Trans People and the Spiritual Path
By Elizabeth A. Perry
This is the first installment in a series devoted to examining the views of various religions on transgender issues. This week: A trans perspective on the Jewish and Catholic faiths. Next week: Islam and other religions, and a summary of trans references in the Bible and Koran.
L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, recently criticized the government of Tuscany, Italy for providing free hormone treatments to those transitioning from one sex to another.
“Faced with problems that afflict health care in Tuscany, waiting lists for operations, [insufficient funds for] chemotherapy and inadequate numbers of medical staff, perhaps it would have been better not to give precedence to hormonal treatment for sex changes,” the story said.
Debra Weill, who is transgender, serves as executive director of Dignity USA, a group for gay Catholics. She said she is not surprised by the Vatican’s response, calling it “another in a series of incredibly backward and misinformed positions on human sexuality. The Vatican’s obsession with sexual orientation and gender identity continues to be astounding.”
For transgender people who choose to remain in their houses of worship, maintaining a faith life and being true to who they are inside and out can be a challenge. In the search for God, some trans people, like their gay, lesbian and bisexual counterparts, have found it necessary to separate the politics of religion from the quest for spiritual fulfillment.
Some find supportive and loving faith communities, while others leave their congregations, fed up with restrictive policies. The Vatican pronouncement brought attention to the issue of transgender people in religious life. A look at a sampling of world religions, from Christian and non-Christian faith traditions, reveals some surprises and markedly different takes on the role of transgender people in the church, mosque and synagogue.
Diverse views in Judaism
The Reform and Orthodox movements have been looking at transgender issues and Jewish law since the 1970s, when gender reassignment surgeries became more widely known, according to a 2003 article by Debra Nussbaum Cohen in Jewish Week. She said Jewish literature going back to the Torah has mentioned those who are intersex or androgynous.
“The Talmud explores a range of situations and includes references to people who are men, people who are women, people who appear to be both and people who are regarded as neither,” she wrote. “The legal and ethical issues involved - secular and religious - are complex. Making things even more complicated is current scientific debate over what determines gender: sex organs, hormone levels, chromosomes or even the way the brain functions.”
Reuben Zellman was the first transgender rabbinical student to be admitted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He said the Jewish faith has no single opinion on anything because there are four major movements in the United States, each with its own opinion about transgender issues.
“I’m studying in the reform movement,” he said. “It has made a lot of progress on GLBT issues. The Reconstructionist movement has as well. The Orthodox movement is less comfortable with the transgender experience, generally speaking. There are as many opinions as there are Jews.”
He said he has been fortunate to have been part of supportive synagogues, but said there are plenty of places that are not as accepting of trans people. He also said there are a number of transgender Jews who still feel as though they have to choose between their faith and their gender identity.
“There are some Jews who think that being transgendered is in conflict with Jewish law or in conflict with Jewish values,” he said. “More and more people are standing up to say it is not true. That kind of bigotry is not the best of what Judaism is. The community can be enriched by transgender people, by people with a unique perspective on Judaism and the world.”
Even as a child, Zellman knew he wanted to be a rabbi, but his calling became even more certain when he began to identify as male.
He said Hebrew Union College and the reform movement as a whole accepted him with a spirit of openness and acceptance. He said there were some critics who felt he shouldn’t be a rabbi because he was transgender.
“Every human being is created in the image of God,” he said. “A great majority of the feedback has been supportive, from people who believe God’s creation takes many different forms, and that they are all valuable.”
Vatican bars trans people from marriage
On the issue of trans people in church life, Weill said there are signs of progress among some Catholic bishops, as some differ privately with papal authority on transgender and sexual orientation issues. Weil said she feels the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical institution, is not a welcoming place for trans people.
The Vatican issued a confidential document to the heads of religious orders in 2003, stating that gender reassignment surgery does not change the sex of a person. The document barred Catholics who underwent sex-change operations from getting married in the church or entering the priesthood or religious life. The document also gave religious superiors the authority to expel a priest, brother or sister from a religious order if they had already undergone the procedure.
Dignity USA issued a statement three years ago after the gender reassignment document was made public, in which it took the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation to task for “trivializing the life-long struggles of our transgender and inter-sexed sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Marianne Duddy, then executive director of Dignity USA, wrote that transgendered individuals have been a part of the Catholic Church faith communities for decades and that their spiritual, emotional and physical challenges are enormous - and humbling.
“There are profound truths about humanity and about God to be learned from their experience,” she wrote. “Transgender people need pastoral attention that is respectful and open, not judgmental and dismissive. The Vatican statement fails to take into account current medical, physiological, psychological and sociological findings.”
Despite the official church position on trans issues, Weil said there are individual church parishes in various areas around the United States and abroad that are more accepting, if not openly embracing of those who are transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual. Some parishes fly below the radar of local church authority, meeting as house churches or small faith communities.
Dignity chapters are located around the country where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics are welcomed for mass. The group is not sanctioned by Rome or local Catholic bishops and masses are held in Episcopal churches and in other houses of worship.
“For me as well as others in the LGBT community, we stay because our faith is rooted in the Catholic liturgy and faith traditions,” Weill said. “It is not rooted in the ignorance of statements that come from the Vatican. It’s in what the Catholic Church teaches about loving one another and serving others.”