THIS IS AN OLDER ARTICLE THAT NEVER GOT POSTED ALTHOUGH SOME FORM OF IT EXISTED FOR YEARS. I HAVE DECIDED TO PUBLISH IT BELATEDLY AS IT IS ESSENTIALLY COMPLETE AS-IS.
Waiting for Adoption: Transsexual Persons in the Life of the Church
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. – Romans 8:22-24a
Elephants in the Room
I’ve heard back-and-forths among conservative Christians that transsexual people are, by their very presence, unsettling. Concerned mothers cross to the other side of the street with their child when a clearly mannish person walks down the sidewalk in a dress, doing their best to avert the child’s eyes. My own relatives lean on the idea that their disgust is “natural” and “only fitting” – the inescapable welling-up of Natural Law in their hearts which demands expression.
I’m reminded of Melinda Selmys’ experience with a right-wing Canadian talk show, where the host pointed to an image of a less-than-gorgeous transsexual teacher and asked: “Would you want this person teaching your kids?” The host was appealing to the viewers’ “instinct” of disgust; the problem with the trans woman was summed up by her supposed ugliness.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this attitude more than Fr. Londecker’s recent post “The Devil of Detroit and Caitlyn Jenner,” where he compares the bodies of transsexual people to the androgynous statue of Baphomet unveiled in Detroit. Caitlyn Jenner’s transition is, in his mind, “a visual illustration of what is going on” in our culture, namely a Satanic movement.
All these responses fail to acknowledge transsexual persons as persons. Comparing a human person’s body with the visage of Satan is a religiously dressed version of objectification. The word stigma comes to mind – a word closely related to stigmata, the wounds of Christ. I can’t help but recall Isaiah’s messianic prophecy:
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Rejecting someone based on their appearance – in Christ’s case the scourged, bloody trappings of a condemned criminal – is not what St. Teresa of Avila had in mind when she said: “Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks with compassion on this world.” It seems ironic that the eyes of Christ, which endured a throng of jeering faces on His march to Cavalry, would now look on others with such scorn.
As a transsexual woman in the Church, I can attest to the impact of these gazes. It’s difficult for me to slip into quiet adoration when the furtive glares of my fellow pew-sitters constantly demand: “What is that thing doing here?” The elephant in the room isn’t my “lifestyle,” “disorder,” “agenda,” or whatever other calamity I’m expected to bring upon the Church; I’m an elephant in the flesh.
Despite how it may appear, I didn’t choose (per se) to be the proverbial sore thumb. My experience of being transsexual – sometimes at odds with the broader transgender movement – is of crippling corporeal dysphoria and an inability to carry on one step further as a boy. I’ve tried to go to Church in guy clothes, but my experience of the liturgy is overtaken by panic attacks and sobbing fits. For whatever reason that His Providence may have decreed, living in “guy mode” is a practical impossibility for me.
We don’t know for sure what causes transsexuality. Several studies have suggested a biological cause similar to an intersex condition. Some pseudo-scientific opponents still blame gender dysphoria on childhood trauma, although in my case and many others the trauma theory falls short: I was raised in a good Catholic family with solid gender roles and no abuse to speak of. Whatever the cause, transsexual people happen, and always have irrespective of the modern transgender “trend.” Transsexual people still existed when it meant exile or death to be transsexual. That alone should speak volumes. It should also speak volumes that even with trans issues now on the front cover of magazines, it still means exile and death for many.
As of right now the Church has no official teaching on transsexuality. The issue is conceived as mainly pastoral, and I think this is a good start. When Christ’s disciples asked of a blind man “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”, he responded: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (Jn 9:2-3). He deflected their etiological musings to a more productive end: witnessing the glory of God in the blind man.
Theories about transsexuality can change. Whether transsexuality is framed as a disorder or a natural variation in human sex development is secondary to the fact that transsexuals exist.
The question then remains: how can the Church witness to the glory of God in transsexual people?
