Transgender Lives and Catholic Hospitality

By James and Evelyn Whitehead

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food...see you a stranger and welcome you... see you sick and visit you?” (Matthew 25)

Transgender lives remain invisible to most Americans. Throughout history, different social groupings have been assigned to the boundaries of society where they remain largely out of sight. In the novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison uses this metaphor to capture the cultural status of African-Americans in mid-century America. Gays and lesbians remained for many decades in concealment, in darkened closets or segregated colonies, until the events at Stonewall in 1969 propelled them into full view. Erin Swenson, a transgender Presbyterian minister, remarks that “the transgendered in our congregations are invisible and will remain invisible until it is clear that they are accepted.” Recent dramatic changes in American society have begun to usher the transgender community into the healing light.

The Shape of Invisibility

Many transgender adults report that early in life there were no names to describe the “disconnect” they experienced between their private sense of gender identity (who I am) and their bodily self (who I appear to be). They could recognize no one else as “like me.” No one in the immediate environment reflected back to them a similar identity, affirming “I too am like this; I too have these feelings.” Transgender persons were invisible both in society and to themselves.

Self-recognition is a critical element in what Erik Erikson describes as an initial stage of adult maturing: identity. But the effort to forge an adult identity is not simply an interior task. An adolescent looks to society for models, clues, and ideals. Having contact with a successful adult or an inspiring role model, the younger person judges “I could be like that. I would like to live that way.”

Our personal identity is shaped in part by the exemplars of adult maturity that are available in our environment. For many transgender children and young adults, this resource is missing. In The Lives of Transgender People, Beemyn and Rankin describe this challenge of self-recognition: “Learning about or meeting other transgender people serves as a catalyst for self-recognition and acceptance, as they see themselves in others and realize that they are not alone in how they feel.”

Deprived of persons who might affirm the shape of their own uncommon identity, young transgender persons are often at a loss. Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I worth? Such recognition, begun in the parent’s loving gaze early in infancy, and then repeated in the many ways that adults affirm, reinforce, and praise a child for being his or her (gendered) self, is utterly absent. The transgender youth feels not only disconnected but invisible, unable to find a place in an unfamiliar world. This is the making of craziness.

Today many young transgender persons report that they first recognized themselves on the Internet. But many older adults were not so fortunate. “There were no resources, like the Internet which I could consult to help me cope with how I felt. I was very much alone with my ‘dark secrets’ and it was not until I went online in 1997 that I realized how un-alone I was.” (Beemyn and Rankin, p. 23) Here transgender invisibility was erased, as individuals had access to information that spoke to their own experiences. Self- worth and self-confidence expanded, as the sense of isolation began to lift. “I exist; I am real; I am OK.”

Newly Visible Lives

In 1974 when the British travel writer Jan Morris published her memoir, Conundrum, many readers had their first exposure to a transgender per- son. A year later U.S. tennis star Richard Raskind underwent sex reassignment (now described as gender-confirming) surgery, continuing to compete internationally as Renee Richards. But these individuals were rare sightings; their lives seemed exotic and few Americans continued to give any special attention to them. Transgender persons remained, to a great extent, invisible. 

As the twenty-first century has progressed, persons successful in many fields have acknowledged their gender transition. Film-maker Lana Wachowski describes her gender journey as choosing “to change my exteriority to bring it closer into alignment with my interiority.” University professor and novelist Jennifer Boylan tells the story of her own gender journey in the memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Theologian Justin Tanis uses the images of spiritual transformation to explain his life-giving tran- sition. Concert pianist Sara Davis Buechner outlines the journey from training at Juilliard as David Buechner to her present professional career that ex- tends to concerts throughout North America, Asia, and Europe. This list expands, as this once-exotic transformation becomes more familiar.

Lives Made Visible: Societal Changes

In February 2013, the United States Congress renewed the Violence Against Women Act, a law that includes protection for all women, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. By mid-2013, ten states and the District of Columbia were providing some form of legal protection for transgender people.

The American Psychiatric Association published the fifth edition of its professional standards, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in May 2013. In this influential statement, the earlier diagnostic language that identified a transgender person as suffering from “gender identity disorder” was deleted, replaced by the designation of “gender dysphoria.” The term disorder was judged to be inaccurate, even prejudicial, since it identified the transgender within the category of mental illness. Dysphoria honors the intense distress reported by some transgender persons, but recognizes that this usually temporary experience represents neither a character disorder nor a mental illness. This authoritative action by the APA culminates a long process of testimony, debate, and conversion of health professionals. Its announcement stands as a watershed; decades of prejudice and discrimination are beginning to give way to a more nuanced understanding of human development.

