Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Interview with Christine Zuba

Monika: Today I am talking to Christine Zuba, an American transgender activist and eucharistic minister at Saints Peter and Paul in Turnersville, New Jersey. Hello Christine! 
Christine: Hi Monika. So wonderful to be here, thank you for inviting me. I never really thought of myself as an activist, however I have been fairly visible with my job and my Catholic faith.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself? You are a Pennsylvanian lady, right? 
Christine: I am a 65-year-old transgender woman living just outside of Philadelphia in New Jersey. However, my heritage is Polish. My mother’s maiden name was Ostraszewski. Some of my grandparents came from Poland, or their parents came from Poland. My father lived for a time as a child in Poland, he said they lived in an area near the Czechoslovakian border. I grew up and spent most of my early life in northeastern Pennsylvania. As early as I can recall, about the age of 4-5 years old, I felt different. It took over 50 years, after marriage and two children however, when I finally transitioned at the age of 58. I’ve been in broadcast equipment sales for 30 years, and continue to travel all over the country.
With respect to my faith, I am active within a number of LGBTQ+ Catholic ministries, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York City. I am also a board member and chair of the transgender ministry of Fortunate Families which is the Catholic Ministry for LGBTQ+ persons, their family, friends & allies. Fortunate Families works to build bridges with bishops, pastors, Church leadership and schools to celebrate and safeguard the dignity of all LGBTQ+ persons.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away…
Christine: That is so true. For many years I said “I can’t”, I would lose my family, my friends, my job, and my faith. When I finally came out, I lost virtually no one and nothing. I think sometimes, particularly for those of us who are a little older, it’s because growing up we feel society’s pressure to act and dress in a certain way, in a binary way. For me when I was growing up in the 70s there was no such thing as the internet or social media, no way to know that there were others who felt as we did. Today it is much easier to connect to others and realize that others feel as you do. The “fear of loss”, of any kind, always exists, and so, as you say “we run”. Eventually however we “can’t Not transition” in some fashion.
Monika: Why did you choose Christine for your name?
Christine: That’s a question many of us often get asked. In my case, when I was a child, my mother told me that if I had been assigned female at birth, my name would have been Christine. She never knew how much that meant to me until much later in life. She was 88 years old when I came out to her. My middle name is Monica, which was my mother’s middle name as well. It’s a beautiful name, which you certainly know.
Monika: You are a devout Catholic. Did religion help you to tackle dysphoria?
Christine: My faith has Always been strong, my belief in my God and who I am, the person inside regardless of my appearance, never wavered, no matter what some within the Church might say or think. As part of my transition, when during confession I told our associate pastor that I was transgender, I told him, “you can throw me out if you want, but if you do, I’m coming right back in because “this is my church too”. Thankfully that did not happen.

"For many years I said “I can’t”, I would lose my family,
my friends, my job, and my faith. When I finally came out,
I lost virtually no one and nothing."

