Michael shares a powerful story of family, identity, and acceptance as a Transgender individual. His story depicts the journey of hardship, triumph, and acceptance in identity. MALA is a proud supporter of human rights, and we are honored to share Michael’s bravery and courage to help lead confidence amongst others.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Four years ago, this became my favorite piece of scripture. I consider it the epitome of my spirituality. To understand its importance, and its impact, in my life, you need to know my story.
Growing up, religion was never a huge deal in my house. Sure, both of my parents’ families are catholic, and we went to the occasional Sunday Mass, but my mother and father are definitely not bible beaters; far from it, in fact. Since my parents aren’t religious, as a kid, the duties for my spiritual guidance fell into the hands of loving adults I trusted. Or so I thought they were loving at the time. While I’ve experienced many hardships—as well as loads of happiness—a piece of my journey that truly sticks out is how I came to embrace myself while learning what it means to be a transgender man in the catholic church, because it has brought me both pain and peace. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the progress I have made, because I felt trapped. Yet, when I attended Quest in fall 2014, I realized that was exactly what it was: a quest. We all encounter them: big and small, lifelong and limited, misery and joy. They are all that and more, with differences and similarities. When I think of my spiritual quest, I am proud of my growth, and I seek to strengthen it continuously, which is why I am sharing it with you.
The first time I was really exposed to religion was on my fourth birthday, when I received a Bible storybook. It took less than five minutes for me to become obsessed with it. Are you familiar with the sandals that look like “Bible shoes”? Well, I used to walk around in those sandals and my underpants, pretending to be Jesus. Yeah, I was an oddball, but I loved it. At five years old, my curiosity about God and being catholic peaked. I was fascinated with all of the traditions I was witnessing and I wanted to know more. Both my mom and my dad had older sisters who were religious and sought to influence my spirituality.
My Auntie Joannie, who is the sister of my mother, has always clicked with me. She is by far the most compassionate person I know, and I am proud to call her part of my family. I have never heard her judge a single soul, and I have always felt comfortable around her. Each year around the holidays, I spend some time at her house and we attend Christmas Eve Mass together. These moments with her allow me to renew my spirituality, and define what it means to have a faith life. I am grateful to have these experiences to fall back on when I need encouragement.
My Aunt Debbie was my dad’s older sister, and she also had a significant influence on my spiritual life. However, unlike my Auntie Joannie, my Aunt Debbie was never an accepting person. She was strict in her beliefs and in her actions, and was a proponent of what she called “tough love”. We always had a rocky relationship, which, regrettably, was never fixed. Before she passed away in October of my sophomore year of college, she had written me a note informing me that she did accept me, after years of spewing hate in my direction. While I am comforted to know that she did love me, I still wish we had gotten the chance to hash things out.
When I was eight years old, I was preparing to make my first communion. I was super psyched. Finally, I would be able to step up in line with my (much) older cousins and receive the Eucharist. Just imaging this huge step filled me with excitement. As usual, my Aunt Debbie immediately tried to take charge. She challenged my parents on every decision. She insisted that they plan everything a certain way, because it had to be “perfect”, or at least her definition of it. She was even against inviting our close family friends, just because they’re Jewish. Thankfully, my parents always took her so called advice with a grain of salt.
The day my mom and I went to shop for my outfit, my aunt tagged along. A few days before, I had begged and pleaded with my parents to let me wear a suit and tie. I despised dresses; they just felt wrong to me. In fact, my closet only consisted of what are stereotypical boy clothes (not that clothes have a gender). My parents knew it would make me happy, so they agreed. My aunt, on the other hand, always had a snide comment for my masculine appearance. She would insist it was just a phase, and urged me to be more ladylike. She also accused my parents of encouraging lies when all they did was love and support me.
At that point, I knew I was different from everyone else, and it hurt to think I was disappointing people because of it. When she saw me run over to the racks with suits on them, she exploded at my mother. Then she came over to me, grabbing my face and looking me in the eyes, she said words that still sting when I think of them. She screamed my birth name in the middle of the store and said: “You need to stop pretending to be a boy. God made you a girl. You’re choosing to be part of a perverted lifestyle that’s sinful. I can’t love a person who chooses sin. God will not love you. He will send you to hell if you keep this up.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I held back tears as I tried on dress after dress. I believed that God hated me and wanted nothing to do with me. The excitement that had building up over the last few weeks drained out instantly. This was the first time I felt truly alone, but definitely not the last.
