I remember Fr. O’Reilly standing behind his large desk, pushing himself upright on fingers splayed out on the green blotter, imposing even without the stark, black cassock. He seemed to be so very tall, as most grown men are to a five year old. “Why are you here?” he asked in a not unkind voice. “I disobeyed Mother Superior,” I mumbled, quickly averting my eyes to the floor. “Yes, but why?” he pressed. “I wanted to play with the girls.” I said. “But you are not a girl,” he said, “and you should be thankful God chose to make you a boy. It is much better to be a boy and you should do as Mother Superior says and play with the boys.” “I don’t want to play with the boys. They make fun of me and I don’t like their games,” I cried. “You must play with the other boys. That is how you will learn to be the man God wants you to be.” “No, I will not be a man!”
“It is sinful to not do what God wants us to do. God made you a boy and you must be a boy. You must put away these sinful thoughts and pray that God gives you the strength to obey his will for you. If you don’t, you will go to Hell.” He moved out from behind the desk and walked toward me, exposing the wooden paddle he often used to reinforce his commands. “I’m going to help you remember this lesson, help you understand the pain of disobeying God’s will.”
That day in 1951 I learned that being different was dangerous. That day I learned the feelings I had of being a girl were wrong and not according to God’s will for me. I learned the way I felt was unnatural, that the feelings I had not asked for nor cultivated, the feelings that were just there inside me, were evil, something to be ashamed of and thus hidden away. That day I began to construct the façade that allowed me to hide in plain sight for over fifty years.
I am a cradle Catholic, second boy of parents who converted as adults. My mother was extremely devout and saw to it that her children went to Catholic school. She believed in and loved the Catholic Church and taught her sons to love it, too. And I did love the Church. I trusted that if I did as Fr. O’Reilly had demanded I would be happy being a boy. I began to pray the rosary each night asking Mary to help me feel happy that I was born a boy. But still in my heart, I really hoped I would wake up a girl. But all the prayer did not help. I failed at being the boy I was supposed to be. The other children, boys and girls, sensed I was different, called me “sissy” and shunned me. I became a loner, a small wisp of a boy inhabiting the margins of the playground. I succeeded at the only thing I could. I made good grades.
My parents were very focused on my older brother who was born with severe asthma and had barely survived rheumatic fever and polio. My mother knew our faith had saved him. As long as I brought home good report cards and no bad notes from the sisters, they were happy with me and didn’t noticed that I was always alone. My effort to plaster over the ache in my heart worked until my brother was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Dean had just turned fourteen and I was eleven. Mother and I said the rosary together each night, asking Mary to intervene, but Dean did not get better. His leg had to be amputated, but mother urged me to continue to pray for him, and I did. My parents began to spend every available moment at the hospital with him. Being such a good, quiet child, I was allowed to stay home alone after school. One afternoon I happened to see an article in the newspaper about Christine Jorgensen, the first well-known transsexual. Doctors had turned a man into a woman. All my stifled dreams and wishes came rushing back. If God let doctors operate on a man and make him into a woman, how could it be a sin for me to want to be a girl? For the first time, despite Fr. O’Reilly’s warning of God’s wrath, I crossdressed in my mother’s clothes. And it felt good. I looked in the mirror and finally liked the person I saw. That night I prayed for God to let my brother live and to let me find a way to be a girl.
But neither prayer was answered. One day, after I had again worn my mother’s clothes, she came home and told me Dean had died. Suddenly, I knew Father had been right. I knew God had taken my brother as punishment for my grave sin. At confession the next day, the priest told me that my sin had not caused my brother’s death, but that it would lead to my damnation if I did not live as the boy God made me.
I tried. Though I had been a wimpy boy who never played sports, I decided to become one who did. I discovered that God had given me a body that responded well to exercise. I found a neighbor who was a gifted athlete in many sports, particularly football, the sport a real boy must play. I soon impressed him with my desire to learn from him.
A year later, I began high school and earned a starting position on the junior varsity football team. Suddenly, I became part of the in-crowd, a jock, and a desirable date for all the right girls. By the time I graduated, I had earned letters in football, track, and tennis, was elected to numerous leadership positions, was voted a senior favorite and won a congressional appointment to the US Air Force Academy, which was all-male at that time. There I excelled again, playing football, soccer, rugby, as well as earning academic honors. I was doing all the things a cadet was supposed to do. And I did them far better than most. I became engaged to my high school sweetheart and we planned to marry in the Cadet Chapel graduation day. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t.
All that time, I prayed for God to hear the pain in my heart, the ache that would not go away. Daily Mass and Communion did not seem to help. No matter how hard I tried, a moment’s lapse in concentration and a small voice that seemed to come from my soul would tell me I was not really happy. I assumed I had not yet made up for my sins, that I had not yet become the man God wanted me to be. I prayed that marrying my soul mate would be the answer. But again my prayers were not answered. The morning after our wedding, I awoke to the familiar ache. Two months later, as I began flight training, having achieved the dreams of so many young men, I plunged into depression and made my first attempt at suicide. After I was released from the base hospital, I went to Mass often, hoping that receiving communion would help.
But it did not. God did not seem to care that I was hurting, even as I earned my Air Force wings, a most manly accomplishment. I began to feel nothing at Mass. I had done everything a boy and man are supposed to do and still the ache was in my heart. I was becoming angry with God and the Church.
I left the Air Force and began a new career as an engineer. My wife sensed my unhappiness and hoped that a child would strengthen our marriage. I became a father and worked hard to be a good one. I think I was, though I would not let my wife have our daughter baptized in the Catholic Church. I was too angry with a church and a God that would reward my long struggle to be a man with such unhappiness in my soul.
