In his article for The Tablet, “Is transphobia a sin?,” author Clifford Longley offers a Catholic defense of transgender identity that brings modern scientific understandings of gender and sex and lived experience into conversation with natural law theory. Longley argues for the inherent dignity of trans people, yet he does not unequivocally condemn transphobia as a sin, preferring to see people on a spectrum rather than in two distinct camps.
I would begin with a word of caution. While I believe the author is well-intentioned in his attempt at allyship, many phrases employed are outdated, mildly insensitive, or not the preferred language of the trans community. These phrases may be harmful for some to read. I also disagree with his conclusions and think his argument could benefit from more careful argumentation and citation, as some claims are broad or vague and others are simply wrong, such as when he insinuates that there are more trans women than men.
Longley begins by stating that the Catholic natural law argument against the morality of transgender identity comes from the premise that gender and sex are aligned in the complementary images of man and woman. Yet, he argues: “natural [l]aw can still help us, but only if we look at the whole picture.”
Longley is critical and skeptical of gender theory and the social construction of gender. He believes that it is unfair to see people’s habituated transphobia as something that contributes to a sinful nature, which he feels is connected to “cancel culture.” He also cautions against unfair assumptions that because a person is transphobic, they also carry other phobias or -isms. I find these claims to be unsubstantiated and problematic.
Longley does acknowledge that “attempts to deny [transgender identity] can be dangerous to that person’s wellbeing. Their mental health is at risk… But if this belief can be accommodated and accepted, their mental health recovers, and their desire to live a useful life returns… Can we deny that that is what God wanted[?]”
He sees that acceptance of trans identity can lead to human flourishing, something crucial to moral evaluation within a natural law framework. He writes fondly of trans woman Jan Morris’ personal story, emphasizing that “it is not until one confronts individual cases that one can begin to make sense” of transgender identity.
As LGBTQ people and allies, what do we do with Longley’s position? Progressive Catholics often encounter people who, while well-intentioned, do not recognize insensitivities in their positions. On one hand, Longley is potentially reaching an audience in need of conversion on queer topics in a helpful way. On the other hand, he could benefit from reading what LGBTQ Catholic scholars themselves are writing and saying about these issues.
I believe it is important for Catholics to unequivocally condemn transphobia as a sin. It is never okay to discriminate, intentionally call a person by their wrong pronouns, or ignore physical, sexual, or economic violence against trans people. Transphobia has serious consequences. For example, the 2021 Trevor Project National Survey reports that transgender and non-binary youth who reported that people in their communities respected their pronouns attempted suicide at half the rate of those youth whose pronouns were not respected.
The solution for Longley is to continue reading about the lived experiences of trans people and to incorporate social science data on the consequences of transphobia into his moral framework. Some LGBTQ and feminist Catholic scholars are interested in doing natural law retrievals similar to his attempt here. I would especially recommend the work of Craig Ford and Cristina Traina, in addition to Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler.
However, some Christian scholars are moving beyond apologetics and desiring to affirm LGBTQ dignity through other ethical methods, such as uncovering lived experience through qualitative research. This is Thelathia Nikki Young’s approach in her book on LGBTQ issues and family. Linn Tonstad has written the primary text on why LGBTQ scholarship is more compelling when it resists the frameworks that have oppressed us.
I hope to see more messy articles as Catholic scholars start to understand the gravity of the oppression experienced due to simply identifying as transgender. I also hope to see more Catholic scholars listening to and privileging the voices of their LGBTQ counterparts in the field as they do this important work. As a Eucharistic community, we are called together to the table with all of our siblings in Christ.
—Barbara Anne Kozee (she/her), New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2021