What Does Being a Catholic Transwoman Look Like? An Interview with Melinda Selmys
Catholic blogger Melinda Selmys — author of Sexual Intimacy — kindly requested to interview me. We both concur that, particularly in the emerging discussions about transsexuals and participation in the faith life of the Catholic Church, trans voices are routinely dismissed, elided, ignored, or pathologized into abstraction. This interview, we hope, enacts a willingness to listen to the actual experiences of trans Catholics. The Church does not “hate” us; and I am optimistic for the future of our roles as coparticipants in the sanctity of Catholic worship and practice. I thank Melinda sincerely for sharing her platform with me to explore these possibilities.
For those who would like to see the entirety of my response, I post my answers below.
(1) Melinda Selmys: “Can you describe a little of your experience — what does being a trans woman mean for you? How has transition affected your life?”
Hi Melinda! Thank you so much for this opportunity to discuss, in friendship and openness, my experience as a transwoman . . . one who also happens to be a practicing Roman Catholic! True, there aren’t many of us, and conversations about us are often polemical. In the emerging discussion of trans lives in the Church, however tenuous and superficial, our realities are parsed, in absentia, without any consultation or dialogue with us as trans Catholics. A frustrating aspect of being a Catholic transwoman is that, invariably, we are spoken for and never with
This is a consistent omission with gross but avoidable consequences. Even just recently I’ve seen several well-meaning clergymen, with massive online platforms, proffering priestly pathologies on the origins of transsexuality. Unfortunately, in turning our lives into debatable symptoms, we who are spoken for can resemble rationality-bereft ghouls.
For example, Father Longnecker’s recent essay, as a rhetorical contrivance, compared the bodies of transwomen to the Satanic iconography of Baphomet – quite an imagination. That very same week, Fr Schmitz – in a YouTube video with over 200,000 views – contrasted a five year old niece playing doggie with gender dysphoria. Both of these comparisons are insulting, upsetting, and there merest chat with a trans person might have enabled these men to offer evaluations that were more charitable. Fr Schmitz, the “bulldog Catholic”, rightly beseeches his listeners to walk with transpeople; but I have a suspicion Father hasn’t actually talked with many of us. And it shows.
I am a transsexual. Meaning — I was born male; suffered tremendously from terrifying sex dysmorphia; and obtained expert medical therapies and treatments that enable me to socially live as a transwoman). I have much in common with my female friends, and much that I don’t. Unlike transactivists, informed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I recognize that sex is a material fact.
Transition is not a simple declaration of “always was” which renders the birth sex (male) wrong, and that the person has always been female. Transition is, from any rational perspective, a complicated process from moving from birth sex into living as a trans person – a transwoman, in my case. It involves expert medical therapies – in my case, a team of wonderful doctors – as well as a difficult negotiation with social re-embodiment in presenting in the likeness of how society construes womanhood.
Transition saved my life; it was the only treatment that, after decades of inescapable self-horror, finally allowed me to feel as if I inhabited a body in which I could belong.
My life pre-transition was like a burning labyrinth with no centre and no exit. Transition was like like falling in love for the first time: falling in love with myself. Rage dissipated, unbearable uncertainties and colossal self-hate dissipated. In its place came Clarity, patience, awareness, compassion. My heart opened: I asked myself to forgive myself. And I learned how to love all over again. This was a necessary step in my path to returning to the church. When I existed as a fraught incongruity, how could I love myself? And how can one love God but not love one’s very owl self? My entire life, in reminiscence, was like the vacant photographs of stock footage stuck as placeholders in frames sold in bulk at the supermarket. Who was he? Yes, he was me … but he is not anymore. Transition means to come to terms with the spaces of “should have been” and “never was”.
(2) What brought you back to the Church? And what kind of a welcome did you receive?
In most direct terms . . . what brought me back to the church was our Holy Mother and the indomitable patience of St Thérèse, whose intercessions preserved my faith in the darkest temporal corners. Practically speaking, I was inspired by my friend Tara Hewitt, a transwoman and recent convert to the faith who has received much warmth and fellowship in her diocese.
Just prior to my transition, on Feb 11 2011, I attempted to hang myself in my bathroom. Suspended by a judo-belt tied to the shower curtain rod, I had hung suspended, in a successful suicide attempt, for at least thirty seconds. I was incapacitated, already subsumed in the roar of death. For some reason – the power of God or cheap Vancouver apartment fixtures – the rod broke and I fell headfirst into the bathtub, shaking violently and blood pouring from a wound where my head hit the porcelain tiles.
I knew I needed help, and for the first time in my life I had to confess the secret eating me alive: I really … needed … to live as a woman. I could not occupy my body anymore: the insoluble conflict had to end.
