Catholics have entered the national debate concerning transgender people using the bathroom of their identified gender. This week, the debate spread nationally as President Obama’s Education and Justice Departments issued a directive to all public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room for the gender with which they identify.
Two Catholic dioceses have already weighed in opposing the debate, but a columnist for a national Catholic magazine is calling for a more compassionate response.
Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin weighed in on Obama’s directive, saying to NBC 10 News:
“This seems to becoming just a politically driven agenda where is all this coming from, this transgenderism, affecting something as basic as the use of bathrooms and shower rooms and sports teams.”
Tobin called for compassion for transgender people, but at the same time denied their identity by quoting Scripture. He told the news program:
” ‘I have no doubt there are some people for physiological or psychological reasons, and those people deserve all the support, respect, cooperation and assistance we can offer them.’
“But he finds the situation challenging.
” ‘I go back to the very basics and in the book of Genesis we read, ‘God created the human family.’ Male and female, he created them. There was no third option.’ “
By quoting Scripture out of context, Tobin disregards the gender-diverse people mentioned in the Bible, such as the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-40). The Ethiopian eunuch’s story is the first account of a Gentile converting to Christianity. Moreover, Tobin fails to recognize that transgender people are not a “third option.” They are living true to their experience of gender, beyond the biological markers, in their psychological, emotional, and spiritual lives.
Although Catholic and private schools are not included in the Obama administration’s directive, one school in Tobin’s diocese, Mt. St. Charles Academy, Woonsocket, has already made provisions for transgender students to use the facilities appropriate for their gender.
The Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana, also issued a statement concerning the new federal regulations, again, even though Catholic schools are not affected by it. WFLI 18 television news quoted from the diocese’s opinion:
“Our first thought is that our Catholic schools are caring for other people’s children. Our Church-sponsored institutions (health care, universities, Catholic Charities) are rightfully upset when government agencies do not account for our concerns prior to issuing regulations. By the same token, Church leadership understands how upset our school parents might be if we changed important practices before accounting for their concerns.
“We should be cautious about the unintended effects that can arise when certain aspects of student sexuality or gender traits are spotlighted at ages where this might not be helpful to them. Given that both science and law are still hunting for adequate definitions of gender identity, it appears that the government is asking educators and parents to go along with a ‘best guess’ strategy.”
Much is wrong with the Diocese of Lafayette’s statement. It is wrong to say that parental concerns were not accounted for. Parents of transgender children have long had concerns for their youths’ safety, self-esteem, and identities. Raising the specter that this policy will confuse other children is simply irresponsible. The new bathroom policy provides an opportunity for education and sensitivity-training to help children better understand and respect their peers and themselves. Finally, science currently has a good, solid understanding of gender identity, and law is attempting to catch up with that. This last argument by the diocese is clearly a red herring: science and law have been clear about understandings of sexual orientation for decades now, but the diocese has not changed their views or policies on that topic yet.
Judith Valente, who writes for America magazine, penned a column on the bathroom debate, noting that although Catholic schools are exempt from the regulations, these institutions should be prepared that changes may come their way in the future. Unlike the two Catholic responses quoted above, though, Valente argues for a more compassionate response to transgender people.
Valente quotes Curt Richardson, an attorney and human resources director for Illinois’ Unit 5 school district, which has already confronted the bathroom issue and made appropriate accommodations for transgender students. Richardson said that he tells parents who oppose the decision:
“If you’ve ever been around trans individuals, the amount of harassment they receive is just tremendous and then [there is] the correlation to suicide rates among transgender individuals. So you have to ask yourself, why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of harassment just to get in the girl’s restroom?”
Valente also recounted the painful experiences of a transgender student at an Illinois Catholic high school:
“I recently spoke with a student from an Illinois Catholic high school who was born female and now identifies as male. The student said administrators were uncomfortable discussing the transgender experience, let alone changes to bathroom or locker room policies. He said he had been sent home on one occasion for wearing a suit and tie to a school dance. Many teachers and students, he said, continue to call him by his female given name, though he had asked to be called by his preferred male name.
” ‘It’s really hard to be in class and just trying to learn, and somebody calls out your birth name and it’s like, oh, that’s not my name,’ the student said. ‘It’s really embarrassing and it makes me feel bad. And even though it’s all the time, it still hurts.’
“The student is active in several school clubs and has many friends among classmates but says he is considering transferring to another school for senior year. He wishes he could stay. ‘This is not something that is new, this is not some phase or fad that is going on right now. These are my feelings, this is who I am, this is part of me and part of the world,’ the student said. ‘There are so many people that are like me that are normal, people who just want to live their lives and not be hurt every day.’ “
Valente also interviewed Cameron Hurley, who graduated from Unit 5 schools, and who was one of the people who worked to change that district’s policy to accommodate transgender students. Hurley underlined some reasons for the policy which are not often mentioned in the public debate:
“Hurley says one of the biggest arguments for giving transgender individuals the right to choose their restroom is that they put themselves at risk if they use a bathroom that corresponds with their anatomy but not how they look.
” ‘I pass as male, and if you’re going to force me to use the women’s restroom because I haven’t changed my anatomy to your liking that could be reported as a man in the women’s restroom, and then it becomes dangerous when police become involved in things like that,’ Hurley said.
” ‘Trans people are like everyone else. They want to go into the bathroom, do what they have to do and get out,’ Hurley added. In states that have anti-discrimination laws, there have been no reported incidents of anyone being attacked by a transgender person in a public restroom, he said.”
Bishops and diocesan officials would do well to be more like journalists: actually going out and interviewing the people involved in and affected by proposed policies. If these Church leaders would listen more, they can be educated to the reality that people experience. Listening and accompanying, two traits that Pope Francis said bishops need to practice, really need to be used in the bathroom debate.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry