He converted to Catholicism eight years ago and chose the confirmation name Thomas, after the English saint Thomas More, who died for the unity of the Catholic Church. He is the kind of person who meets a priest for coffee and within 10 minutes is asked if he has considered becoming a priest. At age 34, he has multiple degrees in theology, works for a church-run nonprofit, and hands out Communion every Sunday at his parish.
Still, Thomas said he does not think he will enter the priesthood anytime soon. “It’s been heartbreak after heartbreak,” he said.
Thomas is transgender, which rules him out of consideration for the priesthood. He works for a Catholic employer who does not know his gender identity, so to protect his job, he asked to be identified in this story only as Thomas, the name he chose when he completed the Catholic rite of confirmation, which all Catholics take to mark their commitment to the faith as adults.
Transgender Catholics like Thomas say they feel they are in doctrinal limbo since, although there is extensive teaching on sexuality that applies to lesbian and gay Catholics, there is no universal church teaching on transgender identity. They want to be recognized with clearer, more authoritative guidelines from the pope on issues like medical transition, vocation, and marriage.
However, the church is very clear on matters of sexuality: Church teaching prohibits gay sex and any other sexual activity that happens outside a marriage between man and woman. In June 2018, the Vatican used the acronym LGBT for the first time, acknowledging the community in a document written ahead of a meeting of bishops in Rome in October 2018. In a final version of the document, the acronym was removed. But even though these conversations about LGBT Catholics are — to some extent — taking place in the Catholic Church, they tend to be focused on sex, and on lesbian, gay, and bisexual Catholics.
The plight of transgender Catholics like Thomas may receive less attention because the trans population itself is very small. Transgender people make up only 0.6 percent of the US population, while lesbian, gay, and bisexual people occupy closer to 4 percent, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.
Transgender people have gained visibility in recent years, in part due to the celebrity of public figures like Caitlyn Jenner, writer Janet Mock, and actress Laverne Cox. Heated debate over “bathroom bills” has unfolded in the past decade, and bans of “gay and trans panic” defenses in cases of violent crimes have also attracted attention. Most recently, the Supreme Court permitted the Trump administration to restrict military service by transgender people while court challenges continue.
The lack of clarity around the church’s position on transgender identity has consequences for trans Catholics. David Albert Jones, a Catholic bioethicist who has advised bishops across Europe, has written of “an urgent need” for the church to “develop theological resources” for transgender people. Trans Catholics currently face obstacles if they want to work for the church, pursue a Catholic marriage, or take religious vows, not to mention the challenge of transitioning within their faith communities. Trans Catholics say these challenges require specific attention and pastoral care from the church.
What the church believes about trans people
Pope Francis has met with at least one transgender Catholic — in 2015, he made headlines when it was reported that he met with a transgender man who was rejected by his faith community after receiving gender-affirming surgery.
But in conversation, Francis has also appeared to reject the idea that gender can be different from the sex assigned at birth. He has repeatedly said that gender is not a choice. “Children are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature?” he said in a 2017 interview. He has also railed against “the biological and psychological manipulation of sexual difference” that presents gender as a “simple matter of personal choice.”
Several US bishops appeared to echo the pope’s views on gender in December 2017. In an open letter called “Created Male and Female,” they wrote, “The socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female. ... The movement today to enforce the false idea — that a man can be or become a woman or vice versa — is deeply troubling.” The letter does not constitute a universal church teaching, since church teaching has different levels of authority.
Jones, the Catholic bioethicist, has written that sex, marriage, and surgery that interferes with reproduction appear to be prohibited for transgender people under the Catholic Catechism. The catechism teaches that sex should only happen within marriage between a man and a woman, with the goal of procreation. Related recommendations from the Vatican — though not codified in universal Catholic Church teaching — say that transgender people shouldn’t be priests or even godparents.
The lack of clarity is a problem because trans people face so much stigma outside of the church. Forty-one percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming people attempt suicide, and this rate can soar to up to 78 percent depending on the type of discrimination and/or abuse the person is subject to, according to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute. In comparison, 4.6 percent of the overall US population and 10 to 20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults report attempting suicide, according to the same study.
