Psychological and Spiritual Explorations of the Transgender Experience

Transgender people and issues are still new and unknown to many people in the LGBT and ally community.  While decades of information and experience have taught our church and world so much about sexual orientation, we are only just recently breaking the ice on the question of gender identity.  Many people are just beginning to ask questions about this more forgotten sector and are learning about the gifts that transgender people bring to our faith and civil communities.

Two articles written by Catholics recently looked at transgender issues from two different perspectives: the psychological and the pastoral.  Both, of course, include a faith dimension to their discussions.

Sydney Callahan

The psychological article was written by Sydney Callahan as a blog post for America magazine.  Callahan is a respected Catholic psychologist and writer who has long advocated for new understandings of the role of sexuality in our lives.  As far as I know, this is her first examination of transgender issues.

Reflecting on a New York Times op-ed essay by transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, and also on the tragic recent death of teen Leelah Alcorn, Callahan suggests that its important for all of us to compose our own “gender autobiography”–an account of how we have all come to learn and accept our gender.  She states:

“. . . [W]hen we reflect on our own developmental history we can better see the various complexities involved. So much happens beneath and before conscious awareness. Gender identity emerges, I now conclude, from an interrelated interplay of genes, biochemical influences in the womb, infant and child personal experiences and social pressure. The brain seems hardwired early, perhaps in different degrees. But undoubtedly, random chance events determine individual developmental outcomes. While God does not make mistakes, God works through secondary causes such as evolution’s random mutations and variations.”

In reflecting on our own journeys, we will be able to see how various influences and lessons shaped our own gender identity.  Callahan takes note of the personal evolution that everyone goes through:

“Autobiographical reflections confront us with the mysterious question, ‘How does the self-conscious “I am” relate to the “me” of my body changing through time?’ ”

Regardless of the origin of gender identity, Christians are called to show respect for all  people:

“Fortunately, Christians do not have to wait for scientific consensus to understand and affirm religious truths. We know that God commands us to treat each human life with justice and love. In particular we must protect the vulnerable and relieve suffering. Moreover, the embodied person’s whole identity, deeds and character are more important than gender identity.”

Callahan ends by pointing to a new direction that Catholic theology needs to take:

“I thank God that Christians value and protect every stage and condition of embodied life. We value embryo, fetus, infant, child, adult, aged, disabled and the dying. And we’ve been promised the gift of transitioning to resurrected life as members of Christ’s body. Can we hope now for an expanded theology of the body and person, to better understand gender and transgendered persons?”

Sister Monica (center) with two transgender friends. (Photo by William Widmer)

It is on this spiritual and theological note that the second article I read takes off.  Written by “Sr. Monica,”  a pseudonym for a Catholic nun who has been in pastoral ministry with transgender people since 1999, the Huffington Post  essay looks back on the pastoral lessons that she has learned from this community.   (She chose to remain anonymous in her publicity so as not to attract the attention of the Catholic hierarchy.)

She describes her ministry as, at first, a learning experience for herself, since she had not previously known any transgender people.  But the actual ministerial principles and actions were the same as other forms of accompaniment ministry:

“I believe that when we are trying to live our lives honestly and with integrity we are moving toward God and not away from God. Whether in a formal retreat setting or in the many informal ways I companion them, I remind them that they are precious and loved by God.”

An added dimension of her outreach included being an advocate and a “bridge” for transgender people wherever she could be:

” . . . [I]t is my great privilege to bring my transgender friends out from the darkness of the margins of society into the light where they can be seen as who they are — gifted, struggling human beings as we all are. I’ve mediated with families when asked by them. I’ve coordinated many Trans Awareness Evenings to provide an opportunity for people with open minds and hearts to meet and talk with my trans friends.”

Like Callahan, Sr. Monica sees that the transgender journey of self-acceptance is primarily a spiritual one:

“In the past 16 years I have come to know well over two hundred transgender people. From the beginning I had a passion to be a supportive companion to them in the deeply spiritual journey of claiming and living in their truth. My mantra has always been ‘What gives glory to God is for us to be the person God made us to be. When we are trying to live as honestly as we can our lives gives praise to God.’ “

Sr. Monica reflects on what transgender ministry has given to herself:

“I am 71 years old and have had the privilege and joy of being present among the transgender community since 1999. I could never have imagined the extent to which my own life would be shaped by them. They have taught me so much about courage, about the value and the cost of being honest with oneself, with others, and with God.”

Gender has often been a restricting influence on all people.  Gender roles rarely match the individual complexity of any one person’s life, and they can inhibit personal development.  I am beginning to learn that transgender people have the special gift of helping all people to overcome gender expectations and constrictions which harm or deaden an individual.  They help us all to become the people that God made out of love.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

7 replies
  1. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    “Fortunately, Christians do not have to wait for scientific consensus to understand and affirm religious truths. We know that God commands us to treat each human life with justice and love. In particular we must protect the vulnerable and relieve suffering. Moreover, the embodied person’s whole identity, deeds and character are more important than gender identity.”

    YES. This whole issue is not only “about” LGBT people, but how the entire faithful relates to them. Are we inclusive? Loving (not just ‘tolerant)? Are we without judgment, as Christ demands? It is about all of us. The hierarchy who are modeling a judgmental and punitive response (firing LGBT people and their supporters, name calling (‘intrinsically disordered’)–these are false Catholics as far as I am concerned. In fact, they are tearing the church apart. They are responsible for leading souls away from Christ. Isn’t this wrong? Why are we arguing that discrimination must be a tenet of faith? I feel like the church is a crazy house at times. Luckily, each Catholic is in charge of his/her own soul. We can listen to the Holy Spirit and be part of the love, not the hate. When I despair, thinking we will NEVER convince the power-hungry hierarchy, I fix my attention on Catholics like Sr. Monica. There is always a way to love.

  2. Jane paris
    Jane paris says:

    Excellent column. Our ministry is just starting to learn about the “T” in our GLBT title, although we have always welcomed transgender people.

  3. Colleen Fay
    Colleen Fay says:

    We transgender folk are few. Our situation is unlike that of our Lesbian sisters and Gay brothers and even those queer or questioning. Ours is emphatically not a question of sexuality, but of identity. Even among some very sympathetic friends and family, this distinction is misunderstood. We are, as a society, still so hamstrung about sex that the mere use of the word has its own little frisson of fear or discomfort. Our social sin, we trans folk, is that we traduce the norms. This in many eyes is unpardonable. As Catholic Christians we must all look to that log in our own eye before we worry about somebody else’s splinter. Think of us as having just a little gift we can bring to the table. God has accepted us, now the Church must follow suit.


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  1. […] people.  We’ve covered her involvement in this groundbreaking work a few times (here and here, for example), and you can read about her ministry and why she chooses to remain anonymous, using […]

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