Jesuit Priest Speaks Out for Canadian Transgender Equality Bill

A Jesuit priest in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as an important voice in support of a national bill for transgender equality.

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, Toronto, has spoken out in favor of bill C-16 which would include gender identity and expressions as protected categories in Canada’s  Human Rights Act.  According to an article in America magazine, Fr. Mongeau stated:

“To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians.”

Mongeau has worked with Our Lady of Lourdes parish, situated in the gay neighborhood of Toronto.  The parish hosts a program called “All Inclusive Ministries,” which hosts a weekly Mass for the LGBT community, among other programs.

The Jesuit priest acknowledges that biological sex and gender may be more complex phenomena than simple physical characteristics.  He follows his brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, in describing church outreach to transgender people, saying:

“We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”

“[Mongeau] underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of ‘gender theory,’ he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: ‘He who was a she, but is a he,’ the pope said.”

The question about pronoun usage reveals a more important question about our understanding of transgender people as human beings, Mongeau noted:

“The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people. Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”

In the America article, the need for equal civil protections for transgender people was expressed by Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman from Toronto:

“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you’re trans, you don’t have family, they kick you out.

‘It is very difficult,’ she says, even ‘comparable to biblical times,’ when lepers were shunned by the community. ‘You’re distanced; you’re pulled from your family; you’re cast out of the community. So you don’t see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don’t have it anymore.’ “

Janice Towndrow

And she noted how important it is for Christian churches to support transgender people and Bill c-16:

“Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, ‘I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”

The bill passed Canada’s House of Commons in December, by a vote of 248-40, and is now being sent to the Senate.

While opponents of the bill continue to make their voices heard, we can thank God for courageous Catholic leaders like Fr. Mongeau and for communities like Our Lady of Lourdes parish for showing their public support for transgender equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 31, 2017

 

Gay Alum Thanks Catholic School for Being “A Haven” for Him

National Catholic Schools Week begins today in the United States, a celebration of the church’s educational programs. In past years during this week, I have written about the need for Catholic schools to increase their supports of LGBTQ youth. You can read those commentaries here, here, and here. But this year, I want to highlight an Australian writer’s story about the good an inclusive Catholic school can do for LGBTQ students.

13-1420csw_logo_circle_cmykIn The Sydney Morning Herald, Joel Meares wrote about a new movement in Australia, Equal Voices, in which Christians are apologizing for the harm done by churches to LGBT people.of his gratitude for the Catholic school he attended, a place he called “a haven.” He elaborated on this topic by describing his childhood experiences with the people of faith:

“And yet the apology comes as no surprise to me. The Christians in my life – those in the pews who don’t make, nor seek, headlines – have been some of the most supportive people I’ve known. Of course they want to say sorry: it’s the Christian thing to do. . .As some of them get ready to say sorry this March, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you.”

Meares shared about his time at the Catholic school, a place he landed because his parents did not want to send their children to public schools but could not afford more elite private schools. While the family was not religious, Meares said, “from Monday to Friday I was an evangelistic little Tracy Flick, biro in hand and halo on head.” He continued:

“I was also very gay. I didn’t realise this at the time – I was quite late to my own coming-out party – but I already ticked all of the cliche boxes. . .If my teachers had eyes and ears, they knew I was different. And these same teachers – not members of the clergy, but many of them laypeople of deep faith – were profoundly nurturing of that difference. . .And I was always protected.”

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Joel Maeres

No longer a practicing Catholic, except for “when I have to get up for the Eucharist at a wedding,” Meares remains grateful for the way he was educated by the church. He wrote:

“But I’ve always liked core Christian values, particularly the simple ‘golden rule’ I was taught back in [kindergarten]: ‘Treat others the way you like to be treated.’

“I know it’s not everyone’s story – and I know others whose time at religious schools was far less rosy – but I was able to grow up different and safe and proud because the people around me also subscribed to that idea.

“I don’t see much of that sentiment when I scan the statements of church leadership when it comes to LGBTQI issues today. But the Equal Voices apology is a reminder of the kinds of Christians who helped shape me growing up. These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.”

These last words mirror a statement made recently by the head of Scotland’s Catholic school system, who said the church’s educational programs were to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.” Sadly, for too many LGBTQ students, faith-affiliated schools are places where they experience the Gospels being preached more than practiced. Either through direct harm or not providing adequate supports, Catholic schools have too often failed to be safe places.

