A Transgender Nun on Gender Non-Conforming Theology

by Rev. Sr. Elena Kelly, Order of St. Hildegard

Elena Kelly

Rev. Sr. Elena Kelly

A transgender nun? Is there really such a thing? Yes, Virginia, there really are transgender nuns, and there have been for as long as there have been religious orders. While transgender spirituality is only recently receiving notice in the media, there have been spiritual transgender people in every culture on Earth since the beginning of recorded time. Being transgender is not a social construct; it is a biological fact that stems from the broad diversity of human genetics. Some people are born to be boys and some are born to be girls, and some are born to be both, or none of the above.

It is difficult to understand the transgender spectrum in a world where sex and gender are presumed to be the same. Most English speaking people assume that they are synonyms for the same thing. They are not. In fact, sex refers to the biological and anatomical aspects of a person, i.e., males have a penis therefore they are boys/men and females have a vagina and are girls/women. Gender refers to behaviors and other characteristics that are considered feminine or masculine by society.  Sex is determined by chromosomes, but gender is determined by cultural norms.  What this means is that a female can have a masculine gender and a male can have a feminine gender, which makes perfect sense to transgender people because it actually defines them.  Transgender people typically have a sex and gender that are not the same as most people in a given society. The word cisgender refers to people who have a sex and gender that match, i.e., males who are masculine and females who are feminine.

When we speak of a transgender theology, we are talking about how the various religious and spiritual traditions deal with transgender people in their societies. In a recent PBS program called Two Spirits, it was stated that “on nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).”

“Yet hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders. Fred Martinez, for example, was not a boy who wanted to be a girl, but both a boy and a girl — an identity his Navajo culture recognized and revered as nádleehí. Most Western societies have no direct correlation for this Native ‘two-spirit’ tradition, nor for the many other communities without strict either/or conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender. Worldwide, the sheer variety of gender expression is almost limitless.” But there are many places where transgender people are reviled, harassed, and even murdered just for being themselves. Religion plays a major role in determining how transgender people are treated.

Sister Elena at a conference

Christianity is the dominant religion in the world with over 2 billion adherents. There are many mainline denominations that have developed programs that permit transgender people to practice their faith right alongside cisgender people. Some even welcome transgender people into the ministry. But Catholicism, the largest denomination with about 1.3 billion adherents worldwide, considers transgender people to be living in sin and outside of God’s grace. In addition, several  Protestant denominations  reject transgender people,  bringing the total to around 1.5 billion Christians worldwide that believe it is acceptable to condemn transgender people. I will first address the theology typically employed to justify the Christian position that transgender people are somehow out of God’s will for being themselves. Then I will attempt to show how that theology is not only mistaken, but is against the Christian scriptures that all these Christian groups use as their final authority for faith, practice, and teaching.

First let me say that there is no direct mention of transgender people in the Bible, nor is there any direct teaching on what God thinks on the subject.  Just because it isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are certain principles that can be deduced from scriptural references that refer to individuals who were outside the gender norms of their day.

The first scripture many Christians point to is found in Genesis chapter 1 as a part of the creation story. In verse 27 it says, “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The common interpretation of this verse is to say that God only created male and female humans.

The fact is that God created all people, not just males and females. First, there are people who are born with the anatomical and biological characteristics of both sexes (referred to as hermaphrodites previously, but the condition is referred to as “intersex” today). Since chromosomes determine sex, there are people who are not born XX or XY. Some are born with XXY and XYY chromosomes. Of course, God created them, too.  If not the creator God, then whom? And more to the point, since gender is a socially constructed set of behaviors and characteristics, how masculine and feminine is anyone? Is a male who likes pink feminine? Is he feminine because he stays home and raises the kids while his wife works? Some stay-at-home fathers I know are anything but feminine! So God created us all, and we are male, female, and some are both. The Genesis passage does nothing to prove or disprove that God thinks transgender people are inherently sinful.

