Catholic School Denies Re-Enrollment to Student Who Came Out As Transgender
With the school year beginning, new controversies have emerged around Catholic schools’ policies regarding LGBTQ students and community members. Today’s post features a Catholic school that denied re-enrollment to a transgender student. Tomorrow’s post will include information about two more schools’ trans-negative policies.
According to The Anchorage Press, Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, Alaska unenrolled student Morgan Smith. His parents say the decision is because Morgan came out as transgender earlier this year, while school officials cite different reasons.
Joe Joyner, Smith’s stepfather, explained that last April, they met with the school’s principal to discuss plans for Morgan to be out in the coming school year:
“[Joyner said:] ‘We weren’t pushing for anything that year — there were only 3 or 4 weeks left to the school year — we were just saying, hey, next year Morgan would like to present as a boy. We weren’t asking for use of boy bathrooms or anything like that, just a pronoun change and a uniform change.’
“The family left the meeting feeling confident everything would be cool, and as weeks went by they figured no news was good news.
“‘Through the summer we e-mailed them, tried calling, tried getting any sort of correspondence, but they were always pushing us off, saying somebody will call you back,’ Joyner said. ‘It was no response until basically we were like, OK, since you aren’t talking to us, Morgan will present as a boy and we’re getting boy uniforms — just be aware.’
“That silence ended once the Joyners received their 2021-2022 enrollment packet at the end of July that included additional pages promising adherence to the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. [the creed recited at Catholic Mass] and extensive language that seemed to single out gender identity and sexual orientation.”
The closing of the enrollment contract includes a section titled “Statement on Marriage, Gender, and Sexuality,” which includes language that “one’s biological gender is established by God and cannot be changed” and that marriage is only for heterosexual couples.” The concluding line is an admonishment to employees and volunteers about their “special duty” to enforce these LGBTQ-negative views.
Joyner wondered if this language was directed at his child’s decision to come out. He explained:
“[Joyner] said [his wife] Tasha went to the online app to re-enroll both children for the coming year only to find they had been deleted from the rolls. After all, Joe supposes, if Morgan Smith is going to enroll as a male, rather than a female, then that may as well be a whole new human being made to re-apply as though he were a brand new enrollee. And since each student at Holy Rosary enrolls as a family, that meant Natalie was likely out of luck, too.
“‘He’s now a new student instead of somebody who’s been going there. We could sign this and turn it in and pay another $600 fee to the school to get both Morgan and Natalie in, but they already know about Morgan because we told them,’ Joe said. ‘Also, according to this contract, if they kick us out we’re still liable for the year’s tuition, which is about $10,000 per kid.”
In the end, the Joyners contacted the school and its new headmaster, Mark Newcomb, directly:
“Five days later, Newcomb wrote in an email to Tasha Joyner that Morgan could not be considered for re-application at the school because of an overtly rebellious social media post in which Morgan painted one arm red and one arm black with a pentagram on his left wrist, putting fingers from both into his mouth, face otherwise cropped, and because of Mrs. Joyner’s assertion that ‘demons are not real.'”
The Joyners were told by Newcomb that they and the school “do not have a functioning partnership with you for building up the Catholic culture of the school” and that “you will need to find other educational options for your children for next year, in a setting that better aligns with the values that you hold and espouse with respect to the occult and the diabolical.”
The Anchorage Press report opined that the social media post in dispute “gave the school a convenient reason to deny [Morgan’s] application, apart from the contentious social issue of gender identity and sexual orientation.” Smith is now a senior at another local high school where he is thriving. Holy Rosary administrators have refused to comment on the matter.
What makes this story even more tragic is that at Holy Rosary had found a reprieve from bullying he had received elsewhere. According to the news report, he ended up in Catholic school after persistent harassment in other elementary and middle schools, including having an anti-gay slur written on his forehand with which he had to return to class with it still inscribed. It continued:
“Overnight the bullying stopped things got better for Morgan at Holy Rosary — so much better that at the end of his junior year last spring, he decided to come out as transgender — hardly a surprise to anyone who knew him, but potentially a sticking point at a Catholic school where boys wear uniforms with pants and girls skirts.”
The church’s educational work strives not only to teach students academic material, but to form them into people who live authentically as Christ intended. Names, pronouns, and uniforms for students of any gender identity, but in particular for those who are trans or gender non-confirming should not be sticking points in Catholic schools. This story could have been about how one Catholic school helped a transgender student flourish, perhaps addressing a problematic social media post constructively along the way.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 31, 2021
When I read these sad but by now unsurprising stories of anti-LGBTQ intolerance dressed up as doctrinal purity, I wonder if the administrators of such schools would sooner abandon their faith than modify their cramped, authoritarian, and un-Christlike approach to it. But of course they do not engage in such thought experiments. To them, all truth—and their approach to it—is eternal and unchanging, frozen in amber. The limitations of human understanding do not factor into their thinking at all, any more than hard-to-translate figures of speech and plays on words factor into the thinking of fundamentalists who insist on interpreting Scripture through a rigidly literal lens that diminishes it.
