A crusade for transgender rights that aligns with Catholic faith

     Julie Chovanes is shown at Chestnut Hill Coffee Company in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    Julie Chovanes is shown at Chestnut Hill Coffee Company in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    “God is about diversity,” said Philadelphia attorney Julie Chovanes, 55. “We are told that in Heaven there is no male or female. The Catholic Church is rowing against the tide.”

    She found herself adrift in those waters last summer shortly before Pope Francis made his visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Chovanes says that while she welcomes the inclusive spirit of the pope, who has met with LGBT people and invited a transgender man to the Vatican, she was deeply disappointed by the chilly reception she received from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

    “I was a speaker for an event called Transforming Love sponsored by New Ways Ministry that was supposed to be held at a Catholic church,” said Chovanes, a transgender advocate. “When Chaput saw the brochure for the event, which included a photo of me, he kicked us out of the venue.”

    Chovanes runs the Trans Resource Foundation, which serves Philly’s transgender community with legal and social services, and provides professional training to the wider world about trans people.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “It’s an amazing thing,” she told The Advocate at the time, “especially if you’re trying to show families we are a part of the human family. … I still consider myself Catholic. But apparently, the church doesn’t.”

    Defying expectations

    In spite of this, Chovanes is a person of deep faith. Born into a very religious Catholic family, she was told from an early age that any deviation from the norm was due to Satan or mental illness, a stigma no child wants to challenge.

    “My family came from the Greek Byzantine Catholic branch of the church, which places more emphasis on restraint and suffering,” said Chovanes. As if that wasn’t enough, her uncle was a priest.

    “I thought I was a girl from the time I was born,” said Chovanes. At the time, however, the term “transgender” didn’t exist, so there were no counseling services to provide support or guidance.

    So Chovanes did what her family expected of a young man. “I was on the football team at Lower Merion and had a lot of girlfriends. Of my four brothers, I was the one who was always considered the most manly.”

    Doing what was expected also meant getting a law degree from Villanova, getting married, having children and buying a home on the Main Line.

    This is where we “normals” — Chovanes’ winking reference to people who are not transgender — sometimes get confused. A transgender person, whether male or female, might be attracted to either or both sexes. In Chovanes’ case, as with Caitlyn Jenner, her attraction to women has been constant, regardless of her gender identity.

    Getting it wrong, getting it right

    The expression “listen to your heart” has special meaning for Chovanes. It wasn’t until she had two heart attacks that she decided, late in her 40s, to transition into her true gender identity.

    “Trans people tend to overcompensate,” she said. “At 40, I weighed 270 pounds and could deadlift 505 pounds and bench press 385.”

    She says trans people also spend much of their lives censoring out who they really are. Any why not, when they are vilified by authority figures and misunderstood by everyone around them? At one time, Chovanes saw two therapists. One was a transgender woman, the other a man who insisted that there was no such thing as being transgender.

    “A former head of Johns Hopkins called us monsters,” she said, paraphrasing Dr. Paul McHugh, former head of psychiatry at the university. McHugh, who has called trans women “caricatures of women” and written his opinion of the “ghastliness of the mutilated anatomy,” stands outside of currently accepted medical practice and against the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and other professional medical organizations.

    “Often, normals don’t know what to do with us. They equate us with drag queens, crossdressers and transvestites. But we’re different. I tell people: I’m not male. I’m not female. I’m transgender.”

    If so many people are are getting it wrong, who is getting it right? According to Chovanes, the city of Philadelphia is.

    “This is the best city in the world for trans people,” she said. “Mayor Nutter has promoted events in the LGBT community, and Jim Kenney, our next mayor, introduced an anti-discrimination bill that is incredible. Gov. Wolf has also been an enormous ally. He appointed Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, as physician general of Pennsylvania.”

    Even her Trans Resource Foundation is a Philadelphia success story, she said. “Our board is made up of four trans women and one lovely normal woman. This could only happen here in Philadelphia.”

    Great challenges ahead

    But there’s still work to be done, she acknowledges. “You can’t be fired for your gender preference in Philly, but outside the city, there are no protections in the state of Pennsylvania. You could lose your job overnight.”

    Chovanes is well aware that her education, economic status and career give her great privilege. “The greatest challenges within the trans community are the impoverished inner city youngsters of color. Often they are kicked out of their homes, drop out of school, and end up living in the streets as sex workers. Insurance companies do not cover our surgeries or medications. The national rate for transgender people who attempt suicide is two out of five.”

    Chovanes knows the statistics: “90 percent of us are harassed, mistreated or discriminated against on the job; 57 percent experience family rejection; 41 percent attempt suicide; 61 percent are victim of sexual assault; 64 percent are victim of sexual assault.”

    With faith, perhaps Chovanes can help move those numbers down.

    Julie Chovanes appeared on the Sept. 2 edition of “Radio Times.” Listen here:

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal