Just How Clear is the Church’s Teaching About Trans People?

Just How Clear is the Church’s Teaching About Trans People? February 26, 2016


One of the comments that I often hear about the Catholic approach to transgender and transsexual issues is that the Church has “a very clear teaching.” The assumption is that we simply need to proclaim this teaching, no matter how unpopular it is, in order to uphold the truth about the human person, male and female.

Whenever I hear this, I suspect that the person making the comment has had little to no experience actually dealing with the transgender, queer or intersex communities. It’s basically a position that you can arrive at only if you’re taking the problems home, painting them out of their context and looking at them in a theological laboratory where everything is very simple and clear-cut. So I thought that I might give a few examples of what things actually look like on the ground.

Okay, kids, so here’s the deal: ready your Catechisms and review your Vatican documents because we’re about to play a game of “what do you do dear?” using the very clearly and complete teaching which the Church offers to guide us through these issues:

1. An atheist who has lived most of their life as a man transitions in middle age. In the process of transition they become able, for the first time, to connect with aspects of their personality that were formerly inaccessible – including spirituality. Following transition their new-found thirst for spiritual intimacy with God leads them to the Catholic Church. Now they wish to receive the Sacraments of Initiation.

What do you do, dear?

2. A person is born with ambiguous genitalia, but is assigned male at birth and is socialized as a boy. When they reach adolescence, they become increasingly convinced that the doctors made the wrong call and they identify as a woman. The medical establishment fully admits that in intersex cases such as this the assigned gender is merely a guess. She is sure that she was created female, and feels called to religious life as a nun.

What do you do, dear?

3. A Catholic boy experiences severe gender dysphoria from a very young age. In late adolescence, they leave the faith, but continue trying their best to live as a man. Eventually their dysphoria becomes so unbearable that they face compulsive temptations to commit suicide. After a failed suicide attempt, they finally decide to transition as a means of alleviating their dysphoria. The support that they receive from Catholics during this process causes them to feel drawn back to their childhood faith, and they return to the Church as a post-operative transsexual. They believe, and their medical support team agrees, that attempting to de-transition would pose a serious risk to their mental health, and probably to their life.

What do you do, dear?

4. A young woman experiences gender dysphoria starting in adolescence. She transitions in her twenties and lives for nearly a decade as a man before becoming pregnant. Her pregnancy destablizes her gender identity and she decides that her gender dysphoria is the result of a patriarchal culture in which women like her are deemed “unfeminine,” and that that same society has proposed transition as a means of forcing her into conformity with its ideals of gender. She chooses to detransition, and uses minimal dosages of testosterone as a means of controlling her on-going feelings of dysphoria. After ten years on T, her body has undergone irreversible changes and she looks and sounds like a man. Whenever she needs to use a public washroom or change room, or wishes to access gender segregated spaces, she is pretty much always read as male and often makes other women uncomfortable.

What do you do dear?

5. A child is born with complete androgen insensitivity. They have XY chromosomes and undescended testes, however they have ambiguous external genitalia and will naturally develop a feminine phenotype. The parents are told that it’s necessary for medical reasons to remove the testes, and doctors recommend that surgery also be done to create more typical external female genitals. It is known that in the majority of cases, children with this condition will grow up to look like women and to identify as female, and the doctors tell the parents that it will be easier for the child if surgery is done now. A canon lawyer who is considered an expert in this field recommends surgery to correct intersex conditions, but intersex adults report that these surgeries, which are often painful, complex and on-going, made them feel lied to and violated.

What do you do, dear?

6. A gender atypical adolescent male suffers severe sexual abuse within a Catholic institution. It is handled very badly by the administration, and the sexual abuse becomes compounded with spiritual abuse. In adulthood, the combination of increasingly severe gender dysphoria and PTSD causes suicidal depression. She begins a process of transition in order to alleviate the dysphoria, and continues to receive treatment for both depression and post-traumatic stress. In spite of her very negative experiences with Catholicism, she sometimes feels drawn to return to the Mass and wishes to find a parish where she will be welcomed and supported as a trans woman.

What do you do, dear?

7. A woman in religious life encounters a trans woman who has started coming to Mass and who is working as a prostitute. She learns that many trans women living in the area are forced into sex work because they are unable to gain or hold employment as a result of anti-trans discrimination. The nun begins a ministry helping trans women to exit prostitution by providing them with shelter and helping them to build up a business that will provide for their livelihood. She knows that if she does not accept these women as they are, she will lose the opportunity to help them reclaim their dignity and escape from the dangers associated with selling sex.

What do you do, dear?

Note: Just to be clear, these are not made-up situations that I’ve invented in order to make it seem like the issues are more complex than they actually are. The stories I’ve told above are not exceptional – rather they are typical of what I’ve actually encountered within these communities. I would therefore ask that folks in the com-box keep in mind that we are talking about the lives of real people, not about abstract thought experiments.

Image credit: pixabay
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