The same rigid mindset applies to the authoritarians’ view of God’s creation, including biology. The language in the Holy Rosary Academy’s contract that “one’s biological gender is established by God and cannot be changed” takes no account of how our understanding of biology grows. The fact that biology includes brain chemistry, and that brain chemistry affects one’s gender identity, either does not occur to these know-it-alls or is seen as an assault on the gates of heaven. They seem unaware of the Vatican’s apology for its treatment of Galileo, a man of faith who was studying God’s creation through his telescope rather than mounting an assault on it. Nor does it likely occur to them that the imagined conflict between creationism and evolution is categorically resolved by four words, “God is behind it.” Instead of practicing intellectual humility in the face of an awesome inner and outer universe that surpasses our understanding, they stick it with a pin like a butterfly in a display case.
If human biology is established by God, then learning that it is more complex and varied than we previously understood has nothing to do with an assault on the divine. Any irreverence is on the part of intellectual bullies who pretend to a godlike certainty and omniscience that is beyond them. Gender science is not a rebellion against God’s creation, but a reflection of our growing understanding of it.
At base, the school administrators’ intolerant policies are rooted not in defense of the faith but in a desire for ownership and control. Their rigid approach to the faith makes it fragile, like a tree coated with ice whose branches break because they cannot bend in the wind. This attitude is entirely unnecessary and harmful. God did not give us a frozen and unchanging world, any more than She endowed us with perfect understanding. Oh, there I go again.
I believe it was Giordano Bruno in 1600 who said to Cardinal Bellarmine, who was preparing to burn him at the stake, that the cardinal was more afraid than he himself was. The very concept of heresy is an attempt to shackle God to our limited understanding. If we are going to burn people at the stake, why not for that? Instead of an approach to church authority that has them forever swatting students with rulers, why not try listening to students’ questions without reacting like Victorian maidens on fainting couches?
Surely a faith worthy of the name should be both sturdier and more supple. Because Galileo was correct five centuries ago when he purportedly whispered, “Eppur si muove”—“But it moves”—whether or not our religion allows room for it. If you push me to it, I am perfectly prepared to say that Galileo was right and God was wrong, because Galileo bloody well proved that the earth orbited the sun whether it fits our cosmology and our theology or not. The theology will simply have to catch up.
It is not God who is offended by attitudes like mine—I am only using my God-given brain—but authoritarians. Why is there a need for such rigid control? On what thin scriptural reed do they rest their massive armature of authority, and their medieval approach to it? It is not about God, but about them. And why, incidentally, must they act as if God has no sense of humor? Why pretend that God has anger management issues and is perpetually preparing to hurl lightning bolts at us for using our brains to think for ourselves?
I can imagine a less authoritarian, less abusive approach to religion, in which we can discuss difficult matters with open hearts and minds and without weapons drawn, and it is awesome. Also, in the most expansive sense of the word, godly.
Catholic Schools’ Policies Regarding LGBTQ Students
This is another sad story among too many like it. I like the concluding paragraph as our appropriate response and our ultimate goal. I had a personal experience that confirms part of that vision. I was bullied in public school because I was perceived to be weak and gay (both were true) to the extent that I was failing sixth grade.
My single mom transferred me to a Lutheran parochial school ; the bullying stopped and my class mates tutored me to help me catchup to their speed. I also developed a deep personal faith that I brought with me when I came into the communion with the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the time was 1949 and there was no opportunity for me to live authentically.
Holy Rosary’s actions make me think of Jesus’ quote from Isaiah in this past Sunday’s Gospel reading. “These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless, and their hearts are somewhere else. Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized.” [Isiah 29:13 (Today’s English Version)]
Thanks for the quote, Don. It summarizes the heart of what is going on with official RC teachings about human sexuality and gender identity. Lots of pseudo-scientific ramblings based on beliefs and opinions that have been handed down, rather than on human experience and reality. Maybe this is an example also of new wine being poured into old wineskins.
I feel for Morgan and his family.
This is an example of Catholic education leaders acting like Sadducees of old. But it is a larger example of the church’s lack of a coherent theology of sexuality that encompasses the entire range of human sexual nature and lived experiences. Transgenderism is unfortunately not well understood in at all, much less in ecclesiological areas, and it will be complicated getting there. The medical community is doing better than any discipline, but they agree they have far to go and need vastly more research. The church sends conflicting and, at times, wrong messages.
In the meantime, people have lives. Children, especially, struggle with understanding who they are and how they fit into the world even under the best of circumstances. While medicine, sociology, theology and public policy work (by fits and starts) to catch up with these living experiences of transgenderism, homosexuality and gender fluidity, what do we do, especially as Catholics and our institutions? All we can do, as Pope Francis says, is accompany them on their journey. Jesus did not kick anyone to the side of the road. As Catholics we can’t either.
Morgan deserves a faith that walks with him and helps him discern his true self. The namesake of this school, the Blessed Mother, never abandoned her only child. She went with him, even to the foot of the cross. If she were here today, she would not abandon Morgan.