“When clerics sought me …
They bade me care diligently for the talent
which God had committed to my keeping”
Peter of Abelard
What is transgender theology? Who gets to write trans theology? When does transgender theology begin? These are questions deeply invested in my academic research on transgender saints, pilgrims, confessions, and eunuchs in the middles ages and today. Yet as in my scholarship, I ask these questions in my daily life and writing not only for the sake of educating others but in order to navigate my own way through a world with churches, jobs, bathrooms, and classrooms continually announcing that they are not made nor meant for me. The call for the ideal and the normative has been sent out, yet it is those such as me who arrive. This meal was not laid out for us and yet we are hungry. And the hungry will feed, even if we must appropriate, share, and make places of our own. We scavenge together a transgender theology not because our path was destined to be different but because when our road was blocked, we found other ways. Or else we smuggled ourselves in caravans claimed by cisgender (non-transgender) persons. As a result of millennia of hard travels, we account in our histories much that is familiar and much that is not. We too sat at the feet of Socrates and fought beside Joan of Arc. And we have sat alone in monasteries and the cells of mystics. Transgender theology is scriptural as it is systematic, it is mystical as it is scholastic, it is orthodox as it is liberating, it is found in our bodies and it is called down from the heavens. In writing this piece, I speak with the patriarch's language but in the form of women mystics and self-hagiographers. It takes on the form of a story because besides my work in academic and sermon writing, I am most at home in narrative. And like many quests, this narrative begins with a question.
Visions of Twilight
"Can you explain men to me?" the Retreat Director asked me on the bus at the end of a long weekend in the woods. She was new to her position and I was new to participating in college ministry. We had much to learn from and about each other. I scrunched my face in confusion and uncertainty. Briefly tilting my head to look around the bus, I contemplated the question: why me? I was sitting alone in the front, enjoying some quiet, away from the rest of the group, most of whom were singing together in the back. Perceiving my perplexity at being singled out but not yet understanding why I was perplexed, she attempted to explain herself. "You see," she said, "the retreat group - in fact most our youth in ministry here - seem to be women. You are one of only two men on the trip and I want help in figuring out why that is." Ah. There it is. In this break away from the bodies and perceptions of the general group, I had forgotten for a moment that I was taken as a man. The dark lens of manhood that I wore publicly in a space like this was not of my own design or asking but had been given to me long ago beginning with the words: "It's a boy!" It determined how I saw the world and how I was able (or not) to move in it. It also shaded how I saw myself and how I was able (or not) to occupy myself. In moments like this, having separated myself from the community and their expectations, I was able to take off the dark midnight blue glasses of manhood and allow my mind's eye to adjust back to its more comfortable light of morning blush and rosewood. In this frame, I was able to let myself rest and reflect in the femme light that soothed my tired body and soul. It is important that the Retreat Director's ignorance of the twilight in which I lived, caught between night and day, shadow and light, should not be taken as a personal fault. She was putting herself out there to ask knowledge of me. Yet like Actaeon the Hunter stumbling across Diana naked in the wood, her interjection came as a surprise, challenge, and potential threat as she unknowingly broke into the private hallow of my womanhood with a reminder of the dim world of men ever waiting to pull me back.
At this point in my transition, I had walked many friends and family through the valley of dusk and dawn, man and woman, in which I was still traveling myself, but I hadn't gotten around to all the staff and church members. The often compulsory labor put on a trans person to navigate all their communities through the twilight of dysphoria and transition can be exhausting. As such it happens in inconsistent stages and pockets. In this moment, I was measuring my energy to determine whether I wanted to explain my gender and the ways it has been misread to the staff member or whether it was simpler just to hear out this question being ironically posed to me. The whole "I am transgender," plus "this is what that means," plus the inevitable fall-out would likely have taken the rest of the two hour ride back to the city. For the sake of returning to my solitude, I decided that the most expedient decision was to do my best to answer the question as it was presented without totally unpacking the situation for her. Little did the Retreat Director know, her situation was actually worse - twice as worse - as she understood. She only had one man on the trip, not two. Yet, after all, could my liminal position not help to answer her question? I had not asked to see the world as a man but I had been giving the lens and trained in how to use it - often with great pain and cost. I could answer her questions about men not because I was a man but because as not-man I knew how to live as a man among men. I was irritatingly self-conscious of this knowledge because it was hard and uncomfortable to gather and bear. I knew the cost of surrendering unseen worlds full of brilliant faerie lights in favor of living in the dim landscapes structured by the great shadowy architecture of the visible world. This taught me to take seriously other things I knew in my heart to be real, even if they are not discretely visible. I knew the patriarchy existed, even if I could not point to any one specific place as embodying it completely. "So can you help explain men to me?" she earnestly asked again. "I can try," I answered her with the unspoken caveat, "but not for the reason you think I can."
