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5 trans Catholics on the Vatican’s rejection of their gender identity

“I’m sick of being abused by those who are supposed to be my family.”

St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Vatican in September, 2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Colleen Fay of Mount Rainier, Maryland, came out as transgender 12 years ago to her parish music director, she was fired from her position on the choir. She later described feeling like she was in “doctrinal limbo” because there is no universal teaching on gender from the church.

“I’m hurt by the Catholic Church every single day,” she said. “They want me and they don’t want me.”

On June 10, the Vatican released a document that seems to seek to clarify the ambivalence Fay and other transgender Catholics have described. It is the most comprehensive document on gender identity the Vatican has ever released. Called “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Questions of Gender Theory in Education,” the document aims to address what it calls “educational crisis” surrounding sexuality and gender.

But its conclusion has not been received favorably by trans Catholics; it says that Catholic schools must help teach young people that gender is fixed at birth. According to the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican office that released the document, “gender theory” has misled people to think that gender is different from biological sex.

“Oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’, and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy,” the authors write.

The announcement comes at a time when trans people’s rights are under threat on a national level. Last month the Trump administration announced a proposal to roll back protections for discrimination against trans people by healthcare providers. Transgender people make up only 0.6 percent of the US population, and they are about 8 times as likely to report attempting suicide than the rest of the population. This rate rises even higher depending on the type of discrimination they are subject to, says a 2014 study by the Williams Institute.

It is not clear why the Congregation for Catholic Education has decided to weigh in on gender identity now. The past few years have seen a rapid increase in conversations about LGBTQ Catholics within the church — the Vatican used the acronym LGBT for the first time in June of last year, in a document written for a meeting of bishops in Rome. In a final version of the document, the acronym was removed.

In the United States, attitudes of Catholics have been shifting. Sixty-eight percent of Catholics in the United States say they feel more supportive toward transgender rights than they did five years ago, compared to 62 percent of the general population, according to a survey conducted this year by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In 2017, Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, wrote “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” a book that affirmed LGBTQ Catholics and received praise from several bishops as well as members of the LGBTQ community for advancing the conversation on this topic.

The new document talks about gender and transgender people in a less polemical way than the church has done previously. (Pope Francis, for example, has in the past compared arguments for transgender rights to those for nuclear weapons.) It dedicates a section to “Listening” and “Points of Agreement” that concedes that “unjust discrimination” has been “a sad fact of history” and has taken place within the church. But it also reiterates views that the pope and the US bishops expressed which characterize transgender people as “choosing” their gender, which themselves have been called transphobic and discriminatory by some trans Catholics.

So what does this mean for transgender Catholics? Here, five trans Catholics respond.

Thomas: Gender isn’t about choice

[Name changed to protect identity.]

There is no evidence in this document that its authors have spent any time listening to transgender or intersex people.

“Gender identity” is not about choosing which gender you would rather be, but noticing which gender you already are, as a gift given to you by God. For most transgender people, transgenderism can be more accurately defined as “experiencing as given a gender different from the gender associated with your sex as identified at birth.”

It’s disappointing that they’re writing out of ignorance about the actual lived experiences and thoughts of trans and intersex folks, but it was a gentler and less condemnatory document than others I’ve read. Their advice about listening was good; they just have to take it.

Cameron: I can’t read this

I’ve decided not to read it because I know it is not going to change my mind about how I live my life. I’ve been a better place emotionally recently, and know that reading it would only upset me.

Colleen: They can’t take the church away from me

In approaching the matter of sexuality and gender, the authors have failed to cite any but church documents. There is no reference made to the scientific advances made in the last half-century regarding the whole realm of human sexuality. It is not sufficient to suggest, as these authors do, that males have XY chromosomes and females have XX chromosomes.

All in all, this is a rear-guard attempt to defend a hyper-conservative Catholic view that, especially in light of the sex abuse/church cover-up scandal, seems almost laughable were it not so tragic.

Does this all leave me in doctrinal limbo? Well, it certainly sends a signal that some folk in the higher echelons of the church are trying to turn back the clock. However, if you’ll forgive me bowdlerizing Ira Gershwin’s fabulous lyric, when it comes to the church, “they can’t take that away from me.”

Scotty: I can’t do this anymore

I couldn’t read the entire thing. Frankly, I got irritated at the beginning with [their focus on] gender theory. There is actual science and medical knowledge that the church is choosing to ignore. It’s not theory.

I’m irritated that once again the church has chosen to diminish and limits my lived experience while saying that they are listening. They’re not.

Lately, every time I start to soften a little bit and think about maybe going back to church, something awful like this happens. ... I’m sick of being abused by those who are supposed to be my family. I can’t make room in my life for that anymore.

Hilary: I’m ready for dialogue

There will be a few transgender Catholics who will take them at their word and use the title to promote a dialogue. If they want to have one, I am ready. But there will be many more who will finally concede that the church is just too irrelevant to life in the 21st century and will find other spiritual homes.

Then there are those who will be attacked and marginalized by people who will find justification for their prejudice in this paper. All of that is heartbreaking.

Eloise Blondiau is a producer at America Media. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.