Today’s post is from guest contributor Kori Pacyniak (they/them), a queer, nonbinary, and trans Catholic, who is a PhD candidate at the University of California Riverside. They are presently completing a dissertation titled, “Sacred Bodies, Sacred Lives: Trans Catholic Joy, Resistance, and Liberation” about the lived religious experiences of trans Catholics. Ordained as a priest through Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Kori currently focuses on creating sacred space and liturgy by and for queer and trans Catholics.
“A voice cries out in the wilderness.” Isaiah’s words echo throughout our Advent liturgies, whether spoken or sung (the Michael Joncas song of the same name has long been a mainstay of my Advent devotional practices), and this year feel especially poignant as we glance around a world facing climate change, war, and economic disparity. While our hearts are heavy with all that is going on around the world, the political and social climate here in the U.S. is just as fragile for transgender individuals.
In recent years, trans rights have been challenged by state legislation on an unprecedented scale. In 2023 alone, 591 bills were introduced across 49 states. Of these bills that seek to prohibit trans people’s rights to access healthcare, use their names and pronouns, and play sports, 85 have passed, 377 are still active, and 129 have failed. Similarly, anti-trans rhetoric has emerged in the Roman Catholic Church, exemplified by diocesan policies that ban the use of trans individuals’ names and pronouns and prohibit them from full participation in church life.
Recent moves by Pope Francis, such as the 2023 letter permitting transgender persons to serve as godparents and to be baptized themselves, as well as having lunch with a group of trans women provide a more compassionate and pastoral approach, offering hope to many trans Catholics. These mixed messages – of oppression and compassion – leave many wondering whether transgender people have a place within the Catholic Church.
However, this may not be the right question. Trans people have long existed within the Catholic Church and while our rights might be the topic of debate among church leaders, legislators, and families gathered around holiday dinner tables, our faith and our place in the church should not be in question.
Recently, more Catholic publications have taken up writing, positively and negatively, about trans Catholics. Most of these articles are usually written by cisgender (non-transgender) individuals, because of the lack of trans representation in Catholic media. As a result, articles get framed as “How should the church minister to trans people?” rather than “How might the ministry of trans people help transform the church to better serve the world?” Just as most of the conversations about racism in the church have been about making white people comfortable, one could say the same about the Catholic discussion about trans people. As long as church discourse and theology on trans Catholics centers cisgender and heterosexual experiences and frameworks, then trans Catholics get framed as the ‘other’ that need ministering to instead of with or by. The result is that true justice and liberation for trans Catholics remains out of reach.
It is past time to lift up the voices of trans Catholics and let them speak for themselves. It is this desire for trans Catholic voices to be heard (and the ongoing frustration at being talked about) that led me to my doctoral work focusing on the stories of transgender Catholics—those who stay in the church as well as those that leave. What makes trans Catholics stay? What makes trans Catholics leave? What are our hopes and dreams for a fully trans inclusive and affirming church? What would trans Catholics say to church leaders? These are some of the questions that have guided my conversations, which feel particularly poignant at this time in history.
What would it be like if, in this period where trans rights are being debated inside and outside of the church, Catholic media outlets let trans Catholics speak for themselves? To give space to the myriad diversity of trans Catholic voices—some of whom think the pope’s recent letter on trans Catholics is a victory to be celebrated, others who think it doesn’t go far enough, and those of us in the both/and camp. For myself, being a trans Catholic right now feels like living out the already/not yet dimension of Advent: we are seeing some incredible pastoral gestures towards trans Catholics and we are also seeing support for anti-trans church policies and state legislation.
Perhaps this Advent season is a time to listen and amplify the voices of those on the margins, to allow those trans Catholic voices crying out to be heard by the wider church. To hear the stories of joy and sorrow, discrimination and liberation, so that collectively we might imagine ourselves into becoming a church that not just tolerates and affirms trans people but that centers trans liberation and joy.
An Invitation to Participate in Research
As part of Kori’s dissertation, they are conducting interviews with trans Catholics (anyone who identifies as trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, gender non-conforming, etc and has identified as Catholic at any point in time) to explore the community’s lived religious experiences, focusing on themes of joy, resistance, and liberation, while working to construct a trans affirming and liberatory religious ethic based in Catholic social justice. To learn more about the project or participate in it, click here.
—Kori Pacyniak (they/them), December 11, 2023