INDIANAPOLIS — The poem displayed just inside the door beckons worshipers of all kinds. Gay, straight, even unsure, it says — every believer is welcome inside these doors.
Danielle Pawluk remembers crying one afternoon in front of that message etched in glass. She has shed tears of sorrow but also relief inside these church walls, she said, as a transgender woman looking for a sometimes elusive sense of belonging.
Today, Pawluk, 63, of Greenfield, quotes that welcome message with a smile as she heads into worship at Life Journey Church.
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On a recent Sunday, Pawluk quietly prepared communion in the church kitchen, a ritual the former pastor knows by heart.
A few feet away through the sanctuary doors, leaders of the Indianapolis church shared a passage from Exodus, of the Israelites fleeing slavery. They spoke of the fear and doubt that plagued a journey toward a better life.
Pawluk — a former Boy Scout, a U.S. Army veteran, a parent of two — knows well the feeling of uncertainty that comes with starting over. There was a time, just a few years ago, when she felt overwhelmed by even the thought of it.
Not everyone, Pawluk knows, is so accepting as those friends she has found here, at the church geared toward the LGBT community.
There are people who are afraid, who are angry. There are people who would do them harm, even in this peaceful place.
Every Sunday, an armed guard stands by the front door.
‘To be a girl’
The corners of the book are tattered, dingy from the oil of fingertips that reached for their pages again and again.
“A Life in Two Genders” sits on the shelf in the living room of Pawluk’s Greenfield apartment, tucked between a biography on Oprah and a memoir by a former Naval officer.
The stack of literature mirrors the life of its owner: on one end, Danny James, on the other, Danielle Renee — sandwiched between, a journey from one to the other.
Pawluk’s read that memoir in the middle, the story of a woman she calls “a transgender sister,” at least twice.
She cracks a wide, toothy grin, just talking about it.
Her favorite parts are underlined in black ink, enthusiastic squiggles encasing those feelings she knew so well as she became Danielle after more than half a century as Danny.
“…I didn’t stop wanting to be a girl all the time,” one passage reads.
It’s marked with a star, “Yes!” scrawled in the margin.
‘Bury it deep’
As the youngest of three sons growing up in North Dakota, Pawluk followed in her older brothers’ footsteps, spent hours outdoors and proudly joined the Boy Scouts.
Pawluk was born two months premature and was the littlest of the bunch growing up. Her first Boy Scout uniform had to be made by hand; they didn’t make them small enough to fit.
There were parts of those years that felt right — that Eagle Scout medal is still a source of pride — but more that didn’t.
Pawluk remembers sneaking upstairs into their mother’s bedroom, opening the dresser drawer, her tiny hands in search of something soft.
And there it was — her mother’s square dance dress, red and black velvet with a crinoline skirt.
Wearing that dress in front of the mirror — twirl, twirl, twirl — the youngest son felt beautiful. Whole.
Pawluk’s brother caught her once, scoffed and told her to take off that dress and come downstairs. Her mother spotted her on at least one occasion but didn’t say much. Pawluk wonders now if she suspected her little boy … was not.
As a child, it burned like a shameful secret.
“I knew — I was sure I was a girl,” Pawluk said. “(But) I was Daddy’s youngest son, and Daddy was proud of me as such. I struggled with it every day.”
Pawluk remembers trying to muster the courage to tell her mother she was different, that she didn’t know what she was but it wasn’t a boy.
The words just didn’t come.
“Nobody knew what to do with that stuff back then,” she said. “All I could think to do was to bury it as deep as I could and go on.”
‘What I knew’
As a young man, Pawluk enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June 1974, signed on to serve the country for three years then stayed for 20.
Pawluk met her first wife — she married twice — seven years into her service. The woman lived in the town where the command was stationed and caught Pawluk’s eye at a square dance on the Naval base.
She was lovely, with dark blond hair just brushing her shoulders, and so smart. She was something of a spitfire, especially when she didn’t get her way, Pawluk said. The young sailor proposed to her after just three months of dating, asked her to “promenade through life.”
Corny, yes, Pawluk laughs — but it was true love, confusing though that might seem now.
The term, transgender, not to mention the resources and support that came with its recognition in the medical community, were decades away. They’d be long divorced by then.
So the groom’s secret stayed buried for all 18 years of their marriage, through the births of their son and daughter.
“It wasn’t trying to ignore what I knew,” Pawluk said. “I thought maybe …”
She trails off.
“I loved her. And I still love her.”
It was one of two marriages that would fail. The second lasted just a few years, at least in part the result of a secret growing harder for Pawluk to keep, she said.
