The Many–And Wrong–Definitions of ‘Gender Ideology’

Earlier this month, the bishops of Panama met with Pope Francis, and the conversation turned to the Vatican buzzword of “gender ideology.”   It is difficult to define exactly what is meant by that term which only church leaders seem to use.  It has never been clearly defined.  In a Crux news story about the meeting, Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín  initially defined gender ideology as:

“. . . [A]ttempts by Western governments and NGOs to impose a permissive sexual morality on poor countries as a condition of development assistance.”

Just two paragraphs later, she changed the definition to:

“. . . [T]he idea that sexual orientation and identity are self-determined rather than given in nature, and it’s seen as a cornerstone of a secular Western vision.”

Cardinal José Luis Lacunza

Cardinal José Luis Lacunza, bishop of David, Panama who publicly discussed “gender ideology” with the press after he met with the pope, seemed to put forward yet a different definition that deals with sex education in schools.  According to Crux:

“Lacunza too brought up the issue of gender theory, saying that in Panama, teaching a liberal, Western form of sexual education in schools is considered a human right, but ‘from our perspective of faith, this has nothing to do with human rights.

” ‘The human rights homosexual people must have are in respect to their dignity, their choices, and that they are not discriminated against,’ Lacunza said. ‘But to go from there to pushing so that society should accept those choices as something good, desirable, digestible, and that it is taught to little children, we are not willing to go there.’ “

One of the main problems of keeping the term “gender ideology” so undefined is that it allows users of the term to let it fit it to whatever idea they want to criticize.  So, while sometimes it is used to describe new ideas of gender roles, it is also used to denigrate gender transition and transgender people, as well as to oppose legal rights for lesbian and gay people.

No educational curriculum that I have read about forces people to make choices about their gender or their sexual orientation.  No one really chooses such things.  Rather, people discover these identities within themselves, just as they, in the normal process of adult development, discover other parts of their psychological and emotional make-up.

So, while the cardinal talks about accepting “choices as something good, desirable, digestible,” in fact he is not talking about the real lives of LGBT people, but about a myth and stereotype about them.

Archbishop José Ulloa Mendieta

Another prelate who met with the pope, Archbishop José Ulloa Mendieta of Panama City, defined gender theory in yet another way, and characterized it as “diabolical.”   The National Catholic Reporter quoted him:

“Ulloa said that gender theory, which argues that male and female characteristics are largely malleable social constructs, is ‘diabolical’ in that ‘it wants to break a bit with the reality of the family.’ “

Again, this is simply incorrect.  For example, transgender people do not say that their gender identity is malleable or socially constructed, but rather that their stable, interior identity does not match their physical body.

Diabolical? Nothing can be further than the truth.  Growth in self-knowledge is not diabolical, but, indeed, it is divinely inspired as people develop an awareness and acceptance of the way God has blessed them to experience the world and to love other people.

Using the term “gender ideology” is a rhetorical strategy.  First of all, using the term makes it sound like it is an alternative to something natural and de facto.  But, for LGBT people, isn’t the promotion of  heterosexual and cisgender norms a form of ideology?

Secondly, it is a strategy to make a set of ideas sound sinister.  Whoever thinks anything that is an “ideology” is good?  Furthermore, the term makes it sound like there is a master plan lurking behind the “ideology,”  when, in fact, what is behind most of our discussions about gender and sexuality are people who are struggling to live honest and authentic lives.

Pope Francis himself has used the term “gender ideology” as a reference to supposed programs about gender with which he disagrees.  Unfortunately, he, and many other church officials, are often misinformed about the reality of new ways of living out one’s gender.  Church leaders need so much education on gender and sexuality so that they will not use such meaningless and incorrect terms to describe the most intimate facets of people’s lives.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, June 25,  2017

QUOTE TO NOTE: Trans Catholic ‘Clings to Faith’ As Church Guidance is Absent

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.

istock-499902638_0In 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.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 28, 2017

In Community, We are Nourished for the Journey

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!

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Attendees at the Symposium’s Closing Mass

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.

Click here to show your support for this community and keep it growing!

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.”

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Symposium attendees, including fired church worker Colleen Simon, share their stories at table discussions

Click here to sustain Bondings 2.0 with your donation of $5, $10, or more as you are able!

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!

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 28, 2017

Nuns As Queer

Nancy Corcoran, CSJ

Today’s post is from guest blogger, Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ. Students at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, first introduced themselves to Nancy as trans or gender-variant in her role as the Catholic Chaplain at the school. Recently retired, she is on a sabbatical, exploring a ministry of presence and accompaniment with other queer folk.

