After Trans Student Shot, Catholic School Shifts Course

A British Catholic school is attempting to make itself a safer space after a transgender girl student was shot with a BB gun by another student. Though the school has responded with some positive steps, this horrifying incident is a reminder of the urgency with which Catholic education needs to become safer for LGBT students.

safe-schools_0A transgender girl in Manchester, England, was shot by a classmate after months of severe bullying, and just two days after the girl’s mother met with school officials about a previous bullying incident.

G, a pseudonym for the 11-year-old girl, had endured five months of harrassment and threats, according to her mother, identified as A. Gay Star News reported:

“Last Monday, G’s mother A was called into school following a ‘distressing’ incident [wherein students had written a series of anti-transgender slurs on her notebook, which we have chosen to omit here]. . .

“The previous day, A said she had sent an email to staff about the escalating bullying. While she was bullied a little at primary, it got a lot worse when she joined secondary school. And she believes that email was ignored.

“‘Pupils have thrown water over her, spat at her, and kicked her to the ground. Not a day goes by without her being attacked, insulted or threatened with violence,’ her mother said.”

A said she told school officials that “something bad was going to happen,” and she faulted them for doing little to intervene against the bullying. When G was shot, her mother said the school did not notify A for over an hour. When she arrived at school, A found her daughter “extremely quiet, just shaking and not speaking.”

Though the physical harm was minimal, the emotional wounds of these incidents have left G in pain. She is unable to sleep because of nightmares, and she has vocalized thoughts about suicide. The family is seeking supports for her. A explained that it has been very clear since her daughter’s coming out that they would need to work hard to ensure G does not become one of the many transgender youth who die prematurely from violence or by suicide.

The Catholic school, which has gone unnamed in news reports, is now taking steps to educate students and staff towards creating a safer environment, reported the Manchester Evening News. The headteacher said the student who fired the BB gun has been expelled. In a statement, the headteacher said:

“The victim is a transgender pupil and sadly there have been incidents of bullying before this latest incident. We have worked with our pupils to respect and accept people of different sexual orientation and identities and will continue to do this. We have enlisted the support of a national organisation to help us further with our training of staff and pupils and support for our transgender pupils. We have met with the parents of the pupil to apologise and to see what we can do further as a school.”

These efforts have included inviting Stonewall, an LGBT organization in England, to do trainings for members of the school community. But school officials should not stop there or lessen their commitment to LGBT students. The mother was clear that the intense bullying G experienced is because of her gender, saying, “It is a hate of who she is and it is awful.”

At least one other British Catholic school has worked with Stonewall, the United Kingdom’s leading LGBT equality group, to make schools safer.  As Bondings 2.0 noted when we reported this news in 2013, such a relationship between a religious group and a secular group is a model for how the Church and the LGBT community could work together.

On a related note, a transgender student Mason Catrambone, who was rejected by a Catholic high school in New Jersey last year, recently began classes at a public school that welcomes him.

During National Catholic Schools Week in January, we featured an Australian gay man who thanked his Catholic school for helping him come out and feel affirmed. While this is not the experience of many LGBT Students, and certainly G has suffered greatly at a Catholic school, it is helpful to remember that the church’s education programs can be a source of tremendous good if done in welcoming and affirming ways.

For now, let us pray that G finds healing and can return, as she hopes to do, to her Catholic school — a place where, increasingly, every student is safe, welcomed, and affirmed.

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” will include a focus session on, “Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions,” led by campus minister and researcher Michael Maher.  We will also host a focus session on “Transgender and Intersex Identities and the Family,” featuring Deacon Ray Dever, Lexi Dever, and Nicole Santamaria. The symposium is scheduled for April 28–30, 2017, in Chicago.  For more information, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2017

Gay Alum Thanks Catholic School for Being “A Haven” for Him

National Catholic Schools Week begins today in the United States, a celebration of the church’s educational programs. In past years during this week, I have written about the need for Catholic schools to increase their supports of LGBTQ youth. You can read those commentaries here, here, and here. But this year, I want to highlight an Australian writer’s story about the good an inclusive Catholic school can do for LGBTQ students.