As the Retreat Director began her questioning, I thought on the Virgin Mary and the model she offers for trans persons looking for a place in God's vision. Despite often oppressive opinions in Christianity and western patriarchies in general, there is a natural (and even super-natural) dysphoria in the world that is especially embodied and perceived by particular peoples. There is a long tradition of transgender people and particularly trans women sitting between the worlds of light and dark, earth and sky. In Plato's Symposium on Love, Aristophones suggests that trans, intersex, and other gender non-conforming peoples may stem from a mythic origin: the Children of the Moon. The people was so named because they are at once oriented towards the female Earth and towards the male Sun, reflecting aspects of both. This ability for multiplicity (sometimes taken as duplicity) and transformation (sometimes taken as inconstancy) is also why many Greco-Roman people associated the Moon with women. In contrast with the anecdotal "man in the moon," ancient figures such as Diana and the Hecate were the women in the moon. This tradition became adopted by medieval Christianity that typically used female pronouns for the Moon and associated it with Mary the Mother of Christ. Iconography of the Virgin (be it Diana or Mary) typically incorporated the woman standing with or on the moon. It is for this reason that icons of Mary (in her many forms) are pictured with her standing on a crescent moon. It is said that Mary stands between heaven and Earth, looking down towards the mortal world and reflecting up towards the brilliance of the sun - another stand in for her Son, Christ. In an instance of what historians call "synchronicity," native peoples in Americas held beliefs that transgender persons had "two-spirits" and held them in esteem as shamans who could see across the visible divides of man and woman and also the invisible divides of flesh and spirit. In this way, transgender women have a special place in the devotion of Mother Mary because they too know what it means to stand between the world of light and the world of darkness, between all that is seen and all that is unseen.
In the end, unsurprisingly for people who know ministry, the retreat director was not just asking for my opinion but my service. For the next thirty-minutes, we had an uncanny conversation that resulted in a dramatically ironic decision: I would be put in charge of starting a Men's Faith Group and Retreat on campus. Ironically, my position among men yet not one with them, prepared me to be an effective discussion leader. I was self-aware of masculine modes of conversation because they felt like artificial second languages. Among women as a woman, I felt more intuitive and could exist without having to be constantly self-conscious or performative. I was in drag as a man, cross-dressing as a man, before I was able to come out as a woman. Thus, I had the skills to lead a Men's Group because I was a trans woman. And yet, the ability to serve a community of men in this way depended on me living as a man, sacrificing my life as a woman, and the perpetuation of dysphoria which came from seeing the world through the eyes of twilight. It was a service I could do at this time, in this moment of transition, between the darkness of manhood and the dawn of womanhood, if I dwelled in that in between place. Yes, I could direct a Men's Faith Group, although it would be more for them than for me. To sustain myself, I would need to balance this with something else. I would also need to develop my own Women's Group and Retreat. The Women's Group would have to be kept unofficial, unauthorized by the formal ministry but that would open it up to being a queer, trans, and alternative femme community - what came to be called "the Goddess Parties" in honor of our Ladies of the Moon - but that is another story. It is enough to say that if I was going to dwell in the midnight of manhood, I would need longer and larger moments to step out of the darkness and bask in the light. This moon reflects the light of day on those walking the roads through the night. I would need the light of the moon, the light of the sacred feminine, the light of Mary, to sustain my heart, if I was going to step deeper into shadow of manhood.
