Two-Spirit Student Leaves Catholic School After Repeated Gender-Based Discrimination

Solomon “Sully” Montoya

A Two-Spirit student has left Montana Catholic high school after facing discrimination due to the local diocese’s transgender-negative policy couple with school administrators’ actions. 

Solomon “Sully” Montoya was a residential student at St. Labre Indian School, a Catholic school just outside the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Ashland, Montana. Montoya felt “pushed out” after the local diocese issued policies regarding gender identity.

Montoya, a member of the Crow Nation, is Two-Spirit, a traditional third gender recognized by Indigenous communities that is similar to but not synonymous with transgender or nonbinary identities. Trouble began for him roughly ten months after the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings issued its “Biological Identity Policy” outlining guidelines for Catholic school students “diagnosed with gender dysphoria.”

In October 2022, St. Labre Indian School held Red Ribbon Week to encourage drug- and alcohol-free behavior. Students were encouraged to attend events and dress in various themes. On the day when female students were encouraged to wear ribbon skirts, Montoya wore one, along with a pair of high-heeled shoes. However, he was quickly summoned by administrators when they saw his attire. In an interview with the Missoulian, Montoya explained:

“‘They told me that I’m not allowed to wear that. I asked, “Why?” and they told me, “It’s because I’m a male, and males aren’t allowed to wear skirts.” I told them, “Today’s a ribbon skirt day, and it’s part of my culture. I’m allowed to wear this.”’”

Montoya changed out of the skirt at the behest of the school administration, but he kept wearing the heels. He reported that the administrators said it was “because you’re a guy” as the reason he could not wear the shoes. When Montoya refused to change into different shoes, he was suspended for the rest of the week.

The St. Labre Indian School administration based their decisions about Montoya’s dress on the diocesan policy, which states, “All persons shall present themselves in appearance as to not distract others, including presenting themselves in their appearance and attire which corresponds with their biological sex.”

The school’s policy also requires students and parents to be addressed and referred to with pronouns according to their assigned sex. Violating these guidelines could result in dismissal from the school.

Curtis Yarlott, executive director of St. Labre Indian School, emphasized the importance of mutual respect and following the school’s rules. While he didn’t comment on Montoya’s case, Yarlott explained that the school has its own rules and expectations, and it asks students and employees to respect them, while also respecting individuals for who they are without trying to change them. Montoya, however, feels that the school’s policies prevent him from expressing his true identity and make him feel unaccepted.

Yarlott mentioned that despite recent policy changes, St. Labre has supported Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ students and families in the past. Some parents, including Montoya’s family, chose St. Labre because they believed their child would be safe and supported there, and the school has fulfilled that expectation. Feather Magpie, Montoya’s sister who graduated from St. Labre in 2014, described the school community as a “big family.”

However, Montoya’s family would not have enrolled him if they knew the administration would cause problems. He has often felt targeted by the administrators, and when he asked why they were “calling him out,” he said they would respond:

“‘It’s because we care about you, and we want you to have a future. They’d say things like, ‘You won’t get anywhere looking like that.’” 

Despite feeling isolated due to the school’s policies, Montoya had support from students and teachers who advocated for his right to express himself. An anonymous teacher shared that Montoya was a good student who expressed his culture through clothing and jewelry. The teacher was confused by the school’s decisions and felt Montoya should be allowed to express himself freely.

Montoya left the school in January after being asked again to change his outfit, which included a yellow cheerleading sweater, knee-high boots, and a bow in his hair. Upon leaving St. Labre, Montoya remarked:

“‘It makes the school a less diverse place. It shows that the school … only supports (a certain) type of student, and only this type of student will achieve, while they push all the others out.'”

The decision to leave St. Labre was not easy. His family was concerned that Montoya would miss out on educational and scholarship opportunities. For instance, St. Labre graduates are eligible for scholarships to continue on to postsecondary education. Montoya now attends a public school where he feels free to pursue his interests and participate in various activities, leading to greater happiness

Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, commented: 

“At issue here are not only questions about how gender diversity is treated in Catholic education. Montoya’s story also highlights the persistent issues in the Catholic Church regarding its legacy of colonization and violence against Indigenous communities. 

“The Crow people, of whom Montoya is a part, have a history of recognizing three genders: male, female, and Two-Spirit. Indeed, Two-Spirit people have been accepted in many Indigenous communities for centuries. St. Labre Indian School’s inability to respect and support this Indigenous tradition, opting instead to enforce strict gender norms, echoes other assimilationist policies at Catholic schools for Indigenous students dating back centuries.

“The discrimination that Sully Montoya faced highlights that LGBTQ-negative church teachings and policies create further obstacles to and stymie progress towards the Catholic Church making reparations to the Indigenous communities for the role they played in oppressing them for centuries.”

Catholic schools ought to be places where all students can feel loved and accepted, places and where they can, as Montoya put it, “feel free” and “have a future.” May the future of Catholic schools become such a place.

Bobby Nichols (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 2, 2023

2 replies
  1. Richard
    Richard says:

    I have no confidence at all that the RCC will be a leader in searching for justice, respect, and inclusion in our society. The Church has become a vessel for ideology over persons. What a sad state of affairs…and not the Gospel life I know and love.

  2. Al Heidt
    Al Heidt says:

    The male dominated Catholic Church has no concept of what others know about sexuality or the harm they do with their dogma. They don’t live up to Jesus’s ideals and goal. They grossly misinterpret their authority with the goal of dominating those who are not in agreement with them. Read the Doctrines of Discovery from around 1482 to 1492 to find the Doctrine the church imposes on those They see as not fitting g their view of Church Law.


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