 

Before I became a Sister of St. Joseph, I visited New York City to meet Sister Anne Brotherton who was getting her doctorate at Fordham University.  As we toured Greenwich Village together, I asked Anne if she felt funny walking around in a traditional habit. “Oh, no”, she responded, “I feel quite comfortable.  We’re all queer here”.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “queer” as  “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.”  And today, the term “queer” is being reclaimed as a source of pride to folks who disdain the rigid binary classifications of being either female or male.  So why do I think of nuns as queer?

Presently, I am on a sabbatical exploring ministry with LGBTQIA folks after working at a women’s college that graduated a few men every year.  The students exposed me to the rigid binary construction of female and male.  The way they used their clothing and hair styles in ways that did not fit the gender binary politicized my consciousness.

When I no longer had the energy to keep up with the 18-22-year-olds as their Catholic Chaplain, I retired, and I am now on sabbatical. During this time, I have learned that rather than “peculiar, bizarre or weird”, the term “queer” has come to mean “unconventional, unorthodox folks who make visible that maleness and femaleness are social constructions rather than divinely assigned categories”.

Believing that one cannot minister with humans that we believe to be “other” than ourselves, I began reflecting on how I and my religious sisters have also challenged the binary. Let me share some examples which have existed in convents. In an age when a woman’s glory was her long hair, nuns cut theirs off before they pronounced vows. They often were given names reserved for men. Richard Joseph, Francis Regis, John Kenneth, James Patrick, Christopher, Leo, Paul are names of some of my sisters who are alive today.  If sisters did not bind their breasts, they often wore bib like material to disguise their natural form.  Like males, most sisters did not wear makeup. When in habit they went “stealth” at times, especially at the beach.

When I was a child in the 1950-60’s, religious women did the jobs that men did. They were presidents of colleges, principals of schools, administrators and financial officers of hospitals. Some sisters note that when they wore a habit, they were no longer perceived as a woman. We were given instant authority, instant deference.  They were perceived equal to priests–or at least of higher privilege than other women.

Like the experience of many transgender and gender non-conforming humans, many of our parents were not pleased with the choice of our entering the convent.  Our parents’ dreams of traditional weddings and grandchildren faded with our choice.  So I find I have a lot more in common with folks who claim the term “queer” than I had thought possible.

I have hope that by normalizing our “unconventional” and “unorthodox” choices, we might also claim our love and support of humans who likewise challenge the social construction of our society. Rigid constructions of our social norms do need to be challenged. Perhaps by looking at the choices made by nuns, we might expand our acceptance of other queer folk, and explore together how to be fully human.

Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, May 20, 2017

‘Santa Muerte’ Devotion Highlights Chasm Between the Church and Trans Mexicans

The development of a new religious devotion among Mexican transgender persons highlights the growing chasm between LGBT people and the Catholic Church in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, as well as the tragic circumstances among which many transgender people live.

Religion News Service recently reported on the growth among trans Mexicans of the “Santa Muerte” (“Saint Death”) devotion, the practice of honoring and praying to the skeletal figure of “Death.”  The news story explained:

A shrine to Santa Muerte

“The skeleton saint — with her female form and association with death — is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.

“Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.

” ‘The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,’ said [Betzy] Ballesteros [a trans sex worker]. ‘She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.’

“The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.”

The Catholic hierarchy has condemned the devotion, just as they have expressed many negative messages about transgender people:

“The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.

” ‘Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,’ he said. ‘Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.’

“As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.

“. . . .Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.”

Though the hierarchy condemns the new devotion, it seems that they don’t recognize their own part in its creation.  Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the devotion, explains that the new tradition arose to serve a need that established churches were not meeting:

“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice. But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”

And the lived experience of trans Mexicans testifies not only to violence they face in society but also the rejection they receive from churches:

“The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.

“The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

” ‘Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,’ said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.”

And Betzy Ballesteros, the sex worker quoted above, offered testimony of her experience with the church:

“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time. The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”

If Catholic Church leaders in Mexico believe that this devotion is harmful to its adherents, they must first recognize that their own harmful actions towards trans people are encouraging the worship of Santa Muerte to flourish.  When people are scorned and rejected, they will find their own path to God.  The surest way for Church leaders to win back trans people to the ecclesial community is for them to end their negative rhetoric which causes both physical and spiritual death.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017

Catholic Schools in Ontario Cancel Children’s Play on Gender Identity

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.

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Photo of a “Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures” performance

Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global Newsthe 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 Radio reported 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.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 8, 2017

Transgender Man Sues Catholic Hospital for Refusing to Treat Him

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing a Catholic hospital on behalf of a transgender man who was allegedly denied medical care.

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Evan Minton

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.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 6, 2017