Catholic School Backs Away from Banning Transgender Students

March 29, 2016
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Students at Mount Saint Charles Academy

A Catholic high school in Rhode Island has taken a step away from its ban on transgender students  after receiving sustained criticism from alumni and the local community.  This move follows earlier conciliatory statements from officials at Mount Saint Charles Academy (MSC), Woonsocket, attempted to explain its original ill-conceived policy banning transgender students from enrolling.

In their latest statement, quoted by an MSC school board member at The Valley Breeze, MSC officials said that they deeply regret “unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy regarding the acceptance of transgender young people.” The policy that banned trans students was recently removed from the online version of the Parent-Student Handbook for 2016-2017.

That action, coupled by an invitation from MSC President Herve Richer to meet for discussion, was welcomed by those involved with the Facebook group “Concerned Alumni of Mount Saint Charles.” Organizers explained in their own statement, reported by RIFuture.org:

“Mount has always been a home to us, and we are happy to see that they understand our concern and agree the language in the policy needs to be changed and a solution for accommodation implemented. We will be accepting an offer to go to a meeting with the administration to add our help and talent to finding a solution for all parties.”

2004 graduate Mike Martin told NBC 10 he was glad the discriminatory policy had been removed noting that it was progress toward the institution living up to “what it taught me to do, which was to accept people for being people.”

Another alumnus, Brendan DeBeasi, crowdfunded over $5,000 in just two days to help MSC develop and implement accommodations for trans students, reported The Valley Breeze. DeBeasi spoke to the impact Catholic education had in rallying alumni to the defense of LGBT students:

“It is my belief that Mount did not include this provision intentionally out of hate. .Students at MSC are taught acceptance, love, and service. . .It was these values Mount instilled in us that led to the rapid organization against this new policy.”

But what meaning can be attributed to the handbook changes seems somewhat unclear. In a The Valley Breeze news report, President Richer said that he had welcomed the debate which had emerged at the school and on Facebook, and again explained:

“[Richer] said school officials are also currently revisiting the handbook to see if the policy was ‘phrased correctly.’

“Our conversation has never been about whether or not we want transgender students in our building. It’s been: How can we serve transgender students?”

This statement echoes MSC’s earlier explanation that, in implementing a ban on trans students, the school actually aimed to help trans students by acknowledging the school had no support system in place. Some critics questioned the logic of that rationale.  The school has not yet made a statement of explicit openness to trans students, nordid MSC officials offer information about any policy for admitting trans applicants. This lack of clarity leaves the situation unresolved, but this latest round shows that a way for reconciliation and for growth is still available.

Thomas Ward, a new MSC board member, welcomed the handbook change as the school’s latest evolution in its 92-year history and admitted more work was needed to accommodate all genders. He wrote in The Valley Breeze:

“Those hurtful – and completely unnecessary – lines have now been removed, and I’m glad they have. . .Mount’s been here before! As boarders left, the girls arrived, and the all-boys school had to accommodate young women they had never welcomed before. . .It has always been this way. Now, there is more evolving to do.”

Ward, who is also a 1971 alumnus  and parent of former students, pointed to Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, New Hampshire, about which he wrote:

“A sister school to Mount, also founded and run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, it currently serves a transgender student, and accommodates them. Mount has never been asked to. No doubt, in time, that will change. We should learn a lot before that day comes.”

Removing the ban on transgender students from MSC’s Handbook online is a start. Such a step would be aided by administrators’ assurance that not only would such policies never reappear but that MSC would be adding gender identity to its non-discrimination protections for all community members. Meeting with concerned alumni and LGBT advocates will be beneficial, too, but only if administrators are really willing to hear criticism and to prioritize the steps necessary to provide transgender accommodations.

Thomas Ward is completely correct that, if it has not already happened, soon enough MSC will need to help students of all genders flourish. Let’s hope that other board members and the entire MSC community will join him to thoughtfully and quickly make MSC a more inclusive space, not only because they face public criticism but because doing so is intrinsically connected to the school’s Catholic mission. They could become a shining example to hundreds of other Catholic high schools.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


School Board Passes “Practically Meaningless” Transgender Policy Ahead of Deadline

March 21, 2016
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The Edmonton Catholic Schools office building.

Ahead of a March 31st deadline, the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) passed a policy on transgender students. But many LGBT advocates are disappointed with last Tuesday’s vote, saying the new policy is insufficient and even meaningless.

