Transgender in Church

Last SupperWhile helping out at our Catholic stall after this year’s Pride parade through London, I was approached by a woman who put a question that left me totally at a loss on how to respond:  What is the Church’s position on transgendered issues? She told me that her own local parish priest was very understanding and supportive, but she wanted to know more. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I clearly knew less than she did – she at least had been discussing the issue with a priest, but I in effect knew virtually nothing, beyond the harsh words of Benedict XVI in his Curial address last Christmas.

Now, we at the Soho Masses are quite explicit  that we serve(or aim to) the full LGBTspectrum (as well as friends, family and supporters), and one of our key people on the pastoral council speaks openly of her own transition.   The matter was raised in our pastoral planning workshop earlier this year, and since then, we have begun exploring ways to be more explicitly supportive, in particular by making provision for at least fairly basic changing facilities for those who want to use such a facility.  But these are essentially merely symbolic gestures, only just scratching the surface. Beyond taking the easy way out, referring questions to Lorraine, what on earth are we to say to people who are attempting to find a balance between authentic gender expression and living with integrity in the Catholic Church?

Many of us have felt anxious, intimidated or jsut plain terrified at the prospect of coming out as lesbians or gay men- sometimes even to ourselves.  Yet we have an increasingly supportive legal and cultural environment, role models and resources to help us.  Even in our struggles with the churches, the publicity over gay bishops and gay clergy, as well as an explosion of books an web resources, makes it easy to see that we are not alone in the struggle.  How much more difficult must it be to face the much greater challenge of dealing with a readjustment of gender identity, without that same supportive environment?  There  are not the same resources, nor are there the same role models and support structures.

This is why I was  delighted to find this report, in the Regal Courier on a Methodist priest who had the courage to tell his congregation about his earlier transition – and the congregation, who responded to his story with strong applause.:

Congregation embraces transgender minister as his secret is revealed

Rev. David Weekley hopes his story will help change United Methodist Church doctrine

Rev David Weekely and wife (pic: L.E. Baskow, Portland Tribune)

Until now, there has been just one openly transgender Methodist clergyman in the U.S. to retain his ordination (That man, Drew Phoenix, 50, had his ordination challenged by members of the church after coming out publicly in 2007 to his congregation in St. John’s of Baltimore United Methodist Church in Maryland.)

Today, Sunday, Aug. 30, Weekley – who leads the congregation at the Epworth United Methodist Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood in inner Southeast Portland – became the second.

Just months after telling his own children that he was not their biological father, Weekley, who is in his late-50s, came out to his congregation of 221 members.

Standing behind his pulpit, Weekley began his usual worship service. About halfway through, he paused to share a personal message he called “My Book Report.”

He told them that in 1984, just nine years after undergoing extensive sex-reassignment surgeries, he was ordained by the Methodist Church without telling anyone of his original gender at birth.

Following his story, the congregation, who had remained silent throughout his talk, broke into thunderous applause. Church members then proclaimed their support for their pastor.

This is impressive.  The United Methodist Church is one of the least supportive mainline Protestant denominations on lesbian and gay people generally, and despite strong pressure to change, voted against modifying their opposition, the last time this came up for discussion.  The strong support from the congregation shows once again that local communities can be far more supportive of individual people in their midst, than official doctrine suggests.  It is far easier to be hostile to an anonymous group, than it is to those nice guys in the pew next to you, or to an admired pastor in the pulpit.  This is why it is so important that wherever possible, we should try to extend our coming out processes (and they are processes, not single events), into our parishes, as well as to our families, friends, and workplaces.  Every such coming out makes it easier for those who follow:  but let me emphasise those words , “wherever possible“.  Quite obviously, sometimes the conditions are simply prohibitive, especially for clergy.

Footnote:  I have responded to my earlier embarrassed ignorance by attempting to track down more information on transgendered issues in the churches, and have started to compile a transgendered booklist for Sergius & Bacchus Books.  This is far from complete, but it is a start, and will be constantly expanded.  I would be very interested in feedback from readers who know more than I do.

