Transgender topics are increasingly being discussed in Catholic circles, including in more traditional members of the church. In this post, Bondings 2.0 offers a survey of recent news with accompanying links for further reading.
Two incidents highlight how lay people are holding clergy accountable for transphobic remarks–a sad yet necessary task when ignorance and prejudice are too readily displayed by those in leadership.
Earlier this summer, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone claimed it is “the clear biological fact” is that people are born male or female. This remark was deemed “misguided and harmful” by Tony Garascia, a licensed therapist and the new president of Fortunate Families. In an op-ed for The Advocate, Garascia criticized the archbishop for failing to understand gender dysphoria:
“What Cordileone needs to understand is that people do not wake up one day and decide to change their gender, and that being transgender is deeply rooted in who they are from an early age. There is simply a disconnect between the inner experience of the individual concerning how they identify as female or male, and their biology. . .
“One wonders if Cordileone has in fact ever met with transgender people, listened to their stories, their pain, and their attempts to live authentically and integrate who they really are into how they function in the society. If he took the time to meet with trans people and consult mainstream researchers and clinicians, he would find that transgender people look to their faith and their churches for acceptance, often feel alienated from their places of worship, face great psychological distress, and are at a greater risk than others for suicide due to rejection.”
Drawing from his own professional experience and the Family Acceptance Project, Garascia highlighted the harm that negative religious attitudes from both clergy and parents can inflict upon trans* youth. These attitudes lead to real harm, and the author suggested Cordileone should also consult experts along with trans* people and their families:
“If he would only listen, he would understand that this is not about ‘gender politics’ but about treating others with dignity and respect.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a blogger for Patheos, also attacked trans* people, particularly Caitlyn Jenner, in a blog post linking them to demons. His ill-informed commentary was thankfully rebutted by Melinda Selmys, who herself experiences gender dysphoria though does not identify as transgender. She wrote on her own blog at Patheos:
“Although he doesn’t quite come out and say it directly, the strong implication is that transgender people remake themselves in the image and likeness of a demon. . .
“Every single trans person who reads this is going to hear ‘your identity is demonic.’ They are going to see themselves compared to a Satanic statue, and they are going to receive the message loud and clear that this Satanic symbolism is somehow representative of them. Whether it is Fr. Longenecker’s intention or not, what this actually communicates is a demonization of trans people and a rejection of their humanity.
“Such demonization, on the basis of symbolism, is not scriptural. It represents a confusion between symbols and persons, and it treats Caitlyn Jenner – and by extension her trans brothers and sisters – as nothing more than an icon of evil. It’s scandalously uncharitable, and it’s not actually based on any sound consideration of what causes gender dysphoria, or of why people identify as trans.”
Selmys, whose writings are generally more conservative, has been writing more frequently about gender diverse identities lately. Her blog, Catholic Authenticity, recently featured an interview worth reading with a Catholic trans woman, Aoife Assumpta Hart. Interestingly, though Hart disagrees with the positions of many LGBT advocates about sexuality and gender, she decided to transition and credits it with saving her life and her faith:
“Transition saved my life; it was the only treatment that, after decades of inescapable self-horror, finally allowed me to feel as if I inhabited a body in which I could belong.
“My life pre-transition was like a burning labyrinth with no centre and no exit. Transition was like like falling in love for the first time: falling in love with myself. Rage dissipated, unbearable uncertainties and colossal self-hate dissipated. In its place came clarity, patience, awareness, compassion. My heart opened: I asked myself to forgive myself. And I learned how to love all over again. This was a necessary step in my path to returning to the Church. When I existed as a fraught incongruency, how could I love myself? And how can one love God but not love one’s very own self? . . .
“We are Catholics as well – sinners, strugglers, survivors. I appraised my life situation after my suicide attempt and knew that transition would enable me to attain a peace I had never known. And in this peace I found prayer … and in prayer I knew love. Thank God.”
Even more conservative is the defense of transgender identities recently posted at the blog of the right-wing Witherspoon Institute. The author’s argument will seem quite deficient to most trans* advocates, but it is worth noting because it is a defense posted by an institution established with a goal to oppose marriage equality. Jennifer Gruenke concluded:
“I am not arguing that introspective reports of sex are infallible. But according to some studies, a majority of people who undergo sex reassignment surgery are happy with the decision. There is a real danger of misdiagnosing someone as transgender and doing surgery that does them harm, and conservatives have been correct to raise this concern in the face of those who are prepared to affirm every request. In giving the impression that this is a decisive reason against every desired sex-reassignment surgery, though, some conservatives have overstepped. Trying to change a legitimate self-perception of gender also does harm.”
What are takeaways from these developments? I think there are at least two.
First, Catholics across the church’s belief spectrum are freely thinking about gender identity matters in the absence of any defined teaching. Most, thought not all, are informing themselves through both the church’s tradition and the lived realities of gender diverse persons and their families. Where too often discussions around homosexuality become bogged down, gender identity is freely debated and even more traditionally-inclined Catholics feel free to challenge church officials whose comments do harm. In short, good theology and good pastoral practice can be nourished as they did around sexuality in the years following Vatican II.
Second, Pope Francis’ legacy will likely be defined by how willing lay people and clergy are to take up his call for a merciful and inclusive church in their local communities. When it comes to trans* people, it seems more and more Catholics of all kinds are waking up to the need for improved pastoral outreach given the suffering gender diverse communities experience–like the 20 trans* women murdered in the United States already this year. These conservative efforts are, in my opinion, incomplete and could be damaging in some cases, but they are notable for their mere existence. This does not mean they will suffice, but they are providing space for collaboration and common life-saving and faith-growing efforts to take shape.
We must continue to build upon this development, including more ministries like that of “Sr. Monica” whose work with transgender Catholics was recently highlighted by Religion News Service. She was profiled for Catholic Sisters Week last year which you can read about here. The LGBT Religious Archives Network reported on trans* Catholic advocate Hilary Howes’ comments on this sister’s ministry:
“I have been inspired by her dedication and follow-through in making things happen while remaining almost invisible herself.”
None of this means that attaining full inclusion and justice for trans* communities in the church and in the world will be quick or easy work, but there are hopeful signs from many quarters including one top English official’s claim that the church should support those who decided to transition. These forward steps should not be too easily forgotten even when a bishop reveals his ignorance or a priest lashes out from prejudice. Instead, turn to leaders like Deacon Ray Dever who has a transgender daughter and wrote earlier this week about the need to welcome all families into the church’s life.
For those attending the World Meeting of Families, or anyone who wants to come to Philadelphia at the end of September, consider attending New Ways Ministry’s half-day workshop on gender diverse families entitled TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholics Perspectives, on Saturday, September 26, 2015, 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. For more information, click here.
For more updates on trans Catholic issues, check out our “Transgender” category in the column to the right.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry