Catholic Schools To Recognize Students’ Chosen Gender Identities

July 18, 2014

Tracey Wilson, the impetus behind the Catholic schools’ transgender-inclusive policy change

In an historic policy, Catholic schools in the Canadian city of Vancouver will recognize transgender students using their preferred gender identity.

CBC News reports the policy, announced by the Archdiocese of Vancouver earlier this week, will allow trans students to use their preferred pronouns, as well as wear the uniform and use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Transgender students will be able to file for accommodations and work with a pastoral team of medical, spiritual, and educational experts to create  individualized plans for each student. However, due to official Catholic policy, the schools cannot support students who transition.

The change comes after Tracey Wilson, an 11-year-old transgender girl, filed a complaint against the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese for not allowing her to present as a girl. The Catholic school board settled with the Wilsons by implementing this new policy and paying an undisclosed sum to the family. The Wilsons say their children will remain in public schools. Superintendent Doug Lauson, who last year said ‘God doesn’t make mistakes‘ and that Tracey would have to wear the boys’ uniform, seemed pleased with the policy, which he views as a middle ground between supporting students and adhering to Catholic tradition.  Lausen stated:

“We are people of the Catholic faith. Our schools will be as inclusive as we can while still retaining our Catholic identity.”

Because Catholic schools in Canada are funded by the government, a history of religious exemption is not present.

CBC News reports that this new policy from a Catholic school board is making history, and there is hope it will impact more religiously-based schools:

” ‘This is, as far as we know, certainly a North American first and probably a world first,’ said the Wilson family’s lawyer, barbara findlay, who spells her name without capital letters.

” ‘Not only is it important for the students in Vancouver who go to Catholic schools, but it will serve as a template for other Catholic school districts everywhere.’ “

Tracey Wilson was one of two transgender students profiled by Canadian television program 16×9 last year, and at the time her mother, Michelle, said:

“They had no intention of letting her be who she wanted to be…Everyone says, ‘Well, what did you expect?’ I expected compassion. I expected a community that talks about love and acceptance to actually show love and acceptance.”

Though not freely chosen by the Vancouver archdiocese, this new policy is a huge step towards making Catholic schools into communities where love and acceptance are hallmarks. Tracey’s courage and her family’s willingness to call Catholic officials to account for their lack of inclusion will now mean Vancouver students who are transgender can be more authentically themselves, as God created them to be.

To view a video of Tracey and her mother talking about this recent victory, visit The Vancouver Sun by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Transgender Woman Prepares to Enter Carmelite Convent

July 14, 2014

One of the places where Catholicism and gender are most strongly inscribed together is the area of vowed religious life.  There are communities for only men and other communities for only women.  What if your gender doesn’t fit into this binary?

Tia Michelle Pesando

That question is being answered in London, Ontario, where a transgender woman is preparing to enter a community of Carmelite women.  When Canada’s Tia Michelle Pesando, who is already living as a consecrated virgin, is accepted into the community, it is being said that she will be the world’s first transgender nun.

CTV News reported that Pesando, who is a hermaphrodite* (born with physical characteristics of both male and female) has already begun a process of taking hormones to live as a woman.  But the process of becoming a nun is more a spiritual, than a physical, notion for her.  As CTV News stated:

“Two years ago Pesando heard God calling her and she knew she had to take her transformation farther.

“ ‘I’m very convinced of the reality of God and the importance of such a calling,’ she says.

“When Pesando decided to become a nun, she received her priest’s blessing and is now going through the process to become a Carolinian sister and the first ever Roman Catholic transgender nun.

“ ‘I’m in the training process which is starting this August, so it’s a positive start that I’ve undergone.’ “

While there is always the possibility of hierarchical intervention in the admissions process,  Pesando remains positive:

“ ‘Forgiveness needs to begin somewhere,” she says. “It needs to begin with us, all of us, those in the LGBT community and those of the Christian faith.’

“Pope Francis has made huge strides with the gay community, preaching for greater inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals. This in part has helped to fuel her decision. She says the time is right for a transgender nun.”

Pesando recently published a book, Why God Doesn’t Hate Youin which she develops the theme of God’s unconditional acceptance and love of everyone, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  In a wide-ranging interview with London Community News  where she describes her spiritual development and challenges,  she also explained the need for the book’s message:

“ ‘From a theological perspective, I think I have a solid argument,’ Pesando said. ‘People are leaving the church because they feel the God of love has betrayed them, and betrayal is one of the worst feelings you can imagine. So I am reaching out to people saying this is what the Bible actually says.’