Indeed, it was a Jesuit friend at a university – I had long since stopped practicing my faith but maintained academic contacts – who listened to me when I said “I’m trans and I need help”. His patient compassion saved my soul. He recommended two things: a book by Nouwen, and an expert psychologist. Both of these suggestions changed my life.
My Jesuit friend did not cavil over rubrics or treat me as an abstraction to diagnose: he saw a profoundly hurt soul in need of love and healing.
I didn’t transition for so long because of church hostility. I assumed the Catholic Church hated trans people, with an insipid mix of pity and detestation, and that I could never return home. Despite my intervening years of agnosticism and my adolescent faith – I had still read frequently on church teaching, somehow imagining myself as the transwoman I was able to worship God with the loving expression that was reduced to a dying ember within. I wanted to witness to God in the fullness of my body, not just the interiority of my anguish. Transition enabled me to do this.
(3) You mention on your blog that you’re working on a book that deals with trans people and the Theology of the Body. I’m fascinated to know what your thoughts are on this.
Yes, this will be my second book, which is currently in progress!
I reckon my single biggest frustration is the utter dearth of compassionate and nuanced examinations as to what transsexual embodiment entails as a practicing Catholic, and what is the liturgical and ecclesiastical status of a transsexual person? We already have so many dumpy trans autobiographies: it’s a tired trick of a genre. So I felt that, rather than churn out one of those, this might be a more specific and original contribution. At the very least, I hope it helps other transwoman, yearning to connect to Christ through His church, that they may believe in the possibility of living their Catholic faith.
The truth is we are in a limbo as far as church recognition. We hear scraps of pronouncements from the Pontiff: a meeting with a Spanish transman, whom he allegedly hugged and called “a son of the church”. However, in another instance the Holy Father compared “gender identity theory” (which I don’t support, but that’s another topic) to atomic weapons … a chilling analogy given what I’ve seen in the museums of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It’s assumed we want to “change” church teaching. Yet we’re in an era where trans people like myself are returning to the church; but we really don’t have any official or catechetical statements on the place of trans people in the Catholic church, our access to the sacraments, and our canonical status for that matter. This also contributes to the unfortunate circulation of misinformation.
To me, The Theology of the Body is the most comprehensive effort to enact a Catholic epistemology of sexed embodiment, based upon the realities of human sex dimorphism, and the ethical mandates of the Christian faith to respect the ethics of sexual differentiation. So where do transsexual people fit in such a schema? It is my contention that, with discretion, prayer, and honesty, that transsexuality is not incompatible with the practice of the Catholic faith.
There is much in #TOB that is challenging, especially what might appear to be gender essentialist notions such as the feminine genius. Did St JP2 believe in brain sex? Do transsexuals have “sexed brains”? There are so many emerging debates on the relationship between material facticity of sex and the social formation of gendered self-awareness; and transsexuals are certainly at a nexus of contention.
In my opinion, we cannot deny or ignore the corporeal specificity of sexed embodiment: I was not “assigned” male at birth … I was born male. And however much grief I have for that, or whatever medical modifications I have enacted, I cannot really change that. This has practical ramifications for my vocation. I cannot, for example, be a nun: nuns are communities of female persons, which I am not. It’s difficult to see how a transsexual could obtain sacramental marriage. But do all of these situations preclude us from participating in the Eucharist, in the church at worship?
(4) What does you life look like as a Catholic transwoman? Does being trans influence your faith, and if so in what ways?
First and foremost, utterly joyful. I am so grateful to be back and living my faith as a transwoman! I cannot emphasize this enough. I would also emphasize that I’ve been treated exceedingly well by my Parish, and the diocese here in Vancouver (where we have an excellent policy, in fact, on transkids in the Catholic school system).
I grew up Catholic, so I was already familiar with the theology and practice of the faith. But that time of my faith was a void or aporia. A black hole. There was an agonizing gap between my physical life as sexed male, the gender rules expected of that, and the incredibly intense sexual dysmorphia that my soul and body were badly misaligned. I could write extensively about that adolescent suffering amidst the symbols of Catholic childhood as strictly gender demarcated. The first communion dress I never wore. The schoolgirl in white blouse and plaid skirt who never was. The possible postulant with a thwarted vocation. My consciousness was like a maze of collapsing mirrors: I couldn’t knew who I was, because who I was couldn’t be. And where can love and faith dwell in such a place. I’m fond of quoting St Augustine’s Confessions:
“But where was I when I looked for you? You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted even my own self. I could not find myself, much less find you.” (V, 2, 92). Like a murder mystery in which my very soul was both destroyer and victim: and insoluble conflict in my own skin. I could not find myself, and therefore I could not find You.
