My Religion Is Hurting (Part I)

In my hometown, Wednesday nights were for catechism. Young Catholics, who attended the public school by day, would invade the closest Catholic school, expecting to learn a bit about God and definitely causing a mess. I had a goody-goody reputation because I didn’t dare put chalk in the erasers, or hide the erasers on top of the ceiling fans, or stuff candy wrappers in other students’ desks. I did what was expected: reading aloud, memorizing, and answering correctly as I did in any class. Yet I had inklings that what I was reciting did not match with the progressive views rattling around my head. Eventually I could no longer reconcile the views that I hold dear about equality with the dogma that expects Catholics to renounce their gay brothers and sisters.  

Despite my attendance at mass dropping well below the number of holy days in the year, I cannot fully divest myself from being interested in the Catholic Church’s actions, having spent so much time studying to be a good Catholic. The failures of the men running the Church show clearest in their rejection of the gay community, and this post delves into two very recent examples: 1. A letter titled “Created Male and Female” that rejects transgender identities as “false ideas”; and 2.The Madison, WI Diocese’s proclamation that Catholic funerals aren’t guaranteed for someone in a same-sex relationship. I firmly believe that the Catholic Church is hurting its followers and other people in this world by needlessly dividing families through hateful guidelines, impacting national and global laws in ways that force everyone to live within the parameters deemed acceptable by the Church, and making gay Catholics feel conflicted between self and faith.

Now as I discussed in this post and this one, my writings dealing with religion and the Catholic Church are not attempting to discredit the power of spirituality. I also want to note that I am very impressed by the faithful Catholics using their voices as much as they can within the non-democratic organization to move it forward in a socially progressive manner. #NotAllCatholics, if it makes it easier for you to keep reading.  Fighting from within just didn’t work for me.

Now onward to these two recent events:

Discrimination Against Transgender Individuals in Life

Ten days prior to Christmas 2017, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter titled “Created Male and Female: An Open Letter from Religious Leaders,” which asks for sensitivity, love, mercy, compassion, and patience when speaking about “a person's discomfort with his or her sex, or the desire to be identified as the other sex.” Those five words, sensitivity, love, mercy, compassion, and patience, sound really nice, especially when paired with the sentiment that “each person deserves to be heard and treated with respect.” However, the essence of the letter is far from affirming acceptance of transgender individuals, whom the letter proclaims are falling for “false ideas.”

The letter essentially claims that biological sex and gender are one and the same, going against the work of psychologists, doctors, and anthropologists who recognize that gender is a social construct. The writers of the letter appear to believe that being born with a penis or vagina is the single most important determinant in a person’s life, determining everything from appropriate occupations (like who can be priests) to personalities to household duties. The writers fail to recognize that sometimes biology gets it wrong—a woman may exist without a vagina, a man may exist without a penis. Genitals do not define your style, personality, or soul. Instead of discrediting these realities as a “phase,” transgender individuals deserve true, unwavering love shown by providing resources for becoming their most authentic self.

The letter would better serve transgender individuals, parents of questioning individuals, and faith communities by offering advice on finding resources instead of passing judgment. For example, priests could provide information regarding  how to seek professional counseling because very few, if any, priests are certified psychologists; they are generally not that knowledgeable about the physical, emotional, or mental struggles transgender individuals experience.

Even if the priest does not know of a local psychologist who will make the individual feel affirmed and respected, the priest should mention Trans Lifeline, (US: (877) 565-8860) a national resource for transgender individuals experiencing a crisis. Trans Lifeline also offer resources for individuals questioning their sexuality and/or identity. The organization is run by transgender people trained to respond to the toughest of situations, and they can empathize and connect with callers because they’ve been there too.

Taking the time to learn and read more about the transgender community would go a long way toward making priests more empathetic and able to respect the community’s needs, hopefully seeing the struggling individual who needs affirmation and support, not another uninformed morality lecture. The National Center for Transgender Equality offers a lot of resources not only for transgender individuals but also for the individual’s support system. Priests could also help the individual by suggesting ways to connect with members of the transgender community who can provide guidance and mentorship. Those whom the individual comes out to should respect the individual by using the pronoun and name the individual chooses.

Instead of providing these resources and despite its high love-thy-neighbor rhetoric, the letter proclaims that the transgender individual, facing ridicule and discrimination from so many sections of society, is not the true victim, but it’s actually the Church and its followers who “face ridicule, marginalization, and other forms of retaliation” by not “enforc[ing] the false idea—that a man can be or become a woman or vice versa.” It’s the same sort of argument that I discussed in “Law for All,” where some Christians are quick to claim persecution if they disagree with society’s push for acceptance of an often misunderstood group.

In addition, the letter encourages religious leaders and others to discredit other’s recognition of one’s self with some unsupported health advice: “Children especially are harmed when they are told that they can ‘change’ their sex or, further, given hormones that will affect their development and possibly render them infertile as adults.” This sentence perpetuates myths about transgender individuals, which Riley J. Dennis breaks down in this YouTube video produced by Everyday Feminism.  

Seriously, watch the video.

No one should ever be forced to be less of themselves to make others comfortable. We cannot continue to allow our religious leaders to dismiss transgender individuals as unwell, simply because the Church is behind-the-times. I know we cannot vote out priests, but I think parishioners need to actively voice their concerns and support of the transgender community in hopes of changing hearts locally even if Rome seems too far away.

We need to stop asking people to be less themselves. Personally, I will not be less of a woman because I *could* arouse someone else's sexual urges. I will not be less of a reader because educated women make others uncomfortable. I will not stop writing because some disagree with me, and I will not be less me because that's what society wants. No one should.

We need to give everyone permission to live in the body their soul is happiest. Stop allowing my fellow humans to be blocked from public spaces and jobs simply because you have decided that they are "issues," instead of feeling, laughing, loving people. Do not let Heteronormative culture define who is and who is not considered worthy of living equally. Learn how to love others without conditions, not just because they fit the mold.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of this post here