“Her purpose in writing Why God Doesn’t Hate You is to reach out to everyone ‘who feels like they are rejected by God, who feels like they are a second-class citizen in God’s eyes.’ ”

And she notes an interesting detail about the Bible:

“ ‘There is actually nothing in the Bible to condemn the trans community because they were simply not aware of it,’ Pesando said. ‘Just like there is nothing in the Bible that talks about aerospace engineering, both of these things were discovered about 1,500 years after the it was written.’ ”

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  The same is true about constitutional homosexuality.  Biblical authors did not have the awareness that some people are naturally homosexually oriented.  Therefore, in the places where homosexual acts are Biblically condemned, the authors are not condemning what is now known to be a natural, normal way of loving.  More often, they are condemning homosexual rape, pagan rituals, or sexual novelty.)

My only minor gripe with this story is not about Pesando’s eligibility to become a nun, but the claim that some have made that she will be “the world’s first transgender nun.”  I would probably want to modify that to “the world’s first OPENLY transgender nun.”   Though I have no historical evidence, I imagine that over the centuries, other transgender women have joined convents, though probably being secretive about their identities.   We do know that transgender characteristics have often been very accepted in Catholic spirituality and practice (St. Joan of Arc).  And it was always common practice for nuns to take male religious names, and for religious men to often add “Mary” or “Marie” to their religious names.

If you know of other examples of Catholic transgender history or cultural details, please add them in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

*There has been some discussion in the “Comments” section of this blog as to whether “intersex” or “hermaphrodite” is the correct word to use.  There has also been some discussion as to whether Tia Michelle Pesando is actually transgender.  I recognize that language is a sensitive and powerful arena, and I am open to correction.  Upon reflection, I have decided to keep the original terms I used.

To answer the first issue, I have used “hermaphrodite” because that is the term that Tia Michelle Pesando uses to describe herself on her website: http://www.whygoddoesnthateyou.com/.   It is also the term used in the original article upon which this post is based, so I have assumed that it was the term she used while being interviewed.

To answer the second issue,  because Tia Michelle Pesando lived the first thirty years as a man and has now decided to live as a woman, including taking hormones, I think it is accurate to describe the process she went through as “transitioning,” and thus “transgender” seems to be an accurate description.  Again, I assume, based on the fact that news articles about her use the term “transgender” that this is a label of which she approves.

 

 

 

 


Trans Students Celebrate Openly During Catholic Graduations

June 22, 2014

Two moments this graduation season highlighted the positive gains being made in Catholic education for transgender students, forgoing the controversies of past years for moments of celebration instead.

Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, an all-girls institution run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, allowed a transgender young man to graduate using his preferred gender identity. A post in the Facebook group for the class of 1970 includes the following caption for the above picture:

“Meet our alumni brother. This was not an easy decision for the administrators to make, but they did the right thing as Immaculate Heart does. {He] is the first transgender graduate but probably won’t be the last. He loves the school as much as the rest of us and that’s all that matters. ‘Every loyal daughter and son…’ “

Congratulations to this young man and to the Immaculate Heart Class of 2014, as well as the administrators for ensuring every student’s day could be one of celebration! Last year, a controversy at a New Mexico Catholic high school tarred commencement ceremonies when a transgender student was given the choice either to wear attire inconsistent with his gender or skip graduation altogether.  He chose the latter.

At the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, a transgender woman was chosen by her peers to address the graduating class of social workers. Andy Bowen spoke openly to an audience at the US bishops’ national university about her identity as a trans woman engaged to another woman and addressed her fellow students on the social worker’s duty to seek justice. She said, in part:

“Maybe it is because I’m a transgender woman who is engaged to another woman and I’ve had to come out of the closet like three or four times, but I’ve always been attracted to the principle that all human beings have inherent human dignity…

“If you center your moral universe on the idea that all human beings have inherent dignity, you have to work against injustice in all its forms because someone much smarter than me, living many decades ago pointed out how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Congratulations to Andy and the CUA class of 2014! You can view her full remarks below or by clicking here.

While these two examples show progresss, there is still a lot of work to be done on Catholic campuses concerning transgender people. LGBT advocate and musician Joanna Blackhart recently spoke with HuffPost Live about her isolating experience attending St. Mary’s College in Texas as a transgender woman.

Let’s hope the examples of increased welcome and acceptance for trans inclusivity  on Catholic campuses continue to spread!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Italian Transgender Relationship Tests Church and State Definitions of Marriage

June 21, 2014

A transgender marriage case in Italy may be paving the way for that nation to legalize civil unions, despite the powerful opposition of the Catholic hierarchy there to such an action.

