Resolve to Create a Trans* Epiphany in 2015

January 4, 2015

Leelah Alcorn

One question is occupying my mind on today’s Feast of the Epiphany: what does God’s rupture into humanity mean following a 17-year-old trans* girl’s suicide?

Leelah Alcorn walked onto a highway and ended her life via a truck three days after Christmas. As Christians worldwide celebrated Jesus’ birth, the Alcorns were instead confronted by their own child’s death. Leelah had written about the suicide on her blog shortly beforehand. That note, found here in full, says the following:

“The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally ‘boyish’ things to try to fit in.

“When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Leelah describes the Christian therapists who tried to “heal” her and the social isolation her parents imposed after withdrawing Leelah from school. Instead of liberating Leelah, the Christian faith of those who could neither love her nor understand her as she had been made by God became complicit in this young girl’s death.

In demanding that Leelah conform to gender expectations that are irrelevant to true faith, and to conform to identities that are false before herself and before God, self-identified disciples of Jesus failed to love this young child. Perhaps they were unaware that Paul writes to the Galatians that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? Perhaps they simply forgot that the greatest law beyond all else is love? Perhaps they were well-intentioned and good people who simply failed, as we all do?

Unlike many, I do not solely blame the Alcorns. I simply do not know the details well enough to understand their lives and their relationship with Leelah. My focus is broader: this suicide and the thousands more of LGBT youth are indictments of our Christian communities for failing to love in concrete and real ways. It is clear Leelah’s death results from harmful and intolerant messages from the church, and I agree with Melinda Selmys on this:

“Whatever our ideological beliefs about gender and sexuality may be, those beliefs should not translate into an isolated child, deprived of hope, rejected by her parents, cut off from her support networks, denied the ability to be the only person that she knew how to be. The love of God should not translate into the slaughter of the innocents. That was never His work.”

What about today’s Feast of the Epiphany amid all this? “Epiphany” means breakthrough. In ancient times, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity breaking through to all the world was seen in not only the visit of the Magi, but in Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana, instances where Christ shatters preconceptions and expectations to reveal God in new ways to new peoples. This divine rupture into human history is a most radical event.

Leelah’s suicide was an epiphany, too. It has sparked national conversations and a hashtag on Twitter, #RealLiveTransAdult, where trans* people have shared their stories and their lives before the world. People worldwide are answering Leelah’s parting call that transgender people be “treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…My death needs to mean something…Fix society. Please.”

Now, it is time for an epiphany on trans* issues in the Catholic Church. We must help our local communities and our global church to breakthrough fear and ignorance to welcome all as God knows them and calls them. We must rupture our own prejudices and discomforts to learn more and grow in love for those we consider “other.”

Let us resolve in 2015 to making this epiphany a reality. Resolve to ensure that the next trans* youth contemplating suicide finds positive faith voices and inclusive communities. Resolve to support parents in loving their trans* children as Deacon Ray Dever wrote about so beautifully last week. Resolve to challenge anti-transgender prejudices and correcting false information about gender in our faith communities. Resolve to be open to God’s power that breaks into our world through Jesus’ divinity and remains today through the Spirit, for with God all things are possible and indeed surprise is often God’s means.

For more information on Catholic transgender issues, check out the “Transgender“category to the right.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


LGBTQ Children in Catholic Families: A Deacon’s View of Holy Family Sunday

December 28, 2014

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Today’s post is written by a guest blogger: Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida.

On this first Sunday after Christmas, the Church observes the feast of the Holy Family.  And with that observance inevitably comes reflection on the nature and meaning of the Catholic family today.  Many within the Church still seem to hold an idealized and increasingly inaccurate vision of what a Catholic family looks like, in spite of the growing diversity of the families that comprise the people of God.  As one who would count my own family among that diversity, the topic of Catholic family holds considerable personal interest for me.

In the fall of 2013, at the beginning of our son’s sophomore year at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, he came out as transgender.  In doing so, she became one of only three openly trans* students at Georgetown at the time.  This happened just a few weeks after the now famous Pope Francis interview that made “Who am I to judge?” part of our vernacular.  And with those events, my family found ourselves plunged into all the questions and issues that Catholic families with LGBTQ children face. [Editor’s note:  The term “trans*” is used as a “catch-all” word for the diverse forms of gender identities (other than the traditional male/female binary) that exist in humanity.]

In our case, there was at least one notable difference.  Besides being a husband, father, and professional engineer, I’m a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, having been ordained in 2009.  When the topic of married clergy comes up, many Catholics are taken aback when they’re told that the Church already has married clergy, mostly in the person of the approximately 18,000 permanent deacons in the US.  I can’t imagine what they would think if they realized there are Catholic clergy whose families include LGBTQ children!

