PHILADELPHIA (RNS) — In the basement of Arch Street United Methodist Church, Nicole Santamaria shared a story of hardship, love and transition.
Santamaria is a Roman Catholic intersex woman from El Salvador. With her mother, Vilma, looking on, she recounted growing up in an unaccepting family, country and religion. “Intersex” describes those born with some combination of male and female sex organs.
Santamaria was identified as a boy at birth and did not discover she was intersex until after she was 16. But “every single part of my body told me since I was little that I was a girl,” she said. “I am an intersexual, transgender, heterosexual woman.”
Santamaria was one of four speakers invited to share her story at New Ways Ministry’s workshop, “Transforming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholic Perspectives.” About 40 people attended the one-day workshop run by the ministry, which supports lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex Catholics such as Santamaria.
The workshop was moved to Arch Street United Methodist after being ousted from a nearby Catholic parish by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Vilma Santamaria shared her story of a mother’s love for her intersex child.
“There is not a recipe for a mother or father to accept their sexually diverse children,” she said. “This is a process, a long-term process.”
Vilma spoke in Spanish, taking short breaks so her daughter could translate. The two sat close and held hands during stretches of their stories.
During puberty, Nicole Santamaria said her father physically abused her because of her female physical characteristics.
She recounted being physically attacked several times in her home country. She said she recently moved to the United States because of violence against the LGBT community in El Salvador. COMCAVIS, a non-governmental organization that works in El Salvador, reports there have been 500 murders of LGBT persons in that country since 1993.
“I told my mom I was leaving because I would not let her recognize my body in pieces,” she said.
According to Nicole Santamaria, many Salvadorans perpetrate violence against sexually diverse people in the name of religion.
“Every time a faith leader speaks out against sexual diversity, a transgender woman is killed in my community,” she said.
Leslie Campo and Claire Dente, a lesbian couple from Media, Pa., who attended the workshop, are part of the group Equally Blessed, an umbrella group that promotes the acceptance of LGBT Catholics in the church.
Campo said the couple wanted to represent people who are gay and Catholic and love their faith.
“Nicole’s story was very moving. We don’t have the same level of violence in the U.S.,” Dente said. “It reminds us we need to rise up for the humane treatment of people all around the world.”
Santamaria said she hopes attendees create spaces of “construction,” not destruction, when they encounter people who identify as LGBT.
“There are many love-starved people and love is the tool we need to create changes in our societies,” she said.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said the LGBT community has been waiting more than 50 years for the conversation surrounding sexual diversity to start in the Catholic Church.
“The pope has made a number of positive and affirming statements about LGBTQ issues,” he said. “He has opened the door; he now has to walk through it.”