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Four things Catholics need to know about transgender people

Views Luisa Derouen, O.P. / July 28, 2022 Print this:
From left: Hilary Ranney-Howes, Dr. Colt St. Amand, Christine Zuba and Dominican Sister Luisa Derouen discuss the Catholic church and transgender ministry at the Fordham University School of Law in New York, June 25, 2022. Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, also participated on the panel. (Photo courtesy of Keara Hanlon)

The first time Dawn came to visit me, she was nervous. But after a while, she began to relax and poured out her story.  She talked and talked, never taking one bite of her lunch. I will never forget her response when I encouraged her to eat: “I’m not hungry for food. I’m hungry to be seen for who I am.  I’m hungry to be listened to and not judged.”

For over 20 years, as part of my ministry with them, I have prayed that transgender people would be seen by others as I see them, and much more importantly, that they be seen as God sees them. 

Transgender people are who they say

During fetal development, a person’s brain, as well as their genitals, are formed by the influence of hormones at various times during the period of gestation. For most of us, these are aligned, which means that our genitals match how we sexually identify. However, for about one percent of the population, they do not match.  

In trying to explain this dysphoria between their body and brain, it’s not uncommon for transgender people to say they “feel” like a man or a woman. Unfortunately, that has often been misinterpreted to refer to emotional feelings and has led to accusations that trans people are choosing to act on superficial feelings or whims. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Being transgender is not a choice at all. What trans people are expressing is the brain signal they receive that dictates their internal sense of gender identity. While there is a lot we don’t yet understand about being transgender, there is an abundance of reputable medical evidence to verify the reality of transgender people’s experiences.

A major tenet of a prevailing narrative is that transgender people are delusional and “sinning” by claiming to be transgender and, as a consequence, they suffer depression, broken relationships, addiction, self-harm and suicide. What I have witnessed in my ministry hundreds of times, up close and personal, is that transgender people experience all of this because they try to suppress who they are, and because of the pervasive rejection they experience from those who give meaning to their lives.

But when they make the decision to live from a place of truth and integrity, I experience the gifts of the Spirit in them: more peace, joy, compassion, wisdom, inner freedom and an ability to receive and offer genuine love. 

“What I have witnessed hundreds of times, up close and personal, is that transgender people experience [psychological distress] because they try to suppress who they are, and because of the pervasive rejection they experience from those who give meaning to their lives.”

Transitioning is a spiritual journey

St. Francis of Assisi was once overheard by a Franciscan brother saying in prayer, “Who are you, my God, and who am I?” This is the fundamental spiritual question, and one that takes a lifetime to answer. It’s extremely difficult to be in relationship with another while at the same time hiding from oneself. Whether we use the language of spirituality or not, when we seek to live in the truth of our lives, we are moving closer to God. And so are transgender people.

I have witnessed transgender people’s incredible courage and faith in the pursuit of living an authentic and honest life. It is what we call transformation in God, a conversion of life. On the way to being whole and holy, we all go through the same stages in some way. We spend many years making sense of who we are and how we live.

But there are times when the narrative of our life is significantly challenged and we experience a crisis. Our former views begin to crumble. Gradually, we begin to live into a more authentic life. This is true for transgender people as well, but it is far more challenging for them.

What is reflected back to them repeatedly is that others see them in one gender, and they experience themselves as another gender. Though they often spend years trying to be who others say they are, they simply cannot shake loose the mysterious knowing that this is who they are, and neither they nor anyone else can change it. A trans person named Taylor often told me, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.”

Usually, through the fidelity of prayer and years of hard work to know themselves, they come to know that they can no longer pretend to be someone they are not. So, at the risk of losing their family, friends, career and faith community, they claim their truth openly. 

Sara, a concert pianist, recounted to me, “In the tumultuous two and a half years that followed my decision to transition, friends abandoned me, concert dates evaporated, and I lost my teaching job.” Listen to the words of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”

Gradually, as trans people make their way through the painful and complex stages of transition unique to each person, self-hatred is replaced by self-love, self-doubt is replaced by confidence in themselves. They have made the passage from what was death-dealing to what can now be life-giving.  