Visions of Night
If I was to live among the shadows on the dark side of the mood, I had to learn to better see with eyes of night. Wallace Stephens insists that if one is to judge winter, "one must have a mind of winter." So too God became human to justify the mortal and the divine. By embracing the shadows of our lives, we might find God's goodness in them, fulfilling the Taize hymn, "our darkness is never darkness in your sight." When I met with the male staff person to develop the Men's Group and Retreat, I was ready to fight for an approach to gendered conversations that disturbed the borders of manhood and called on participants to use their male privilege to unsettle the patriarchy. What I did not expect was that my challenges would be echoed by the minister and pushed further. While I was bringing a trans woman background to the table, he brought his history working with the queer activists and liberation theologians. We were not the normative picks for the leadership of a Catholic Men's Group but because both of us knew what it meant to walk in shadows of our authentic selves, we knew who else lived on the margins and how we might draw those used to being unseen into community. Who are the unseen? First, the unseen are those who exist alongside the visible world yet are imperceivable through the eyes of the world. Second, the unseen are those who are systematically made invisible. They are the people who we are taught to un-see. Third, the unseen are those who are yet to be seen. They are the hidden seeds of un-being, the fruit of an unfolding creation, the flowers that have not yet budded. They are the resurrection that comes after one lays dormant in the ground, planted like seeds of a greater second life. The unseen are promises of God yet to be fulfilled. I worked to bring these insights into designing the Men's Group and the accompanying Retreat. Over the next few years the numbers burgeoned as we drew men who were not used to being called into Catholic community or else who were not allowed to be their full selves. The flowering of these winter fruits was evident during the final Retreat at which I would minister. It was a three day urban retreat where each day a different event would challenge us to see the unseen in new ways.
On the first day of my final Men's Retreat, we visited a Benedictine Monastery that prompted us to ask: How do we see the unseen as those who exist beside us but are invisible to the ways we see the world? Too few know that a monastery exists in the heart of urban Chicago. One reason for this is that the brothers live on the south side of Chicago, an area that socio-economic and racial prejudice segregates from the rest of the city. Yet here is where the community lives and holds nightly vespers services; which this night our little band of unusual Catholics would join. Right off I noticed how the simple black garb of the monks clashes with the shining metropolis. Such garb marks them as different and some may chose to ignore them as an incongruous anachronism with no place in today's city. In seeing their black garb, I was brought to reflect on how my choice in clothing also signaled a life faded into the shadows. When I first started working in the ministry, some people expressed dissatisfaction with how I dressed. Criticisms ranged from "too much black" to comments on the nail polish or other flair I would add to feminize clothes that felt oppressively masculine. Now I saw how by dwelling together, the monks shared the dark marks of difference. I saw how some people need to see people like me if they are going to give a ministry a second glance. In contrast to the pastel polos and khakis, if the ministry wants people outside of gender norms, they need people who express alterity, opposition, queerness, and trans-ness. Put simply: if you want more trans people, you need to let trans people look how they look. Marking yourself as part of the shadows can be a critical step in finding community in the dark places of the world. In his History of Sufferings, Peter of Abelard recounts how at first he wore the mark of his castration with fear of Levitical and Deutercanonical Church law that forbade eunuchs from shared spaces with cisgender men and women. Yet by wearing the mark of his exile, he soon collected a community of monks around him. By committing to a shared alienation, Abelard and these monks showed me that when the main roads are denied to us, God will meet us out in the shadows and build a community there.
With the lesson of the Monastery in mind, on the second day of the retreat, we set to work on a gardening and landscaping service project to contemplate the darkness of the earth and all that lays hidden in its unseen depths: How might we see the unseen as seeds which are yet to sprout? How do we take our own darkness and bury ourselves in the earth with hopes of what shall come? We arrived at a shelter for women and children who have experienced abuse in order to help repair the damage that violent patriarchal systems enact on a community. In previous years, we served there ripping up carpets and removing large furniture. This year we were planting flowers, hauling dirt, and creating flower beds with slabs of wood. Among the women and children that lived there, in the dark muddy soil, the work offered a kind of hopeful healing where trauma and brokenness could be buried and sprout with new life. In his History, Abelard recalls how castration at the hands of patriarchs caused him great pain and alienation yet in time became the source of spiritual insights. "Scarcely had I recovered from my wound,” recollects Abelard, "when clerics sought me... They bade me care diligently for the talent which God had committed to my keeping, since surely He would demand it back from me with interest." Just as each of us may wear the garb of the shadows because of unique fears, so too each of us hold unique hurts. The lesson of Abelard, this community of abused lives, and the soil on our hands was that God asks us to offer up not only our strengths but also our brokenness. In these wounds God places special "talents" that give us particular insights and resources that may lay dormant in us like seeds in dark earth until the day comes where it may bloom as a healing herb. On this day, these unseen talents took on many forms. Not everyone could do every task and all of us could not do the same task at once. As a result, we learned to invite each other to add our particular gifts to the collaborative work. While often uncomfortable and alienating, these "talents" compound our differences and add to the sum of who we are. This is a monstrous claim of Christianity and one that the trans theology affirms: wounds and suffering can be buried and rise as new life.
