Part 3 of 3
Author’s Note: This article is reprinted with my new edits, and with permission by Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, December, 2013, v. 19, n. 4, pages 52-59, by Laura Thor.
“Coming out” to God happens before the womb, but the world is another matter
“Coming out” as a transgender person is both an internal, private process of self-recognition and experimentation, and a public process of transition into a social expression of being male or female, or somewhere between. This process of self-discovery can begin in early childhood, but sometimes does not occur until the onset of puberty. According to a guideline published by the American Academy of Pediatrics: gender identity is not a given:
Gender identity, however, is a gradual process that is based on an internal conviction of belonging to either the male or female gender. Gender identity is distinct from gender role, which refers to a set of behaviors through which individuals convey to the larger society that they are male or female. Children usually develop a fixed gender identity by 2 1/2 to 3 years of age, after which they emphatically perceive themselves as being either a girl or a boy. (Carver, Yunger and Perry)
A child’s emerging gender identity does not seem to depend on birth order, or whether or not there are a mix of sisters and brothers, or healthy adult role models. Identity does not depend on whether a little girl’s family kept strictly gender-separate role expectations or encouraged gender-neutral toys, activities or friends. Most transgender people recalled discovering a peaceful comfort when playing dress-up in a mother’s or a sister’s clothes that correlated with a sense of “rightness.” Children stifle their gender expression when shamed for it, or worse. One young directee recalled regaining consciousness in her bed with a throbbing head and a black eye hours after telling her step-father she is a girl, not a boy. Children may “forget” about gender during their ensuing elementary school years, but always experience great emotional discomfort as puberty begins.
I always ask my spiritually-oriented and religious clients how they thought about or talked to God about their dawning childhood awareness of being gender variant. Some hoped God wouldn’t “find out.” Some knew that God knew; they fell asleep at night praying to wake up in the right body. In the morning, when God had not answered them, some figured God was busy, or maybe God didn’t like them. A very few express the belief God not only knew but made them this way, and therefore God would take care of everything pertaining to it in time. Of course, the response many spiritual directees receive from clergy or family is to refrain from changing their bodies because God doesn’t make mistakes. But God “makes” some people diabetic, and few would advise diabetics to refrain from taking insulin. A response that expresses dignity and accepts God’s mysterious and unclarified-as-of-yet creation is to help our spiritual friend contemplate the reality that God made me a gender-diverse person; God means for me to carry out the task of making that transition in promise to my identity. In Jewish homes on Friday nights, after candlelighting marks the beginning of the Sabbath, the words of blessing parents make over their children include these: May you be blessed in who you are, and in all that you are. Rabbi Shawn Zevit paraphrases in his song, “May You Have Peace: “May you grow into the blessing that you’re born and meant to be in this life.”
Knowledge base and attitudes transgender spiritual directees need of spiritual directors & pastoral counselors
A great body of scientific research has established that transgender people experience discordance between their physical sex identity as male or female, and their psychological, social and emotional gender identity that can be the opposite of their physical, embodied sex, or somewhere in between. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), whose members are physicians, surgeons, mental health therapists and medical researchers, publishes studies and formulates theories of causation as well as new approaches in surgery and outcome studies over the lifespan. Healthcare protocols and social policy proposals are developed and reviewed at bi-ennial, internationally- attended symposia. The very recent decision to include spiritual health as a worthy focus of research and education will help end de-stigmatization of transgender people by religious bodies as well as the tendency of secular medical, psychiatric and advocacy communities to stigmatize religious participation by transgender people. Just as the American Psychiatric Association no longer views homosexuality as a mental illness, gender dysphoria is treated not a mental disorder but a medical one that is resolvable with medical intervention.
Working with the transgendered will include witnessing the grief and loss that beleaguers the marginalized: like those afflicted by chronic illness, there are financial constraints due to job loss or expensive medical treatment (only genital and some other surgeries and treatments are covered by American health insurance plans. By contrast, in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands, among others, most of these treatments are covered medical expenses). Transgender people usually suffer lost marriages and families, careers, religious membership and other social affiliations; they are also at risk as targets of hate crimes–especially transgender people of color.
Transgender people should not be confused with gay or Lesbian people, who generally feel no discordance between gender and sex identity. Sexual orientation is different from gender identity. Questions of celibacy, loneliness, divorce, and the challenges of transgender people in courtship and love will often emerge as needs for discernment and prayer. Like many people ostracized because of physical, mental or emotional handicaps, as well as Lesbian and gay or bisexual people, transgender people often face a life of celibacy that is imposed, not chosen or received as a charism.