I never really had periods of dysphoria, I’ve been lucky. I recall having only one real bout of what I could describe as dysphoria, when for some reason during an evening event involving about 60 transgender women, I just started to cry thinking “I didn’t belong here.” I didn’t question my being transgender, it was a strange feeling. The next morning I was fine and that never happened again. About a month later, when I told my Monsignor I was transgender, his first words were “God Loves Everyone”. I have been very blessed.
Monika: Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Christine: That’s an interesting question. Personally, I’ve never really questioned God on this. I have an older brother who is mentally challenged, and throughout my life I never heard my parents say “why us?”. I believe every family has some sort of challenge in some way. There are birth defects, diseases, accidents, deaths, even wars (as we’re now witnessing). One can ask why God allows this. I am so fortunate to have been born who and where I am, I cannot complain. I have often said that I don’t know Why “I am”, I just know that “I Am”, and I exist for a reason. Perhaps being transgender is a blessing, that we are put here to teach others to be more tolerant and loving, although at times it is challenging and very difficult.
Monika: Transgender people often face rebukes from some fellow Catholics, including many bishops, It is not easy to be a Catholic transgender woman...
Christine: It is definitely not easy at times. Around the world, we’ve seen some Church leadership speak using anti-transgender language, categorizing us as an “ideology”, and demonizing us. Here in the US, we’ve seen Bishops of least 1/2 dozen dioceses issue so-called “guidance” regarding transgender persons, which portray compassion, but their suggestions regarding not using pronouns and names, amongst other things are very hurtful and can be very harmful. Some go as far as instructing the denial of communion or any sacrament to transgender Catholics. Anti-transgender websites do not help as well.
On the other hand, we’ve had one diocese here in Davenport, Iowa, where their Bishop and staff are actively dialoguing with transgender persons in order to create a real relationship of welcoming and acceptance. On a local level, more people in the pews are becoming accepting of all LGBTQ persons and priests are becoming more understanding as well. These priests often do not often make the news. I wish they did. Unfortunately, however, the level of acceptance around the world varies greatly by country as we know.
Monika: Are there any references to transgender people in the Bible?
Christine: There are no direct links or references and it is difficult to image the world 2000 years ago and society as it existed back then. Some however equate eunuchs in the Bible to being transgender while others relate eunuchs to being gay in today’s world. Eunuchs who had been castrated were scorned and often looked down upon in society at that time. 
Deuteronomy states that no one who was emasculated by cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. In Chapter 8 of Acts, Phillip baptizes a Eunuch. In Matthew 19:12 Jesus says “there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, and “the one who can accept this should accept this”. Isiah 56:3-5, it says “To the eunuchs who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant, to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters”.
Unfortunately, our Church continues to adhere to the binary of “male and female God made them”. Yes, but God made a whole lot more, everything in between. What we do know is that Jesus reached out and ministered to all those on the margins, all of those shunned by a lot of society during his time.
"The biggest thing for me was
the fear, getting over the fear
of losing everything."
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Christine: The biggest thing for me was the fear, getting over the fear of losing everything. Once I could not hide any longer and I set my transition timeline, there was no going back. While there was always the possibility of loss, even my job, I had no choice. Whatever happened I would adjust. Luckily almost none of that happened to me. Telling the guy friends I had known since childhood was difficult, but they were all supportive asking “are you happy?”. That’s all that mattered.
What is interesting though is that at work, in business, I immediately felt the impact of “male privilege”. Some business meetings no longer revolved around me, but with male associates with me a contributor. I realize my situation is unique, others are not so fortunate. I’ve always said that if you have other personal issues before transition, those issues do not go away after transitioning. If you’re a good person and everyone in your world knows this, they know you are still a good person after transitioning. Every situation is different, however.
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition? Did they accept it easily?
Christine: I completed my transition in 2015. My father had passed about 20 years prior. Mom was 88 when I came out. I had started transitioning over a year before, growing my hair and piercing my ears. I also lost about 20 pounds, so there were signs, however no one expected this. I have a lot of cousins, mostly women. They were fine, a few said they could tell. My brother mentally doesn’t “get it”, but that’s ok, I understand.
My mother struggled for almost a year. I had to explain what transgender meant, how I had felt since childhood. One of her first questions of course was “did you talk to a priest?”, and of course I had. My cousins being so supportive helped my mother. Mom died this past July at 95. I don’t think she fully understood, but she accepted and she tried. I have to believe my father would have been accepting as well. As I’ve said, I’ve truly been blessed.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Christine: As far as seeing a transgender woman on TV in the newspapers it would have to be Renee Richards, the tennis player who famously transitioned in the 70s. I have always been a sports fan, I was around 20 years old at the time and remembering wishing “someday that could be me”, but doubting I’d ever have the means or courage to do the same. 