This year’s theme for National Catholic Schools Week is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” Joel Meares’ positive story gives educators a source of inspiration for what can be achieved when Catholic education is done well and inclusively, inviting students to faith, educating them well, and instilling in them Christian values.

Ultimately, the goal should be for every LGBT student who passes through the Catholic education system to be able to offer a story of gratitude similar to Joel Meares’ experiences.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2017

Catholic Schools in Scotland to Have LGBT Safe Spaces

To better support LGBT students, every secondary Catholic school in Scotland will soon have a safe space available, reported The Herald.

logoBarbara Coupar, who directors the Scottish Catholic Education Service, announced the move after a legislator complained that some existing measures were deficient. The Herald explained:

“[Coupar] added many teachers did not feel equipped to become counsellors for pupils regardless of the problem, so schools were making sure teachers and students know where the pupils can go for help inside and outside the school.

“She said: ‘That’s why we’re going to down this avenue of ensuring that within all of our Catholic secondary schools that they would be able to go to someone, a trusted adult, a safe space within the school, where there would be someone who would have had that opportunity to be trained, for want of a better word, in order to be able to meet the needs of the young people in their care.'”

These remarks come after criticism by Christina McKelvie, a legislator who convenes the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of Scotland’s Parliament. Concerned by input from Catholic school students that some LGBT peers had died by suicide, McKelvie said:

“‘A lot of young people have told me some horrendous stories about how PSE [personal and social education classes] is used, especially going down a moralistic route as well, where a lot of young people feel really backed into a corner where they thought their thoughts and feelings were not being respected.’

“She said she had heard teachers are ‘not equipped’ to deal with LGBTI issues or misogyny ‘because either it’s dealt with as a moralistic issue or it’s something that they don’t believe in’.”

McKelvie acknowledged that Catholic education in Scotland had instances of both “brilliant” and “disturbing” support for LGBT youth. She explained that the government wants to make sure students feel protected:

“‘What we are looking for is if there’s a belief issue there, what we want is for teachers to be able to handle that, and if they can’t, for whatever reason, they’re equipped to signpost those kids to the right places for those kids to get that support. . .to address that without making young people feel as if they are committing a sin.'”

Coupar’s announcement comes several months after the Service promised trainings for teachers to become competent on matters of gender and sexuality. And she affirmed the Scottish church’s commitment to education that is inclusive and support for all students, saying the aim was to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.”

With National Catholic Schools Week in the United States beginning this Sunday, the creation of an LGBT safe space and trained educator in every Catholic school would be an attainable and highly effective initiative. Every Catholic school should make a commitment in 2017 similar to the one made by Scottish Catholics.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017

Catholic Scouts in Ireland Working on Policy to Welcome Transgender Children

A Catholic scouting organization in Ireland is developing a policy about transgender girls that looks like it will be accepting them.

cgi20logo20hi20resWhile the Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland (CGI) does not currently accept openly transgender children, the group’s leader told the Irish Independent that they are working to develop a policy:

“Linda Peters, chief executive officer of the Irish Girl Guides, said in yesterday’s Irish Independent that ‘our policy is that anyone who lives their life as a female is welcome to join our organisation’.

“However, when asked if she would presently accept a boy identifying himself as a girl, she said: ‘I don’t know. It’s a hypothetical question, so I’m not going to answer it or comment further. We’ll be in a better position to go into more detail when we finalise our guidelines on this topic.’ “

Peters’ words that they would like to welcome “anyone who lives their life as a female” seem to indicate that their new policy will be welcoming.

CGI spokesperson Michelle Finnerty explained that the group would not currently accept a transgender girl but that the organization feels this is “in the best interests of everyone, and especially for that child, until a policy is developed.” CGI, she said, did not want to make trans children’s’ lives “any more difficult.”

The policy in development, which Finnerty said can be expected “very soon,” was sparked by a CGI volunteer who is interested in transgender issues.Finnerty explained:

” ‘One of our members has a special interest in this area and had gathered a lot of useful information on this topic while she was over there [at a recent round-table discussion in Sweden on gender and membership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts].’

” ‘Putting together a policy on this is going to take a long time, because it will need a lot of consultation. We have to listen to the views of our youth members and parents’ opinions, along with expert advice, too.’ “

The organization is also consulting a CGI volunteer who has a transgender child who is not a member of the group.