Trustees approved the policy in a 5-2 vote, reported Global News. It states that, because “all children are unique, loved by God and created in God’s image,” discrimination should not exist in district schools. The policy does not, however, mention LGBTQ students specifically or support gay-straight alliances, omissions which weaken the policy, say critics.

Marni Panas, the transgender mother of a Catholic school student, criticized the policy as “fine” for other contexts, but insufficient for Edmonton’s Catholic schools:

” ‘I mean 15 months ago, we started this conversation with a policy like that already in place and a child was still discriminated against – this policy doesn’t change that, that could still happen.’ “

The mother of the trans girl whose discriminatory treatment prompted Edmonton Catholic schools’ debate on trans students described the situation as “farther behind” than when it began fifteen months ago. (The mother chooses to be unidentified to protect her daughter.) She told Metro News that Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen should reject the new policy, as it shows “a complete lack of effort” and “protects nobody.”

Kris Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services said the policy approved is “the worst” of three proposed thus far because “it almost means nothing,” reported the Edmonton Journal. He continued in Metro News:

” ‘It’s so generic that it is practically meaningless. . .These kinds of generic policies don’t work when it comes to supporting vulnerable LGBTQ youth.’ “

ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra and trustee Patricia Grell, the two votes against the new policy, explained their opposition to CBC

“[Grell,] who first spoke out about the issue last spring, voted against the policy and called it too general and too generic to be of much help to LGBTQ students.

“[Bergstra] also voted against the policy. She spoke about the pervasive ‘myth, fear and a general lack of understanding’ that continues to hamper efforts to embrace LGBTQ students.”

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary described recent guidelines from the Education Ministry to help develop these LGBTQ policies as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” and later refused to apologize for his harsh remarks. Letters from Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul were critical too, but less confrontational.

In related news, the Catholic Board of Education in Medicine Hat, Alberta, approved first and second readings of policy updates to protect LGBTQ students that will hopefully be approved in a third reading later this month. The policy updates, which are inclusive of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, are intended to meet provincial guidelines released in January, according to Medicine Hat News.

School districts in Alberta, including Catholic ones (because they are publicly funded), are required to submit LGBTQ policies to the Education Ministry by March 31 for review. There are 24 Catholic school boards in Alberta, including Edmonton and Medicine Hat. Education Minister David Eggen declined to comment about how he would handle school boards in Alberta whose LGBTQ policies fail to meet legal norms. Metro News reported that Eggen said he would evaluate all policies and regulations “in their totality” once they had been submitted.

Generic and meaningless policies may not be approved by Alberta’s Education Ministry, setting up more months of conflict and potential harm to students in the province’s Catholic schools. With just two weeks left before policies need to be submitted, there is enough time for Catholic educators and school officials to prioritize students’ well being over anti-LGBTQ ideologies.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


L.A. Religious Education Congress Hosts Workshop on Transgender Catholics

March 10, 2016

religiousedcongress20161Nearly 40,000 people attend the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress each year, and this year two transgender Catholics were among those attending after being invited to share their stories. Crux reported:

“. . . [E]vent organizers this year took a cue from popular culture and included a new session, one that attracted a standing room only crowd of 750 people, nearly all of whom jumped to their feet for a sustained round of applause after talks from two young, committed Catholics.”

The two Catholics who spoke during the workshop, titled “Transgender in the Church: One Bread, One Body,” were Matteo Williamson and Anna Patti.

Williamson, 24, spoke about being raised Catholic and the mixed experiences he has had in the church. But under Pope Francis’ leadership, Williamson believes “there’s been a change among people in general to understand something that they maybe haven’t encountered before.”

