“Transgender persons are the body of Christ too,” wrote Sr. Luisa Derouen, OP, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, in a recent column in which she called for Catholic hospitals to provide more equitable healthcare.
In her op-ed for Global Sisters Report, Derouen called on Catholic hospitals and healthcare providers to treat transgender people with respect and to recognize them as the people they are. Trans people often face challenges accessing healthcare. When they do receive it, experiences can often be unpleasant or even traumatic.
Derouen’s column is based on her decades-long ministry as a spiritual companion to about 250 trans people. Derouen shared stories she has heard about experiences of transphobia in Catholic hospitals:
“Sometimes medical staff lack proper training. Vincent shared with me his experience trying to make an appointment at a Catholic hospital for an OB-GYN checkup. The nurse at the other end of the phone questioned, ‘I have to ask if you have had the surgeries? Do you still have your female parts down there?’ In horror he responded, ‘I’ll discuss that with the doctor. I’m not comfortable discussing that with you over the phone.’ She insisted on an answer right then, which made him extremely uncomfortable, so he now shies away from any OB-GYN care entirely.”
As a result of experiences like this, trans people are often reluctant to seek medical care. The healthcare system often leaves people with few options, and trans people may not be able to avoid seeing a transphobic provider or encountering systemic issues. Derouen offered a story:
“A doctor shared a common experience. The doctor was called to the emergency department for a badly injured trans woman whose only option for care was this Catholic hospital. The name listed was the patient’s legal male name, but the patient was presenting as female. She was clearly traumatized and crying. The young doctor reassured her and stated, ‘I’d like to take the best care of you I can. How do you prefer I address you?’
“The patient smiled, exhaled in relief, and stated her preferred name. A bit more at ease now, she disclosed that she avoids medical care because she is treated so badly. The doctor was careful to include her preferred name on the chart alongside her male legal name. But the doctor learned later that the information included to respect the trans patient was removed by a more senior doctor because it was ‘unnecessary and just cluttering up the list.’ Now this woman was traumatized for her injuries, and again for being deliberately made invisible.”
Derouen’s perspective on healthcare comes from a deeply Catholic notion. She writes:
“Why should the medical experiences of transgender people and their families concern me? That is not my expertise at all. I’m a spiritual director. Well, here’s why: we are each a unique body-soul creation of God.”
The vision of Catholic healthcare at its best is that it responds to that creation by caring for the body and soul of each person. But too often, trans people do not receive that care. Derouen explained:
“It has often been pointed out that we Catholics would never dream of disrespecting the body of Christ we receive in Communion, but we don’t hesitate to disrespect the body of Christ in the person before us, especially those whose Christ-like humanity makes us uncomfortable.”
On those occasions when trans people are able to receive affirming medical care, it can be life-changing. She offered an important example:
“As a high school junior in 2012, Michael attempted suicide and was brought to the psychiatric ward of a Catholic hospital. The doctors, nurses and staff called him Michael and validated his experience with support and acceptance. At his request a priest came to see him who, like the staff, listened nonjudgmentally and sensitively. Michael pointed out to me, ‘This experience was at a pivotal moment for me, and I am so grateful for everyone there. I’ve had harmful experiences, but this one stands out because it is so rare.’”
Derouen entered religious life in 1961 and has been ministering to the transgender community since the late 1990s, she told New Ways Ministry co-founder Sr. Jeannine Gramick in an interview for Global Sisters Report. Her ministry has taken the form of both spiritual companionship and advocacy for the trans community. Earlier this year, Bondings 2.0 reported on Derouen’s response to transphobic policies issued by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois.
Derouen’s body-soul perspective sheds light on the idea that if medical providers offer adequate care for people’s bodies but disrespect who they are, they are operating counter to all established standards of medical care. Medical transphobia has real impacts on people’s physical health as well as their mental health. Stress is a big contributor to disease. As Derouen recounted, traumatic experiences with healthcare also often lead people to avoid seeking treatment, contributing to chronic health problems.
At its worst, medical transphobia kills when trans people are refused treatment.
Catholic hospitals need a culture change in order to respect all of their patients, body and soul.
—Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, February 11, 2021