Choosing Your Spouse Over Your Church

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A cisgender woman in New England writes, “The religion I want does not want me”—because her church does not accept her long-time marriage to her newly out, transgender wife. The struggle between her competing loyalties is really palpable here, especially when the values her church instilled in her—love and forgiveness—are at odds with the church’s view on transgenderism and thus her marriage. In her own words:

I was raised Catholic. As a young adult in the early 2000s, I fell away from the Church, repelled by several factors, including the Church’s stance on civil marriage for same-sex couples, the horrors of the sexual abuse crisis, and my own doubts about the existence of God as a force that exists beyond myth and metaphor. Yet, I was still Catholic enough at 23 to be married in the Church.

Eight years and two children later, my spouse came out to me as a woman. We are staying together, working on our marriage, raising our children. But the foundations of our modern marriage are in shambles.

In my secular understanding of marriage, it is a relationship between two people who negotiate, agree, and consent to an arrangement that makes them happy and fulfilled. That doesn’t work for me anymore. My spouse has changed the foundations of our marriage so profoundly and asked so much of me, including the alteration of my own sexual orientation. By the logic of secular marriage, I should leave.

I don’t want to leave. I want to stay, to forgive, and to turn the other cheek to a person who has both loved and hurt me beyond what I thought possible.

I have found great comfort in my latent Catholicism, particularly in its call to love beyond justice. The rosary and the confessional have been indispensable to my ability to heal and to forgive. Last week, I read many parts of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia through tears, thankful for its teaching that “Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.”

But, in that same document, I read that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” How can it be that my marriage to my wife is in no way similar to my marriage to my husband?

I know that many would simply insist that my spouse is delusional and that transgender women are really men. My priest says as much. And yet, there she is, beautiful and beloved. Denying her is an act of violence that I will never, ever perpetrate.

If I must choose between believing, loving, and respecting my spouse and the cruel demands of the religion that has helped me love her, I will choose my spouse. The banners, “Catholics Come Home!” speak to me. But the Church doesn’t want my family, so they don’t really want me.