Faith, Self Esteem, and Beauty for transgender women

I have been asked to put the full article I wrote for Conscience magazine a publication of Catholics for Choice for view on the web rather than download.

“Blessed” by our creator with male genitalia and a female brain I struggled to relate to a society that saw me as male until age 40 when I transitioned to live as a woman. It was a authentic mid-life transition to integrate my mind and body that many who knew me supported and even called courageous, inspiring, and ethical. But this uniquely personal act though the eyes of the 99.5% of people who are blessed to have their gender and sex match has been seen as a political act, psychological disorder, character flaw, weakness, perversion and sin.
In the Catholic Church, as a transsexual woman, I don’t exist officially. Officially the Catholic church does not have a policy on the range of gender expression and considering their policy on gay men, lesbian women, divorced women, women priests, and women who abort I should count myself as lucky. But the popular assumption that I will be treated poorly by the institutional church hierarchy is born out in news reports of a secret document to bishops, and the Pope’s own words. As Jeff Israely reports in Time Magazine December 23,2008 article: The Pope’s Christmas Condemnation of Transsexuals

‘Without actually using the word, Benedict took a subtle swipe at those who might undergo sex-change operations or otherwise attempt to alter their God-given gender. Defend “the nature of man against its manipulation,” “The Church speaks of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this order is respected.” The Pope again denounced the contemporary idea that gender is a malleable definition. That path, he said, leads to a “self-emancipation of man from creation and the Creator.”

Respecting the order of men and women is very important to an organization that is controlled solely by one gender. But the Creator does make transsexuals (mind/body incongruity) and inter-sexed (anatomic incongruity) people and the manipulation of medical science allows us to lead more normal lives with the 99.5% that have such trouble understanding this variation. Beyond anatomy, rigid gender stereotyping is important to a controlling patriarchy and so accepting any transgender expression, (cross-dressers, transvestites, Drag queens, drag kings, androgynous, bi-gendered, and gender queer) is unacceptable for organizational reasons, not morality.

The problem with a secret position on transgender people is that the church hierarchy are empowered to follow the most reactionary course in their words and deeds on the subject. According to John Norton of the Catholic News Service in his Jan-14-2003 article titled
“Vatican says ‘sex-change’ operation does not change person’s gender”

… the document instructs bishops never to alter the sex listed in parish baptismal records and says Catholics who have undergone “sex-change” procedures are not eligible to marry, be ordained to the priesthood or enter religious life, according to a source familiar with the text.’
“The key point is that the (transsexual) surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was male, he remains male. If she was female, she remains female,” said the source.

Those familiar with transsexuals will see the irony of truth in the ‘key point’ except in reverse. Transitioning allows us to share with society the gender personality that we have been from the start and avoid the false-selves developed to live as others expected us to based on our external bodies. Any United States transsexual that gets a surgical procedure does so after psychological evaluation, much soul searching and living at least 2 years in their perceived gender. The vast majority of transsexuals never have surgery because of its expense that is only covered by a handful of healthcare policies. Surgery does not define ones gender for passports or many states drivers licenses but a doctors psychological evaluation does. However, the sources assertion that one’s genitals are superficial could only have come from someone committed to celibacy.

Those armed with the secret document and their own transphobia have: expelled a music minister, a priest, a nun, a lay counselor, a college student, a parochial school student and even a church cleaning lady. They have also torn families apart by teaching that transsexualism is a psychic disorder. Parents are counseled to suppress transgender children and to reject transitioning adult children. Transexuals are forbidden the sacrament of marriage (to anybody), religious life, and priesthood. Some bishops even wrote congress to oppose the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would add gender identity and sexual attraction to the protected classes in employment law. This secret position emboldens the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Office for Film and Broadcasting in their review of the film TransAmerica to state:

“Director Duncan Tucker soberly handles the sensitive subject matter with humanity and a fair degree of delicacy and humor. But the film’s affirmative depiction of transsexualism is unequivocally incompatible with church teachings on human sexuality and gender identity. Furthermore, Stanley’s sex-switching procedure conflicts with Catholic proscriptions against “directly intended amputations, mutilations or sterilizations” spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

It is a hateful position that can twist this AMA approved surgical intervention for a birth incongruity into a “mutilation”. Like all the church policy that flows from the precept of ‘Natural Law’ (sex exists only for procreation) we find that this policy follows neither nature (as science shows) or law (as an equal protection).