The second Alessandra Bernaroli

The Daily Beast reported recently that 20 years ago, Alessandro Bernaroli married his wife, Alessandra, though he knew that he had gender questions about himself.   Alessandra supported her spouse’s decision to go through gender reassignment surgery, and the couple decided to stay together after Alessandro began to identify also as Alessandra.  Despite their love, the two Alessandras ran into some legal problems, but not for wrong.  The Daily Beast  explains:

“When Bernaroli officially changed her name and gender when she renewed her identity card, the Bologna court annulled the marriage. The couple appealed the unwanted divorce and lost again, but now Italy’s high court overturned the ruling, allowing them to stay married.”

So, though civil unions are still not legal in Italy, the Bernarolis, who live in Bologna, are still legally united.   More importantly, though the debate about civil unions had not moved forward, the Italian court, in their decision about the case, asked Italian legislators to make some accommodations for same-gender couples:

“In its ruling last week, the high court said it was aiming to balance ‘the State’s interest in not changing the model of heterosexual marriage with the interest of the couple where one of the two components changes sex.’ The court also asked Italian lawmakers to explore an ‘alternative’ form of marriage to accommodate such same-sex couples.”

In Italy, the Catholic hierarchy has been one of the strongest opponents to civil unions.  However, the church has not annulled the Bernarolis’ marriage. The reason, though, is not because they recognize this as a same-gender relationship, but because they do not recognize gender re-assignment, so they still consider one of the partners to be male.

The Bernarolis are optimistic, though, because of Pope Francis’ more welcoming approach to same-gender couples:

“.  .  . [T]he Alessandras now hope that Pope Francis will use their historic case to preach acceptance and maybe one day recognize same-sex unions. ‘The Catholic Church has said that our marriage is still valid,’ Bernaroli said after the high court’s ruling. ‘We want to make an appeal to all Catholics to go out in the streets to defend the rights of the family, of our family. And also make an appeal to the pope, who seems so open and innovative, because he listens to so many people in trouble, the poor, the discriminated against. Why not call us, too?’ “

Some may find this arrangement unusual, but it is not as uncommon as one might think.  For example, for those who attended either New Ways Ministry’s 2012 National Symposium in Baltimore, or either one of our two transgender workshops this past year, they would have heard from Hilary Howes, a Catholic transgender woman, whose previously heterosexual marriage to her wife, Celestine, remained solid when Hilary transitioned.

You can read about Hilary’s journey and her relationship with Celestine in More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Churchpublished this year by Fordham University Press.

Not all marriages that involve a gender transition remain intact, but some do.  For the Bernarolis, like Hilary and Celestine, there was some initial concern and questioning, but upon reflection, both couples found that their love was as strong as ever:

“ ‘It’s obvious that some things have changed in our marriage,’ Bernaroli’s wife told the court. ‘But she is still the same person I married. We share the same ideals, and that’s what counts when you share a life together. We have survived because we have a strong love connection.’ ”

The news site Gayapolis.com had a fitting commentary on this case which serves as a good closing message:

“It’s rare that the fight for transgender rights advances ahead of the fight for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if this case helped bring about both?”

 

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

PinkNews.com: “Italian trans woman fights for right to remain in same-sex marriage”


British Bishops Write Positively on Gender Transition and Civil Unions

June 11, 2014

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) has had a reputation for being more pro-LGBT than most of their counterparts in other nations.  From the days in the 1980s when Cardinal Basil Hume spoke favorably about same-gender relationships up until recently when Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke out in support of civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, this conference has not been afraid to speak pastorally rather than dogmatically.

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in 2011

Though they opposed the legalization of same-gender marriages in Britain last year, the CBCEW has recently made two statements which show that there is still a strong current of thought in the conference that is sympathetic to LGBT people.

In the first instance, the CBCEW issued a draft of a directive to Catholic institutions about how to respond to the UK’s 201 Equality Act, which added many strong protections to minority categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.  The directive is intended to give advice to Catholic institutions and organizations about how they can comply with the law.  In the section on “Gender Re-Assignment,” they state:

‘Transsexual people face many difficulties before, during and after transitioning to another gender. As such it is recommended to seek guidance on how to make the transitional process as easy as possible. This could include training for co-workers, as well as reference to medical and social advice.”

This may be the most positive and pastoral statement about transgender people to come from the Catholic hierarchy.  (If anyone knows anything equally or more positive, please let us know about it in the “Comments” section of this post.)  Let’s hope that it remains in place through the drafting process.

In the area of same-gender marriage, the bishops caution Catholic groups against showing discrimination to same-gender married couples because the new law prohibits such behavior.  They state:

“Treating a same sex married couple less favourably than an opposite sex married couple will amount to direct discrim-ination. Therefore it is not possible to argue that such behav-iour is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim, . . . and as such will be unlawful unless it falls within the exceptions out-lined in Chapter 5.”

