Earlier this spring, Commonweal magazine featured a pair of articles on gender identity, titled “The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.” You can read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of theologian David Cloutier’s piece here and theologian Luke Timothy Johnson’s piece here.
In response, a transgender person, who remained anonymous, wrote a powerful letter to the editor about their experiences with the church. “Anonymous” explained:
“I was a transgender child raised in a very religious Catholic family. . .the price of living ‘in the closet’ has been high: hundreds of hours of psychotherapy and spiritual direction, a lifetime of eating disorders and psychological suffering, and very little experience of deep, fulfilling friendships. When interacting with people, I am guarded, not myself. I feel as if I’m putting on an act, to spare other people from having to ‘freak out,’ as the people in my pre-school did.”
Still, the letter’s author has no clear answers about what the church or society should do with transgender children. The author only knows that their identity was “inborn” and nothing could change it. The letter concluded:
“Over the years I have longed for better guidance from the church. Nowhere does the vast literature of Catholic spirituality ask how a transgender person can lead a Christian life. All I can do is cling to the faith that, if the Creator made the kind of universe in which transgender people are possible, then the God ‘who wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth’ must have a plan even for me. I just wish I knew what it is.”
Letters like this one clearly indicate how much the church must improves its pastoral care for trans Catholics and their families. To read the full letter from “Anonymous” in Commonweal, click here.
To read the latest updates on transgender Catholic issues, see Bondings 2.0’s “Transgender” category in the right-hand column or click here.
One of my highlights at New Ways Ministry’s Symposium last month was encountering blog readers, some of whom I knew and others whom I met for the first time. I love the community that has developed around the blog, and it is this community that sustains Bondings 2.0 in a multitude of ways!
Twice a year, Frank and I turn to you for financial support. We cannot provide high quality content about Catholic LGBT issues each and every day without your generosity. We need your support to keep this critical conversation on LGBT issues in the church going.
I was humbled at the Symposium to hear from so many of you about how the blog has been a helpful and nourishing resource these past five and a half years. This positive feedback (and your comments and emails throughout the year) in turn nourishes Frank and me when writing posts each day becomes tiring. I want to share with you a few testimonies we have received from readers:
“Bondings 2.0 has become a critical tool in keeping abreast of LGBT issues and a motivator for redress and affirmative change.”
“Thank you for providing a safe space for civil dialogue that is informative, insightful and inspiring.”
“Bondings 2.0 and all of the New Ways team have been a great blessing in my life. You are the sunshine at dawn and the rain on dry fields.”
However you support the blog—a financial contribution, sharing it with friends, leaving a comment—Frank and I are deeply grateful. Happy 5 ½ years to our companions on this journey towards LGBT equality!
Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada have canceled scheduled performances of a play because of concerns that its protagonist is a small child who explores gender boundaries.
Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global News, the play “tells the story of 8-year-old Simon, who dreams of becoming a princess and feels boxed in gender stereotypes.”
Parents’ complaints about the content led the Niagara Catholic District School Board to cancel the show on the grounds that the play was “not age-appropriate” and students would not understand the issues it raises. The Board claimed Carousel Players did not include information in its promotional materials that the play was about gender identity.
Yet, CBC Radioreported the play, targeted at elementary age children, “was created in conjunction with representatives from several Ontario school boards to be in line with the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.” The Players were explicit in marketing their performance as such.
Not everyone is convinced the cancellations happened due to concerns over students’ ages. Jessica Carmichael, the artistic director for Carousel Players, released a statement which said, in part:
“I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny. . .The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”
Carmichael further said the play has been well received when performed at other schools, where staff are “encouraging children to have conversations which promote acceptance” and where the magic of live theater “brings people together to work towards a better today and tomorrow and it encourages discussion.”
The Carousel Players have since staged a free performance, followed by a question and answer period so anyone in the local community who wished to view the play could do so.
Having not seen “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures” myself, I cannot comment on the play’s contents, and whether it would be appropriate for elementary age children. But school officials should be aware that even young children are already grappling with questions about gender. Many trans individuals claim they had a consciousness about their identities as young as five or six years of age.
Whether through the Carousel Players or some other means, Catholic schools in Ontario and elsewhere should be addressing issues of gender identity as an essential aspect of their commitment to students’ flourishing.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing a Catholic hospital on behalf of a transgender man who was allegedly denied medical care.
