On Mother’s Day: A Synod of Moms to Advise the Pope

May 10, 2015

I never get tired of telling people that Catholic parents of LGBT people are among the most dedicated and consistently strong advocates for equality in the church.  As people who have strong attachments to both their children and their faith, parents serve as natural “bridges” between the LGBT community and the institutional church, a job that is extremely important in the work of reconciliation between these two groups.

By Mary Cassatt

Today is Mother’s Day, so it is appropriate to reflect on the role that mothers have played in the Catholic LGBT movement.  I was reminded of their influence this week when I read a story about a Canadian mother in Edmonton, Alberta, who has filed a complaint to the local Catholic school board there because her seven-year old transgender daughter was not allowed to use the girls’ restroom.

GlobalNews.ca quoted the mom’s concern:

“It’s not just for my daughter. It’s for every transgender child out there. These children have double the stressors in their life that a [cis]gender child would have. I’m trying to eliminate any type of roadblocks for them.” [Editor’s note:  “Cisgender” is the term used to describe people whose internal gender corresponds with their anatomical features.  “Cis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as.” It’s another way of saying “non-transgender.”]

The mother’s response reminded me of an attitude that I have seen demonstrated by many mothers, including my own, my peers who are mothers, and the many moms of LGBT people I have met in my ministry.  Moms don’t see themselves as just mothers of their own children, but in some way, of all children they encounter.

How many of you have ever seen mothers in a park or playground supervising other children for the youngsters’ safety, sometimes children they do not even know?  How many times have you seen a mother cry real tears when they see news on television of a child who has been hurt or harmed in some way?  Mothers all seem to have an innate sense of responsibility and love for all children, not just those who are in their family.

And the same is true of mothers of Catholic LGBT people.  Long after these moms have raised their children into independent adults, they still take on the responsibility, exercised with love, for making the path easier for other LGBT people.  It’s not uncommon for such mothers to work to make their parishes and schools LGBT-friendly even when their own offspring have moved out of the neighborhood and perhaps belong to other parishes or attend other schools.

I have met hundreds of mothers of LGBT people in my 21 years with New Ways Ministry.  I cannot think of a single case where a mother did not tell me that when she first learned of her child’s identity, her first reaction was fear–fear that her child may be harmed physically, emotionally, spiritually by narrow-minded and prejudiced people. A mom’s natural instinct is to protect.

A traditional medieval theological axiom says that “Grace builds upon nature.”  I’ve seen that proven real time and again when I see a mother’s natural love for her LGBT child be extended to all LGBT children and other oppressed groups.

It is often said that God did not make a mistake in creating LGBT people.  Their natural attractions and senses of identity are, in fact, just that:  natural.  But for me, that naturalness is not the only sure sign of God’s love and positive intentions for LGBT people.

An equally important sign of God’s love is the natural love that mothers show for their LGBT children.  That’s the best sign of divine love for sexual and gender minorities which should be emulated by all members of our church, especially our leaders.  We would have a very, very different church if Pope Francis would call a synod of mothers to advise him on marriage and family life than by having a synod of bishops do so.

On this Mother’s Day, I pray that mothers will lead our Church on the issue of LGBT equality and inclusion.  I pray in particular to Mary, the mother whose natural love for her Child Jesus, surely taught him many of the practical and human realities that inspired His preaching.  And I pray in gratitude for all mothers–lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, transgender–whose love educates and forms their children to work for a better world for all.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Rick Santorum Affirms Bruce Jenner’s Coming Out, Revealing the Value of Sharing Stories

May 3, 2015

Rick Santorum, left, and Bruce Jenner

In an atypical remark, Catholic politician Rick Santorum spoke positively about Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans* last weekend though the former U.S. senator has not shifted in his notoriously strong anti-gay  attitudes. Is this a sign that conservative Catholics might welcome trans* people more readily than gay, lesbian, and bisexual people?

Santorum was speaking to reporters in South Carolina last weekend when Buzzfeed asked him about Jenner’s high-profile interview with Diane Sawyer which aired last weekend to generally positive reviews from transgender advocates. In response, the former Senator said:

” ‘If [Bruce] says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman…My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize, and I do, for what people do, for their behavior. But as far as for who they are, you have to respect everybody, and these are obviously complex issues for businesses, for society, and I think we have to look at it in a way that is compassionate and respectful of everybody.”

Santorum added, problematically, that regarding restroom usage, it was an issue to be left to businesses and private groups without the need for government interference. Still, for a former presidential candidate who famously compared homosexuality to incest and bestiality, this is an unexpected and relatively positive response.

