Monday, January 19, 2009

Sub Secretum

By Jacqueline White

I’d been able to outrun the panic before. But now, back in the grip of it, there was only the frenzied present tense. I was parked in my car, terror — the ruthless “it” in a toxic game of tag — again in pursuit, targeting me as the next victim. In reality, I wasn’t moving, but in my tightening gut, I was the kid separated from the pack, an easy mark, running frantic through a vast field. I just needed to get to whatever constituted home base — the tree way over there or that gravel driveway — and feel the welcome scrape of bark on my hand, the sharp ouch of safety pinching my bare feet.

Except there was no home base anymore — not for me. I was way out of bounds. I had nowhere safe to run to, no place I could think of that would take me in. I was alone with what I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go back to before, to the shadowy netherworld of not knowing, where I thought my love and I could escape scrutiny, where the bright light of condemnation had yet to fall. But I now knew what the Catholic Church’s stance on transgender people was, or at least what it was purported to be. To read the actual charges against Marcus was impossible: the Vatican denunciation had been delivered “sub secretum.” All I had to go on was a report about the report—a 2003 Catholic News Service clipping preserved on a transgender Internet site. The headline: “Vatican Says Sex Change Operation Does Not Change a Person’s Gender.”

In other words, Marcus was not really a man. He was still Margery, a woman, which made us into a same-sex couple, ineligible for marriage. Except, if that was truly who we were — a same-sex couple — I would have known the Church’s stance and been prepared. Instead, I had allowed myself a dangerous luxury — hope. I’d imagined a lapse in vigilance: the tiny minority within a minority had been overlooked. Maybe the Church just hadn’t gotten around to condemning transgender people yet. In the meantime, Marcus and I could slip through the unintended loophole and tie the knot. In my most delusional moments, I went so far as to think — what had I been thinking? — that the Church might even approach transgender people with understanding.

I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs. I gripped the steering wheel. I was parked. I didn’t know where I could flee. Before, St. X had been my refuge when panic descended, but the Catholic church that had been my spiritual home for over two decades no longer felt safe. No matter how sympathetic the parishioners might be, Rome still called the shots. Where could I go? Who would take me in?

If we really were a same-sex couple, we’d be in this together, sharing the blame for our “disordered thinking.” But the news report put the onus on Marcus: his decision to transition was evidence of “mental instability” that rendered him unfit to make or uphold marriage vows. Let the Vatican say whatever it wanted about me. I’d grown up in the Church — I could deflect such craziness. I knew my bisexual self wasn’t sinful. But to talk that way about the man I loved? I felt so helpless. He wasn’t sinful, or even Catholic, for that matter. I couldn’t expose him to such nonsense.

I had thought I’d found sanctuary at St. X. In 1985, when the call had come that Peter had died, I’d only been attending mass there for a few months. Still, I’d known immediately where I would go. I’d fled the few blocks from my apartment to the stone church, not stopping until I set foot on the concrete stoop of the parish office. But when I tried the door — locked. How could that be? I rattled the door again. It stayed locked. I took in a gulp of air, trying to steady my breathing. Even though it was early on a Saturday evening, long past office hours, it hadn’t occurred to me that at the house of God no one would be home. I was twenty-something and impatient: my newly awakened faith hadn’t yet factored in temporal limitations. I swiped all the wet from my face, the tears and snot. I rang the doorbell, the buzz in the empty vestibule loud and insistent. I buzzed again. I needed to make contact. And just then, like an apparition, a priest had appeared. The door opened.

“Peter died,” I sobbed in explanation, though the priest barely knew me and knew nothing of Peter. But the immediacy of grief can foster intimacy: the priest nodded as if he understood, then walked a block with me to a nearby park, where we settled onto a bench beneath a gnarled oak. He seemed unflappable, as if he regularly opened the door to find sobbing women on his stoop — which perhaps he did. He touched my shoulder, ready to listen, and I began to tell him how I’d met Peter when I was a senior at Yale and he was an inmate taking the creative writing class I taught at the New Haven jail. After I graduated and he got out, I’d written my first big magazine article, a cover story, about his daily struggle, most often unsuccessful, not to fill his veins with heroin.

Looking back, that Peter’s death would hit me so hard now feels extreme, but somehow my sense of self was at stake. “You met good people, didn’t you?” Peter had asked at my last class at the jail, and that was the bewildering truth of it. It was also true that I hadn’t met the victims of my students, but still, these men in the jail who had stolen cars or burgled businesses or thrown wounding drunken punches — they did have good in them. That I was willing to grasp the complexity of their lives set me apart from the many others who had written them off. By returning week after week to teach the class, I had defied their expectations. And I didn’t just “use” Peter as fodder for my writing and then turn my back. He wasn’t just a “subject” to me — an ex-con and a heroin addict with a good story I could tell. He was a person. I stayed in touch. My belief in my own goodness was on the line.

