Joanne's story
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College dean John Nemecek decides to be true to his inner woman

Sunday, February 04, 2007

By Steven Hepker

Joanne Nemecek returned from a weekend trip to find her Spring Arbor house blooming with four dozen roses.

"Something seemed strange," she said.

Said her husband, John: "I like flowers, and it was a way to welcome her home."

John welcomed two women home that day: his wife of 35 years, and Julie Marie, the inner woman he had squelched for half a century.

"It was a traumatic experience," John said of his transgender unveiling.

After considerable prayer and discussion -- and even grieving the loss of John -- Joanne pledged her love and support.

"Honesty and openness have blossomed where a lot of marriages would have broken up," said Joanne, 54, a nurse who is studying to counsel transgender persons.

Breaking the news at Christian-based Spring Arbor University, where John has been associate dean of adult studies for a decade, proved gut-wrenching as well.

University leaders cut his pay, barred him from the classroom and plan to fire him this spring, prompting Nemecek to file a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"We expect our faculty to model Christian character as an example for our students," university officials said in a statement issued through a Grand Rapids public relations firm.

Inner conflict

"Did he buy the special flowers for me?"

Joanne wonders now. The shock has subsided enough that she can joke, a little, about John's initial attempts at makeup and feminine routines.

"He has his own brands of perfume that he likes," she said.

At her side in their living room, John wore diamond stud earrings, eye shadow, manicured fingernails, women's tennis shoes and pink Argyle socks. In the next visit with a reporter, he wore a wig, sweater, skirt, pumps and dangling earrings.

Joanne never saw him cross-dressing, but realizes she missed some hints over the years as the couple lived the all-American dream, raising three sons, serving God, traveling and making comfortable incomes in their professional careers.

John knew from childhood something was amiss.

"I played with girls on the playground until fifth grade, and quit because the boys verbally and physically abused me," John remembers. "I took a macho form after that."

Some psychologists say Nemecek followed a common route among men with male plumbing and female wiring.

"Most of us conform to society's gender expectations," said Nemecek's attorney, Randi Barnabee. The inner conflict, she said, leads to high divorce and suicide rates among transgender individuals.

Barnabee, an Ohio attorney specializing in transgender issues, drove tanks and flew helicopters in the military, and raised a family before he transformed into a woman, complete with a sex-change surgery.

Nemecek was no less conflicted. He is an ordained Baptist minister who served a Grand Rapids church before being hired 16 years ago at Spring Arbor. Christian faith sustained and soothed him, along with discreet cross-dressing and stealing feminine moments.

"It was not until November 2003, while researching the Internet, I found a name for something I have been dealing with all of my life," Nemecek said.

'I am Julie'

We hear the term, Gender Identity Disorder, and envision flamboyant, colorful transvestites dancing and frolicking in the Mummer's Parade.

That stereotype fits some in the transgender world. There are also cross-dressers, homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals.

Julie Marie looks more like your aunt heading for church in her yellow dress, blond wig, earrings and eye shadow. Some people think Nemecek is a very tall woman with big hands.

Some features, like chromosomes, will remain male. Dressing and acting feminine help reconcile John's appearance with Julie's self-image.

"I am Julie," he said.

Not all of his friends have accepted that. One who has is colleague Patricia Bailey.

"I enjoyed John before he decided to be who she really is, and I enjoy Julie," Bailey said. "My relationship with Julie is bigger because now we can talk about 'feminine things' along with all the interesting topics I had with John."

Nemecek does not remember his first female experience. Researchers contend it happened in the womb, at the early stage when all babies wear pink.

"A testosterone wash affected the physical development but not the mental development," John said. Four professionals, including an endocrinologist, confirmed the gender part of his brain is female, he said.

Nemecek is not homosexual, and has no plans to undergo sex-change surgery, an option for those who seek sexual "reassignment."

"Sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity," he said. Nemecek said he never was sexually attracted to men, and is sexually attracted to one woman.

"Just Joanne," he said.