The question now is why Santorum’s compassion and respect is not transferable to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. I suggest it is because Santorum, and those who think similarly, improperly understand sexuality as a non-constitutive part of one’s identity, while gender identity is more readily accessible for them. Santorum’s differentiation between who people are and how they act is false when it comes to sexuality, perpetually reducing gay people to any possible genital expressions of this sexuality. He should admit that, just as questions of gender are complex and people’s self-identification should be respected, so too are matters of sexuality. All people must be respected for who they are.

Can trans* people’s witness to authenticity be a conduit for conservative Catholics to come around more broadly on matters of gender and sexuality?

Santorum’s comments are an invitation to LGBT Catholics and allies to reinvest ourselves in educating others, as Bruce Jenner’s interview did before the American public. Ignorance and miseducation are often at the core of LGBT opposition, rather than any particular animus. Though we may not all be interviewed by Diane Sawyer, we can share our stories and share our present lives with those in our families, our parishes, and our communities.

Editor’s Note: Though Jenner publicly identifies as a woman, he has not asked to be referred to by another name or female/alternative pronouns. News articles on the interview have widely kept referring to him as Bruce with male pronouns and so Bondings 2.0 follows suit.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


CAMPUS CHRONICLES: Drag Shows and Rainbow Proms Among Spring Celebrations

April 23, 2015

University of San Diego students at the 2014 drag show

The University of San Diego (USD), a Catholic campus in Southern California, hosted an LGBT-centered social event, which, once again, critics claim undermine the school’s Catholic identity. But, as one theologian notes, it is precisely by offering events which celebrate sexual and gender diversity that the church’s educational mission is fostered.

An event at USD entitled “Celebration of Gender Expression: Supreme Drag Superstar IV” was held last week as part of a seven-day program focused on Sexual Assault Awareness. While intended to be enjoyable, the program’s description points to the educational value as well:

“Transgender & Transsexual? Gender expression & gender identity?  What do these have to do with Sexual Assault Awareness Week?  Statistics show that the Trans Community is at a drastically higher risk for sexual and relationship violence.  Learn more about this important issue.”

This is the drag show’s fourth year and, as usual, it is drawing criticism from some conservatives. USD administrators, however, support the program. Last year, an appeal by these critics to the Vatican was dismissed.

USD is not the only Catholic college hosting LGBT-focused social events. Drag shows have been held at Seattle University and Loyola University Chicago, while other schools hold rainbow proms like Santa Clara University and Gonzaga University. Kristen Grewe of Santa Clara, who coordinates their Rainbow Prom, explained the significance of such events to their campus newspaper:

” ‘The goal is a big celebration of the LGBTQ community…Whether that’s those individuals celebrating themselves, allies celebrating that they exist or just celebrating our efforts to try and make Santa Clara more visibly accepting, we want to give people the opportunity they may not have gotten in high school.’

” ‘We decide with this event what we want to say to the community…We focus on queer empowerment, queer history, the queer movement and what it means to be queer on this campus and in the world.’ “

The stakes for trans* students on Catholic campuses are especially high, enough so that USD theology professor Emily Reimer-Barry reflected on the drag show as a “matter of life and death.” Writing at Catholic Moral Theology, Reimer-Barry discussed the high profile suicides of transgender teens Taylor Alesana and Leelah Alcorn before asking two very relevant questions:

“What responsibility do I have as a cisgender Catholic when I learn of stories like Taylor’s or Leelah’s? How can my faith tradition work to make the world safer and more just for all people, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation? These questions take on new urgency each April as my school prepares to host the drag show, an annual event sponsored by PRIDE.”

Noting critics, Reimer-Barry affirms the drag show at the intersection of quality theology and good pastoral care. She writes, in partial response to Alcorn’s famous request to “fix society”:

“What does it mean to fix society? What can the Catholic community do? At the very minimum, we should name bullying as wrong. Second, our schools should be places where questioning and transitioning teens feel safe to explore their own identities and to dress in the way that feels right to them. We should have support groups and counseling services for students in crisis, and encourage students to recognize the signs of depression and the warning signs for suicide. Often peers are the first to know when someone needs help. Our schools should be places not of shame or microaggressions but of hope, support, and love. And when an adult has the opportunity to discuss sexual behavior with a teen we should encourage self-care and responsibility. We can foster open discussion of sensitive issues and encourage students to keep asking questions. And as people of faith we should help students to see that God loves them, no matter what, and that each person is precious in the eyes of God.”

