DignityUSA Highlights Transgender Spirituality in Essay Series

October 13, 2014

James & Evelyn Whitehead

DignityUSA’s fall newsletter focused on transgender spirituality through three essays by James and Evelyn Whitehead, who open the discussion by saying it is “time to talk” about the sometimes forgotten “T” in LGBT.

The first essay, “Forsaking the Normal: Biblical Tales of Transformation,” explores Scripture where paradoxes and exceptions, rather than what is considered normal, are valued. Transformations abound in the examples they cite, leading the Whiteheads to write:

“A life that will not fit comfortably into the binary reality of male or female is not ‘normal.’ But, as we have seen, normalcy carries little weight in the biblical stories that tell of transformations that unseat our confident grasp of reality. Paradox and miracles are the stuff of Scripture. Does not the odyssey of a transgender person fit in this narrative of grace?”

Given that love is overly abundant in a divine economy and nature is wildly diverse, the lives of those identifying as gender diverse must be considered “not as deviance but as splendid variety.”

The second essay, “Graceful Bodies and the Play of Gender,” raises questions about how society forms gender and, relatedly, plays with gender in popular culture before explaining the biological and psychological factors at play with transgender identities.

The dissonance when anatomy and gender identity do not coincide can lead to lengthy interior journeys, often ending when a transgender person transitions, defined as “the courageous effort to integrate one’s inner gender identity with outward gender expressions. For the person undergoing it, their loved ones, and the communities, this can be a very spiritual journey.” The Whiteheads write:

“In a life of discipleship, as we follow the path of Jesus Christ, cultural differences and prejudices begin to fall away. We come to see that human nature is not simply a biologically determined essence; we recognize that ‘the natural is not primarily what we are given, but rather what we are called to become.’ We become more capable of welcoming those who differ from us, even those whom society has rejected. In our support for transgender persons, compassion and justice embrace as we glimpse intimations of the coming Reign of God.”

The third and final essay, “Transgender Lives and Catholic Hospitality,” the Whiteheads examine a faithful response to the problem today where transgender people are still quite invisible to society. While legal advances and some faith outreach are underway in protecting the rights of and promoting welcome to transgender people, much work remains. Catholicism’s long-emphasized virtue of hospitality is one possible source for the church to respond to those who are gender diverse, as it includes both the welcome and compassionate care which all people desire.

James and Evelyn Whitehead, a theologian and developmental psychologist respectively, have written widely on contemporary Christian spirituality, including LGBT issues. Offered here are only brief summaries of what are rich essays helpful for those desiring to know more about transgender issues overall, and those desiring a spiritual reflection on the infinite goodness and diversity of God’s creation. You can find each essay in full by clicking here.

In addition, this is only part one of DignityUSA’s exploration of transgender spirituality and Bondings 2.0 will update as this series emerges. You can read more about DignityUSA itself in a recent write up at Believe Out Loud, available here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: September 2, 2014

September 2, 2014

News NotesHere are some items that you might find of interest:

1) Catholics United, a faith-based political organization, has called on Archbishop Charles Chaput to do more to show support for transgender people in the wake of the suicide of a transgender young man, Riley Moscatel, in Philadelphia.   Moscatel was raised Catholic and had a Catholic funeral.

2) In Alberta, Canada,  St. Albert Catholic High alumnus Brent Saccucci is one of 10 recipients of the University of Alberta’s 2014 Peter Lougheed Scholarship, according to The St. Albert Gazette.  Saccuci, a gay man, studies education, and he is active in addressing inequities in schools, especially around young students of colour and those who are LGBTQ.

3)  Elliot Wehrle, a student at Mother Teresa Catholic High School in Ottawa, Canada, was the youth marshal for Ottawa Pride this past month.  Wehrle wrote Break Before Bend, a musical about coming out, which was performed at the school in March.

4) In the heavily Catholic nation of Ecuador, President Rafael Correa, has allowed same-sex couples in civil unions to list their status on their national identification cards, similar to the way marital status is listed.  Same-sex marriage is not legal in the country.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014

News NotesHere are some items that you might find of interest:

1) LGBT Catholics in Chicago have been remembering the life and ministry of Jerry McEnany, the founder of that city’s Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach over 25 years ago.  A newspaper account of McEnany’s legacy described him as “a gay man who played a pivotal role in trying to bridge a gap between hierarchical harshness and doctrinal hostility to LGBTs among the faithful and a Church instinct for pastoral respect, compassion, and sensitivity in ministry with them.”

