This is the transcript of a talk I delivered at my school’s LGBT retreat this Saturday, April 12. The catchphrase of the talk – “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it” – is borrowed from a book by David Mangan of the same name.
Graced With a Queer Existence
Hey, guys! So, I suppose if I’m going to give a talk, I should tell you all who I am, my name and whatnot – but suddenly I realize that for me this is an awkward way to start. Before I tell you my name, let me say why I’m standing here giving a talk.
[Just as a disclaimer: I do not assume that any of you are Christian or Catholic, but I do rightly assume that I’m Catholic and the only religious perspective I’m entitled to give is as such. So this talk is very much from a Catholic’s perspective, but hopefully everyone here will be able to get at least something from it.]
So I’m like super Catholic, just so you know. I can Hail Mary till I’m blue in the face – I’m an orthodox, traditional, charismatic, religious-AND-spiritual, Carmelite-persuaded, Byzantine-inclined, mantilla-loving, rosary-toting, incense-fetishist papist.
Oh yeah, and I’m also transgender. A transgirl. My gender identity is female.
And I’m sure this crowd is more educated on these issues than most, but just for the record: gender identity is a whole different ballgame than sexual orientation. People ask me if I’m gay. I never know how to respond because I have a male body, a female gender, am more emotional than sexual, and am attracted to guys, girls, and transmen, which means that the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, demisexual, and asexual all apply to me in some way. And since I’m potentially a male-to-female transsexual, that means I also qualify as trans, genderqueer, and I would argue intersex (since science keeps demonstrating that transgenderism is probably a form of neurological intersex).
So I’m as queer as a three dollar bill. And the funny thing is I just feel like an artsy, slightly bi, but otherwise completely normal girl.
So what’s my name? Legally my name is —————, but the name I identify with is Anna Magdalena. Same initials – it’s convenient. And I love St. Mary Magdalene. And my parents would have named me Magdalena if they’d identified me as a girl at birth.
So how did I get to be this strange paradox, this queer, feminist, evangelical traddie? (Talk about words you don’t often hear together in the same sentence).
I guess I could talk about how I was raised in a super Catholic environment, went to Catholic school from first grade until now, am the oldest of seven kids, and have you ever heard of an Italian American who wasn’t Catholic?
But that wouldn’t really be why I am who I am. As one of my patron saints, Therese of Lesieux, is reported to have said on her death bed: everything is grace. So why am I who I am? Because God loves me terribly. Because at the tender age of seven My Lord and Creator consummated his love for me when I received my First Communion. Because only a little after that I went to a charismatic ecumenical camp and received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because after that those gifts were imprinted on the very fabric of my soul by Confirmation. Because no matter how much of a whore of Babylon I’ve been, my Lord, my God, my Lover, has made it crystal clear that He loves me and there’s nothing I can do about it.
So: EVERYTHING IS GRACE. I’m Christian because of God’s grace. And here’s the funny thing: I’m also trans* because of God’s grace, which is something I need to keep reminding myself of.
This isn’t your normal sort of testimony. Most high school and college retreat talks follow the tried-and-true format I’m sure we’re all familiar with: first I was a bad sinner, then I had a religious experience, and now I’m a happy, healthy, wealthy person. For why this is bad theology, read the Book of Job. Or the Gospel. Or crack open the Bible just once – pick a page, any page. Unfortunately, this isn’t the story of most queer people, so we’re left out of most religious retreats unless we have a dubious “ex-gay” or “ex-trans” narrative to tell – how I used to be demented, but then my Church prayed the gay away, and now I’m normal.
The problem is that as far as I can tell, these kind of narratives are absolute lies. I don’t know, maybe the ‘conversion therapy’ approach has worked for someone somewhere, but as far as I can tell this is a convenient way for people to not really deal with the struggles of being queer head-on.
So what kind of narrative do I have to give? Just my life. That’s it. Like most human lives, it doesn’t have a prologue or inciting incident or climax. It’s just a string of events tied together by the simple fact that I exist and that God loves me through all of it. God loves me and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Let’s start with what it meant to be a transgender child. I lived a double life growing up. I wasn’t like some gender variant males who clearly assert themselves from an early age by insisting on playing with barbies and easy bake ovens. I knew from the very beginning what my duties were, who I was expected to be, the kind of behavior that earned me love and respect, so I was utterly silent the entire time about what was going on inside me. But when I had a spare moment and no one was looking, I would duck into a closet or around a corner and furtively try on a dress.
Now don’t get me wrong: I had a happy childhood, but I grew up this way, pretending to be a perfect, well-behaved conformist child, but no one – and I’m surprised about this, because I ‘acted out’ so often – no one ever caught on to my secret. No one knew that I was always excited to go to the ————-’s house because they had a wig and a certain pink dress. No one knew that even though I emulated Luke Skywalker in the living room, behind closed doors I asked my sister to trade roles with me and let me be Princess Leia.
