The following is the seventeenth installment of the “Out of the Closet and Into the Pews” series. The series features members of The Reformation Project’s Inaugural Conference – a leadership conference for 50 straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians who are committed to reform.
A Transgender Catholic Story
by Mateo Williamson (BEA guest writer)
Looking back on my life, I realize now that there was never a moment when I did not have a fairly acute sense of who I was on the inside. I believe we are born with an inherent nature and “sparkle,” if you will, and this is surely one of God’s important gifts to each one of us. We also come to understand with time that essential to making the most of this promise is a willingness to be open to discerning God’s voice from within and through the world around us. Still, until the age of 20, it seems that I tried to conform to a very different reality. It has taken me some time to learn what it means to be fully human and fully alive in the presence of God, but that journey itself has been part of the blessing.
When we first come into this world, many choices have already been made for us by society. The social signals and conditioning that we receive from birth are powerful, and the specific expectations that the world had for me as a biological female became a great challenge and a seemingly endless source of insecurity and guilt in my life. I was raised in an immensely loving and encouraging home along with my hardworking mother and five siblings; I had everything I needed to grow and develop in an emotionally healthy way, including frequent praise from my mom, who constantly reminded me in my despair that I was smart, capable, and loved. But something always felt terribly heavy on my shoulders, and throughout my childhood, my mother would embrace me during times of self-doubt and say to me: “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. I wish I could give that to you.”
The constant and pervasive feelings of shame that I internalized throughout my youth and struggled to express were no one’s fault apart from society’s deep-rooted gender norms within which I became entangled. Even when my mother pushed for more feminine activities and clothing, I realize now that she was just trying to guide me so that I might fit in with peers and not suffer rejection or teasing.
The women mentors and friends around me always seemed to perceive that I just needed a little help, but truthfully, no amount of advice or hand-holding in the shopping mall or salon was going to end in a successful transformation. In grade school, every invitation to a slumber party struck increasing dread into my heart, and my male friends began to show interest in me as more than just a hockey buddy. To my further dismay, my body was soon betraying me. I retreated into an emotionally numb existence where I excelled at the denial of self and the pleasing of others.
Fast forward to a 20-year-old me who was quickly fading after years of desperate struggle. I was being treated for anxiety, depression, and soon an amalgam of other issues that began to pile up as doctors tried to help me through a nearly constant state of debilitating hopelessness. I was in counseling early on in life, frequently finding myself voicing concerns about my body and gender identity. My words of insecurity about my physical self and the feminine role that I felt forced into were often brushed aside as social anxiety and a lack of confidence. One counselor even tried to help me embrace my feminine side through talk therapy and the use of EMDR. While the sound of crashing waves echoed through headphones from one side of my head to the other, we worked through childhood memories in which I felt as though I had failed in my role as a girl. My sisters seemed to get it so well without even trying, and I began to wonder why I felt so inept as a female and a person. It all makes sense in retrospect: I was always reaching towards something I didn’t even desire, trying to mold myself into someone entirely different from who I was. We are all guilty of this to some extent, but I had made an art of it. I was so self-effacing that I found I could lie about almost anything without even thinking. At a certain point, I didn’t even know who I was anymore.
When I came out as a transgender male almost two years ago, one of the first things my mom asked me was: “Have you talked to a priest?” My mother was one of the first people I told after cutting my hair and before coming home for Christmas. She was distraught and worried about how others might perceive me, in particular our very Catholic family. There was so much pain in that moment as she grieved the daughter she always saw in me. I tried to help her understand that I was still the same person inside, just a better and healthier me. I attempted to allay her fears that the world would be unkind to me for being different, while I myself was unsure how my future might play out. Would people accept me for who I was? Would I face discrimination in my academic career and application to medical school? Would I become completely marginalized from society? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know of any transgender people personally, and my main perception of LGBT people still consisted of media stereotypes. I was gravely misinformed.
At the same time, something incredible was happening inside me as I began to take this leap of faith. For the first time in years, I began to feel drawn to something greater than myself. In my vulnerability, fear, and suffering, I was finding God in a way I had never seen him. Seeking a place of spiritual refuge, while I had once avoided the Catholic Church since high school, I found myself lured towards places of worship like a sudden craving that would hit me throughout the day—and the closest one to me was the Catholic Newman Center at my university. I would rush there between classes to sit in the back of the church and center myself, seeking God’s loving embrace. At the same time, I was still dealing with the sense that I was unworthy of God as a transgender person because of the messages my church had sent me from a young age. I actually felt a great deal of fear every time I walked through those doors for the first year, which was compounded by the fact that I looked very in-between genders at this stage and people did not know how to perceive me—in particular the head pastor. But I kept coming, even as I dealt with the anger I felt for the strict gender binary that the Catholic Church had imposed on me, and billions of other children, since birth. I was only eight years old when I was chastised for voicing my desire to someday become a priest.
And here I will admit that one of the most painful and confusing experiences I have had in my life has been the strong and pervasive desire to be a Jesuit priest, which is something that I can never be as long as I am true to who I am as a transgender person. Despite my disagreement with much of the Catholic Church hierarchy’s mistreatment of women, children, and LGBT people over the years, the core tenets and traditions of my Catholic faith form a strong part of my identity. Though I have gotten into trouble at my university Newman Center for talking about the plight of homeless LGBT youth at our school and in our community, I like to tell people that I stand for social justice because of my faith, not despite it. My identity as a transgender man and a Catholic are not exclusive of one another—they go hand in hand.
Catholic Church doctrine has taught that as a transgender person who has transitioned physically, I live in a state of “grave sin.” Also, in his Christmas speeches of 2008 and 2012, Pope Benedict asserted that transgender people are a threat to the ecology of the human person (yes, he actually related saving the rainforest to saving the world from gender variant people). The Church has even been a leader in promoting dangerous reparative therapy techniques that try to “fix” people who are gay or transgender. Still, I know that I hold a different truth in the relationship between myself and my God. The strength and grace that God provided me in order to eventually inhabit my truth was not the result of sin, and certainly not a product of the Fall. My understanding of sin is that it draws us away from God, but being transgender has drawn me ever closer to my Creator in a way I could never have imagined. I also don’t believe that God made a mistake in how she created me, but rather that she was very intentional in making me just as I am. I look forward to the day that I will be accepted by my church and welcomed as a son of St. Ignatius, but until then, I will try to rest in knowing that I am doing all that I can to ensure that the experience of generations to follow will be different from my own.
San Ignacio de Loyola, pray for us.
“No daylight to separate ourselves. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of the circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” –Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ
Mateo Williamson is a native of Phoenix, Arizona and a student of Microbiology and Spanish Interpretation at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He identifies as a transgender male with a heart for all things social justice. He hopes to become an LGBT-friendly physician to work to combat the health disparities that sexual and gender minorities face. Mateo attends the Catholic Newman Center at his university and has a fondness for Ignatian spirituality. He is involved with Catholics for Marriage Equality and Dignity USA, and dialogues with members of the Catholic hierarchy to advocate for the safety, respect, and well-being of LGBT people in Catholic churches, schools, and service agencies. He also seeks to create awareness about spiritual abuse and the devastation of faith-based conversion therapy. Mateo hopes to share the message that gender and sexual variance represents the wonder of God’s intricate creation, and that all people are welcomed into communion with God just as they are.
The opinions expressed above are those of the guest writer and do not necessarily state or reflect the views of Brown-Eyed Amazon. Publication on this website should not be considered an endorsement.
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