The suit claims the Dignity Health hospital system in California discriminated against Evan Michael Minton by refusing to perform a hysterectomy on him. Mercy San Juan Medical Center canceled the surgery last summer on the day before it was to occur, reported The Sacramento Bee.
At that time, hospital administrators explained that they could not perform a hysterectomy because it violated policies against sterilization procedures, policies based on the U.S. bishops’ 20009 “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services.” Minton’s doctor, Dr. Lindsey Dawson, said she didn’t blame staff or administrators at Dignity Health: “I blame the (Catholic) doctrines.”
With help from the Dignity Health medical team, Minton was able to receive the procedure at a nearby non-Catholic hospital. Minton explained what this entire incident has meant for him, and what is behind the decision to pursue legal action:
“‘It devastated me, and I don’t want it to affect my transgender brothers and sisters the way it affected me. . .No one should have to go through that.'”
This episode is a “clear-cut case of discrimination,” according to the ACLU Northern California’s senior staff attorney, Elizabeth Gill. She told The Bee that, in a time when trans rights are “under attack,” states like California must be leaders in protecting LGBT people. If successful, this suit would help clarify that trans persons are covered by sex discrimination provisions in the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Officials at Mercy San Juan are withholding comment, claiming they “have not been served with the complaint,” but said in a brief statement:
“We understand how important this surgery is for transgender individuals, and were happy to provide Mr. Minton and his surgeon the use of another Dignity Health hospital for his surgery within a few days.”
At issue here legally is whether Catholic and other religiously-affiliated healthcare providers should be allowed to deny services due to an institution’s religious beliefs.
This question is particularly relevant given the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act (which had expanded access to transgender-related services) and the rightwing’s misuse of religious liberty to curtail LGBT rights. Indeed, Catholic groups were lead plaintiffs in a 2016 lawsuit against LGBT healthcare protections implemented by former President Barack Obama. These protections were overturned in January.
A lawsuit similar to Minton’s was filed earlier this year by Jionni Conforti. He claimed St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, New Jersey, discriminated against him by refusing to perform a hysterectomy on him as a “medically necessary part of his gender transition.”
Nothing in church teaching restricts Catholic healthcare providers from enacting more inclusive policies and practices. But, if there is no other action, Catholics should at least be listening to the voices of trans patients, like these words from Minton:
“‘It’s almost magical, just to be able to be congruent with who I am – to have my outer body match my inner self. . .When I got my complete body, I said, “The rest of my life starts here.”‘”
Catholics should help folks like Evan Minton come to know and live into their truest selves? In a moment when LGBT people in the U.S. are facing the prospect of having legal protections repealed, a trans-positive and more prophetic stance is exactly what is demanded of Catholic healthcare so each person can be the person whom God created them to be.
1) A ranking church official in Zimbabwe has affirmed LGBT-negative comments made by the country’s aging dictator, Robert Mugabe, a Catholic. The Archdiocese of Bulawayo’s vicar general, Fr. Hlakanipha Dube, said the church was grateful for the government’s support of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples only, according to Chronicle. In 2015, Mugabe told the United Nations in 2015: “We are not gays. . .Same-sex marriages have no place in Africa. Such behaviour is worse than pigs and dogs.”
2) A spring newsletter from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association highlighted its new partnership with Egale Canada Human Rights Trust to help teachers in Catholic schools be more supportive of gender diverse students. These efforts include an awareness project, “Drawing the Line – Against Transphobic Violence,” and LGBTQ training workshops for teachers.
3) A teacher in India was allegedly fired because he is gay, a charge officials at St. Joseph’s Autonomous College (a high school) deny. The teacher, Ashley Tellis, said the school’s principal told him students “were disturbed by my ‘personal opinions.” The principal, Victor Lobo, claimed Tellis was fired for breach of contract, reported The New Indian Express.
4) A controversial bishop in Switzerland who has made anti-gay comments in the past has resigned on the occasion of his 75th birthday. In 2015, Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur cited Scripture passages that suggest lesbian and gay people should be executed, and said a priest who blessed a lesbian couple should resign.
5) The Vatican has named Fr. James Martin, S.J. as a consultor to its Secretariat for Communications, a department newly created under Pope Francis. Martin authored the forthcoming book, Building A Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, based on his address upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award in October 2016.