Our journey has probably not been very different than the journey of any family with an LGBTQ child.  It really began with our daughter descending into a deep depression during high school.  We would learn more about depression and mental illness, about suicidal ideations and self-injurious behavior, about therapists and anti-depressant medications than we ever could have imagined or wanted.  That journey would eventually lead to questions of gender identity that were intimately connected with her mental health struggles.

When our daughter came out, my wife and I experienced the full range of thoughts and emotions that any parents do in that situation – shock at the news, a lack of understanding of gender issues, conflict with what the Church teaches about human sexuality, confusion and guilt about what we should do as parents, profound sadness at what felt like the loss of our son, fear and worry for what the future would hold for her.  There were arguments, sleepless nights, and prayers – lots of prayers.

We slowly came to the realization that we hadn’t lost the person who had been our son.  In fact, in many respects we got our child back, as she embraced her gender identity and emerged from the depths of depression.  All the creativity, humor, empathy, and intelligence that make her an exceptional person are still there and are shining through stronger than ever.  And I’d like to think that the acceptance of her immediate and extended Catholic family have played some part in that positive transformation.

However, family support for LGBTQ children is obviously not the rule, and is often problematic for Catholic families in particular, given the mixed and often confusing messages they hear from the Church regarding LGBTQ issues.  A few months ago I had the privilege of visiting with the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Catholic chaplain’s office at Georgetown.  While I was surprised and gratified by the warm welcome that I received as an interested, supportive parent of an LGBTQ student, I was saddened to hear that I was the exception and that there were far too many stories of families rejecting their LGBTQ children and of causing tremendous pain and family divisions.

While I am certainly not qualified or authorized to speak for the Church on LGBTQ issues, I have been commissioned by the Church through ordination to proclaim and to preach the Gospel.  And if one thing is crystal clear in the public ministry and teachings of our Lord, it is that everyone is included in His love and mercy and forgiveness, and that we are all called to do the same.  For those Catholic families with LGBTQ children that are struggling with what they should do, I would suggest that they look to the Holy Family.  Look to the love embodied in the Incarnation, a love like no other, and embrace your children.  As the Church calls us to do first and foremost, follow your conscience, love own another, and especially love your children.

–Deacon Ray Dever, St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida

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CAMPUS CHRONICLES: There is Much to Be Grateful For in Catholic Higher Ed This November

November 29, 2014

It is becoming a mantra for me: Catholic higher education in the US is a bright light for the church and the world when it comes to LGBT justice. Bondings 2.0‘s “Campus Chronicles” series often reports on the positive developments taking place on these campuses, or at a minimum, the way students and faculty are challenging anti-gay elements.

Though a few days after Thanksgiving, there is still much to be grateful for at America’s more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Below is a brief sampling of what has happened this November.

Controversy at Marquette U.

A class discussion at Marquette University in Milwaukee has attracted national attention after a student’s challenge to a teaching assistant’s handling of an ethics debate.

The teacher, Cheryl Abbate, passed over the topic of same-sex marriage to focus on other examples related to the philosophy of John Rawls which was being discussed. After class, a student recorded a conversation with Abbate, without her permission, in which he challenged her decision not to discuss same-sex marriage. Inside Higher Ed reports on the details of the conversation, but in can be summarize by saying that Abbate decided the student’s desired debate over same-sex marriage and LGBT parenting was irrelevant to the topic and grounded in questionable data.

Conservative outlets claim the incident reveals just how heavily academia inhibits free thought on LGBT issues, though Abbate denies a key quote they attribute to her and there is no recording of the class itself. University of South Carolina professor Justin Weinberg offers a different and more helpful perspective on the incident:

“There are certainly interesting pedagogical questions about how to discuss potentially offensive topics without violating harassment policies…However, the event at the center of this controversy does not appear to be one of speech being shut down because it is offensive. Rather, the [student’s] comment was off-topic and based on false claims, and the instructor needed to make a decision about how to use limited class time, especially given the topic of the lesson and the subject of the course (which is ethical theory, not applied ethics).”

For her part, Abbate hopes the incident will lead Marquette administrators to reconsider their policy on cyberbullying and harassment, given that the secret recording of her conversation was posted by a faculty member posted on his personal blog. Saying such practices lead to a “toxic environment,” she added:

” ‘I would hope that Marquette would do everything in its power to cultivate a climate where Marquette employees, especially students, are not publicly demeaned by tenured faculty.’ “

A spokesperson for Marquette University said administrators are reviewing the incident, which has prompted complaints from both students and faculty.