Chris expressed it this way: “I sat on my meditation cushion and cried some tears that I wasn’t sure were grief or gratitude. I felt bigger than my body, and said to the Divine Presence: ‘I’ve been looking for you.’ And I knew in that moment that I had not been the only one seeking. God was saying it back to me.”

“A trans person named Taylor often told me, ‘I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.'”

We Catholics can support transgender people

Trans people, many of them baptized Catholics, are as much part of the Body of Christ as any of us. We are responsible and privileged to walk with them in their seeking to live truth of their lives. As Pope Francis often reminds us, we are called to accompany all who seek God. However, we cannot accompany people while at the same time refusing to believe what they say about the experience of their own lives.

Also, we believe that our lives are meant to image the life of the Trinity. Our rich spiritual theology of the Trinity speaks of the mutual, reciprocal relationship of love among the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, who are one being and yet distinct persons. Loving relationships are at the heart of imaging God. If we model the life of the Trinity, why should being many and being one in loving relationships be so threatening? 

In addition, the development of doctrine and the primacy of conscience are well established Catholic teachings. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that God’s actions in our lives are revealed not only in Scripture and church tradition, but also in the developments of science, and especially from the witness of peoples’ own lived experiences. It’s precisely the fidelity of our lives in God that invites the development of the teachings that guide our faith.

Transgender people have much to teach us

It takes humility and courage to travel outside of our comfort zone and learn from people whose lives seem different from our own, or whose lives challenge our long-standing beliefs about God and about who we are as human beings. But this is what human and Christian maturity demands.

“I have witnessed transgender people’s incredible courage and faith in the pursuit of living an authentic and honest life. It is what we call transformation in God, a conversion of life.”

Many transgender people have experienced profound and sustained discrimination and rejection from the Catholic Church, yet they remain faithful to a church that isn’t faithful to them. Still, they stay and continue to help us understand them. They can teach us a great deal about the commitment to live with integrity. They can also teach us about fidelity to God and to our faith community. 

Many transgender people have learned the wisdom that comes with letting go of what they cannot control, letting go of material possessions and worldly honor. They can teach us how to be at peace and content with what matters most in life—living with integrity.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus places before us people and circumstances that reveal the Reign of God in unexpected ways. Trans people challenge us to expand the circle of who we allow to reflect God in our world. They challenge us to live by what we say we believe—that all are the dwelling place of God. Our Benedictine brother, John Main, said it well: “There is really only one mystery, one truth, one suffering, one love, one life and it is just showing itself in different forms.”

I’d like to end with an affirmation of Cardinal Wilton Gregory to a trans man in 2019, because it is the posture we all should take to all of God’s precious people. At a Theology on Tap, Rory asked the cardinal if there is a place for him and his queer friends in the church.

Cardinal Gregory responded, “You belong to the heart of this church. There is nothing that you may do, may say, that will rip you from the heart of this Church.”

Luisa Derouen, O.P.

Sister Luisa Derouen is a Dominican Sister of Peace and has been ministering nationally among the transgender community since 1999. She is retired and lives in central Kentucky.

All articles by Luisa Derouen, O.P.

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  1. Beautiful!

    • Imagine Jesus’ dinner companions! Whose feet would Our Lord choose to wash? Whose pain would He reach to quell? Who would feel whole for the first time by His touch? What breath of new life and nourishment open everyone’s eyes to the beauty of each other?

      I can almost hear and tremble with the excitement of goodness revealed.

  2. Such a timely article. It should be encoded somehow to our United States Constitution, indeed to all constitutions of all our states. Thank you, Sister Luisa, for your work and your willingness to share these wonderful insights into the truth of transgender.

    • This is a beautiful article right up to your use of the slur “qu**r” which is extremely offensive to the majority of LGBT people. Some younger people think it’s trendy or cool, but it is hate speech.