6) Marking the National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice last month, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, wrote a piece in The Huffington Postabout why she supports the cause as a lesbian Catholic.
Today is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to raise awareness about trans people’s accomplishments and fight back against transphobia. But amid celebrations is the sad reality that hate crime-related killings against transgender people in El Salvador are on the rise. Disturbingly, LGBT activists have claimed the Catholic Church in that country, and elsewhere in Latin America, contributes to this tragedy. But the people of God in that country can choose another path.
In February, Reutersreported, three trans people were murdered in just the town of San Juan Talpa, bringing the total number of trans people murdered in 2017 up to seven. Of one murder, the news service reported:
“The town’s latest victim was Elizabeth Castillo, a transgender woman, who police say was kidnapped in February after attending the funeral of two transgender women. Her body, showing signs of torture, was then found dumped on the roadside.”
Another 40 trans people, said Karla Avelar, director of group Communicating and Training Transwomen, “have been forced to migrate to other countries to safeguard their own lives.” Teresa, a trans woman in San Juan Talpa, has considered fleeing because of her fears, saying:
“‘I think that someone is coming to kill me. . .I live in constant fear. . .With a doubt, I’ve thought about being far away from this country because staying here the gangs find you.”
“The gangs don’t accept lesbians, gay boys or transgender people. Diversity doesn’t fit into their rules.”
Anti-LGBT violence is closely affiliated with the gang violence ravaging the country, which Reuters described as “one of the world’s deadliest countries outside a war zone.” Gangs maintain control of many communities through extortion, violence, and rape. But social stigma is also contributing greatly to the suffering now endured by LGBT people in El Salvador, and activists claim the Catholic Church is complicit in this regard. Humanosphere reported:
“Advocates say LGBT people face a double threat from such violence. They say anti-LBGT rhetoric from religious figures and politicians perpetuates already entrenched social prejudices, and that the influential Roman Catholic Church furthers anti-LGBT sentiment by publicly condemning gay marriage and sex.”
LGBT-negative stigmas are widespread in El Salvador. Reuters said a “2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre found nearly two-thirds of Salvadorans believed society should not accept homosexuality.” Reparative therapy is also commonplace; another survey found two in five LGBT people had experienced it. Given the church’s considerable, and at one time dominant, influence in El Salvador, these stigmas are derived, at least in part, from LGBT-negative statements and actions of Catholics. Avelar, herself the survivor of two attempted killings, summarized the situation:
“‘They are criminalizing us. . .They use the word of God and the Bible to judge us. It’s destroying us.'”
“Destroying” is not hyperbolic. Twenty-five LGBT people were murdered last year in a nation with a population equivalent to that of the U.S. state of Massachusetts. After the first quarter of 2017, El Salvador is on pace to exceed that number.
But the Catholic Church in El Salvador has another option: a liberationist tradition already being taken up by some Catholics in regard to LGBT people. The Universidad Centroamericana, where six Jesuits were martyred in 1989, hosted El Salvador’s first LGBT rights conference in 2013 (to read a reflection on this event from Bondings 2.0’s editor Francis DeBernardo, click here).
This liberationist tradition is rooted in the nation’s martyrs, including Blessed Oscar Romero who was not beatified, due to conservative opposition, until Pope Francis. Shortly before his assassination, Romero told a reporter:
“If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”
Trans Salvadorans murdered are themselves martyrs; they were killed for walking the path of holiness, for living openly as their authentic selves. In their blood, new seeds of freedom and hope take root to flourish. These children of God should have never faced violent deaths in the first place, but their murders now compel Catholics to be a leading voice for LGBT human rights and as a defender of crucified LGBT communities.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 31, 2017
Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman and LGBT rights activist from El Salvador, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium,Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. She will join an international focus session panel of transgender and intersex advocates. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will be a plenary speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.” For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.
In January, Bondings 2.0 reported about Indian Catholics’ involvement in starting the country’s first school inclusive of trans youth. This week, The Atlantic posted a more in-depth look at the women religious who helped make the school a reality, and who have remained involved as key allies.
Transgender educator Vijayaraja Mallika had a dream was to start a school for trans people and to give it the name “Sahaj,” which in Hindi means “natural.” But Mallika lacked a proper space for the school until Carmelite sisters, having become aware of the activist’s efforts, invited her for tea. The article continued:
“Splitting themselves between an auto-rickshaw and a public bus, the sisters and the activist rode past palm trees, tech offices, and paddy fields to the spot they had in mind: an unused building that the CMC convent had once intended to turn into a dormitory.
