When Gender Dissonance and Faith Collide

A letter to the girl, a trans girl, who said she feels her sins are so great and that it is inherently wrong for her to be stealth in her church. She and her family had already left the parish where she was christened. Now, she wonders what to do in her new church because she feels wrong for being stealth while her faith and the mass yet bring her great solace.

Dear kindred soul,

Reading your post broke my heart. I understand. Maybe not all, but I can relate to much of what you’ve written asking for help to know what to do. Now, well into middle age, I still don’t always know what to do but I have a general direction and a plan: I make sure I have the support of family and those who love and respect me and like you, I reach out to ask for help when I need it, I live for today. I’ve maintained a sense of agnostic wonder about God while still seeking spiritual growth. To me, it is the not knowing, being at peace with the question and uncertainty that keeps me going. I also know not to waste my time on those who neither love nor respect me but above all, I know to love myself and to practice self-compassion even when it is tempting to do otherwise. To hell with self-blame and shame, they cycle off one another to feed off the destruction they cause within your soul.

Blame

Keeps the sad game going.

It keeps stealing all your wealth —

Giving it to an imbecile with

No financial skills.

Dear one,

Wise

Up.

— ‘The Sad Game’, poem By Hafiz

I’ve found in the process of ‘coming out,’ that above all else, I matter and deserve connexion and a family— Even Pope Francis has stated this. If being hated by some is a side effect of finding a much greater love and acceptance, I say it’s worth it — It’s certainly never stopped Christians. I cannot remember who said it but I would almost rather be hated by a few than inspire indiffernce.

Here’s a beautiful address on the perils of indifference, by the way.

Once you bring a secret into the light and speak it, own it unabashedly, no matter what others think, the monologue becomes conversation and relationship with others. At its core, this is really what the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession is about — to bring you back into communion with God and the Church. Although the Church would assert it is primarily about your relationship with God and then others, I opine that it is firstly about the relationship you have with yourself — they are all integrally linked but it must start from within yourself. It’s become a hackneyed sentiment usually phrased around self-love but it’s true: You cannot fully give of yourself to others unless you also possess a deep and abiding self-respect.

Mind you, the deepest and most fruitful confession I ever took was between me and my sponsor in a 12-step program — my Catholic confessions just did not compare. In that moment, I sat with another human being and voiced my deepest shames. In turn, he told me his wrongs and old shames and out of that, I realized I wasn’t unique in my own wrongs or my shame and that I myself was responsible for many of my own struggles. I also learned that I had much good within me that I could further develop because he showed me a practical example of how he did it. I cannot think of a Catholic priest who ever did that for me.

My sponsor didn’t force his values… or a dogma… or any kind of rules or system of belief on me; he listened and commented, gave experience-based suggestions, but never condemned or lectured. My ‘penance’ wasn’t simply to recite prayers but to go to the people I had wronged — including myself — and to take responsibility for how I’d caused harm. In a process of amends, I understood how I’d negatively affected others, acknowledged it to them and expressed sincere regret for it. Ultimately, that empathy allowed me the deep self-compassion, patience, and forgiveness to be able to bear being present in my own life — the shame dissolved and I began the process of living aloud.

But you haven’t done anything wrong by being ‘stealth ’— What you’ve done is be smart and safe. You’ve felt out the temperature of the crowd you are in and behaved accordingly. Frankly, that is what we all do, trans or cis, it’s a human survival mechanism. So far as your trans femininity goes, you have nothing for which to be ashamed because femininity isn’t the sole property of one sex nor is it shameful.

I reckon you’ll see this analogy as quite unrelated but I obviously do not. It simultaneously speaks to the Church’s view of women and the way it cherry-picks and assigns degrees of sinfulness within it’s own set of rules: Do you think for one moment that the women in your church who braid or otherwise style their hair, who wear makeup and jewelry or who have had plastic surgery, feel shame or an ounce of guilt over it? When they show up for Easter in beautiful spring hats and dresses, are they sinning? After all, in his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul told the women of the church,

“In like manner women, also in decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly attire, But as it becometh women professing godliness, with good works…For Adam was first formed; then Eve. And Adam was not seduced; but the woman being seduced, was in the transgression. Yet she shall be saved through childbearing; if she continue in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety.”