It doesn’t have to be this way. As readers of this magazine would know, our theology calls us to follow our conscience, accept mystery, and love one another without exception. Reaching out to my marginalized extreme minority is not only possible but enriches your spiritual life.  Re-constructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, and various Quaker groups openly allow transgender worshippers in their congregations. Certain Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), Ecumenical Catholic Church, United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community Church, and the Unitarian Church openly accept transgender individuals.
Even the “secret Vatican document” (according to the 2003 CNS article referenced above) provides for:

  • Priests who undergo a sex change may continue to exercise their ministry privately if it does not cause scandal. (Women priests? Sounds scandalous.)
  • Surgery could be morally acceptable in certain extreme cases if a medical probability exists that it will “cure” the patient’s internal turmoil. (Far from extreme, transition is the only medically approved treatment for people diagnosed as transsexual. Reassignment surgery is the final step in the process and provides for a patient’s social integration and personal safety.)
  • An affirmation of the validity of marriages in which one partner later transitions. (A Catholic affirmation of a same sex marriage?)

I hope that Catholics would look at the body of scientific and medical evidence to develop a loving acceptance of those of us with this variation. The intentional eucharistic community I belong to has. My priest has noted the unique perspective I have on gender issues that come from seeing life from both sides now. He has noted how my path to my true gender has parallels in Ignatian discernment to understand God’s desire for us.

I understand that my journey, though personal, touches that which is universal about gender for everyone. Perhaps your notions of father, mother, brother, sister, husband, and wife get opened a little by meeting someone who has been all of those at different times in her life. Maybe you can take it from someone who has been there that looking at everything in us & them, black & white, male or female is limiting and dangerous. Ultimately, welcoming the mystery of diversity in God’s plan is the healing for our church  that I most hope for.

Your comments are appreciated.

Comments on: "To be or not to be: A Catholic Transexual Speaks Out" (9)

  1. Thank you for sharing this, and for staying in your church. I got out, and went to the Quakers, when I could no longer bear to worship God disguised as a man. In my Quaker meeting I used to stand up and welcome people at the end of the Meeting, and several told me how lovely it was to have someone so obviously queer doing that.

    • I’m even prouder of the Quakers after hearing your story. Bless you on your spirit journey. I am finding that staying in happens to be my cross to bear.

  2. [...] To be or not to be: A Catholic Transexual Speaks Out [...]

  3. [...] Howes, a Catholic transsexual, writes in Conscience magazine: ‘I hope that Catholics would look at the body of scientific and medical evidence to develop [...]

  4. Thank you so much for your article and God bless you on your journey! My son is transgender and gay and I couldn’t be more proud of him. The Catholic Church would deny me the sacraments if they ever got a report of my facebook page which heavily supports same sex marriage. Though I love the Church, the hierarchy can bite me. They know as little about Human Sexuality now as they did hundreds of years ago about Astronomy when they imprisoned Galileo. I don’t think transgender and gay persons should have to wait in celibate loneliness for another 400 years for some future Pope to apologize as JPII did to a long dead Galileo.

    • So True Terri- Please remember we are the catholic church and they are just the Hierarchy. I was still an American even when George Bush was president similarly. Hope you can find a parish or community where you are welcome with your son just as you are. Bless you for supporting him, I’m sure its what Jesus would do.

  5. I had a gender change 26 years ago and am now in the process of converting to Catholicism. Although closeted, I’m worried that someone will figure out I had a reassignment and reject me.

    Any thoughts or words of wisdom?

  6. [...] this article for Conscience Magazine a publication of Catholics for Choice http://togetherstyle.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/to-be-or-not-to-be-a-catholic-transexual-speaks-out/I proposed that the Catholic Church didn’t understand the transgender experience. The church [...]

  7. Dear miss Hilary,

    I’m living in the very deep south of the Netherlands, in a little village ware more as 90% of the inhabitants are catholic, catholicism is here a way af life. I’m very happy to be raised as catholic, with parents who loved me and still love me. Everyone in my village know my background, born as a boy, now married with a nice husmand (our marriage is blessed in the church, nearly whole the village attented the service.) It doesn’t the matter Rome sais, at local level there seems to be other vallious, more kind and lovely.

    Even in the Bible I found supporting things, like 56 vers 3 – 5

    “To them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off”

    You know, the patron saint of our parish is Lambertus of Maastricht, he was castrated. With the help of our priest, I was one of the auturs of a LGBT wolkingtour in Maastricht which shows also the transgender aspects in the big chuches in that city by using the ‘secret’ codes of statues of saints. Next month the app. will be lounched by the help of Amnesty International and the COC, the Dutch LGBT organisation.
    So I’m not only traying to be a good member of our parish but also a very active transgendered one too, I love it, my priest supports me as a lot of other following parishers.
    So don ‘t worry about the official catholic church, the local communities are sometimes much more supportive.

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