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Recently I’ve been engaged in an e-mail conversation on the topic of Catholicism as it applies to transsexuals. It started off with some promise, but ended disappointingly when my fellow correspondent retreated into argument by authority. In matters of Catholicism the highest practical authority consists of the Church hierarchy, which was cited to me repeatedly. Had our conversation been geared around a religious topic, such as the role of personal prayer in one’s salvation, this might have had some relevance. But our topic was not religion. It was about the treatment options available to transsexuals. I find the assertion of the Church’s authority into this matter very troubling.

Despite pretensions to the contrary, the Catholic hierarchy has a very poor understanding of transsexualism and their teachings reflect this ignorance.  Their current teaching on the matter is merely a recycled form of reparative therapy. If transsexuals follow this advice they’re putting themselves at risk. If non-transsexuals attempt to enforce adherence to this teaching they’re causing great harm.

My correspondent, drawing from their reading of Catholic teaching on the matter, came to the bizarre conclusion that transition meant substituting faith in God with a “religion of transition.” The Church fosters this nonsensical formulation by telling transsexuals that seeking the only known effective treatment for their condition – a treatment that includes transition – is hateful in the eyes of God. You can either have God’s Holy Church, or you can have transition as its replacement.

But of course, transition is no more a religion than going to a doctor when you’re sick is a religion. Transition is part of the course of treatment recommended by the leading medical and mental health providers for someone diagnosed as being transsexual. And they didn’t arrive at this conclusion lightly. Those same professions spent a good century after identifying this condition attempting to cure it by just about every other means at their disposal – psychotherapy, aversion therapy, hypnosis, drugs, lobotomy… the list goes on and on. None of it worked. Among the cures attempted over that time is the exact same thing the Church , after “careful study” of the matter, now recommends. This is not entirely unlike making a careful study of the treatment of polio and concluding that the use of penicillin is morally wrong, but leeches are fine.

The underlying problem is that, unlike advising polio sufferers, transsexualism puts the Church into a theological bind. It comes down to a concept pushed hard by the late Pope John Paul II called the “theology of the body.” In theological terms, this was JP II’s master work. If you want to see what it’s about just Google that term. But be warned, it is a lengthy subject.

The short version comes down to this: God created human beings as man and woman so that our dual nature would jointly embody the nature of God. When a man joins with a woman, it is analogous to God’s union with His Church. His never ending love for humanity is reflected in our marital fidelity. The physical act of union has the Godlike power to create life from nothingness. Etc. ad infinitum. From this basic metaphor, the late pope wove together disparate Church teachings into a single didactic logic. Taken on its own it’s quite a beautiful and impressive exercise of human intellect.

The problem is that this model wasn’t designed to account for anyone who doesn’t conform to the normative expectations of “male” or “female.” Homosexuals, transsexuals, the intersexed… we’re simply not covered by this theology. To an objective outsider this means the grand theology is merely an incomplete metaphor, rather than a comprehensive teaching of God’s plan for all mankind. But the Church doesn’t like that conclusion. To them the problem is not the incompleteness of their understanding. To them the problem is with those of us whose existence doesn’t conform to their model. As they have concluded that they know God’s plan, and as we fall outside of this plan, then clearly we are examples of sinfulness attempting to defy the will of God.

As a result he Church teachings for all of these non-normative groups are joined by a common thread. Their prescriptions for how all differently sexed and gendered people are supposed to live can be paraphrased as “either get in line, or shut up and get out of the way.” If you can’t live as a heterosexual conforming to the phenotype of your birth, then refrain from all sexual activity, don’t  marry anyone, and live some kind of isolated, asexual existence until you die. If you can’t conform you must be isolated so as not to “infect” God’s perfect plan.

This is the model through with the Church attempts to instruct transsexuals. They don’t want to parse through all the natural variations in human sex and gender. They built their teachings upon the assumption that everyone was either male or female from conception onward, and damned if they’re going to revisit this stuff in light of the findings of modern science.

