Trans at the Vatican

This story about Pope Francis meeting with a transgender man has been making the rounds:

Diego Neria Lejarraga, the trans man in question, tells a familiar story of leaving the church after the parishioners at his local parish made him feel unwelcome. He wrote an “anguished letter” to the pope last year, and Francis reportedly had a private audience with him at the Vatican about a week ago, where he hugged the man. I remain skeptical as to whether this meeting is a sign of a real change in the pastoral care of trans people or just another well-orchestrated photo-opp, but there’s no denying that it has tremendous symbolic importance; I can’t imagine Benedict XVI or even John Paul II doing the same, or even acknowledging that such people existed.

As one might expect, this news is making conservotrad heads explode. If you look at the comments in the above link to the “National Catholic Reporter,” you’ll see some of the conservative posters in the comments section denying that this meeting ever took place, a sort of “Francis-trans trutherism.” Because no “orthodox Catholic” would ever voluntarily spend time with a trans person, much less hug one. Pics or it didn’t happen!

It seems like conservotrad Catholics are shifting more to the evangelical view of homosexuality and trans issues, where anyone who self-identifies as LGBT is by definition a satanic enemy, bent on destroying the “traditional family” and Christianity, as opposed to the official Catholic position that views LGBT people as “intrinsically disordered” and drawn to the sin of same gender sexual acts. This may sounds like a minor point of contention, since both positions seem damaging to the health and well-being LGBT people from a secular perspective, but in Catholicism, one could be a celibate LGBT and still be an “orthodox” Catholic (and there are such people, like Eve Tushnet), whereas the Protestant position regards LGBTs as an existential threat, celibate or not. However, we are now seeing conservotrad Catholics, perhaps driven crazy by the spread of same-sex marriage and the ubiquitous media presence of Ellen and Neil Patrick Harris, taking the Protestant view that any kind of LGBT identity is anti-Catholic and “narcissistic,” even if no sex is involved. This troubling phenomenon is detailed in this article by Damon Linker, who though conservative, realizes the alarming implications of this attitude:

I think that there are some similarities between the treatment of trans people in the church and the way lepers were once regarded in the Middle Ages. Lepers suffered from the disease now known as Hansen’s disease, which is caused by a bacterial infection. People who are most at risk of contacting Hansen’s disease are those living in areas with poor sanitation. Given the primitive conditions of medieval life, it’s not hard to see how leprosy/Hansen’s disease could spread quickly, especially among infected individuals who lived in close quarters. Since medieval people were ignorant of the cause of leprosy/Hansen’s disease and didn’t know how to effectively treat the afflicted, lepers lived on the margins of society and had to ring bells to warn “normal people” of their approach. Similarly, trans people are often on the margins of modern society, with many ending up homeless, addicted to drugs, or involved in prostitution to survive. Like the lepers of old, their appearances are often unsettling to “normal people,” who prefer that individuals remain safely in the gender binary. This unease is enhanced by the tendency of poor and homeless trans people to engage in DIY body modification to make their physical bodies fit their mental image.

As with many forms of disability and/or illness, leprosy/Hansen’s disease was assumed to be a punishment from God until fairly recently. Today, we know that diseases have natural causes — pathogens, defective genes, vitamin deficiencies, out-of-control cell growth — and are not a sign of divine judgement. Maybe in a couple of hundred years (hey, I’m being realistic), the Catholic church will accept that being trans does not equal “intrinsically disordered,” but is simply another way of being. In order for that to happen, the church would have to jettison (or at least de-emphasize) much of it’s current rhetoric on gender and sexuality, which I have written about at length in other posts. We’ve seen this happen before on other issues, like liberal democracy, the heliocentric model, Jewish people, and usury, so it’s not like it can’t happen, despite claims to the contrary by conservotrads. The fact that Francis was met with this man is a step in the right direction, in that it shows that he’s at least willing to listen to a trans person’s story, rather than lecture him about how he ought to be. Perhaps the first step to change begins with one hug.