Finding Space with Mary
My favorite book of the Old Testament has always been Ruth. Maybe it’s the Eucharistic symbolism in the bread Boaz (a type of Christ) offers to Ruth, or her Magdalene prostration at his feet. Maybe it’s because, like Ruth, I follow in the wake of the woman laborers, picking up the scraps of grain that fall beneath their dresses. I can think of no better analogy for being a transsexual woman among the natural-born daughters of the Church. Like the Canaanite woman, I find myself crying out: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28). I may be accursed – in some peoples’ estimation a “facsimile” of womanhood – but I’m blessed that these sacramental scraps are, like Tolkien’s lembas bread, disproportionately sufficient for the next step.
The question is if it’s God’s will for transsexual persons to barely subsist, or if he has a greater abundance in store for us?
Like Ruth, I’m something of an orphan. I’m husbandless, without inheritance, gathering crumbs in the wake of the community. Luckily, I’m also like Ruth in that I’m not alone. Just as Ruth clung to her mother-in-law Naomi, I find comfort in my own mother-by-adoption: the Virgin Mary. If my words are propelled by anything, it’s the assurance of love I’ve found in her embrace.
Sustained by this unconditional love, I’m free to be honest about where I came from and where I’m going. I know I was born male by most definitions of the word – I’m no denier of biology. I know that the formal structure of the Church is arranged according to a canonical definition of sex, and this arrangement determines the possibilities of individual vocation. I’m not writing to remake the Church in an androgynous image, or to assume that my sense of identity automatically trumps all notions of order within the Religious Orders. What I want to ask is if even within the normative scaffolding of the Ecclesia, the Church can make room for Mary’s poorest daughters and sons. The exceptions don’t disprove the rule, but neither does the rule abolish the exceptions.
The Church proclaims the goodness of subsidiarity – allowing things to develop at the lowest and most intimate levels first – and I want to witness how I’ve already seen this subsidiarity take place in my own life. Within the intimate corners of the Church I’ve already found pastoral love in a way I could never have imagined. In my spiritual life it’s Mary, the practical Nazarene homemaker who encompasses all with her signature Jewish hospitality; it is she who welcomes me into Christ’s family. In my day-to-day life it’s the women of the Church, my sisters in faith, who have signified this Marian mercy to me in person. In many instances the daughters of the Church, my close friends, have taken me in as a sister and fellow daughter. Even if there’s no place for me in canon law, there’s often a warm pew beside one of Mary’s natural-born daughters.
Mary’s sons have also allowed me a place in the communio of the Church. The John the Evangelists of my life, the men who are such gentlemen and treat me with kindness, afford me a place by their side in worship of the Eucharistic Lord. They will always be my brothers by nature, but I am their sister by loving choice.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In this case it took a community of male and female friends to give my wandering soul a home. I’m not a Catholic woman because I was born into the female sex. I’m a Catholic woman precisely when Mary’s community of women and men in the Church finds a place for me to worship. I’m a Catholic woman when the women of the Church take me in as their own. It’s not an issue of metaphysics, but adoption.
The Spirit of Adoption
Mary, spouse of the Holy Spirit, is the Queen of unlikely inheritors stretching back to the beginning. It was Sarah, the post-menopausal wife of Abraham, who became mother of the Hebrews. It was Jacob, the effeminate second-born of Isaac, who inherited his father’s blessing by way of disguise. It wasn’t Aaron but his younger brother Moses, the coward with a speech impediment, who gave voice to the captives in Egypt. Mary herself gave birth to the Messiah despite having no relations with a man – an unlikely path to royalty if there ever was one. Through every epoch of salvation history leading up to the Annunciation, we see the line of inheritance swerve sharply left and right, away from the expected course.