Patti, 23, spoke too about being trans and Catholic, too. You can read a transcript of her remarks by clicking here. She told Crux afterwards:

” ‘Catholic spirituality and the Catholic tradition can provide more nourishment, and also more sense into the trans experience, than anything else I’ve encountered.’ “

The problem, in her estimation, is that the church in the U.S. is too invested in politics, specifically anti-LGBT work, which turns an ideal setting “into the worst place imaginable.” Too many LGBT people have been hurt by the church or understand it to be a transphobic institution, so they refuse to explore faith. But the session at the L.A. Congress was an “unexpectedly affirming experience” for Patti, who told Crux:

” ‘I hadn’t realized how silenced I felt within the Church. . .At Mass I always sit in the back row in the back corner, making myself as visibly small as possible. Here was the opposite, where people wanted to learn about an issue that is so often immediately condemned.’ “

Explaining the decision to host a session on gender identity, Fr. Christopher Bazyouros who directs the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ office of religious education, which is the sponsor of the Congress, said:

” ‘There aren’t many places for Catholics to discuss these things that are thoughtful, intentional, and that gathers people who have had this experience. . .Many Catholics want information about this topic, they want things to help them understand this situation.’ “

Bazyouros also cited Pope Francis’ desire for people to encounter one another, saying conversations begin more easily from the sharing of personal stories. Based on responses, it seems the session received widespread approve. Laura Wagner, who works at a Catholic high school, said she attended to learn more, and the session gave her “a lot of hope for the future of the Church.” Kevin Stockbridge, a graduate student, said it was good for trans Catholics to speak out because too often the issue is silenced.

Williamson and Patti were clear that, moving forward, no one is expecting that people become experts on gender identity. Instead, they called for a focus on acceptance and love, with Patti saying that “it comes down to, are you willing to accept another human being, a child of God?”

As the church grapples with gender identity issues in their many facets, this conversation at the L.A. Congress is a major step forward towards building up faith communities inclusive of people of all genders.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Reconciliatory Path Opened for Catholic School that Banned Transgender Students

March 7, 2016
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Mount Saint Charles Academy

The Rhode Island Catholic school whose ban on transgender students ignited controversy last week has released two statements which have potential for opening doors to reconciliation and to greater inclusion.

Officials at Mount Saint Charles Academy responded to the intensifying criticism to their policy change which excluded transgender students from school  with an initial statement last Friday, saying the policy which explicitly bans transgender students:

“. . .is not intended to be discriminatory toward transgendered [sic] students nor is Mount Saint Charles Academy’s intent or desire to exclude transgender students. The policy was put in place for the simple reason that Mount Saint Charles feels that its facilities do not presently provide the school with the ability to accommodate transgender students.”

Citing other personal needs which may disqualify applicants from attending Mount Saint Charles, such as academic disabilities, the statement suggested the school was incapable of serving all students. Administrators added that they were “exploring ways in which it [the school] might provide reasonable accommodations for transgender students and fulfill its mission.” The statement concluded with an appeal for help, as the school “would very much like to correct the problem” inherent to this policy’s existence. According to the school, this policy was not prompted by any transgender applicants or students.

A second statement released within an hour of the first one added an opening sentence which said Mount Saint Charles “deeply regrets the unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy,” reported Go Local Providence.

These statements came after alumni quickly organized themselves to protest the ban, which had been implemented last fall but only came to their attention last week. A Facebook group called Concerned Alumni Against Mount St. Charles Trans-Exclusive Policy has 800 members and nearly 1,500 people signed a petition on Change.org, available here.

Alumni claim they knew trans students who have attended Mount Saint Charles in the past. 2007 graduate Johnelle Bergeron told NBC 10 that alumni “would never expect that from Mount because they always preached about tolerance and God is love, everyone’s equal.’ ” Parents of current students have been critical of the policy change , too, with Kristine Kinnear saying she hopes the school would make necessary accommodations if it were her child.

YouthPride, an LGBT organization in Rhode Island, released a statement saying the transgender ban is “not an acceptable solution” and offered to help Mount Saint Charles become capable of supporting transgender students, reported RIFuture.org.

Last Friday morning, with little information about how and why the policy came into existence, I suggested that Mount Saint Charles administrators seemed indifferent to accommodating the needs of vulnerable transgender students. In view of the school’s two statements later that afternoon, it seems it is not indifference that is the problem. It appears the ban on transgender students was an honest acknowledgement by school officials that they had not addressed gender identity issues to the point where they could provide a safe space for trans students. Despite good intentions, the administrators’ ban on transgender students was a misstep, which has been understandably painful for alumni and the local community.

But with the school’s new resolve to address these issues head-on, and with alumni support for transgender students, there is tremendous potential right now for Mount Saint Charles Academy to help students of all genders can be “known, valued, treasured, and taught,” as their mission statement declares.  Alumni have crowdfunded over $4,000 to provide an “actionable solution” to this problem, saying the money should help create accessible restrooms and locker rooms for transgender students along with supportive policies and non-discrimination protections. Mount Saint Charles officials should follow through on their statements’ desire by reaching out to alumni seeking to help and others in the community with relevant expertise and resources.

