On March 16, 2018, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, during their annual Religious Education Congress, offered a workshop entitled “Transgender in Our Schools: One Bread, One Body.” The moderator was Arthur Fitzmaurice and the presenters included Shen Heckel, a female-to-male transsexual, Peggy Ehling, a Catholic mother whose daughter was born a biological female but identifies as male, and Bryan Massingale, a professor of Theology at Fordham University. Fitzmaurice is openly gay and currently (since 2010) serves as Resource Director for the dissident Catholic Association of Lesbian and Gay Ministries (CALGM.) Concerning the Catechism and the statement that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” Fitzmaurice wrote: “The language certainly still needs to change. It is gravely evil language.” In 2012, board members of CALGM, including Fitzmaurice, refused to sign an “oath of personal integrity” to Catholic teaching. In 2016, Fitzmaurice signed an on-line petition created by “Call To Action” which asks for changes in The Catechism regarding teachings on homosexuality. Ehling teaches first-year Confirmation students at St. Francis Church in Burbank; her daughter, who now goes by Skate, attended Catholic schools for thirteen years. In 2017, Massingale spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Eight National Symposium. In 1999, the co-founders of New Ways Ministry were officially silenced by the Vatican. This workshop is the third in a series of transgender workshops offered at the LA Religious Education Congress; the first, in 2016, covered transgenderism in the Church and the second, from last year, discussed transgenderism in the family.

During his introduction, Fitzmaurice said: “We are not hear to argue Church teaching; we’re here to journey together. Sometimes the journey is rocky. It certainly was for Jesus.”

He also stated that Bryan Massingale will “present some Church teachings.”

Ehling stated: “I came to the first of these workshops two years ago, four months after my son told me he was in fact my son.”

Concerning LGBT acronyms, Heckel said: “Young people kind of judge how you pronounce acronyms, they know that if you are able to say LGBTQ without hesitation, that you are accepting.”

Heckel added:

We all know pretty much what lesbian, gay and bisexual stand for, we get kind of fuzzy when we have to deal with the T. This little gingerbread man is going to help us explain better what trans can mean.

An image of the “Genderbread” person appears on the overhead screen.

Heckel continued:

Gender identity…that’s where it gets complicated for people because…for the most part…have never questioned what this means, and this is how you perceive yourself in every day experiences, so every day experiences for the greater population would be if you were born female, you identify as female, you have no problem being in female spaces, sharing female experiences and anything that goes along with being a woman. For transgender people, this does not align with their physical sex, does not align with what the doctor cred-out when they were born. So, for me, my gender identity is male even though maybe not quite what the doctor thought.

When asked about Church teachings, Massingale offered a lengthy explanation:

Unlike L and G, when it comes to T, the Catholic Church gives us a whole lot of room to move because they don’t say a whole lot. However, something has happened and what has happened has been called the culture wars and cultural anxieties. Especially the debates over same-sex marriage that have plagued our country and every faith community and what has happened is that anxieties over same sex marriage and same sex issues have colored the way in which we look at trans issues even though they are very different realities. They get lumped under the same category of this kind of anxiety that we have over what we do not understand.

How does it get played out in the Catholic Church? There is a phrase that is being used in very recent Catholic discussions and it’s a phrase called “gender ideology.” What does gender ideology mean? Write this down. We don’t know! Gender ideology is a secular term that came to light in Europe…What they were trying to find ways to expressing their opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to forms of birth control, oppositions to anything that was seen as progressive om terms of sexuality, but doing it in a way that didn’t signal any hostility towards anyone else. And so, they coined this phrase gender ideology which has no coherent meaning except that it seems to have three kinds of references. One, we have to defend our children from it. The defense of children is a constant phrase we hear in gender ideology and a constant you’ll hear in transgender discussions as well. We need to defend our children. The second thing they mean by gender ideology is that your gender is something you cannot choose and the way they do it is by simplifying the gingerbread person we had up there, by using phrases such as: “let girls be girls and boys be boys.” Now it sounds very simple except what exactly does it mean to be a boy? And what does it mean to be a girl? It’s a very catchy catch phrase, but it doesn’t tell you very much.