Over many decades, university health insurance plans offered no coverage for gender reassignment surgery. Stanford University began cov- ering sex-reassignment surgery in 2010. In February 2013, Brown University announced that its student health plan would be extended to cover sex- reassignment surgery, becoming the thirty-sixth col- lege to do so. Twenty-five other colleges do not cover the expensive surgical procedures, but have plans covering related hormone therapy; twenty universities provide similar coverage for their employees. Today about a quarter of Fortune 500 companies have health plans that cover similar medical and/or surgical pro- cedures for employees.

The Virtue of Hospitality

By nature our species seems suspicious of those who are “different”: the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant. We are apprehensive about those whose language and food and clothing are alien to us. In our unease we subject them to ridicule, hoping to hold them at a distance. We are gravely concerned about the danger they may pose. Do these “others” mean to rob us in the night? Or perhaps in the daylight they will take away our jobs.

The ancient civilizations of Greece and Israel built a bulwark against this natural impulse of suspicion, by promoting the civic and religious virtue of hospitality. Conscious of the societal malice they identified as xenophobia, the Greeks urged citizens to embrace the virtue of xenophilia, a welcoming respect for the “other.” In a classic Greek story, the hero Odysseus returns victorious from war. But unrecognized in beggar’s clothing, he is not celebrated as liberator by his fellow citizens, but instead treated with contempt. As the story unfolds, the great god Zeus, protector of wanderers, and supplicants, punishes the offending Greeks for their hubris. In his introduction to this literary classic, Bernard Knox notes, “if there is one stable moral criterion in the world of the Odyssey, it is the care taken by the powerful and well-to-do of strangers, wanderers and beggars. This code of hospitality is the one universally recognized morality.”

In the culture of ancient Israel, a similar divine mandate arose. Hebrew Scripture repeats the demand: “Do not oppress the alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” The Jewish people, who would in time suffer as perennial outsiders, were instructed to treat other outsiders with hospitality. The biblical account of the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18), long misconstrued as condemning homosexuality, is in fact a moral parable about the grievous offense of inhospitality toward guests. It is the threatening inhospitality in Sodom that provokes the divine destruction of the city.

In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly displays comfort with foreigners and others at the margins of his society. He stops to speak at length with a woman who is not Jewish, a double offense for those orthodox bystanders who were keeping count. The most striking parable of hospitality appears in the story of the two disconsolate disciples returning home to Emmaus after witnessing the death of Jesus. Meeting a stranger on the road, they invite him to share their evening meal. In the breaking of the bread, they suddenly recognize in the stranger the face of Christ. (Luke 24) Their hospitality opened them to receive the presence of God. This theme arises again at the end of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus surprises his closest followers by insisting that when they aid the poor, the homeless, and the imprisoned, they are in fact caring for him. (Matthew 25) 

Hospitality finds expression in compassionate care. The virtue of hospitality took institutional form in the monastic life of the early Christian church. The Benedictine Order adopted the phrase, “when a guest arrives, Christ arrives.” (hospes venit, Christus venit). Even those poorly-clad and often sickly undesirables, arriving at inconvenient hours, were to be welcomed with food and shelter. Surely there is instruction here to support the Christian community’s welcoming response to gender-variant children and transgender adults.

Today we are beginning to recognize that the challenge the transgender person faces is not so exotic. It is but one of the many challenges that Christians face in seeking to live an authentic life; it is a journey toward wholeness. The movement beyond a “false self” that struggles to fit in with social expectations is fraught with harrowing choices. But it is, at its core, a spiritual journey; if it is traumatic, it is also transformative. The Bible, we may need to remind ourselves, is replete with such transformative journeys. The faith community today is called to provide companions and guides for these daring spiritual ad- ventures.

Christian communities throughout the United States are expanding their outreach to welcome trans- gender members. The Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. has published a small booklet, Made in God’s Image, acknowledging the transgender members of their community. Here we see photographs of real persons, along with their compelling stories of suffering and faith. And here the community proclaims its Gospel vision of tolerance: “We understand our gender diversity to be a gift of God, intended to add to the rich variety of human experience and perspective... The problem is not in being different, but in living in a fearful, condemning world.” A Lutheran parish in San Francisco has accompanied one of its active members through the challenging journey of gender transition, culminating in a communal ritual of renaming to welcome this person in her new gender expression. In the Midwest, the newly opened Chicago Trans House serves as a welcoming residence for trans women, especially those who are recovering from drugs or other difficulties; here an Episcopal priest serves as director.

Aided by these insights and examples, Catholic leaders are becoming aware of the many transgender persons now “hiding in plain sight” among us, waiting to be delivered from their invisibility, eager to be respected and welcomed. ▼ 

Publications Committee Chair’s Note