Just ‘tell them that I love them’
May 16, 2017
To begin this story, we must start at what was almost a tragic end. The year was 2000. Y2K was not nearly as frightening as expected, Britney Spears’s music topped the charts, and many 14-year-old boys were enthralled with their PlayStation 2.
But not Aaron. At 14, he attempted suicide.
“I didn’t see any tendencies of my son being different,” said his mother, Sheila O’Bannon. “I had given birth to an older son, and this one was no different.” But Aaron’s older and younger brothers saw a difference. “My sons would say to me, ‘Mom, Aaron is gay.’ I would say, ‘He’s just not like the two of you.’”
In retrospect, O’Bannon says, her son knew he was in the wrong body as early as age 3 or 4.
After his suicide attempt, doctors informed O’Bannon that her son was not gay but transgender. “My sisters asked me, ‘What’s wrong with you that you would have that kind of child?’” O’Bannon said. “Everyone, except for my parents, who remained silent, blamed me for having that kind of child.”
After leaving the hospital, Aaron went to a psychiatric facility where his only visitors were his family and the ministers from their church. It was there that O’Bannon learned that ministers were partly to blame for his despair. One day while visiting with her son at the facility, an extremely angry doctor told her, “I don’t want the ministers from the church to ever come visit again. The ministers are coming here telling your child that he is worthless, that he needs to change his hair”—which was in braids at the time— “because he looks like a girl.
“If you want your son dead, then you continue this. I’m trying to save the life of your child who wants to kill himself for who he is, and your ministers and pastors are visiting and destroying all the work that we’re doing. Their comments are killing your son.”
Nevertheless, O’Bannon said, she still could not accept the idea that her son was gay or transgender until the doctors told her she had to get her son to accept himself for who he was, and if she couldn’t do that they would have him removed from her home. The doctors knew that while Aaron was under his mother’s roof, living in an unsupportive atmosphere, he would continue to try to kill himself until he succeeded.
Her oldest son confronted the ministers visiting Aaron with the harm they were causing his brother. Aaron’s issues had now become a huge scandal in the church, O’Bannon said. She was the minister of music and part of a prominent family. While the church didn’t ask O’Bannon’s family to leave, the pastor found her a position as minister of music in another church and suggested she take the job. After leaving, O’Bannon eventually found a position as minister of music at Peace Presbyterian Church.
At her wits’ end, O’Bannon says, she turned to God for an answer to her family’s dilemma. Subsequently, she says, God began to lead her on a journey into the underground of the LGBTQ community. “I went into the LGBTQ clubs—some very nice and others really seedy.” She says she felt antagonistic toward LGBTQ people as a group when she began her journey but slowly began to reconcile with LGBTQ individuals. Many of the young people told her that they saw their parents in her, and that they saw her going through the same things their parents had gone through when they learned their child was different.
“As I got to know more of these people, I came to realize that a great number of them were raised in the church all their lives and there was a common thread throughout the LGBTQ community. They all thought God hated them.” Through continued prayer, O’Bannon says, God spoke to her, saying, “I don’t need you to judge these people. All I want you to do is tell them that I love them and point them in my direction.”
O’Bannon began her mission by apologizing to her son. She asked him, “Do you know that God loves you?”
“How do you know that?” he replied. She responded: Because God told me. “Contrary to what I have told you and what others have told you,” she told him, “God loves you.” Once she made amends with her son, O’Bannon said, she learned that her own parents, who had remained quiet throughout the entire ordeal, fully supported and loved her son.
It was at this point, O’Bannon says, that God led her to write a play titled The Prodigal. Over the next three years O’Bannon, a performing-arts teacher, wrote the story of her family’s journey with her son.
While writing the play, she became extremely ill, at times barely able to stand. Still, she persevered. After completing the play, O’Bannon began to dream about the number 27. When she went to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville to inquire about available dates for her production, the only weekend available was the weekend of June 27.
An agent told O’Bannon she would need a $35,000 down payment for the facility. O’Bannon ultimately ended up with over $100,000 in donations to produce the play with an all-volunteer cast.
The Prodigal premiered the weekend of June 27, 2010, to a sold-out house at the Kentucky Center. “The audience was filled with families and many LGBTQ community members,” O’Bannon said. “After the performance they wouldn’t leave. The room was filled with emotion, and people wanted to stay and talk about this subject.”
After the premiere, O’Bannon was rushed to the hospital and later diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. She is now in remission.
In many ways O’Bannon found peace at Peace.
“Reverend (Wayne) Steele and the entire congregation of Peace Presbyterian Church have been so loving and open to my family. When The Prodigal premiered, the Peace congregation was right there in the audience. My family has been blown away by their kindness and the love shown by this church,” O’Bannon said. She believes it was that love that saved the life of her child.
In 2014, Aaron and his mother traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, where he had decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. He chose Bangkok because of the expertise of doctors there in performing that kind of surgery.
O’Bannon recalled that a tear fell down her cheek as a doctor smiled and said her child would finally see on the outside what she feels on the inside. And with that, Aaron became Shemiyia.
Shemiyia is now a beautiful young woman living a full and happy life with her husband in New York. For the past 12 years, she has worked in the nursing administration/health-care industry. Shemiyia now gets to work with transgender patients—many of whom don’t have a voice or someone to care for them. “It’s a pleasure to work with these individuals—individuals like me who tried to end their lives,” she said.
O’Bannon and Shemiyia are also in conversations with national theaters and TV networks to share their story of love and reconciliation. Shemiyia is passionate about getting their story told.
“I want people to know that you are in charge of how your story ends, no matter how it began.”
To learn more about More Light Presbyterians, an organization working toward the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in society, visit mlp.org
Gail Strange, director, Church & Mid Council Communications, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: A mother’s odyssey to understand her transgender child
Let us join in prayer for:
Peace Presbyterian Church Staff
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
O God of love greater than we can imagine, teach us how to love all your children as you have loved us, especially those who suffer unnecessarily. Give us boldness to argue and plead for your reign, especially in your house. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.