A friend of mine in Puerto Rico tipped me off the other day that the American territory’s Conference of Catholic Bishops was endorsing a massive street protest against local political efforts to make the island safer and more legally equitable for transgender people, including trans school children. My body stiffened with rage even as my stomach soured.
Details of the bishops’ statement made me more nauseated and more outraged. The bishops pretend (with no apparent insight into how absurd their position is) that citizens can take to the streets to force transgender people into hiding and silence without showing disrespect to those trans people or encouraging unjust discrimination.
I immediately flashed back to recent outrageous news that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) actively lobbied Congress last autumn to try to block a federal suicide hotline — solely because it included specific resources to help suicidal queer people. I flashed to more recent news that even as USCCB General Secretary Jeffrey Burrill organized that lobbying effort, he was using Grindr in his Church office to arrange sex hookups with men.
Then I remembered my friend Peter, and I started to cry
When I moved to New York City during the height of the HIV pandemic, Peter counted among my first and closest friends. He was gentle, slender, beautiful, and very effeminate. Peter fled his native Puerto Rico for the same reasons I left my Midwestern world and plopped myself down in the middle of a crowded, frightening metropolis.
He and I were both gay and felt alien and unwelcome in our more rural homes. My Catholic and Evangelical Protestant religious upbringing scarred me emotionally. Peter’s Catholic upbringing scarred him physically. He often spoke of being beaten in school by nuns and priests because he acted “girly.” He had permanent white lines on his palms he said were caused by steel ruler strikes.
Even though he became a successful CPA and bought a lovely apartment off Central Park, he never stopped yearning for home. My de facto husband and I flew with Peter once to Puerto Rico to visit the village where his family lived. For Lenny and me, that trip was a lovely holiday. I remember white sand beaches, green mountains, and the aroma of hundreds of mysterious flowers blown around on tropical breezes.
One day as we lay on a beach taking in natural beauty, I shouted to Peter over the surf, “Why don’t you just come home for good? You love it here so much.”
“I can’t,” he sighed, holding up a scarred palm. “I’m not safe here. I’ll never be safe here.”
He didn’t have to explain. Peter and I were both members of Act Up, both of us focused on safer sex education, both fighting in the trenches to get life-saving information to people — even as the Roman Catholic Church fiercely opposed every measure we took. They hated us so much they took steps they knew would cause more of us to die.
For Peter, going home to Puerto Rico meant exposing himself to even more religious hatred and the probability of more violence. He wouldn’t have been able to hide his gender nonconformity even if he wanted to, which he did not.
Catholic nuns and priests beat Peter when he was a child, they spread messages of hatred and intolerance that made him afraid to go home when he was a man, and they worked hard to make his life (and mine) miserable even in his liberal, adopted New York City refuge.
Peter died a long time ago, and I’m glad he doesn’t have to see what’s going on with LGBTQi people in Puerto Rico today, particularly with transgender people.
Peter didn’t identify as trans then and I don’t know if he would today, but he was gender-nonconforming for sure. Sometimes he did drag, always he presented as very feminine. Often, people who heard his voice on the phone addressed him as “Ma’am.”
Some of our friends and a few of our Act Up colleagues identified as transgender. They were our beloved family, no matter what any church or culture might say to vilify them.
The Roman Catholic Church in general today takes an increasingly hard line against transgender people, even the supposedly progressive Pope Francis speaking out to demonize this vulnerable human minority as “annihilators of nature.” I’m glad Peter didn’t live to hear that nasty bit of religious hate speech. His heart was so torn, because while the Church terrified him, he never gave up his personal faith.
Puerto Rico governor fights to protect women and LGBTQ people
Today, I think Peter would be both alarmed and proud of what’s happening in his home. Last January, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency over an epidemic of violence against women, including transgender women. Violent attacks and murders of transgender women have been on the rise for some time, and they’re continuing to this day.
For a recent example: Ethan Biando just reported in a story on Medium that three men in Puerto Rico have been brought up on federal charges for tracking down and attacking a transgender woman because they believed she had used a women’s public restroom.
Anti-LGBTQ violence in Puerto Rico (like in much of the world) is getting worse instead of better, but brave activists and politicians are working hard to make the island safer and healthier for women and trans people. Governor Pierluisi didn’t stop at an emergency declaration, he’s taking action, and the Church is fighting him tooth and nail.
The Catholic Church fights to spread anti-LGBTQ hatred
Peter’s story is not ancient history. If he had survived HIV, he would only be 65 years old today. I don’t know if Catholic leaders in Puerto Rico still beat little boys for being “girly.” I don’t know if Catholic school teachers still shame little girls for not being feminine enough. I know for certain they do in many parts of the world, because my inboxes fill up constantly with the cries of queer people Roman Catholic nuns, monks, and priests brutalize emotionally and physically.
(Is it a coincidence that my own gay business partner in Montreal was repeatedly beaten by monks when he was in high school? No, it’s par for the course.)
Peter was a gentle, loving man who flinched at the sight of clerical collars and nun’s habits, and he is far from alone.
Isn’t it about time for nuns, monks, and priests to declare a cease fire? To stop emotionally and physically brutalizing LGBTQI people? Isn’t it time for a religion founded on the teachings of another gentle man who lived 2,000 years ago to declare an end to judgment and hatred of historically persecuted, harmless people?
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people threaten nobody. LGBTQI people are not dangerous, evil or toxic to society. We have faced centuries of intentional shaming and acts of violence, much of it encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. The street protests the Puerto Rican Conference of Catholic Bishops is encouraging this month are direct extensions of that violent shaming. Like with the anti-LGBTQI street protests Catholic bishops organize in Poland, violence is an assured outcome.
Calling people out into the streets to protest simple legal rights and protections will lead to more shaming and violence. No church should be complicit with that. No person of faith should be complicit with that.
If you are a faithful Catholic, what will you do to help end this shameful vilification of gentle people like Peter?
Former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist and alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, James Finn is an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, an “agented” novelist and a runner, Marine, Airman, polyglot and self-proclaimed “middle-aged, uppity faggot.” He blogs at Medium.