For transgender Catholics, the church is often a source of both deep pain and profound joy, according to a recent Associated Press profile of several transgender Catholics in the United States.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, at least six dioceses have issued restrictive guidelines directed at transgender individuals in the last two years, the most recent, and perhaps most harsh, coming from Milwaukee. All these guidelines require that church employees and students be treated according to the sex they were assigned at birth when it comes to pronouns, bathrooms, and dress codes. The policy in Marquette, Michigan, recommends the denial of the sacraments to LGBTQ Catholics “unless the person has repented.”
And yet, despite these repressive examples, some transgender Catholics find reasons to hope and welcoming parishes in which to practice their faith. At the Church of Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken, New Jersey, Christine Zuba, a trans woman, preached at the annual Pride Mass at the invitation of the pastor, Fr. Alexander Santora.
“We are not disordered, confused, or a fad. We are not trying to defy God, nor to play God,” Zuba explained in her homily. “By staying visible, not only outside these walls but inside our churches, we change hearts and minds, one person at a time. Once in a while we may get thrown out, but if that happens, we’re not going away. We’re coming right back in.”
Fr. Santora, who has been a priest for forty years, recalled the applause of the parishioners following Zuba’s sermon. “I wanted Christine to be on that pulpit,” he said.
And while Zuba has been supported in her own parish, where she was welcomed after coming out at age 58 and still serves as a Eucharistic minister, she recognizes the welcome she experienced is not common. “These bishops and priests don’t understand that when they turn someone away, they’re losing parents, children, groups of friends who say this is not the church we want to belong to,” she noted.
Lynn Discenza, a 64-year-old trans woman of West Hartford, Connecticut, also finds herself living in the tension of a welcoming local parish (St. Patrick-St. Anthony) disconnected from the condemnation of the hierarchy. She is the co-leader of the LGBTQ ministry at her church and even attended seminary before studying in aerospace design.
She recalled her parish’s observation of Trans Day of Remembrance in November, at which time the pastor, Fr. Timothy Shreenan, wrote in the bulletin: “We must always stand up against hatred in all its forms and not allow others’ fears (or phobias) to be a reason for hatred. Rather, we must continue to learn more about the experience of others and to become more tolerant and accepting of one another.”
Like Zuba, Discenza is convinced that a more welcoming and inclusive church starts at the local level: “The change is going to come from the ground up, and some of the old bishops will die away.”
And while affirming pastors like Zuba’s and Discenza’s certainly exist, many other clergy are not welcoming trans Catholics in the pews. Eli Musselman, who is 19 and transitioned about four years ago, is a first-year student at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. When he first came out, his pastor refused to use his preferred pronouns, and Musselman began experiencing anxiety attacks from the “nasty looks” he received at church.
“A place that had once been a safe haven for me had become a place of dangers. But since coming out, my spirituality has grown,” Musselman recalls. “I feel whole for the first time in my life.”
Eli’s mother, JoEllen Musselman, also remembers the difficulties of that period: “I lost some really good friends. I felt I was constantly making apologies to people and I got tired of that.”
But like her son, she focuses on her faith rather than the institutional church. “They’re flawed,” she explains, speaking of church leaders. “If it weren’t for Christ, the church would collapse because we humans screw everything up.”
Pope Francis himself sometimes embodies this combination of rejection and welcome to the LGBTQ community. He is well-known for personally welcoming individual gay Catholics and pastoral statements but also denounces “gender theory,” an undefined term used to refer to any positive approach to new understandings of gender. In a 2016 press conference, he qualified his remarks about the need to minister to the trans community by insisting: “But please don’t say ‘The pope sanctifies trans!’ Please!”
For those working directly in ministry to trans Catholics, this hypocrisy is clear. Sr. Luisa Derouen, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, has ministered to over 250 trans Catholics since 1999. “Many of our bishops are anti-science,” she points out in reference to the disconnect in modern understandings of gender and the church’s refusal to move beyond the binary. “You can’t respect people and deny their existence at the same time.”
And Derouen would know. She was allowed to write about her experiences in 2014 as long as she remained anonymous, which she did until 2018 when she began to publicly advocate for the trans community to “give witness to their dignity and worth as human beings.” Her hope for change also rests with the grassroots activism and work of individual Catholics rather than the leaders of the global church.
“There has never been a time in the American church when Catholic hierarchy has had less moral credibility. The people in the pews are taking responsibility for doing their own homework and recognizing that we are all God’s people,” she said.
Michael Sennett, a 26-year-old trans man and the communications director for St. Ignatius of Loyola Church on the campus of Boston College, already sees some of that change in action. Sennett, who is a regular contributor to Bondings 2.0, said, “Overall I marvel at the progress. People are speaking up as never before, joining forces…The laity is finding more power.”
—Angela Howard McParland (she/her), New Ways Ministry, March 14, 2022