To read the entire text, click here.

In the second instance, the bishops responded to a new UK proposal which, in light of the new marriage law, may convert all previous civil partnerships into legal marriages.   The bishops oppose such a transformation, and in the process they speak highly of civil partnerships and of the needs of lesbian and gay Catholics.

Bishop Peter Smith

Bishop Peter Smith, of Southwark, wrote to Parliament on behalf of the CBCEW’s Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship.  In his statment he talks about

“lesbian and gay Catholics who have entered into civil partnerships in order to secure important and necessary legal rights, but who do not wish either to become married in the eyes of the state, or to have their civil partnership automatically ‘converted’ into a marriage.”

Smith went on to explain:

 “We have received representations from some lesbian and gay Catholics stating that they would not wish to enter into a same sex marriage, and who fear that their legal rights will be removed if civil partnerships are abolished. . . .Some lesbian and gay Catholics do not wish to enter into civil same sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only, but still wish to have the legal rights that are contained in a civil partnership. The removal of the option for same sex couples to enter into civil partnerships could cause great harm to those Catholics and others.”

I find two things remarkable about this intervention.  First, the bishop recognizes the importance and necessity of civil partnerships for legal protections and safety of these couples.  Second,  the bishop acknowledges that the position was developed after listening to lesbian and gay Catholics, a process which is rarely, if ever, done here in the U.S.

There is one caveat.  Because many have interpreted Smith’s comments positively, he issued a qualification which included:

“My recent comment on civil partnerships was solely in response to a specific government consultation on whether to abolish civil partnerships or convert them all into marriages in law. . . .The question at issue is one of individual conscience for those who are in same sex civil partnerships and who do not want to enter into same sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only. In requesting the government to respect their consciences by leaving the existing civil partnership law unchanged, I was dealing solely with this issue of conscience which has now arisen given the current law, and my response should not be misinterpreted as a wider commentary on civil partnerships in general.”

Yet, even this statement deserves some praise because of the bishop’s endorsement of conscience.   Others in the UK also see the original statement as very significant.  The Tablet, a leading Catholic UK publication stated:

“The support for civil partnerships appears to be a shift from a submission made by the hierarchy over a decade ago opposing the planned introduction of civil partnerships which stated: ‘We believe [they] would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them.’

“However, in 2011 Archbishop Vincent Nichols, now a cardinal, acknowledged that civil partnerships provide gay and lesbian Catholics with legal rights. ‘We would want to emphasise that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship [and] a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision,’ he said although he later clarified that he was simply recognising the ‘existence’ of these partnerships.”

The Cutting Edge Consortium, an interfaith group in the UK which works against homophobia and transphobia put Smith’s remarks into context:

“The Catholic Bishops affirm both the importance of civil partners’ legal rights and that civil partnerships should be retained as a future viable option for same-sex couples.

“The Statement is consistent with what a number of individual bishops, including Pope Francis, have said in recent years, that these legal rights contribute to both stability of relationships, and to the common good of society as a whole.”

For a comprehensive list of positive statements made by hierarchy and other church leaders, click here.

Whether Bishop Smith has backtracked on his comments seems irrelevant since there was so much about his statements that was positive even if they don’t fully endorse civil unions. In the future, I think Catholics and others will interpret these statements as steps along the way to the full equality of LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


Do Bishops or Politicians Know More About Catholics and LGBT Issues?

May 21, 2014

A couple in Malta celebrates new national progress on LGBT equality.

Recent news out of Malta concerning Catholics and sexuality/gender issues seems to contradict information released by the nation’s Catholic bishops about the opinions of Catholics there on marriage and family topics.

This tiny, heavily-Catholic island nation has witnessed some important progressive political developments lately in terms of LGBT issues and Catholicism, yet the bishops report seems to indicate that Catholics are satisfied with traditional church teaching in these arenas.

Last month, we reported that this country approved civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, including the right to adopt, though the Catholic bishops there strongly opposed the measure.   Furthermore, Malta also made history in the area of transgender equality by becoming the first nation in Europe to protect transgender people in a constitution.  Malta Today reported:

“Malta has become the first European state to have gender identity in its constitution following the proposed amendment that was approved yesterday evening in parliament.”