By the early morning of the third day, in the dark before the sun rises, our group sat together in the shade of our lessons on communities in the shadows and the seeds in the earth ready to take on one of our hardest challenges: How do we see the ignored, the un-seen? How do we call lives back from the shadows who mistrust the light because of danger and violence? How we honor that which we have shamed? In this spirit we sat in the dark, hidden in the upper room of the house, speaking quietly, breaking bread and breaking open mysteries of our lives. There we sat in a circle of chairs exchanging stories. It was my last night working with this Men's Group and there was a sense that it was time that some things be brought to light. "So," I said, convening the conversation, "I've got something to share that some of you know, others suspect, but is worth saying aloud." Then I unveiled for them that I was a trans woman. I asserted that despite the strangeness of being given the position of leading a Men's Group that I greatly valued my time getting to know them in this way. The biggest surprise for someone outside the group might be how little surprise there was. All gave signs of affirmation and thanked me for giving the specific talents and insights I possessed as a trans woman. But that was not all. My statement of self was only an opening act. What followed was a series of comings out with each person offering some aspect of their lives (gender, sexuality, past trauma) which had haunted the group but had never been spoken. Each of us in a way were like Abelard, who feared the Church's anti-eunuch laws (like today's doctrines against LGBT people) and was ashamed of coming about his castration.“How could I ever again hold up my head among men," asks Abelard, "when every finger should be pointed at me in scorn, every tongue speak my blistering shame?" In the end, each of us admitted to feeling somewhat of an unnatural presence in a Catholic Men's Group. Each of us assumed the natural place of others but felt we were an outsider following along. After tears and hugs, the last of us went to bed to grab some trace of sleep, and I realized that the sun was just beginning to peak out over the horizon. In many ways it was a sign that a long night had ended and that in the light of the third day the veil was breaking and the rock that contained life was beginning to roll away.
Visions of Dawn
It was on the way to my final retreat as part of a Catholic ministry in Chicago that I made the decision to come out to the rest of the staff - especially the retreat director - about the transitions I had made in the rest of my life (now including the Men's Group): I was to live all my time as the woman I already was. It became evident that I needed to make a turn that would feel like the change from night to day. The danger of living in the valley of shadow is that one runs the risk of becoming a shade of one's self. After too long, the strain had become too much. I had to make a choice. If I or the world insisted I keep on the dark lenses, I would become what they showed me: nothing, or else a blurry wraith in a shadowy veil. With eyes no longer shaded, in the light of day I saw years full of conflict and suffering but also years full of life. Faced with the choice, I chose life as a woman. Either way, the man many knew was going to die, because even if he persisted it would have been a living death. In the end, I chose the life of sharp particulars where I could at least know myself and declare to the world why I make my choices, even if that self and those choices would be brought to pain and even death in the end. To paraphrase the great conversation between those sentenced to execution in the Lion in Winter: when death is certain and all that is left is to determine how one is to die then the "how" becomes all important. If I had to face the worst, I would face it with my face in the sun. In that spirit, I made the decision that by the end of the retreat I would come out to the rest of the ministry as transgender and let them know I would be making radical transitions to fully claim my life as a woman. Among those who needed to be brought into the light with me was the Retreat Director who had asked me to lead a Men's Group years ago. She had called me to the unusual ministry which led me to explore the multiple visions of my dysphoria and now it was time that she shared the fruits of that labor. I did not know how the conversation would go but nor did I know what would come next for my life. Regardless of what may come, it was time for Diana to invite Actaeon into the hallow.
