Two Catholic advocates for the transgender community have crafted a spiritual road map for parents to not only accept, but to holistically nurture and embrace their transgender children. The creative inspiration of this blueprint is the Catholic Mass framework.
The essay, published by the National Catholic Reporter, was written by two people from different, but complementary backgrounds. Dominican Sister of Peace Luisa Derouen is a spiritual director and has been a strong advocate for the transgender community since 1999. She has trained others to become spiritual companions for transgender persons on their journey of discovering their gender identity and expression. Dr. Colt St. Amand, a transgender person, is a family medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic, psychologist, and a certified member of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) Global Education Initiative (GEI), which establishes best practices in transgender medical and mental health care.
In their essay entitled “Responding responsibly as parents of transgender children,” Derouen and St. Amand articulate how the Catholic liturgy creates an inclusive spiritual framework for parents to understand as well as nurture their transgender children:
“In Catholic liturgy, the dynamic of gathering, listening and responding is the fundamental action by which we surrender ourselves to become the body of Christ in our world. Since the rituals of liturgy are meant to help shape our dispositions of life, they may be instructive in reflecting on the relationship of parents with transgender children. When faced with a child coming out as transgender, a parent’s process of responding responsibly will involve being present to the reality, listening with openness and respect, then responding with love.”
Derouen and St. Amand distill this parental framework into three elements: (I) Gather, (II) Listen, and (III) Respond.
The liturgy calls us to be open to the truth and to receive it as it unfolds in our lives, regardless if it causes discomfort or is unfamiliar to us. Because the truth leads us closer to God, it can bring parents closer to their children and to the “possibility that yes, their own child may well be transgender.”
Juxtaposed against the lived reality of transgender children are many parental fears, centered on where their child fits into the church and society. These fears, though, are accompanied by the parents’ psychological fortitude to support their child. The authors explain:
“Learning their child is transgender can be overwhelming for parents. The temptation to deny and discredit this news can be strong. Parents may fear that the church and God are against their child. Some fear their child will be a target of violence, or will try to end their life. Some worry that they will not have enough emotional energy and spiritual strength to accompany their child. It is important for parents to name and process these fears.”
Upon being open to this truth, the liturgy also invites us to “hear God’s Word as it comes through the Scriptures, through other people and through life’s experiences.” Listening requires us to be open to the transformative power that these experiences garner, courageously and compassionately.
Derouen and St. Amand underscore how misinformation and transphobia, which have been reinforced by some church leaders, can impede a parent’s capacity to accompany a transgender child to embrace who they are. The authors write:
“Tragically, religion may challenge parents’ ability to nurture their transgender child. Though there are supportive faith leaders, many know little about transgender people. But worse than ignorance are clergy eager to offer guidance based on woefully outdated and harmful information. Parent’s inability to support and accept their transgender child is often reinforced by inaccurate and harmful responses from religious leaders.”
Derouen and St. Amand also emphasize the importance of listening to a child to better understand their longings, sorrows, and joys, even if parents think that being transgender is not a normalized expression of gender identity:
“Listening is a skill and a grace. It’s important that parents listen and ask questions in order to understand, not correct or judge. Listen to the pain, fears, hopes and dreams of their transgender child. Parents can listen respectfully even when they believe that being transgender is wrong.”
Responding to one’s transgender child follows after deeply gathering and absorbing the truth of one’s transgender child. It requires a parent’s “surrender in love,” which personifies the Body of Christ.
For Derouen and St. Amand, by surrendering to the Eucharist, the parent seeks to embody the radical, unconditional love that Jesus brought to this world, aimed at dismantling the rigid social, religious, and political barriers that denigrated groups of people at the expense of others. We see these rigid contemporary categories reflected today in how transgender persons are demonized and excluded in many areas of their lives, including family life, educational environments, and the church.
To achieve this loving response, Derouen and St.Amand caution against imposing a myopic understanding of gender expression on their transgender child:
“When parents succumb to pressure from others to alienate their child unless they conform to gender expectations, risk for suicide, depression and other serious health risks are significantly increased. The university-based Family Acceptance Project research shows how parental rejecting behaviors contribute to serious health risks in their children and informs evidence-based support work with racially and religiously diverse families.”
To further avoid these consequences, a parent’s loving response to the beauty of God’s truth of their transgender child begins with using the child’s preferred name and pronouns:
“God’s presence in the love for their child is manifest when they make their best effort to use the name and pronouns that honor the truth of the child’s gender identity. Parents show love when they require others to treat their child with respect.”
Derouen and St. Amand also enumerate the negative spiritual and psychological consequences that can occur when parents shun or reject a transgender child, consequences that damage a child’s relationship with their parents and with God:
“Parents’ inability or unwillingness to accept their transgender child has profound psychological and spiritual ramifications for the child. It erodes the confidence of their child to trust their own inner self-knowing. The child believes God does not and cannot love them. Constantly challenging and denying their human reality and their dignity is spiritual abuse. It undermines their sense of self-worth, erodes the parent-child bond and increases risks for health problems.”
As Derouen and St. Amand reflect on the wonderful beauty of all God’s creation, including transgender children, they offer powerful words of wisdom focused on reconciliation as a pathway for parents to love their transgender child:
Everyone’s life is a beautiful, mysterious, complex reflection of God in our world. Parents will surely not get it right all the time. No one gets it right all the time. Our final word of guidance is to acknowledge mistakes along the way and to ask for forgiveness. Far from being a sign of weakness, asking for forgiveness and a willingness to forgive is a most powerful expression of love.”
–Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, July 25, 2020