Deacon, police officer 'surrenders' after 35 years of being 'trapped in a man's body'

Friday, October 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Paula Schonauer explains through pink-glossed lips how tough it is to become a woman when he's known around town as an evangelical deacon and a burly police officer.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Gulf War veteran lost his assignment as an Episcopal deacon because he started wearing makeup and dresses. Some of his fellow patrol officers stopped speaking to him after he began wearing a long brown wig.

But Schonauer, 35, continues to serve on the police force, and he has switched to a new church in the diocese. He hopes to become a deacon again.

Schonauer is thought to be the first Episcopal deacon in the United States to change gender and remain with the church, said James Solheim, spokesman for the church's national headquarters in New York.

After counseling from his bishop and a therapist, Schonauer decided last month to transition into a woman. It was a decision that's plagued him his entire life, and he says it was time to give in.

``It's not strength,'' he says, after walking into a coffee shop with a purse over his shoulder. ``It's surrender.''

He's believed since he was 4 that he's a woman trapped in a man's body.

``I got caught playing with my mom's cosmetics and scarves,'' he says. ``I remember staring in the mirror while I was doing this and asking myself, 'Why am I me?'''

St. James Episcopal Church asked Schonauer to leave after two years as a deacon, an ordained minister who participates in the sacraments.

Because of his two children, he continues to live in Oklahoma City. Schonauer, who recently divorced his wife after 13 years, has joint custody of his 11-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

``I think that if I went away that would be more unforgivable than my transition,'' he said. ``It takes some fortitude to stay here. There's no way that I'm going to be able to fit in totally without my past sneaking up on me.

``But I don't want to deny my past anymore than I want to deny who I am. I don't regret who I was and who I have been.''

Hormone injections have made his skin softer and smoother, and his waist has taken on a womanly shape. The injections also caused him to grow breasts and calmed his emotions, he said.

Schonauer bought a new wardrobe and invested in electrolysis to remove unwanted hair. He's trying to save at least $10,000 for a sex-change operation, but said that likely will take years.

Schonauer said he tried to fight his inner feelings for years by trying to act masculine. He earned a black belt in karate, joined the Army, served in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and became a cop.

``I kept myself so busy so I wouldn't have to think about anything,'' he said. ``I tried to keep it pressed down.''

From the start, Schonauer's wife knew about his gender conflict and they have remained friends. She was one of 32 people, including church friends and members of a transgender support group, who attended a church ceremony for Schonauer last month.

``It was an offer by my friends to prayerfully begin my journey, nothing more,'' he said.

Schonauer said the bishop asked him to leave St. James after members discovered he was transgender.

``It hurt a lot,'' he said. ``It still hurts because I wasn't able to explain my situation, although it probably wouldn't have made any difference. But it just seemed that people didn't want to deal with it.

``I'm struggling to forgive those people that asked me to leave St. James. And I hope that I can.''

Officials from St. James did not return calls from the Associated Press.

Schonauer said his faith in God and service in the church kept him from turning to drugs or alcohol to deal with his depression. But he struggled until recently about whether being transgender was sinful or shameful in the eyes of God.

``The Bible teaches all of us fall short of the glory of God,'' he said. ``And none of us are worthy of grace. Some of my adjustments have been to admit that I'm human and that I do not have control.

``My challenge is to realize what I am and find a way to live into it and make peace with myself.''

Schonauer now attends St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, where most members do not recognize him, he said.

Bishop Robert Moody called Schonauer's situation a ``medical phenomenon.''

``This is a man who for a long time has felt uncomfortable in his body,'' the bishop said. ``He was a man trapped in a woman's body. This is not something that just happened.''

Moody said he will stand by Schonauer.

``I hope the church will be as compassionate as the Oklahoma City Police Department has been,'' he said.

Schonauer told his commanders at the police department he was transgender after rumors about him began circulating a year ago. His division chief, major and captain quickly attended a seminar about transgenders at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center.

``We wouldn't treat this particular situation any different than we would treat an officer going through a divorce or another particular emotionally stressful time,'' said police spokeswoman Capt. Jessica Cummins.

``As long as Paula can perform the job, we're going to provide all the necessary emotional support.''