2) A transgender woman is suing Seton Medical Center, Daly City, California, because they denied her request for breast augmentation.  Charlene Hastings, who has already had gender reassignment surgery, stated, “I honestly believe that God has plans for me to have this surgery.”

3) Brian Cahill, former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities, published an essay on DignityUSA’s website in which he rebuts Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s arguments at last month’s March for Marriage in Washington, DC.

4) When an Indiana judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional according to the federal constitution, the Roman Catholic bishops of the state issued a statement which affirmed marriage between one man and one woman.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Catholic Schools To Recognize Students’ Chosen Gender Identities

July 18, 2014

Tracey Wilson, the impetus behind the Catholic schools’ transgender-inclusive policy change

In an historic policy, Catholic schools in the Canadian city of Vancouver will recognize transgender students using their preferred gender identity.

CBC News reports the policy, announced by the Archdiocese of Vancouver earlier this week, will allow trans students to use their preferred pronouns, as well as wear the uniform and use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Transgender students will be able to file for accommodations and work with a pastoral team of medical, spiritual, and educational experts to create  individualized plans for each student. However, due to official Catholic policy, the schools cannot support students who transition.

The change comes after Tracey Wilson, an 11-year-old transgender girl, filed a complaint against the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese for not allowing her to present as a girl. The Catholic school board settled with the Wilsons by implementing this new policy and paying an undisclosed sum to the family. The Wilsons say their children will remain in public schools. Superintendent Doug Lauson, who last year said ‘God doesn’t make mistakes‘ and that Tracey would have to wear the boys’ uniform, seemed pleased with the policy, which he views as a middle ground between supporting students and adhering to Catholic tradition.  Lausen stated:

“We are people of the Catholic faith. Our schools will be as inclusive as we can while still retaining our Catholic identity.”

Because Catholic schools in Canada are funded by the government, a history of religious exemption is not present.

CBC News reports that this new policy from a Catholic school board is making history, and there is hope it will impact more religiously-based schools:

” ‘This is, as far as we know, certainly a North American first and probably a world first,’ said the Wilson family’s lawyer, barbara findlay, who spells her name without capital letters.

” ‘Not only is it important for the students in Vancouver who go to Catholic schools, but it will serve as a template for other Catholic school districts everywhere.’ “

Tracey Wilson was one of two transgender students profiled by Canadian television program 16×9 last year, and at the time her mother, Michelle, said:

“They had no intention of letting her be who she wanted to be…Everyone says, ‘Well, what did you expect?’ I expected compassion. I expected a community that talks about love and acceptance to actually show love and acceptance.”

Though not freely chosen by the Vancouver archdiocese, this new policy is a huge step towards making Catholic schools into communities where love and acceptance are hallmarks. Tracey’s courage and her family’s willingness to call Catholic officials to account for their lack of inclusion will now mean Vancouver students who are transgender can be more authentically themselves, as God created them to be.

To view a video of Tracey and her mother talking about this recent victory, visit The Vancouver Sun by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Transgender Woman Prepares to Enter Carmelite Convent

July 14, 2014

One of the places where Catholicism and gender are most strongly inscribed together is the area of vowed religious life.  There are communities for only men and other communities for only women.  What if your gender doesn’t fit into this binary?

Tia Michelle Pesando

That question is being answered in London, Ontario, where a transgender woman is preparing to enter a community of Carmelite women.  When Canada’s Tia Michelle Pesando, who is already living as a consecrated virgin, is accepted into the community, it is being said that she will be the world’s first transgender nun.

CTV News reported that Pesando, who is a hermaphrodite* (born with physical characteristics of both male and female) has already begun a process of taking hormones to live as a woman.  But the process of becoming a nun is more a spiritual, than a physical, notion for her.  As CTV News stated:

“Two years ago Pesando heard God calling her and she knew she had to take her transformation farther.

“ ‘I’m very convinced of the reality of God and the importance of such a calling,’ she says.

“When Pesando decided to become a nun, she received her priest’s blessing and is now going through the process to become a Carolinian sister and the first ever Roman Catholic transgender nun.

