God. That’s you being led astray.’”

Now that she has had more time to reflect on her identity as a transgender woman, however, Sean knows that so much of her strength comes from her religious beliefs. “My faith has been something that has helped solidify my identity as a trans woman,” she said. “I prayed about being true to who I am and being trans, and here I am. Faith has brought a lot of trans people together to a place of healing and wholeness.”

* * * * *

When it came to sharing the news about Sean’s transition, the couple was very methodical, having one-on-one conversations with everyone vital in their life over the course of eight months.

Sarah’s sister was the first conversation with her side of the family, and she served as a powerful support tool through the early stages of Sean’s transition. Also a big fan is Sarah’s nephew, who was nine years old when Sean and Sarah shared the news.

“When he found out, he sat quietly and thought for a minute and then looked at my sister and said, ‘That must be difficult for people to not know who you are – I want to get Sean a present.’ And then he got Sean a Wonder Woman purse. He has just gotten it and realized that nothing really has changed.”

Sean’s conversations with his father and brother also went well. “My dad has been supportive, but he’s a lot quieter in his support – that’s kind of just how he is,” Sean said. “When I came out to him, he was shocked. He was like, ‘So my football-playing son who has tattoos is telling me he’s trans?’ But he was just joking around, and a little after that, Sarah and I were able to go up to Baltimore and surprise him for his 60th birthday. It was the first time I presented female in front of him in person, and that was really cool to have my family say, ‘We still love you, you’re still welcome here.’”

Sarah’s parents have had a more challenging time with the adjustment, and that has certainly been hard for the couple. “They’re still processing and figuring out what it all means to them,” Sarah said.

The couple’s approach to anyone who hasn’t been fully supportive is also rooted in their faith. “We need to be extending grace to people, knowing that we were ignorant a mere few months before the transition,” Sarah said. “That has helped us have grace for people who are prejudiced. Maybe they just don’t know – and maybe that’s not entirely their fault. We need to be the exposure and let them learn from us.”

* * * * *

It’s all been a learning experience for Sarah and Sean, and now they are eager to share advice with other couples going through similar experiences.

“The best advice I can think of is that people should find trans-supportive counselors to go to so they can help you along with the process,” Sarah said. “That was a big benefit and something we really needed. As a couple, we wanted to be sure that it was OK to process things alone, and that we were OK taking time to find our own identity, while still supporting each other. Those two things can coexist.”

“You have to learn to be vulnerable,” Sean said. “You have to have the conversation with your partner or your spouse, because it is a reality, and it is who you are. It’s not something you have to stuff down, and the people who really love you take the time to learn and will still love you.”

Sean and Sarah also hope that their story helps other transgender people and partners of transgender people envision a broader diversity of outcomes in the coming out process.

“We were always looking for stories of Christian trans couples who had made it through the transition,” Sarah said. “We just wanted to love each other well throughout the process. But there weren’t many stories, and now we want to share ours because we want other people to know that, ‘Hey, it’s possible! There are people who have gone through this! And it can be really good.'”

Special Thanks to Our Partners:

This profile was produced in collaboration with the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization winning life-saving change for transgender people. Learn more here.

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