Beneath the surface
Pawluk followed a call to the ministry a few years after her retirement from the military, feeling the same call to serve that made her enjoy scouting so much as a child.
She attended seminary school briefly, was never ordained but went on to hold several associate pastor positions at area churches.
Pawluk remembers those Sunday mornings, standing in the pulpit and preaching the good word, promising the flock comfort and acceptance from a loving God.
It was a message she needed as much as anyone.
Beneath the three-piece men’s suit was women’s clothing. Pawluk wore a slip or silk camisole, sometimes nylon stockings — any piece of smooth fabric, tucked out of view. Tucked on one side of her closet were dresses and skirts, clothing her parishioners would never see.
There was such joy in ministry, in helping people, but Pawluk needed help she didn’t know how to ask for. Feeling trapped consumed her thoughts.
Depression crept over her gradually, she said. In time, she would become overwhelmed by loneliness as she looked in the mirror and saw a man who felt like a stranger.
If she couldn’t live as a woman, she started to wonder if she wanted to live at all.
The pastor daydreamed about ending her life, devised how she could escape a body that didn’t match her heart. Her church family would never have to know her secret, she reasoned.
She could swallow a handful of painkillers, cobbled together from various medical procedures over the years.
Or she could drive her car into a retention pond, she thought, just wait for the water to pull her down.
The fear and anxiety are so familiar, it’s easy to let them sneak back into her heart. In January, she checked herself into the veterans hospital in Indianapolis after she realized she was having suicidal thoughts.
It took 11 days before she felt like herself again, felt safe enough to go home.
A familiar story
In 2009, Pawluk was living in Spiceland, twice divorced by then, when she finally came to terms with it all. Living as a man was no longer an option.
She can pinpoint the moment everything changed, one breezy afternoon just as summer was turning to fall.
Pawluk was cleaning the house. The TV was blaring in the background — Oprah, welcoming a talk-show guest.
It was the mother of twin boys, but one of them kept wearing dresses, talking about feeling like a girl inside.
Pawluk stopped, eyes suddenly glued to the screen.
The story was all so familiar, and here was someone on national TV, summing up everything Pawluk had felt for years.
It would be years before she changed her name legally, but she was Danielle — right then, right there.
She called a friend, poured the whole story out — the confusion, the excitement, the fear.
“She said, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll call you some names?’”
Pawluk remembered a sign that used to hang in the church office. It read: “Some will, some won’t, so what?”
For Pawluk, there was no looking back.
When she talks about that time, how she felt about the fight she knew lay ahead, she summons a battle cry from the Civil War history books.
A Naval officer facing incredible odds charged on with a single decree against the unknown.
Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.
Finding the courage
It’s been eight years since Pawluk began her transition. She quickly settled on Danielle for her new name — Dani for short. After a lifetime of going by Danny, she figured she’d probably never answer to anything else.
Every day brought a new lesson, most taught lovingly by Sherry Butler and her daughter, Ashley Shull, friends who became her confidants and teachers in those early years. The Knightstown pair took Pawluk shopping, showed her how to shorten her stride and soften that Navy-hardened handshake.
Pawluk tried every hair color, long wigs and short.
Pawluk’s style was a work in progress for months, joked Butler, who wasn’t afraid to give Pawluk a no-nonsense look when she deemed a skirt too short or too youthful for a woman in her 60s.
“I said, ‘Dani, we’re past that,’” Butler said.
But Pawluk had missed out on a lifetime of being a girl and seemingly wanted to make up for all of it, all at once, her friends said. There could never be too many dresses, too bright a shade of lipstick. She decorated her bedroom in cheerful pinks and purples.
Butler and Shull were by her side for the joy and also for the heartache. They know it isn’t easy for some to accept Pawluk’s path. They’ve watched her mourn the loss of loved ones who turned away.
It’s an impulse both Butler and Shull admit they understand. Coming from a Christian upbringing, each struggled to accept Pawluk’s transition, wondering if such a change went against God’s will.
Butler admits she still isn’t sure.
But she won’t abandon her friend. She never knew Danny James, she noted, but she adores Danielle Renee.
A common theme emerges when they talk about her — embracing the woman they’ve come to love, no matter what it took for her to get there.
“We all want somebody to just say, ‘Here you are, and you are perfect the way you are,’” Shull said. “I don’t care what your story is.”
‘Somebody I wasn’t’
Pawluk’s will always remember that first visit to the doctor, an endocrinologist who affirmed her choice with one scrawl on his prescription pad for hormone therapy.
