Transgender rights are the latest major issue when it comes to LGBT equality in the U.S., and sadly this could mean trans people become collateral damage, says one transgender Catholic advocate.
Last December, an interfaith open letter opposing trans rights was signed by four U.S. bishops and hosted on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. Titled “Created Male and Female,” the letter said trans identities were “a false idea” and “deeply troubling.” Catholics, including a statement from New Ways Ministry, decried the letter at that time.
But the letter is just one step in church leaders’ growing attack on transgender people, which has included Pope Francis’ repeated warnings against the nebulous idea of “gender ideology” and other bishops’ sometimes vitriolic comments. National Catholic Reporter explained how many commentators consider trans topics to be the new forefront issue:
“‘I think this is the new front in the gender culture wars,’ said Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, noting that both liberal and conservative advocacy organizations may have been surprised at how quickly Americans — including American Catholics — came to largely accept same-sex marriage.
“Yet the public policy issues — focused on bathroom accommodations or military service, so far — seem relatively minor, and the number of people affected relatively small, Silk said. ‘I don’t see how it really affects people in terms of institutional behavior,’ he said. ‘What’s the threat?'”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, agreed:
“‘I think it’s going to become a big issue. . .In the religious world, and in the Catholic world in particular, gender is so embedded in so many doctrinal statements that any new understanding of gender is very threatening. . . So many Catholic initiatives around the world are trying to understand transgender issues and people in sensitive and responsive ways. . .But [the open letter] just seems so insensitive and irresponsible.'”
There is another path for church leaders, and indeed all Catholics, said DeBernardo:
“‘If Catholic leaders wanted to, they could avail themselves of the immense amount of scientific, theological, and spiritual research which supports transgender people in their quest to live as their authentic selves by various forms of gender transition. . .Even more simply, Catholic leaders should listen to the personal experiences of transgender Catholics.'”
Other Catholic groups echoed this criticism of the letter. Call to Action said in a statement that the religious leaders’ approach promoted “an outdated and harmful understanding of gender.” DignityUSA said the letter was “heinous and immensely damaging.”
But perhaps left out of the conversation are trans people themselves, said Hilary Howes, the founder of TransCatholic who converted to Catholicism after her transition. She told NCR:
“‘It’s like we’re collateral damage in the culture war. . .It’s painful to have people think of us in this way. . .They have a very poor understanding of what life is really like for transgender people. . .If they would listen to transgender people, it would be a step forward.'”
As trans equality becomes an increasing flashpoint in the church and in society, the listening advocated by Howes and DeBernardo will be increasingly important. There can be no path forward that respects human dignity and advances the common good until church leaders’ actually understand the topic about which they currently are making uninformed and dangerous comments. Church officials recent support for the Trump administration’s move to protect discrimination against LGBT patients is prime evidence of this dire need.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 22, 2018