Every night for the next few years, I knelt beside my bed and prayed to God to fix me, as if I were broken. I wanted nothing more than to be “normal.” I forced myself to dress and act like a girl. I painted my nails and let my hair grow. But no matter how hard I tried, my heart just wasn’t in it. I knew it didn’t feel right to call myself female, but I didn’t have any words for it. This made me feel guilty, like I was betraying my family and God. All the guilt and pain I kept bottled up eventually poured out when I started to self-harm. I was only ten years old the first time I ran my dad’s old razor across my wrists. Later, I began burning myself uses scraps of metal and a lighter. It was, and still is, easier for me to suffer physically instead of emotionally. My body has been a canvas for my misery.
Before I started sixth grade, my family moved from a neighborhood in Boston to a suburb twenty minutes away. Moving brought a lot of changes, one in particular being we no longer attended mass. I missed the community I was used to from our old church, and it was tough not being active spiritually or having a faith life. I was also starting middle school with zero friends, and truth be told, I never made that many. I was shy, and I often got picked on for not adhering to stereotypes. My loneliness started to get worse. This distance began to fuel my doubts about my faith. I was so unsure about everything, and I could feel myself slipping away.
For her ninth birthday, my youngest sister Justine had a few of her friends over our house for a small party. Everyone was having a good time and enjoying themselves, until my dad walked in screaming. My father is an alcoholic. He doesn’t drink anymore, but at the time, he was seldom sober. This time, he backed me into the corner while screaming, and he managed to break the cross I had received on my first communion. After he fought with my mother, he packed a bag and left. I was so angry. I felt like my life was falling apart. Why did God want me to be so miserable? Why did He hate me? I wondered about this constantly, especially because all my friends seemed so happy all the time. It wasn’t fair that nothing good happened to me. I was beginning to pray less and less, because it seemed pointless. I felt like I had been abandoned, and I reflected my anger back to my family, especially my mom.
My mother is truly an amazing person. No matter what I do or how I act, she always reminds me that she loves me. I treated her terribly for years, because I was incredibly angry and sad, and really scared too. All she wanted was for me to be happy, and she blamed herself when she couldn’t help me. I wanted someone else to feel my pain, and my mother felt it all and even more. I always felt guilty after we argued, and it seemed like just one more reason for God to be mad at me.
At school, I was feeling pressured to fit in. This meant I had to gossip with my friends about which boys we had crushes on. The problem was, I had feelings for girls the way everyone told me I was supposed to have feelings for guys. Although most people were quick to label me as a lesbian, I knew deep down that I was not gay. All I knew was that I hated my body, and the changes that were occurring made me extremely uncomfortable. When I was in the eighth grade, I discovered what transgender meant, and suddenly I had clarity. However, that quickly gave way to shame. Everything I knew about trans people were the stereotypes I was exposed to from the media that mocked us. Add that to the fact that my Aunt Debbie had always taught us that being LGBT was a sin. I was filled with disgust and self-loathing, not to mention fear. Why couldn’t I just be normal? Would I really be sentenced to hell for being myself, something I had no control over? I was no longer involved with the church, in fact it was the last place I wanted to be. I completely isolated myself. My cutting, along with my anxiety and depression, became increasingly worse. I had no role models or support. When all I wanted to do was please everyone, it was difficult to think I was letting them all down.
During my junior year of high school, I hit rock bottom. In the beginning of the school year, I had mustered up the courage to come out to my family and friends. I received nothing but love and support from them, which meant the world to me, but this delight did not last for long. At school, I didn’t have many friends, and I was often the target for bullying. Coming out made that worse. I was tormented daily, not only by students, but by teachers as well. Other parents attempted to limit my use of the bathroom and locker-room. What bothered me the most was that my sisters also became the subject of gossip, and they even lost friends because of me. My whole family suffered, and I felt responsible for the hate and discrimination others bestowed on me. On October 16, 2012, I decided to walk home from school instead of taking the bus. I was overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. I felt unlovable. When I arrived home, I sat in my room and wrote a letter to my family. I told them I loved them, and asked them not to blame themselves. When I finished, I went straight to my parents’ room and opened my dad’s nightstand, where the prescriptions for his back pain were. Tears began to roll down my cheeks as I swallowed the bottle of pills. I locked myself in my room, and soon enough I was drifting away.
The next thing I remember, my door burst open, and a cop came in. He checked my pulse and more rescue workers walked in. Apparently my friend was concerned about me that day, so she called 911. They carried me down the stairs, and when I glanced to the side, I locked eyes with my sisters, who stood their crying, all because of me.
