I Was Invited to See the Pope Arrive at the White House and Made It a Moment of Trans Visibility

Back in August I received an invitation to the Papal arrival ceremony on the south lawn of the White House. I was the executive director of Integrity USA from 2013 to 2015. I was lucky enough to be invited to the White House last summer to see President Obama sign the executive order banning employment discrimination for gender identity for federal contractors, and it was a great to joy to receive another invitation. I also had the chance to invite five other folks, so I picked five amazing people.

There was Marsha Garber, a devout Roman Catholic mother of a trans man. Since her son’s death she and her husband have done incredible work for the trans community in Massachusetts. Her husband passed last year, and his death was felt throughout the Boston trans wold. I was glad to be able to offer her a ticket and have the chance to get to know her better.

There was Nicole Santamaria, the Secratary of Asociación Colectivo Alejandría. The Asociación Colectivo Alejandría is a collective of intersex and transgender people who advocate for justice in El Salvador. When one of the tickets came open, she invited her mother.

There was Mateo Williamson, a transgender man who manages to both be studying at a Jesuit medical school and be a voice for transgender and gay rights and immigrant rights. He is also a leader in the LGBTQ Roman Catholic organization Dignity USA.

There was the Rev Cameron Partridge, the first Episcopal priest to be ordained post-transition. True story: Cameron was the first other trans person I came out to as trans, lo these many years ago. He has been a great friend and mentor to me ever since.

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The author with Aaron Jay Ledesma, Michael Tomae, and Mateo Williamson, all three proud gay devout Roman Catholics.

There was the Rev Stephanie Spellers. I first knew Rev Spellers when she was getting a vibrant church community going at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Boston. The community was called The Crossing. They meet on Thursday evenings, and to this day I don’t know another religious communtiy with so many trans folks, trans women, trans men, non-brinary folx, and such a great feeling of moral responsibility to the trans community. The Rev Spellers is also the author of the book Radical Welcome: The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation.

It was an adventure. About two weeks ago a man approached Mateo at an event and got him talking about the trip to the White House and this amazing group of devout Christian LGBTA advocates. Turns out that gentleman was a reporter for a pro-life news site. A story went up there, that story was picked up by Breitbart, and Fox News took it from there. Before long a few gay and trans folk among 15,000 guests on the White House lawn was enough to get media talking around the planet.

Last Friday Rush Limbaugh called me a transvestite. A news story on the Fox News website called me a “biological man.” A Roman Catholic lady blogger wrote a piece imagining me shopping at Victoria’s Secret.

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were both mad about us being there. The whole thing was a little surreal.

On the other hand, everyone we had ever met heard the news. My cell phone number found its way out onto the internet and I had a number of people call me and ask me to give Pope Francis messages or ask him for blessings.

I was a chaplain’s assistant in the Army, a sort of two-handed job. On one hand I was the case worker who looked after a unit of 800+ soldiers and was there for them when issues like PTSD or substance abuse or family challenges needed facing. On the other hand, chaplains are noncombatants. Chaplains are absolutely not allowed to touch weapons. My unit’s chaplain was a fierce Southern Baptist minister with an absolute inability to say anything other than exactly what he believed. I was that man’s body guard.

I ferried the chaplain all over southern Iraq to the bases our unit operated out of. He did not believe in homosexuality, said the Bible was against it, didn’t like seeing same sex marriage announcements in the paper.

But Sunday morning I got a call from him. He had seen the news about me and my guests, he said, and if anyone dropped out he was happy to go in their place with me and stand with me at the White House.

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The author with Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop

You’ll always be my soldier, he told me.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say about Pope Francis’ visit. I am a trans woman. I am a feminist. I have my own feelings about abortion, but by God it seems to me that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to keep them legal, to provide comprehensive, thoughtful sex ed, to provide free contraception, and to empower women to consent or not consent and have their choices absolutely minded.

Pope Francis and I disagree on a lot of things. A lot of important things.

But at the same time, it did my heart good when he called the money from the arms trade blood-soaked in front of Congress. It did my heart good to hear Pope Francis speak about inclusion and reconciliation. It does my heart good every time he speaks against the war and in favor of the poor.

The 7,000,000,000 of us live on a very small planet. Each and every one of us is facing trails and challenges. Some face things that Americans with full bellies could barely, barely imagine.

I believe that the great moral work of this century is for the 7,000,000,000 of us to learn to live in just peace with one another. This cannot be the false peace of the strong holding the weak in bondage, but rather true peace, the great peace in which each and every one of us human beings are recognized as a great, single, common family.