13-1420csw_logo_circle_cmykIn The Sydney Morning Herald, Joel Meares wrote about a new movement in Australia, Equal Voices, in which Christians are apologizing for the harm done by churches to LGBT people.of his gratitude for the Catholic school he attended, a place he called “a haven.” He elaborated on this topic by describing his childhood experiences with the people of faith:

“And yet the apology comes as no surprise to me. The Christians in my life – those in the pews who don’t make, nor seek, headlines – have been some of the most supportive people I’ve known. Of course they want to say sorry: it’s the Christian thing to do. . .As some of them get ready to say sorry this March, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you.”

Meares shared about his time at the Catholic school, a place he landed because his parents did not want to send their children to public schools but could not afford more elite private schools. While the family was not religious, Meares said, “from Monday to Friday I was an evangelistic little Tracy Flick, biro in hand and halo on head.” He continued:

“I was also very gay. I didn’t realise this at the time – I was quite late to my own coming-out party – but I already ticked all of the cliche boxes. . .If my teachers had eyes and ears, they knew I was different. And these same teachers – not members of the clergy, but many of them laypeople of deep faith – were profoundly nurturing of that difference. . .And I was always protected.”

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Joel Maeres

No longer a practicing Catholic, except for “when I have to get up for the Eucharist at a wedding,” Meares remains grateful for the way he was educated by the church. He wrote:

“But I’ve always liked core Christian values, particularly the simple ‘golden rule’ I was taught back in [kindergarten]: ‘Treat others the way you like to be treated.’

“I know it’s not everyone’s story – and I know others whose time at religious schools was far less rosy – but I was able to grow up different and safe and proud because the people around me also subscribed to that idea.

“I don’t see much of that sentiment when I scan the statements of church leadership when it comes to LGBTQI issues today. But the Equal Voices apology is a reminder of the kinds of Christians who helped shape me growing up. These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.”

These last words mirror a statement made recently by the head of Scotland’s Catholic school system, who said the church’s educational programs were to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.” Sadly, for too many LGBTQ students, faith-affiliated schools are places where they experience the Gospels being preached more than practiced. Either through direct harm or not providing adequate supports, Catholic schools have too often failed to be safe places.

This year’s theme for National Catholic Schools Week is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” Joel Meares’ positive story gives educators a source of inspiration for what can be achieved when Catholic education is done well and inclusively, inviting students to faith, educating them well, and instilling in them Christian values.

Ultimately, the goal should be for every LGBT student who passes through the Catholic education system to be able to offer a story of gratitude similar to Joel Meares’ experiences.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2017

Catholic Schools in Scotland to Have LGBT Safe Spaces

To better support LGBT students, every secondary Catholic school in Scotland will soon have a safe space available, reported The Herald.

logoBarbara Coupar, who directors the Scottish Catholic Education Service, announced the move after a legislator complained that some existing measures were deficient. The Herald explained:

“[Coupar] added many teachers did not feel equipped to become counsellors for pupils regardless of the problem, so schools were making sure teachers and students know where the pupils can go for help inside and outside the school.

“She said: ‘That’s why we’re going to down this avenue of ensuring that within all of our Catholic secondary schools that they would be able to go to someone, a trusted adult, a safe space within the school, where there would be someone who would have had that opportunity to be trained, for want of a better word, in order to be able to meet the needs of the young people in their care.'”

These remarks come after criticism by Christina McKelvie, a legislator who convenes the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of Scotland’s Parliament. Concerned by input from Catholic school students that some LGBT peers had died by suicide, McKelvie said:

“‘A lot of young people have told me some horrendous stories about how PSE [personal and social education classes] is used, especially going down a moralistic route as well, where a lot of young people feel really backed into a corner where they thought their thoughts and feelings were not being respected.’

“She said she had heard teachers are ‘not equipped’ to deal with LGBTI issues or misogyny ‘because either it’s dealt with as a moralistic issue or it’s something that they don’t believe in’.”

McKelvie acknowledged that Catholic education in Scotland had instances of both “brilliant” and “disturbing” support for LGBT youth. She explained that the government wants to make sure students feel protected:

“‘What we are looking for is if there’s a belief issue there, what we want is for teachers to be able to handle that, and if they can’t, for whatever reason, they’re equipped to signpost those kids to the right places for those kids to get that support. . .to address that without making young people feel as if they are committing a sin.'”

Coupar’s announcement comes several months after the Service promised trainings for teachers to become competent on matters of gender and sexuality. And she affirmed the Scottish church’s commitment to education that is inclusive and support for all students, saying the aim was to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.”