Furthermore, the drag show and similar events celebrating LGBTQ communities helps the church’s theological reflection. Last year, Reimer-Barry noted that the annual show is a moment for encounter:

“But it must be said that Catholic teachings are part of a dynamic faith tradition that must learn from new data as it is presented. The best theologians of the tradition—including those who shaped the above teachings—did so as people in particular historical-cultural contexts. As a tradition that has developed over time, Catholicism must engage the latest research in sociology, psychology, biology, and the rest of the sciences. And there is still so much we do not understand about our sexuality…So we must be careful not to overstep our claims when we discuss ‘church teaching on gender ideology.'”

Finally, Reimer-Barry offered insights broadly applicable for our church in how questions of sexuality and gender identity are approached:

“I believe that I have a responsibility to listen and learn from people whose life experiences are different than mine…I belong to a pilgrim Church, a Church with the doors open, a Church called to transform the darkness of the world by the light of Christ. I am proud to work in a Catholic university that hosts a drag show as a way to raise awareness about gender diversity. While the drag show will not ‘fix society,’ it represents one small step towards a more inclusive, intellectually rigorous, and joyful approach to the complexity of human experiences of sexuality.”

In these closing words, the goodness and, indeed, necessity of drag shows, rainbow proms, and other social events that open up affirming and inclusive spaces in Catholic education becomes readily apparent. Caring for students in their differences, expanding the perspectives of all in the community, cultivating shared understandings through dialogue, and celebrating the goodness of God’s creative power found in human diversity are all very Christian values. Catholic colleges and universities, rather than weakening their Catholic identity, strengthen it tenfold by building rainbow bridges over their campuses.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: Teacher, Cardinal, Pope, Transgender

April 22, 2015

NewsHere are some news items that you might find of interest:

1) Patricia Jannuzzi, the teacher at Immaculata Catholic high school, Sommerville, N.J., was reinstated to her job, after having been suspended for one month because of her anti-gay Facebook posts, according to a Religion News Service article.

2) Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who stepped down from archdiocesan leadership after it came to light that he had sexually harassed a number of priests and seminarians, has resigned the “rights and privileges” of a cardinal.  O’Brien had been a harsh critic of LGBT equality, having called homosexuality a “moral degradation” and saying that it “demonstrably harmful,”  according to a Religion News Service story. 

3) Three Catholic LGBT leaders spoke on “The State of LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” at a panel presentation sponsored by the Human Rights’ Campaign’s Religion and Faith program.  The presenters wer transgender Catholic activist, J. Nicholas Stevens, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; Mary Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER); and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry. Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of HRC’s Latina/o and Catholic Initiatives, moderated the discussion.

4) J. Nicholas Stevens, one of the panelists mentioned in number 3 (above), has penned an essay about his faith journey and his transition for Time.com, entitled “I’m Proud To Be a Transgender Catholic.

–Francis DeBernardo

 


The Misconceptions Behind Pope’s Comment on Gender and Nuclear Arms

March 2, 2015

Pope Francis

As New Ways Ministry’s pilgrims to Italy were flying across the Atlantic a few weeks ago, a story broke about Pope Francis and gender theory which, due to our being on the road (or, more accurately, in the air), did not quite get our attention.  The substance of the story was that the pope, in an interview published in a a new Italian book, likened gender theory to nuclear arms.  In The National Catholic ReporterJoshua McElwee reported:

“Gender theory is a broad term for an academic school of thought that considers how people learn to identify themselves sexually and how they may become typed into certain roles based on societal expectations.

“Asked in the book about how important it is for Christians to recover a sense of safeguarding of creation and sustainable growth, the pope first speaks of the duty of all people to respect and care for the environment.

But he then says that every historical period has ‘Herods’ that ‘destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation.’

” ‘Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,’ he continues. ‘Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.’

” ‘With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator,’ the pope says. ‘The true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate.’ “

Lisa Fullam.Photo.5

Lisa Fullam

Part of the reason that this story slipped our attention was that there was very little commentary in the Catholic press about this interview.  One great exception has been Professor Lisa Fullam, of the Jesuit School of Theology, California, who examined the pope’s misconceptions about gender in a a blog post she wrote for DotCommonweal

Fullam’s post is a great introduction to the contemporary understanding of gender from both scientific and social scientific perspectives.  She begins by offering comparative definitions of some key words, which are sometimes wrongly used interchangeably:  sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, transgender, and queer.