Yet, according to data released recently by the Maltese Catholic bishops, the Catholic community in this country responded in a very traditional way to the survey about marriage and family issues in anticipation of the upcoming world synod on these topics.  According to The National Catholic Reporter here are some of the results:

  • Nearly 50 percent of Maltese accept and live by the church’s teaching on birth control, and nearly 20 percent said they ignored the church’s teaching on birth control.
  • 62.5 percent agreed that marriage is the indissoluble union between a man and a woman that has children as a goal; 3.8 percent disagreed with this statement and 5.8 percent was unsure; 25.4 percent didn’t answer.
  • 43 percent said not allowing divorced and remarried couples to receive the sacraments was a cause of pain, and 14.7 percent said they have felt this pain; 17.2 percent said divorced or remarried couples should be allowed to receive Communion.

The Maltese survey statistics are one of the few sets of data that bishops around the globe have released that show that Catholics in the pews seem to support church teaching.  Almost every other set showed great dissatisfaction by the laity in the areas of teaching about marriage and family.  (For more information about other survey results, click on the “Synod 2014″ link under the “Categories” heading in the column at the right of this page.)

So what can count for this difference between political reality in this nation which is 98% Catholic and the responses given to the survey by Catholics?  Perhaps the bishops did not get a random sample of Catholics responding to their questionnaire.  Perhaps people responded in a “false positive” sort of way because they did not want to appear to be dissenting from church teaching.  Perhaps people are happy for their government to be more progressive about marriage and sexuality, but they do not want their church to be so.

So, while the news report noted that the Maltese bishops were “surprised but reassured by the findings of the survey,” perhaps they need to do some serious soul-searching.  One other possibility for the discrepancy highlights a possible serious pastoral problem.  Perhaps many of the nation’s Catholics are disaffected or alienated from the church, and did not receive the survey.   

This possibility raises an important concern for bishops not only in Malta, but worldwide. As they gather for the synod, they need to take into account not only the opinions of Catholics in the pews, but also those who have left the pews because they found church teachings on marriage and family life not consistent with what their consciences were telling them.

Malta had a powerful glimmer of hope in this regard this past week. Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna, who was the prominent spokesperson for the hierarchy’s opposition to the civil unions bill, took a more reconciliatory step by meeting with members of Drachma, the Catholic LGBT group in Malta.

Pink News reported that Scicluna took part in an event for the International Day Against Homophobia, which was celebrated world-wide on May 17th.   The bishop, who during the civil unions debate had declared such recognition as a “grave moral act” was not the only Maltese Catholic leader who showed up for the event.  Pink News reported:

“Bishop Scicluna along with a number of other priests were joined by dignitaries from Maltese political parties in support of Drachma and their work with LGBT people.”

Such a gesture of reconciliation with the LGBT community is very much in line with what Jesuit Father James Martin called for in a recent article in America magazine.   More gestures of outreach and reconciliation are needed in our church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


What’s So Doctrinal About Gender Normative Clothing?

May 20, 2014

Jessica Urbina, left, with a friend for senior portraits

A San Francisco high school had removed a student’s yearbook photo because the young woman wore a tuxedo for her senior photos. Though the high school is now apologizing and reversing its decision, the punitive action raises the question of how strongly Catholic authorities will enforce gender norms that are no longer relevant.  This incident also shows the reconciliatory power of dialgoue.

Jessica Urbina is graduating from Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep this year and, like many seniors, had formal photos done for the yearbook. Last week, administrators announced they would not allow Urbina’s photo to be published because she did not wear a dress, as mandated by the archdiocese.

In response, students have worn bowties to class as a protest, and many have posted to social media outlets using the hashtag #JessicasTux with supportive messages and photos of themselves wearing ties. Call to Action, a Catholic justice organization, encouraged Catholics to join the students’ protests and submit their own pictures on Twitter.

Yesterday, news broke that Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep will in fact be including Urbina’s picture and is apologizing for its initial decision to exclude her. In a public letter, President John Scudder, Jr. and Principal Gary Cannon explained this recent development as the result of conversations with the Urbina family. They wrote:

 “After that meeting, it was clear that the school had not adequately communicated to Jessica or her parents the decision made several months ago regarding senior portraits. As in past school years, any senior who sat for senior portraits but did not conform to the dress code did not have a portrait included in the portrait pages of the yearbook. Given the nature of this specific case, however, we believe that decision, while conforming with our policy, was wrong. Moreover, the lack of communication with the family led to even greater anguish as it proved unexpected to the student and family as it came at the very end of the school year.”

The administrators also announced the school’s policy change about senior portraits, stating:

“We agree with our students who showed solidarity with their classmate that the current policy regarding senior portraits is not adequate to meet the needs of our families or our mission. We will involve our students, families, and Board in crafting the updated policy…

“While we cannot undo the impact of this decision, the lack of adequate communication, nor the impact of the last few days, we can move forward in a manner that we believe represents the best of our school community.”

