The Church and Transgender Identity, Part 2

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 began a two-part series about Commonweal magazine’s paired feature articles about “The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.”  The two Catholic theologians who penned the articles are David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).

Yesterday, we reviewed and evaluated Cloutier’s article, which took a more negative view of current transgender discourse on identity and legal rights.  Today we will look at Johnson’s argument which takes a more positive approach. Johnson is not a newcomer to Catholic LGBT issues.  He spoke at New Ways Ministry’s 2007 and 2012 national symposiums, and his ideas were very positively received by the participants.

It’s first important to point out that though Cloutier and Johnson have opposing positions, they do share some ideas in common.  Just as Cloutier took a negative position, but also expressed sympathy and respect fo transgender people, Johnson takes a positive position but also turns a critical eye to some of what he sees as excesses of the pro-trans camp. Both lament the speed with which decisions on transgender issues are being made and both decry the hardening of polarized camps which the discussion seems to have fostered.  Johnson describes the contemporary situation:

“. . . [T]he pace of social change, or at least the agitation for it, is drastically accelerated by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and that for users of Facebook and Twitter, immediacy is all.

“. . .[L]iberals are not simply wrong, they are demonic; conservatives are not merely in error, they are evil. In a paradoxical twist, agitators for the recognition of sexual difference in the name of diversity demonize any appeal to norm or nature as oppressive; they seem unaware of the way in which ‘diversity’ easily becomes an equally hegemonic norm.”

In his essay, Johnson sets out to examine “whether Christian theology has anything to offer our present situation. My effort focuses on gender, identity, and the body, and begins by addressing a theological tendency I regard as profoundly unhelpful, precisely to the degree that it pays no attention to actual human experience—and thus, in fact, fails to ‘respond’ at all.”

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before presenting Johnson’s theological critique, I want to point out that his preference to pay “attention to actual human experience” is exactly the point where he and Cloutier diverge.  Although Cloutier does not discuss human testimony, I pointed out in yesterday’s post that his writing exhibited a lack of knowledge about transgender personal experience.  Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, values human experience as an important source of theological reflection.

Johnson critiques the heavy emphasis on gender division and gender roles expounded in the writings of Catholic theologians like Hans von Balthasar, John Paul II, and Angelo Scola, as well as Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Stanley Grenz.  He provides a succinct and careful analysis of the main trends in their theologies and concludes that their approach is

“. . . based neither on observation of human behavior, nor on genuine philosophical reflection on the behavior of real people in conversation with all the texts of Scripture, but rather on elevating selected texts of Scripture perceived as possessing a distinct and absolute revelatory character.”

Johnson, who is primarily a Scripture scholar, takes a more dynamic view of Scripture than these traditionalist theologians:

“However important Scripture is as a witness to God’s activity in the world, and however truly Scripture participates in divine revelation, it is wrong to proceed as though revelation were contained in it alone. If theology has to do with the Living God, then it must pay attention to the ways in which God continuously manifests his power and presence in the world. Catholics have always regarded tradition as a second source of witness to God’s work—in liturgy and Creed, to be sure, but above all also in the living testimony of the saints. For where holiness speaks, the church must pay attention.

“. . . . Regarding subjects like sex and gender, theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and—for goodness sake!—biology.”

Unlike traditional theologians who have clear definitions of gender and gendered bodies, Johnson believes that “bodily expression is always ambiguous, always difficult to decipher. If we believe, however, that God lives and continues to touch us, then we must learn something of the grammar and syntax of real bodies.”  This awareness is especially true because human beings reveal  “a variety of ways in which “male” and “female” can be individually embodied and expressed.”  He proceeds into an informative discussion of people who are intersex, meaning that they may have been born with ambiguous genitalia or other hormonal or secondary sex characteristics that can not easily be classified as male or female.

Most important to the Catholic discussion of transgender issues, Johnson asserts that gender is not a moral or religious classification, but a biological and social one.  As such, he says it is a relative, not an absolute, good, “not constitutive of humans but is rather an accidental (if extremely important) dimension of being human.”   He continues:

” . . . [T]he desire to change one’s gender is not itself a moral issue. It is not in itself a disordered drive, or a form of rebellion against the creator. It could be, to be sure, but it need not be; like the discovery of one’s sexual attraction to persons of the same gender, it may in fact be a recognition of oneself that is deeply respectful of the Creator.”