Holy Cross to Build Digital Transgender Archive

A faculty member at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, has won a fellowship to develop a Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) which would document “information on the works, studies and experiences of transgender individuals and the social movement to advance their rights.”

The archive, an idea of English professor K.J. Rawson, is the first of its kind, according to Holy Cross Magazine and involves ten collaborating analog archives. Rawson describes it as: “a collaborative project with a robust search engine that virtually merges disparate collections of materials.” The purpose is to quickly and easily connect researchers to appropriate materials, in part as a way to correct a harmful historical narrative on trans identities.

Though the article notes many challenges ahead for the archive, it appears Holy Cross’ Catholic identity is proving to be an asset. Rawson explains he “could not imagine a more welcoming environment for the DTA,” including laudatory administrators and thankful alumni who reached out to the professor. He added:

” ‘The core Jesuit qualities that distinguish Holy Cross also inspire this project; as the mission statement successfully captures, Holy Cross encourages every member of our community to be passionate about truth, promote social justice and foster dialog in order to more deeply understand and respect diverse experiences. The DTA will further these qualities by counteracting negative and hurtful stereotypes of transgender people with more truthful and historically informed representations.’ “

Loyola Communities Press for Change

The faculty Senate at Loyola University New Orleans voted to expand fringe benefits to same-sex partners of employees, whether legally married or in domestic partnerships. The Maroon, the campus newspaper, reports that a faculty committee proposed the change before it was overwhelmingly approved in a vote, despite opposition from the Catholic Studies department head.

Meanwhile, Loyola University Chicago’s student government is exploring how the campus could implement gender-neutral restrooms. A coalition of student groups and administrative departments is researching the change and has already received an anonymous financial contribution to help fund replacement signs, according to campus newspaper Loyola Phoenix.

Villanova U. Moves Beyond Gender Binary

Villanova University hosted its second annual LGBT Awareness Week in late October, during which a faculty member gave a lecture entitled “Moving Beyond the Gender Binary: What We Need to Know About Gender Expression.” Professor Katina Sawyer spoke about how different people associate with and express a particular gender identity, according to campus newspaper The Villanovan.

Speaking about the week generally, Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president for student life, said:

” ‘It’s really important to acknowledge, but more important celebrate our LGBTQ students because we love them, they’re valuable…

” ‘Villanova can maybe be a beacon of light in modeling of how people can stay faithful, be faithful and still celebrate whether they’re LGBT themselves, or celebrate their LGBT brothers and sisters.’ “

To read about more positive changes and developments related to Catholic higher education, check out the “Campus Chronicles” category in the right hand column on this page or click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Art Show on Queer Saints Plays with Depictions of Gender

November 24, 2014

Artwork displayed in the “Queer Santas” show.

How does gender inform understandings of Catholic saints? An art exhibit at the Pacific School of Religion is rethinking those understandings by playing with gender, furthering the idea that there are transgender Catholic saints.

“Queer Santas: Holy Violence” is Alma Lopez’s show that plays with gender in religious artwork and asks viewers to “reconsider our ideas of religion, beauty and gender,” according to Religion News Service.

Lopez compared these saints to LGBT people today because they refused to adhere to female gender norms imposed by their societies and faced severe violence as a result. The artist added:

” ‘In our community, we do endure so much because we believe in certain things and we know ourselves. So I wanted the Queer Santas to stand for that and start a discussion of how much we endure to be who we are and love who we want to love…

” ‘So it is really me painting their masculinity and their beauty through the story of the Santas,’ she said, using the Spanish word for female saints.”

The show features icons of St. Lucia, St. Liberata, and St. Wilgefortis, as well as mermaids from Mexico termed “sirenas” which trans girls have taken up as symbols. Each of the three saints is traditionally understood to exhibit male characteristics, like St. Liberata’s and St. Wilgefortis’ beards or St. Lucia’s (or Lucy’s) refusal to marry a man, which resulted in  her eyes being gouged.

Pacific School of Religion professor Justin Tanis commented about Lopez’s depiction of the saints, saying:

” ‘I am natural, I am one of God’s people.’ And yet this is an image that many people would consider heretical because gender play is involved…All of these saints are women who took their own agency and stepped outside gender norms. In that sense, they were queer and violence was done to them for it.’ “

Lopez’s previous work has been controversial in the past, drawing Catholic protests for pieces like a semi-nude Virgin of Guadalupe. So far, the Pacific School of Religion exhibit is drawing only praise — and has drawn some into deep meditation and prayer, according to Tanis, who is also director of the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry.

