Trans Prisoner Writes Pope Francis After Priest Uses Slur Against Her

January 28, 2016

A portion of the letter to Pope Francis

A trans prisoner in Malta is appealing to Pope Francis for mercy after allegedly being subjected to derogatory slurs by a Catholic chaplain.

In a January 7th letter, Raquela Richards Spiteri told the pontiff that Capuchin Fr. Franco Fenech used the Maltese slurs bewwiela and imnittna against her. Spiteri further claimed the friar had acknowledged using such words in a meeting with the prison’s director but never apologized.

Fenech responded to the claim by saying, “I deny categorically using these words, but I cannot comment.” He also speculated about how such a letter could have left the prison.

Spiteri also wrote to Pope Francis about inaction by Fenech’s religious superior, as TVM reported:

“The prisoner wrote that a Provincial of the Franciscan Capuchins, Dr Martin Micallef, chose to postpone this problem to the coming June, when the Order’s General Chapter is held in Malta. She further alleged, however, that the Provincial is abdicating his responsibility, as she will have left the Prison by June.”

Spiteri, a Catholic, also mentioned in the letter that a priest had sexually abused her when she was younger.  She seeks a resolution in the church before exploring her legal options against Fr. Fenech. In an aside, she also mentioned how she is being improperly housed in Malta’s prisons which have failed to respect her gender identity.

In the first year of his papacy, Francis made repeated headlines for his handwritten notes to people of all kinds, including a note to a group for LGBT Catholics in Italy. I called it a “letter writing revolution” at the time and, despite his negative remarks on marriage equality more recently, something revolutionary remains about Pope Francis’ preference for personal and intimate encounter. This revolutionary aspect was present, too, when the pope dined last March with gay and transgender inmates at an Italian prison.

While the details of the situation are sparse, one thing we know is that a person is claiming they were hurt by one of the church’s ministers. Especially in this Year of Mercy, it is necessary for church officials at least to investigate the matter and pursue justice, if necessary, and then reconciliation in this matter. Since the pope is open to personal encounter, I hope Spiteri’s letter finds its way to him. His involvement on behalf of one of God’s most marginalized people would certainly advance justice and reconciliation in this pastoral matter.

But if all that does not happen, Spiteri can take advantage of improved legal rights in Malta.  Last spring, legislators in the heavily Catholic nation passed a transgender rights law that is considered the “gold standard” in Europe.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry



Nebraska Bishops Blast Trans Athletics Policy, Promote “At Birth” Proposal

January 16, 2016

Bishop James Conley

Catholic officials in Nebraska balked at state education officials’ newly approved policy on transgender athletes, and they called attention to a church-proposed by-law change that would determine participation by a student’s assigned sex at birth.

On Thursday, the Nebraska School Activities Association Board of Directors approved, by a vote of 6-2, a policy that allows transgender high school students to play sports according to their gender identity. Evidence would be required of hormone therapy or gender confirming surgery to be reviewed by a state-level gender-eligibility committee, reported LGBT advocates criticized the policy for creating a “rigorous and expensive process” and the ACLU warned it may violate federal non-discrimination law.

Regarding Catholic schools ability to exempt themselves from the policy, explained:

“Under the policy adopted by the NSAA board Thursday, a local school would determine whether to seek state permission for a transgender student to participate. That means that a parochial school with objections to transgender participation could decide not to forward an application to the NSAA. It would also mean that the local school would be the primary target for any litigation.”

The Nebraska Catholic Conference criticized the Board’s policy by issuing a joint statement from the state’s three bishops which called the new directive an “arbitrary, non-collaborative decision.”

Catholic leaders prefer the “at birth” bylaw change, which would override the Board’s policy if approved. This past week four of six regional NSAA districts voted for the “at birth” proposal, meaning it will considered in April by the Association’s Representative Assembly. It needs three-fifths approval from the 51 members to be implemented.

Opposition to any policy which would support and protect trans students is seemingly rooted in misunderstanding, even ignorance, of gender identity. A letter to the editor by Lincoln’s Bishop James Conley claimed any criteria besides assigned sex allows students to identify by a “gender identity of their own choosing.” He promoted the vicious myth that allowing trans people to use restrooms or locker rooms according to their gender identity is unsafe for others. He mentioned “respect, understanding, and compassion” for trans people–a phrase which is often used in relationship to lesbian and gay people.

Earlier this week,  I recommended that the church not accept simple answers on these complex matters. Bishop Conley’s line of thought, however, is a simple, reductionist critique of gender identity. His views do not engage the lived experience of trans communities, including Catholics, or to consider modern knowledge which contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of gender identity.

