The Diocese of Lansing’s new policy on gender identity continues to generate strong opposition from community members, as well as national faith-based organizations.
The policy, released last month, specifies that all clergy, employees, and volunteers of the diocese, as well as students and parents in Catholic schools, are to “conduct themselves in accord with their God-given biological sex.” Concretely, this includes usage of bathrooms, sports teams, and pronouns, all of which must correlate to the sex assigned at birth.
More than 11,000 people have signed a petition from Faithful America, a political organizing group, which calls on Bishop Earl Boyea to immediately repeal the Policy on the Human Body as a Constitutive Aspect of the Human Person “and in its place begin to treat transgender persons with Christ-like love, respect, and dignity.”
Dignity USA, a national Catholic LGBTQ organization, also had strong words opposing the policy “that denies the reality of transgender and nonbinary people,” according to Linda Roberts, chair of Dignity’s transgender support caucus. the DignityUSA statement reads, in part:
“It ignores the science that recognizes transgender people and gender dysphoria, and worse, prescribes that transgender people be erased and treated exclusively as the gender they were assigned at birth. We cannot say it more clearly: this policy is harmful to transgender people and their families.”
Tashmica Torok and her family argued along the same line. Torok was relieved that her daughter left her local Catholic school prior to the release of the newest policy. “Arrie just came out as trans and uses she/her pronouns; the only thing I can say is that she saved herself and we didn’t know it,” Torok explained to the Lansing State Journal.
Torok’s daughter and several other students withdrew from Immaculate Heart of Mary-St. Casimir School in 2017 after they were reprimanded for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance to protest racial inequality and police brutality.
Torok still grieves the loss of a Catholic education for her daughter. Their family regularly attended Mass and other parish activities and were raising their children alongside the church community. “In one part we share that broken heart and grieving,” she said. “And on the other hand, all I can say is thank God my child did what she did so we can rescue her from that toxic environment.”
The new diocesan guidelines appear to use the definition of gender dysphoria agreed on by the American Psychological Association (APA), which includes “distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.” The APA notes, however, points out that not all transgender persons experience dysphoria and that psychological stress can stem directly from “societal marginalization of gender-variant people.”
DignityUSA’s Roberts, expressed concern for the undue distress the policy will cause for transgender students and others affected:
“It is well known that transgender people have much higher rates of suicide than cisgender people, but it should be emphasized that this is because they face family and societal rejection, the same type of rejection the bishop is imposing throughout his diocese.”
Diocesan officials, however, defend the approach. Richard Budd, Director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the diocese and co-author of the policy, called it a “necessary response” to “false and harmful ‘gender ideologies’ which proposes that male and female are merely social constructs.”
While diocesan documents seem to conflate assigned sex with gender identity, the APA notes that gender identity may change over time and should be distinguished from the sex assigned at birth, as well as gender expression.
But if the policy reveals the diocese’s willingness to ignore scientific and sociological research on transgender issues, it also reflects an ecclesiological issue. The gap between church leadership and everyday Catholics whose lives are affected continues to grow. The bishop’s declarations seem aloof at best, and at worst, inimical to pastoral care for some of the most vulnerable populations.
Stef Shuster, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, told WILX that the policy is not healthy for students:
“’It concerns me for a student who is questioning their gender or identify as trans or non-binary to be placed into a situation where from up on top these decisions are coming down that are more or less saying “we don’t see you.”'”
And some parents of Catholic school students agree.
“Kids have their own battles growing up,” empathizes Rovonya Velasquez. Like Torok, her child was also reprimanded for kneeling during the Pledge in 2017. She said that she felt bad for transgender students and that the leadership fails to understand, saying,“We’ve all gone through our identity of trying to find ourselves and our place in life, but they still don’t get it.”
For Torok, the failure of leadership and concern for human dignity is simply inexcusable:
“‘I cannot imagine a child who is trans or a child who identifies as gender non-conforming, who is exploring their gender identity, their sexuality and is living and breathing that toxic environment that is only going to tell them that they are not valuable and don’t deserve to live. . .That is unconscionable.'”
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, March 9, 2021