Another passage that is often quoted is from Deuteronomy 23:1, which says, “If a man’s private parts have been crushed or cut off, he cannot belong to the Lord’s people.” This passage is from the teaching of Moses to Israel, and it clearly states that men who have damaged or removed sexual organs are not a part of the Lord’s people. That seems to exclude transgender women who undergo genital reassignment surgery.  But what if a Christian man has a vasectomy? Even though he has “accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior” is he now outside of God’s family. And what of men who serve in the military and who are injured in their groin area? Are we really going to put them in that category? Obviously that is not what God is saying. This teaching applied to men who underwent castration and/or penectomy as an act of worship to pagan gods and goddesses. These men were called eunuchs in both the Old and New Testaments.

This brings up another question; are eunuchs the same as transgender women? Most Christians would say no, they are not, and I would generally agree. However, I believe that for a man to go through such a process as having his testicles crushed and/or his penis cut off, there has to be a fanatical devotion to the deity, or else he cannot live any longer with a sex organ that is repulsive to him. They were certainly gender non-conforming in their society as transgender women are in ours.  So, modern transgender women, who have a surgical procedure that accomplishes the same result, are akin to the Biblical eunuchs in some ways.

The next passage for consideration is Isaiah 56: 3-5, which says, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord hath utterly separated me from His people’; neither let the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree’.  For thus saith the Lord: ‘Unto the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant, even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” This prophecy of Isaiah is looking to the future when eunuchs will no longer be segregated from the family of God. There is One coming that will unify all people, even gender non-conforming eunuchs, into one family of God.  Rather than condemn these men who cut off their genitals for a pagan deity, God says he will give them a place above his sons and daughters! If ever there was a passage that indicates God’s acceptance of gender non-conforming people, this is an important key to that understanding.

So what about the New Testament?  Let’s start with Jesus’ own words in Matthew 19:12. “For there are eunuchs that were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs that were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs that made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” This verse has a lot to say about gender non-conforming people.

In the first phrase, Jesus amplifies the Genesis teaching of God creating male and female and he says that some eunuchs are born that way. They, too, are created by God despite being outside the traditional gender roles of men and women.

He then says that some eunuchs were made that way by men. It seems to me that Jesus is okay with surgical intervention for gender non-conforming people.
But then he says that some eunuchs choose to transition in order to experience heaven.  In all my years of working with transgender people, there is no greater joy than to be with a transgender man or woman after they have their gender conforming surgery. I have actually had them say to me, “My life was hell until now. Since having my surgery, I feel born again and all of life is like heaven to me.”

St. Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I will close with one more passage from the New Testament, Acts 8:26-40. It is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. Here we have the first recorded conversion from pagan religion to Christianity. St. Philip is guided by an angel to meet the eunuch, who is reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 53, just three chapters short of the prophecy we saw in Isaiah 56. And what happened after Philip taught him? This pagan eunuch believed and became the first Gentile to follow Jesus, and he went on his way rejoicing, apparently experiencing a little bit of heaven on earth.

It seems clear from the Biblical evidence that God created and welcomes gender nonconforming people that accidentally or deliberately take action to modify their bodies. There is ample evidence in the Christian Bible for inclusion by those who follow the teachings of Jesus. All people should be welcome at the table of God. Jesus taught us that lesson by his words and his own example, and it is the right and decent thing to do.


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11 comments

  1. Nathan Ohm says:

    Elena, you so carefully share what fundamentalism has ignored in Scripture. I grew up memorizing the Bible and never stopped to consider the passages regarding eunuchs. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. I look forward to hearing more from you!