Each of the policies currently considered by the NSAA would leave trans students and Nebraska school athletics in a troubling uncertainty. If the “at birth proposal” loses in April, the Board’s flawed but marginally better policy would become permanent (barring legal challenges). If the “at birth” proposal advocated by church leaders succeeds, trans students will be further discriminated against and marginalized, in part, because of Catholics actions. All students in Nebraska’s schools, public and Catholic alike, deserve better policies than those proscribed by uninformed clerics and their staffs.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Alberta Bishop Calls New LGBTQ Guidelines “Totalitarian” and “Anti-Catholic”

January 15, 2016

Education Minister David Eggen announcing the new guidelines

In Canada, new guidelines from the province of Alberta’s Education Ministry may push transgender policies under development in a positive direction. However, according to one bishop, the guidelines are “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” though other Catholics involved in provincial educational systems say the new recommendations are good news.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary attacked the guidelines in a blog post titled “Totalitarianism in Alberta,” reported CBC. He wrote, in part:

“This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology. . .Such a totalitarian approach is not in accordance with [Canadian law] and must be rejected.”

Henry also said the guidelines “breathe pure secularism” and described gay-straight alliances as “highly politicized ideological clubs” because they oppose homophobia and heterosexism–two influences which he belittled. Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the comments by saying he would meet with Catholic education officials,, and he was certain that the guidelines offered “a constructive process that will lead to a positive outcome in the end.”

Kris Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services had a sharper critique, calling for the bishop to apologize. Wells said:

” ‘The only madness that Bishop Henry describes is his lunacy. . .What the bishop fails to realize is that this kind of harmful rhetoric does great damage to LGBT youth and individuals in our province.”

Mickey Wilson of Edmonton’s Pride Centre said most Catholics want their church “to move past these things,” reported The Edmonton Journal.   He also stated:

” ‘It’s just shameful that he would put students in a position where they have to chose between being schooled in their faith and having a safe place.’ “

Chair Marilyn Bergstra of the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board (ECSB) was among those Catholics who viewed the guidelines differently. She was “very impressed” by them, according to The Edmonton Sun. Bergstra, who began chairing ECSB last October, said further:

” ‘My wish would be that every single word in that document is adopted. . .But that’s not how democracy works, and we have to have a fulsome discussion.’ “

The guidelines in dispute suggested that school districts’ policies respect students’ gender identity and expression, specifically when it comes to dress codes, restrooms, and athletics. Non-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ employees are also suggested.Though not binding, the guidelines come from the Ministry which will be reviewing board policies once they are submitted in March. Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding, so they are not exempt from LGBT protections. You can read the guidelines by clicking here.

ECSB’s discussions about a policy for trans students have been particularly heated. The Board approved a draft policy in December which would allow “just discrimination” of LGBT youth. Previous meetings became shouting matches such that Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation. Trustee Larry Kowalczyk is on record saying trans people have a “mental disorder” and this whole initiative is due to “God-hating activists.”

Despite the new guidelines, approving a policy which actually protects trans students at Edmonton’s Catholic schools may be a challenge. But the guidelines would be immense progress if ECSB members integrate them into any new policy, a reality highlighted by transgender parent Marni Panas who told CBC:

” ‘These are words in a document and they’re really solid words, they’re really good words, but they will mean nothing unless we see action and we see these students protected.’ “

Protecting students should be a first priority of Catholic education, but somehow not all Catholics believe these protections should be afforded to transgender students. Rather than rejecting these guidelines outright (or going so far as calling them “totalitarian”), ECSB and all Catholic trustees should carefully read them and come to understand there is little, if nothing at all, in them which contradicts Catholic teachings. Indeed, they affirm the fundamental call of the Gospel to care about and provide for each person’s well-being, as well as the common good of all people.

With just over two months until a policy is due, Catholic officials in Alberta should put the harsh rhetoric aside.  Instead, they should be open to the guidelines and to new understandings of LGBT people..

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Catholics Must Avoid Simple Answers on Gender Identity Questions

January 14, 2016

Barltrop_Final (2)

As transgender advocacy increases in civil society, there are inevitably going to be responses in the Catholic Church. Unlike homosexuality, there are no Catechism paragraphs or well-developed theologies to which the leaders or laity can readily appeal for understanding gender identity questions.

This vacuum has lead to quick assumptions by some people strongly opposed to trans justice because they, incorrectly, conflate the issue with sexual orientation, or morph episcopal opinions into authoritative teaching.

