In the fall of 2015, the Florida Catholic Conference joined with the Florida Baptist Children Homes to successfully eliminate language from a state agency’s provisional policy designed to protect homeless LGBT youth in group homes. What is most astonishing, however, is a Catholic official’s reasoning for deleting such language.
CBS Miami reported that when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) wanted to include a stipulation that banned group home personnel from “(a)ttempt(ing) to change or discourage a child’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” However opposition from the two religious groups caused the language to disappear from a later version of the policy’s draft.
One might think, given the recent flurry of religious freedom debates happening across the country that the religious groups’ objections might have been motivated by similar concerns. However, Michael Sheedy, the spokesperson for the Florida Catholic Conference mentioned a different reason. He said:
“The definition of ‘sexual orientation’ could encompass sexual conduct outside of marriage, thus legally affirming and specially protecting that conduct. Clearly, every child should be safe from bullying and harassment in the care of state of Florida. An expectation of abstinence for school-aged children from sexual activity should be established.”
Such a concern is misguided and ill-informed. Sexual orientation is separate from sexual behavior. There is no way that protecting orientation gives a carte-blanche to behavior. Even Vatican teaching distinguishes between these two categories. Does Sheedy truly not know enough about sexual orientation that he would make an such an inaccurate inference about it when it is being considered in policy? Those debates have been going on for decades in the realm of public policy, and it is very clear that they are separate, refer to separate phenomenon, and do not carry the same equal legal weight.
Does he really think that child protection agents would consider that sexual activity for school-aged children is something allowable? Why would he conflate children having sex with a homosexual orientation? Does he believe that homosexuality has something to do with sexual behavior concerning children? Again, such a topic shows an amazing ignorance of the definition of sexual orientation and of homosexuality.
The Tampa Bay Times captured another part of Sheedy’s statement:
“The policy goal should be to promote the healthy development of children, including their sexual development, and acceptance of their gender rightly understood.”
When many Catholic officials use language like “gender rightly understood,” it usually means the gender assigned at birth, based on biological sex. The Tampa Bay Times news story stated that the letters from the two religious bodies spoke of “being transgender as a ‘mistaken belief.’ ” New understandings of gender show that biological sex is not always the best evidence of a person’s gender, which also includes their psychological constitution.
Fortunately, the debate about the policy has not ended, nor has any final language yet been adopted. LGBT advocates and child welfare proponents are protesting the changes that the Baptist and Catholic leaders have effected in the draft provision. Orlando Weekly noted the comments of a state LGBT rights advocate:
“Hannah Willard, spokesperson for Equality Florida, says that like anti-discrimination protections against race, religion and national origin, LGBTQ youth also need specific protections to provide a clear expectation that some behaviors won’t be tolerated. Between 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, according to Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that focuses on these communities.
” ‘DCF asked child welfare advocates for recommendations,’ Willard says. ‘It’s not accurate to say these protections are not needed when the department asked for them last year,’ she says.”
The Tampa Bay Times provided the perspective of children’s rights advocates:
“Cindy Brown, an activist and foster parent, said she has heard “atrocious” stories from LGBT children in her care.
” ‘Counselors who are assigned by DCF telling kids that their problems are because of their orientation is certainly not in the best interest of any child,’ said Brown, who lives in Miami. ‘The fact that this conversation is even happening is shocking to me because I cannot imagine any reason not to protect these very vulnerable kids at their most vulnerable time.’
“It’s hard to know how many children have had such experiences. Many LGBT children are afraid to tell someone, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First.”
Catholic officials may know what their theology and doctrine state, but, in this case, Michael Sheedy has demonstrated that he has a lot to learn about LGBT reality, particularly the reality facing LGBT youth.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry