Here’s an absolutely breath-taking and tear-jerking story about a remarkable nun who works with the trans community in and around New Orleans. She is what my Catholic has always been about, to be honest, and she is absolutely one of the best examples I know of that when Catholics are cool, they’re cooler than most. My friend Quince Mountain writes that this story is
“for me at least, refreshing in that it’s not about the awful things the church does to queer/trans folks. It acknowledges those things, but shows how someone working underground has found ways to help trans folks where others could not. For many, the church is such a roadblock. And we only hear about the baddies. Orthodox Russian nationalists, protestant Ugandan haters, etc. At best, we get a quip from the pope. But here’s someone doing substantive lifelong work, and she would not be able to do it without support from the church. “
Some awesome segments:
If one is new to the trans experience, a room like this might feel unsettling. It might leave one lying in bed that night asking uncomfortable questions for the first time about who or what one really is, things that might have always seemed certain and fixed and clear. Trans people represent a threat in a society anxious to keep its basic categories stable; they experience violence at rates far higher than the general population. But sit there a while, as in any room, and the stories become just stories. The people become people. For Monica, sitting at those tables in those support groups is being among family.
Pope Francis I has shifted the Vatican’s tone on sexual diversity somewhat; further Christmas condemnations seem unlikely to be coming from him. “Who am I to judge?” he famously asked with regard to good-willed gay people. The mother church of his Jesuit order in Rome held a much-publicized funeral in January for a murdered homeless trans woman, though he has yet to speak about living transgender people specifically.
There is a lot more to the Catholic Church than ponderings emanating from the Vatican. Williamson says, in his experience, “the Catholic Church is one of the most affirming groups toward LGBT people” — in the pews, he means, not the hierarchy. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that U.S. Catholics affirm a rather vague statement about transgender rights at a rate somewhat higher than the national average.
James Whitehead is a theologian who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago. In recent years he and his wife, Evelyn, a psychologist, have devoted themselves to understanding the transgender experience in Catholic terms. They had been studying lesbian and gay issues for years, and as they sought out trans people it struck them how familiar the arc of their lives seemed.
“This is the same old story,” he says. “The kind of transition that trans people are talking about is very similar to the journey of faith through darkness and desert that people have been making for thousands of years.” He has found, in his teaching and writing, that when he describes trans experience to Catholics in terms of a spiritual journey, a light goes on, and they get it.
Hints and echoes of what we now speak of as gender transition lie scattered throughout Christian tradition. An Ethiopian eunuch is the first person baptized in the Book of Acts, and the third-century theologian Origen castrated himself after reading Jesus’ remark about those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Stories of ancient ascetics recall women “surpassing” their gender through spiritual advancement, or by simply disguising themselves as men. In the Middle Ages, St. Joan of Arc was executed for refusing to stop cross-dressing; legends circulated of a female pope, also named Joan, who was also killed for gender-bending. Medieval mystics sometimes referred to Jesus as a mother and saw visions of milk dripping from his breast. The Catholic Church as a whole, led by a hierarchy of costumed men, is traditionally referred to as She and as the Bride of Christ.
The resonance goes beyond appearances. “Catholic tradition is all about the dignity of the human person,” says Edward Poliandro, an advocate for LGBT Catholics and their families in New York City. “Transgender people have a particular prophetic mission just to live and to challenge society simply by saying, ‘I’m a person.’”
I spoke at a Catholic university, Saint Norbert’s, a few weeks ago, and I intend to write a little about that experience… but not yet. In the meantime, just go read about Sister Monica. She will renew your faith – Catholic or not.