With President Donald Trump seeking to erase transgender people as a category, will the U.S. bishops be complicit in this egregious human rights violation or will they at last defend the trans community when it faces attacks?
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on a leaked federal memo by which the Trump administration seeks to deny the existence of non-physical gender identity and thereby of transgender people as a recognized class. Rather, the Department of Health and Human Services’ memo states, gender is synonymous with assigned sex, is a male-female binary, is unchangeable, and is determined by genitalia (and genetic testing, if needed). The Department is seeking to make this understanding uniform across the federal government.
The trans community, and particularly trans women of color, remain quite vulnerable even after some legal protections were implemented under President Barack Obama and at state and local levels. The damage this new federal definition could cause is severe. Trans activist Brynn Tannehill summarized potential consequences in The Advocate:
“Taken together, the acts of removal of civil rights protections, nonrecognition of a class of people, purging them from civil service, and revocation of passports are extremely disturbing because they all have clear analogies to actions taken in Germany prior to 1939 to isolate and marginalize the Jewish population there.”
Against the Trump administration, trans advocates and allies launched the #WontBeErased campaign on social media which has been followed up with in-person actions. Many religious leaders have voiced their opposition to the memo, but members of the Catholic hierarchy have been silent.
To this point, most remarks and actions by church leaders regarding transgender issues have been quite negative. In 2017, Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. and Bishop George Murry, SJ, applauded the Trump administration’s rescinding of Department of Education guidelines to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. When those protections were previously released under President Obama, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo called them “deeply disturbing.” In addition, the director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which represents that state’s bishops, said a local education guide for taking care of trans students was the “exaltation of dictatorship.”
That same year, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA endorsed the Trump administration’s attempted ban on transgender members of the military. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said at a Knights of Columbus-funded conference for bishops that “transgenderism [was about] the acquisition of greater power and the satisfaction of our own desires.”
In addition, church leaders and healthcare officials have been long-standing opponents of protections for transgender patients and promoted harmful conscience protections. Pastoral care issues have seen rigid, gendered dress codes imposed on youth as a barrier to sacramental reception and questions raised about whether trans people can be baptized.
But perhaps most telling and relevant is a 2017 interfaith letter signed by four Catholic bishops who head committees for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in which they deny the existence of the transgender experience and promote a false scenario about how gender is being taught to children as if it were a choice. The letter stated:
“We come together to join our voices on a more fundamental precept of our shared existence, namely, that human beings are male or female and that the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female. . .Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt. The state itself has a compelling interest, therefore, in maintaining policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology and supporting the social institutions and norms that surround it.”
These words are the theological basis for legal attempts now being made by Trump and his administration to erase transgender people as a recognized class. By endorsing gender complementarity and warning against “gender ideology,” the U.S. bishops have made themselves complicit in the suffering being inflicted against trans people (not to mention the LGBT community at large, and women). Such thinking and rhetoric must now be rejected and the damage it causes must be acknowledged. The trans community is owed an apology from the U.S. church. In this pivotal moment of determining whether the oppression of trans people in the United States will greatly increase or not, it is past time for the nation’s bishops to speak out and bear witness in defense of trans people’s lives and dignity.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 1, 2018