If anyone had told me that I would have the privilege of spending the last years of my ministerial life with transgender people I would never have believed it! God’s middle name is truly Surprise!
I have a gay brother and a lesbian sister and have had gay and lesbian friends my whole life, so when I finished my term as vocation director for my community, I asked and got permission to minister with lesbian and gay people. I didn’t know any gay people in New Orleans at the time so I started going to PFLAG meetings (Parents,Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
It was there that I met my first transgender woman. I asked if we could meet so she could tell me her story and help me understand. In the course of that first conversation she said to me, “You get this, and very few people do. For many transgender people this is a profoundly spiritual journey, but we don’t have spiritual people who understand us and want to be with us in this.” That was early 1999 and that was the beginning of the most powerful and privileged ministry of my life.
By the end of 2001 I was being contacted by transgender people from across the U.S. and beyond, thanks to the internet. In these many years I have ministered one on one to about 250 transgender people. And that does not include the many transgender people I know casually.
I have read about forty books on this subject, and attended and presented at several transgender conferences. I have spent thousands of hours with them—in their home, in my home, at restaurants, at birthday parties, at church services, at naming ceremonies, at weddings and funerals. I’ve prayed with them, cried with them and laughed with them. I have mediated with their families, helped them find a welcoming faith community, and a knowledgeable doctor and therapist.
There is no official teaching from the Catholic hierarchy regarding transgender people. Yet. There is an unofficial position that most bishops subscribe to and that some are advocating publicly. In broad terms, their basic premise is that God created human beings to be male or female, as the book of Genesis tells us. The determination of gender is made by genitalia at birth and is irreversible and permanent. Those who believe their gender is other than that identified at birth are delusional and psychotic.
From those bishops’ point of view, transgender people really don’t exist. For their information about transgender people the bishops rely significantly on the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the American College of Pediatrics, and the Catholic Health Association. There may be others, but these are the ones I’m aware of.
The most helpful of those at this point is the CHA, thanks to the efforts of Fr. Charlie Bouchard who is the Senior Director of Theology and Sponsorship.
The one that concerns me the most is the American College of Pediatrics, which broke off from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002. They do not accept the well established fact that our brain as well as our genitals are gendered, and any support or medical intervention for children and youth under 18 is strongly denounced by them as child abuse. Many people don’t know the difference between their organization and the reputable Academy of Pediatrics. The College of Pediatrics has about 600 members, not all of whom are doctors. The Academy of Pediatrics has about 60,000 members.
Many professional medical associations, in addition to the American Academy of Pediatrics, support the research that says transgender people are not experiencing a psychological pathology, which is what the bishops believe, but rather a neuro-biological reality that begins in utero. Among those organizations are the Am. Medical Ass., the Am. Psychiatric Ass., the Am. Psychological Assoc., Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
But the focus of my ministry to transgender people is from the spiritual perspective. I collaborated for several years with two psychologists on the east coast specializing in gender issues who would refer their transgender clients to me who were struggling with religious or spiritual issues.
They believed, and would often publicly say, that as important as the therapeutic dynamic is, it only goes so far. At some point for there to be genuine healing and inner freedom, often the spiritual dimension must be present.
There are a few fundamental convictions that have guided my presence among the trans community all these years.
No one can tell another person who they are. Only that person and God know who they are.
What gives glory and praise to God is when we live in the truth of who we are. THAT is what holiness looks like. The truth never leads us away from God but to God. When we seek the truth God is not against us but with us. Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John that it is the truth that will set us free. A striking similar passage that one of my trans friends gave me years ago is from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’” I have been a witness to the truth of that statement many, many times over two decades. Some people have been so damaged by the rejection of their True Self that they never find peace and happiness. Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide.
Here’s what I have witnessed hundreds of times in the trans people with whom I have walked.
–I’ve witnessed in them a genuine and faithful desire to be who God wants them to be.
–I’ve watched people gradually come alive as they allow the self inside to come forth and blossom. And when that happens I experience the gifts of God’s Spirit in them: peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness, deeper love of God, others and themselves. Their own unique God-given creativity is released in very concrete and specific ways. Very often they feel called by God to spend themselves in service to others.
–I’ve seen incredible moral courage among them to do the hard work of self-knowledge that leads to profoundly significant and risky life-changing decisions in order to live with integrity.
–I have seen them go from fear to courage, and self-doubt to self-confidence.
I would stand before God this moment in the firm conviction that transgender people are who they say they are. What can be more sacred than to be faithful to the truth of who they know themselves to be in God. They are who God made them and they are exactly who our churches and our world need them to be.
Mary & Joe Byers
Parents of gay sons, Media, PA
“My husband, Joe, and I always wear rainbow fish pins. As you may know, for many reasons, the fish was a symbol of faith used by first century Christians. One of these explanations is that our ancestors in faith made an acrostic from the Greek word for fish, ichthys, which is Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Using the symbol of a fish enabled them to identify meeting places or distinguish friend from foe without endangering their lives. The rainbow, of course, is associated with support of LGBT persons. We have found that wearing our pins is often a conversation starter. People tell us they like our pins, ask us what they mean, or wonder where they can get one. If the situation is appropriate, one of us will tell the inquirer that we are Catholic parents of seven children, three of whom are gay men. We will sometimes be asked for further information about Fortunate Families and at other times give our pins to the persons we’re talking to. Occasionally the stranger will be surprised to know there are Catholic parents like us who are so supportive of our gay children.”