This is the text of a talk I gave as part of a panel on “Transgender in the Church” at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA on February 27, 2016. You can order the audio here (#5-12).
Thank you all for being here and showing interest in this topic. Really, truly, thank you.
All of a sudden everyone is talking about “trans” issues… and I’m like wait, that’s me. I mean… my story’s kinda weird and everything, but whaaat!? And the thing is for 21 years no one cared about that story. It was a “phase,” or I was “experimenting.”
There’s the activist side of me, the philosophy major that kinda wants to give you the ABCs of trans issues. After all, we’re at an educator’s conference. But the thing is what we’re dealing with here isn’t primarily a movement or phenomenon; what we’re dealing with here are the lives of trans people, individuals made in the image and likeness of God.
And I really do understand how foreign the trans experience is to most people. My hope for this panel is that you will walk away with greater understanding, but even if we fail at our job, please keep the Gospel message in your heart. The empathy that Christ demonstrated – which is the vocation of every Catholic – does not presuppose understanding. It only presupposes charity. So even if you never really wrap your head around trans issues, remember we are people.
It’s in that capacity that I’m here. As Arthur said I am a writer and amateur theologian, and I do happen to be transgender. I’m a transwoman, which means I was born with apparent male physiology, but underneath that was a female self-concept and identity. I have since “transitioned” to live according to my gender identity.
But above all I’m just a young Catholic woman with a devotion to Mary, an obsession with Carmelites, and an ache for motherhood. I’m not here with a conspiratorial agenda, although there are things I hope I can show you. At the end of the day I’m just a person who wakes up every day as me – I put on my bra one boob at a time like, well, about half of you.
Now it may seem like a truism the fact that hello I’m a human being, but it’s hardly what you get from the rhetoric being thrown around, especially in Catholic circles. The ceaseless buzz of scapegoating shouldn’t even be hurtful because it’s so farfetched – and yet it all becomes coins for the slot machine of my religious scrupulosity, because this stuff [see above] trained me as as early as I could learn anything to be ashamed of my existence.
I was born August 31, 1992 to loving Catholic parents who welcomed me into the world as their first-born of what is currently seven kids and counting. My childhood was generally happy – full of affection, no abuse of any kind . . .
However, some of my earliest memories were of gender displacement. My parents never explicitly enforced gender boundaries, but from the beginning I had a sense that I was different and that not only was it not good to be different, but I also had to actively hide. I remember eagerly putting on dresses and twirling in front of the mirror when I was 4 years old, which is pretty much the earliest I can remember anything. From the very beginning, I was literally in the closet. I’m the reason that term exists.
I never asserted myself as a girl when I was a child. Not only was I an easygoing kid who kinda went with the flow, but I also had no language to describe my general experience of unease. It may seem like a cliché, but it wasn’t until country singer Shania Twain came out with her hit single “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” in 1997 that I had anything outside my own head to describe my feelings.
I’m Italian-American, so naturally my family read all of Tommy dePaolo’s Strega Nona books. My favorite was Strega Nona’s Magic Lessons, where the protagonist Big Anthony dresses up as a girl named Antonina in order to receive magic training from the town witch. While Big Anthony ultimately makes a fool of himself and doesn’t fit in… that moment when he stood in the doorway as Antonina, a situation I’d dreamt about, caused an articulation of feelings that were too massive to express.
When I hit puberty I descended into full-scale dysmorphia. It felt like my body and mind were shooting off in completely different directions; as my body became more masculine, the alarm bells in my brain that said “help, I’m a girl” became louder and louder.
But I was born physiologically male, right? So what can I mean that I “feel like a girl.” It sounds so wishy-washy.
Unfortunately we’re still inventing the necessary language to describe what that means, so in the meantime we just have silly soundbyted clichés to fill in the narrative gap. You may have heard the term “woman trapped in a man’s body” to describe someone like myself. I don’t think it’s that simple, but let me try at expressing it from a more experiential angle.