In recent years, the highlighting of lesbian and gay saints has opened Catholic eyes to the reality that sexual orientation is a gift from God that has helped many attain holiness. Lopez’s art further adds gender identity, as the church grows in understanding and appreciation for the holy trans people in our world.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Jesuit Students Honor UCA Martyrs with Transgender Education and Justice

November 20, 2014

Teach-In participants remember the martyrs in prayer

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, when people worldwide will remember those transgender people who died this past year as a result of anti-LGBT violence.

As vigils are held and prayers are offered, I want to highlight a moment of hope for trans justice that happened at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice last weekend.  The Teach-In is an annual event that brought together 1,600 students and staff from North American Jesuit high schools and colleges.  New Ways Ministry presented a workshop titled “Trans-forming Love” which looked at transgender issues through an affirming Catholic lens.

Over 40 participants explored not only justice for transgender people, but the gifts and qualities that gender diverse communities offer our church and our world. The conversation touched upon the Catholic Social Tradition, spirituality, and the ways in which students’ communities can become more inclusive.

Transgender justice fit in well with the Teach-In this year which was held on the 25th anniversary of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) martyrs, who were killed for aligning themselves with the poor and victimized of El Salvador. The UCA continues the prophetic witness of the Jesuit martyrs today, including support for LGBT people by hosting the first LGBT human rights conferences in El Salvador (which you can read about here and here) in 2013. At that conference, which New Ways Ministry participated in, it was obvious that trans advocates were leading the way for equality in that country.

A prayer card honoring the six Jesuit UCA martyrs and their two female colleagues

Fittingly, LGBT justice was included among the many social justice causes being discussed, prayed over, and advocated for during the Teach-In, including a workshop addressing homosexuality offered by Arthur Fitzmaurice of the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry.

Wider church reform conversations were on the conference’s agenda as well. Jesuit Fr. James Martin told young adults that you address systemic injustice in the church the same way you address it in the world — “You fight it.” Fr. Thomas Reese suggested that Pope Francis will leave it to local episcopal conferences to respond to same-sex relationships being legalized.

I am profoundly inspired by the students who attended the Teach-In, who I met at the workshop and also at New Ways Ministry’s exhibit table. During conversations with participants,  I found that students needed no convincing that LGBT rights were indeed human rights and questioned how anyone could oppose full equality and inclusion. They were, understandably, unhappy with the church and yet, for many, it was the church which deeply informed their passion for justice. I spoke with faculty courageously working to make their institutions safer and more welcoming, sometimes at great personal risk.

I was happily surprised at how affirming, and indeed informed, these teens and young adults were about issues of gender identity and diversity. Trans justice was as much a given as anything else.  Many students raised questions about how to be a better ally.

During this Transgender Day of Remembrance we mourn, for mourning is necessary and indeed an act of resistance. As Christians, it is important to remember that death is not the final word, even violent and gruesome death. The UCA murders prompted hundreds of thousands of people to seek justice in El Salvador and beyond. Today, the hate crimes against transgender people motivate thousands more to demand justice for this group of people in the very same way. At the intersection of these many tragedies, a group of students from Jesuit schools helped the light of LGBT justice burn a bit brighter last weekend — and that is Good News for us all.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Filipino Religious Superiors Affirm Their Solidarity with Murdered Transgender Woman

November 8, 2014

Demonstrators call for justice in the case of murder victim Jennifer Laude

Catholic leaders in the Philippines are demanding justice for a transgender woman allegedly murdered by a US soldier, further adding to the church’s positive response in this most tragic situation.

The Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP), through their Office of Women and Gender Concerns, said in a statement:

“Our shock and horror over the gruesome killing of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer (legal name: Jeffrey) Laude by a US marine serviceman are accompanied by grave concern about how the case will progress and the kind of justice that might prevail in the end given the circumstances surrounding the case.”

The statement beautifully reflects Catholic social teaching in its fullness, acknowledging the many factors in this case which disadvantage Laude and her loved ones seeking justice. On the victim’s gender identity, the statement notes:

“Laude, the latest victim, is a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community that, in present society, continues to suffer discrimination, marginalization, exclusion and hate crimes. Such is the result of centuries-old societal biases toward those who ‘do not fit’ into the so-called mainstream.”

AMRSP acknowledges two other factors worth noting here. First, the problematic Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States “puts a Filipino crime victim at a disadvantage” and allows the US to disregard the Philippines in favor of its “own brand of justice.” Second, there is the simple disparity in resources between Laude’s family of “humble means” and the near-unlimited means of the US military. A past incident where US soldiers escaped prosecution for rape was offered as an example. AMRSP leaders called on all involved to seek justice, saying:

“We call on witnesses to put aside fear and come forward with what they know. We call on Laude’s family and supporters to stay the course and not be cowed into giving up. We call on Laude’s critics to hold their judgment. We call on our government officials and lawmakers to re-examine the onerous provisions in the VFA. We pray that genuine justice based on the truth will be served—for both the victim and the accused.”