With National Catholic Schools Week in the United States beginning this Sunday, the creation of an LGBT safe space and trained educator in every Catholic school would be an attainable and highly effective initiative. Every Catholic school should make a commitment in 2017 similar to the one made by Scottish Catholics.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017

California Education Official Asks: “Is St. Paul a Homophobe?”

A California education official who is a Catholic is opposing a new LGBT-inclusive curricula, and his opposition stems from a misuse of Scripture, leading him to ask rhetorically whether St. Paul was a homophobe or inspired by God.

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Mike Dunn

Mike Dunn, president of the Conejo Valley School Board and a Catholic, has said he would not be voting for a proposed board policy to implement the state’s newly passed FAIR Act, a new law which adds LGBT information to history and social sciences curricula. The Thousand Oaks Acorn reported:

“Responding last Thursday to a message from a parent criticizing Dunn, the longtime trustee says California’s new K-12 history-social science framework, which instructs teachers to include the accomplishments of LGBT individuals and other marginalized people in their lessons, conflicts with his Catholic faith. . .

“The framework, adopted by the California State Board of Education in July 2016, directs educators to study the stories of a ‘very diverse collection of families,’ including families with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents. . .

“According to the framework, students should be able to ‘locate themselves and their own families in history and learn about the lives and historical struggles of their peers.'”

Dunn, a school board member for more than a decade, is fighting implementation of the state framework in his district. He claimed that his actions were rooted in his Catholic faith, and were helping to uphold the community’s beliefs:

“‘Where I spend eternity is far more important to me than being a school board trustee. . .If I ignore my Christian beliefs, what will happen to my soul when I die?’. . .

“‘I also believe that the community does not want homosexuality, bisexual and transgender (sic) taught to 7-year-old children.’. . .I am also sensitive to the reaction from mothers if we start promoting homosexuality.'”

The Board president’s reasoning is rooted in his interpretation of Scripture, specifically the Pauline epistles which he said “conflict with the state history framework” and commented further, “Is the apostle Paul a homophobe or was he inspired by God?”

According to the Thousand Oak Acorn, Dunn has previously opposed “a new state-mandated sexual education curriculum” and “refused to vote on a change to district policy that allowed transgender students to play on sports teams” consistent with their gender.

Dunn’s peers do not agree with him. Randy Smith, president of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers, said nothing specific about Dunn’s response, but did say it was “of paramount importance” for the school district to comply with state law. Betsy Connolly, a member of the school board, said:

“‘I see no problem with a person’s faith informing their decision-making process. I expect it to. What I have a problem with is when people cherry-pick faith and facts to support their perspective. . .It’s an important distinction.'”

Connolly also told CBS 2 that schools must not only tell “the typical story” about families, so that students with parents in a same-gender relationship or who have a disability do not feel “at best invisible, at worst, shamed.”

In my view, Dunn’s opposition to the FAIR Act in California has relied on an interpretation of Scripture inconsistent with contemporary scholarship. In recent decades, responsible scholars have repeatedly disproven the idea that Paul’s writings in the New Testament condemn the modern understanding of homosexuality. Vatican II’s document on divine revelation in Scripture, Dei Verbum, expresses clearly how Catholics are to approach the Bible:

“[T]he interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”

Connolly’s observation that a school board president has cherry-picked faith and facts to justify his opposition to LGBT equality is extremely accurate. Mike Dunn’s stance will stymie greater inclusion of and protections for all students and their families.   His concern for his own salvation should not be allowed to cause harm to students.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 19, 2017

Resignation of Bishop Is An Opportunity for LGBT Reconciliation

A bishop with a harsh anti-LGBT record has prematurely resigned, creating an opportunity for his successor to heal wounds in the province related to gender and sexuality debates.

>Bishop Fred Henry says the church has a lot to apologize for, but remains a tremendous source of good.
Bishop Fred Henry

Canada’s Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta, resigned due to health reasons, ending twenty years in office, with much controversy in recent years. Last year, Henry described Alberta’s new education guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.” He then refused to apologize, saying any retraction was “simply not going to happen.

The bishop’s comments were offered amid wider debates in Alberta about Catholic education and LGBTQ supports that were, at times, quite heated. Indeed, Archbishop Richard W. Smith publicly thanked Henry upon news of his resignation for “the outstanding contribution he has made in the field of Catholic education in both Alberta and across the country,” according to Global News.

