This edited article is adapted from a speech delivered by Sister Luisa Derouen, O.P., at last year’s Outreach conference, in New York, on June 25, 2022.
Around two o’clock in the morning, I was jarred out of a sound sleep by the phone ringing. It was Shane, a young transgender man who was struggling mightily with being Catholic and trans. He was crying—not just choking up, but sobbing. He kept saying, “I miss going to Mass and I miss receiving Holy Communion! But I can’t go back to church because I’m not safe there! The Catholic Church doesn’t want me! But I miss Mass and Communion!”
Shane had converted to Catholicism about ten years earlier from a fundamentalist branch of Christianity. He had been through four marriages and was a heavy drinker, and he was finally recognizing what was underneath all of that. He had, at last, stopped fighting the reality that he was transgender. And now, his beloved Catholic Church was telling him he was delusional, selfish and separating himself from God by thinking he’s transgender.
For quite some time, he was close to suicide.
Maureen is a trans woman I’ve journeyed with as well, and she is here at this conference. A few years ago, she wrote in an email what I’ve heard many times in my ministry with transgender people, but she said it best. “There is no life in me without Christ, but there is no ‘me’ without transitioning.”
And this, in an email from Chris.
I struggle to fathom how people can dedicate their lives to Scripture which largely espouses love, lack of judgment, humility and protection for the meek, then be “stiff-necked” and speak with pride as if they are God. Am I not the meek? Am I not the oppressed? I shouldn’t let this discourage me, I know, but it is hard when they use the scriptures that give me such comfort to stamp out my existence.
For the past 23 years, I’ve had the profound privilege of accompanying transgender people as a spiritual companion on their sacred journey to wholeness and holiness—being able to embrace the truth of themselves as Catholic and trans. My mantra to them all these years has been that the truth leads us to God and not away from God. It has been a sheer grace for me to be a witness to the process of their coming to life.
Call it conversion of life, transformation in God or growing in integrity and freedom—there are many ways it can be described. But what I can never say enough is that what transgender people experience is holy and good, not sinful or deluded or selfish.
The process of coming to human maturity, and Christian maturity, is the same for them as it is for the rest of us—releasing whatever in us that is false and not of God, and claiming our true self, where God lives in us. But for trans people, it’s so much harder. The first stage in the process often takes years, in which they make herculean efforts to deny that they are transgender and try to be who others say they are.
They’re told by religious leaders and family, “You just think you’re a woman, or a man, but I know better, and you’re really not.” Generally, after a few years and hundreds of hours of praying, pondering, therapy and talking with those they trust, they reach the second stage. They must live in the truth of who they know themselves to be, even though they don’t know who and what they will lose in the process—a spouse, a child, a home, a job, a friend, a faith community.
What transitioning means is different for everyone, but at some point, most arrive at the third stage of their sacred journey and can declare, “I may have lost much, but I have found myself. Now I know who I am in God, and I’m on solid ground.”
The bottom line is that we must believe that they are who they say they are, and that their lives are as holy as anyone else. They are the Body of Christ, the precious children of God who deserve to be supported in their desire for wholeness and holiness.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., has often been quoted as telling a Catholic trans man: “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.”
And I say Amen to that.
Thank you for your lifesaving work.