I was delighted to interview the renowned spiritual teacher Fran Bennett about her faith, her journey towards living authentically as a transgender woman, and her thoughts on the place of the LGBT+ community within spiritual circles. Our interview is featured in the latest issue of GCN, Ireland’s national LGBT+ magazine. This issue has been released to coincide with global Pride celebrations, and features a wide range of great Pride-related content. You can read the latest issue of GCN here, or pick up a copy in one of their stockists across Ireland.
Fran Bennett spent many years as a Roman Catholic Trappist monk before ultimately leaving monastic life at the age of 46. She publicly came out as transgender in 2016, shortly after discovering that she was also intersex. “Not everything is as clear cut as we imagine it to be,” she tells Aisling Cronin.
Fran Bennett has a sharp mind, a keen sense of humour, and a deep understanding of the frailties and foibles of human life. During her Dublin seminar earlier this year – which was entitled ‘Full Circle Awakening’ – she discussed the challenges faced by those who are interested in spirituality when they attempt to access the mysterious, transcendent aspect of themselves, while also dealing with the reality of their day-to-day lives as complex, multifaceted human beings. For Fran, that journey of reconciling the two holds a deep personal significance.
She spent many years as a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, dedicating her life to contemplation, prayer and service. She lived in two Trappist monasteries in the US, and was also a member of an urban contemplative monastic community originally founded in Paris in 1975. Fran graduated from the Pontifical College Josephinum with a BA in Philosophy, and also completed a two year residency in Clinical Pastoral Education with Ohio Health Hospital System in Columbus, Ohio in 2004. During her time as a monk, she worked as a hospital chaplain and a pastoral carer of the sick and dying in parish settings.
During a Church service in 2010, Fran had an experience that she describes as “a radical shift in consciousness,” when she discovered a space of pure awareness within herself. She “felt inexplicably called to return to the world, at the age of 46,” and from that point onwards, she began to address some lingering questions about her gender identity that had been with her since childhood.
“My parents actually allowed me to live as a girl for many years,” she tells me. “They allowed me to have long hair, but they wouldn’t let me wear dresses – that was where they drew the line. Still, I am grateful that my parents accepted me, even when the world didn’t.”
Fran was compelled to conceal her true self after being bullied by classmates. “I can remember very consciously making a deal with myself to block out all of the issues I had surrounding gender. At the age of 14, I can remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to start being a boy’.”
For Fran, the spiritual aspect of her life gave her a sense of deep solace throughout every challenge she experienced, and ultimately led her into monastic life. Following her decision to “return to the world”, she embarked upon her present career as a spiritual teacher, offering guidance and instruction in a range of meditative traditions.
Fran’s decision to publicly come out as transgender in 2016 was prompted by her discovery that she was also intersex: she had been born with an atypical chromosomal profile. “Normally, males have an XY chromosomal profile and females have an XX chromosomal profile. But some people who are born outwardly ‘male’ or ‘female’ can have chromosomal aberrations that are not the simple binary XX or XY. It turns out I am one of those people. Discovering this was actually a huge relief. I have come to see that if I am to teach others about life and authenticity, integration and integrity, I myself must be a living example of it.”
She believes that the existence of intersex people disproves many of the rigid ideas that society holds concerning the supposed immutability of biological sex. “It shows that not everything is as clear-cut as we imagine it to be,” she says, “which opens up all kinds of questions around the subject of gender”, she says. “I think that can be a real challenge for certain people. When they say that everyone ought to stick to their biologically assigned category of male or female… well, they forget that for some of us, it’s impossible to fit into either one of those categories.”
Having lived as a monk for many years before embracing her female identity, Fran has a highly informed and nuanced perspective on gender inequality within both the Catholic Church and the non-traditional spiritual community. “I have begun to notice men interrupting me all the time since I came out,” she says. “Not just in spiritual settings, but also in everyday social situations. This is something that so many men do – they interrupt women all the time, and they don’t even notice it. I have experienced the misogyny of being objectified, of receiving constant ‘advice’ about how I should wear my makeup, of having my presentation questioned. Many people assume that they know my experience as a woman, and this has been challenging.”
Fran believes that more could be done within the spiritual community to support LGBTI people. “We have a great deal to offer,” she says. “By virtue of having been forced to explore our own identities, we have an innate understanding of what it means to embrace self-discovery. From a practical perspective, one step that could be taken to support LGBTI people would be offering workshops or events that are specifically tailored toward us. We in the spiritual community need to ask ourselves, do we make automatic assumptions about LGBTI people’s capacity to access spiritual teachings, if that is what they wish to do?”
“We really need to stop assuming that everybody is straight or cisgender. Even within non-traditional spiritual circles, there has been a pattern of making LGBTI people invisible. We can challenge that by being courageous, by embarking on a road of loving and accepting ourselves.”
Fran cites Panti’s famous Noble Call speech as an example of such courage. “Panti really spoke from her heart, and this is why her speech had such an amazing impact. She made an enormous difference by expressing her truth.”
Fran is well-informed about the work Irish LGBT+ activists have done in recent years, as her Irish heritage is very important to her. “My grandmother is from Cork, and I really love visiting Ireland,” she says, before adding, with a smile, “I’ve often thought about moving here.”
Fran’s website is findinggraceatthecenter.com