And so, even as science is redefining our understanding of human sexuality with new findings in fields like neurology, genetics, and molecular biology, the Catholic Church is stuck with their “Adam and Eve” model of human sexuality. Whereas the former is capable of explaining the diversity of human sexuality as the result of natural processes, the Catholic view continues to assert that anything other than normative male and female is somehow “unnatural,” and “disordered.” Obviously the advantage of the former view is that it conforms to the evidence, as to the latter… well, some people really, really like tradition.

The recommended Catholic treatment for transsexualism reads like blast from discredited transsexual treatments past. They would have us undergo discredited forms of reparative therapy. They implausibly call upon successful and happy post-operative transsexuals to return to their birth sex. They declare all transsexual marriages to be invalid from the moment transsexualism had been manifested (which, for the record, averages around age 4-5). They would even bar celibate and chaste transsexuals who conform to all these teachings from their priesthood as being mentally unfit.

None of this makes a bit of sense given the most cursory findings of modern medical and mental health care.  Compare this paper published by the UK’s Gender Identity Research and Education Society on the topic of “Atypical Gender Development” with the Church’s findings on transsexuals published the same year. If the topic was curing measles or mending broken limbs rather than treating transsexualism, which approach would you trust to inform your own medical care?

The Church is not simply wrong in its position here. They’re pressuring an at-risk population to reject medical help in the name of their divine authority. That’s faith-healer stuff. It shouldn’t receive serious consideration in modern society.

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Faith in Transition

God is a metaphor for a mystery that transcends all categories of human thought. – Joseph Campbell

One of the topics I have tended to avoid on this blog is the topic of faith. Religion I’ve touched upon, in as far as I’ve mentioned that I was once a devout Catholic but no longer am. But faith in a more general sense I’ve been inclined to leave alone. I’m now going to take the risk of broaching this personal topic in more detail.

Faith once played a huge role in my life. I grew up believing strongly in God, and in the power of prayer. Like many trans youth I saved my strongest prayers for asking God to make me a girl. But after a while I came to believe that the reason God wasn’t answering those prayers must be that I was asking for a sinful thing. Still, I maintained what some call a “personal relationship with God” in the form of my prayer life as a child.

As life went on I fell away from my Catholicism, and indeed away from all organized religion. I dabbled with paganism, Buddism, Taoism, and a lot of New Age stuff that defied easy categorization. But I wasn’t looking for faith during this time. I was looking for some kind of personal religion which fit my persistently strong faith.

Because, religion aside, I still had faith. I believed in something, even if I couldn’t easily define it. It wasn’t really a personal God any longer, but more like a general sense of right and wrong built into the fabric of existence. I believed in a kind of power in the universe which defied empirical observation but, when trusted, brought peace and happiness to life. I didn’t think any of this could be directly observed. In fact I believed once you headed down the path of looking for proof you had misunderstood the nature of the thing itself.  But it was something present in my daily life, informing my decisions and guiding my actions.

All this was jumbling around in my head in my mid-20’s when I hit my first gender crisis. At that time I was confronted with the first serious notion that the right path for me might be transition. I panicked. The consequences of gender transition absolutely terrified me. I freaked out, ran for the closet, and slammed the door shut behind me. This wasn’t just a “purge” in the traditional sense. This was a complete redefinition of my life, my values, my identity – everything.

I decided my gender conflict was over. My logical mind had come to realize the absurdity of it all, and now I knew better. You have to play the hand of cards you’ve been dealt, I told myself. I had been born a male and that was that. As far as I was concerned, I was cured.

Along with that conclusion was a similar self-condemnation of my previous wishy-washy version of faith. No more Tao Te Ching, Tarot cards, or Zen meditations for me. It was time to grow up. The thing my teachers and parents had always taught me about religion was clearly the truth. There was one God, one true Church, and the only real path to salvation and happiness was within it. I stopped looking for a sense of order and happiness in my personal life – because look where that had lead me – and instead trusted that a rigid following of Catholic teaching would provide all that and more.

