In Memoriam

Lee Frances Heller
April 5, 1919 - May 19, 2000

Lee Frances Heller, who devoted the last fifteen years of her life to sharing God's love with all her transgendered sisters and brothers, passed away in her sleep on May 19, 2000, at her home in Jackson, Mississippi. Lee Frances was 81 years old.

Lee Frances was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and served in the Marine Corps in World War II. After the war, she worked at one job after another until she found the Good Shepherd Mission in Paterson, New Jersey. Her first experience at Good Shepherd was as a lodger, but after she committed her life to God, she was asked to be the chaplain of the Mission, and in 1965 she was appointed to be resident director, a position she held for twenty years.

After she retired from the Mission in 1985, Lee Frances moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to be close to family members. By this time she had managed to reconcile her Christian faith with her lifelong realization that she was transgendered.

It became a personal crusade for her to share this reconciliation with other crossdressers and transsexual persons. At her little home in north Jackson, letters arrived almost daily from persons who had read her announcements in Tapestry and other community publications. "Is God Against Us?" was the headline question of her most used essay, and after finishing the essay, the reader was quite certain God was not against us, indeed.

In those days Lee answered every letter with a handwritten note. She became a prolific writer, and soon began publishing a quarterly message which she sent to a list of dozens of persons - ultimately well over one hundred - who contacted her requesting more information on their spiritual lives. Her "prayer list" grew long as she promised to pray for all those persons. Lee gave her message a name which she felt combined images of Christianity and crossdressing: the now well-known "Grace And Lace Letter." At the 1992 Texas "T" Party, she received a special recognition award for her contributions to the spiritual growth of transgendered persons.

To establish contact with other transgendered people in Mississippi, Lee organized the Beta Chi chapter of Tri-Ess. The group was never large, but for years she was hostess to their meetings, and remembered everyone who spent time in her home.

It was through an advertisement for Beta Chi that I came to know Lee Frances Heller. Of all the people whose lives she touched, I was privileged to live in closest proximity to her home. I still remember that first frightened call I made from a pay phone, hearing Lee's cheerful voice, and immediately feeling at ease. Soon I was visiting in her home, hearing her testimony, and realizing how her words met the need I had felt for spiritual guidance. It has been my privilege to write essays for the Grace and Lace Letter since 1992.

Those times, just before and at the start of my transition, were the most difficult of my life, and Lee Frances provided the stability which kept me centered. Without her prayers and personal encouragement I would not have succeeded in my new life as I did.

I moved away from Jackson in 1993, and for several years my contact with Lee was over the telephone. In the meantime she continued to publish "G&L," as she abbreviated it. The publication became larger as more writers began to contribute regularly. Finally in 1998 Lee decided G&L had become too large for her, and turned over publication to Jane and Mary Fairfax. But, as all her friends knew, Lee would never stop writing. Almost immediately she announced the "Christian Love Letter," ostensibly a smaller publication, but one which also grew rapidly.

With the help of other friends such as Julie and Kori, Lee reluctantly let herself be pushed into the computer age. She loved her new blue iMac! We all looked forward to her frequent e-mail updates. Articles from Grace and Lace and the Love Letter appeared in multiple sites on the World Wide Web. Lee was never willing to accept praise for her efforts, giving all the credit to the Lord.

After several years' absence, I returned for a visit in 1999 to find Lee's health had deteriorated and she had been hospitalized with breathing problems. She seemed to recover well, however, and we had a wonderful visit. I was encouraged that she might continue to improve. Unfortunately, several more hospitalizations followed during the rest of the year, and she came to need home oxygen at times. Despite all that her spirits were cheerful as ever, and I looked forward to seeing her in May 2000.

I arrived at Lee's home early on the morning of May 18, and she was feeling well enough to visit and to brew a pot of coffee. We talked of the new issue of Love Letter she planned to begin compiling in June. She remained vigorously independent, and told me how she intended to remain at home, rather than any assisted living environment.

She loved telling me of her experience being confirmed in the Episcopal church just the week prior to my visit. As she described in her last e-mail message to all of us on her list, she had fallen while getting out of the car to go into the church: "never have I laid in a street gutter. So I have now. From the gutter the Church looked beautiful with the morning sun shining on it highlighting a huge colorful banner of Christ which was hung on what would be the steeple. I never knew the banner was there. I had never seen it as I don't look up when I'm in the car. Anyhow I immediately saw the Spiritual application and my own testimony personified. In the gutter I saw my Saviour, Jesus Christ. From the gutter to Christ. St. Andrew's can now say they picked up a poor old soul out of the gutter, brushed her off, took her in the Church where the Bishop of Mississippi confirmed her and a new Lee Frances was born!"

Finally it was time for me to go, and as always we held hands and prayed together. (As my roomate Margaux says, "I've never heard anyone pray like Lee Frances. She talks like she has a direct line to God." And so she did.) We agreed to go to church and to lunch on Sunday the 21st. As I drove away, she stood on her front steps, smiling and waving as she had done hundreds of times before.

On May 19 I was away from my inn all day, and it was after dark when I returned. The desk clerk stopped me as I walked to my room: there was a message to call Marge. My heart sank: Marge was Lee Frances's next door neighbor.

I didn't want to believe it as I heard her say, "Lee passed away quietly in her sleep this afternoon. She was in the same position as when I checked on her earlier, but she wasn't breathing."

Lee Frances willed her body to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, so there was no burial. A memorial service was held at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.

Lee Frances Heller leaves a sister, three sons, and a daughter; 14 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. She leaves hundreds of sisters and brothers who found comfort and faith in her publications; some of them literally found the strength to go on living because of the letters she wrote.

And she leaves a great emptiness in my heart. I know she is at peace and enjoying her new existence with the God she loves so much. But we who love her here will miss her so.

And I know you're shining down on me from heaven
Like so many friends we've lost along the way
And I know eventually we'll be together
One sweet day...

I love you, "Mom."


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