Moving forward will mean including Urbina’s photo in her tuxedo in venues where other senior portraits are used. The school also offered to reprint the yearbooks, but the Urbina family suggested alternatives for including Jessica’s photo, so as not to delay students from receiving the yearbooks now. Most striking is the conciliatory and reflective conclusion to the letter:

“While we believe SHC to be a safe and supportive environment for all, this situation has reminded us that we still have much growth to achieve. While many gay and lesbian alumni and students have commented on the inclusive, supportive aspect of our school community, others have remarked on some prejudice that still exists. As a school, we must better learn how to support our students who are navigating issues of gender identity.

“Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn. While we would have preferred to have this learning be less public than the current situation, especially for the impact it has on individuals and families, we are a community open to sharing our struggles and joys with the wider world so that we can all learn from each other, whether from successes or failures. More than 300 years ago, St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of our founders, said that our students will learn far more from us by our actions than by the words we speak. This is one of those moments…

“In our final words to our student, Jessica, and all our other LGBT students, past, present and future, we repeat the final words of the [US] Bishops [in their pastoral letter, Always Our Children]. ‘In you God’s love is revealed. You are always our children.’ “

While this story had a positive ending, we still need to address the question of why this incident, and the harm done to Jessica, occurred at all. The Archdiocese of San Francisco mandating that women wear dresses for senior photos is not based in Church teaching, nor does it emerge from wise pastoral practice. It is silly and outdated, and nothing more than a naked attempt by the hierarchy to suppress contemporary understandings of gender.

Let’s hope that Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep’s example, both in how damaging their mistake was and in their willingness to learn through the process of dialogue,will inform other Church institutions such that they will avoid future incidents.

-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


New Ways Ministry Promoting Transgender Education and Justice in Church and State

May 3, 2014
Participants listen to Hilary Howes at a fall 2013 transgender workshop sponsored by New Ways Ministry.  Another workshop is being held on May 17th.

Participants listen to Hilary Howes at a fall 2013 transgender workshop sponsored by New Ways Ministry. Another workshop is being held on May 17th.

As marriage equality, and lesbian/gay equality broadly speaking, become widespread, LGBT advocacy has begun focusing more on the “T” of the common acronym.  New Ways Ministry and other Catholic institutions have begun to help church members understand this minority.

Trans-forming Love

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 84% of Catholics agree that lesbian/gay legal protections should be expanded to the transgender community as well, and 93% of Catholics believe in full equality for transgender people.

In seeking to promote education and justice for transgender people within the Church, as well as society, New Ways Ministry will be hosting its second day-long conference on transgender issues from a Catholic perspective. The workshop, titled “Trans-forming Love,” will take place May 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Through presentations, discussions, and prayer, the workshop will address issues such as gender identity development, legal considerations, spirituality, and the personal perspective of transgender individuals.

Featured speakers include clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Hendricks, PhD, and Hilary Howes, a Catholic transgender woman involved with LGBT advocacy. Hendricks is president of the American Psychological Association’s Division 44 (for the study of sexual and gender minorities), the Society for the Psychological Study of LGBT Issues, and a partner at the Washington Psychological Center. Howes is the author of an article “To Be or Not to Be: A Catholic Transexual Speaks,” which described her conversion to Catholicism and her gender transition. She is a member of the Pacific School of Religion’s Transgender Roundtable.

For more information, and to preregister, please click here. In March, two Catholic parishes, All Saints and St. Lucy’s, both  in Syracuse, also hosted talks on transgender issues.

Maryland Non-Discrimination Law

In conjunction with its educational efforts within the Catholic community, New Ways Ministry has also been active advocating for transgender legal rights in Maryland. In late March, the state’s legislature passed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014 which established protections related to employment, housing, and public accommodations based on gender identity. It is expected that Governor Martin O’Malley, a Catholic, will sign the bill into law this spring.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director, and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder, of New Ways Ministry both testified before the Maryland Senate alongside other prominent Catholics in support of the bill.  You can read their testimonies and a full report here.

Though 71% of Maryland citizens supported the law, a Republican state delegate will attempt to overturn the law through a referendum once O’Malley signs it. In response, the Maryland Coalition for Transgender Equality has launched the “Stand for Fairness” educational campaign, according to The Advocate. It is unlikely the law will face enough opposition to be put up for referendum.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


CAMPUS CHRONICLES: USD Drag Show Draws Fire, But Is Really a Moment for Encounter

April 16, 2014

University of San Diego students at the drag show.