Reading this news story, I thought back to a similar response offered last year by a Catholic school in Rhode Island. Administrators at Mount Saint Charles Academy had implemented a ban on transgender students, the reasoning for which is that the school did not provide sufficient resources to support trans youth. Administrators retracted the policy quickly after alumni organized, and the school instead undertook made efforts to expand its supports for LGBT students while concurrently welcoming all applicants.

Interestingly, Alan Matthews, a scouting leader for boys in Dundalk, Ireland, offered some wisdom to the Independent on how he would react to a trans boy seeking membership:

” ‘I don’t see why we wouldn’t let them join. If they want to identify themselves as a boy, fair enough. I suppose it’s their human right and we’re not going to stand against them. I’m sure six- and seven-year-olds wouldn’t notice the difference.'”

Societies tend to discount the agency of children, and in doing so, we too frequently miss the lessons they offer the rest of us. But I think Matthews is correct that answers to questions about gender and Catholic organizations may be found in the wisdom of young children, to which Jesus himself exhorted us to listen. If children are seeing each other as another person first, rather than as a gender, then we should make that our starting point for any policy: always welcome the persons before you, and then figure out how to accompany them.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017

Sr. Jeannine Spreads Message of LGBT Equality in Poland

While most people in the United States were enjoying turkey with all the trimmings last Thanksgiving Day, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, was feasting instead on pierogi (dumplings), golabki (stuffed cabbage leaves), kapusta (sauerkraut), and babka (bread). Far from flouting custom, she was honoring tradition and her ancestral roots by spending Thanksgiving Day in Poland.

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In Poland, Sr. Jeannine holds a sign which reads ” I support LGBT people because we are all children of God.”

She was invited for a week-long speaking tour about Catholic LGBT issues, sponsored by the country’s leading LGBT equality organization, “Campaign Against Homophobia,” and its main Christian groups, “Faith and Rainbow” and “Tolerado.” She gave three public presentations, 14 interviews with radio, TV, or print journalists, a retreat for LGBT Christians, and spoke personally with countless individual Poles, including the Secretary General of Poland’s organization for nuns’ communities.

Traveling to Poland’s three leading cities–Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk–Sister Jeannine spread the message that she has been spreading for over 45 years: God has unconditional love for LGBT people and it is the church’s job to make that love real by working for justice and equality.

In the homeland of Pope John Paul II, journalists naturally questioned Gramick about her opinions on both the former pope and his current successor. Initially, she said, she had great enthusiasm for John Paul when he was elected. She felt great pride because of her own Polish heritage, but that quickly dissipated. While he called for justice in the secular arena, he was adamantly opposed to any discussion of injustice within the church’s walls. Moreover, she disagreed with John Paul’s views about sexuality, expressed in his talks on the “Theology of the Body,” stating that his notions about gender complementarity made no sense at all to women.

Concerning Pope Francis, she is more optimistic.  In an interview with Queer.pl, she said,

“I think his emphasis is in the right place. He is emphasizing the heart, not the head. He speaks often about dialogue and getting to know LGBT people, even though he maintains that he will not change church teaching (on sexual ethics). I believe that it is most important to first talk with people and thus open people’s hearts. Change (in sexual ethics) will come after there is a change of heart.”

z21076103ihsiostra-jeannine-gramick-fot-agata-kubis
After one of her speaking appearances in Poland, Sr. Jeannine greets members of the audience.

In an interview with Kobieta.wp.pl, Sister Jeannine described what motivated her to become involved in this ministry. She began her work in 1971 when she met a young gay man who had left the Catholic Church. After many discussions with him and his friends, she realized that Catholics needed to be educated about LGBT lives. She explained:

“I wanted to give a voice to those in the Church who could not speak for themselves. I believe LGBT people, just as any of the faithful, should have their rightful place in this institution…

“I’ve always been interested in those who are overlooked by society. If you read the Bible, you know that Jesus came to defend the outcasts. Another issue for me is conscience. Sometimes your conscience guides you to differ with the church hierarchy…the only thing that should concern us is love and helping others.”