The following years held a lot of significant life changes, but I can’t say I found much spiritual fulfillment in the zealous application of Catholicism to my life. My prayers were rote recitations – one way communications cast in the direction an unresponsive God. I couldn’t pray the way I had as a child because that seemed too much like the new-age mumbo jumbo I had recently left behind. I found intellectual fulfillment in parsing through intricacies of canon law in order to learn the true teachings of the Church. I found Church approved causes into which I could vent my frustration and anger, providing emotional displacement if not exactly fulfillment. My earlier sense of peace, harmony, and rightness in the universe had become foreign to my mind. I trusted that it would all make sense in the end, but I no longer truly experienced faith in my day to day life.

In the end it all came crashing down around me. My rigid adherence to orthodox Catholicism couldn’t save me from the deepening fog of depression. I was deeply, profoundly unhappy with my life. Not a single path open to me seemed to offer any hope. All I could do was “offer it up,” as Catholics like to say, and accept my lot in life. Except how do you “offer up” anything to a God who won’t take your calls?

And so the color started draining from my life until all that was left was a never-changing world of gray. I existed like that for a long time, neither believing nor disbelieving in anything. Nothing mattered. Give me heaven, give me hell, give me nothing but empty void… I didn’t care. Looking back I can see that the opposite of faith isn’t disbelief or doubt. It’s that emptiness – that void.

Somehow out of those depths, and for reasons I can’t pretend to understand, I spotted the faintest glimmer of hope one morning. It instantly gave me direction and purpose, even if the purpose was simply “live,” and the direction was merely “get help.” I honestly think I followed it largely because the alternative was literally nothing – that’s the meaning of “void” after all. Whatever the reason, as anyone who has hit bottom knows, “live” and “get help” can be pretty strong motivators.

Over the first years of my transition – starting with the initial meeting with my therapist and persisting through coming out and living as a woman – I no longer had real faith. I had an ugly scar where my faith used to reside. In its place I had purpose and direction powerful enough to see me through some very dark and frightening times. I didn’t think in terms of whether I was doing the right thing. I was doing the only thing I knew how to do. A ball doesn’t need faith to roll down a hill. My life was like that ball.

But as I rolled down my metaphorical hill things started to change for the better. The void was left behind. Color began to return to the world around me. I started feeling real emotion again, and real connection to the lives of those around me. And it began to dawn upon me that some day I would find myself at the bottom of the hill. And then what?

For a long time I had instinctively tuned out any talk of faith or God. I pitied people who still clung to such things. But more than that it hurt to contemplate. I remembered when I had believed, and I remembered the smoking ruin that became of my life following such things. There might be wisdom in the occasional words of the faithful, but if so it was human wisdom derived from rational human minds. And yet…

Here I was living my life with a singular direction, everything was getting be better, and I couldn’t explain any of it. The success of my journey defied my own sense of reason. By rights I should have been dead before I started. After all, I couldn’t explain how I got the inspiration to shake off the depressive fog to begin with. Every significant step of the way I had concluded, with good cause, that disaster would follow. I proceeded only because I didn’t see a viable alternative. I couldn’t explain why things were going so well. Every time a seemingly impassable obstacle arose which I couldn’t handle on my own, some unexpected person or event seemed to arise to help me overcome it.

I couldn’t shake the growing sense that something was going on that lay beyond my ability to explain or even comprehend. A feeling that, now that my life was on the right path, the whole universe was harmonizing around me to carry me through my moments of greatest need. This is not an easy feeling for an atheistic cynic to carry around for long.

But recently some unexpected exchanges reminded me of the faith that I once possessed. It may sound strange, but I had all but forgotten. I hadn’t forgotten that it happened, but I completely forgot what it felt like to believe before that word became poisoned in my mind.

But once upon a time I had a basic belief that there was something in the universe laying beyond our comprehension. Something that every religion from the dawn of time had been trying and failing to describe. Something at once very human yet also transcendent beyond any single person.

Maybe it’s time for me to learn to believe like that again.

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I was raised Catholic. I no longer subscribe to that faith because I think they’re wrong about some things. Also they want me dead.

I don’t let that last part over-worry me. It’s not really a personal thing. They don’t want me dead like they’re taking out a contract with the Mob to have it done. They want me dead passively and for my own good, you see.

