A nun's underground ministry for the trans community
A Catholic nun writes about her ministry to the transgender community, despite the misunderstandings in the Catholic Church.
At age 54, when I had been a Catholic sister for 38 years, I met Courtney, a transgender woman. This was, at that point in my life, a new experience. I immediately felt drawn to Courtney, eager to understand her life. Later, as Courtney and I sat in my living room, I was privileged to be entrusted with her sacred and harrowing story of transition. As I responded to what I was hearing, she looked intently at me and said, “You really do get this! We need sensitive people like you to walk with us because this transition is a spiritual journey.”
Courtney began to tell others that there was a trans-friendly Catholic sister in town, and she encouraged them to contact me. Word got around that I could be a trusted friend. I did not know it then, but the most amazing, incredible, and graced part of my life was about to begin.
From my beginning in this ministry I realized that few people had direct knowledge of the experiences of transgender persons. Instead stereotypes abound, none of which are positive. To many, the intent to change one’s gender sounds bizarre and unnatural. Transgender people are often perceived as psychologically unstable and acting against God’s will. But the origin of the issues they face is neither psychological nor moral—it is biological. While the great majority of us are born with a body and brain that match, this is not the case for people who are transgender.
The formation of the human fetus is a profoundly complex process. Medical research confirms that in some cases the sex organs that develop during the gestation process do not match the gender of the brain. This discrepancy is not a person’s choice. The extent to which someone experiences a disconnect between the body and brain varies, but the condition is real. And tragically, many who carry this discrepancy experience condemnation and rejection from those upon which they rely most: family, friends, and members of their faith community.
Pope Francis recently said in a homily, “Those who are pushed to the side and dismissed are weeping.” Transgender people have definitely been dismissed and pushed to the margins of society—and often pushed out of their church. It is not surprising that about 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. They weep, and I weep with them.
From the beginning I felt my call from God to minister in the transgender community had two dimensions. One was to be a spiritual companion to those navigating the minefields of gender transition. My role was to repeatedly remind them that God stands with them—not against them—as they struggle to live the truth. The second dimension was to be an advocate on their behalf within the broader community and a witness to the integrity of their lives.
Serving as a spiritual companion to those in the process of gender transition has been the most significant aspect of my ministry and a great privilege. Many who are transgender identify the rejection they experience as rooted in the teachings of organized religion. They have internalized this rejection, leading them to the conviction that they cannot be both true to themselves and true to God. They believe that a commitment to spiritual growth would require doing violence to the truth of their deepest identity. I have walked with many people through this spiritual anguish, but two in particular stand out. Much of their experience is shared by others.
Carol was introduced to me in early 2002, referred by her psychologist. After a few months of corresponding by phone and email, she traveled from her home on the West Coast to make a retreat with me. Carol had been married to Sue for more than 30 years; as a couple they continued to be devout Catholics, active in parish life. Early in their marriage, Sue recognized her spouse’s struggle.
For many years Carol dressed as a woman in the privacy of the couple’s home. But this deception became more and more difficult for Carol to sustain. Early on, both Sue and Carol desperately wanted to believe that Carol was a cross-dresser, not transgender. Sue remained convinced that her spouse’s thoughts and feelings were the work of the devil; Carol must simply pray harder and be determined to dispel these temptations—or else Sue would leave the marriage. Sue was driven by her fear of what other people would think. Carol—in the midst of transition—was driven by the fear of losing Sue.
Two issues dominated Carol’s thinking. First, Sue had argued that while the decision to complete a gender transition might bring peace to Carol, it would totally destroy their family. How could she be so selfish, thinking only about herself and not her family? Second, thoughts of suicide arose more and more frequently. Knowing that Jesus had chosen to give up his life for others, Carol wanted to believe that choosing to end her own life—out of love for those whose lives she was disrupting—would be acceptable. She believed she was a freak and evil, and her family’s life would be better without her. While Carol was one of the first transgender persons in my experience who grappled with these distorted notions, she was certainly not the last.
During her retreat time, Carol experienced a deep sense of peace and the power of God’s grace in her life. But soon after her return home she again fell into patterns of self-hatred. Sue continued to isolate Carol from contact with anyone sympathetic to her transition. Although I’ve reached out many times, I have not heard from Carol in years. I fear she has ended her life.
Born biologically female, Shawn was raised in an evangelical faith tradition. Understandably, from a young age he suppressed his feelings of being a boy. After three marriages, serious alcoholism, and a conversion to Catholicism, Shawn recognized the truth of his identity as a man. This is when he first contacted me.
While the acknowledgment of his true identity was incredibly liberating, it was also terrifying. What frightened Shawn most was the sure conviction that God would condemn him to hell for being transgender. For a couple of years he went through some dangerously dark times and was near suicide. But gradually, over the next several years, he began to embrace the God who loves him just as he is, slowly leaving behind his fears of a punitive God ready to condemn him at every turn.
I have remained in regular contact with Shawn since meeting him in 2008. My heart filled with gratitude when I recently saw that he is a much happier person, more at peace with himself and with God. He feels appreciated and valued at his job. While his parents do not really understand him, his sister and brother-in-law, with whom he lives, offer constant love and support. He still cannot bring himself to reconcile with the Catholic Church, which, for him, continues to represent the damning judgment of society, but he misses the Eucharist terribly. I pray that in time he’ll find his way back.
Even before I understood much about the reality of the transgender experience, I felt genuine love for the trans people I met. When love and respect lead the way, understanding easily follows. I had never before ministered among those who were rendered so invisible by society. Even now, I experience excruciating pain as I confront the fear and hostility directed toward members of the transgender community—people I so love and respect.
I am often reminded of an observation by Milton Diamond: “Nature loves diversity, but society hates it.” There is something in the human response that inclines us to distance ourselves from those we perceive as different. And, more tragically, we often fear those who are different and want to keep them hidden. But I am blessed to see in them the face of God. For many years I have felt a strong passion to bring the experience of the transgender community into the light. Only then will the injustices against trans people be exposed and overcome so that they will be able to offer society their own unique and needed perspectives on life.
For several years I have facilitated an “Evening of Trans Awareness.” I invite people whom I know to be interested and open-minded to hear the stories of a few of my transgender friends. Those present for these sessions always leave with a greater appreciation for the experiences and hopes of people about whom they previously knew nothing.
In addition, I have often mediated with family members and other significant people at the request of a trans person. Learning that a loved one is transgender is almost always traumatic. Often people’s first reactions are anger, condemnation, and rejection. Frequently when family members are told by their loved one that a Catholic sister has been ministering to them, their hearts and minds become more receptive. Perhaps being transgender is not terrible, as they had originally feared.
Rewarding as it is to be an instrument of God’s healing in people’s lives, I am fully aware that there are risks involved. My ministry, explicitly focused on trans people and their families, would not be acceptable to some in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Much of my energy is spent in an effort to be available to the people who need me, and yet “out of sight” from those who could compromise my ministry and the mission of my religious congregation. For this reason, at this time neither I nor my congregation can be publicly identified.
For many years I have lived with the heavy burden of this conflict. To protect my religious community from censure I have to keep my ministry with the transgender community hidden. But to serve my transgender community I must help them come out of hiding. Over the years I have increasingly accepted this burden as a privileged way to participate in the suffering of those with whom I minister.
I continue to grieve over the violence transgender people suffer. I also continue to be astounded by the ways they claim their place in this world and offer their gifts born of courage and fidelity. With them and because of them, I have learned to lean on God as never before.
This essay appeared in the September 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 9, pages 32–34).
Thursday, September 3, 2015