Banning transgender students was a harmful decision, but if all involved can tune into the reconciliation called for by yesterday’s readings at Mass, this could be a tremendous moment for Catholic education.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Catholic School’s New Policy Excludes Transgender Students from Enrolling

March 5, 2016

Students at Mount Saint Charles Academy

A Catholic school in Rhode Island explicitly is denying admission to transgender students in a new policy which also says it will no longer allow any current students who identify as transgender to continue attending the school.

Mount Saint Charles Academy, a co-ed middle and high school in Woonsocket, issued the policy in its Parent-Student Handbook for the 2015-2016 school year. Under the “Philosophy of Admissions,” the Handbook notes:

“Mount Saint Charles Academy is unable to make accommodations for transgender students. Therefore, MSC does not accept transgender students nor is MSC able to continue to enroll students who identify as transgender.”

Administrators at the Brothers of the Sacred Heart school are refusing to comment, and the Diocese of Providence said these policies are handled on a school-by-school basis. It is unclear if any applicants had been denied admission or if any students had been asked to leave due to this policy, according to Go Local Providence. This policy does appear to contradict the school’s mission statement, however, which states that, “Each and every student is known, valued, treasured and taught in partnership with the family.”

Alumni have organized themselves to protest the policy, forming a group on Facebook called Concerned Alumni Against Mount St. Charles Trans-Exclusive Policy, which already has 700 members.  They  launched a Change.org petition, available here. In a statement, reported at RIFuture.org, alumni expressed their disappointment and said this policy was “wholly uncharacteristic of the institution.” They continued:

“We love Mount Saint Charles and what it meant to us. . .This is an opportunity to learn, grow, and come together to push past our differences. We look forward to speaking further with administration to find a resolution to this painful decision.”

Concerned alumni questioned what was meant by “accommodations” in the policy, and they suggested that solutions for trans students existed “beyond outright expulsion and refusal of admittance.”

Many questions arise when an administration remains silent. Is this policy a response to a transgender applicant or to a student’s coming out? Is it preemptively released to exclude trans students? Is it an honest acknowledgment the school is not a safe space for trans students?

Whatever the answers to these questions and the intentions behind such a ban, the policy itself is not rooted in Catholic teaching or sensibility. Gender identity is a pastoral, not doctrinal issue, as Msgr. Keith Barltrop, a liaison for Cardinal Vincent Nichols to London’s LGBTQI Catholics, said last year. Barltrop affirmed further that the church should be “fully supportive” of people who transition. Catholics in the U.S. overwhelmingly support transgender protections in law and historically Catholic nations have led global progress to protect people with diverse gender identities.

In view of this reality, the policy at Mount Saint Charles reads as simply apathetic. Administrators seems unconcerned to make the extra efforts. This school’s puzzling decision raises two points. First, gender identity is complex. The church’s response must be informed and humble, listening to the lived experiences of trans people and acknowledging scientific and cultural advances in understanding. Catholics should be particularly attentive to the intense marginalization trans people face and the suffering they endure–suffering which is too often caused by church ministers. This type of ministry is particularly needed in Catholic education as a way to support youth in coming to know themselves as God intended.

Second, administrators have a responsibility to trans students, to all students, to the school community, and to the church’s mission to expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to live out their mission statement. Their new policy fails to do so. Thankfully, there are hundreds of alumni —and perhaps even students, parents, faculty, and staff–willing to contribute to this effort and ensure appropriate accommodations can be provided.

Today, LGBT advocates will gather for a peaceful witness outside the school as applicants sit for the entrance exam. Let us hope Mount Saint Charles’ administrators listen to their alumni and reverse this policy by next fall so that students of all genders may truly be “known, valued, and treasured” by then.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


CAMPUS CHRONICLES: Transgender Digital Archive Opens at Holy Cross

February 27, 2016

digital-trans-archiveThe Digital Transgender Archive was launched at the Jesuit-Sponsored College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, last week. Below, Bondings 2.0 highlights this and other developments in Catholic higher education related to LGBT issues as part of our “Campus Chronicles” series.