I’m not exaggerating.

As evidence I present this interesting explanation about the Church’s position on transsexual Catholics from Catholic blogger Mary Kochan (as cited from the Edge, as I really don’t want to link to Catholic Exchange. you can get the source links from the cited article if you really feel the need):

“The Church does not accept that you have ’become a woman’ regardless of your ability to pass as one, either by demeanor, dress, physique, or external anatomy,” Kochan continued. “If you ever were really a man, then you still are, regardless of what you have done to yourself. It is not my ’absolute views on your status as a male’–it is the Church that says it.”

Added Kochan, “I understand that you were in distress even to the point of your health being wrecked and I’m not in any way making light of that. But objectively speaking, what you proposed and carried out as a remedy to your distress was the breaking of God’s law that says that you may not mutilate your body.” Continued Kochan, “It is better to die than to offend God. It would have been better for you to have given your life to stay in obedience to God, than to break His law and to drag along into sin your poor spouse.” Kochan continued, “That is hard, but really everyone of us should feel that way about every serious sin we have committed. We should prefer the death of our bodies to the death of our souls, shouldn’t we?

All emphasis above mine. All Catholicism above… well let’s talk about that.

A few of you reading this blog will recall I went through a period in my life in which I tried to “cure” myself of my nasty transsexual temptations by devoting myself to a very strict Catholic life. If the Church was for it, I was for it. If they were against it, I was against it. You’ve heard of people “more Catholic than the pope”? That was me for a period of about five years.

A result of that devotion, along with my particular cross-gender temptations, was that I investigated in depth where the Church stood on issues like homosexuality and transsexuality. I’m confident that my understanding of the Church’s positions on these matters surpasses that of the average Catholic and generally surpasses that of typical clergy. I know the Church’s teachings on this stuff quite well, and therefore I feel qualified to say…

Mary Kochran is absolutely correct – at least as far as she’s explaining the implications of Catholic teaching. It may be divorced from reality, but her explanation is sympatico with the Church’s teachings on transsexuality. This might surprise some of you who have heard far more diplomatic statements coming from a Catholic priest here or there. Trust me… this stuff may be candy-coated or watered down by your local Father Feelgood, but underlying it all what Kochran says is where the Church stands. Death is preferable to transition for us.

Transsexuals are even less compatible with Catholic teaching than homosexuals. Homosexuals are simply told to practice chastity. Transsexuals are told we don’t actually exist at all. Once again, I’m not exaggerating.

Specifically, Catholic teaching does not acknowledge the possibility that someone could have an external body of one sex but a mind and gender identity of the other. They don’t say they’ve never considered it. They say it’s impossible.

And this is not an issue open to revision based upon new evidence. There are fundamental issues of ontology involved here. The Church says human beings are either male or female. Period. End of story. This is essential because that fundamental duality is considered a central truth explaining God, the Church, the nature of Christ, the Priesthood… even Love itself. If they acknowledge that transsexuals – people born with a physical body opposite of their gender identity – actually exist, it would shake the foundations of Church teaching a heck of a lot more than that business with Galileo ever did.

The only way Catholicism can explain the appearance of transsexuals in the real world is to consider them to be bizarrely depraved sinners with nonsensical motivations. That’s what Ms. Kochan is attempting to do in her windy multi-part treatise. Her leaden advice won’t help any actual transsexuals who may be looking to the Church for guidance. But it’s really the best she can do while accounting for what the Church actually teaches (besides, she seems to be speaking mostly to her non-trans audience rather than trying to help transsexuals with her advice).

Shorter version: “The Church says everyone is either a boy or a girl. You say you’re a girl even though you were born a boy. Therefore you’re either lying or you’re a very deluded person. Simply acknowledge your delusion and we’ll grudgingly accept you as a very sick and mutilated sinner. But if that sounds too hard for you, have you ever considered an  early death? That option might make all of us breathe a little more easily.”

Anyway, like I said before, I was raised Catholic. I was also born transsexual.

I can choose whether or not to belong to the former. The latter is just a fact. So they’ve got it exactly backward.

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