“ ‘I’m in the training process which is starting this August, so it’s a positive start that I’ve undergone.’ “

While there is always the possibility of hierarchical intervention in the admissions process,  Pesando remains positive:

“ ‘Forgiveness needs to begin somewhere,” she says. “It needs to begin with us, all of us, those in the LGBT community and those of the Christian faith.’

“Pope Francis has made huge strides with the gay community, preaching for greater inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals. This in part has helped to fuel her decision. She says the time is right for a transgender nun.”

Pesando recently published a book, Why God Doesn’t Hate Youin which she develops the theme of God’s unconditional acceptance and love of everyone, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  In a wide-ranging interview with London Community News  where she describes her spiritual development and challenges,  she also explained the need for the book’s message:

“ ‘From a theological perspective, I think I have a solid argument,’ Pesando said. ‘People are leaving the church because they feel the God of love has betrayed them, and betrayal is one of the worst feelings you can imagine. So I am reaching out to people saying this is what the Bible actually says.’

“Her purpose in writing Why God Doesn’t Hate You is to reach out to everyone ‘who feels like they are rejected by God, who feels like they are a second-class citizen in God’s eyes.’ ”

And she notes an interesting detail about the Bible:

“ ‘There is actually nothing in the Bible to condemn the trans community because they were simply not aware of it,’ Pesando said. ‘Just like there is nothing in the Bible that talks about aerospace engineering, both of these things were discovered about 1,500 years after the it was written.’ ”

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  The same is true about constitutional homosexuality.  Biblical authors did not have the awareness that some people are naturally homosexually oriented.  Therefore, in the places where homosexual acts are Biblically condemned, the authors are not condemning what is now known to be a natural, normal way of loving.  More often, they are condemning homosexual rape, pagan rituals, or sexual novelty.)

My only minor gripe with this story is not about Pesando’s eligibility to become a nun, but the claim that some have made that she will be “the world’s first transgender nun.”  I would probably want to modify that to “the world’s first OPENLY transgender nun.”   Though I have no historical evidence, I imagine that over the centuries, other transgender women have joined convents, though probably being secretive about their identities.   We do know that transgender characteristics have often been very accepted in Catholic spirituality and practice (St. Joan of Arc).  And it was always common practice for nuns to take male religious names, and for religious men to often add “Mary” or “Marie” to their religious names.

If you know of other examples of Catholic transgender history or cultural details, please add them in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

*There has been some discussion in the “Comments” section of this blog as to whether “intersex” or “hermaphrodite” is the correct word to use.  There has also been some discussion as to whether Tia Michelle Pesando is actually transgender.  I recognize that language is a sensitive and powerful arena, and I am open to correction.  Upon reflection, I have decided to keep the original terms I used.

To answer the first issue, I have used “hermaphrodite” because that is the term that Tia Michelle Pesando uses to describe herself on her website: http://www.whygoddoesnthateyou.com/.   It is also the term used in the original article upon which this post is based, so I have assumed that it was the term she used while being interviewed.

To answer the second issue,  because Tia Michelle Pesando lived the first thirty years as a man and has now decided to live as a woman, including taking hormones, I think it is accurate to describe the process she went through as “transitioning,” and thus “transgender” seems to be an accurate description.  Again, I assume, based on the fact that news articles about her use the term “transgender” that this is a label of which she approves.

 

 

 

 


Trans Students Celebrate Openly During Catholic Graduations

June 22, 2014

Two moments this graduation season highlighted the positive gains being made in Catholic education for transgender students, forgoing the controversies of past years for moments of celebration instead.

Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, an all-girls institution run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, allowed a transgender young man to graduate using his preferred gender identity. A post in the Facebook group for the class of 1970 includes the following caption for the above picture:

“Meet our alumni brother. This was not an easy decision for the administrators to make, but they did the right thing as Immaculate Heart does. {He] is the first transgender graduate but probably won’t be the last. He loves the school as much as the rest of us and that’s all that matters. ‘Every loyal daughter and son…’ “

Congratulations to this young man and to the Immaculate Heart Class of 2014, as well as the administrators for ensuring every student’s day could be one of celebration! Last year, a controversy at a New Mexico Catholic high school tarred commencement ceremonies when a transgender student was given the choice either to wear attire inconsistent with his gender or skip graduation altogether.  He chose the latter.