Freshman year of high school, I discovered in biology class what intersex people were. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, intersex people are those who are born with a mix of sexed characteristics, like individuals who are born with both male-typical xy chromosomes and a female-typical vagina. There are many steps to complete sexual differentiation. In all likelihood, if what the current research suggests is true, I probably have some kind of neurological intersex condition. At the time, I did not know this was even a possibility.
When I heard about the possibility of girls born with ambiguous genitalia that doctors surgically “normalize” to look male, I was immediately certain by the earthquake in my soul that I was an intersex woman. When I found out I wasn’t intersex, I almost cried, because I was losing the only word I’d ever found to describe myself.
I want you to reflect for a second on how visceral this experience was. The word “intersex” spontaneously brought up feelings I couldn’t even begin to articulate. Not that I wanted to become a girl or express stereotypical femininity, but that my body felt like a girl’s body that had been altered to look like a boy’s. That I was in fact a girl – a boyish intersex girl, but a girl nonetheless. The feeling wasn’t so much in my head as in my bones.
It was a surreal experience changing in the boy’s locker room in high school and feeling like a fly on the wall. When they verbally undressed girls, I felt naked. (FYI, if you want a good movie about the trans experience, watch She’s the Man – the recent adaption of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It’s far more accurate to my experience than the crap Hollywood puts out.)
And that was just being a closeted girl in a guy’s world. There was also the constant influx from figures of authority—teachers and priests—of talking about gender-variant people like they were some army of Satan. Between guys on my soccer team calling people like me shemales and trannies, and my very role models calling us fags and the homosexual agenda, I was thoroughly hemmed in.
At first being trans was so much my normal that I assumed that all my close guy friends felt like and wanted to live as girls. It never occurred to me that gender could be natural, a state of being, because for me it was always a performance or hard-won virtue.
As I became more aware of the difference though, I tried everything in my power to bear this cross the way I was told.
Stage 1: embrace machismo! I became a Teddy-Roosevelt-inspired, weight-lifting, protein-guzzling, dapper-dan-wearing, swing-dancing, dirt-loving, super-heterosexual philosopher bro.
Stage 2 was channel my feminine side, and I playing the “sensitive guy” card for all it was worth.
Stage 3 was spiritual purging: I went to multiple priests regarding my gender issues, although all of them basically told me it was temporary and I just needed to find me a pretty wife. When I went to my parish pastor about it, he told me I needed to further embrace my masculinity, and that working out would help. So I worked out. A lot. Rinse-repeat. I tried healing ministries, confession 3 times a week, multiple therapists, and even at one point an official Church-appointed exorcist (who was skeptical but humored my scruples).
I spent a lot of time before the Eucharist begging Christ to heal me, but an interesting thing kept happening. I went to my school chapel begging Jesus to be my brother-in-arms and defend me against the wiles of Satan and those effeminate demons, but no matter how determined I was to see Christ as my masculine role model, I always melted when I read The Song of Songs and heard those words: “You are beautiful, my beloved. Your eyes are like doves behind your veil” (1:15). I’d ask Jesus to remove my gender dysphoria, and instead he came swooping down like a boyfriend to tell me I’m quite alright.
For 20 years I ran from that embrace and tried to lift what I thought was my cross, but time after time it crushed me into the Earth, no matter how hard I tried or how many rosaries I said. I pleaded for the grace to be the person my family wanted me to be.
By my junior year of college I was losing the will to live. It was actually a Catholic healing apostolate, the Unbound prayer model by Heart of the Father ministries, that began to open me up for divine surgery. I went there wanting to crush my unspeakable leprosy once and for all. What I got instead was…
… an awakening.
Almost unnoticed at first, after that ministry I was changed. Parts of me that had been closed down my entire life began to open up and receive daylight. I finally put words to the thing I’d been hiding all those years: that not only was I transgender, but that I wanted to live.
In transitioning, I didn’t throw away my cross; I traded the anchor tied around my ankles for the cross Christ wanted me to bear.
What cross is that, exactly? Let’s lift our heads for a moment above the small plodding narrative of my own life. While trans issues may seem “in vogue” right now (many of you are hearing about the existence of people like me for the first time) the reality isn’t quite as glamorous as a Time Magazine cover makes it look.
