Switching sexes? Transgender ideology and the Church

| Jonathan Liedl | September 26, 2017 | 27 Comments

Before Oct. 14, 2015, Emily Zinos admits she didn’t give much thought to transgenderism.

At that point in time, the mother of seven and parishioner of Holy Family in St. Louis Park considered the ideology, which advances the claim that gender and sexual identity are not inherently tied to biological sex, to be a “fringe issue.” In her estimation, it was something that played out in celebrity tabloids and progressive academic circles, but certainly had no direct impact on her or her family.


An email from the principal of Nova Classical Academy, a public charter school in St. Paul where Zinos and her husband, Nick, enrolled several of their children at the time, announced that was about to change.

Under pressure from the parents of a newly enrolled kindergarten student who claimed to be “gender nonconforming,” the grade school principal announced that Nova would be “taking steps to support [the new student]” by introducing transgender ideology into the classroom. Through books like “My Princess Boy,” children as young as 5 would be introduced to the idea that their sexual identity was independent of their biological sex.

The decision, made with no prior notification to parents despite Nova’s long-standing record of parental involvement in curriculum selection, quickly divided the tight-knit school community. Parents like Zinos protested, but the Nova administration remained steadfast. School officials said they were legally obligated to accommodate the requests of the new kindergartner’s parents. The school paid for transgender ideology training for teachers and provided presentations for parents. Eventually, Nova adopted a “gender inclusion policy” that mirrored the recommendations of transgender activists.

Emily and Nick had a deep affinity for Nova, and had sent their children to the charter school for 13 years since it first began operating. But they were not willing to subject their kids to what they considered a warped vision of human sexuality. With heavy hearts, they joined several other parents and pulled their kids out of the school.

“I had no idea that [transgender ideology] would move so powerfully or so quickly into my family’s life,” Zinos said.

No longer fringe

Zinos’ surprise is understandable. Only five years ago, if a male kindergarten student were to claim he was a girl, his behavior would have been classified as “gender identity disorder” according to the then-current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM. At the time, the DSM considered gender identity disorder to be a mental health condition to be treated, not an identity to be affirmed.

But in its most recent edition of the DSM, published in 2013, the APA replaced “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria.” The change stressed that the incongruence between biological sex and gender identity should no longer be considered a disorder, and was only a mental health concern if it caused “distress.” If a patient exhibits gender dysphoria, the APA now recommends “gender-affirming therapy,” a “therapeutic stance that focuses on affirming a patient’s gender identity and does not try to ‘repair’ it.” “Gender-affirming therapy” includes options up to and including hormone treatment and sex re-assignment surgery.

The APA’s shift, which came after transgender activists petitioned for changes to the DSM, correlates with the rapid and widespread ascendancy of transgender ideology in American society, culture and law over the past few years.

In June 2014, Time magazine declared in its cover story that transgenderism was “America’s next civil rights frontier.” Transgender ideology is portrayed as the new normal throughout pop culture, be it through positive characterizations in television programs like Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” or profiles of “trans” people by publications as varied as Glamour and Sports Illustrated. Target, which announced in 2016 that customers and employees would be able to use whatever bathroom facility “corresponds to their gender identity,” now sells “preferred pronoun” buttons so individuals can convey the pronoun with which they prefer to be addressed, independent of their biological sex.

Transgender ideology has also been normalized through legal and political channels. Among other moves, the Obama administration included transgender hormone treatment and sex-reassignment surgery as required coverage options for health insurers receiving federal financial assistance, removed restrictions on transgendered individuals from serving openly in the armed forces, and pressured public schools into accommodating transgender students’ bathroom preferences at the risk of losing federal funding.

Although the Trump administration rolled back some of these provisions, pending court cases could solidify their standing, establishing a constitutional right to gender self-determination and mandating an accommodation. In other cases, government entities may feel emboldened by the Obama administration’s advancement of transgender ideology.

For instance, the Minnesota Department of Education has approved the use of a “transgender toolkit,” a 29-page document including many of the Obama administration’s transgender guidelines for public schools. Despite public opposition to the “toolkit” and the fact that the Obama executive order is no longer in effect, the department is supporting the document’s use in Minnesota public schools.

Rejection of a gift

This explosion of transgender ideology into mainstream politics and culture may be a relatively new phenomenon, but according to Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the deeper agenda driving it is not.

“Transgender ideology is the latest part of the push to create a gender-neutral society,” said Adkins, whose work promoting the public policy initiatives of Minnesota’s bishops has underscored the expansion of transgender ideology in state politics. Adkins cites same-sex marriage and so-called “third-wave feminism” as other currents in this movement, which he said seek to “erase all societal distinctions based on sex,” replacing them with a concept of sex as something interchangeable and subjectively determined.

Such a view of human sexuality, Adkins said, is rooted in a “false anthropology” that gets who we are wrong, and therefore distorts one’s relationship with God.