Similarly, he notes that gender change is not a religious issue per se, but can be considered such only on the basis of an individual’s motivation for change:

“. . . [I]f I make gender change an absolute good (I cannot be myself in this body) rather than a relative one (what counts is serving God and others in any body), I may in fact reveal a disordered desire, a form of idolatrous impulse. The moral or religious issue is not our gender, in other words, but what we make of it.”

And while it is sad that Johnson has to highlight the following idea, the tenor of the current political debate on transgender issues does make it necessary to do so:

“Openness to gender change does not equal openness to sexual vice.”

Johnson concludes with a hope for a process of Christian discernment about transgender identity, noting that what is needed is “face-to-face conversation; rather than the glare of publicity, intimate and honest exchange.”  And the Chuch can and should be the place where such a discernment takes place, as well as being, Johnson’s words, “the place where openness to change is a corollary of belief in the new creation and its endless inventiveness, even as it remains the place where the goal of change is greater than the discovery of the autonomous self.”

The discussion on transgender identity in the Catholic Church is just beginning.  Both Cloutier’s and Johnson’s articles are important reading for those who want to look at this issue through theological lenses.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 5, 2017

Lexi Dever, a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

 

 

 

 

The Church and Transgender Identity, Part 1

Last month, one of Commonweal magazine’s cover features was a pair of articles from two theologians on the topic “The Church and Transgender Identity:  Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.” The theologians were David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).

In today’s post, Bondings 2.0 will present Cloutier’s argument, and tomorrow we will present Johnson’s perspective.

If we think of the pairing of these two articles as representing a pro and con position, Cloutier’s essay would have to be put into the con column.  I’m not sure that this is a totally fair assessment, though, for while Cloutier clearly questions a lot of transgender discourse, another dimension that comes through his essay is some sensitivity to people who identify as transgender.  He seems interested in finding a way that understands and respects them, even though it is obvious that he does not approve of what he sees as underlying assumptions of a lot of transgender equality rationales.

His introductory summary of the national transgender debate shows that he recognizes excesses on both sides of the discussion:

“One side views accepting an individual’s chosen identity as paramount and resistance not as simply erroneous, but downright offensive. Moreover, there is a (correct) recognition of the real struggle and suffering experienced by trans people. Yet the other side views the plain reality of male and female biology as so obvious (and often as a matter of religious truth) that it can envision no possibility of acceptance. What has increasingly resulted from this opposition are not reasoned arguments, but acts of coercion—whether in the Obama administration’s well-publicized anti-discrimination directives compelling schools and hospitals to accommodate “an individual’s internal sense of gender,” or in such backlash responses as North Carolina’s infamous ‘bathroom bill.’ “

Cloutier recognizes that the debate has revealed that “important things are at stake,” and so he sets out to examine two questions:  “What does a claim to transgender identity mean?” and “How does the debate over transgender identity and rights impact the common good?”

David Cloutier

To answer the first question, Cloutier examines some of the varying definitions of gender identity currently being used.  Unfortunately, he tends to focus on some of the extremes of this discussion, such as:

“. . . Facebook now offers fifty-six gender options. We seem to be rushing to embrace an ethic that dismisses the need to posit a real self, in favor of exploring the possibilities as they come.”

While some people may believe everything that is on Facebook, I don’t think many serious-minded people use that social media platform as the standard of legitimate evidence.

Cloutier is suspicious of transgender people’s personal testimonies that the body does not reflect “who I really am.”  He evaluates this kind of thinking negatively:

“. . . [W]e are essentially saying identity is a matter of free expression of an internal sense, and therefore what we are supposed to respect is the individual’s choice of the expression of identity feelings, regardless of his or her embodiment. . . . Both liberal and conservative Catholics have spent decades trying to rehabilitate the goodness of embodiment from problematic spiritualizations that understood our sexual bodies in particular as suspect sites of corruption requiring rigid regimes of mastery. We are committed to an ultimately sacramental worldview where the body and soul are a unity. From this perspective, an immaterial sense that one’s body is the ‘wrong’ one seems like a pretty big problem.”

Here’s one spot that I think that Cloutier is wrong.  From the many transgender people that I have encountered, I have not met many (maybe any) who said, in a totally serious way, that their bodies were wrong.  More accurately, they say that their bodies do not express their gender.  For those who seek some sort of biological modification, I have often understood that their decision to do so was because they appreciate and reverence their bodies and want them to be made whole, not because they saw them as wrong.

