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‘I’m not safe here’: One trans Catholic reckons with his faith as the church shifts

Harrison Price stands in Community United Church of Christ in Champaign, where he is a member. Though Price still identifies a Catholic, he said the church has a lot of atoning to do before he and other members of the trans community will be able to feel welcome there.

CHAMPAIGN — Harrison Price remembers when he first started feeling unwelcome in the Catholic church. It was 2015 when the Supreme Court was considering Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that guaranteed the right marriage for LGBTQ+ couples.

“In the bulletin, there was a big note that had an image, like, you know, bathroom-sign-type image of a man and a woman holding hands, and it was like, ‘Same-sex marriage is not God’s way. One man, one woman is right,'” Price said. “That was the first time I felt that dread.”

Though Price hadn’t fully come to understand his gender identity as a transgender man at that point in his adolescence, he knew he wasn’t straight.

“Seeing that sort of hateful message, at least for me, really reinforced the idea that not only are there people in general who are not safe here, but I’m not safe here,” he said.

After distancing himself from his Catholic upbringing in Missouri and even rejecting religion for a while, Price’s move to Champaign-Urbana in 2021 led him to explore a different denomination, the Community United Church of Christ.

Rev. Leah Robberts-Mosser, who leads CUCC, said she’s had many congregants with stories like Price’s.

“They’ve said, ‘I didn’t think that this was possible,'” she said. “‘I didn’t think it was possible for me to be who I am, who God created me to be, who I have always known myself to be, and for me to be part of a community of faith.’”

Since 1985, the United Church of Christ as a denomination has openly accepted the LGBTQ+ community, and CUCC continues to advocate for social justice causes like trans rights. Robberts-Mosser even conducts blessings for people choosing new names to align with their gender identities.

“It’s so powerful to get to preside at that kind of ritual,” she said. “To be able to invoke the same sort of words that are in the baptism liturgy, to be able to ask, ‘By what name shall we call you?'”

Robberts-Mosser also runs workshops she calls ‘biblical self-defense,’ in which she applies historical context to reframe biblical passages commonly used against the LGBTQ+ community, aiming to show how some stories can actually be interpreted as affirming for queer people.

“Unless you’re fluent in ancient Hebrew, which I am not, are you? No. We are the passive recipients of somebody else’s choice in translation,” Robberts-Mosser said. “And so anytime we sit down with the Bible, we have to take it seriously, but not literally.”

Harrison Price, 23, prays in the sanctuary of Community United Church of Christ in Champaign. The church has had a public covenant to support and welcome the LGBTQ+ community since 1996. Owen Henderson / IPM News

Though Price is an active member of CUCC, he feels conflicted, because he thinks of himself as a Catholic, but feels unwelcome in that community.

“I think the social messages and the general attitudes of a lot of Catholic communities are very harmful to me and to a lot of people who I care about,” he said.

But one church is attempting to change things without waiting for the Vatican. Rev. Eileen Mathy leads the Beloved Inclusive Catholic Community in Urbana. She understands the skepticism that Price and many others in the LGBTQ+ community have about the Catholic church.

“I mean, it feels like a bit of a trap,” she said. “Because the church will say, ‘We love you just the way you are. And once we get you here, we hope you’ll change.'”

Formed in 2021, Beloved advertises itself as being open to all, which includes having an open communion table — a trait not shared by traditional Catholic parishes.

These factors, combined with Mathy being a woman priest, mean the church is not a part of the local archdiocese, the Archdiocese of Peoria.

“We consider ourselves to exist sort of on the margins of the inside of the church,” Mathy said. “So we don’t forego our identity as Roman Catholics, but we do believe that we are called to stand against injustice within the church.”

The Catholic Church is currently engaged in a multi-year synod, where they’re discussing major issues affecting the whole denomination. Key topics on the table include the acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics and the possibility of women being ordained as clergy.

Though the process will continue until 2024, the most recent report only vaguely mentions “identity and sexuality” among a list of other unresolved issues.

Mathy says the lack of movement on LGBTQ+ rights in the synod isn’t the result her congregation hoped for when they participated in the discussions this year, but she hopes it spurs other Catholics to do something about it.

“It’s very disappointing,” she said. “But it just affirms for me that the way forward is for Catholics to gain a sense of agency and make their own communities happen.”

“It’s like cutting off our arms and legs,” Mathy added. “If we don’t welcome and appreciate and celebrate and really incorporate these folks into our community, we’re really missing out.”

While the congregation of Beloved is open to the trans community, the National Conference of Bishops in the United States does not accept the idea of gender transitions.

But on Nov. 8, the Vatican announced that it would be permissible for transgender people to be baptized and be godparents — as long as doing so didn’t cause “scandal or confusion.”

Mathy noted that while she believes the statement from the Vatican is far from perfect, and leaves many questions unanswered — such as how trans kids in parochial schools will be treated — it still marks some progress.

Price doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not up for you to decide if you’re causing a scandal or not,” he said. “It’s up for people who are historically against you and will do everything to find a loophole, essentially, to exclude you.”

Price pointed out that for most trans-identifying Catholics, who were likely baptized as babies, the Vatican’s proclamation doesn’t really change anything. “To hear people just praise this sort of thing as progressive, it is like a slap in the face,” he said.

However, the fact that acceptance of queer and trans people was even being discussed is a good sign in his view.

“I really do hope that even the call, or the intention to do this is a big wake-up for a lot of people in power,” Price said.

The Archdiocese of Peoria did not respond to requests for comment. 

This story is part of IPM’s series Flights and Freedoms, in which we hear from people on the front lines of the fight for trans rights during National Transgender Awareness Week. You can find the other stories on our website.

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Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson covers arts and entertainment and LGBTQ issues for Illinois Newsroom. He’s a recent graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has worked with Illinois Public Media in various capacities since 2021.

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