Pope Francis has now appointed Bishop William Terrence McGrattan as Henry’s successor in Calgary, reported CTV News. This transition has some LGBT advocates hopeful that a new page can be turned, while others remain skeptical of any change.

Kristopher Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies, said Henry had been “no friend to the LGBT community” but hoped “a new bishop will seek to build bridges and use faith as a way to include rather than exclude.”

“‘I’m really hoping that new bishop is open to dialogue with the LGBT community. One of the things Catholic LBGT and Catholic allies say is welcoming LGBT people into your lives and your communities is not in conflict with Catholic teachings.'”

Rebecca Sullivan, who directs the University of Calgary’s Women’s Studies Program was somewhat harsher in her assesesment, stating that “the grand old men of the Catholic Church are going quietly into the bleak night they created for themselves.” Yet, Sullivan thinks this resignation could signal “a brighter future for what Catholicism could stand for, not what Henry has stood for.” Another professor at the University of Calgary, Juliet Guichon, expressed the following:

“I hope that the incoming bishop engages with Catholics and the greater community and focuses on Pope Francis’ main messages, which are mercy, love and following one’s conscience.”

But not everyone is optimistic, reported Metro News. Jan Buterman, a transgender man who was fired from a Catholic school in 2008 after transitioning, does not expect much to change:

“‘I see no reason to believe that there will be any kind of change that substantively supports trans people in that particular faith. . .I see absolutely no statements from higher-ups suggesting that trans people are welcome in their faith.'”

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Bishop William Terrence McGrattan

There are no indications about how Bishop McGrattan will respond to LGBT issues in Alberta after his February installation. But he would be unwise to squander this opportunity to undo the harm Bishop Henry inflicted and to initiate a diocesan path more in keeping with Pope Francis’ model.

A first step could be apologizing for the harsh remarks Bishop Henry made last year, followed by concrete actions to show that the local church in Calgary will work to support LGBT people in parishes and in Catholic education. Let us pray for Bishop McGrattan and the local church in Calgary that they may find a new path forward in this new year.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 10, 2017

Catholics in India Help Found New School for Transgender Students

Catholic ministers in India recently formed a group to offer pastoral care for transgender people, reported ucanews.com, and they are already making an impact by helping to found a new school for trans students.

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Attendees, including Catholic religious, at the opening ceremony for Sahaj International School

Clergy, religious, and lay people in the Indian state of Kerala have joined together to establish “one of the few outreach programs for the transgender community by the institutional church in India.”

According to Fr. Paul Madassey, head of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council’s Pro-Life Support ministry, under which the transgender initiative is carried out, transgender people in the state are particularly vulnerable. Sex traffickers in northern India prey on trans people who are discriminated against and economically disadvantaged.

Fr. Madassey explained that the transgender initiative had been inspired by Pope Francis’ call to accompany the LGBT community and that “the whole church has a big role to play” in providing such pastoral support.

One project by the group has been helping found a new school inclusive of trans people called Sahaj International School. It opened last week with ten students seeking their high school certificate. Catch News explained further:

“Led by six [transgender people] from TransIndia Foundation with activist Vijayaraja Mallika at the helm, the school promises to provide residential facilities for a short period, free textbooks, gender neutral toilets, a meal for those in need, and tuition to pass Class X and XII. . .

“Mallika says that zir [a gender-neutral possessive pronoun] efforts are focused on introducing inclusive education. . .[Mallika said] ‘We are providing them a safe space for security and sustainable education.'”

The need for such a school is immense. Of the estimated 25,000 trans people in the state of Kerala, 57% did not complete a high school education, according to Mallika. There are also issues of social discrimination, family rejection, and derogatory language.

Mallika, who previously worked on transgender pastoral care with the Archdiocese of Bombay, said the church has been “very supportive” and that “[r]eligion plays an important role in social and behavioral change at the grass-roots level.” The church’s role in the school was instrumental, according to ucanews.com:

“In mid-December, Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel offered their buildings to form an exclusive school for dropouts among transgender people, considered the first of its kind in the country.

“The nuns offered their venue after at least 50 building owners declined to let out their buildings, indicating the discrimination prevalent in the society, says Father Madassey.”

This work in Kerala comes quickly after Caritas India, the official development agency of the nation’s bishops, announced it would be initiating more transgender-inclusive policies and outreach programs. Though Caritas India’s approach is not perfect, the announcement of the program is a key moment for the global church.