“Transgender ideology rejects the truth that we are a body-soul composite, and that our biological sex is not incidental to who we are as people, but is a gift from God,” he said. The Catechism of the Catholic Church underscores this truth, teaching in paragraph 2392 that each individual’s personal dignity is derived from his or her created status as a man or woman.

“Each of them, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept [his or her] sexual identity,” the Catechism teaches.

Pope Francis has frequently condemned transgender ideology, characterizing it as an exploitation of the human person as God created him or her, and “the annihilation of man as the image of God.”

And there are those in the scientific community who share Pope Francis’ negative assessment of the claims of transgender activists.

The American College of Pediatricians, a group of predominantly Christian doctors who work with children, released a review of scientific studies surrounding transgenderism, and found that the clinical approach advanced by activists and increasingly adopted by mental health practitioners “is founded upon an unscientific gender ideology, lacks an evidence base, and violated the long-standing ethical principle of ‘first do no harm.’”

Other critics of transgender ideology from the scientific community include Dr. Paul McHugh, who served as the psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where sex-reassignment surgery was pioneered. Johns Hopkins abandoned the practice after research found that it was not improving the mental health of patients, and McHugh continues to speak out against it as a solution to what he maintains is a psychological disorder.

When it comes to gender dysphoria and children, McHugh frequently cites research that shows that most — as high as 80 to 95 percent — of such children grow out of feeling that their biological sex doesn’t correspond to their perceived gender. A 2016 article he co-authored in “The New Atlantis” stated, “…there is little evidence that the phenomenon of transgender identity has a biological basis. There is also little evidence that gender identity issues have a high rate of persistence in children. … There is a clear need for more research in these areas, and for parents and therapists to acknowledge the great uncertainty regarding how to interpret the behavior of these children.”

Proponents of transgender ideology argue that they are promoting a liberated understanding of sexuality, one that frees individuals from repressive societal dictates. But Catholic experts point out that this view extends from a flawed understanding of human freedom.

“This is a freedom separated from truth,” said Father John Floeder, a professor of moral theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. “It evacuates the world of objective meaning and goodness.”

Father Floeder also argues that despite transgender activists’ assertions that “they do not define what a person is or what they should do,” transgender ideology implicitly advances the normative idea that each and every human being “has the freedom to define [him or herself],” a deeply flawed conception of human nature.

Reshaping society

Pope Francis has characterized this coercive tendency of the transgender movement as a form of “ideological colonization,” in which influential countries spread transgender ideology by tying it to incentives like foreign aid.

But this dynamic also plays out within a country itself. Institutions and individuals in America face increasing pressure to accommodate transgender ideology — or risk serious professional and economic backlash.

North Carolinians found this out in 2016. After lawmakers passed a measure that, among other things, would require municipalities to conduct bathroom usage based on the given sex of individuals, the Tarheel state found itself in the midst of a high-level, highly coordinated boycott. Bruce Springsteen and other big-name musicians canceled concerts. Gov. Mark Dayton barred Minnesota state employees from making work-related trips to North Carolina. PayPal pulled-back a planned 400 employee expansion into the state, and sports organizations like the NBA and NCAA canceled major national events.

One estimate placed the total amount of revenue lost due to this backlash at just over $395 million. Under this staggering financial pressure, the North Carolina legislature acquiesced, and repealed parts of the controversial bill in April.

MCC’s Adkins doesn’t find such developments surprising. “Transgender activists are very strategic, very organized, very well-funded, and they know how to work within institutions,” he said. He also points to a new wrinkle in their advocacy —the emergence of what has been called “cultural cronyism,” or the alliance between progressive social causes with large corporations.

“The shock and awe of cultural cronyism makes it difficult to speak out,” he added, noting that “fear of being labeled a ‘bigot’ shuts down critical thinking and common sense.”

This dynamic may be playing out within the mental health professional community in Minnesota. Several Catholic therapists and counselors in the Twin Cities were contacted for this story, and while each acknowledged their concerns with transgender ideology and its wide-spread acceptance among the top levels of the mental health community, none of them were willing to go on the record, for fear of professional repercussions.

According to Adkins, this type of unspoken coercion played a role in the Minnesota State High School League’s December 2014 decision to pass a “transgender student athlete policy,” opening the door for students to compete on gendered sports teams based on their perceived sexual identity as opposed to their biological sex. Despite serious public resistance to the proposal, the MSHSL passed the measure by a 19-1 vote, with only a narrow exemption secured for private Catholic schools.

Adkins noted that the athletic directors who supported the measure were not necessarily dyed-in-the-wool progressive activists, but were in many ways pressured by the fear of litigation. This pressure has also likely contributed to decisions by groups like the Boy Scouts to admit members based on subjective sexual identity, Adkins said.

