I am a multifaceted person, as most folks are. One of my facets is photography, which started from a Polaroid camera gifted to me when I finished eighth grade. In the twenty-five plus years since, it’s become a semi-professional hobby. Light completely changes the character of a photo. The best photos are not taken at high noon or in the dark of night. The photos with the most character are often taken in the moments of twilight: sunrises, sunsets, or not far from it.
Some of my other facets include that I am Catholic; a scientist (an engineer, to be precise), a musician, an actor, an outdoorsman, a literary critic, a mentor, an amateur theologian and historian ... a bit of a modern day renaissance man, perhaps. I am also a transman, also known as a female-to-male transsexual. That’s the facet that has tended to be problematic for me and for others. I have always been male, but when I was young, I was not always consistently seen as such. In fact, there were constant expectations made by those who "knew better" for me to be someone I wasn’t, namely a female. I never met those expectations.
I never knew what was “wrong” with me as I was growing up. I was "myself" as often as I could be as soon as I could be. I went by male names in grade school, and was commonly "mistaken" for a boy. When I would be taken for my father’s son, my dad would make a point of correcting that assumption, making sure that I was shamed in the process to try and make me stop being so boyish. He was a military officer and having a kid like me was an embarrassment to him. Teachers would tell me that I would “grow out of it” which infuriated me. I knew who I was ... I just didn’t know how to explain it so that they could understand. I knew that I was a boy, somehow caught up in a set of female references that I couldn’t get rid of. I relished every moment that I was seen as a boy and called by the right set of pronouns, because that made me feel alive and validated. In those moments, I felt that I was in the light and not invisible.
As a Catholic, I am somewhere between a convert and revert. My parents were both raised Catholic, but I didn’t know that until I was almost fifteen. I grew up between my dad’s hostility towards religion and my mom’s exploration of different faith traditions. I was baptized when I was eight, in third grade, in the Episcopal Church, at a “high” church (almost Catholic) and received my First Communion that same day. I became an acolyte (altar boy) in that Episcopal Church. When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents told me that I was supposed to be Catholic, and that I would be going to Confirmation classes. I was confirmed the following spring and took the name Patrick. There was some slight consternation over my choice of confirmation name, since I had chosen a very masculine name, but neither the priest nor the bishop thought it was an issue, luckily for me.
I had more than my fair share of medical issues as I was growing up. I was a frequent flier at the emergency room between my ability to catch germs and break bones. I held out hope for years that during one of the visits to the doctor, they’d find IT — the thing that was wrong with me, and that I was really a boy, and that thinking I was a girl was all a misunderstanding. They never did. The onset of a "normal female puberty" was hell and a half. I hated everything that happened, and was despondent. I had tried to find what was "wrong" with me when I was in seventh grade. The library helped some. I found anatomy and descriptions of gay and straight, but none of that helped me with what I was feeling. I declared myself a “nothing” as none of the labels fit. I tried to be me — a male being — as much as I could despite the female anatomy, and assumed that the normal future other kids expected was not for me.
I didn’t find the name for what I was until I went to college and spent a Saturday researching in the library. That’s when I found the word transsexual. While it was great to be able to finally name “it” I was also terrified. There was so much stigma and pain to anticipate. There were moments in my later teenage years and early twenties when I was suicidal. I was in the midst of pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. There were many dark nights when I despaired for my future, of ever being able to find employment after finishing my degree, of being alone. My identity was trapped in the eyes of my beholders, my reactions dictated in that split second whether they decided if I was male or female. Job interviews were often decided in that split second. Dating wasn’t even a possibility. I was a great friend, but not a romantic prospect.
I stayed Catholic during high school while attending a conservative parish. The Newman Center at college was the opposite end of the spectrum and very liberal. I drifted back to the Episcopal Church as a freshman and did not go back to the Catholic Church until I was thirty. It was comforting to be in a more traditional liturgical church and not questioned. If they knew, no one asked. I wasn’t denied the light of Christ as I struggled with my own darkness, nor was I told that I was darkness incarnate.
