For transgender Catholics across the United States, maintaining their faith can involve complex calculations. They face rebuke from some Catholics, including many bishops, but are fully accepted in some church premises.
A small but growing number of parishes have formed LGBTQ ministries or support groups and are welcoming transgender people on their own terms. Yet in the past two years, at least six Catholic dioceses have issued guidelines targeting trans people with restrictions and refusing to recognize their gender identity.
“Many of our bishops are anti-science. … They are cold and cruel,” said Sister Luisa Derouen, a retired nun who has cared for transgender people. “You can’t respect people and deny their existence at the same time.”
The latest policy targeting trans Catholics was released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in January. It prohibits church staff from using trans people’s preferred pronouns that reflect their gender identity.
Opposing the cross-supporting ‘gender theory’, the policy states that ‘all interactions and policies, parishes, organizations and institutions shall uniquely recognize a person’s biological sex’.
Among other measures, it says parishes, schools and other Catholic organizations in the archdiocese should require people to use bathrooms associated with their birth gender and adhere to dress codes on the same basis.
And a broader policy issued in July by the Diocese of Marquette, which encompasses Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said pastors should deny trans, gay and non-binary Catholics the sacraments — such as baptism and communion — “until unless the person has repented”. It was signed by Bishop John Doerfler.
But in some other parishes across the country, a different and more welcoming face of the church is on display.
Just weeks before the Marquette Policy was released, Our Lady of Grace Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, celebrated its annual Pride Mass in support of the LGBTQ community. Christine Zuba, a transgender woman from New Jersey, gave part of the homily at the invitation of priest Alexander Santora.
“We’re not messy or confused or trendy,” Zuba said, sharing with fellow devotees the decades-long journey that led her to come out six years early at age 58. “We’re not trying to challenge God, or play God. ”
“By staying visible, not just outside these walls but inside our churches, we are changing hearts and minds, one person at a time,” she concluded. “From time to time we may be deported, but if that happens we will not leave. We return immediately.
Santora, a priest for 40 years, said fellow worshipers stood up and applauded.
“Our church was opened in 1878,” Santora said. “I wanted Christine to be on that pulpit.”
A lifelong Catholic, Zuba said she knew from the age of 4 that she was different. When she finally decided to come out five decades later, she was grateful that a nearby parish, Saints Peter and Paul in Turnersville, New Jersey, took her in. She serves there as a Eucharistic minister.
Yet she knows that much of the Catholic hierarchy, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, rejects the concept of gender transition.
“These bishops and priests don’t understand that when they reject someone they lose parents, children, groups of friends who say this is not the church we want to belong to,” said Zuba.
Lynn Discenza, a 64-year-old transgender woman, grew up in an observant Italian-American family in West Hartford, Connecticut, and tried out seminary before pursuing a career in aerospace design.
She considers herself lucky, after transitioning two years ago, to be part of a welcoming Catholic church in the area – Saint Patrick-Saint Anthony Church in Hartford. She is co-responsible for her LGBTQ ministry.
The November 21 observance marking the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which commemorates those killed as a result of anti-trans violence, was particularly moving, Discenza said. She thanked fellow devotees for their support and they responded with applause.
The pastor, Timothy Shreenan, highlighted the commemoration in the parish bulletin.
“We must always stand up against hate in all its forms and not let the fears of others [or phobias] be a reason for hatred,” he wrote. “On the contrary, we must continue to learn more about each other’s experience and become more tolerant and accepting of one another.
Discenza hopes that grassroots activism for greater inclusion will accelerate as more parishes add LGBTQ ministries.
“Change is going to come from zero, and some of the old bishops are going to die,” she said.
For transgender Catholic youth, the conflicting approaches of different churches and clergy can pose challenges for both them and their parents.
Philadelphia’s Eli Musselman, who will turn 19 in March and came out as transgender almost four years ago, said he felt a strong connection to his faith as a boy and has many of his friends who support him.
But the family’s longtime parish pastor refused to refer to him with male pronouns and he had anxiety attacks at church due to ‘mean looks’ from some parishioners, prompting the family to change parishes to feel at home.
“A place that had once been a refuge for me had become a place of danger,” said Musselman, now a freshman at Jesuit St. Josephs University, where students and most faculty, with one hurtful exception , supported me. .
“But since coming out,” he added, “my spirituality has grown. … I feel whole for the first time in my life.
“I’ve lost some really good friends,” said her mother, JoEllen Musselman. “I felt like I was constantly making excuses to people, and I got sick of it.”
Having embraced Catholicism as a convert after her marriage, she now has mixed feelings. Although determined to remain active in the church and to advocate for greater inclusiveness, she remains skeptical of key Catholic leaders.
“They’re flawed,” she said. “If it weren’t for Christ, the church would crumble, because we humans are screwing things up.”
At the highest level of Catholic leadership, Pope Francis’ position can be described as bilateral.
On the one hand, he personally ministered to trans Catholics, receiving them at the Vatican and meeting them as archbishop in Argentina, and he said the Catholic Church must accompany them. However, he has repeatedly denounced “gender theory” and what he calls “ideological colonization” in some schools that teaches children that they can change their biological sex at will.
Francis spoke at length on the issue at a press conference in 2016, stressing the need to avoid “gender ideology” but reaffirming the need to care for trans Catholics. “But please don’t say ‘The pope sanctifies trans people!’ Please!”
Luisa Derouen, the retired nun who has served more than 250 transgender people since 1999, received permission from her superiors in 2014 to write about this work. But that was on condition that she did not identify herself or her congregation as the Dominican Sisters of Peace. She did so under a pseudonym, which she eventually dropped in 2018 to speak publicly on behalf of trans people and “testify to their dignity and worth as human beings.”
In a recent interview, Derouen said friction over transgender inclusion is likely to intensify.
“There has never been a time in the American Church when the Catholic hierarchy has had less moral credibility,” she said. “People in the pews take responsibility to do their own homework and recognize that we are all God’s people.”
Michael Sennett, a 26-year-old transgender man, sees this happening at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he serves as director of communications.
The unwelcoming attitude of some bishops discourages him, but he is encouraged by advances, including the formation of a support group called LGBTQ+ Catholics.
“Overall, I’m amazed at the progress,” Sennett said. “People are expressing themselves like never before, joining forces. … The laity find more power.
Associated Press correspondent Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.