But now I’m back in faith! Maybe it’s because I pass well (I don’t readily disclose I’m trans, but I don’t hide it either), and maybe it’s because the love of Our Mother motivates me . . . I’ve made friends and found a place in my parish. When I had SRS, it was my female friends who prayed for me, sent cards, and so forth. Belonging to a community of faith is so enriching!
Thus, other than a few lockjawed twitter Catholic puritans shouting “MAN” at me online, I’ve been generally welcome in all church functions I’ve participated in.
But are transsexuals welcome in the church? This question haunts me every time my knee scrapes the carpet in scared genuflection. Every time someone stares at me for a few minutes at Mass.
Am I wanted? Is this the day I get taken aside for a private word … “We like you, Aoife, but there’s been some discussion . . .”
It would break my heart.
But I am living in this tension, and I hope from there I can convincing testify to its Truth. It can’t be done without a loving community
I’m celibate. I know I can’t be a nun. I recognize I wasn’t born of the female sex. Transsexuals need to be rational about our condition and the limits of transition. This is also necessary to have clarity about how best to live our faith as the transwomen we are.
(5) When you talk about sex reassignment as a “therapeutic necessity” what does that mean? I think a lot of people have trouble understanding the desire for sex-reassignment as a “necessity” as opposed to a temptation or a desire.
Sex reassignment surgery is a misnomer: we can’t really change sexes, but we can legally reassign them. But far from the civil implications of sex change, what I can report is the most profoundly conversional experience of being changed, in form and substance, by the power of faith as we as medical therapy.
Jean Luc Nancy described this predicament:
“The chiasm of the body and of the world exposes exposure to itself—and with it, the impossibility to finally bring the world to the spirit, and bring meaning to significance. The body is a strangeness which is not preceded by familiarity.”
This strangeness was exponentially confounded by the terrible self-indictment that I, for lack of a better phrase, was trapped in a body inhospitable and alien to me and the world. Hormone therapy eased that suffering; social transition enabled me to shed the unwanted; and SRS liberated me from an insoluble war with my own skin. It was a therapeutic necessity, because at this time in medical history this treatment is, as documented, effective and life-saving for transsexuals like me.
The trans community is duplicitous about SRS. Some say it’s just like a nose job – there should be no psychiatric requirement, available on demand. Others see SRS as a dire invasion of their physical selves: they claim to be women who happen to have penises.
I don’t agree with either position: sex dysmorphia is a hellish condition, requiring expert care, with SRS undertaken only with full consent and thorough advising.
(6) Is there anything in particular that other Catholics have done or said that you’ve found really helpful? / Do you have any advice for Catholics who are looking to support trans folks in the Church?
Please: this above all — We must not fellow prioritize “good theology” over treating others compassionately. This isn’t about liturgical propriety. This is about being a welcoming place for the marginalized in need of God’s healing Love.
If you think practical human friendliness can’t open a wounded heart to Christ in dire times, then you truly have no sense of the Gospels. Being not just the sign of peace, but the embodied practice of peacefulness.
Overall, it’s been a lonely quandary: I’m attacked by a certain Catholic status quo (invariably white men online) because I’m technically LGBTXYZ… And I’m regularly attacked by the LGBTXYZ because I’m Catholic and I support Catholic teachings on sexual ethics. Without the love of my Catholic friends, especially the support of Catholic women, my journey would be so much more difficult.
I offer prayers for my friends each night, especially the women who noticed I was at Morning Mass alone and invited me to coffee; asked me to join their bible studies; invited me to dinner in their homes. These are the friends who, with respect, do not pry, nor do I pry into their lives. We share our hurts and triumphs, support each other in the vacillations of our vocations. We offer unconditional validation to each other in the name of Mary, Mother of God.
Thus, as for advice, the most emphatic invitation I can make to all Catholics is to talk with us. Do not assume all transwomen think the same thing, or are pushing the same agenda. And by chatting with us you might be surprised! Unlike the Anglicans, I don’t see a need for new rites or optional “naming ceremonies” for trans people. But I salute the efforts they’ve made at having honest conversations about actual trans people in the pews. We’re not atomic bombs set to radiate the entirety of the magisterium from the inside.
When Leelah Alcorn took her own life, she said “Fix society”. A worthy endeavor: so let’s be the fix ourselves. We are society; therefore, we are the fix. I receive many messages from closeted transition, afraid transition will cost them – along with their job and family (as was my case) – their faith. This is a terrible and unfair circumstance for people struggling with a mental illness like gender dysphoria, a mental health condition that is utterly treatable. And is not faith the great healer?
We are Catholics as well – sinners, strugglers, survivors. I appraised my life situation after my suicide attempt and knew that transition would enable me to attain a peace I had never known. And in this peace I found prayer … and in prayer I knew love, for the first, once again, thank God.
(And thank you, Melinda! xx)