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Joanne Herman

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Can One Be Transgender and Catholic?

Posted: 01/19/10 02:12 PM ET

A recent article in the Des Moines Register reported on the firing of Susan McIntyre, a transgender social worker, from her job as a housekeeper at the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Student Center at Drake University.

What interested me about this story was not the fact that McIntyre was fired by the Bishop of Des Moines, but rather that she converted to Catholicism after her transition from male to female.

The teachings of the Catholic Church, as cited in the Des Moines Register article, maintain that Susan is a man regardless of her gender identity, and that her sexual reassignment surgery was an act of mutilation. The Church instructs those who believe their inward gender is different from their outward gender to battle that belief as a psychological problem, not with surgery.

Why then would a transgender person choose to be Catholic?

As a side note, while the Des Moines Register's reporting was reasonably balanced, the article referred to Susan as "transgendered" (a word not found in the AP Style Guide), instead of transgender, and used male instead of female pronouns when referring to Susan's life before her sex reassignment surgery. I'm hoping that, after more journalists have read my book, these mistakes will no longer happen.

And a further side note, I am not Catholic, but rather a member of the Christian denomination United Church of Christ. My church, Old South Church in Boston, was happy to welcome me, and has since changed its inclusion statement to openly welcome other transgender people. My fiancee, a non-transgender woman who was raised in the Catholic tradition, and I will be married at Old South later this year in a religious ceremony.

When I was growing up, I assumed that there was only one way of looking at things - what was said in the Bible - and that Catholics were just much more serious about their faith than others. It wasn't until later in life that I realized that the Bible, in its translation from very old foreign languages to contemporary English, is subject to considerable interpretation. The Catholic Church claims its interpretation is more historical.

What is confusing for me is that most interpretations of the Bible understand Jesus as having been welcoming of all, especially the downtrodden. This was apparently true of the "nearly 100 parishioners [in Des Moines] who organized separate prayer services instead of going to Mass," in response to Susan's firing. How is it that His teachings can be used to reject anyone?

Furthermore, we know from the Bible that transgender people existed in history, too. Biologist Joan Roughgarden, in her book Evolution and Christian Faith, points out that Jesus describes three types of eunuchs in Matthew 19:12 who are the people we today call transgender. And she asserts that the apostle Philip's baptism of the eunuch in Acts 9:27-38 serves as an "explicit instruction to include eunuchs within the church."

Yet, in spite of the Catholic Church's pronouncements, there are transgender Catholics like Susan McIntyre in the Des Moines Register story. A few others posted comments to the online article about her. And then there's my friend Sarah (not her real name). Sarah has two children and is devoutly Catholic. As such, she is very conflicted. If she accepts the Church's teachings, she is a man, not a woman. And if she's a man, the fact that she is attracted to men in her new life makes her gay, another status the Catholic Church does not accept. Yet, to my amazement, she remains staunchly Catholic.

What is it that could attract transgender people to stay or to become Catholic? That article says Susan saw so much good in her new faith and felt at home in it, believing the Church's view of transgender people would improve over time. For her sake, and for the sake of all transgender Catholics, I hope she is right.

 
 
 

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