“Mallika looked at the size of the structure, the roomy kitchen and sunny terrace. She was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears. The building was not only a concrete way to get her school started, it was also indicative of an entirely new support system. The Carmelites, she realized, could become unlikely allies for transgender activists pushing for education and acceptance in [the state of] Kerala.”
The Carmelites spent $8,000 to help outfit the school, and there are now two sisters living on the property. Sr. Pavithra, who helped connect the order with Mallika, said there is potential for more support, too. The sisters have “conceived of a new initiative to help trans youth by educating children in Carmelite-run schools about what it means to be transgender.” Through this awareness-raising program and through financial support for trans youth, the Carmelites goal for the students is “to ensure that they never drop out of school to begin with” and will not have to enter the sex trade. Sr. Pavithra said:
“We are 6,000 sisters. We have so many institutions. We are known to the society. Unless and until we take them up, how will [trans people] come up?”
Yet, establishing Sahaj itself has been a struggle. The initial excitement of establishing the school has ceded to frustrations. At present, there are “no teachers, no accreditation, and no students.” The building, instead, is functioning as a shelter. But despite administrative challenges, Sr. Pavithra and the Carmelites remain hopeful:
“‘Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead. . .Of course it can happen in Kerala. . .These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, “Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.”‘”
The sisters’ commitment is important because the needs of trans people in Kerala are great. Approximately 25,000 trans people live there, and their outcomes are impaired by the high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence that they and other trans communities in the world face. The Atlantic compared education outcomes:
“Kerala boasts a higher literacy rate for both men and women than any of India’s other 28 states. But 58 percent of transgender students in the state drop out before completing 10th grade and 24 percent drop out before ninth grade.”
Kerala’s 2015 Transgender Policy and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to legalize a third gender option have done little to mitigate these oppressions, said Mallika. Indeed, a trans advocate named Faisal said Kerala is a worse place to be trans than other states. Hijras, who are “transgender, intersex, and transsexual people who live within a strict hierarchical community” found elsewhere in India, are less present there. And Kerala has fewer Hindus and far more Christians than the overall demographics of India, with Christianity being far less accepting of non-binary genders than Hinduism.
Thankfully, the Carmelite sisters are paying attention to voices on the peripheries, and have been quite accepting of trans people in their state. The partnership began when Sr. Pavithra encountered Mallika at a social work gathering:
“There, Mallika spoke about how she had looked at almost 700 properties to no avail; some were too small, while others closed their doors when the owners learned what would be done with the space. Sister Pavithra took up the issue with her convent’s administrative council and advocated that they retrofit one of their vacant buildings into a school. . .The six council members approved the lease, with the blessing of the local bishop.”
The partnership is not, however, without its own problems. In an effort to protect trans people with whom they are working, the sisters have, at times, enforced strict curfews to keep people staying with them from going into sex work. They also “occasionally try to persuade trans people to wear clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth,” though one sister said this is so trans persons will “blend in, gain acceptance, and avoid ridicule” in society. She explicitly rejected that there have been any attempts at “conversion therapy.”
And there are intra-church hiccups, too, with some Catholics critical of the sisters’ work and of trans outreach generally. To them, Sr. Pavithra simply said, “If we consider everybody’s opinion, nothing will take place in the world.”
Church officials have had a leading and largely positive role when it comes to LGBT people in India. Last fall, the bishops’ official development agency, Caritas India, announced trans-specific outreach programs (though, it must be noted, the director’s approach to gender identity has been criticized). Virginia Saldanha, a leading lay person who was once executive secretary of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the church must bring LGBT people “in from the cold.”
A particularly bright light is Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias who, in a message to LGBT people conveyed through a personal interview with Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo, said the “church embraces you, wants you, needs you.” Gracias has said repeatedly that homosexuality should not be criminalized.In fact, he was the only religious leader in India to criticize the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate criminalization in 2013.
The witness of these Carmelite sisters and other Indian church officials to the dignity and worth of LGBT people can be an inspiration and model for the church universal.
To learn more about Catholics involvement in international LGBT human rights, attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium,Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.” An international panel of transgender and intersex advocates will speak during a focus session. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.