In the ER, they immediately pumped my stomach and forced liquid charcoal down my throat to prevent the overdose. My parents rushed in, frantic and crying. My mom expressed how much they loved me, and my dad kept asking why, but there was no answer I could give him. I slept there overnight, and tomorrow came. In the morning, I was transferred upstairs to the psychiatric ward. That night, when my family left, I let myself cry. One of the nurses, Candice, came in to check on me. We talked, and she asked me if I wanted to hear one of her favorite readings from the Bible. Sure enough, she opened to Romans and began to read that passage, the one that would become my favorite. After the reading, I felt a hint of purpose, and I knew what I needed to do.
I stayed in the psych ward for close to a month. Shortly after I came home, I went to confession. I met with the pastor of my town’s church, Father Copp, and I confessed everything. It felt good to get everything off my chest, but it made me happier to hear him say: “My child, God loves all his children. This I promise. He does not hate you, He created you this way for a reason. Where would we be without diversity? We all contribute something to the world, and that includes you. Maybe others don’t see your potential now, but change takes time.” Since then, Father Copp has gone above and beyond to create a welcoming environment in church, and he even helped me pick my name. I chose Michael because it was the name of my mom’s brother, who was also my dad’s best friend. His death brought them together, and eventually they got married and created yours truly. Meeting with Father Copp was important, and I’m grateful I took the opportunity to do it.
After this experience, I began to come out of my shell more and more. I joined Umbrella, a support group for gender nonconforming youth, and I got involved in the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program. I wanted to spark change for LGBT kids in schools and at home. Because I’ve decided to put myself out there, I’ve met inspiring people, and I’ve made amazing friendships, something that seemed out of reach before.
Coming here, to Saint Xavier University, has undoubtedly been one of the best decisions of my life. Of course, I always get asked why I chose this school, and honestly, it was another chance I took, because it felt right. I’ll admit, I was nervous to be on my own for the first time, but the environment here is so welcoming. I have been blessed with the best relationships at this school. One great chance I took during my first semester here was going on Quest, and I am so thankful that I did, because it has brought me here, to talk to you. In April 2015, I made my confirmation in the chapel, surrounded by my family and friends. Being able to feel all the love was incredible. I’ve been able to get involved in many capacities, including as an orientation leader, and now as a peer minister. SXU has offered me so much, and I’m glad I have absorbed as much as I can.
Someone who has greatly impacted me is in this room right now, and I want to take a moment to recognize her. I have known the Quest peer minister, Max, since I was a first year. I am lucky to have worked with her many times for various reasons, including leading a few Quests together. If you know Max, you know she has a sparkle in her eyes that comes from her soul. It radiates through her, and she brings the brightness to everything she does, especially Quest. I was fortunate enough to be on this retreat when Max led for the first time, and I am so grateful I get to be here for her last. You’ve had a good run, Maxie. Thank you for everything.
I used to think that being Catholic and trans had to be a balancing act, but that is not the case. There is no need to compromise any part of myself, and I certainly do not need to prove myself. Yes, they are separate pieces of an identity, but they merge together to create me. I am not an oxymoron, and I am not a sin. I am me, and I am love, and I am perfect imperfection.
While I embrace my life, I am not of the belief that everything happens for a reason. I understand that many people do believe that, but it makes me angry to have the idea forced on me. To me, that would mean there is a purpose for the way people treated me. But there is no reason for hate. There is no reason for discrimination. It is not part of God’s plan to isolate and direct animosity toward anyone, including me. However, I do believe it is about timing, which can be stellar or subpar. The timing during which I am living reflects others’ views on me. It offers an explanation, but does not excuse actions, because our actions cannot be undone.
In the last four years, I have grown exponentially. It is somewhat strange to compare myself as a junior in high school to the junior in college I am now. I am healthier, and a lot happier than I have been in a long time. That’s not to say problems don’t arise. During the summer, my middle sister, who is 19, was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. At one point, she had to be hospitalized. She was intubated and unconscious. It has been scary and upsetting to witness her struggle, but my entire family has made it clear that we love and support her.
During trying times, I often think of my favorite piece of scripture. The words are a reminder that it is not only natural, but acceptable to struggle, and they provide the drive to search for hope, but it does not end there. Because that hope gives me purpose, and from that comes passion. I am capable of achieving my goals and living a successful life on all counts: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My quest is far from over, but I love where I am and who I’m with. I am happy with how my relationship with God has developed, and how it strengthens with time, and I am proud of that. I am ready to discover what comes next, as I take the lead, and continue to grow in my spirituality.