“Sex” is a biological term regarding how an organism reproduces; gender is a psychological concept regarding how a person experiences the self both interiorly and interpersonally as male or female, or in-between. “Transgendered” is used as an umbrella term nowadays, while “transsexual” has fallen out of common use. It is considered respectful to ask how she describes herself and what name or pronouns he prefers you to use. Try not to become embarrassed if your directee’s visual presentation has you using the “wrong” pronouns; apologize and consider it a blessing if she or he corrects you. Thank her and move on. You may not know “who” this person intends to present as, and it is a sign of respect to ask: “what name would you like me to use?”
At the end of a mini-retreat for transsexuals several years ago, I led a ritual in which people of different faiths (and no faiths) read from Psalm 139, and passed a lit candle around the circle, each person announcing their chosen name. Currently some Jewish and Christian communities in the United States are developing naming ceremonies for adults who wish to be known from now on as their true selves. Imagine your feeling if your counselor could never remember your name. Or used the one you do not know yourself by.
With an attitude of awe and openness instead of fear and constriction, the ambiguity we feel when sitting with a transgender person is our gateway into liminality with them, in which we might accurately sense the sacred. Living with ambiguity presents us the opportunity to let God in, precisely because our inability to decipher the marvel before us, renders us creaturely once more, standing in awe of the mystery of creation. God created ambiguity by placing gender diverse people in many nations: Some Native American peoples call their transgender members various names such as winkte or “Two Spirit,” and view them as blessed. (Dollarhide) In the East, India has its hijras, who came to the homes of newborns to offer blessings until secularization shunned them and reduced their role to street beggars and sex workers. (Gurvinder) Judeo-Christian theology is beginning to make room as new “queer theology” calls for a more pastoral response.
Like many directors, I have experienced how the holy work of companioning religiously marginalized and ostracized people is radical in nature: our companionship gives witness and aid to their own holy work of “storming Heaven’s gates” to find God where religious institutions and dogmas can’t yet seem to grant access. So deep is many transgender persons’ absorption of negative religious messages that their spiritual work involves a process of birthing the spiritual self; ours as “midwives” is to re-mind our Seekers, and ourselves, that life in all its diversity is welcome in the Divine milieu.
“To save one life is to save the whole world” say the Jewish sages. To that I would add: To save one life is to save God. When we cannot accept what is, or, in the case of those we don’t understand, who is, we shut God out by refusing to know that God is present to, and in, all that lives. We actively participate in a “death of God” culture when we refuse the mysterious. Spiritual direction encourages us to accept all forms of human “being” as not only from God and of God, but also demonstrating and revealing God. As we include people whose biological, psychological and social being is unfamiliar and resisted by our faith institutions, we demonstrate trust that a divine Presence really does permeate our unfathomable world.
Aviv, Caryn and Erlichman, Karen. “Going to and Becoming Ourselves: Transformation and Covenants in Parachat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, ed. Drinkwater, Gregg, Lesser, Joshua, and Shneer, David. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Carver P., Yunger J. & Perry D. Gender Identity and Adjustment in Middle Childhood. Sex Roles. 2003; 49:95-109, quoted in Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children and Adolescents, 3rd Edition, American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove, IL, 2008.
Dollarhide, Kenneth. National American Spirituality: Understanding Gender as Sacred. Transgender Tapestry No. 115: J. of the International Foundation for Gender Education. Waltham, MA: IFGE, 2008.
Gold, Shefa. In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2009.
Gottlieb Zornberg, Avivah. The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. Garden City, NY: Shocken, 2009.
Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh Translation., eds. Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Zvi, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kalra, Gurvinder. “The Cultural, Psychiatric and Sexuality Aspects of Hijra Community,” paper presented at World Professional Association for Transgender Health 7th Symposium, Atlanta, GA, 2011.
Moers Wenig, Margaret. “Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8),” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, ed. Drinkwater, Gregg, Lesser, Joshua, and Shneer, David. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People, 7th Version. Minneapolis, MN: WPATH, 2012. http://www.wpath.org .
Zevit, Shawn. May You Know Peace. On Morning I Will Seek You (CD). Pennsauken, NJ: Disc Makers, 2009.