But finding a more nuanced understanding is essential because trans issues demand Catholics’ attention more and more as several recent incidents reveal. They touch upon civil matters, as well ecclesial, pastoral, and sacramental ones. For instance, bishops in Bolivia struck out against a new law passed in December that would allow trans citizens to change their gender on national identification cards. Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, president of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, said in a press conference:

“That bill is inspired by a gender ideology that has been pushed by an international lobby and aims to subvert one of the foundations of our human lifestyle by denying the fundamental truth of masculine and feminine genders. Living as male or female would not longer be a biological truth but the result of a simple personal choice. That ideology is totally alien to the indigenous cultures of our country. As a result, this initiative is a clear attempt of cultural colonization.”

There are examples elsewhere, too. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, exempted itself from federal nondiscrimination guidelines designed to protect trans students. A Canadian Catholic school board called for “just discrimination” of trans youth. Nebraska’s bishops are working hard to stop protections for trans high school athletes in that state.

Evident in the Bolivian bishop’s comment and the other enumerated incidents is a lack of education about gender identity and a seeming failure to encounter trans people before issuing such pronouncements. Generalizations about gender ideology or gender theory are thrown about without foundation. In developing nations, trans rights are cast as neo-colonialist ideals being imposed from the outside. Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family are themselves guilty of wading into these ambiguities without providing clarity. This confusion is detrimental to LGBT persons’ well-being–and even their lives.

Some recent articles have attempted to explore the intersection of gender identity and Catholic theology. Though often problematic, such journalism at least admits the complexities involved. In The Catholic HeraldDan Hitchens asked “What’s the truth about transsexuality?”surveying thoughts from trans and cis Catholics alike. He explained the state of this question as such:

“There are many opinions about trans people’s identity and possible vocations – and little has been officially taught on this subject. What is uncontroversial is that the Church could do better at making space for trans people. ‘Right now,’ [transsexual Catholic Aoif Assumpta] Hart observes, ‘the debate seems to be “everything goes” or “nothing goes.’ ”

“While some are entirely permissive, others are hostile to trans people. . .Hart hopes that a middle ground might emerge – ‘a balance between good theology and treating people compassionately.’ “

Anna Magdalena of the blog, The Catholic Transgender, emphasized the diversity of thought about gender within the trans community itself, noting that trans Catholics share in this difference of opinions. But, as she told the Herald, behind the theories and the theologies, “there are concrete people, real experiences.” What can emerge for trans Catholics who find inclusion are positive experiences.  For example, Anna says hers is “a story of redemption, a story of integration” after her transition. If acceptance is not found, however, the results can be devastating, proven by the exceedingly high rates of self harm and suicide in trans communities. Hitchens concluded his article by stating the church is only “just beginning to form its answer” to this pressing issue.

But given that the “Transgender Moment” has arrived in civil society, as one Commonweal blogger termed it in an otherwise negative piece, the church is required to offer an initial response. Will trans Catholics be accepted to the sacraments? Will trans church workers keep their jobs? Will bishops oppose civil rights legislation? Will the church affirm the dignity of all people in its actions or just in its words?

Thankfully, developments in a positive direction are evidence that a Gospel way forward is possible. For instance, University of San Diego students intentionally included the needs of transgender and queer students in their demands for reform. One Sr. Monica, a Discalced Carmelite, ministers to trans women in the pope’s home nation of Argentina, while another “Sr. Monica” continues her decade-plus ministry to trans Catholics in the U.S.  Studies have shown that historically-Catholic nations are leading on trans legal equality. And, in some cases, even traditionally-inclined Catholics are advocating for trans justice.

These pastorally-wise and welcoming responses should guide Catholic engagement with gender identity, avoiding both easy judgments and noncommittal responses. Church officials, theologians, and ministers should also heed William Lindsey’s caution that tepid columnists should avoid:

“[A] perspective that moves not in the direction of understanding the struggles of those on the margins and listening respectfully to their testimony about their own self-understanding, but towards self-congratulation and the conclusion that one’s own hermetically sealed, privileged club represents the norm by which everyone else in the world is to be judged.”

Before rushing to definitive answers, all Catholics would be wise to first listen to the real,lived experiences of trans people.  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. Pope Francis desires a culture of encounter, and gender identity questions in the church are a perfect opportunity in which to practice that culture.

And while we listen, the best approach pastorally is that of London’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop who said the church should be “fully supportive” of those who decide to transition because this question of gender identity is a pastoral, not doctrinal matter. There is, perhaps, the essential starting point for this whole discussion.

What are your thoughts about trans issues in the Catholic Church for the coming year? Leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

LGBT Concerns Included in University of San Diego Student Demands

January 10, 2016

usdAs the new year gets underway,  college campuses will soon be in full swing.  Here are stories from three Catholic schools that are working for greater LGBT equality for their students.