Cloutier’s line of thinking misleads him to inaccurately describe the goal of many transgender advocates:

“What I suspect is that the subjective sense of one’s own gender and sexual identity has become so important in our society that we are willing to sacrifice the body to it. In other words, the sense of gender identity being invoked here is construed as sacred. And the particular sense of the sacred has to do with a kind of radical self-determination. To stretch the metaphor, advocates of alternative gender paradigms are making a kind of ‘religious freedom’ argument for having their sacred sense of identity accepted.”

This characterization of gender identity as sacred seems to me to be in the mind of Cloutier, not in the minds of transgender advocates.  While many transgender people do acknowledge the spiritual dimension of their identity journeys, I don’t see them arguing in the public sphere for their equality on religious grounds.

In answering his second question, concerning transgender equality and the public good, Cloutier reveals a fear which was expressed many times during the struggle for lesbian and gay equality: What about the children?

In one spot, he states:

“. . . [W]hile it is reasonable for the state to tolerate, if not endorse, the wide exercise of individual autonomy, we also have a responsibility to ask questions about any potential damage done to our understanding of the common good, which also has real costs for individuals, especially children.”

And in another spot, he opines:

“. . . [W]hile it is reasonable for the state to tolerate, if not endorse, the wide exercise of individual autonomy, we also have a responsibility to ask questions about any potential damage done to our understanding of the common good, which also has real costs for individuals, especially children.”

I don’t believe that he intends simply to scare people. I think Cloutier is genuinely afraid that children will be easily influenced by encountering transgender people and issues. At one point, he writes:

“. . . [I]f we grant the persuasiveness of the ‘gender possibility’ argument in explaining the trans phenomenon, then it seems necessary to acknowledge that affirming and accommodating the transgender identity of one child will affect other children, in much the same way that gender stereotypes about alpha males and compliant females affect them.”

But his fear is unwarranted and the result of a faulty assumption. What’s wrong with this type of thinking is that Cloutier assumes that the idea of changing one’s gender identity is something contagious, attractive to others.  This kind of thinking seems to imagine gender identity as something easily manipulated.  It is the same kind of argument used in the discussion of gay and lesbian sexual orientation: the thinking ran that if a person, particularly a young person, became aware of gay and lesbian people or identities, then they would quickly abandon their heterosexual orientations to become gay and lesbian.  It was a ludicrous argument then, as it is now in the case of transgender people.

Cloutier concludes by advising caution (but not opposition) in discussing transgender topics in society:

“Given the conceptual difficulties involved in discerning the gender implications of ‘who I really am,’ plus the longstanding preference in both Christianity and in the general society for a unified body-soul anthropology, and the significant capacity for human folly and self-deception in these matters, at the very least we would seem to need a yellow light, not a green one.”

I will only remark here on the phrase about “significant capacity for human folly and self-deception in these matters.”  As the influence or contagion model of gender identity mentioned above in regard to children, this kind of thinking presumes that decisions about gender identity are matters of whim.  They are not.  For many people, they are the result of long, often painful, but sometimes joyful, discernments involving spirituality, personality, and relationships.

The remark about human folly and self-deception show a weakness evident throughout Cloutier’s essay:  he shows no evidence that he has seriously considered any transgender person’s testimony seriously, other than, perhaps, the wildly sensational story of Caitlyn Jenner.

As for Cloutier’s remark about the “longstanding preference in both Christianity and in the general society for a unified body-soul anthropology,”   I will make no comment.  I will it to Luke Timothy Johnson to answer that assertion as he does a much better and more erudite job than I could ever hope to do.   Tune into tomorrow’s post for a summary and evaluation of his Commonweal essay, which is the pro side of the Catholic transgender identity discussion.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 4, 2017

Lexi Dever, a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

For Transgender Day of Visibility: How Catholic Tradition Can Stop Trans Murders

Today is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to raise awareness about trans people’s accomplishments and fight back against transphobia. But amid celebrations is the sad reality that hate crime-related killings against transgender people in El Salvador are on the rise. Disturbingly, LGBT activists have claimed the Catholic Church in that country, and elsewhere in Latin America, contributes to this tragedy. But the people of God in that country can choose another path.

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Trans advocates marching through San Salvador on International Women’s Day.

In February, Reuters reported, three trans people were murdered in just the town of San Juan Talpa, bringing the total number of trans people murdered in 2017 up to seven. Of one murder, the news service reported:

“The town’s latest victim was Elizabeth Castillo, a transgender woman, who police say was kidnapped in February after attending the funeral of two transgender women. Her body, showing signs of torture, was then found dumped on the roadside.”

