Four people spoke on trans and intersex gender identities from a Catholic perspective at the Transforming Love forum held at the Arch Street United Methodist Church across the street from the World Conference of Families in Philadelphia on Saturday morning. The event was originally scheduled to take place at the St. John the Evangelist parish, but according to organizers was, “evicted from the space by Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Philadephia Archdiocese.”
Pope Francis is in Philadelphia today and will be attending events around Philadelphia in concert with the World Conference of Families. It is unknown if the pope has any knowledge of the LGBTQI counter programming. He was invited to a picnic made up of 14 families grappling with LGBTQI acceptance, but due to the blocked roads I was unable to attend that event.
New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA, Fortunate Families, and Call to Action organized the gender identity counter programming and are all groups working to gain “reconciliation” for LGBTQI Catholics “within the larger Catholic and civil communities.” The groups are trying to add depth to the official conversation about LGBTQI issues at the World Conference, which includes only “one presentation on homosexuality, led by a celibate gay man, among a long list of panels” on other subjects.
When the Catholic Church refused to host, the groups quickly lined up a space at the Methodist church. This church has a large rainbow flag on the outside, clearly visible from the convention center. On the day of the event the streets around the church and convention center were blocked off in a maze of security fences ahead of the pope’s arrival. That made navigation virtually impossible even while walking, Attendees were not deterred, however. I was pleasantly surprised to see forty people eager to engage with the speakers.
Sister Jeannine Grammick lead the group in prayer, then introduced Julie Chovanes, a transexual woman and patent lawyer who lives in Philadelphia. Chovanes is still married to the woman she has had four children with, her youngest child is fifteen years old. She transitioned while maintaining her legal career and her family.
Chovannes was raised in the Byzantine Catholic tradition, a very conservative tradition. Coming out and transitioning has been a challenge, but she feels she has “been accepted in the city, I feel that Philadelphia is the best city in the world for [trans persons].”
“I don’t consider myself a man or a girl,” said Chovanes, “I am a trans. My brain and my soul are a woman’s, but my body is a man’s… My life is a testament to God’s glory.”
delfine bautista identifies as trans*, specifically as two-spirit or gender queer. delfine prefers the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she.” They has a graduate degree in divinity and social work and serves as the director of Ohio University’s LGBT Center.
“I am a Catholic,” says delfine. “I was assigned the gender, male, at birth, but at the age of three I knew i was different.”
Growing up in a conservative, Latino household made gender questioning impossible. “Being different is not an option.” In secret, “I wore dresses and played princess. I prayed every night to wake up in a new body, but was greeted with silence.”
“When I came out I came out as gay,” said delfine, “because that’s all I knew, but even then I knew it didn’t fit me… My mom wanted to help me and sent me to therapy to be cured. I don’t hate my mother, she was trying to help me.” delfine’s mother was in the audience.
delfine’s divinity work came to the fore when he put out the following ideas, “In Genesis God made man and woman in his own image. Is God trans, intersex, queer? [What about] persons like Joan of Arc.?Her actions were gender bending, and she’s a saint… I am more than one thing. I am more than one identity. Sometimes [my identities] clash, but I am a hot mess, and I embrace the mess.”
Vilma Santamaria is a Salvadoran teacher, sociologist and the mother of Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman and human rights activist. “I realized that when my daughter was really little, she was different. She said she didn’t like girls.” [Note that Santamaria’s daughter was assigned a male gender at birth.]
When her daughter came out to her, “I told her I would love you, whoever you are… My husband was the main problem.”
Nicole Santamaria elaborated. “When I was three, I realized I was a girl.” Her father hated her feminine qualities. “[I was told,] don’t talk like that, don’t move your hands like that! Oh my God, don’t breathe like that!
“When I started puberty my breasts started to grow, I never grew hairy, my voice never changed.” Her father reacted brutally. “My father mentally and physically tortured me. He’d heat up coins and burn my nipples.”
Eventually Nicole Santamaria ran away, and started to live her life as a woman. She went to a doctor and told her some of what she was going through. The doctor offered to put her on testosterone so she could develop into a man. She was horrified. She wanted to be a woman.
The doctor had misunderstood. After testing the doctor determined that Nicole Santamaria was intersex. Her breasts had been virtually destroyed by her father’s brutality. After breast reconstruction surgery she found herself able to finally live her life as the woman she had always been.
Nicole Santamaria speaks out as an activist because trans persons are being tortured and murdered in El Salvador.
“I came here to the World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis, to speak for the voices that were silenced by those who will torture them, by those who will kill them. And the voices that were silenced already by people who feel they have permission and they have the obligation to murder us, to exterminate us, to persecute us, because their religion told them that it is okay to kill a person that is different. When every religious leader spoke out against sexual diversity, or even against abortion, a transgender woman is killed. Every time those kind of things are heard, that means death. Whenever this is reported in the media, you can read the comments from the people, and the comments are, They deserve it, they are abominations, God doesn’t love them, it is okay.
“So as an activist, I really believe that my faith has given me the strength to continue. People tell me, stop! you can live your life with all the privilege of a female, don’t say anything…” and no one would know.
“Let me tell you something, I won’t do that.”
I don’t know if Pope Francis will hear the message of Nicole Santamaria and her mother, or the message of Julie Chevanes and delfine bautista, Certainly the Roman Catholic Church did everything it could to silence and marginalize these people. What we know is that people are suffering and dying, and it is well within the power of the Church to alleviate that evil.