USD Students’ Demand LGBTQ Justice

University of San Diego (USD) students have released a list of equality demands for marginalized students–including LGBTQ students–to kick off the spring semester. Uniting under “Concerned Students @ USD” and led by the Black Student Union, student groups and activists at the school are seeking a number of critic al campus reforms.

The 22 demands ask “that the university stand by its professed values now” to critically examine and change those aspects of campus life which are “exclusionary, alienating, and invalidating to its marginalized students.”

Though primarily focused on matters of racial justice, the intersectional approach means Concerned Students @ USD forcefully includes queer and transgender communities in their efforts. Related demands include:

  • Gender-neutral restrooms in every campus building;
  • Greater representation in administration and student leadership of “people of color, queer-identified people and women”;
  • Creation of a new Gender and Queer Studies department with a minimum of 12 full-time faculty;
  • A mandatory orientation program comprehensive of race, gender, and sexual identity;
  • Intentional inclusion of “cultural, LGBT and feminist student organizations” in campus programming;
  • A ban on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media application, where hate speech, including homophobic and transphobic remarks, are quite prominent.

USD President James Harris responded to the students’ demands in the campus newspaper The Vista at last semester’s end, calling upon all students to become involved with a newly begun strategic planning process where matters of justice and equality could be taken up.

University spokesperson Peter Marlow confirmed that Harris had met with involved students to help them participate in the planning process, though he added that “any fringe ideas that may be contrary to our Catholic identity would be vetted by a broad audience and even broader perspectives and priorities.”

DePaul University Considering Preferred Name Policy

Officials at Chicago’s DePaul University, the U.S.’ largest Catholic college, are considering a Student Preferred Name and Gender Policy. This proposed policy would allow students to identify their “preferred name” rather than legal name in university systems, as well as leave their gender “unspecified.” Katy Weseman, who coordinates LGBTQA Student Services, told campus newspaper The DePaulia this change is:

“Very much in line with DePaul’s mission, part of honoring a person’s human dignity is honoring and respecting how they identify and how they refer to themselves. . .this is very much a social justice issue.”

Marquette University Implements Gender-Neutral Restrooms

Students returning to Marquette University in Milwaukee this semester will have access to gender-neutral restrooms on the ground floor of all residence halls, reported campus newspaper Marquette Wire. The restrooms, labeled “All Gender,” are being welcomed by students. Marquette becomes the eighth Jesuit college in the U.S. to offer more transgender-inclusive restrooms.

      *      *      *      *      *

What is particularly impressive in all three stories is that it is both students and staff have been working, independently and in collaboration, for LGBT justice. Radical efforts from the grassroots, like Concerned Students @ USD, continue pushing already inclusive schools even further. Institutionalized reforms, like at DePaul and Marquette, ensure that students’ efforts become protected and permanent.

As another semester begins, Catholic higher education in the U.S. continues to lead the broader church in how we can improve LGBT acceptance and inclusion in our communities.

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

Belmont Abbey College Misrepresents Church Teaching to Discriminate Against Trans Students

December 19, 2015

3877664057_2320d1c5f6_zLGBT groups are criticizing Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina, for attaining a religious exemption which allows the school to discriminate against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination, has been interpreted recently to include LGBT protections. While religious exemptions are not new, application of these provisions has risen sharply as civil rights based on sexual and gender identity have expanded.

In a January 2015 letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Belmont Abbey’s president, Dr. William Theirfelder sought an exemption for the school. Citing a California legal case affording a transgender student equal rights, Theirfelder said the College “would not be able to make similar accommodations consistent with our Catholic beliefs.” College spokesperson Rolando Rivas concurred, saying the exemption was necessary to operate “in congruence with the teachings of the church.”

Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine school, is now able to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in ten areas including “employment, the admission of students, housing and the provision of facilities like restrooms and locker rooms.” Abbot Placid Solari, Chancellor, said students will be treated based on assigned sex rather than gender identity. The president explained further, telling The New York Times:

“Among those beliefs, [Theirfelder] said, was a rejection of the idea that the ‘resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and the experience of gender’ can be found through gender reassignment surgery or the ‘adoption of a psychological identity’ typically associated with the opposite sex.”

Advocates, which include Campus Pride and the Human Rights Campaign, are calling attention to nearly three dozen colleges which have sought religious exemptions to LGBT protections from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The New York Times explained:

“The exemptions are in some cases wide-reaching and exempt schools from abiding by provisions of the law that they feel are inconsistent with their religious beliefs on a range of topics, including gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status and whether a person has had an abortion.”