I cannot recall meeting a transgender person “in person” and, aside from maybe a drag show, it was probably at a gay bar or transgender event at the very beginning of my transition. At that time I had not yet participated in social media at all, and it wasn’t until during my transition that I found Facebook and other platforms.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Christine: There are a lot of people on Facebook that I follow, some doing wonderful things to change the world, adults, teens, and children, however if I was to pick one person it would be Jennifer Finney Boylan, the author. Her book “She’s Not There” was probably the first that I could personally relate to. We’re about the same age, the book followed her journey, married, with children, a business professional, about the same age as me, she documented her life from childhood through transitioning.
I’ve met Jenny a few times and even joined her for dinner following a speaking engagement at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia a few years ago. Another person that I admire is Dr. Rachel Lavine, who is the US Assistant Secretary of Health, the highest-ranking transgender person ever in the US government.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Christine: While there have been many positives, it’s become very political. There is a lot of polarization. The conservative right in a number of states has been going out of their way to make life difficult for transgender children and adults, passing laws prohibiting hormone therapy, and even laws that would criminalize parents and doctors for supporting transgender children and transgender persons in any way. Many of these laws will surely be challenged in the courts.
It is very sad however that people are playing politics with people's lives. As I noted before, unfortunately we’re seeing the same thing with some Bishops and dioceses. All we can do is to keep fighting the fight, by being visible and talking to people allowing them to understand and get to know us. We saw something similar about 30 years ago with anti-gay politics. Just pray that the anti-transgender talk will also fade as more people become educated and understand.
Walking her daughter Stephanie
down the aisle on her Wedding day
in 2018.
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Christine: I was already employed when I transitioned, however I had to drive to our corporate office about 2 hours away to inform our company president of my transition. He was supportive however he said “we need to go see Don”, who was the Senior VP of Human Resources and reported directly to the company CEO.
I was a little uncertain about how things would go, however the discussion went surprisingly well. In a corporation of around 8000 people, there were a few transgender people in our organization, however the company was initially concerned since I was in sales and I would be the most visible. There ended up being no issues.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Christine: I would advise to be yourself, and suggest you do not make being transgender a part of the discussion unless they bring it up (and legally it probably should not in many areas). I would also suggest that you leave your ‘activism’ at home, focusing only on the position and your qualifications for the job. There will be plenty of time for activism once you get the position and prove yourself.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Christine: Yes, however over the last 2-1/2 years, there’s been less personal contact with Covid. While I have many friends in the Philadelphia area, I also have many longtime friends in the Detroit, MI area. Detroit has a very active and close-knit transgender community. Over the Covid years, I’ve spent much more time, active within our Church, with LGBTQ+ Ministry groups throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York City mostly through Zoom. I’ve also been active with Fortunate Families and their Transgender Ministry.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Christine: I’ve seen that and understand that, however, I don’t really think I’m that interesting a person, that I’m that exciting! Ha! My life certainly has definitely been more complete following my transition with family, friends, faith, and my work, however right now my work continues to occupy a lot of my time as I travel often across the US. I do try and post when and where I go on Facebook, so others who might question their own transition, and who might follow me on Facebook, can see how acceptance of me has gone, and what might be possible in their world.
I think each of us needs to follow our hearts, be the best person we can be, and live every day like it might be our last, whether we’re Cis, Gay, Trans, or non-Binary. We all have a different path, a unique journey to our goals, and I’m not talking money or fame. I think if we’re true to ourselves there is a good chance we each can achieve personal happiness, changing hearts and minds along that path.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Christine: Very often the fear is in our own heads and that holds us back. I’ve seen it in some friends. Once they have committed to transition, it often turns out to be a non-issue, especially if you transition a little older in life. I believe that one has to get to the point where you understand all the issues (and accept the possibility of losing some): family, friends, faith, and maybe even job, and still be willing to do it. You cannot be 95% certain, or even 98% certain. If you are less than 100% certain that you have to transition, I would suggest you should wait. Once you do transition, however, be visible, stay visible. It may not be easy to go to some places we know, but by being visible everywhere, we’re all changing hearts and minds, educating and changing the world.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Christine: I believe No one, transgender or not, no one should accept any limitation based upon who or where they were born; male or female; white or person of color. Certainly, there are countries, cultures, and personal situations that sometimes limit that potential. It is not always easy we know. The good thing is there are resources available to help, and technology has made access to those resources easier. There is obviously still a lot of work to be done.
Monika: Christine, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Christine: Monika, thank you so much for having me, and thank You for all you do. Monika, YOU are changing the world!

All the photos: courtesy of Christine Zuba.
© 2022 - Monika Kowalska

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