Another 40 trans people, said Karla Avelar, director of group Communicating and Training Transwomen, “have been forced to migrate to other countries to safeguard their own lives.” Teresa, a trans woman in San Juan Talpa, has considered fleeing because of her fears, saying:

“‘I think that someone is coming to kill me. . .I live in constant fear. . .With a doubt, I’ve thought about being far away from this country because staying here the gangs find you.”

“The gangs don’t accept lesbians, gay boys or transgender people. Diversity doesn’t fit into their rules.”

Anti-LGBT violence is closely affiliated with the gang violence ravaging the country, which Reuters described as “one of the world’s deadliest countries outside a war zone.” Gangs maintain control of many communities through extortion, violence, and rape. But social stigma is also contributing greatly to the suffering now endured by LGBT people in El Salvador, and activists claim the Catholic Church is complicit in this regard. Humanosphere reported:

“Advocates say LGBT people face a double threat from such violence. They say anti-LBGT rhetoric from religious figures and politicians perpetuates already entrenched social prejudices, and that the influential Roman Catholic Church furthers anti-LGBT sentiment by publicly condemning gay marriage and sex.”

LGBT-negative stigmas are widespread in El Salvador. Reuters said a “2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre found nearly two-thirds of Salvadorans believed society should not accept homosexuality.” Reparative therapy is also commonplace; another survey found two in five LGBT people had experienced it. Given the church’s considerable, and at one time dominant, influence in El Salvador, these stigmas are derived, at least in part, from LGBT-negative statements and actions of Catholics. Avelar, herself the survivor of two attempted killings, summarized the situation:

“‘They are criminalizing us. . .They use the word of God and the Bible to judge us. It’s destroying us.'”

“Destroying” is not hyperbolic. Twenty-five LGBT people were murdered last year in a nation with a population equivalent to that of the U.S. state of Massachusetts.  After the first quarter of 2017, El Salvador is on pace to exceed that number.

Ireland : El Salvador
In 2015, Archbishop Romero was beatified on the same day that Ireland passed marriage equality. It was a great day for the laity! Click to share this graphic.

But the Catholic Church in El Salvador has another option: a liberationist tradition already being taken up by some Catholics in regard to LGBT people. The Universidad Centroamericana, where six Jesuits were martyred in 1989, hosted El Salvador’s first LGBT rights conference in 2013 (to read a reflection on this event from Bondings 2.0’s editor Francis DeBernardo, click here).

This liberationist tradition is rooted in the nation’s martyrs, including Blessed Oscar Romero who was not beatified, due to conservative opposition, until Pope Francis. Shortly before his assassination, Romero told a reporter:

“If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”

Trans Salvadorans murdered are themselves martyrs; they were killed for walking the path of holiness, for living openly as their authentic selves. In their blood, new seeds of freedom and hope take root to flourish. These children of God should have never faced violent deaths in the first place, but their murders now compel Catholics to be a leading voice for LGBT human rights and as a defender of crucified LGBT communities.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 31, 2017

Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman and LGBT rights activist from El Salvador, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. She will join an international focus session panel of transgender and intersex advocates. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will be a plenary speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.”  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Carmelite Sisters Become Key Allies for Transgender Youth in India

In January, Bondings 2.0 reported about Indian Catholics’ involvement in starting the country’s first school inclusive of trans youth. This week, The Atlantic posted a more in-depth look at the women religious who helped make the school a reality, and who have remained involved as key allies.

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Vijayaraja Mallika and Sr. Pavithra

Transgender  educator Vijayaraja Mallika had a dream was to start a school for trans people and to give it the name “Sahaj,” which in Hindi means “natural.” But Mallika lacked a proper space for the school until Carmelite sisters, having become aware of the activist’s efforts, invited her for tea. The article continued:

 

“Splitting themselves between an auto-rickshaw and a public bus, the sisters and the activist rode past palm trees, tech offices, and paddy fields to the spot they had in mind: an unused building that the CMC convent had once intended to turn into a dormitory.

“Mallika looked at the size of the structure, the roomy kitchen and sunny terrace. She was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears. The building was not only a concrete way to get her school started, it was also indicative of an entirely new support system. The Carmelites, she realized, could become unlikely allies for transgender activists pushing for education and acceptance in [the state of] Kerala.”