The decision by the University of San Diego (USD), a Catholic school, to host a drag show was controversial, catching even the Vatican’s eye. However, one professor there says there is much more to this drag show than critics understand and it should be a moment for learning.

“Supreme Drag Superstar III” was the third annual drag show at USD, hosted by the campus’ LGBT group called PRIDE and promoted as a “celebration of gender expression.” According to U-T San Diego, the show features “a brief academic talk on the history cross-dressing and information booths,” in addition to the costumed musical performances.

Two local attorneys, Charles LiMandri and Thomas McKenna, protested the drag show by writing to the Diocese of San Diego and the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican. The Diocese refused to comment and the Congregation turned down their complaint as it “lacks standing” for action against the University.

For its part, the University of San Diego has defended the show. Tim O’Malley, a spokesperson, said nothing about it violates Catholic teaching and stated further:

“We do not mean to demean our critics. Gender expression and identity, for some people, is not an area to be explored. For some people, that simply is wrong…However, the law of the church is silent on cross dressing. There no evidence that cross dressing is inherently homosexual.”

Emily Reimer-Barry, a theology and religious studies professor at USD, wrote about drag shows and transgender people in a post on the blog Catholic Moral Theology. She explains that each semester she invites a trans person to speak to undergraduate courses in sexual ethics in an effort to complicate and humanize what students preconceptions about the transgender community. While the post includes helpful definitions and suggestions, she also makes clear the importance of events like USD’s drag show, relating it to a transgender friend of hers, Jackie:

“Each time I hear Jackie’s personal story, I realize that Catholic parishes and Catholic institutions (like hospitals and universities) have a long way to go before all transgendered people will feel welcomed and included. I’m proud that at the University of San Diego we are trying to raise awareness of these issues in events like last night’s PRIDE’s Celebration of Gender Expression Supreme Drag Superstar. The drag show is fun as well as educational, and it helps students on my campus think more concretely and creatively about sexuality, gender, inclusion, and justice…

“For those who find such an event to be inconsistent with the Catholic identity of the university, I would suggest that to be church in our world today means engaging with the full reality of human experiences. It is a problem that so few people are aware of the terminology and basic facts about diverse expressions of gender identity.”

Furthermore, Reimer-Barry believes the drag show allows for self-reflection on how each person performs a gender identity and how we relate to our self in terms of sexuality and gender. This reflection helps with how we view the experiences of others, and “learn more about the diversity of God’s creation.” To conclude, she appeals to Pope Francis’ witness, writing:

“Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium: ‘Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God’ (no. 272). The pope reminds us that ‘A Church which goes forth is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others.’ (no. 46). What powerful words in this context– What would it mean to have the doors of the church open to the transgender community? What would it mean to walk with students who are questioning their gender identity?…if the drag show helps GLBTQ students and their allies at my school to know that they are loved, supported, and included in this community, then we are doing something good and something special.

“I believe we need a much deeper theo-ethical engagement on these issues. The natural law tradition of Catholic theology invites us to reflect on human experience in order to draw norms about what promotes human flourishing; yet theologians sometimes collapse or confuse sex and gender, or we fail to include the life experiences of GLBTQ persons in our methodologies…We may think we have a long way to go, but a framework of listening and learning from the experiences of others will help us achieve much. This theology of accompaniment, like the drag show, can be a fun learning experience. And we can realize together that in the eyes of God each one of us is fabulous.”

Drag shows have previously caused controversies at Catholic schools and parishes, including in San Francisco and in New York. Thankfully, the University has defended the student-led drag show to promote awareness of the complexities surrounding gender and sexuality. What if other Catholic institutions, often so quick to shut down such initiatives, thought like Reimer-Barry and saw drag shows as an opportunity to see God in new ways and offer support to LGBT people?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Nun Advocating for Transgender Justice Profiled During Catholic Sisters Week

March 12, 2014

 

Sr. Monica, in middle

National Catholic Sisters Week, currently underway in the US, seeks to honor and celebrate the many women religious who have positively contributed to our world and our Church. For decades, Catholic sisters included justice for gay and lesbian people in these efforts to create change, and they have been ardent advocates for the full equality of every person. Now, Nathan Schneider’s article published by Al Jazeera America reveals the crucial role Catholic sisters play in advancing justice for transgender people in the Church.

Sr. Monica, a pseudonym used in the article due a request by her congregation for anonymity, began ministering among the transgender community in the late 1990s. Her smaller congregation is noted for ministering on society’s margins, and Monica is trained as a spiritual director and liturgist. She began ministering to the lesbian/gay community at first, before recognizing a “call within a call” to accompany the transgender community. The article notes of Sr. Monica’s ministry now:

“Monica has welcomed trans people into her home for retreats, and helped them to pray, and taken them out to dinner dressed, for the first time in public, according to the gender they know themselves to be. She often stays in touch with them for years on end. ‘Her basic message,’ [psychologist Maureen] Osborne says, ‘is to let them know that they are loved by God and that they are meant to embody exactly who they are.’

