Back in March, just days after the North Carolina’s HB2 was signed into law, I wrote a love letter to the trans community called “I’ll Go with You”. The post was shared and emailed around and a few days later, I received an email from a Catholic nun thanking me for my work. She wrote that she has been “a companion to God's trans community for over 17 years” and that her work with trans people has been “the greatest privilege of [her] religious life.” When Sister Monica (a 72 year old sister of 55 years) and I met over Skype a few weeks later, she told me that she devotes her mornings to prayer and would keep me and my clients in her prayers. She also explained that Sister Monica is a pseudonym she uses when she speaks or writes publicly about her trans ministry because, though the leadership of her religious community supports her work, the church hierarchy would likely not allow public recognition of this ministry.
I was inspired by my conversation with Sister Monica and decided to ask her a few more questions about her decades of service to trans people and her response to people of faith who disagree with her work. Here are the main points I came away with:
Gender transition is often a spiritual journey, and we need more spiritual guides who also understood transgender people.
Cisgender (non-trans) people sharing stories of their relationships with trans people is a valuable way to combat transphobia.
There are passages in the Bible that trans-affirming people of faith can draw upon to support trans experience.
It is in our truth-seeking and truth-telling that we find our wholeness.
Here’s how the entire conversation went.
Heather: How did you begin your ministry to transgender people?
Sister Monica: In 1998 I was ending my term as vocation director for my religious community and was ready to do something different. What was calling to me most was to begin ministering among the lesbian and gay community. I thought a good place to start would be PFLAG meetings. At one of the first meetings I attended, a transgender woman was present who recently had gender confirming surgery. It was clear to me that she was loved and respected by those present. I knew nothing at all about trans people so I asked to meet with her so I could learn more. During our very first conversation she told me that I really did “get it” and the trans community needs people like me as allies. The transgender journey for many is a profoundly spiritual journey and there were so few spiritual guides who also understood transgender people. That was the beginning and it was early 1999. Right from the start I had an explicit awareness of being called by God to be a presence of care and respect among this community.
Heather: How do you respond to people of faith who preach against acceptance and support of transgender people?
Sister Monica: How I respond varies depending on the person with whom I’m speaking and the circumstances of the conversation, but these are the points that are important to me. All of this, of course, doesn’t come up in every conversation.
I ask them if they know any transgender people personally. Not just know about them, or know that someone in their workplace or neighborhood is trans, but really know a transgender person—their story, the people they love, their gifts, their struggles. Their answer is generally no. Then I tell them about some of the beautiful transgender people I know, how important they are to my life, how much I have learned from them and how they have brought me closer to God. I often tell them that there are some trans friends on whose shirt or skirt I would readily cling to get to heaven! I love to show people pictures of my trans friends. I like to talk about the times I’ve been with them and what we do together.
If they are willing to be in genuine dialogue with me, I try to help them understand is that this is not a moral issue but a biological issue. They have no more control over being trans than they have over the color of their eyes. They do not choose to be trans but it’s how they are born.
Jesus was very clear in modeling for us how we must be in relationship with each other. We must love one another, and the other is everyone. There is no category of people that Jesus excluded from love. He specifically reached out in love to those on the margins and those most rejected and misunderstood. Our love for others is the way we express and live our love for God. Every transgender person is a child of God.
For those who are very much wedded to the laws of the Church, I love to talk about Chapter 10 from Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story (told three times actually!) of how God opens the minds and hearts of the early Christians to welcome, associate with, and recognize the Spirit at work in those whom their prior life taught them to view with disdain.. Peter has a dream or vision of a sheet being lowered which holds all the earth’s animals and he is instructed to eat. Based on what his Jewish faith taught him he responds, “Certainly not. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” Then the voice tells him “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” The dream ends and then he hears a knock at the door. Three men are looking for him. The spirit tells Peter to go with them. They walk to the house of a Roman centurion (a Gentile) named Cornelius, who had earlier received a visit from an angel who praised his almsgiving and instructed him to send for Peter. Realizing the significance of his dream, Peter said that God “shows no partiality”. He began to tell Cornelius and his household about Jesus, and as he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon all those gathered, and Peter baptized them — without first having gotten permission and approval from the Jewish leaders. Who are we to decide what God may do in the heart and lives of others in ways that do not conform to the current rules and regulations in which we put so much significance?? Who are we to call those God has created “unclean”??
Jesus reserved his harshest words not for sinners and those marginal to society, but for the religious professionals who counted themselves as holier and more righteous than others. Jesus repeatedly told them not to judge others, for they risk receiving the same judgment from God that they impose on others. Nor should we judge. None of us knows the relationship between God and a person except that person.