The Carmelites spent $8,000 to help outfit the school, and there are now two sisters living on the property. Sr. Pavithra, who helped connect the order with Mallika, said there is potential for more support, too. The sisters have “conceived of a new initiative to help trans youth by educating children in Carmelite-run schools about what it means to be transgender.” Through this awareness-raising program and through financial support for trans youth, the Carmelites goal for the students is “to ensure that they never drop out of school to begin with” and will not have to enter the sex trade. Sr. Pavithra said:

“We are 6,000 sisters. We have so many institutions. We are known to the society. Unless and until we take them up, how will [trans people] come up?”

Yet, establishing Sahaj itself has been a struggle. The initial excitement of establishing the school has ceded to frustrations. At present, there are “no teachers, no accreditation, and no students.” The building, instead, is functioning as a shelter. But despite administrative challenges, Sr. Pavithra and the Carmelites remain hopeful:

“‘Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead. . .Of course it can happen in Kerala. . .These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, “Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.”‘”

The sisters’ commitment is important because the needs of trans people in Kerala are great. Approximately 25,000 trans people live there, and their outcomes are impaired by the high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence that they and other trans communities in the world face. The Atlantic compared education outcomes:

“Kerala boasts a higher literacy rate for both men and women than any of India’s other 28 states. But 58 percent of transgender students in the state drop out before completing 10th grade and 24 percent drop out before ninth grade.”

Kerala’s 2015 Transgender Policy and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to legalize a third gender option have done little to mitigate these oppressions, said Mallika. Indeed, a trans advocate named Faisal said Kerala is a worse place to be trans than other states. Hijras, who are “transgender, intersex, and transsexual people who live within a strict hierarchical community” found elsewhere in India, are less present there. And Kerala has fewer Hindus and far more Christians than the overall demographics of India, with Christianity being far less accepting of non-binary genders than Hinduism.

Thankfully, the Carmelite sisters are paying attention to voices on the peripheries, and have been quite accepting of trans people in their state. The partnership began when Sr. Pavithra encountered Mallika at a social work gathering:

“There, Mallika spoke about how she had looked at almost 700 properties to no avail; some were too small, while others closed their doors when the owners learned what would be done with the space. Sister Pavithra took up the issue with her convent’s administrative council and advocated that they retrofit one of their vacant buildings into a school. . .The six council members approved the lease, with the blessing of the local bishop.”

The partnership is not, however, without its own problems. In an effort to protect trans people with whom they are working, the sisters have, at times, enforced strict curfews to keep people staying with them from going into sex work. They also “occasionally try to persuade trans people to wear clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth,” though one sister said this is so trans persons will “blend in, gain acceptance, and avoid ridicule” in society. She explicitly rejected that there have been any attempts at “conversion therapy.”

And there are intra-church hiccups, too, with some Catholics critical of the sisters’ work and of trans outreach generally. To them, Sr. Pavithra simply said, “If we consider everybody’s opinion, nothing will take place in the world.”

Church officials have had a leading and largely positive role when it comes to LGBT people in India. Last fall, the bishops’ official development agency, Caritas India, announced trans-specific outreach programs (though, it must be noted, the director’s approach to gender identity has been criticized). Virginia Saldanha, a leading lay person who was once executive secretary of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the church must bring LGBT people “in from the cold.”

A particularly bright light is Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias who, in a message to LGBT people conveyed through a personal interview with Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo, said the “church embraces you, wants you, needs you.” Gracias has said repeatedly that homosexuality should not be criminalized.In fact, he was the only religious leader in India to criticize the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate criminalization in 2013.

5The witness of these Carmelite sisters and other Indian church officials to the dignity and worth of LGBT people can be an inspiration and model for the church universal.

To learn more about Catholics involvement in international LGBT human rights, attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.”  An international panel of transgender and intersex advocates will speak during a focus session. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 30, 2017

Former VP Joe Biden Criticizes Anti-Trans Bathroom Law Focus

Former Vice President Joe Biden has made an appeal for transgender youths’ well-being, involving himself in the national debate about on trans equality. Biden, the nation’s first Catholic vice president, adds his voice to other Catholics’ calls for respecting such youth and all trans persons.

Biden - Human DignityBiden, who is Catholic, said, “Every single solitary person, no matter who they were, was entitled to be treated with dignity,” according to The AdvocateHe continued:

“‘As much great work as we’ve done, we face some real challenges ahead. We thought things were moving in the right direction. . .But there’s a changing landscape out there, folks, and we have a hell of a lot of work to do.’