I don’t find being a woman or reveling in one’s womanhood, using cultural norms to express and identify it to others, sinful. When you look at some of the beautifully adorned vestments and habits worn by the clergy, one must wonder at the double standard. Of course, they hearken back to the Roman era and are steeped in tradition but when it’s said that the only thing Jesus owned was the simple robe on his back, I’m not convinced the vestments are modest or sober.

I look at your photograph you’ve posted o your article and even with a modest buzz cut and dress, I see a woman. In my book, if you live the life of a woman and the world sees, understands, and relates to you as a woman, you are a woman. Consider all the women who are born without a uterus or a vagina, those who may not have periods or be able to conceive. There are women with enlarged clitorises or those who never naturally develop breasts. Some women even just naturally look more masculine than some men — some cis women are being harassed and thrown out of restrooms over this public toilet insanity. We assume that every person we meet and experience to be a woman has all those attributes and experiences by which we define ‘woman’ and that their karyotypes are entirely ‘XX.’ We don’t carry testing kits or insist they have physical exams to prove the sex, DNA or hormone levels of the people we meet — at least not yet, not outside of professional sports. No, if I see someone who looks like a man or a woman, I assume they are what my senses and experience tell me they are and, unless they tell me otherwise, I address and respect them as such.

Are those people I just described required to catalogue their lives and bodily histories to every person they meet? Am I, are you? Would your church require that and a report on how all these people have been medically treated, to properly determine their sex and right to the gender they present to the world? Should their right to life and eligibility for acceptance and salvation be put before a board of review? That is certainly what they did to St. Joan of Arc.

Men and women, people of all bodily variations and experiences have been here at least since the dawn of written history and thus, so have gender -variant people. It says a lot about us that despite the consequences — the laughs, the jeers, the ostracizing, the beatings, the murders, the disappointments, the discrimination, the injunctions against us written in sacred texts, the laws put down against us, and all the hatred — that so many of us continue to choose to be ourselves.

But it is also understandable that many of us remain in the closet and may never come out. It’s understandable that many of us who have the gift of ‘passing’ choose to go ‘stealth’ and stay ‘stealth.’ Yet even the term stealth suggests some sleekit, transgressive indecency, a sneak, a trick, a lie and a con. You’ve done nothing wrong in choosing to be. You’ve done nothing wrong in choosing to be safe.

Now, you cannot control how others will respond to you, their thoughts, or their beliefs. People will judge you and want to set you straight — but to quote Luke, “how can you say to your brother, ‘let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?”

Some will admonish in critical and harsh judgement calling it “love,” “worry” and “concern” for your spiritual well-being. Others will outright loathe and hate you and not bother hiding it. When people condemn the deepest essence of your soul, it can feel impossible to love yourself — DO NOT buy into that. Let others be as they will and do not take their perspectives as truth or assume them as your own. All you can control is what YOU think of yourself and the people and beliefs YOU choose to allow time and space in your life. The only thing YOU can change is YOUR perspectives and YOUR behaviors so choose wisely, with the utmost mindfulness. As Shakespeare beautifully stated,

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

My mum, a devout Catholic, was worried about my sister’s life and her soul for many years. She felt this way because, after years of shame and self-loathing, my sister had finally come out as lesbian when she was 30. My mother never stopped loving my sister, she was just doing what she had been taught to do her entire life, to believe being gay is a choice, a sin, and to feel sorry for gay people — these ideas and teachings run deep and can be very difficult to extricate. Ultimately, my mum went to her priest and he told her:

“Your only concern, your only job is to love your daughter unconditionally. That is what God wants of you. The path God gives your daughter in this world is none of your concern, that is between her and God. You don’t know why God made her the way He did and It is not your business to question and critique the relationship your daughter and God have or what his purpose might be. So, do as God expects, LOVE your daughter and concern yourself with your own relationship with God.”

This man is an exceptional priest though, he understands his job is to imitate Christ and to live and work with the ‘least’ of Christ’s sisters and brothers. That priest understands that is the job of EVERY Christian and that shaming, judging, and criticizing from on high is NOT caritas.