Then puberty hit and I immediately drowned in what was then inexplicable depression. I envied the perfect cisgender girls with their normal female development, and I had no idea why. I was terrified about a sudden obsession I had with the feminine self-image that was day by day emerging in me. There was no language to talk about what I was experiencing. All I could do is assume that this was normal, that all my close guy friends secretly wanted to be girls. That or I assumed I was the only one in the world like me – the lone perverted mutant.
Eventually I found out what ‘transgender’ meant, but my exposure was still only to the underbelly of the trans world: shemale porn stars and pedophiles with pantyhose fetishes. This is what I thought I was – some sort of deviant. But through all this, I was alive and God loved me.
Eventually I came to the point where I couldn’t deny where the pain was coming from. Behind all the acting out and freaking out was a person inside me that was dying daily. I would look in the mirror and see her, see this little four-year-old girl weeping at me, begging me to stop murdering her, begging me to let her breathe for one moment. I would look at myself in the mirror and see these sad, lonely, hurt, unloved, starved eyes that were mine but not mine. I kept pushing her away, saying “Not today, maybe never. I’m sorry, but you just ruin everything! I’m sorry, but it’s your fault I’m not loveable!” Through all this, I was alive and God loved me.
I tried everything in my power to push that part of my soul down for good. I had to change myself! I did everything in my power to “embrace my masculinity.” I became a Teddy-Roosevelt-inspired, weight-lifting, protein-guzzling, dapper-dan-wearing, swing-dancing, dirt-loving, super-heterosexual philosopher bro. I did everything I could to do exactly what people would expect would fix my “problem”: not only did I embrace my masculinity, but I channeled my feminine side, playing the “sensitive guy” card for all it was worth. But I never succeeded at doing anything other than method act.
Eventually I got so depressed that I knew I had to go see a therapist. At my first meeting, after going through a laundry list of problems like panic attacks and low self esteem, I finally told the therapist “I’m transgender.” It was the first time I’d used those words.
It was like a dam breaking in my soul. Suddenly everything made sense, and there was such joy about finally giving some air to the trapped part of my soul. But then I also became overwhelmed by the fact that the entire façade I had built around myself was crumbling down. Gone were the dreams of being a happily married straight cisgender imitation of Hugh Jackman.
Flash forward a few months, and I decide to tell my parents. This was fall break of this school year. I pulled them aside and with some difficulty told them I’m transgender. I then explained all I’d learned for years about what this meant for me. I deliberately avoided talking about transitioning, the idea of me taking estrogen so I can pass as a girl. Somehow, despite me avoiding the topic, they still ended up fixating on the idea of transitioning. They told me then and there that the only explanation for my transgender “delusions” is the lies of Satan.
There still seemed room for growth, though, so I gave them some space and then wrote them a 27-page letter spelling out as carefully and intelligently I could all I knew about being trans – my own experience, scientific research on the subject, etc. My parents are generally very intelligent and moderate people, so I thought they would respond well to a very thoughtful break-down of what’s what. But right before New Years, they pulled me aside and said they wanted to talk to me. Sitting me down, they informed me once again that they’d thought about it, read my letter, and come to the brilliant conclusion that all this was a Satanic farce and that I’m more or less possessed by demons.
A few days later they came back to me and told me that they felt the need to out me to my grandpa. Now, a bit of background about my grandpa: he is one of the most reactionary ultra-conservative people I know. He also happens to pay for pretty much my entire college education. Their logic was that since he pays for my tuition with certain plans in mind for my future, it would be unethical of my parents to accept his money if my life is clearly going down an immoral path, despite my reassurances that I’m still discerning how to live my life.
So after informing me – not asking me – that they’re going to out me to the person they even admitted is the last person in the world to understand trans issues, the next day they set off on a five hour car trip to visit my grandparents in person. (Talk about desperation). I got the verdict the next day, and it was blackmail. I had two “choices”: (1) drop out of school, or (2) continue to have my tuition paid under the condition that I go to see a local reparative therapist.
For those who don’t know, reparative or ‘conversion’ therapy is therapy aimed at changing queer people – in the case of gay people, to change their sexual orientation, and in the case of transgender people, to fix their “gender issues” and remove unwanted “effeminate” or “butch” behavior. It’s agenda-driven psychology with no real clinical backing. In fact, all evidence suggests that reparative therapy is inherently harmful.
It wasn’t really a choice. After all, considering the unemployment and homelessness rates for trans people, I need a college degree from my university if I’ll ever have any hope for a job. So I’ve been going every week to see a local reparative therapist.
Things could be worse. The therapist knows he’s not in the most ethical situation in the world, so he walks on eggshells and constantly defers to me, and I’ve been keeping our sessions on innocuous subjects like how to get on a better sleep schedule. But it still sucks that my parents are sending me to this quack, and that I have to spend my precious emotional energy on playing psychological cat and mouse.
My faith has obviously been a huge contention for me. I’ve always been as Catholic as can be, but I’ve been challenged by the fact that the clergy of the Church basically think I don’t exist. There isn’t an official teaching on transgenderism or gender transition yet, but the almost universal consensus among most conservative Catholics is that since Genesis says “God made them male and female,” it must be as straightforward as that, and everyone with a penis grows into a masculine man and everyone with a vagina grows into a feminine woman. According to the mainstream Christian position on the subject, literally everything about me, not only my sexual orientation, but also my relationship to society, my self image, my desire for how to dress or express myself, my hopes and dreams for the future, everything is disordered. I am a walking mistake.
