The principal of a Catholic high school has encouraged his school community to welcome two transgender students, a hopeful step not only for Catholic education by for Australian LGBT and Catholic communities as well.
Brother John Hilet, FMS, of Trinity Catholic College Lismore in New South Wales, Australia, welcomed two students who came out to him as transgender. The students, who were assigned female at birth, sought to wear male uniforms consistent with their gender.
Though “surprised” to be dealing with gender identity issues, Hilet told ABC News that he was “very quickly moved by their level of trust, faith and willingness to come forward and speak with me.” He added:
“They were moved at a very deep level and at that point the only response I could think of was to treat them with compassion and reach out and do whatever I could to assist. . .
“One of the things I said to the students was that it is a fundamental Catholic teaching that all human beings have an innate dignity that doesn’t derive from anything other than the fact we are human and made in the image and likeness of God. . .When Jesus spoke he never taught us to do anything other than love others, so that was the way I expressed it.”
The students’ request to wear male uniforms was approved, and the school went a step further by announcing a gender neutral uniform.
These changes were made in consultation with local church officials who had responded positively. Hilet consulted the New South Wales Catholic Education Commission and Bishop Gregory Homeming of Lismore, about whom Hilet said:
“[The bishop’s] response to me was quite clearly that this is an issue of wellbeing for these students. It is an issue of being caring, compassionate and reaching out and doing what we can to assist. I was very happy that confirmed my feelings.”
The principal also wrote a letter to parents, saying it was “essential as a Catholic community we offer our full support to these students.” Students would be expected to respect one another and understand difference, and Hilet explicitly warned against any bullying of the two trans students.
Expecting pushback, the school instead received overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents. Hilet explained;
“Invariably the responses have been incredibly positive, thanking the college for its openness and inclusiveness and overwhelmingly supporting the idea of a gender neutral uniform option. . .
“The one that touched me most was a mother who indicated one of her children left the school about three years ago for the same reason and at the time didn’t feel confident in coming to approach me and talk to me about it. And that was sad.”
This incident at Trinity Catholic comes at a difficult moment for LGBT people and their loved ones in Australia. The debate over the country’s non-binding plebiscite on marriage equality has become harmful, including a neo-Nazi poster targeting LGBT parents. Australia’s bishops have had a mixed record engaging marriage equality, and there have been prominent Catholic figures speaking out on both sides of the issue.
Brother Hilet’s decision could therefore have an impact on more than just the two students and the Trinity Catholic community. It can give hope to students in Catholic schools, to youth who may be questioning their gender identity, and to families seeking acceptance for their children. It is as well a bright light for all Australian Catholics, proof once again that our church can live by a more just and compassionate path on LGBT issues when we choose to do so.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 30, 2017