In a related move, a top official with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Phillipines spoke about Laude’s murder and the legal case with a Catholic publication. In the interview, Bishop Elenito Galido of Iligan said:

” ‘We are asking for justice. We do not condemn…We do not judge or anything. We are seeking justice.

“Killing a person is a crime whether the victim is transgender or not. We do not discriminate. It’s clear enough there is a crime we have to seek justice for.”

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo also called on the Filipino government to ensure rights of the country’s citizens are respected in this legal process.

A week ago, I applauded Catholic pastoral leaders for granting Laude a Catholic funeral that respected her identity and brought healing to both Laude’s family and the LGBT community in the highly traditional Philippines. Ministers mediated God’s love through the sacramental life of the church.

Now, these further statement add justice to that charity by prophetically standing beside a most marginalized and vulnerable person. Their words respect Laude’s identity. They acknowledge the reality that her murder is most likely a hate crime, caused about by anti-LGBT cultural attitudes and discrimination. They address the compounding factors of militarism and inequality before the law in this case. Filipino Catholic leaders show how Catholics can and must integrate LGBT justice into the church’s broader efforts. In short, they model Pope Francis’ desire that we be a “poor church for the poor” that is “home for all.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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Mabuhay: “Religious groups call for justice for slain transgender


Murdered Transgender Woman’s Catholic Funeral Is a Moment of Hope and Healing

October 30, 2014

” ‘We don’t eat without praying first. We don’t sleep without saying a prayer. Where were you [God] when this happened?…She had so many dreams and that killer destroyed them all’ ”

These are the laments of Julita Laude, mother of Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman allegedly murdered by a US Marine in the Philippines. The killing has made headlines for increasing tensions between the countries and raising questions about an ongoing American military presence in the Philippines.

Less noted has been the Catholic community’s response in helping Julita mourn her daughter’s death and showing respect to LGBT people in the heavily religious nation. According to PhilStar, Jennifer was “a devout Catholic,” but as an openly transgender woman it is not a given she would be granted a Catholic burial in the highly conservative Filipino church.

Jennifer Laude

Thankfully, compassionate (and Christ-like) principles guided Laude’s funeral and her life was celebrated in a way respectful of her gender identity. While Laude’s death emerges from the most tragic of circumstances, her funeral is a healing moment and one of great hope for Catholics, LGBT people, and Catholic LGBT people, especially in the Philippines. ABSCBN News notes:

“For many people watching along the streets of Olongapo City, the spectacle that is the funeral procession for transgender woman Jennifer Laude speaks of many things.

“To the religious, it is an indirect acceptance of the lesbian, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) community into the Roman Catholic mainstream, something that was previously a cause of concern. This is the first time that a transgender woman’s funeral has been thrust into the spotlight and together, the issues surrounding it.

“For the LGBT community, it is a chance to put forward the rights of their kind, while battling the shaming that is ongoing not only in the streets but in social media as well.”

Laude’s funeral procession from the church to the burial site included dozens of family, friends, LGBT advocates, and mourners of all types, who can be seen in this slideshow.

This is not the first high-profile funeral of a transgender person, as the Jesuit mother church in Rome held one last year for Andrea Quintero who was murdered on the streets of that city. However, this moment is quite worthy of Catholics’ reflection. There are still too many damaging experiences at church for LGBT people, like denying communion to same-sex couples, for us to disregard the really good moments too quickly.

This moment shows a more positive approach is plausible and more life-giving. In the wake of a painful tragedy and in the midst of conflict, Catholic ministers mediated God’s love through the sacramental life of the church. A priest responded to a mother’s anguish by celebrating her daughter’s life in a Catholic church, respectful of the victim’s gender identity. A victimized community, whose suffering is in no small part due to ingrained Catholic prejudices, could be respected by Catholic leaders in this moment for who they are, who they love, and how they identity.

Yet, there is a challenge for the church too. Jennifer Laude’s death was, by all accounts, a hate crime. She was killed because transgender people are routinely dehumanized, and religions are deeply implicated in  transphobia. The Catholic community must step back when transgender people face such elevated levels of violence and of discrimination to ask how we are complicit.

As Catholic leaders consider issues around family life in the coming year, perhaps they can look to Jennifer Laude’s funeral as both a hopeful sign that LGBT pastoral care is possible and an informative moment for how much work remains to be done when it comes to LGBT human rights.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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