Trans people are 4x more likely to be in a low-income bracket – the place I see the most other trans people is on the bus. The unemployment rate is twice as high.
Trans people are twice as likely to be homeless, and 19% of trans people have been homeless at some point. A few weeks ago my friend Jessi, a transwoman who is currently homeless, crashed on my couch because she couldn’t go to any of the homeless shelters since they were discriminatory and would harass her and make her sleep with the men.
Transgender persons, especially transgender women of color, are vastly more likely than the general population to be murdered. While an exact figure is impossible to pin down, one estimate puts the number at 1 in 12 trans persons will be murdered. The more modest statistics floating around there still agree transgender homicide is practically its own phenomenon.
80% of trans students feel unsafe at school. 61% of transgender students report harassment, assault, or expulsion for reasons of gender identity. In grades K-12, 78% report harassment, 35% were physically assaulted, 12% were sexually assaulted, and 6% were expelled. From kindergarten up through grad school, 15% were driven to leave school because of harassment. (Injustice At Every Turn, 2011).
Trans youth with unsupportive parents account for the bulk of these statistics. 75% of trans youth with unsupportive parents report depression, and 57% attempt suicide. 57%! That number goes down to 4% when parents are supportive. Also keep in mind this study doesn’t account for successful suicides, only attempts. Anecdotally, the vast majority of trans people I’ve talked to who’ve been severed from their family have come from religious homes.
On Dec 28, 2014, a trans teen named Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Her suicide note, a plea for change in our society, auto-posted on her tumblr after she died. Leelah mentioned her parents in the letter, who pulled her out of school and sent her to a reparative therapist – a Christian counselor intent on changing her. Her parents, citing religious beliefs, felt it was their parental duty to send Leelah through these measures.
Now Leelah’s story made headlines, and for that fact alone I’ve seen people dismiss her tragedy as a pawn piece in a political agenda.
On Dec 28, 2013, I was also being sent through reparative therapy by my parents. I was given a choice: lose funding for my undergraduate education and be pulled out of school, or go to a therapist whose job it was to “fix” my transsexuality. While I understand their motivations – which were essentially to save my eternal soul – the therapy was traumatic. It replaced a scholarly or even charitable conception of the human person for an agenda (speaking of the devil – literally).
While in therapy I contemplated suicide weekly, and made active plans to end my life on 16 Feb 2014. Like Leelah, I was going to step out in front of traffic, or even a stray university vehicle. It was a providential phone call from a concerned friend that saved me.
Well here I am today, and obviously the therapy didn’t work at all, not unlike the 20 years before that of all-night rosary vigils. Since then I’ve witnessed the veracity of the aforementioned statistics. I’ve been broke; disowned by members of my immediate and extended family; cut off from ever seeing my younger siblings again; abandoned by childhood friends. From what I can tell, this story of loss is a dime a dozen among Christian trans youth.
There are lives in the balance here, folks. People are dying, and it’s often at the hands of completely well-meaning Christians. In a culture that not only permits, but even sanctions and sanctifies discrimination, I like many others amassed deep scars and heavy baggage that will likely bear forever.
I remember going to a youth leader at my Church and confiding in him my dark secret. He seemed annoyed that, as he put it, “God sends all the fags his way,” and before telling me what perils of hell hung over me, he said if he was in charge he would have all the fags killed. I was in such a desperate position I didn’t even question him, or ask if maybe God was putting so-called “fags” in his life to change him.
I know this is heavy stuff, but it’s not all tombstones and dirges. Underneath the wounding crossfire of this senseless culture war is an undercurrent of the Spirit working in the lives of individual trans people, their families, friends, and allies.
My time is almost up, and you may have noticed I’ve talked very little about the process of my physical transition. This is not without reason; I think oftentimes people are unhealthily fixated on the mechanics of it; and while okayyyy it’s interesting, that’s distracting from the important stuff. For me this medically supervised treatment – while certainly magical – was not about nailpolish and dress-shopping, even if I like both those things.
