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David Van BiemaJune 12, 2024
Sister Luisa Derouen (left) meets with transgender people in Tucson, Ariz., in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Luisa Derouen)

It was a low moment for Maureen Rasmussen. It was August 2018 and Rasmussen, a devout Catholic who prays the rosary daily, had had a jarring conversation with a priest she had sought out on a deeply personal matter. Rasmussen had struggled most of her life with the gender she was assigned at birth. She had undergone two years of therapy to clarify her personal need for transition. In her late 50s, she had begun taking the hormones that would conform her body to her deep conviction that she was a woman. They had worked. She had started to feel better as a person.

Early on, a priest had encouraged her on her path. “You’re comfortable in your own skin, and God doesn’t make mistakes,” he had said. But now, before she went any further: “It was important to revisit the spiritual thing one more time. Just to make sure I got it right. It’d be sort of like the blessing on top of the cake.” Only this time, there was no blessing. Rasmussen told the new priest, at a Maryland priory, that she was preparing to break the news to her wife. This priest said that the plans were an offense to her marriage vows and her faith. He pointed to a crucifix on the wall and said, “You cannot transition. This is your cross to bear,” she remembers.

“I walked out of there like someone had deflated me. When things go wrong in your life, really hard stuff, you draw on your faith. But when your faith kicks you to the curb when you’re going through it, where else are you going to go?”

Rasmussen went to her laptop, and repeated an exercise that she attempted every few years, despite its not working. She searched for the phrase “Catholic transgender resources.” Historically, this had yielded only crisscrossing polemics and ads for conversion therapy. But something new had popped up. It was a profile from the news site Al Jazeera America. “Call this nun Sister Monica,” it read, “though it’s not her real name.” Monica, it turned out, was a nun at an unidentified location who prayed for trans people and ministered to them according to the gender they knew themselves to be.

Under the circumstances, Rasmussen was not going to be deterred by a pseudonym. She contacted the article’s writer, who promised to forward an email to the sister. Rasmussen wrote: “I am a practicing Catholic, daily Mass attendee and transgender. I pray every day for discernment and good judgment according to God’s will....” She asked whether Monica could assist in her spiritual direction. She signed off: “I will keep you in my prayers…. Have a super day.” And a smiley-face emoji.

“Just embrace us. Don’t displace us.”

Rasmussen is a put-together dresser. Today, she has on tan slacks, a navy top and a striped spring sweater that picks up both colors. On her right hand she wears a small band with a turquoise stone that matches her striking blue eyes. The far shorter woman next to her on a hotel lobby couch in Manhattan—they are attending a conference—takes her other hand. “You were just so incredibly filled with anguish,” says the second woman, Sister Luisa Derouen, O.P.

“When we first started talking, you needed a religious authority. ‘I know I’m transgender. Is this okay with God? I can’t break my relationship with God. Can I still be faithful to God and be trans? Can I be faithful to God as a Catholic?’”

Derouen, petite and trim, has on a black top from Talbots and taupe slacks. (“I can’t afford Talbots. My cousin—I get all her leftovers.”) She wears a small enameled pendant featuring the insignia of the Dominican Sisters of Peace: an olive branch on a black-and-white shield. She goes on, “I asked you, ‘Can you not be trans?’ You said, ‘No.’ Then this is who you are. This is how God made you, and all that God made is precious and good. And God loves you as you are. Being true to that doesn’t separate you from God. It gives glory to God.”

Says Rasmussen, “I had never really heard it from that perspective.”

Derouen still holds her hand. She is a hugger and a holder. She will employ the politician’s maneuver of locking your elbow while looking deep into your eyes. At this meeting, she is 79, but with the relentless energy of someone decades younger. Derouen can do the high or the low: writing essays with the precision and command that reflect her two degrees; or unleashing “Ted Lasso”-isms like “God’s middle name truly is Surprise!” or even more obscure sayings like “They wouldn’t know me from Esmerelda’s cat.” She radiates cheerful optimism but also, a bit disconcertingly, has what spiritual writers call the “gift of tears,” crying whenever certain subjects arise.

The two women chat and banter like sisters but have met face to face just today, after years of remote communication. Perhaps their biggest dual accomplishment, once Rasmussen passed through her dark night of the soul, was her participation in a Zoom group with five American bishops drafting guidelines for Catholic health care organizations on treating transgender people. Derouen did not think any of them had (knowingly) met a trans person. “I wanted them to hear her story,” she says. “Maureen is so Catholic, the way the bishops understand it. Catholic on their terms.”

Rasmussen, who until recently co-owned a successful Maryland-based lighting company (“I brighten people’s lives”) and did a lot of presentations, says she could tell the bishops were listening. When she finished her prepared statement, one of them asked how he should respond if a member of his congregation said they had a trans child. Rasmussen remembers answering, “All you can do is try to embrace it. You don’t have to accept all of it, but don’t close the door on it. That doesn’t work, anyway.”

Rasmussen is a realist. The acceptance of trans people by the Catholic hierarchy, she says, “probably will not happen in my lifetime. But we can’t solve all the world’s problems. If we even do just a little piece, isn’t that something?”

She looks at Derouen. “Just embrace us. Don’t displace us,” she says.

Derouen beams.

Read the rest of this profile at Outreach.

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