Today’s post is from guest blogger, Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ. Students at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, first introduced themselves to Nancy as trans or gender-variant in her role as the Catholic Chaplain at the school. Recently retired, she is on a sabbatical, exploring a ministry of presence and accompaniment with other queer folk.
Before I became a Sister of St. Joseph, I visited New York City to meet Sister Anne Brotherton who was getting her doctorate at Fordham University. As we toured Greenwich Village together, I asked Anne if she felt funny walking around in a traditional habit. “Oh, no”, she responded, “I feel quite comfortable. We’re all queer here”.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “queer” as “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.” And today, the term “queer” is being reclaimed as a source of pride to folks who disdain the rigid binary classifications of being either female or male. So why do I think of nuns as queer?
Presently, I am on a sabbatical exploring ministry with LGBTQIA folks after working at a women’s college that graduated a few men every year. The students exposed me to the rigid binary construction of female and male. The way they used their clothing and hair styles in ways that did not fit the gender binary politicized my consciousness.
When I no longer had the energy to keep up with the 18-22-year-olds as their Catholic Chaplain, I retired, and I am now on sabbatical. During this time, I have learned that rather than “peculiar, bizarre or weird”, the term “queer” has come to mean “unconventional, unorthodox folks who make visible that maleness and femaleness are social constructions rather than divinely assigned categories”.
Believing that one cannot minister with humans that we believe to be “other” than ourselves, I began reflecting on how I and my religious sisters have also challenged the binary. Let me share some examples which have existed in convents. In an age when a woman’s glory was her long hair, nuns cut theirs off before they pronounced vows. They often were given names reserved for men. Richard Joseph, Francis Regis, John Kenneth, James Patrick, Christopher, Leo, Paul are names of some of my sisters who are alive today. If sisters did not bind their breasts, they often wore bib like material to disguise their natural form. Like males, most sisters did not wear makeup. When in habit they went “stealth” at times, especially at the beach.
When I was a child in the 1950-60’s, religious women did the jobs that men did. They were presidents of colleges, principals of schools, administrators and financial officers of hospitals. Some sisters note that when they wore a habit, they were no longer perceived as a woman. We were given instant authority, instant deference. They were perceived equal to priests–or at least of higher privilege than other women.
Like the experience of many transgender and gender non-conforming humans, many of our parents were not pleased with the choice of our entering the convent. Our parents’ dreams of traditional weddings and grandchildren faded with our choice. So I find I have a lot more in common with folks who claim the term “queer” than I had thought possible.
I have hope that by normalizing our “unconventional” and “unorthodox” choices, we might also claim our love and support of humans who likewise challenge the social construction of our society. Rigid constructions of our social norms do need to be challenged. Perhaps by looking at the choices made by nuns, we might expand our acceptance of other queer folk, and explore together how to be fully human.
— Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, May 20, 2017