“‘Instead of focusing on the fact that 40 percent of the homeless youth on the street are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [and] rejected by their families out on the street, and what do we do about that, we’re now focusing on whether or not a transgender child, which bathroom they can use.'”

The misguided focus Biden identified is seen in North Carolina’s passage of HB2, an anti-trans bathroom law last year.  More recently, the Trump administration rescinded federal education guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students. At the time, Catholic bishops applauded Trump’s decision, while some Catholic clergy offered mixed reactions to it.

Biden - Work to DoBiden made his remarks while receiving a humanitarian award from Help USA, a nonprofit that assists people experiencing homelessness.

As Vice President, he was a noted advocate for LGBT equality who once said trans rights were “the civil rights issue of our time.”  He vocally supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he is credited with moving former President Barack Obama to support marriage equality. Biden even officiated at a staffer’s same-gender wedding in the vice presidential residence, despite bishops’ criticism. Biden has said that  the criteria for marriage he endorsed was, “Who do you love?

The former vice president’s recent address reflects the growing sentiments of many U.S. Catholics who support equal rights for transgender persons. In an op-ed for the Illinois Times.  John Freml, coordinator of Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic organizations that work for justice for LGBT people, appealed for more Catholics to become supporters for trans people. Freml was responding to “multiple falsehoods about transgender people” made by Springfield’s Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who said there is “no physical basis for a person claiming to be transgender” and that transitioning is immoral and medically suspect.

In making such claims, Freml said the bishop was “ignoring multiple studies indicating a biological basis for transgender identity due to physical differences in the brain” and “exposing his lack of understanding of the transgender experience and the fluidity of gender.” Paprocki’s claims also contradicted mainstream medical understandings. Freml stated:

“There is actually no definitive Catholic teaching on transgender identity. . .Our bishop insists that the church must ‘reject the false ideologies being promoted in our secular culture and stand for the truth revealed to us by God,’ but I challenge him to recognize the face of Jesus revealed in the transgender members of our human family. Perhaps these individuals have something to teach all of us: The common thread in the diversity of transgender experiences is that transgender people, and especially transgender Catholics, seek to overcome what they experience as a barrier to living, loving and interacting from an authentic place. They seek wholeness in body, mind and spirit, something that Jesus certainly affirmed in his own ministry.

“As Catholics, we too are called to offer healing and wholeness to the world. If we fail in this regard, then we fail to live up to what God expects from us.”

Each week, there are more and more examples of Catholics seeing Christ in transgender people and acting in solidarity. A Jesuit priest in Canada recently spoke out for transgender equality legislation. Catholics in India helped found a school for transgender youth. More theologians are exploring gender identity in positive ways.  Most recently, Fr. James Martin, SJ, spoke out in defense of transgender youth, in the midst of the U.S.’s latest “bathroom debate.”

The conversation about transgender issues in the Catholic Church is evolving, and it is exciting to see priests, politicians, and active lay people coming out in support of trans communities.

If you would like to engage the conversation more deeply, considering attending New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. There will be a focus session on “Transgender and Intersex Identities and the Family,” featuring Deacon Raymond Dever and his trans daughter, Lexi, as well as intersex advocate Nicole Santamaria. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

You can find more of Bondings 2.0’s coverage of gender identity issues in our “Transgender” category to the right or by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 20, 2017

Trans Student Honored for Making Catholic Schools More Inclusive

In the same week that the U.S. Catholic bishops praised President Trump for revoking guidelines to protect transgender students, across the border in Canada, a trans teen was honored for bringing equality to her Catholic school.

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Tru, center, with her mother, Michelle, right

Tru Wilson, 13, a resident of the suburb of Ladner, was named a Sexual Health Champion by Options for Sexual Health, a nonprofit agency in Vancouver. The Georgia Straight reported:

“[Wilson’s] family filed a human-rights complaint when Ladner’s Sacred Heart [school] refused to allow her to attend as a girl. As a result, the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver became one of the first Catholic school boards in North America to change their policy to support gender expression and identity.”

During an awards breakfast, the teen described what transitioning had been like, saying, “I just want acceptance. . .It’s so strange that it’s hard. Why does it have to be hard?” She discussed invasive questions she has been asked and, through tears, about losing a close friend whose family would not accept her.