This is carried on into the ministry of Jesus, who spent more time among prostitutes and IRS agents than the priestly class. He arrived in poverty, seated atop a beast of burden, hailed by beggars and former demoniacs. He came as savior of the dispossessed and broken, even the Gentiles. St. Peter announced by inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). The universal Church was born in the multilingual chaos of Pentecost, and coalesced upon this proclamation of inclusion.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” says Jesus (Jn 14:18), speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Spurred on by this same spirit, the Apostle Paul exclaims: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15). Even while God’s inheritance still belonged to the Jews under the law and by birth (Rom 9:4-5, Gal 4:4-5), God predestined all baptized people for adoption “according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph 1:5-6).
The Spirit of Adoption bestows inheritance on us not by legal, canonical, or ethnic status, but by God’s intentionality (CCC 1998). It is by His will, His love, His grace, His compassion, that we come into our own as children of God. This is what adoption means: the choice of familial relationship, not by birth but by love.
We see this narrative of adoption play out in the macrocosm as much as the microcosm. In Adam humanity descended into sin and death and lost its Divine Life. In Jesus humanity also descended into sin and death, even into Hell itself, but by this same descent was brought to new life. Through Christ, God appropriates all the worst of the world and turns it around toward a heavenly dimension. The Passion – that unforgivable sin of deicide – becomes the mechanism by which all sin is forgiven.
The sign of the Spirit of Adoption is right there in Christ’s wounds after the Resurrection. Even in His glorified state, Christ retains the stigmata of his passage into death. What would otherwise be a sign of stigma has become a symbol of glory.
The Resurrection reorients our entire worldview, perhaps the fabric of the world itself, and we begin to see the signs of future glory everywhere we look. It’s these visible stigmata that fire love’s urgent longings and stir the Spirit of Adoption within us.
Perhaps nothing speaks to me more as a transsexual woman than those groanings of the Spirit mentioned in Paul. All of creation, and we ourselves, sigh inwardly with labor pains leading up to our inheritance. As I lie awake at night with palpable sex dysmorphia wracking my body, the “wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” becomes all too literal (Rom 8:22-24). No hylomorphic understanding of my flesh can eclipse the eschatological, mystical dimension to this agony.
I, like all transsexual people, groan with anticipation for the adoption of my body. Perhaps it’s my fate to continue that wait unabated, without solace, until the coming of the Kingdom. However, if the Kingdom of Heaven is truly among us, can the Church not bear up the “first fruits” of this adoption even now? Can the Church take in the bodies and souls of transsexual persons and grant them community that is life-giving?
For the first time we have the chance to step away from the question “What’s the deal with those transsexuals?” and engage the question “How do we minister to our transsexual persons?” Salvation is a communal affair, as much for transsexual people as anyone else. How can transsexual people benefit from the Trinitarian communio of ecclesial life? And what special insight and spirituality can transsexuals offer the Church?
Many transsexual people I’ve met are deeply spiritual, even mystical, yet these same people who feel a natural attunement to the spiritual life also avoid the inevitable trauma attached to their participation in organized religion. Rather than confronting these people as rebels against God’s created order, can we encounter them as orphans without an easy home?
It seems that thus far all effort to “cure” adult transsexuality is in vain. If such remains the case, do we have the endurance to live with that tension? Do we have the faith to let Christ transform this stigma into a stigmata, this crucifixion into a charism? Will the Church’s only response to transsexual crucifixion be like the Pharisees who teased Christ to come down from the cross, or can the Church wait alongside transsexuals with bated breath, hoping in communion for “the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18)?
Instead of tossing transsexual bodies outside the Church walls like so many statues of Baphomet, my hope is she can begin to witness to the image of God living within our very flesh. Perhaps one day transsexuals will be afforded the dignity of legitimate sonship and daughterhood, not as “genetic” inheritors, but as inheritors by the grace of God. This I hope and pray.
Our Lady, Mother of Orphans, intercede for us.
Is There Room For Sarah? – Elizabeth Scalia
Trans-formations – Melinda Selmys
What Does Being a Catholic Transwoman Look Like? – Aoife Assumpta Hart
All Bible verses are taken from the NRSVCE.