It was late in the afternoon when I found her alone and came over, in a mirror scenario as our conversation on the bus. She was deep in thought and when I sat down she had to shake herself out of it. It was on her final outing with the ministry before she left for another position and it was my final trip before graduation. The various staff people had separated into different rooms where people could go and have private talks if they so chose (implicitly to say final goodbyes). I began with some active listening, asking her about the transition she was making. This gave me a chance to meet her where she is at before I took her on a journey. She told me about her vulnerability and struggles with her work. She told me about how she came to realize that in order to flourish she would need to seek out the light of another sun. She needed to make a big change to live her life to her fullest. After a moment of dwelling in that shared feeling of transition, it was then I finally had the talk with her I had withheld on the bus, years earlier. I explained to her about who I was, who I had been, and who I intend to be. She listened for a while and we discussed what it meant to be made by God as a transgender woman. Approached from the outside, some would see transgender and dysphoria as an illness or imperfection in the human soul (mind, body, or spirit) that is to be healed by the love of God. Yet transgender and intersex studies argues that rather than being defects in systems of gender they exist as evidence of a great degree of diversity and change within gendered life. C.S. Lewis writes of God, "He imagines all things and all things different." Thus, the perfected form of the trans person may be different than that of their cisgender sisters and brothers. Each shares in a collective life and have the marks of particular journeys. Even Christ had the wounds of Crucifixion in his risen body. Both in how God created us to be transgender and the wounds of how the world compounds our dysphoria, transgender people had a place in the beatific vision. We are often sent off on strange roads in order to venture to God and our true selves. This was certainly true of us both.
I also told her of this journey I had been on since she spoke to me on the bus years prior. It was the story of three retreats: my first as a minister when I was asked to take on men's ministry, my last a leader of a Men's Group, and this one (which we were living at the moment) which would my last as a man. Across these three acts, there was a kind of death and resurrection. I do not mean to suggest that Men's Group was to be the death of me. Rather, leading a Men's Group was a death rattle, or perhaps a death ritual marking the end my time ministering as a man. It did not cause my transition, as that was underway before the ministry ever started but it did exacerbate the experience of dysphoria that propelled the ministry. And this death was necessary in order for my life to be saved. The man that they knew was dying and was killing the woman that was trapped inside. What was needed was a surgery, a tactical retreat that would end the life of the man so that the woman could live. Or, put another way: the man who lived darkness was like a seed that needed to be buried in order for the woman to sprout and be born into the light. Beyond this literal narrative, my life as a transgender woman during this time had been a series of retreats. My time as a man was a retreat, a break, a delay in my life as a woman. It was a segue that I did not ask to take and worked often to return from. Yet my work as a minister to men marks a further delay that I was asked and chose to take. But I retreated in other senses of the word. I retreated from my authentic self. As a result I extended the dysphoria between spirit and body. I retreated from the light of day as I wandered further into the night. I did so for good intentions: to learn a few final lessons and so that I might give some service to the unseen shadows that lived out there. Thus, I told her, the story of this, my final retreat in this ministry with her marks the end of this form of retreat. I would no longer delay. From here on out, I would face the world on the front-lines in the light of day as a woman. But most preciously, I shared with her the vision I held in my heart that gave me the drive to enter into the light which my soul needed to live but which scared me to death.
I had not asked for the vision but grace had been given it to me from I know not where and which provided me the strength and even excitement to go forward. It was to the shocking surprise of my spirit that when I was most prepared to throw away my life in order to save it, I was given a vision of something else that presented hope of something beyond suffering and death. I can't recall when it first came to me but when it hit it was like the dawn of seeing the world for the first time after a long dim night. "I see a woman in a white wedding dress," I told her. "I see her being taken by a woman (I don't know who) to be her wife, and in that vision she is beatific with joy." At first I assumed that was some other woman. She was glimpse of some angelic or sainted figure who had been watching over me. Maybe she was a vision of my future daughter telling me to hold on to life. She looked so full of light and joy that her beauty healed my heart. But after some discernment a greater and more shattering truth was revealed: the woman I saw was me. Just as in the first case I knew that she was real and waiting for me, in this second case I knew that the vision I was given was of myself. I didn't know how that could be possible. It wasn't legal in the United States or condoned in the Catholic Church. I didn't know how I would get there but I knew how I could start. The strangest thing was how definite and particular the vision seemed to be. It was in a way more real than the life I had lived or the life I was living at the moment. In the light of it, which was brighter than mere pink, more like a rose gold, I could see more clearly. My vision began to heal and I became more real, more myself. I would always bear the parallax of dysphoric vision, the shadows in the dark would still dance in my vision, but what the vision of the woman of light offered was wholeness within that division. My boyhood, even my time leading a Men's Group, would be swallowed up in the joy of her womanhood - the woman who was me - and add new depths to that womanhood. I would be more woman because of my dysphoria, because womanhood would grow with it. Womanhood itself grows in glory because of trans womanhood. In the dysphoria of the beatific vision, made sharper by the lunar light of the Virgin and the contrasting shadows of Abelard, God showed me a glimpse of how heaven sees unseen transgender lives.
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