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Catholic and Other Faith Schools and Homophobic Bullying …

The Homoerotic Catholic Church

That’s right:  not homophobic, but homoerotic.  Sure, there is homophobia, especially in the official teaching, but if you peer beneath the surface, scratch the veneer, lift the skirts of the priestly vestments at what lies beneath and within, you find a very different picture. It is a common observation that the most virulent homophobia often masks a closeted gay interior. This may well be the case with the institutional Catholic church: there is much in the Church’s history, institutional character, liturgical style, church decoration, and mystical tradition that is way more than just gay-friendly:  much of it is at least camp, or even frankly homoerotic.

Let us begin with the fun stuff.

In his wonderfully funny but also pointed and touching bit of memoir, “Since My Last Confession“, Scott Pomfret adopts a delightfully camp tone to describe the personnel, priestly vestments and equipment of the Mass. (In an extended metaphor, the Mass becomes a white linen restaurant, the priest is the chef, Eucharistic ministers are waiters, the chalice is the wine glass.)

This camp tone is entirely appropriate: there is much in the liturgy itself, in church architecture and decor, with its blend of high art and low kitsch, which is itself high camp, and appealing to the gay sensibility (if such exists). Elsewhere, Pomfret notes that Sunday evening doughnut supper in a particular Boston parish, is the best place outside a gay bar to pick up a man on Sunday night.

On a similar theme, Mark D Jordan (“The Silence of Sodom”) describes a certain type of Catholic gay man who tends to get deeply involved in the minutiae of liturgy planning.  These men he describes as “liturgy” queens, drawing a clear comparison with that other well-known stereotype, the opera queen.  (In this context, the well-known Marian prayer, “Hail Holy Queen” takes on a whole new meaning!)

On the other hand, what is one to make of the display of the near naked Christ on the cross, and the depictions of the passion in the “Stations of the Cross” found in every Catholic church?  Do these have a special frisson for the SM /Leather sub-group of gay men?  It is certainly so that renowned mystics such as St John of the Cross have developed a whole school of spirituality on the idea of contemplation on the body of Christ – and couched it in language that is remarkably sensuous, even erotic.

Priesthood & Training

It’s not only the gay men in the congregation that respond to the camp. It’s well known that an astonishingly high proportion of Catholic priests are gay.  There are no reliable statistics, but the guesstimates I have seen tend to cluster around the 50% mark, give or take 20% either side. Nor are these all in the lower ranks, nor should we assume that they are all celibate:  rumours and allegations of sexually active gay bishops, cardinals, Vatican officials  and even popes are commonplace. (Some conservative factions in the Church even claim that all three popes immediately after Vatican II were gay, and that Paul VI in particular ushered in a “homosexual mafia” to the Vatican staff – possibly explaining the reactionary lurch under John Paul II and Benedict XVI?)

Why should this be so?  It is probably simplistic just to blame it on the desire to wear the priestly drag (where else can a gay men get to wear skirts public outside the theatre or drag shows?), but the camp style probably does have something to do with it.

More important though, as Mark D Jordan has persuasively shown, is that the entire culture of priestly training in all-male seminaries is deeply supportive, even encouraging, of a gay orientation, just as it discourages

straight men. Jordan also shows, scandalously, that it is not just the students in these institutions who are, or first become, sexually active in the seminaries: many staff members are sexual predators, taking advantage of the students in their care – even as they warn against forming “particular friendships” with each other.

History

In the Church’s long past, carefully airbrushed out of official history,
are hidden numerous examples of gay, lesbian and even transvestite (FTM) saints, bishops, and popes. Fortunately, modern scholars no longer depend on clerical approval, and this gay past is now being recovered for us(See the work of John Boswell, Alan Bray, and Bernadette Brooten just for starters.)

Far from opposing gay marriage, for many centuries the church recognised and liturgically blessed same sex unions:  at the start of the relationships, by the ceremonies of “adelphopoesis” in the Eastern church, and by the “ordo ad fratres faciendum” in the West.  Both these terms referred to the making of “sworn brothers”, and may have been largely about contracts of property arrangements – but that is exactly what opposite-sex unions were about at the time.  The concept of marriage as the consummation of romantic love is a modern invention.  Many same sex unions have also been recognised in death, right up to the 19th century, by being buried in shared graves, often inside church buildings, or with grave monuments, memorials and inscriptions inside the churches comparable to the memorials to married couples buried together.

Does it matter?