Critics are questioning these exemptions because recipient institutions, like Belmont Abbey College, still receive government funding. Victoria M. Rodriguez-Roldan of the National LGBTQ Task Force said:

“What these universities are seeking is a license to discriminate while still receiving taxpayer money, and they are doing it out of an animus toward transgender people. . .It is what it is: discrimination and the unfair treatment of transgender people.”


Shane Windmeyer of Campus Pride, who is Catholic himself, told Gaston Gazette:

“Families and young people deserve to know that this list of schools are not loving, welcoming, safe spaces to live, learn and grow — and taxpayers should definitely not have to pay for a private college to openly discriminate against anyone.”

Windmeyer added that failure to support LGBT youth and young adults, particularly in religious communities, is linked strongly to higher rates of mental health issues, self-harm, and suicide.

For all Belmont Abbey College’s claims about Catholic identity, it misrepresents church teaching on gender identity.

There is no clearly articulated teaching on gender transition or on the gender norms the College seeks to enforce. While a clear doctrinal affirmation may not yet exist regarding gender identity questions, there are no clear prohibitions either. London’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop, tasked with LGBTQI outreach by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has even said gender identity issues are a pastoral, not doctrinal, issue and the church should support those individuals who decided to transition. Other Catholic colleges, such as Georgetown University or Fordham University, have established supports for trans students consistent with a Catholic identity. One student, Lexi Dever, claimed Georgetown saved her life because it welcomed and nourished her as a trans student.

Belmont Abbey officials are obviously unaware that their policy is not supported by Catholic teaching, as they claim. In fact, their policy is undermining Catholic education and an approach to gender that is rooted in the Gospel and seeks the good for each and every student. Students at Belmont Abbey College deserve an apology. The Catholic faith, in whose name this exemption was claimed, demands better.

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

Catholic School Board Calls For “Just” Discrimination of Transgender Students

December 11, 2015

View of Edmonton Catholic School Board’s December meeting

Trustees on the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) debated the finer points of discrimination in late November, and they approved a second reading of a draft policy on transgender students that now implicitly allows “just” discrimination for their school system, which is located in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The draft policy changed between a first reading approved in November and the second reading last week, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

“On first reading, the draft policy included the sentence: ‘All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment.’

“But on second reading Tuesday evening, that sentence was altered to add the word ‘unjust’ before the word ‘discrimination.’ “

According to trustee Cindy Olsen, the edit differentiates between just and unjust discrimination. Wording which includes “unjust discrimination” was in the second reading approved in a 5-2 vote. A third reading is required for final approval after being reviewed for legal compliance by Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen.

Not all involved in the process believe discrimination should be parsed in the policy. Two trustees, Marilyn Bergstra and Patricia Grell, voted against the new wording. Bergstra, who excused herself as chair so she could speak candidly, said the policy must be “black and white” so as to clearly articulate “what is expected.” Grell, who sponsored the policy, explained further:

” ‘It’s almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation.’ “

Marni Panas, a transgender parent in Edmonton Catholic schools, asked who decides what is considered just discrimination. She told the Edmonton Journal that, after eleven months, “we’re not further ahead.”

Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies said the policy is essentially meaningless. What is needed are “specific, comprehensive and stand-alone policies [that] are targeted interventions” supporting LGBTQ students.

A September meeting on the draft policy devolved into a “shouting match.” Trustee Larry Kowalczyk has said trans* people have a “mental disorder” and the policy is backed by “God-hating activists.” Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation lasting two weeks after this meeting.

Debates by Edmonton Catholic officials mirror emerging debates in the wider Alberta School Board Association, though perhaps less intensely.  At its fall meeting, he Association failed to achieve a 2/3rds vote to allow discussion of transgender policies. Interestingly, the Catholic School Board  voted in favor of the discussion which Bergstra called “emergent.”

Minister Eggen has since mandated that all Alberta school boards, including the the Edmonton Catholic School Board, must develop policies supporting LGBT students by the end of March 2016. In this case, ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra says her board hs a “head start” and could assist other boards just beginning the process of creating transgender polices.

ECSB’s “head start” did not come as a result to any trustee’s initiative, but because they were faced with the the incident of a 7-year-old girl being barred from the girls’ bathroom at her Catholic primary school.  The proposed policy is intended to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, but by allowing “just” discrimination it may only increase the already exorbitant risks trans youth face.

Catholic education, whose mandate comes from the Gospel, has a duty to ensure all students flourish by providing high quality education in safe and respectful environments. As it is written now, ECSB’s policy will not move their schools towards this end for trans students or their family, friends, and educators. Catholic officials attempt to differentiate “just” and “unjust” discrimination is not a new tactic, but it remains a failed and dangerous one.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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