Transgender Archive at Holy Cross

The College of the Holy Cross launched the Digital Transgender Archive last week, the first of its kind organizers say. The archive will include “a compendium of historic documents, oral-history transcripts, photographs, and newsletters” about transgender people and issues, reported The Boston Globe.

The archive is the idea of English professor K.J. Rawson, who now directs it, after Rawson was challenged finding accessible transgender materials during doctoral research. 21 institutions and organizations will ultimately contribute materials to the archive. It is being well received according to Rawson, meeting needs beyond simple academic research:

” ‘A number of transgender individuals have already reached out with gratitude to find a history they weren’t able to find and read about before. . .To know that they’re not alone in this, and it’s not the first time someone is experiencing what they’re experiencing. That this has been happening for a really long time.’ “

You can visit the Digital Transgender Archive by clicking here.

La Salle Students Back Gender-Neutral Housing

Four-fifths of participating students in a student referendum at La Salle University voted to back a gender-neutral housing proposal by sophomore Nicholas Lario. The proposed policy would apply to the Philadelphia-area University’s townhouses and allow LGBTQ students to access safe and more comfortable housing options.

La Salle’s administration has no position on the issue, though president Colleen Hanycz said it would receive “careful and thoughtful consideration,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Campus Pride reports 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. provide gender-neutral housing, but La Salle University would be a trendsetter in Catholic higher education if the proposal moves forward.

Christendom College Republicans Withdraw Over Gay Rights

College Republicans (CR) at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, withdrew from state and national affiliations because the College Republican Federation of Virginia added sexual orientation as a protected class within its policies, reported CrossMap. Representatives from the Christendom CR’s said they were concerned they would have to include LGB students in their organization and formed a new group, the Christendom College Political Action League.

Assumption College’s LGBTQ Group Profiled

A recent article in campus newspaper Le Provocateur profiled Assumption College’s LGBTQ group, AC Allies. Guided by Campus Ministry, whose director Paul Covino mentors the group, AC Allies hosts weekly meetings and partners with other campus organizations for education programs at the Worcester, Massachusetts, school. Covino said it is a “great consolation. . .the sentiment expressed by the students in the group that they feel accepted on our campus.”

This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right hand corner of this page.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Alberta Education Minister Hopeful After Meeting Bishops

February 12, 2016
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Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith

Alberta’s Education Minister expressed hope that a compromise on LGBTQ policies could be found for Catholic education after meeting with the province’s bishops.

Minister David Eggen met with the four bishops of the Canadian province last Monday to quell the increasingly heated debates around developing policies to support LGBTQ students. He said the conversations were “frank” and sought “common ground” to ensure that “we protect all students regardless of their gender identity in schools and to make sure that everybody is equal under school policy and equal under the law.”

The outcome was, according to Eggen as quoted in the Calgary Sun, that Catholic officials would be given some “latitude” in developing their LGBTQ policies by March 31. He explained:

” ‘It’s latitude to ensure that the integrity and the protections religion is allowed here, both in the province of Alberta and across the country, are adhered to. . .But that protection has never allowed faith-based edicts to compromise the letter of the law.’ “

Moving forward, Eggen hoped that his ministry could collaboratively work with Catholic school boards in Alberta in “looking for a way by which we can accommodate theological beliefs and the letter of the law.”

Education Minister David Eggen

This meeting came after each bishop had released their own sharply-worded letter against newly released LGBTQ guidelines from the Education Ministry. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary described them as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” and later refused to apologize for his harsh remarks. Letters from Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul were critical, but less confrontational.

Archbishop Smith commented on their meeting with Minister Eggen, reported Global News, saying the open conversation was “warm” and “cordial,” and he agreed that a solution was possible because the “fundamental common ground has to do with the love and the protection of the children.”

Minister Eggen’s meeting with Alberta’s bishops appears to be progress towards protecting LGBT students. The harsh rhetoric and hyperbolic acts which have surrounded this debate for months now have only hurt students who may already be marginalized or suffering.

Both Eggen and the Catholic bishops seem interested in helping the province’s Catholic education, which is publicly funded, to become safer and more inclusive for all students. The rub is in the details of what that means, but I hope Alberta’s bishops can come to see that Catholic education is actually strengthened when sexual and gender diverse students are welcomed, supported, and allowed to identify as they know God to have created them.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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