Home Moral guidelines Rejection or acceptance: transgender Catholics encounter both

Rejection or acceptance: transgender Catholics encounter both


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 support groups and welcome 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 trans 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.

A broader policy released 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 — “unless that no one has repented”. It was signed by Bishop John Doerfler.

But in some parishes across the country, a different and more welcoming face of the church is on display.

Just weeks before the Marquette Policy emerged, 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. “Once in a while we may be kicked out, but if that happens we’re not leaving. We’ll be right back.”

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 knew from the age of 4 that she was different. When she walked 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 refuse 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 against hate in all its forms and not allow the fears (or phobias) of others to be grounds for hate,” he wrote. “On the contrary, we must continue to learn more from each other’s experience and become more tolerant and accepting of each other.”

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 move to a more welcoming parish.

“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 apologizing to people, and I got sick of it.”

After embracing the faith as a convert, she now has mixed feelings. Although determined to remain active in the church, 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.”

Luisa Derouen, the retired nun, who has served more than 250 transgender people since her beginnings in 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.”


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