Comment and Features

The hug that could change history

Diego Neria Lejarraga reportedly met the Pope

When I first read that the Pope had met and embraced a transgender man, I was overjoyed. How better to breathe life into his stated view, as I was reminded at Mass on the very morning that I write this, that we should “give witness with joy and simplicity”?

My joy, though, was quickly tempered by the analysis that followed. The story, according to the mainstream press, was straightforward. A Spanish transgender man, Diego Neria Lejarraga, wrote to the Pope about his struggles for acceptance within the Church. To his amazement, the Pope responded first by picking up the phone and then arranging a formal meeting at the Vatican.

To the heartfelt question of whether, after his gender reassignment (popularly referred to as a “sex change”), there was “a place somewhere in the house of God for him”, Francis responded by embracing him, Mr Neria told the Spanish newspaper Hoy.

This, I told myself, is why Pope Francis is rapidly winning a special place in the hearts of those who have felt marginalised, rejected by a Church that they still desperately long to believe in.

Then came dissection by the Vatican-watchers and professional observers of matters ecclesiastical. These reports, they pointed out, were neither confirmed nor denied officially. Translation: the meeting may well have happened; but this simple affirmation of Christian love remains too controversial for the Church to own up to.

Heart and head. Cautious traditionalism versus celebration of life. Even, perhaps, careless idealism versus responsible conservatism. Many, it seems, are already defining this papacy in terms of easy dichotomy. My sense is that the real issues are more complicated, and it is far from clear who is really using their head: which “side” has thought through the implications of what it means to be a world religion in an increasingly secular 21st century. For me, the Church was always thus.

A child of the Birmingham Oratory, I learnt early to “judge not that ye be judged” and that “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone”. It is not given to us to judge, nor, as last Sunday’s first reading reminded us, to speak in God’s name any word that He has not commanded us to speak.

I have been truly lucky: blessed, if you like. As a transgender woman, I lived each and every embarrassing moment of transition in the full gaze of the parish of which I was then a member.

There is often an assumption that the defining moment is the point at which you go under the surgeon’s knife. Not so. Apart from the perfectly rational fear associated with any major operation, there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that that step was right for me. Real difficulty arrived in daily living: the discovery that, however ordinary my life pre-transition, I was now extraordinary in every sense: both as a public property and a target. I was on the receiving end of more threats of violence in the first year of transition than in the 20 years that preceded.

It was a truly scary time, even when among friends – and one of the absolute scariest moments for me was my very first Sunday in church en femme. I shook in fear as I entered. I was in tears, albeit of joy, when I left. What got me through was the love, support and acceptance of others in the congregation – especially from the “mums’ brigade”, several of whom quite literally held my hand the first time I approached the altar.

For those who like to think of their Church as one based on a Gospel of love, that should be a wake-up call. Do they really believe that Jesus, who allowed a sinner to wash his feet – and reproached the Pharisee who tried to shame him for that – would be proud that His Church could evoke such fear?

But perhaps I am alone in feeling this? Sadly not. As a journalist, transgender woman and practising Catholic, I receive emails, all too regularly, from individuals facing the same – or an even worse – predicament. One woman has not attended church in a dozen years for fear of condemnation. School pupils, some transgender, some merely the children of transgender people, report that they are bullied at supposedly good Catholic schools – sometimes, they say, with the active endorsement of staff – for their association with sin.

The tragedy, of course, is that none of this is endorsed by Church doctrine. Even where an individual’s choice is deemed wrong, it is for the Church to bring that individual home – through support, teaching and love, not shouting and condemnation. As any parent knows, the latter is far more likely to alienate and to lose a child than win back their affections. This is especially so in respect of the transgender issue, where it seems possible that, in time, the Church will grow to understand that, while God does not make mistakes when it comes to gender, our current view of what it means to “be” male or female may yet be imperfect.

As to the Pope’s simple act of hugging a transgender man, it may look like an action that springs from the heart – as, indeed, I firmly believe it did. But in the longer term, the road now being travelled by Francis is the only rational one: because if we cannot win people’s hearts through joy and through love, we certainly won’t argue them into submission.

Jane Fae is a journalist who plans to travel to Rome during the family synod later this year to bear witness to the existence of transgender people within the Church

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (6/2/15)