The Catholic Church in India is widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. In an exclusive interview with Bondings 2.0, Gracias said that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.

Earlier this week, I suggested that findings from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were a helpful pastoral examination for all Catholics about our awareness of and advocacy for trans equality in the church. These efforts in India are helpful models, too, for how the church can and should be responding to the urgent pastoral needs of trans communities — and how we can become more receptive of the gifts and contributions which trans Catholics are making to our church’s mission.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 5, 2017

 

Is the Church Complicit When Bias Incidents Occur on Catholic Campuses?

While Catholic higher education often leads the church’s efforts to be more inclusive of LGBT people, as Saturday’s post about gay college athlete Chase Boyle explored, several incidents this fall reveal that campuses are not without LGBT-related problems. And the institutional church may be complicit.

Fordham University Heals After LGBT Harassment

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A sign near gathered Fordham University students

In September, students at Fordham University rallied at the “Speak-Out Against Homophobia,” a response to anti-LGBT comments written on the dorm room door of three LGBTQ students.

According to campus newspaper The Fordham Ram, the speak-out allowed students to not only show solidarity but share their negative experiences on campus. Junior Gina Foley addressed the impact that the University’s Catholic identity has had on her:

” ‘It feels like Fordham doesn’t want us here. . .I know that I belong in the LGBTQ community and at Fordham. I know that I belong in the Catholic community, but they don’t want me here. I see this all the time, and it hurts.’ “

Sarah Lundell, a senior with Progressive Students for Justice: Women’s Empowerment, said the student body largely “has remained apathetic,” and this has contributed to policies that harmful to LGBTQ students remaining in place. Lundell said that “although Fordham claims to be a welcoming Jesuit university, it fails to uphold cura personalis [sic] for LGBTQ students and other marginalized identities.”

While progress can be made, a recent piece on Fordham’s Rainbow Alliance displays some of the positive work and community building already underway. You can read more in campus newspaper The Fordham Observer.

Students Push for GSA at Newman University

After a proposed gay-straight alliance (GSA) was rejected by Newman University administrators two years ago, students are again seeking its establishment on at the Wichita, Kansas, school. Student Lauren Spencer wrote in campus newspaper The Vantage that such a group was needed because homophobia is present on campus:

“Last year I was told by a friend that as they were passing through the Student Center they heard a classmate say something along the lines of, ‘Now they’re letting gay people get married. What’s next? Are they gonna let people marry animals?’ “

Spencer said uninformed statements like these prove that a GSA is needed not only to support LGBTQ students, but to educate other students on issues of sexuality and gender and, she concluded, “what is more Catholic than putting an end to the hating of thy neighbour?”

Outside Groups Protest at Marquette’s Campus

Problematic actions have come not only from within campus communities, but from outside groups intent on disrupting policies supportive of LGBTQ people. Ten people from the ultra-right-wing organization American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property protested at Marquette University about the school’s support for transgender students.

Enrique Tejada III, a student who coordinates the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, organized a counter protest because, he told The Marquette Wire:

” ‘We align with Christ-like ideals of respect, support and compassion and we hope we can be a light for the community. We are charged to be the difference and we want to be that everyday for faculty, staff and students.’ “

Administrators, including Provost Dan Myers and Dr. William Welburn, who directs the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, lent their support. Welburn said the protestors should read Marquette’s values and “respect our position on human dignity and what we teach our students.”

Pride Week Starts at Stonehill College

Finally, a bit of positive news from Stonehill College, Massachusetts, which celebrated its first ever PRIDE Week in mid-October, hosting events that recognized and affirmed LGBTQ+ persons in the community and provided a space for allies to show solidarity.

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These stories from Catholic campuses across the United States are reminders that despite the positive steps of establishing resource centers and allowing LGBT student groups, colleges and universities affiliated with the church still face some of the same challenges any institution faces when it comes to prejudices and fears. But it is worth reflecting, too, on the ways which LGBT-negative church teaching and a less affirming ecclesial culture impair Catholic higher education from offering a more robust and unequivocal embrace of LGBT community members.

Catholic education should aid all students in coming to know God’s love by living into their authentic self, so the question worth asking is whether schools doing enough to curtail ignorance and hate so this flourishing becomes possible for every student?

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.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 22, 2016