She sat in the waiting room, heart racing fast and mind even faster. She wore a dress to that appointment. She couldn’t stop thinking how much she wanted to be a woman. Dressing like one would never be enough.
When the nurse called her name, she froze. She called for Danielle, not Danny.
“Lord have mercy, was I nervous,” she said.
Today, she hardly remembers which pills she has to take for what — has to stop and think about it, it’s all become so routine. The cost of the medicine, the check-ups, are minimal with insurance, she said, but the results are life-changing.
The hormone therapy stops the growth of her facial hair, raises her voice to a more feminine pitch, even if some gravel remains. Every change, a cause for celebration.
She shared them all anxiously with her doctor, who assured her each development was normal.
That feeling of anticipation, of quiet determination, became an old friend over the years. It rode along so many times: To the courthouse, to promise a judge she wasn’t trying to evade creditors by changing her name; to the BMV, to fight for an “F” for female next to her photograph.
Pawluk clings to those tiny triumphs when telling her story. It helps to focus on them, she said, because so many times, she felt defeated — when family members shunned her, or friends suddenly fell out of touch, when she researched the cost of total gender-reassignment surgery and realized she’d never be able to afford the treatment.
Those she loved the most often hurt her worst.
Pawluk grows quiet when she talks about them — the ones who have called her choice a mistake.
But she had no choice, she said. Not really.
“I was gonna kill myself or I was gonna change,” she said. “I was tired of being somebody I wasn’t.”
It took time, both for her and her loved ones, to come to terms with her transition.
She is grateful, she said, for the relationship she has managed with both her children, as well as her ex-wives. Her daughter recently gave birth to a little boy, Pawluk’s first grandchild.
He’ll be raised to call her Mamaw.
Looking back on her journey, Pawluk focuses on the people who embraced the woman she wanted to be, who helped her find the way.
They were the ones who invited her over for family dinners, birthday parties — even if she wasn’t a relative. She clings to those small tokens of acceptance and love.
One stands out in her memory.
It was Christmas. Pawluk had long since traded her suits and ties for holiday dresses and was settling into her new life as a woman.
Butler had asked Pawluk what she wanted for Christmas. She already had an idea, of course — Pawluk had been dropping hints for weeks.
She’d never had a baby doll.
It wasn’t about the gift, not really. Pawluk would have loved just about anything: scarves, jewelry, a new shade of nail polish, her friend said.
But a baby doll.
Butler knew for Pawluk, such a gift would symbolize something greater — validation, perhaps — a tangible reminder she is accepted in this world as a woman.
A few days after the holiday, Pawluk went to see her surrogate family. Waiting for her, still in a plastic package from the store, was her present.
She unwrapped it with a knowing smile. Butler will never forget the look on Pawluk’s face, the way her eyes shone, she said.
There in a pink pajama outfit was her Christmas wish.
Pawluk clutched that baby doll and sobbed.
‘Who I am’
Pawluk looks at her future with the eagerness of a teenage girl. She’s recently retired but sees herself going back to college.
She already has a bachelor’s degree in human resources management, but that call to ministry still simmers.
She’s been weighing an application to seminary school.
Danny James will always be with her, of course. Tiny reminders of her past life still give her heart a twinge.
But those moments are fleeting, pale compared to the joy she feels as Danielle.
“I am who I am,” she said, “… who I’m supposed to be.”
She still dreams of undergoing surgery, she added — that final step in her transition is never too far from her mind.
In her purse, tucked amid a stack of tiny papers, she carries a letter from one of her doctors, supporting her as a candidate for the surgery.
It’s been folded in her wallet for six years, the creases in the paper so deep, they’ve begun to tear.
“It is without hesitation that I recommend that Ms. Pawluk is ready,” the letter reads. “She has been inspirational … in this pursuit.”
That tattered piece of paper serves as a reminder of where she’s been — and where she’s going.
They talk of confusion, of discovery. For people who are transgender, “born in the wrong body,” becomes an oft-repeated mantra. Some say it quietly, only to themselves, for years as they wrestle with the feeling they are different. Others sing out their discovery, the first step to feeling comfortable in their own skin. Deciding to transition — to live as the gender that matches what they feel inside — is a life-changing choice. It is often marked by a new name; sometimes, surgery. Some will not understand. Many will not agree. But these men and women press on — and find joy in the journey.
Today: Danielle Pawluk: An army veteran began her transition to living as a woman following 20 years in the U.S. Navy and a career as a pastor.
Coming up: Mitchell Wear: After undergoing several transition surgeries, a New Palestine native continues to fight for transgender rights.