So the call I’d received the morning I’d fled to St. X — a mother on the other end of the line telling me her son had driven his car into a tree — that call had severed something vital.

I was inexperienced with the raw arrival of grief. I’d never even heard the sound of keening before the penetrating wail came moaning out of my own mouth. The keys in my hand flew across the room, chipping a bookcase. The finality of it all hit me like a revelation: someone could be breathing one moment and still the next. How do the rest of us carry on?

The involuntary cry emanating from my mouth introduced a possibility: it might be that I was part of a primordial truth, connected to others in ways I couldn’t even begin to fathom. A feeling that I stood at a remove had gnawed at my days. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the world and my own small place in it. I wanted to make large gestures, take a stand against injustice, help nudge the planet toward a more equitable balance. But I held back. Where to begin? I was paralyzed with indecision. I was afraid I would commit to the wrong thing—the wrong city, the wrong job, the wrong person — get entangled and get stuck. Better to stick it out, aloof, lonely, and alone.

It took a death — the ultimate separation — for me to see that I was, after all, bound to others. That my mourning was instinctive seemed to confirm my membership in humanity — and also the existence of a connecting force. Death had brought me to God.

As the years passed, I let myself be drawn into St. X. To commit to a community had seemed as if it would be constricting, but instead the ineffable took shape and form. I added my voice to the choir, placed the Eucharist into outstretched hands, stayed overnight with the homeless guests in the basement shelter. I discovered I didn’t have to lose myself to become a member of the flock.

I had even come to assume I would get married at St. X. After all, I had two decades of history there. I’d watched priests come and go, one capitol campaign finish and another begin, the pews get rearranged and the mass schedule too. But now, I had the internet evidence: I couldn’t delude myself any longer. Though the state of Minnesota would sanction my marriage to a transgender man, the Catholic Church would not.

Between my shoulder blades — that spot that’s nearly impossible to reach on yourself?—that spot ached. My whole body had rotated, as if to curl around and shelter my heart. I now knew profoundly what I hadn’t known when I’d shown up on the doorstep of St. X after Peter died—I needed others. Marcus touched my hard to reach places. I wanted our relationship blessed. And I wanted it blessed somewhere where such a blessing was forbidden: the community where I was known. To face the rejection was excruciating. I wanted to flee, but I no longer had a safe haven.

I was doing all I could do: clenching the steering wheel and driving into the hurt.

Jacqueline White is currently writing a memoir, My Transgender Husband: A Love Story. She is the recipient of a 2008 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant and can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I stumbled across your essay quite accidentally. From time to time, I will google "sub secretum" - hoping to find another reference to illuminate the secret document that defines me to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

    It's strange that I still care - ten years ago this month (it's now Augist 2009), after 15 years as the cantor for the 8:00 AM mass at my parish, I was asked to leave the Church by the associate pastor, who told me that my transition was "causing a scandal in the Church."

    This was even before the secret publication. It was no avail for me to cite Isaiah 56, Matthew 19:12 and Acts 8 - to Father Dave; these scriptural references did not mean what I clearly saw in them.

    From what I understand from my attempts to look into it, the position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is derived in part from advice given it by Paul McHugh, M.D., Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Psychiatrist-in-Chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Far from being an expert on Harry Benjamin Disorder (HBS), McHugh's area of expertise is eating disorders. Dr. McHugh has no training or expertise in this area, and brought only a great deal of false information to the Congregation.

    Another architect of the Vatican position on transsexual people is Urbano Cardinal Navarrete Cortés, S.J. (a Cardinal-Deacon, but he wasn't a cardinal back then), whose most recent notable public statements have had to do with the Church's affirmation of the masculinity of the Trinity - the recent decree that baptisms are invalid if they use an alternative gender-neutral formulation for the reference to the Trinity (e.g., "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier") instead of the traditional "Father, Sn and Holy Spirit" (though the Spirit isn't necessarily a male personage, the hierarchy seems to think It is).

    Pope Benedict recently (May 11, 2009) spoke at a Holocaust memorial, stating: "One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom. One can weave an insidious web of lies to convince others that certain groups are undeserving of respect. Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being. . . . As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I reaffirm – like my predecessors – that the Church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again."

    Yet this same Pope in his Christmas greeting message to the Roman Curia and Prelature, given on December 22, 2008, appears to have compared transgender people (at least his erroneous ideas about the nature of transgender people) to the destruction of the rain forest, as a threat to humanity.

    (See my own blog entry for January 9, 2009 for a full analysis at:

    The web of lies fed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Paul McHugh continue to be promulgated by the Church.