Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate

by Fr. Richard René

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

In 2016, the prison where I was working as a chaplain received a transgender inmate named Michelle, who is serving a life sentence for rape and murder in his late teens, when he identified as “Michael.”

Not surprisingly, Michelle’s arrival had a significant impact on the institutional staff. Many felt helpless and uncertain as to how to engage with her on any level. Others simply viewed her as a “piece of garbage,” the personification of evil and degeneracy. As an Orthodox priest serving in this secular context, I was not immune to the challenge that her presence posed. For instance, policy prohibited me from refusing to use her chosen name and gender pronouns. Beyond wanting to keep my job, I complied for two reasons. First, I could not engage with her pastorally if I could not speak to her, and she would not speak with me unless I addressed her by the name she had chosen.

More than that, though, I have called this person Michelle and used feminine pronouns (even in this context) because I believe there is something essentially mysterious about her identity, which may well be tied to transgenderism. When I had the chance to sit down face-to-face with her, I learned that Michelle has identified as a girl for as long as she can remember, at least from the age of five. One of her earliest childhood memories is of going to a department store with her mother, and wanting to try on dresses. She recalls the joy she felt when her mother took her on a shopping spree in the girls’ section.

Later memories around her gender identity and sexuality are less joyful, to say the least. Michelle told me how her father treated her as a girl and sexually molested her on this basis. She remembers being sent to a mental institution to “correct” her gender dysphoria. Later, she was placed into foster care, where her fundamentalist Christian guardian tied her to a chair, and beat her with a Bible. Finally, Michelle claims that her criminal offence also tied into her gender identity struggles: in her understanding of what happened, she raped and killed to prove to her accomplices that she was a “real man”…

In the face of this person and her story, I suddenly felt myself powerless, unable to say anything definitive about her, to sum her up in the way that correctional staff found so easy. In meeting Michelle, I sensed that her identity was somehow hidden from me, and I was profoundly hesitant to render snap judgments.

It is has become clear to me, however, that such an attitude is entirely appropriate, not just in Michelle’s case, but for any person I meet, because in the end, human persons are mysterious. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and as a result, we can no more encompass who a person is based on what we know about their nature, than we can encompass who God is based upon the positive affirmations we make about Him. As Metropolitan Kallistos has said, “We need to be both subtle and humble in our approach to this human mystery, standing before it in awe, and fully prepared for surprises.”

But this raises a key question: is Michelle’s transgenderism part of her authentic striving to fulfill the mystery of her personhood in the image and likeness of God in Jesus Christ (even if she herself does not acknowledge it), or does it merely stem from her experience of mental illness, abuse, and criminality?

My own experience with Michelle suggested that the answer is neither simple nor clear cut. While Michelle’s dysphoria is deeply interwoven with her experience of abuse and her crimes, her early childhood attraction to conventionally feminine gender expressions suggest that her gender dysphoria may have an authentic basis. How, if at all, can we discern what is genuine from what is distorted?

In his teaching concerning the human being, St. Maximus the Confessor distinguishes between God’s “idea” of our true identities in Christ (our logos) and the way we actually exist (our tropos). In the fallen world, Maximus says, our understanding of our logos has become opaque to us, and as a result, we engage in sin precisely because we have a distorted view of our true identities. However, in what Maximus calls the “middle” between our tropoi in this fallen world and our logoi revealed in Christ in the age to come, God the Word “plays” with us like a parent joining in their child’s games, seeming to adopt our limited understanding, so that he might lead us to a more perfect understanding of Himself. (See Ambiguum 71[PG 91: 1412C-1413B].)

To return to Michelle, then, we can say that even if her transgenderism is indeed a product of her distorted view of her true identity, Maximus suggests that we need to suspend judgement. This attitude does not imply endorsement, but simply the willingness to “enter under the roof” of this person’s life, sitting with her in the “givenness” of her current state, knowing that God is somehow “playing” even in this “middle” to draw her towards their true identity, which is, like Christ himself, yet to come. This no more requires us to compromise our moral integrity than entering the house of Zacchaeus (and other sinners) required Jesus to embrace or endorse their sinful ways of living.

This willingness to suspend judgement calls us to a process of inner transformation. Again, Maximus speaks to us:

“The one who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of detachment knows no distinction between one’s own and another’s, between faithful and unfaithful, between slave and freeman, or indeed between male and female. But having risen above the tyranny of the passions and looking to the one nature of men he regards all equally and is equally disposed toward all.” (Chapters on Love, 2.30)

My pastoral relationship with Michelle challenged me above all to strive in my own spiritual life for agape as Maximus envisions it. Only in this way could I hope to gain the grace to suspend judgement on her (and all those I would consider “other”), loving with a divine love that makes no distinctions and offers itself to all.

Fr. Richard René is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.