      • Oh that’s only partly true. It’s LGBTQ+ and Queer is mainly reclaimed and certainly not offensive to the “majority” of us. It’s not hate speech at all now.

        Yes I’d be sensitive with a gay man 40+ but most of the rest of us use it without worrying now. Just to note – I’m over 50 so hardly trendy or cool.

  3. What a great article! The human story is unique and I am so happy to read about it. “Who are you Jesus and who am I?? Same questions I grapple with and have been experiencing the gifts of the spirit that are joy and peace and insight and love in my transformation, I am thrilled to read this story of the “other” than me and rejoice with these folks experiencing the gifts of the Holy Spirit and my heart is opened ever so much wider.
    God Bless your ministry🙂❤️🙏

  4. Every Catholic, every Christian, should read this with an open heart. So much truth here that is so hard for people to understand when they have not lived it, or spent a lifetime struggling with it. It is so frustrating to hear hateful comments from otherwise loving people, that want to follow Jesus, but are distracted from God’s true message through Jesus. God bless Sister Derouen and her mission. I believe God smiles upon her.

  5. Such truth spoken! Your love and commitment to the trans community is unequalled. As a trans woman I have experienced these heartaches. I love god and I feel in my heart that I am loved, not condemned the beautiful replies to the article have me in tears.

  6. Very informative article about the realities lived by human beings when they are transgender. Thank you Sister Luisa for helping the Catholic Community understand and grow closer to our brothers and sisters who are transgender and need our support.

  7. For over 20 years, Sister Luisa has been a luminous presence in my professional life as a clinical psychologist treating transgender people. Not only does she have a deep understanding of the “transformation in God” that trans people go through, but she has lived it herself, her ministry having been forced to exist “undercover” for many years as the Catholic Church struggled to change its discriminatory stance. Eventually, she, too realized her own need to “come out” with courage and honesty, still largely in the face of strong headwinds from much of the church hierarchy. This beautiful article is the culmination of her lived experience, and, in my opinion, ought to become a pivotal document in the Church canon. I am so proud to call her a colleague and friend.

  8. This us such a beautiful article. One of the best memories of coming out as trans to my family is getting a hug from my 83-year-old aunt, who is a sister with the Daughters of Charity. “You are who you are” is what she said to me.

  9. Thank you, S. Luisa, for continuing to teach me more about my brothers and sisters – the suffering they endure, the courage they have. Ever since meeting you back in Tucson I’ve grown in my understanding in an area in which I had little experience previously. There’s a quote that addresses people like me: “It is so easy to judge that which is different as inferior or wrong and to accept our own definition of reality as correct and normative for all time and all people.” (Janice McLaughlin, MM, in Ostriches, Dung Beetles, and Other Spiritual Masters) I’m getting better at seeing beyond externals to people deeply loved by God.

  10. So beautifully explained! What a shame that some should suffer as they do for being
    so misunderstood. Martina Stegman, OP

  11. Hey “My Sister”….. The article is so informative and beautifully written. Transgender identity is so widely misunderstood; however, your article helped me to better understand.

  12. As a retired pastoral therapist to transgender people of many faiths since 1992, I am so proud of Sister Luisa for her daring work of justice and love. God made us male…..and….female, not male OR female, just as God made a single day of 24 hours from dusk…to….dawn and every shade of light and darkness between.. Why not celebrate those whose lives embody what’s between the polarities? They represent the nuance and mystery that we are called to embrace as part of God’s mystery and surprise.

  13. Thank you so much, Luisa, for this astonishingly beautiful and informative reflection article.

    It humbled me, and moved me to think again, and with much deeper respect for those who have had to hide their reality day in and day out, from even their family and friends, because we who profess to be Christians followed heedlessly laws or teachings without remembering what The Teacher taught…

  14. Thank you for this. It is very congruent with my experience of being a transgender woman. I feel that this is how God knows me and I am simply expressing that.