Tru was honored, in part, for the positive change she and her family were able to effect in Vancouver’s Catholic schools. In 2014, when she began transitioning at age 10, Sacred Heart Elementary School barred Tru from dressing in the female uniform, using female restrooms, or being called by her preferred name. Doug Lousen, the Catholic schools superintendent at the time, said “you cannot just change your sex.”

But the Wilsons, having overcome their own struggles with Tru’s coming out, did not accept Sacred Heart’s discrimination. They filed a human rights complaint against the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese, settling for an undisclosed amount and the adoption of a new transgender education policy by the Archdiocese.

That policy, believed to be the first such policy for Catholic schools in North America, allows trans students to use their preferred pronouns, as well as wear the uniform and use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Transgender students are able to file for accommodations and work with a pastoral team of medical, spiritual, and educational experts to create individualized plans for each student.

But, there has been a downside. The Archdiocese claimed that church teaching stopped schools from supporting students who medically transition. And it has not quickly become the “template” the Wilson’s lawyer had hoped it would become in Catholic education. Disputes over LGBTQ student policies have been fierce in the neighboring province of Alberta. Lastly, Tru never returned to Catholic schools, and religion has become a mixed blessing for the Wilsons. Michelle explained during the breakfast:

“‘We thought that we could kind of ignore the aspects of the faith that we didn’t necessarily agree with and take advantage of all the really good things about it. . .For me, [this experience has] reinforced that there are some great things about faith and there are some really sad things that people use to pit people each other because of faith.”

Unfortunately, as in Tru Wilson’s case, LGBTQ youth too often experience these negative aspects of faith. A trans student at a Catholic school in England was shot with a BB gun after months of bullying. In the U.S., federal guidelines aimed at protecting trans students were repealed by the Trump administration last month.

But through the steady and courageous work of people like Tru Wilson and her parents, positive changes are happening. Catholic officials should do their part to expedite such changes by preemptively adopting supportive policies for trans students like Vancouver’s.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 6, 2017

Priests Exchange Opposing Tweets on Transgender Equality

Last Saturday, Bondings 2.0 posted about Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s positive tweets about transgender people in the wake of the announcement that the Trump administration was rescinding federal guidelines for how schools can support transgender youth.

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-16-20-50Fr. Martin’s tweets landed him in the middle of a Twitter exchange, initiated by another priest who challenged the Jesuit’s comments. Gay  Star News  reported that in response to one Martin’s supportive messages, Fr. Matt Bozovsky, an associate pastor of St. Joseph parish, Wilmette, Illinois, tweeted:

“Um… this is a joke, right? Someone please tell me this is a parody account and not actually coming from a Catholic priest.”

Martin responded to Bozovsky’s challenge:

“No, I’m an actual Catholic priest in good standing who stands with the marginalized. Some charity is in order here, Father.”

Gay Star News commented that Martin’s comment was “the perfect response” to a “transphobic” clergyman.  They added that Martin “responded as calmly and as perfectly as possible.”

In Buzzfeed’s coverage of the exchange, they offered a compilation of Fr. Martin’s series of tweets last week in support of transgender youth:

“Trans students endure so many indignities already. They should be able to use whatever bathrooms they choose. It’s doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“It saddens me that a #trans student cannot choose what bathrooms to use. A basic need. It’s an affront to their dignity as human beings.”

“And who is harmed by a #trans student using a bathroom? I’ve seen women using men’s rooms when the ladies’ rooms were full. Who is harmed?”

“As usual, the one who is made to suffer indignities is the one on the margins, the one seen as ‘other,’ the one seen as ‘them.’ “

“But for Jesus, there is no ‘other.’ There is no ‘them.’ There is only ‘us.’ So we must be about openness, acceptance and inclusion. #trans”

The Daily Mail reported that since the exchange, Bozovsky changed his Twitter account to private. The newspaper also reported that many Twitter users came to Martin’s defense with addtitional tweets:

“The exchange has lead to dozens of users to reach out in support of Martin, calling his comeback a ‘holy mic drop’ and others cheering for Martin to ‘drag him with kindness, father.’

“One user called it ‘the most polite shade ever’, while another added: ‘No shade like Jesuit shade.’ “

New Ways Ministry is very proud of Fr. Martin!  We admire not only his solidarity with transgender people and youth, but also the gentle, but firm, way he responded to criticism. We are delighted that we presented him with New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award last October.  He continues to build bridges, not only with LGBT people but with those who oppose them.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, March 2, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.