When I was young, the Church and my faith were so dear to me I could never have imagined leaving it. What I noticed as I got older though, is that I and ALL other Catholics, cherry-picked their faith in some way. There were things we did and believed and other things we selectively and conveniently ignored — that goes for ALL of us. I purposely say “ALL” and capitalize it because NO ONE is perfect and NOBODY does everything to the letter- even the most devout. There is currently deep division within the church, because people believe and interpret differently; there are those who wish to impose their values and those who humbly seek to love God and others to the best of their ability. We ALL have foibles and inconsistencies, differences in perspective, focus and in what each of us values and those things evolve and change over time. For me, I arrived at a point where I found my participation in the Church untenable.

Detail of Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, ca. 1427. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

My life, including my spiritual life, ultimately blossomed because I left. I’ll not lie to you, I struggled for about 10 years after leaving because I had a tremendous shadow of shame and internalized transphobia within me — I’m still working through it and likely will be for the rest of my life. Today though, I cannot imagine going back to the Catholic Church. If you are anything like I was, you’re not going to understand this right now and you will find the idea of leaving disturbingly abhorrent. I eventually had to do it through to save my life and indeed, my very soul. No true Roman Catholic who adheres to church teaching is going to understand that, to them, I’m lost and God has hardened my heart, shut my ears and turned his back on me — I refuse to believe in a god who consigns people to an eternity of torment for doubting or not believing in him.

I couldn’t continue to live among people who sincerely believed that I would spend an eternity suffering in Hell, along with Stalin, Hitler and child molesters, for being honest about who I am. Most of them wouldn’t be able to handle my cross-gender thoughts and emotions with compassion let alone any outward manifestation of my authentic, trans feminine self.

Now, I am not suggesting you leave your faith. If it is important to you, it is important to you. I refuse to judge or condemn you on that because I don’t have your life or experience. All I can do is share my experience. What you do is entirely up to you and perhaps you can make your faith and your trans experience jibe in a way I could not. Nor should anyone fault you if you decide to remain stealth. You pass as cis, I don’t and I’ve not used hormones and so people see me as a gender bendy man or a crossdresser — as you might imagine, they lack information and often assume I’m ‘just’ gay. They very often conflate gender variance with same-sex-attraction. Whatever, I can inform but also won’t waste an inordinate amount of my time worrying about what they think of me. I used to do the same thing, judging so as to avoid looking at myself too deeply.

Still, slowly, and over time as I experienced life, I grew and changed and my perspectives altered. In my early 20s, I found great solace and purpose in the Catholic Church because it was what I knew. I loved God and I loved the tradition and ritual. I felt blessed that God’s grace had put me to be born into a Catholic family and baptized inside the “one, true, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.” Everything was in its right place and spelled out for me, I believed in the divine truth and purpose of Roman Catholicism, and that gave me a deep sense of security and belonging…

…I also knew that if they knew my innermost experience, they would reject me.

Because of my shame concerning my gender dissonance I couldn’t give it voice or investigate and express it. Instead, for years, it manifested as a deeply internalized transphobia and shoved me deeper into the closet. Any ‘solace’ I felt as a member of that church was got by ignoring what I knew deep within to be true and choosing to repress and deny it. We were taught that while some urges might be natural, that yes, while nature and God produce ‘anomalies,’ that didn’t mean it was what we should therefore embrace and do. So, to me, my gender dissonance was “my cross to bear.”

So be aware: If you choose to tell your priest, he may be like my mum’s priest, or he might toe the doctrinal line. You must know whether he is a deeply compassionate man who teaches and lives the core message of the gospels or if he adheres more hardline to institutionalism and the Magisterium — I found these guys are usually very easy to read by listening to their sermons and watching how they interact with their congregants. Also, be mindful that centuries of the church hierarchy are guilty of their own and shameless duplicity and secrecy, even as they’ve attempted to shame others. I suppose it comes down to how firmly you hold that The Church was instituted by Christ and is given the right to interpret scripture and teach. I was taught not to question any of that but once I did, once I took the priest and the rest of the clergy off the pedestal, I couldn’t stay in it. I am precisely the person ‘God wanted me to be.’

(above) Sydney Lovekiss gives a great series of discussions on her journey of self acceptance — please check them out.

As promised, I’ll leave you with this poignant quote from Brené Brown on shame. Look up more on her, google her quotes on shame, they are like seeds that once planted and watered a bit, will grow and change your life.

“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers do not find that shame correlates with positive outcomes at all — there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, Chapter 3: Understanding and Combating Shame, page 73

I wish you the very best, you deserve it.

“You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.” ~Quentin Crisp :-p