By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s Note: This is a second article in a series on A Pastoral Approach to Gender.)
After their eldest child, then a college freshman told Deacon Ray and Laurie Dever that she was transgender they depended on prayer, their faith, love of family and each other for guidance. “As parents, we wanted to discern what was best for our child, and hopefully what was best for our family, our marriage and our Church,” Deacon Ray told The Catholic Messenger during an interview this fall.
The Devers, parents of three daughters ages 27, 25 and 23, live in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, and previously spoke via Zoom video conference with the Gender Committee of the Diocese of Davenport. The committee formed about a year ago to learn more about gender issues, specifically transgenderism, a topic receiving scrutiny in education, sports, work places and the public square. Following their Zoom video conference, the Devers agreed to talk with the Messenger to put a human face on this issue.
“Transgender” is an umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with their sex at birth, according to the American Psychological Association. An estimated 1.4 million to 1.65 million U.S. adults identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, or about .6% to .7% of the population.
Signs of struggles
Lexi grew up as a boy in the Dever family, attended Catholic schools from preschool through college, including an all-boys Jesuit high school, and was an altar server. Lexi also attended homecoming and prom. Those events “often triggered depression incidents, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see why,” Deacon Ray said. “She was representing as a male and acting as a male, but that was not who she really was.” The facade of a seemingly typical childhood simmered to crisis proportions, manifested in life-threatening mental health challenges.
“She had some (suicide) attempts in high school and college. She thought of jumping off a bridge twice in her life,” once in high school and once in college, Laurie said. One time she found Lexi sleeping on the floor in her bedroom with red Sharpie marker “all over her body as if she wanted to kill herself.”
The summer after her freshman year at Georgetown University, Lexi went through gender dysphoria therapy and psychological counseling. Gender dysphoria refers to clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, DSM-5).
Lexi’s therapy eventually led the Devers to understand that she would need to transition from male to female. “We had been dealing with mental health issues but it started to come out over a period of time that her gender identity crisis was the underlying cause,” Deacon Ray said.
Later, as a senior at Georgetown University, Lexi wrote about the deep self-loathing she experienced because of her gender crisis. “Back in high school, I tried to kill myself twice in one week. I tried to kill myself because I knew I was an abomination,” she wrote in a 2015 article for “The Hoya,” Georgetown’s student newspaper. “I barely made it out of high school alive.”
The Devers believe the discernment and training for the diaconate that had taken place a few years earlier allowed them to “give it over to God to understand where we need to take this. I prayed for openness, to understand, to educate myself and to ask, ‘what does this mean from both a physiological and spiritual aspect,’” Deacon Ray said. It was about coming to terms with what “God was trying to help us learn.”
When Lexi called her mother about a life-changing decision, “I wasn’t in the mindset to grasp what she was telling me,” said Laurie, who was out of town with another daughter at the time. Lexi “shared that she was going to transgender. I said, ‘Ok, let me talk to Dad about this …’ It was kind of difficult for me at first, for both of us. We wanted to ask the questions, ‘why and how do we reconcile this with our Catholic faith’ … as every Catholic parent would.”
Deacon Ray wondered about God’s plan in this unique situation — a deacon with a child coming out as transgender — an issue the Catholic Church has not addressed specifically in the Catechism (but did address in a 2019 document on education). “We first needed to take care of our child and then deal with the diaconate. It took a while to come to that in prayerful reflection,” Deacon Ray said.
Georgetown University proved to be a godsend for Lexi. “Georgetown and many Catholic colleges are supportive and accepting of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) students and helped her tremendously,” Deacon Ray said. In the article that Lexi wrote for The Hoya titled “The Georgetown that saved me,” she said:“A phone call from my RA was the only thing that stopped me from jumping off the Key Bridge during my freshman year. I was still an atrocity. I was still a freak. Then I started to talk to people. Not everyone, I realized, saw my wayward desires as a problem. There was even a full-fledged transgender student on campus. The queer community at Georgetown opened my eyes to a world where I could exist and not hate myself.”
Longing for acceptance
Transgenderism “is a life or death issue for so many of these kids,” Deacon Ray said. “They know they need to come out to live authentically but they are afraid that if they do they will lose their families, their friends, all that they have known. They are afraid of rejection by families.” Laurie said one of Lexi’s friends at Georgetown who was transgender, “who guided and advised her, was basically disowned by her parents when she came out.”
The Devers did not reject Lexi. “We all had to go through our process in our unique ways. Going through therapy to understand,” Laurie said. “We had to mourn the loss of a son and gain the blessings of a daughter. It’s a matter of just loving a child.” Lexi’s younger sisters are fiercely supportive of her, their parents said.
“If anything, it has grown our faith in that it has been an eye-opening experience. We are all called to see those on the margins and reach out to the margins and include them. That was the central message of Jesus,” Deacon Ray said. “Sometimes our eyes are closed to the people on the margins. Going through this experience has helped us open our eyes more — to people on the edges of society in one way or another. It has grown our faith in a good way.”
“It has removed the scales from my eyes,” Laurie said. People who are transgender “want to be loved by God as we all do. Many want to continue their faith journey but don’t feel accepted.” The violence against them is real, Deacon Ray said. On its website, the Human Rights Campaign reported, “Sadly, 2021 has already seen at least 50 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported” (https://tinyurl.com/ vussxvyh).
“Have I told you yet that the average lifespan of a transgender person is 31 years?” Lexi wrote in the piece for The Hoya. “If I am ‘average,’ I will be dead within a decade. Let that sink in for a second. There’s a reason I’m not thinking about marriage, children or even long-term career plans. I don’t want to plan for a life I probably will not get to live.” Despite that grim outlook, Lexi today is doing well, with a career in graphic arts, her parents said. She has stepped away from the Catholic Church, however, because she does not feel welcome.
“People think it’s a choice,” Laurie said, “but in reality, God made them the way they are.” Evidence exists, Deacon Ray said, “that there is more to human beings and human sexuality than is incorporated into that Christian anthropology we believe in. It’s good, but it needs to grow. It isn’t just male and female he created them. They (LGBTQ) are God’s creation, too.”