Additionally, transgender people face what the Human Rights Campaign calls a “national crisis” of fatal violence. At least 26 transgender people, mostly transgender women of color, were killed in the United States in 2018, according to HRC.
It’s one reason some Catholics welcome trans people. When it comes to ministering to the transgender community, Sister Luisa Derouen, 74, is a pioneer. Derouen, a Dominican sister in St. Katherine, Kentucky, has been providing spiritual direction and companionship to transgender people for almost 20 years.
“A few individual bishops have spoken publicly, with the basic message being that the Book of Genesis tells us God created human beings male and female,” she said. “However, to date there is no official position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or from the Vatican regarding transgender people.”
At the request of her religious community, Derouen undertook her work under the pseudonym Sister Monica for many years. The community was worried about the possible negative attention her work could attract. Last year, Deroeun decided to reveal her identity in solidarity with her transgender friends.
“How can I give full witness to their truth if I’m hiding behind a name that is not mine?” Deroeun said. “I can’t hide either.”
The lack of strict guidelines on trans people leaves room for many interpretations
Colleen Fay, 74, who was raised Catholic, said she stopped hiding at age 63.
In 2007, Fay disclosed that she was transgender to her pastor and the music director at her parish, St. Ann Church in Washington, DC. Shortly afterward, she said, she was fired from her position in the church choir by the music director. He could not be reached for comment.
“They don’t know what to do with us. There is no policy. There is no doctrine,” she said. “And so better to throw us all out with the bathwater and so be done with it, is their attitude.”
After she was fired, Fay said, she became a parishioner at St. James Church in Mount Rainier, Maryland, where she moved. She said that she attempted to register as a parishioner in person three times during her first three years of attendance but never received any correspondence. Each time she returned the parish office to check if she was registered, she was told they had no record of her. She thinks she was never registered because she is trans, and said these experiences have made her feel that she is being asked by the church to choose between being transgender and being Catholic.
“That is an impossible choice,” she said through tears. “‘Choose your right arm or your left — you may not have both,’ is what they are saying.”
In Boston, Rachel Burkhardt, 64, who is also a liturgical musician, said she was never confronted with that choice.
Burkhardt said that when she told her parish music director, Richard Clark, that she was transgender, he quietly reprinted the music she composed with her new name, Rachel, and threw away the old copies.
Burkhardt said the pastor of her parish, which is called St. Cecilia, has been “very supportive” of her and her wife. They married decades ago within the Catholic Church, before Burkhardt transitioned, and likely would not have been granted a Catholic marriage if they had met after Burkhardt’s transition.
Rev. John Unni, a pastor at St. Cecilia, models his ministry on Pope Francis’s “culture of encounter,” which asks Catholics to engage and listen to the marginalized, which includes the LGBTQ community and beyond. He said that as a pastor, it was important to suspend “quick snap judgments” and to think, “Jeez, maybe I can learn from another person’s struggle.”
“It widens the capacity of the heart,” he said.
Unni said he has never received any pushback from church leaders for welcoming LGBTQ people at his parish. “We’re not doing anything antithetical to the gospel message,” he said. “Jesus was open to those in the margins and welcomed anyone who wanted to hear him.”
“I’m not called to give up on this.”
Burkhardt, like several other Catholics I spoke to, said it would be easier to be Episcopal, a Christian denomination that is more inclusive of LGBTQ people. But they all said they felt God wanted them to be Catholic.
While a lack of universal teaching about transgender identity continues, the treatment of transgender Catholics varies from parish to parish, and people like Thomas are left in limbo indefinitely regardless of their commitment to the church.
Thomas said that his spiritual directors over the years — all of whom know he is transgender, and some of whom have assessed candidates for the priesthood — have privately affirmed his desire to enter religious life.
“You clearly have a vocation. You must be a ‘religious,’” he recalled being told, meaning he has a clear calling to take religious vows. “It is who you are.” But vocation directors and bishops have refused to meet with him, he said, because he is transgender.
But Thomas still has hope. “I’m not called to give up on this,” he said.
“Maybe,” he said, “all this struggling will help someone else down the line, make it easier for them.”
Eloise Blondiau is a producer at America Media. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.