Though technically a “transplant” to the south, Heller’s unique contribution to southern Christianity and its call to include all people makes Heller note-worthy. While born in Ohio, Heller is best known for a ministry called “Grace and Lace” in Mississippi.
Born Leo Heller, Lee felt like torn between the sense of being born feeling like a woman but having to live as a man. Trying to live as Leo, Heller ended up a Marine serving in World War II. Afterwards Heller jumped from job to job, briefly becoming homeless and living at Good Shepherd Mission. It is there that Heller found God and God began to transform Heller’s life. Even as a relationship with God grew, Heller felt that Heller was meant to be feminine, feeling trapped in the role of a man.
Out of the changes God did in Heller’s life, Heller became able to become the chaplain in the 60’s at the Mission, a position she served in until her retirement. During this times she began to find peace in the fact that her transgender identity was how God made her. After her retirement she had begun to publicly live according to her identity as Lee Frances Heller.
Finally at peace with who she was, Heller began a ministry in Mississippi in the 1980’s to reach out to transgender people like herself with the lesson God had taught her in those 20 years of walking with Jesus. She summarized this message by saying in one of her “Grace and Lace Letters” produced by her ministry (Many of which are included in her book By the Grace of God )* :
“God can give us an acceptance of ourselves and help us to stop fighting the losing battle against our crossdressing. In my ignorance, I fought it until I reached the age of 67 … I finally accepted myself for what God made me … a born-again Christian crossdresser. I came to realize I was created this way – accepted it in full faith and have taken my shield and warded off my critics for God to deal with, and He has spared me a lot of discordant situations with those who refuse to understand me. Those dearly beloved ones are His problems. He has given us our shield of faith along with the whole armor of God. If you have never bowed your knee to Christ and thanked Him for His sacrifice for our sins and asked Him into your life, you have no idea what is missing. By all means, do it.”
“I take great solace today in knowing God knew from the beginning I would be a transgendered person. This is the way He made me. To try to understand is far greater than our human understanding can conceive. The course of our lives was laid out by Him. God has given us a beauty of soul that only each individual person possesses. We are gentle, loving people. We are genuinely caring people. Our basic nature is inoffensive. He made us according to His plan and only His plan in us and for us can satisfy Him. Everyone, including the mighty bastions of the Church, has tried to remake us and it can’t be done. THEY are the ones mad at us. Not God. Stop pronouncing judgment on ourselves. ACCEPT the fact you are made as God made you. Too many are trying to live without Him because they believe the lie of Satan that they are not acceptable to God because of being CD/TG/TS.”
Let’s remember this trailblazer in the Christian church and in the transgender community who helped speak up for the full inclusion of all God’s children in God’s family and for the limitless length of God’s love.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,
*NOTE: I know that Heller uses some language that is no longer mainstream for the trans* experience, but I include it as she wrote it to keep her quotes in her own words. It reflects her experience at the beginning of the LGBT movement.