More than anything my transition knit together the deeper stitching in my soul, of an un-shattered heart. Ever since I began my transition, even though many of my worst fears have come true, I’ve found a joy I never knew I could have. Even now PTSD-stricken and a lot poorer, I have more than ever a God who loves me. That light that was previously covered under a bushel is now exposed. I’ve experienced the grace of God not only in my dusty soul which now receives the light of day, but in my body with now stirs for the first time as with new life.
As soon as I started hormone therapy to fix the hormonal and cognitive dissonance that has plagued me my entire life, I knew: this is no cosmetic procedure, and it’s no mere medical palliative, and it’s certainly not a Barbie-doll make-over. I knew that I’m participating in God’s saving grace even now, that he has not abandoned me, but that he desires good things for me. I’ve watched the Walls of Jericho crumble down around my heart, and I’ve seen the little girl in me, who was stuffed in a closet-sized coffin; I’ve seen her dance.
I do not think God made a mistake. I think God knew all along the crazy journey he would send me on, how he the potter would re-form and re-shape me into the vessel he desired, not the vessel I or others tried to make me become. Even while in the words of Paul I await with eager longing for the adoption and the redemption of my whole body, even now in this life I see my Creator’s redemption at work in my very flesh; Christ’s DNA is in me by the most practical grace imaginable, grace as substantial and corporeal as the Eucharist we eat and incorporate into our bloodstream every Mass. In the words of my friend Charissa, a transgender Christian woman and poet:
I am standing on the shores of one land, a land of works and death, a land of despair and ultimately vanity. I belong to another kingdom, another land, and I am transitioning there. I am a child of the King of Kings. I am a transgender woman who is desiring to fully become all her King wants her to be. I am in an adventure, on a journey.
Thank you so much, and God bless you.
A quick reply.
And, I could not switch from you to http://charissagrace.com/about/ , easily. I kept trying. I kept failing.
It was like I was into you, so much, that coming out of you was just a violation.
Three times I tried.
Finally, I went back and read your last words.
Oh! She is speaking as though Charissa’s words are her words.
Still, and yes Totally Mystically done, the separation was hard at first.
The Poem makes perfect sense.
Your story makes perfect sense.
LOVE, …me., …. .
Sent from my iPhone
Reblogged this on Charissa's Grace Notes and commented:
This is one of the most amazing things I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it enough. Please please PLEASE take the time to read this.
Thank you Anna…brilliant and beautiful like you.
thank you so much for this it gives me hope, i also am trans and could write a story much like this. Maybe one of these days I will be as free as you are but I have faced many of the same thngs you have
Your story is even more moving than I had expected, and the fact that you have kept your faith while meeting such “Christians” as that youth group leader is inspirational to me. It is ironic that Christianity in my case was part of the escape process from dysphoria, but I have struggled to reconcile that with the knowledge that many (if not most) in the church would consider me anathema. You have really helped me come to terms with that, and I am only sorry the process cost you so much. xxx
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As a trans catholic I think you would be the best to answer my apprehensions. I am also trans and was raised Catholic. I’ve been away from the church for the past two years or so and I sorta want to get back into the church. The only problem is my fear of the judgement I face with the most upfront representation of Catholics being my parents, who have made me feel like crap at times for just being trans. I’m just afraid of rather than finding the love of god that I am searching for, I will just find hate and fear. Advice?
To be honest, I cannot advise at this time for anyone to convert to Catholicism. I’m actually in the process of leaving the Church myself, after more abuse than I could handle (and some PTSD for the road). Although I will say this: even though I’m now strictly speaking agnostic, I still crave that liturgy and theology that had so much promise in the Church. IF you determine that the Catholic worldview is correct, then I honestly believe their theology/tradition/liturgy OUGHT to make them one of the best religions for trans people (if they were to actually carry their beliefs to their logical conclusions). They have the potential to give amazing meaning and solemnity to the trans experience. So if you decide to be Catholic, go on knowing your own personal spirituality within the Church may be very rich and beautiful. However, your co-religionists often won’t see it that way, and I doubt you’ll have long-lasting peace unless you find a particularly awesome parish. I’ve heard things from priests’ mouths that no person should ever have to hear.
If it’s Christianity that appeals to you, there are many awesome denominations that are accepting.