"We are now in our 35th year of marriage and have never been more in love," Joanne recently wrote in a letter to neighbors and dozens of friends. She also explained Gender Identity Disorder and said John's conflict was "quite severe."

The medical and legal communities recognize Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria, as a rare neurological condition, likely caused by a glitch in the womb.

Dr. Eric Trimas, of Trimas Family Care in Blackman Township, stated it matter-of-factly in a November 2005 document written for Nemecek.

"I am prescribing and monitoring medical treatments for this condition in accordance with established medical protocols," Trimas wrote.

Me, myself and Julie

John Nemecek soon will legally be Julie Marie Nemecek. The name change is one more step in a sometimes painful journey, well out of step with his conservative community and what is acceptable in Christian academia.

At 55, why now? Is this a midlife crisis?

"People have told me they think this is a choice. Would anyone really choose this?" he said.

The vast majority of humans never have to consider their gender or sexual attraction. If you are born with a penis, you are a man. A vagina makes you a woman. Period.

That reality has made for some miserable lives, Barnabee said.

"It's what's between your ears, and not between your legs, that determines your gender," she said.

Gender Identity Disorder complicates the debate over homosexuality in the Christian community.

Evangelical Christians consider homosexual behavior an abomination, a sin against God. Those under the broad transgender umbrella are guilty by association.

"Years ago, I would have taken at face value the position on homosexuality by the more conservative Christian denominations," Nemecek said. "Now, I'm not so convinced."

As for being transgender, John and Joanne prayed, talked and scoured the Bible for several months and concluded it is a medical condition that requires treatment. That treatment is designed to help him live as a woman, rather than suppress it.

Some have told him outright to stop his sinful behavior and repent.

The Nemeceks found one vague reference to transsexuals in the Old Testament, right along prescribed stonings for non-virgin brides and stubborn sons.

"Jesus summed it up with two directives to love God with all you have and to love your neighbor as yourself," Nemecek said. "That is our guide. We have not strayed from that."

Testing the boundaries

It seems everyone who knows John Nemecek considers him a loving family man, a faithful Christian, a good friend, a gentle soul blessed with wit and intelligence.

At his home church in Jackson, he served on the board, preached, and ministered to the sick and troubled. A year before he came out at the Free Methodist-based college, in late 2004, he shared his plight with leaders in his Baptist congregation.

The discomfort and angst among the elders grew by degrees for a year. Ultimately, even his very good friends could not condone John becoming Julie in the pulpit.

"We felt we were driven out," he said.

The Nemeceks sought a new church, with help from a friend who approached Pastor Karen Kelley at Westminster United Presbyterian Church.

"They accepted me. The people there call me Julie," Nemecek said.

This is where it gets interesting. Two women named Nemecek enter a new church. Sisters? The Nemeceks decided up front to not hide the truth, that they are a loving couple married 35 years ago before God, still committed to each other and the Lord.

Some ask, and many don't. They will know after today. Letting thousands of readers into the Nemeceks' private world is easy compared with breaking the news to their families.

Most relatives are coming to grips with Julie Marie.

The three Nemecek sons -- Sean, Michael and Joshua -- are still digesting the bombshell. Each is working through it on his own terms. The parents met with the boys and their spouses one-by-one.

"I think the youngest, Joshua, is taking it the best," Joanne said.

Joshua, who lives in another state, initially feared he really didn't know the person who helped raise him to manhood. He discovered the same old Dad underneath.

"In some ways, I appreciate being able to know my dad in ways he never shared with me before," Joshua said. His father is more open about his feelings.

"Just this past Thanksgiving, we had a time of sharing as a family that went beyond what would have ever happened a few years ago," Joshua said. "It is getting to know my dad as he really is that makes it all worth it to me."

Julie and Joanne continue to work through the changes. They say they still fulfill each other romantically, and consider themselves best friends and lovers. The relationship will evolve as John fades to the background.

"I'm struggling with the idea of him being Julie full-time," Joanne said. "I love the person I married, and I will stay with her."

2007 Jackson Citizen Patriot


Last modified: 12/24/13