When asked by Queer.pl about her impressions of LGBT issues in Poland, Sister Jeannine responded:

“I’m very surprised, in a positive sense, about what I’ve seen and experienced in Poland. There is more talk about LGBT people than I had anticipated. I’ve seen great acceptance among Catholics, even among priests. They are beginning to understand that this is an important issue of human rights.”

z21076110ihsiostra-jeannine-gramick-fot-agata-kubis
During one of her talks, Sr. Jeannine holds up New Ways Ministry’s list of LGBT-friendly parishes in the newsletter “Bondings.”

She noted that Catholic lay people in the U.S. and many other nations are much more supportive of LGBT people than the Catholic hierarchy. She felt that the “hierarchy of the Church is responsible for the administration of the community, but they should also feel a responsibility to listen to the people.”

The Campaign Against Homophobia and Faith and Rainbow, two organizations that sponsored Sr. Jeannine’s speaking tour in Poland, launched a nationwide reconciliation campaign last September.  “Let’s Exchange a Sign of Peace” posted billboards all over Poland depicting a handshake in which one hand wore a rosary around the wrist and the other wore a rainbow bracelet. While Polish bishops decried the efforts, the Polish citizenry responded quite positively. Many prominent Catholics and several Catholic publications supported the effort.

Sister Jeannine’s lecture series built on so much of the enormous work already done by these organizations and their supporters—efforts that Sister Jeannine feels will bring about many blessings. When asked about the situation in the U.S. in the future, she responded that the mission may become more difficult to accomplish in the new presidential administration, but like her friends in Poland, she is ready to keep on working. To Weekend.gazeta.pl, she said:

“Good work will go forward because the hearts and minds of people who support the LGBT community have been changed. These hearts and minds were opened and are no longer shut. We will not step back. It will be much harder. But we can handle it. We have to.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 17, 2017

 

 

Australian Catholics Help Start Ecumenical LGBTI Group

Despite Australia’s ongoing debate over marriage equality, there have been several positive developments in Catholic LGBT issues recently in the land “down under.” Today’s post highlights one of those major developments.

ev-logo-1-e1483341716491Australian Christians have founded the interdenominational group Equal Voices to promote reconciliation between LGBTI communities and churches, reported Buzzfeed. The first meeting will occur at the end of this month, with a more formal launch in April.

Equal Voices seeks to be a networking and resource group based on values such as boldly proclaiming Christ’s love for all people, honoring same-gender relationships, and promoting listening and learning.

What is interesting about Equal Voices, according to spokesperson Natalie Cooper, is that those Christians involved are from “fairly conservative church backgrounds” that include Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and Catholics. Lay people hope to end the false idea that one can either be LGBT or Christian. Cooper added:

“‘For too long gay and lesbian people in the churches have been asked to carry the load by themselves. . .What’s often denied is that there are large numbers of LGBTI people of faith. Some of those people are in church, some of them are out, a lot of them are closeted because they don’t feel safe being out’. . .

“‘Very often, the impression given is that there is just one point of view, just one Christian voice. . .We want to make it clear there are lots of Christian voices, and give everyone a seat at the table.'”

Benjamin Oh

Among the leaders of Equal Voices is Benjamin Oh, a Catholic LGBTI advocate who has worked in human rights and development fields. According to his website bio, Oh “was elected as head of a Catholic international aid & development agency in Australia” and was the “World Youth Day Coordinator and Social Justice Project Manager for the worldwide Dominican Order” in 2008.  He also serves on the Steering Committee of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics.

Equal Voices’ first priority, according to Buzzfeed, is to “facilitate a national apology to LGBTI Christians and the wider community” that will be presented in the nation’s capitol. This Apology is partially inspired by Pope Francis’ own call last year for the church to apologize to LGBTI people.

But the Apology seeks to not only seek forgiveness for past wrongs, but to educate Christians so as to prevent future wrongs. Some Christians may object to apologizing, said Cooper, figuring such an action was not needed. But the Apology explained its own reasons:

“Speaking for myself and as a member of my church, I ask for your forgiveness:

  1. For being too slow to acknowledge that we need to say sorry to you.
  2. For not speaking up against the hurtful, damaging and often violent mistreatment you have been subjected to.
  3. For speaking about you, without first listening to you.
  4. For not creating safe environments within our churches where people can speak openly and honestly about their struggles and understandings.
  5. For perpetuating stereotypes, and for not taking full account of your actual lived experiences.
  6. For talking to you or about you in such a way as to suggest that sexual and/or gender differences are not part of your true identity as creatures made in the image of God, but are simply a result of brokenness or sin.
  7. For perpetuating the mistaken belief that non-heterosexual orientations should be treated, healed or changed, and for not acknowledging the damage such misunderstanding has wrought in peoples’ lives.
  8. For not acknowledging that Christians who are seeking to be faithful to their Lord and to the Scriptures are coming to different conclusions on matters of gender, sexual orientation, and marriage.