I began to run away from life. I put in long hours at work and rapidly rose through the company ranks. I provided well for my family. Though I was falling away from the Church, I continued to pray to Mary, asking her, a woman, to intervene. A callus built up on my soul, but nothing would stop the ache. Finally, I no longer went to Church because it became like sixty minutes of institutionalized pain, each time slowly reopening the wound on my soul only to pour in religious salt.
Gradually I fell into depression, spiraling ever downward. After thirty years of marriage, I finally told my wife why I was so sad in spite of all her efforts and all my successes. She quickly withdrew from me and I descended further into depression. The engineering firm I had worked so hard to build began to struggle since I could not maintain the level of effort it had come to depend upon. I was unable to prevent our purchase by a larger firm which also foundered. I lost all the investment I had made in my company. Then I lost my job and soon after, our financial stability. A year later, after several suicide attempts by both my wife and me, our marriage ended.
I was alone and lost. I had nowhere to turn except back to the Church. I returned to Mass and prayed for healing. And once again the Church let me down. I found a priest in my small town and told him I was a transsexual and I needed to feel that God would understand I must live as a woman if I am to live at all. He blandly told me that I had been born a man, would always be a man in God’s eyes, and that I should just look between my legs and I would know that. He told me I must not act on my feelings, that altering my body or living as a woman would be sinful, that I should work harder at being a good Catholic, at attending Mass, at prayer, asking for strength to follow God’s will. The words of Fr. O’Reilly all over again. My fifty years of trying to follow them was still not enough to satisfy the Church.
A few days later, I was in the mental ward of the VA hospital in New Orleans. I felt rejected by God; unable to be the man he wanted me to be. I was in a spiritual Catch-22, a Catholic double bind: I could not continue to live as a man and my Church would condemn me to Hell if I tried to live as a woman. I wanted to die, to stop the pain, but that too was a mortal sin. It seemed no matter what I did, I would be forever in pain.
It was at that point that Sister Monica entered my life. A friend tried to persuade me for many months before I finally agreed to meet her. Somehow my heart overcame my fear of once again being hurt by a member of the Catholic clergy.
I will never forget that night when her ministry began to impact me. I wrote in my journal the next day: “Since I left you Saturday morning, I have had such a feeling of joy and hope for the future. You touched something in me, perhaps finding a small ember of faith in the Church still glowing after all those years
With Sister Monica’s help, I began to believe that I could come back to the Church as Dawn, and subsequently I attended Mass with her at her church in New Orleans East. The pastor and the congregation accepted me and welcomed me to their fold. That day I began to feel welcome in God’s house. Coming to terms with my Catholic faith at last freed me to move forward with my transition. Instead of waking each morning regretting that God did not take me during the night, I am anxious to get up and face the day, for being alive is now a miracle instead of a curse. I like what I see in the mirror, a fifty plus woman who will at last be able to enjoy her true spirit. My friends tell me they can see the difference in my face and hear the happiness in my voice.
But being a transsexual and trying to practice my Catholic faith is not easy. The church fathers continue to parrot Fr. O’Reilly’s words. Though intellectually, I now know that the men in Rome are not the entire Church, their words can still hurt me
I am a transsexual, yet I am many things. I am a sissy, a crybaby, the butt of jokes and fodder for the Catholic school bullies. I am a high school jock, a college football player, an intramural boxer and rugby player. I am a warrior, an Air Force Academy graduate, a Vietnam veteran, a GIB, the guy in the back of an F4 Phantom “Goose” flying behind Tom Cruise. I am a professional engineer registered in six states. I am a businessperson, executive vice president of a large engineering company that provided livelihoods for over a thousand people. I am a leader, active in my community and profession, serving in chambers of commerce, charities and professional associations. I am a teacher, instructing future teachers how to use computers and the Internet to improve their classrooms. I have a doctorate in Instructional Design and Development, which clarifies how the way we think influences the way we learn on the web.
I am a transsexual, sixty-five years old, yet just a few years into my new life as a woman. I am also a cradle Catholic, raised in the Church according to the Baltimore Catechism, missing Latin and not understanding Vatican II. I am a husband, wed in the Catholic Church to my high school sweetheart and married for almost thirty-four years. I am the father of one child, a now thirty-five year old daughter who is not a cradle Catholic because I would not let her be baptized as an infant. I am a fallen-away Catholic, though I am still desperately trying to find a spiritual home within the Church. I am all of these things at once. But for the Catholic Church, the only thing that has mattered all my life and all that still matters is that I am a transsexual.
Can I choose not to be a transsexual? Let me answer this way. Friends who are not Catholic often ask me why I want to be part of a Church that does not value me for who I am, a Church that declares me, like they do gay people, to be something disordered, an abomination. The answer is that I can be no other. From my earliest memories I have known the Catholic Church as the Church. I cannot change my faith and I cannot change my being transsexual. I have always been a Catholic and I have always been a transsexual. I can only choose to die trying to live a lie, or to live the way that makes my soul sing.
Could I have chosen not to have surgery? I feel strongly that I had to have this surgery if I was to have a body that is one with my soul. Though the Church considers this surgery “superficial”, changing nothing, for me it is life giving. At long last I see a body that truly reflects the person I am. If I am blessed to find another soul mate, that person will see me the way I want them to see me. I am, at least in the state’s eyes, for at least some of society’s legal necessities, a woman. Two not inconsequential examples: I can at last be able to go to the bathroom without breaking the law and my hormone prescriptions are covered by insurance. Still the Church considers this “choice” sinful, disfiguring the body God made for me.
I still pray that someday the Church fathers will open their hearts and truly welcome my trans brothers and sisters and me home, home to the fullness of our wonderful Catholic faith.
Dawn Elizabeth Wright