That there is at least a strand of homophile or homoerotic culture, sensitivity, and activity in the Catholic Church is clear.  So what?  Should we care?  For those of us in the Church who are gay, I believe it matters immensely.  By recognising the hypocrisy, it becomes easier to stand up to the theological bullying, and to counter the lecturing with rational argument.

Further reading:

Books
Jordan, Mark D:  The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
Boswell, John Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century
Boswell, John : Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
Alan Bray, The Friend

Brooten, Bernadette : Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism
Engel, Rangy: The Rite of Sodomy Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Church

Pomfret, Scott: Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

I would expect that most of my lesbian & gay readers have known the liberating growth experience of coming out:  at least to themselves and to close friends, or (where realistically appropriate), to family and colleagues.  But how many, I wonder, have found the even greater joy of coming out to God? I mean here not just superficially, but fully and frankly, taking your sexuality deep into your prayer life, giving thanks for the joys and satisfactions, even the exhilaration of orgasm; sharing the pain of the frustrations and disappointments; even building the Lord into your sexual fantasies, or turning your fantasies into prayer?

This appears to be heretical, sacrilegious, but is not.  It is an old idea, going back at least to the Song of Songs, and to the great mystics: St John of the Cross, St Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.  Modern writers who have discussed this idea from a gay perspective include Daniel HelminiakMichael B Kelly and John McNeill.  (Jim Cotterand Jack Dominian are just two I know of who have done so from a more traditional heterosexual perspective).

Now I have come across another who has done so directly – Chris Glaser, who has put together a prayer collection under the title “Coming Out to God.”

Coming out to God

I first heard of this book when it was recommended to the congregation by the celebrant during Sunday Mass – so it has the warm approval of at least one Catholic priest in good standing.  Looking into it, I was particularly impressed by the powerful and moving writing of the introduction.

Glaser shares with us his own early struggle, torn between his innate sexuality and spirituality, which he believed, like most Christians, to be in some kind of conflict.  Using a striking metaphor, picturing each of these two as strangers wary of each other at a dance, he tells how they first put out tentative feelers, then began cautiously to dance, each struggling for dominance and attempting to lead – before finding true partnership, and allowing the dance to lead them:

Leather Dancers

“When my sexuality began to emerge,  my spirituality froze in fear, then nearly ran out of the room.  But then it noticed other souls dancing gracefully, and realised it was missing their grace. My spirituality wondered if the lack of grace had something to do with rejection of the stranger on the other side of the room, my sexuality.

Timidly, one invited the other to dance.  At first, they scarcely looked at each other… they were lousy dancers. Then they cast furtive glances at each other, sometimes angry or resentful, sometimes flirtatious and seductive….Finally they found times when the dance led them, and for brief moments they became perfect dancers, full of grace, true to each other.  They danced together as my soul.”

He also draws an important parallel between sexuality and spirituality, stating that they are both routes to intimacy in relationships:  sexuality builds intimacy in human relationships, spirituality does in our relationship with the Lord.  This equivalence thus makes them natural partners.

“Sexuality and spirituality are not opposing  forces, as is frequently supposed today.  Instead, both draw people into relationship. Sexuality draws us into physical relationships: touching, hugging…… kissing and intercourse.  Spirituality draws us into relationships that both incl ude and transcend bodies because it includes and transcends that which is visible……Both our sexual and spiritual powers are holy, and therefore both my be profaned. At their holiest, these powers lead to love in all its many expressions.  At their most profane, they may lead to apathy or hate. The integrity of both sexual and spiritual powers is called the soul.”

The final observation that struck an enormous personal chord with me, was his statement that when we come out to God,  we allow God to come out to us:  to enter more fully into our own lives, which is the best defence we can develop against the homophobic bigotry that masquerades freely under the name of religion:

“In prayer, coming out to God as sexual-spiritual beings opens us up, I believe, to God coming out to us in the dance of Substance and Sensuality, spirituality and sexuality.   Prayer becomes a place wherein the choreography of the dance of spirituality and sexuality gets worked out.  When we allow the Lord of the Dance to lead, sexuality becomes responsible and spirituality becomes responsive.”

For more details, and extracts from the introduction, see “Coming out to God”.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

At The Wild Reed:

Making Love, Giving Life

Song of Songs – The Bible’s Gay  Love Poem