She then examines some of Pope Francis’ (and Benedict’s and John Paul II’s, too) misconceptions about these terms.  For instance, she notes the lack of historicity in their definitions of masculine and feminine:

“That the definition of what counts as appropriate to women varies between and within cultures and across time is not accounted for in this view. Oddly, John Paul cites fierce transvestite warrior Joan of Arc (who was killed as a relapsed heretic for wearing men’s clothing, and can certainly, if anachronistically, be thought of as queer,) as a model of the feminine genius, thus calling into question the descriptive (and certainly the normative) value of many, if not most, of the ‘feminine’ traits he inferred.”

Fullam examines the social construction of gender, and also helps to dispel some myths which have formed the basis of some of our culture’s most foundational ideas about gender:

“Isn’t human nature fundamentally a duality of male and female? This can only be upheld by ignoring the existence of millions of human beings whose sex and/or gender identity do not fit the ‘rule’ of male AND masculine (according to which illusory single set of standards for masculinity?) or female AND feminine, (according to other illusory standards of such.) The spectrum of gender can be seen every time a woman relishes some more ‘masculine’ endeavor–like, say leading a French army against the British, like Joan of Arc. It can also be seen when men embrace more ‘feminine’ aspects of their character, yet remain ‘masculine’ in their gender identity. Anyone paying attention to the numerous ways people describe and express their masculinty and feminity would have to recognize that to assert a strict duality would be a facile caricature of humankind. I can only hope that Francis’ meeting with a trans man late last month will lead him to change his mind and heart. “

She concludes with a call for Christians to be more open-minded about gender:

Recognizing the degree to which social conventions define and delimit gender expression, I’d suggest that we leave a lot of room for people to speak to what it means to them to be men or women, or other, and not to force a lovely array of human be-ing into a false duality which fails to adequately reflect biology, much less the richer experience of human life in its totality. That has to do with gender roles, but also gender identity. And aren’t Christians especially called to uphold the human dignity of all children of God, male and female, masculine and feminine, transgender and cisgender alike? That attitude doesn’t ‘destroy’ nature, as Pope Francis fears, but rather recognizes the beautiful panoply of humankind that God has created.”

I’ve only given a brief taste of Fullam’s arguments.  If you are at all interested in the topic of gender, I recommend that you read her post in its entirety by clicking here.    If you like Fullam’s work, you may want to read an article that she wrote last year on “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation.” 

Pope Francis’ comments on gender reveal that, while he has shown a refreshing openness to LGBT issues, he–and most likely, many others in the Catholic hierarchy–need a better education on the questions of gender which the rest of the world has been engaged in for decades now.  Perhaps such an education would not only help his approach to LGBT issues, but, equally important, on issues concerning women, for which he has a famous and dangerous blind spot.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


How Can the Church Improve Its Welcome to Trans* People?

February 20, 2015

Jennifer Mertens

As the church’s acceptance of gay and lesbian people improves, more Catholics are wondering about a similar welcome by the church for the trans* community. This pastoral question is critical, given the high rate of self-harm and suicide among transgender youth, a reality highlighted by suicide of teenager Leelah Alcorn at the beginning of this year.

Moved by Alcorn’s final words of her suicide note to “Fix society. Please,” National Catholic Reporter columnist Jennifer Mertens takes up this matter of whether or not the Catholic Church can welcome trans* people. She writes:

“In particular, Leelah’s story poses significant pastoral, theological and moral challenges for the Christian community. The suicide note from Leelah, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, recounts an experience of Christianity in which gender variance was communicated as being ‘selfish and wrong.’ This stance exacerbated a social isolation and despair from which she concluded: ‘The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living.’ “

These challenges include “a linguistic framework suddenly experienced as inadequate” when it comes to gendered language and pronouns, as well as faith’s role in how family and friends respond to a transgender loved one. Gender identity is a new concept for many people and, for some, difficult to understand. Mertens is clear, however, that the pastoral needs demand Catholics become invested in learning about this new reality:

“Catholics must engage these questions with a courageous and receptive heart. Such engagement demands a commitment to dialogue, one that springs from God’s own dialogue with humanity as modeled in the Incarnation…

“As the Catholic church builds a relationship of dialogue with transgender people, it is important to remember that perfect love rests in God alone. As we seek to imitate this love in our dialogue with one another, may we humbly begin with asking: ‘Teach me, friend, how to love you.’ “

Mertens suggests “reaching out, listening, and seeking to understand transgender people.” Scientific evidence from the medical community and the lived experiences of families are also sources of information and increased understanding for the church.

Mertens concludes by urging Catholics to engage in practical and public solidarity with trans* people,especially youth, who suffer higher rates of discrimination and violence. She writes:

“A constructive first step can be taken insofar as the church stands in public solidarity with the suffering of transgender people. This solidarity embodies an authentic Gospel witness that reaches out to the marginalized members of our human community. An initial openness to affirming this solidarity has been signaled by the local archdiocese in Leelah’s city [of Cincinnati].”

