Joanna has two birth certificates, one labeled “indeterminate” and the other marked “male.”
After living a majority of her life as male but identifying as lesbian, Joanna, who asked to be identified only by her first name, wants people to know that she is not a freak and that she isn’t defined by documents. She’s found a spiritual home in a ministry group for LGBT Catholics that has become a guiding force in her life.
Joanna, 68, is intersex, a term that describes those who were born with ambiguous genitalia. Intersex individuals are typically raised as either female or male in childhood. Some also undergo surgery to assign them to a certain sex based on decisions made by parents and doctors. In adulthood, these individuals might adjust their physical sex characteristics to fit their gender identity. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that about 1 in 2,000 individuals is born intersex.
At the direction of her doctors and parents, Joanna took testosterone and underwent multiple gender reassignment surgeries over the years. After bullying in high school from those who did not understand her condition, she became depressed, eventually turning to drugs and alcohol.
“I used those substances as a way to shut things out and shut things off. They allowed me to feel like everything is okay,” she said, adding that she later turned to the church for support. “The fact I managed to survive — it was a God moment that led me to realize the importance of faith and a deeper need to become involved with a community of faith, ideally an accepting community of faith.”
Raised in the Catholic church as Joseph, Joanna was always attracted to ritual and was drawn to the practice of religion. She eventually entered seminary before finding a home in the Dignity Chicago organization.
Dignity Chicago is an independent organization that hosts a religious service every Sunday for the LGBT community in the Lakeview neighborhood. Joanna said it has welcomed her with open arms as it expands its outreach to the intersex community.
Those who identify as intersex and Christian often feel excluded from church programs that work to promote inclusiveness in the gay and lesbian community.
“Being intersex can be very lonely. All the letters in LGBT have all made some significant progress, but [if you] mention intersex, the first response is ‘what is that,’ or it’s misconstrued for transexuliaty,” Joanna said.
Before finding Dignity, Joanna visited many congregations, including AGLO Chicago, the official archdiocese outreach to the LGBT community. She describes AGLO as having a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” atmosphere in which people were not comfortable discussing their sexuality.
“I found it sterile, not very welcoming … if this is the best it’s going to be, I might as well go back to a mainline Catholic church,” she said.
Joanna later came across a newsletter from the Chicago Gender Society that was advertising Dignity Chicago. Upon entering the church, she was immediately greeted by several people.
“They were very enthusiastic and welcoming, and my first thought was, ‘I’m home … I’m finally home,” she said.
Mike Cook, also a longtime member of Dignity, considers his congregation a safe place for all individuals of all orientations and walks of life.
“Wherever the need is, Jesus has to be. Where there’s a spiritually needy community, where people feel marginalized, that’s where Dignity has to go,” he said.
Attending services at Dignity provides Joanna with a spiritual environment that allows her to keep her faith consistent.
“Dignity has been an island of peace and non-questioning acceptance. I don’t think you can say much more as far as the human experience,” Joanna said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to leave on a Sunday, because I feel so accepted and welcome.”
As to why she consistently returns to Dignity, it’s all about the essential feelings of belonging and community that she seeks from her Catholic faith.
“In my golden years, all I want is to spend the rest of the time I have left with peace, serenity, happiness and friendship,” Joanna said. “That’s what I’m after, and that’s what I’m sure most, if not all, intersex individuals are after.”
About the Author
Nkongho Beteck is a student at the University of Maryland. Click here to learn more about her.