At the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, a transgender woman was chosen by her peers to address the graduating class of social workers. Andy Bowen spoke openly to an audience at the US bishops’ national university about her identity as a trans woman engaged to another woman and addressed her fellow students on the social worker’s duty to seek justice. She said, in part:

“Maybe it is because I’m a transgender woman who is engaged to another woman and I’ve had to come out of the closet like three or four times, but I’ve always been attracted to the principle that all human beings have inherent human dignity…

“If you center your moral universe on the idea that all human beings have inherent dignity, you have to work against injustice in all its forms because someone much smarter than me, living many decades ago pointed out how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Congratulations to Andy and the CUA class of 2014! You can view her full remarks below or by clicking here.

While these two examples show progresss, there is still a lot of work to be done on Catholic campuses concerning transgender people. LGBT advocate and musician Joanna Blackhart recently spoke with HuffPost Live about her isolating experience attending St. Mary’s College in Texas as a transgender woman.

Let’s hope the examples of increased welcome and acceptance for trans inclusivity  on Catholic campuses continue to spread!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Italian Transgender Relationship Tests Church and State Definitions of Marriage

June 21, 2014

A transgender marriage case in Italy may be paving the way for that nation to legalize civil unions, despite the powerful opposition of the Catholic hierarchy there to such an action.

The second Alessandra Bernaroli

The Daily Beast reported recently that 20 years ago, Alessandro Bernaroli married his wife, Alessandra, though he knew that he had gender questions about himself.   Alessandra supported her spouse’s decision to go through gender reassignment surgery, and the couple decided to stay together after Alessandro began to identify also as Alessandra.  Despite their love, the two Alessandras ran into some legal problems, but not for wrong.  The Daily Beast  explains:

“When Bernaroli officially changed her name and gender when she renewed her identity card, the Bologna court annulled the marriage. The couple appealed the unwanted divorce and lost again, but now Italy’s high court overturned the ruling, allowing them to stay married.”

So, though civil unions are still not legal in Italy, the Bernarolis, who live in Bologna, are still legally united.   More importantly, though the debate about civil unions had not moved forward, the Italian court, in their decision about the case, asked Italian legislators to make some accommodations for same-gender couples:

“In its ruling last week, the high court said it was aiming to balance ‘the State’s interest in not changing the model of heterosexual marriage with the interest of the couple where one of the two components changes sex.’ The court also asked Italian lawmakers to explore an ‘alternative’ form of marriage to accommodate such same-sex couples.”

In Italy, the Catholic hierarchy has been one of the strongest opponents to civil unions.  However, the church has not annulled the Bernarolis’ marriage. The reason, though, is not because they recognize this as a same-gender relationship, but because they do not recognize gender re-assignment, so they still consider one of the partners to be male.

The Bernarolis are optimistic, though, because of Pope Francis’ more welcoming approach to same-gender couples:

“.  .  . [T]he Alessandras now hope that Pope Francis will use their historic case to preach acceptance and maybe one day recognize same-sex unions. ‘The Catholic Church has said that our marriage is still valid,’ Bernaroli said after the high court’s ruling. ‘We want to make an appeal to all Catholics to go out in the streets to defend the rights of the family, of our family. And also make an appeal to the pope, who seems so open and innovative, because he listens to so many people in trouble, the poor, the discriminated against. Why not call us, too?’ “

Some may find this arrangement unusual, but it is not as uncommon as one might think.  For example, for those who attended either New Ways Ministry’s 2012 National Symposium in Baltimore, or either one of our two transgender workshops this past year, they would have heard from Hilary Howes, a Catholic transgender woman, whose previously heterosexual marriage to her wife, Celestine, remained solid when Hilary transitioned.

You can read about Hilary’s journey and her relationship with Celestine in More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Churchpublished this year by Fordham University Press.

Not all marriages that involve a gender transition remain intact, but some do.  For the Bernarolis, like Hilary and Celestine, there was some initial concern and questioning, but upon reflection, both couples found that their love was as strong as ever:

“ ‘It’s obvious that some things have changed in our marriage,’ Bernaroli’s wife told the court. ‘But she is still the same person I married. We share the same ideals, and that’s what counts when you share a life together. We have survived because we have a strong love connection.’ ”

The news site Gayapolis.com had a fitting commentary on this case which serves as a good closing message:

“It’s rare that the fight for transgender rights advances ahead of the fight for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if this case helped bring about both?”

 

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

PinkNews.com: “Italian trans woman fights for right to remain in same-sex marriage”


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