    • Elena says:

      Thank you Nathan. Little did I know when I went to seminary that I would be using the Bible to show that my school’s position of exclusion toward me is not biblical.Guess they taught me too well :)

  2. Elena. I have been saying this for several years, ever since I discovered/realized I was transgender and 47xxy, which didn’t happen for me until I was 48 due to societal and faith pressures for me to keep it hidden,

    I’m 51 and 3 years into transition, I was a professional Christian musician, and very bible literate, although not ‘bible-schooled’. All of the churches and Christian groups I played for rejected me and turned their backs on me, including my wife and family and I have been homeless for the past two years. It is SO refreshing and relieving to hear someone echo what my personal search to justify my faith has shown me. I get so much flack from the transgender community for being a Christian, which I totally understand, having experienced the rejection, judgement, and hate from fundamentalist Christians and my family. Yet, I have prayed all my life to God to let me wake up and be female one day. I feel like God is finally answering my prayers, but it so hard to share this with people who consider it an unpardonable sin and see me as an ‘abomination’.

    Thank you for expressing this so clearly and cogently. I would dearly love to discuss this further with you at some point in the near future.

    • Elena says:

      Thank you for sharing your story with me, and for your kind words. Fundamentalism has caused untold damage to so many for too long. It’s time we hold them to their own standards of Biblical interpretation and enable others to see the true love of God as it is reflected there. Please feel free to contact me anytime through my personal email address – elena.j.kelly at gmail.com.

  3. selena Xochitl Martinez says:

    Dear Sister Elena,
    So well stated with intelligence and compassion. I am a transgender woman, mom, and member of the Presbyterian church. My congregation treats me with respect and dignity. I also receive the same from the Veterans administration which is a blessing, my daughter’s elementary school and my community.
    GOD bless you dear sister, I walk a bit taller and after reading your article.
    Much love to you.
    Selena

    • elena says:

      Thank you Selena! You are indeed blessed to have the love and support of your church and community, and your daughter is doubly blessed to have you for a mom and also be supported in school. May your experience become the norm in communities all around the world! Blessings of love to you!

  4. H. A. Ackley Clements says:

    I love this article and am so happy to have found it in preparation for my own sermon on this topic in about a month, which was going to include these passages and others since this is a theme found throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Galatians 3.28).

    • elena says:

      I am delighted that it is helpful to you! If you are able, I would love to hear or read your sermon! Blessings of love to you my dear!

  5. Thank you for your interesting article, Elena, and may you know God’s grace and love in your life and your interactions.

    I am a transsexual nurse and I have been exploring vocation for the past 4 years, to see if God is calling me into religious life as a nun. I am Carmelite by spiritual practice and inclination but as there is no opening yet to become a Catholic nun if you are transsexual, I have been exploring vocation in the Anglican Church here in England.

    I have received very great love, care and support. After my gender surgery, the sisters looked after me for 8 weeks as I recovered. I have spent a total of 4 months in convent so far, as I explore the way God is calling me into the wholeness of who I am.

    I think it’s wrong to ‘seize’ vocation, so I am open-ended about the outcome, and instead – following the Church of England’s guideline for transsexual aspirants to spend 5 years after gender surgery, as part of the process – I treat each day as precious gift. (Obviously everyone has some bad days, but you know what I mean!)

    So I just wanted to let you know that quite a few convents in the Anglican Church in my country are caring and supportive. I have learnt so much through meeting sisters in religious life, learning about community, and the ‘space’ provided by allowing time to wait, to grow, and to explore all kinds of experience – because transition and life post-op opens up all sorts of new experiences and deepening understanding of oneself.

    There is a sensitivity issue to be considered: because vocation is not just about ‘me’. I have to consider the women in community, who have maybe felt led to live among women, and have varying understandings of transgender. Their feelings and sensitivities need full respect as well.

    It is a journey for a whole community, when a transsexual woman approaches them and asks if they will explore her life and possible future with them. I can’t and shouldn’t impose anything. I can offer myself to a community and God. If the community chooses to journey further with me, into novitiate, then that could be a growing opportunity for everyone. If not, then God is still gracious and life is still gift.

    May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you.

    Sincerely,

    Susannah Clark

  6. alexis van halen says:

    Thank you for the insight my mom thinks I am living in sin because I am a transgender woman.