But I still believe, somehow, that the Church if nothing else is the bride of Christ. I believe that God loves this bizarre, neurotic mess of saints and sinners, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
So why would I reveal all this about myself? I’ve never liked those testimonies that basically sound like a pity party. Isn’t that what I’m doing? Well, when I first started to write this talk, it was originally going to be about all the wonderful things I’ve learned from being transgender. I was going to talk about how because I’m transgender now I have a deeper sense of self and I know that people are more than what they seem to be, and bla bla bla bla blaaaa. But as I prayed about what to say, I realized that right now, at this point in my life, there’s really only one kind of testimony I can give, and it’s the most basic and important kind.
So what kind of testimony is that? Well, I can’t stand here and give an “It Gets Better” testimony, because for me it hasn’t gotten better yet. There are others – many awesome, incredible people out there – who can testify to the fact that it does in fact get better. And granted, this summer I’m moving to ——– to start a new life, so things are about to drastically improve. But I’m not there yet.
And I can’t give a testimony about self-esteem. Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to come back to this school and talk about how to achieve proper self-esteem. But that time is not right now. Right now, when Christ says “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark12:31) I struggle because I don’t even know how to love myself. Do any of us?
But Christ knew this was a problem. When he was first asked about love by the Pharisees, he pulled the classic “love your neighbor as yourself,” right from the Old Testament (Lev 19:18). It wasn’t anything new; he was simply repeating what the Jewish people already knew. But later in John’s Gospel, when his disciples were ready, when Jesus had already been with them for some time, he gave them a new revelation. He says: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Not “as you love yourself,” but rather “as I have loved you.” Or as John’s first epistle says: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10).
I admit I feel like a shell of a human being right now. In the last few semesters I have found myself stripped of all the things I thought were certain. The love of my family, the understanding of my friends, the good opinion of my fellow Catholics, my pristine heterosexual cisgender future, the security of my Church’s knowledge, everything seems taken from me. Even my own ability to love is depleted. So what’s left when all these securities hang in the balance? Where is my value?
What remains at the bottom of the barrel is one simple truth: God loves me, and there is nothing I can do about it. God loves you, and there is nothing you can say, do, think, be, feel, or want that will stop Him from loving you. As Paul says in Romans:
“Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:35-39)
And in Ephesians:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth… to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:18-19)
I could point to a million other passages that scream out something that no spiritual text should have to tell us because it is the heart of our existence! The fact that you exist, period, and continue to exist is already evidence of this amazing love. If God hates you, why does he keep you alive? If you’re a mistake, then why were you born? If you’re an abomination, then why does your heart still beat? Ephesians says this love surpasses knowledge. What does that mean? It’s speaking to the fact that this love, this eternal love that is always enveloping your very existence, is unconditional. It’s not conditional on what you do or how you feel or who you love or how you identify – it’s founded in your very existence. And it surpasses knowledge because God’s love isn’t conditional on you being aware of it or feeling it or knowing it. Even if you have an off day or year that prevents your flimsy human heart from “feeling” gushy about God – or that God has the warm fuzzies for you – that love is STILL THERE! You are, therefore you are loved. You breathe, therefore you are loved. You eat, therefore you are loved. You don’t feel loved, therefore you are loved.
I’ve spent truly countless hours of my life pouring over queer theology, philosophy, psychology, and biology trying to justify my own existence. But at the end of the day I’m always left with the same undeniable principle: I EXIST! I’M HERE! Hello, God made me! Hey, no lightning bolt has smitten me yet! I exist, I’m here, and the most I can do about it is commit suicide. But since I believe we have this thing called the soul, even suicide is ineffective at ridding me of this gift of love called existence. Even when I think I’m unloveable enough to not even exist, God seems to think I’m worth keeping around, because apparently it’s good enough that I’m just here, even when I feel like an exile. Apparently it’s good enough for Him that I simply be. Be me.
I wish I had beautiful, lyrical wisdom to spout at you all about being true to yourself and living life to the fullest, but the fact is that on a really basic level you can never not be true to yourself. You can never not live life if you’re alive. The fact that you are sitting here means that the Divine Love has already elected to adore you into existence and tenderly sustain that existence through thick and thin.
So I could probably talk for hours about the hidden social and spiritual advantages of being transgender, of all the beautiful things I’ve learned, but at the end of the day it’s real simple: I am me, I am transgender, I am, and God loves me. Everything is grace. Everything is a part of this constant gift of love that we call ‘life.’ Even when everything is stripped down, even at the moment when things seem the most hopeless, that’s when the beautiful truth becomes most apparent. Even being stripped of everything is beautiful – is a gift. Start with this: you are queer, you exist, and yet God loves you. And not yet he loves you, but he just loves you, queerness and all. I’m telling you, you can sit in the bottom of Hell, and God’s still there loving you. And you might as well just accept it, because there’s really nothing you can do about it.