“Monica has healed souls and saved lives. Yet the leadership of the Catholic Church she serves acts as if her ministry doesn’t exist.”

Currently, there is no official teaching from the Vatican on gender identity aside from an ad hoc document suggesting guidelines on gender transitions,  and a few condemnatory remarks from Pope Benedict XVI in public speeches. Neither can be considered the result of substantive theological reflection or “official” in any way.

In 2010, Sr. Monica convened  a meeting of seven Catholic priests, a deacon, and four transgender Catholics for an afternoon of sharing and reflection. Schneider describes the meeting, the first of its kind, in the following way:

“Over the course of an hour, two trans men and two trans women told their life stories in brief, and the priests had to listen. They talked about the process of discovering that their gender didn’t fit their body — some in childhood, others later in life. They talked about struggles with priests and longings to be reconciled with their faith…

“During the second hour, there was an open discussion. The priests didn’t ask questions so much as affirm, and express sympathy. ‘I commend you for the integrity that you have’ — that kind of thing.

“As the second hour ended, some of the priests began to slip out for other appointments. One of them began to speak, paused, and then said, ‘Your ministry is to us today, and your spirituality is very, very apparent. You’ve helped me personally a great deal.’

“Another pause: ‘Because I’m a queer man.’ After what he’d heard, somehow, his own secret didn’t seem so scary. ‘I’ve come out to a number of people — but not yet to my brothers here.’ “

Sr. Monica’s ministry was sustained for a long time by her religious community, even when bishops were sharply critical of her work. These critics have kept her from being more public about transgender ministry, and now illness has forced her into an early retirement. Sr. Monica has withdrawn from leading retreats and counseling more than 200 transgender people, instead spending time in prayer and silence with the hope of ‘melting into God.’

Hilary Howes

Hilary Howes

At the same time, transgender topics are increasingly addressed by Catholics through writings and workshops sponsored by New Ways Ministry, of which Schneider writes:

“The first-ever Catholic trans conference in the United States took place one Saturday last November at a suburban convent in Towson, Md. About 35 people attended, mostly older women, sitting together in a room with a crucifix on one wall facing another wall of stained glass. The morning’s presentation was by a psychiatrist who works with gender-variant patients at Children’s Hospital. In the afternoon there was a talk by Hilary Howes, a middle-aged businesswoman who converted to Catholicism after her transition at age 40, almost two decades ago…

“Howes said during the conference in Towson, ‘The idea that God is beyond gender is quite clearly there…It’s a beautiful spiritual journey, but if you don’t have to go through it, please don’t.’…

“The day was full of epiphanies…Some who were already familiar with transgender terms and categories were trying to wrap their heads around the genderqueer label that increasingly resonates with young people  — not one gender or the other so much as somewhere in between, or both, or neither.”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, who has ministered to lesbian/gay people for decades, is quoted in the article as saying, “The trans issue is in the Catholic community now where the lesbian and gay issue was in the late ’70s.” Schneider highlights these two sisters as he concludes the article, writing:

“For decades Grammick [sic] has spoken boldly on behalf of the queer community and has been censured mightily for it; where Monica agonizes about whether or not to speak, Grammick simply does so and then deals with whatever blowback comes from the hierarchy. Where Grammick has advocated, Monica has internalized.

“And this eats at her. ‘I am silent while trans people are being killed,’ she says, clenching her shoulders as if holding an invisible weight. ‘They’re being murdered and committing suicide, and I’m silent!’ When she’s worked up like this Monica can flash a gaze that makes her eyes seem steely and certain, until they fill with tears. And then a saying from St. Catherine of Siena comes to mind, turning her anger to a duller sadness. She recites it: ‘Preach the truth as if you had a million voices — it is silence that kills the world.’ “

IMG_0701In whatever way sisters have ministered, the religious women’s persistent accompaniment and advocacy for LGBT justice is a central reason to celebrate them during Catholic Sisters Week. At the same time, the voices of LGBT Catholics, their family, friends, and allies are all needed to carry on Sr. Monica and the sisters’ desire for transgender inclusion.

You can read the full article at Al Jazeera America by clicking here, and read more coverage of trans Catholic issues by this blog by clicking here. New Ways Ministry will also be offering another transgender workshop on Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Washington, DC. For more information on that, please call (301) 277-5674 or email info@newwaysministry.org.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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