Mother discusses transgender son, Catholicism
Jordan Cockrum | Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered Monday night to listen to alumna Emily Garvey speak about her experience with her transgender son, entitled “A Theological Journey with My Transgender Son.”
“She does what we want to prepare all our Saint Mary’s students to do: to take risks that matter,” Megan Zwart, professor of philosophy, said. “In this case, sharing a deeply personal experience. To see the value of reflection and critical engagement, not just in the classroom, not just in the world of work, but in the whole of her life.”
Garvey said she feels Catholic Social Teaching and the Church place an emphasis on connecting with others, even those different from you.
“It’s this relational aspect of the Catholic faith that I have always found nourishing,” Garvey said. “Particularly in the last few years I have been drawn to the accounts of how Jesus related to other people in ways that were thought to be unconventional, or irregular or unusual.”
She found this to be helpful in her journey with her transgender son’s identity.
When her first-born child was 18, Garvey said that she asked to begin seeing a counselor. Shortly thereafter, she asked to read a letter to Garvey during an appointment.
“In that appointment, she said, ‘Mom, I am transgender. I am not a girl, I am a boy. I am now your second son, and I would like to be called James.’ And suddenly the path of life that I talked about felt really lonely, and scary and long,” Garvey said.
This caused Garvey to begin a journey with coming to terms with both her transgender son and her faith, she said.
“Both of these realities, I have a transgender son, I am Catholic, can be held together,” Garvey said. “Moreover, I believe that because I am Catholic I am able to accompany my son as he flourishes. And because I am Catholic, the past two years have led me to experience God’s mercy in new ways, and thereby have a more conscious connection with my brothers and sisters on the path of life.”
Garvey said that through this journey, she saw three important factors emerge: bewilderment, gender and mercy. This began with the moment she told her transgender son she would support him in the journey.
“I said, ‘Honey, thank you for telling me. That took a lot of courage. I don’t know what this means, and I am totally confused, but I know we can get through it together. Let’s walk this together,’” Garvey said. “So my first-born grabbed my hand, and she started crying, and the counselor teared up, and then I felt like I was trying to swallow an encyclopedia stuck in my throat … and I can say that in that moment, I realized that it was a moment filled with mercy.”
Not only did this start a journey with God’s mercy, Garvey said, but her confusion with the concepts of gender and sexuality began a period of bewilderment as well.
“I now see that prolonged period of bewilderment as a grace, because it was ultimately a portal for humility and subsequent growth,” Garvey said.
This confusion about what gender meant stemmed from her previous understanding of gender as a binary, Garvey said.
“If I’m being honest here, and it’s humbling to admit this, it made me uncomfortable,” Garvey said. “Just all of it made me uncomfortable. And because I was trying to fit it all within a Catholic understanding at the time of gender. How can it be that you formed within me and you were a girl, and now you’re a boy? How?”
To work towards a better understanding, Garvey said she turned to her faith.
“I started with the messages of mercy, love, radical inclusivity that we see in the gospels,” she said. “And, I believe my child’s desire to be whole was and continues to be holy.”
Garvey said she feels that ultimately gender does not have an impact on the way one acts in the likeness of God.
“Born in the image and likeness of God does not mean gender, for God is not gendered,” Garvey said. “But where we may image God is in our capacity to love, feel compassion, forgiveness and mercy.”
[Editor’s Note: The Observer retained Garvey’s use of pronouns when referring to her son for clarity.]