The Archdiocese released a statement on Alcorn’s death that prayed for all, while remaining neutral about the teen’s gender identity. Mertens also reports that Dan Andriacco, an archdiocesan spokesperson, said the Catholic Schools Office would review “transgender” for inclusion in its discrimination and bullying policies.

Cincinnati’s response is atypical, and it is worth noting this is the same archdiocese which implemented enhanced morality clauses in teaching contracts last year, barring church workers from publicly supporting LGBT rights. Pope Francis is ambiguous too, warmly welcoming a transgender man from Spain to the Vatican recently, but also harshly critiquing the amorphous concept of ‘gender theory’, which may or may not include gender identity.

What is clear is that society’s intolerance of the trans* community causes a tremendous amount of suffering and violence, and Catholics must find new ways to welcome them into the church with, as Mertens writes, “a courageous and receptive heart.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Lessons to Be Learned from Pope’s Meeting With Transgender Man

February 11, 2015

Diego Neria Lejárraga

The story of Pope Francis meeting with a transgender man and his fiancee at the Vatican a few weeks ago made headlines around the globe. Because the Vatican would neither confirm nor deny the meeting, and since most of the information about the event was based on a single interview that the Spanish regional newspaper Hoy conducted with Diego Neria Lejárraga, only sketchy details emerged.

Additional information from a Crux article provides more insight into the life of this man and his struggle to accept his gender identity.  An additional analysis of the meeting by a U.K. transgender Catholic woman also adds some valuable thoughts about the transgender religious experience.

In the Crux article, Lejárraga explains his journey:

“My jail was my own body. Because it absolutely didn’t correspond with what my soul felt. I didn’t know one happy summer when I could go to the pool with my friends.”

And while he longed to transition, he refrained from doing so to honor his mother’s wishes:

‘He also said he waited until age 40 to undergo the surgery because his mother, ‘the soul of my life,’ asked him to wait until after she had died — ‘And for her, I’d wait one and a thousand lives.’ ”

“He said his mother wasn’t rejecting him, but rather, she was afraid that those in their small city of Plasencia, in Spain, would reject him.”
And his mother was correct, as he ended up receiving mistreatment and ostracization from his local parish, with even a priest calling him “the devil’s daughter.”
But, not all local church officials mistreated him.  The news story explains that a local bishop supported him, and even aided him with getting his letter to Pope Francis:
“He sent the letter through his local bishop, Monsignor Amadeo Rodríguez Magro, in whom Lejárraga has found ‘encouragement, comfort, and support.’ Magro personally delivered the letter to the Vatican.”

Jane Fae

Jane Fae, a U.K. journalist who is a Catholic transgender woman, was very moved by the pope’s gesture, though disappointed that the Vatican would not confirm the meeting.   Writing in The Catholic Heraldshe sees this dichotomy of welcome vs. denial as a dangerous way for the Church to operate:

“Heart and head. Cautious traditionalism versus celebration of life. Even, perhaps, careless idealism versus responsible conservatism. Many, it seems, are already defining this papacy in terms of easy dichotomy. My sense is that the real issues are more complicated, and it is far from clear who is really using their head: which ‘side’ has thought through the implications of what it means to be a world religion in an increasingly secular 21st century. For me, the Church was always thus.”
Fae describes the struggle of transition:
“There is often an assumption that the defining moment is the point at which you go under the surgeon’s knife. Not so. Apart from the perfectly rational fear associated with any major operation, there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that that step was right for me. Real difficulty arrived in daily living: the discovery that, however ordinary my life pre-transition, I was now extraordinary in every sense: both as a public property and a target. I was on the receiving end of more threats of violence in the first year of transition than in the 20 years that preceded.”
And the experience also brought fear, but also joy:
“It was a truly scary time, even when among friends – and one of the absolute scariest moments for me was my very first Sunday in church en femme. I shook in fear as I entered. I was in tears, albeit of joy, when I left. What got me through was the love, support and acceptance of others in the congregation – especially from the ‘mums’ brigade,’ several of whom quite literally held my hand the first time I approached the altar.”
Which brings Fae back to the importance of Pope Francis’ welcoming gesture:
“As to the Pope’s simple act of hugging a transgender man, it may look like an action that springs from the heart – as, indeed, I firmly believe it did. But in the longer term, the road now being travelled by Francis is the only rational one: because if we cannot win people’s hearts through joy and through love, we certainly won’t argue them into submission.”
These are words that all church leaders and laity should take to heart.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


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