There are no easy answers as to how we will get there, but I believe that we must have the courage to hope for it, to continue talking to one another in the faith that we can the ability to love one another and to build a just world that overcomes white supremacy, the patriarchy, the transphobia that kills woman after woman.

We must continue speaking the truth even when it feels like we’re shouting at the wind. We just have to keep working, keep walking, keep the faith that none of this is hopeless and that at the end of the day each other is all we have.

Vivian Taylor is an Episcopalian writer, activist, avid Sung Compline promoter, and proud (if occasionally troubled) North Carolinian currently living in Boston, MA. She served in the War in Iraq from 2009-2010 and has run several statewide LGBTQ rights campaigns in places like North Carolina, Michigan, and others. She writes about being a peacenik veteran, an Anglican Nihilist, and the paradox of our coexistent onesness with being and solitude.

Vivian has written 4 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. “A Roman Catholic lady blogger wrote a piece imagining me shopping at Victoria’s Secret.”

    This is like the most perfect definition of someone who needs to get an effing life. Doesn’t this lady blogger have anything better to do?

  2. Great post Vivian! This pope and president Obama will be remembered for their remarkable efforts to help the LGBT community integrate within society.

    Fascinating story about your career with the chaplaincy.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful, nuanced piece. As an ex-Catholic and a lesbian, I can relate so much to the mixed feelings that many of us have regarding this Pope. I think it’s important to celebrate the good he is trying to do for the poor and the environment and other social issues, and I’m glad we can do that while also feeling not okay with his stances re: LGBT folks and reproductive rights. It’s far too simplistic to either idolize the man as a near-saint or demonize him as the head of a misogynistic/homophobic/colonialist institution. It’s really not that black and white. I think Pope Francis, the Catholic Church, and really all of humanity are just imperfect human beings with a mix of good and not-so-good traits, and that’s all okay.

    • I can’t answer for Vivian, but as a queer, feminist Catholic, I also feel ambivalent toward abortion. As a feminist, it’s difficult to deny a woman’s right to make whatever choice is best for her; but as a Catholic it’s even harder (for me, anyway) to abandon the Church’s teachings (and my own moral sense, shaped by the Church) that abortion is wrong.

    • To be clear, I believe 100% in women’s right to an abortion, and I believe women’s right to choose must be defended in an absolute way. A woman right to power over her body is sacrosanct.

      Still, I was raised to be pro-life and though I firmly am on the other side, I can’t deny my own personal feelings. Instead of trying to get rid of those feelings, I let them drive my commitment to keeping abortion safe and legal while also pushing for comprehensive sex ed, free contraception, and women and all people to have the power to consent or not consent.

      I guess I talk about it in this essay as a way of owning that I am not some perfect person with either, that I too am trying to figure things out and make the best choices for a just, liberating world.

      • Vivian, thanks for clarifying.

        Maggie, I think there’s also choice c) beyond standing in solidarity, fight to ensure that that choice for abortion remains possible for everyone to make.

        I respect anyone’s feelings about abortion–which as you both say can often be complicated–so long as they do not hamper the right of anyone else to make that choice. (And, ideally, they’d even fight for it, on the grounds that people should be able to make their own choices. Which is what you quite nicely phrase, Vivian.)

        • Oh, absolutely! I think a lot of pro-life people have this delusional idea that if we eliminate access to safe abortions, the demand for abortions is going to stop existing. I prefer to live in the real world and to fight for access to real-solutions. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about abortion, unwanted or risky pregnancies are always going to exist, and a woman’s’ safety and autonomy should not be sacrificed because of someone else’s opinions.

    • As a pro-choice feminist who also feels ambivalent about abortion, I don’t think these two beliefs are mutually exclusive. I doubt even the most ardent advocates of choice, or anyone who’s had to have an abortion, think it’s this super awesome experience. I think we can all agree that in a perfect world, there would be absolutely no need for abortion because every pregnancy would be a safe and wanted one and contraception would work every time. Nobody *wants* to have to pay money for a medical procedure to take care of a condition they don’t desire to be in. But that’s just the world we live in, and I think the best we can do is a) ensure that women get access to contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy and b) show supportive, non-judgmental solidarity for those women who do need an abortion.

  4. So happy to see Autostraddle publish a piece like this. So often the stories of queer and trans people of faith get lost in the back and forth between angry and genuinely hurt by the church queer and trans people and angry, vindictive straight cis people of faith. Thanks so much Vivian for sharing your story with us!

    (Sidenote: Bishop Gene Robinson is so wonderful. I’m such a fan of his.)

  5. THANK YOU for this piece! As someone who is not religious, I really enjoyed reading your perspective and seeing other LGBT people who are devout was a much needed reminder. Thank you for the work that you do!

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