“We’ve reached a cultural tipping point, where reasoned arguments about policy carry no weight with even normally, fairly well-educated folks,” he noted.

And there may be implications for Catholic institutions ahead. As the conversation concerning transgenderism shifts from mere legal equity to mandated accommodation, as it has, for instance, with same-sex marriage, Adkins points out that the Church will increasingly come in the movement’s cross-hairs. For example, Catholic hospitals could risk losing federal funding if they refuse to perform sex reassignment surgeries. Catholic colleges could also face similar repercussions if they require students to live in dormitories that correspond to their given sex.

In many cases, such as the MSHSL transgender policy, religious freedom exemptions allow Catholic entities to operate in a way that is faithful to an authentic understanding of human sexuality. But Adkins pointed out how fragile these can be.

“People should not feel comfortable [about the exemptions holding up],” he said. “Federal First Amendment protections have been gutted, and people are at the mercy of what state constitutions and state legislatures create or determine.”

While the broader culture may not yet subscribe to gender ideology hook, line and sinker, Adkins notes that the window for action is closing, and politicians are hesitant to increase religious liberty protections.

“Religious liberty is now a dirty word,” he said, arguing that Republican politicians’ reticence to taking stances for traditional sexual ethics can be connected to the business community’s growing alliance with progressive social causes. “No one wants to touch this issue with a 20-foot pole.”

Souls at stake

As a longtime hospital chaplain at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale and now pastor of St. Paul in Ham Lake, Father Jim Livingston knows transgenderism is an issue with which Catholics are wrestling. He’s had recent conversations with parents of a transgender adult, parents of a child with gender dysphoria and a teacher of a transgender student. All want to do what’s best for the individuals struggling with their gender identities and their families, while affirming their Catholic beliefs in the good of creation and the immutability of gender.

In his work as chaplain, Father Livingston also ministered to men and women he suspected of being transgender, although none raised the subject in their conversations, he said.

Father Livingston is concerned about the social and moral impacts of a transgender ideology that tries to coerce people into recognizing a biological man as a woman, and vice versa. He finds this especially troubling with children. It’s confusing for students’ formation to be compelled to acknowledge a person is a gender that’s different from his or her sex, he said.

“Children have the right not to be exposed to a world full of lies, and I do believe it’s a lie to accommodate a person’s perception of themselves [as the opposite sex] in a public manner,” he said.

He is also troubled that people who resist the cultural pressure to affirm and embrace the new transgender ideology risk their jobs and professional opportunities, and he acknowledged that people who feel this pressure are put in difficult situations. He thinks that shouldn’t be the case.

“It’s like the story of the emperor without any clothes,” he said. “Everybody accommodated the emperor’s perception, except for one person [who] said finally, ‘That’s crazy,’ and it fell like a house of cards.”

Adkins said his deepest worries about transgender ideology hinge on its potential to alienate people from a right relationship with the creator God. He is concerned for individuals who are rejecting the gift of their God-given biological sex and, in doing so, may also be pulling away from the life of grace.

“We’re losing souls,” Adkins said. “People are mutilating themselves, they’re sterilizing themselves, and they’re in despair. They’re cutting off their connection to grace. Wittingly or unwittingly, they’re rejecting God’s plan. Those struggling with gender dysphoria urgently need our prayers.”

And the data suggest that the reach of transgender ideology is growing. According to the Williams Institute at The University of California, Los Angeles, 1.4 million adults in the U.S. now identify as transgendered, double the number from five years ago.

The exponential growth of those identifying as transgendered substantiates claims that transgenderism may be acting as a “social contagion,” a behavior that becomes more widely adopted as it becomes visible. There have been multiple reports of entire peer groups making pacts to “transition” together. Zinos, the mother who pulled her kids out of Nova Classical Academy, noted that shortly after the school welcomed and accommodated the transgender kindergartner, another elementary school student claimed that she was transgendered and is receiving treatment accordingly.

Adkins said that the lay faithful are looking to the Church for guidance, pointing out that one of the most continuously visited pages on the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s website is an article from 2014 entitled “Transgender person, human dignity and our response.”

“This issue speaks to the very heart of the human person,” he said. “We’re way behind on helping people understand how the way they’ve been created is a gift to be cherished and stewarded, not a problem to be overcome. Until people acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and we are not, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Adkins added that the Church needs to get better at speaking to people’s hearts, rather than just their minds, and that Catholics can help demonstrate the truth of the gift of sexuality by living it out in credible and creative ways. The Church’s response to the sexual revolution, including teachings such as St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, is a rich foundation, but he believes it now needs to be applied more explicitly to the specific challenge of transgender ideology.

Father Floeder agrees that it will take more than words to present a compelling alternative to transgender ideology. “We need to reject and argue against these ideologies, but at the same time, we also need to understand and reach out to individuals.”

— Maria Wiering contributed to this story


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