Listening to God's transgender people

A June 8 panel discussion at the Dominican Sisters of Peace motherhouse in St. Catharine, Kentucky included, from left, Scout Link, Miles Justice, Jaime Poole and Sr. Luisa Derouen. (Provided photo)

For 20 years, I have been trying to help transgender people stay close to God and stay in the Catholic Church. Most of them are staying close to God, but staying in the Catholic Church is quite another matter.

Many of my transgender friends have described their hurtful experiences as the door of the Catholic Church slamming in their face. Their most recent experience of this rejection is the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, "Male and Female He Created Them." Since its publication, there have been many helpful articles reflecting on its meaning and impact. 

Almost all have expressed gratitude and affirmation for the positive subtitle of the document, "Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education." It's encouraging that the congregation is asking for dialogue. Articles also expressed disappointment and concern that the foundational positions of the document about gender theory are woefully uninformed by contemporary science and by the lived experience of transgender people.

For both of these reasons, my transgender friends (who still care what the Catholic Church says) are hurt by this document and know their lives will be negatively affected by it. Once again people are talking about them and not talking with them. Several of them have read the document and shared their concerns with me. Here's a sample of what they are saying.

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Connie, who is faithful to Mass every Sunday, wrote, "I've been finding it harder and harder to continue on with my faith upon each publication that continues to describe how immoral, how wrong being LGBTQ is. I try to ignore it when I go to Mass, but it's right there in front of me each time."

Colette says, "With the grace of God, I'll never leave the church. But I'm also scared and deeply unsettled. I'm trying hard to understand what God is asking of me, and I'm trying to live in trust of where the Spirit will take this."

Scotty laments, "There is actual science and medical knowledge that the hierarchy is choosing to ignore. It's not theory. Once again the hierarchy has chosen to diminish and limit my lived experience while saying that they are listening. They're not."

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For many Catholic transgender people, it's probably too late for dialogue. They have really tried to stay in the Catholic Church, but there have been too many hurtful words and actions toward them.

But there are many who are still willing and eager to dialogue.

I beg you, bishops, pastors, parish ministers, educators, formators, and all of us who are God's people, please listen to transgender people! Listen to their personal stories of struggle and transformation. Listen to their love for their families and for God. Listen to their professional competence as medical doctors, psychologists, theologians, attorneys. They are the experts of their own lives.

How should we listen to transgender people?

Listen with humility and without judgement. We do not know their lives. They do. Listen as a learner. Listen with a willingness to reexamine your assumptions and beliefs about them. Listen with a willingness to allow yourself to be changed by what they say.

A common uninformed narrative about transgender people is that they are sinful, selfish, delusional and possibly dangerous. If this is what we believe, how can we have an open mind to learn about them and from them? The first time Dawn met with me, she took the courageous step out of years of secrecy and told me her whole story. When I tried to get her to take a break and eat some lunch, she immediately responded, "I'm not hungry for food! I'm hungry for someone to listen to me who won't judge me."

They do not choose their gender. They choose to live as the person they know themselves to be. And they certainly don't choose that on a whim because they just feel like it. Who would choose to be rejected by family, friends and faith communities? Who would choose to lose their job, their homes, their reputation? Many commit to years of counseling doing the hard work of self-knowledge and processing the ramifications of every decision they make along the way. They make herculean efforts to spare their loved ones pain and trauma.

Listen for the ways God is active in their lives. It has been my great privilege all these years to be a witness of their fidelity to God. They are not choosing to separate themselves from God. They are making incredibly difficult life-changing decisions knowing there is the possibility that they will lose everyone they cherish and everything they value. They make these decisions in order to live with integrity and fidelity to God.

I got an email recently from a faith-filled transwoman whose health is seriously compromised by years of stress trying to keep pretending to be someone she knows she is not. In our many exchanges, it is clear to me that her greatest desire is to do God's will for her. She wrote, "Will I offend God if I transition? There is no life within me without Christ at the center. However, there is no me without transitioning. Such a paradox." It is my experience that, without exception, when they stop fighting their transgender reality and accept that this is who they are, their relationship with God is strengthened, not diminished.

Listen with reverence. Everybody's life is a sacred journey. And that includes transgender people. I have learned so much from them about forgiveness, patience, courage and trust in God. Their lives deserve to be honored and received with respect. Listening well to someone's life is a sacred act for the one speaking and the one listening.

I'll never forget what some of my trans friends told me in 2007 when my jaw condition demanded that I begin to limit talking. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to support them in the ways I always had and that they needed. They adamantly reminded me that my respectful, loving, non-judgmental listening was every bit as important as anything I could say in words.

Listening happens when I can allow the word of the other to address my life and when my attentiveness to the other sets us both free, which is redemptive listening. Douglas Steere says it well: "To 'listen' another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being performs for another."

The invitation to dialogue in the document by the Congregation for Catholic Education is addressed to Catholic educators and formators, but we can accept the invitation for ourselves as well. Aren't we all called to be in dialogue with each other as God's people? When we listen well, we are led into the truth, and the truth always leads us to God, who is Truth. Please listen to God's transgender people.

[Luisa Derouen, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, began to minister among the transgender community in 1999 and has been a spiritual companion formally and informally to about 250 transgender people across the country. She is now semiretired at the St. Catharine Motherhouse in central Kentucky.]

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