The Apology ended with five commitments to LGBTI people that signatories make, including supporting LGBTI “in every way possible,” being open to correction and guidance, holding others accountable for “careless, hurtful or misleading talk,” resisting efforts to exclude LGBTI people from churches, and engaging “in genuine and open dialogue to gain better understanding of other perspectives.”

Australian Catholics’ support for Equal Voices is consistent with many positive actions which have happened in the country. Last December, Fr. Paul Kelly’s eight-year effort to outlaw “gay panic” defense in Queensland led the state’s Attorney General to introduce a parliamentary bill doing just that. In response to Pope Francis, an Australian parish held a Liturgy of Apology to LGBT People which participants said opened new possibilities for healing. And when bishops have publicly opposed marriage equality, Catholics have pushed back, including Fr. Frank Brennan, S.J.’s, warning that a plebiscite on marriage equality could be “very nasty.”

Whether or not Australia’s Parliament will indeed pass a marriage equality law is still an open question despite overwhelming support by legislators and the public. But it is good to know Catholics, and Christians generally, are not waiting to advance the cause of LGBT equality in many spheres.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 12, 2017

 

Catholics in India Help Found New School for Transgender Students

Catholic ministers in India recently formed a group to offer pastoral care for transgender people, reported ucanews.com, and they are already making an impact by helping to found a new school for trans students.

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Attendees, including Catholic religious, at the opening ceremony for Sahaj International School

Clergy, religious, and lay people in the Indian state of Kerala have joined together to establish “one of the few outreach programs for the transgender community by the institutional church in India.”

According to Fr. Paul Madassey, head of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council’s Pro-Life Support ministry, under which the transgender initiative is carried out, transgender people in the state are particularly vulnerable. Sex traffickers in northern India prey on trans people who are discriminated against and economically disadvantaged.

Fr. Madassey explained that the transgender initiative had been inspired by Pope Francis’ call to accompany the LGBT community and that “the whole church has a big role to play” in providing such pastoral support.

One project by the group has been helping found a new school inclusive of trans people called Sahaj International School. It opened last week with ten students seeking their high school certificate. Catch News explained further:

“Led by six [transgender people] from TransIndia Foundation with activist Vijayaraja Mallika at the helm, the school promises to provide residential facilities for a short period, free textbooks, gender neutral toilets, a meal for those in need, and tuition to pass Class X and XII. . .

“Mallika says that zir [a gender-neutral possessive pronoun] efforts are focused on introducing inclusive education. . .[Mallika said] ‘We are providing them a safe space for security and sustainable education.'”

The need for such a school is immense. Of the estimated 25,000 trans people in the state of Kerala, 57% did not complete a high school education, according to Mallika. There are also issues of social discrimination, family rejection, and derogatory language.

Mallika, who previously worked on transgender pastoral care with the Archdiocese of Bombay, said the church has been “very supportive” and that “[r]eligion plays an important role in social and behavioral change at the grass-roots level.” The church’s role in the school was instrumental, according to ucanews.com:

“In mid-December, Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel offered their buildings to form an exclusive school for dropouts among transgender people, considered the first of its kind in the country.

“The nuns offered their venue after at least 50 building owners declined to let out their buildings, indicating the discrimination prevalent in the society, says Father Madassey.”

This work in Kerala comes quickly after Caritas India, the official development agency of the nation’s bishops, announced it would be initiating more transgender-inclusive policies and outreach programs. Though Caritas India’s approach is not perfect, the announcement of the program is a key moment for the global church.

The Catholic Church in India is widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. In an exclusive interview with Bondings 2.0, Gracias said that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.

Earlier this week, I suggested that findings from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were a helpful pastoral examination for all Catholics about our awareness of and advocacy for trans equality in the church. These efforts in India are helpful models, too, for how the church can and should be responding to the urgent pastoral needs of trans communities — and how we can become more receptive of the gifts and contributions which trans Catholics are making to our church’s mission.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 5, 2017