Heather: What would you want the trans people reading this to know about religion or spirituality?
Sister Monica: God and organized religion are not the same thing. All religious traditions emerged from within humanity as a fundamental desire of social beings to be at one with the Other, however one names that Other. Organized religion is not the same thing as the Other, whom many people call God. Religion is a means to an end. The Other is the end. Religion is an instrument, a vehicle, a guide, a help to lead us to God. If religion doesn’t unite us with God and with other human beings, but takes us away from God, and alienates us from other people, then leave that religion but never leave God.
God is not against trans people but with them. I can never say this enough because of the messages people often get from their church, their family, friends and coworkers. They are made to believe that they must choose between God and their own integrity as a person. God NEVER EVER asks us to deny the truth of who we are! Jesus told us “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) and that definitely includes trans people. What gets thrown at them sometimes by those who are “religious” is that they are being selfish and not considering the great harm they are causing to the lives of those who love them most. They are told that they should deny themselves and take up their cross, continue to live in their gender designated at birth, and do not disrupt other people’s lives. That’s how God made them, after all. Some are fond of quoting the passage in all three Synoptic Gospels, “ Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Matt. 16:24) Jesus is asking us to deny our false self, the self that keeps us away from God and causes us to hate our own self. God is Love and God is Truth. All genuine love is of God, and all that is true is of God.
We know from the experience of our own human relationships that what is fundamental to a loving relationship is trust and honesty with the other; that we meet the other with as much integrity as we can. A relationship cannot ultimately be a healthy, loving one if we hide who we are from the other. And that is certainly true of our relationship with the Divine Other. We can only come to God as who we are, not as who we are not. There’s a wonderful passage in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that a trans friend shared with me many years ago. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
We must never be afraid that the truth of who we are will take us away from God. On the contrary. When we have the courage to receive and claim our truth, many experience a much closer relationship with God.
Holiness really is wholeness. It’s not about saying prayers and obeying church rules. Holiness is about being the best human being we can be and that God made us to be. What gives glory and praise to God is when we are as truly ourselves as we can be. St. Iraenaus is often quoted these days, and it’s a worthy quote. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive!” Just because life is messy doesn’t at all mean it isn’t holy.
Heather: Some people believe that the Christian church has done too much harm to LGBTQ people to be a safe place now. Where can they look for a spiritual connection?
The Christian Church has certainly done a lot of harm, but I don’t believe it’s beyond redemption. There are increasing numbers of Christian communities who are genuinely welcoming of transgender people. Granted, there are a lot more unwelcoming, but there is a gradual movement in the right direction. While it’s true that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is generally far behind the people in the pews, there are even a few bishops who have quietly been supportive of my ministry, and quite a number of priests. The trick is finding them! I know that other religious traditions are also gradually increasingly welcoming. I know the Unitarian Universalist Church is generally more welcoming of transgender people across the country.
I would also say to trans folks looking for spiritual support not to dismiss the potential to be a powerful spiritual support for each other. Many of us in Christian traditions have been taught for the past several hundred years to place an inordinate amount of authority in ordained clergy. We are all the precious people of God and have the gifts to nurture and strengthen each other’s faith.
Heather: What advice would I give to other people of faith who wish to support transgender folks?
It is very important to take a posture of humility and genuinely be willing, indeed be eager, to learn from our trans friends. They have much to teach us, and much that we need to learn.
They must be very clear in the conviction that transgender people are not sinners because they are transgender. This is about biology and not morality. Their lives are every bit as holy as anyone else’s. It is for us to help enable them to trust what God is doing in them, not convince them that we know better than they how God is acting in their lives. Never, never judge them. We do not stand in their shoes and we should never pretend that we do.
Do the homework. Read reliable books, go to knowledgeable websites, make an effort to meet transgender people and hear their stories. Ideally, work on common projects for the good of all with them.
Be willing to grapple with what questions this exposure may raise in their own minds and hearts about what we’ve been taught regarding sexuality, gender identity, gender expression; how what they are experiencing challenges what they’ve been taught by organized religion.
Be willing to speak positively on their behalf when ugly and untrue things are said about them.
Ask transgender people themselves how a faith community can be of help in a particular location.
It’s my hope that Sister Monica’s words and presence in the world will assist trans folks and their families, friends, and allies to combat ignorance and discrimination based in religious ideology.
Heather Branham, LCSW, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, and family-building. Click here to register for her upcoming training on Trans-Affirming, Trauma-Informed Yoga and Ethics with Becca Odom, LCSW, E-RYT 200 and Anna Ferguson, RYT 500 of Sacred Roots Wellness.