I finally came to a job interview where my then androgynous appearance was not an immediate issue. I started medical intervention at twenty-four, shortly after starting that first job out of college. My first few years of employment were tough. There were no protections and I was the hottest rumor at the company. I had to work harder to make my performance and my other characteristics more visible than the second puberty I was undergoing.
Presently there is no mistaking that I am male, so that facet, which used to be a blinding, disabling part of my daily existence, is now a shadowy part of my history. Or, so it would seem to most casual observers once they are made aware of my past.
Shadows have substance. Light has meaning. As a Native American author put it in his memoir, “You are your history.”
I bear the physical scars; anatomical differences compared to a cis-gendered man; the memories of a frustrated youth, of being invisible in my own life; the emotional scars and wounds, some of which lie dangerously close to the surface. I wouldn’t be the man I am without them.
Going back to the Catholic Church at thirty was a breeze. I had been confirmed, never married, and I didn’t feel the need to volunteer my past at the re-entrance interview. Subsequent confessions, where I did mention that I was trans, did not go poorly. While I was consistently the “first one” that each priest knew that they’d spoken to, they were all kind, and sent the message of “go forth and live.” I stayed quietly in the shadows.
I lived what trans folks call a "stealth" existence for years. I didn’t tell people of my history. People I met had no reason to suspect I was anything but a normal man. Only the friends that stuck with me throughout were aware of the issues I’d faced; only they had the images for what I had been in their memory. About ten years on, I started to realize that I had very few people I could be completely open with, about “anything.” I was censoring myself to others because I didn’t want to tell anyone that I wasn’t fully male as that “assumption” on the part of others was still so validating to me. I had created a new darkness.
As I was slowly starting to contemplate coming out of that stealth shell, exiting that closet all over again, I met a Catholic nun whose ministry was to the trans community. I started dating a woman who would not let me stay in my box. In large part because of them I started to expand my horizons. I have had to confront issues over friendships, stealth, intimacy, and my own sexual orientation that I’d left buried.
Having Sister “Monica” in my life was a Godsend. Not only did she become my spiritual director, she became a beloved friend. She challenged me to accompany her to a national Catholic gay and lesbian ministry conference. She had been asked to do a presentation on her ministry among transgender people and wanted me to participate as part of her presentation. That conference was an experience. Two bishops were scheduled to speak. The first, an American, was scheduled for Friday night. He was under political pressure and toed the Catholic hierarchy party line. He did not make eye contact as he spoke. To his credit, he stayed and let all of the attendees, most of whom were extremely distraught, vent at him. That was a crucifixion of sorts. The second bishop, a Mexican, spoke later. I have never met a man who so personified Jesus incarnate. He was loving, accepting, and had an uncanny knack for appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, to personally talk with people. I was taking my bags out of my stateroom, hoping I’d get a chance to talk with him when he “appeared” to me. We had a conversation in broken English that was one of the most spiritual I’ve experienced. I felt enveloped by the Church after that weekend.
Two months later, at a Christmas address to the curia, Pope Benedict made comments that slammed the church door in my face, saying that there needed to be an ecology of the human race, and those like me needed to be pruned like weeds from the rainforest. To say I’ve been heartbroken is an understatement.
I once attended a lecture by a rabbi regarding Jewish tradition and gender. The Hebrew language in the Talmud allows for six different genders. Obviously, this included people who were born physically intersexed. The rabbi explained that Hebrew thought and language makes allowances for things that are neither one nor the other, such as day and night. This was important in many ways, including defining the parameters of the Sabbath. The language for the other genders that were not fully male or female was akin to the language that defines twilight...not the fullness of day or night, but a beautiful space in between that is both and neither, but distinct, beautiful, and of God.
The photographer in me has seized that concept. I am twilight, I am a sunrise, I am a sunset. I am not a weed to be pruned. I am not “less than.” I am my history; I contain the shadows and the light of what I have seen. I am a physical living embodiment of that moment that allows for striking images, fleeting visions and perspectives that are not possible during the fullness of day or night. I am of God and I have beauty in this world that can only be viewed by those who choose to seek it.
James Scott P. Pignatella