Now why is gender ideology important? Because to date you go to the USCCB website, there is only one document dealing with trans issues on the whole site. And it invokes this phrase gender ideology and the way they begin that document is by talking about same-sex marriage. Note how they conflate same-sex relationships and trans relationships even though they are not the same thing. They begin with that and then they talk about how we need to defend our children against false ideas of gender and specifically say that children are harmed when you teach them that they can choose their gender. That’s essentially the document in a nutshell.

Now a couple of things to know about this. Let’s not make more of this than it is. One, its an ecumenical document that’s only signed by twenty faith leaders, only four of which are Catholic Bishops. The Catholic Bishops as a whole haven’t said a great deal about transgender issues. The second thing to note is that it’s not an official statement of the United States Catholic Bishops. Now why have I told you this? Because when you go back to your schools, I guarantee you someone will show you some blog site that has this document on it. It’s important for you to know what the document is and what it isn’t. The second thing to be aware of is that the document is fundamentally flawed. Because trans people are not talking about choosing their gender. They are talking about a process of discovery. And it’s very different than I woke up one day and I am going to be a woman. No, its not that simple. What it does say though is that the Catholic Church is like most of us. We’re afraid. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid that if we make room for that which we do not understand that we could be falling into moral chaos somewhere. We’re afraid because, well, if Shen can stand before us and be a man, but was biologically a woman, what does that make us? And we’re afraid. Because frankly we don’t understand and its human to be afraid of what we don’t understand. And unfortunately, when humans are afraid of what they don’t understand, we can be really cruel. Does that make sense to people?

So, what do we do when we don’t understand? It means the Catholic Church is all over the board on this. It means if you go to Holy Rosary College, and you transition as a student, they will welcome you with open arms, and the campus ministry will accept you and they will provide housing and accommodations. Or you go to Saint Kundykunda’s, try not to pick anybody…and you transition, you can be expelled. Because that’s the kind of place we are at right now because the Catholic Church is in a period of discernment as we are trying to understand what we don’t understand.

The document referred to by Massingale is titled “Created Male and Female: An Open Letter from Religious Leaders.” The document states:

We come together to join our voices on a more fundamental precept of our shared existence, namely, that human beings are male or female and that the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female.

Concerning the gender “transition” of children, the document warns:

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. Parents deserve better guidance on these important decisions, and we urge our medical institutions to honor the basic medical principle of “first, do no harm.” Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt.

Signers of the document included Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Chairman USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty.

Heckel was asked by Fitzmaurice to describe experiences with the “most affirming” group he ever encountered, Heckel credited: “The Catholic Center at UCLA…when I went to UCLA, I was socially transitioning which means I hadn’t taken testosterone yet.” Heckel added: “The faith journey and my gender journey is one in the same.”

Ehling talked about Skate’s experiences with highly-affirming Catholic schools:

Skate wasn’t just the little girl with a short haircut who never wore a skirt…they didn’t look just at the outside and say that child does not fit the box. And that allowed Skate to just be himself as he figured out who that was as he grew up…it’s a very beautiful thing to allow a child to tell you who they are.

When asked if a teacher should use the gender pronoun of a child’s choosing, Ehling responded: “One hundred times yes.” She added: “There were teachers at my son’s high school that were using ‘he’ comfortably, naturally, automatically before I was.”

During the audience participation section, Fitzmaurice posed this question for discussion: What does it mean when I say I am male…or female?

Massingale responded with: “For me being a male means there’s a lot of baggage that I need to overcome…that keeps me from being fully human.”

Heckel said:

I believe my journey in discovering my identity, I had both privileges of being male and female in different aspects of my life.

Ehling focused on clothing and gender identity. She mentioned Catholic schools that require students to wear gender specific uniforms; including the problem of dresses at First Holy Communion for those who are transgender.

Then, Fitzmaurice asked the panel the following question: “Is it dangerous to allow very young children to transition?”

Ehling said:

There is absolutely nothing wrong or harmful with letting a child tell you who they are. You need to believe them. I think we do more harm, even with very little children, maybe even especially with very little children, when we send them the message that we can’t love them for who they are…now its easier to do that with a girl who doesn’t want to wear dresses than with a boy who does want to wear dresses. But you can still do it. You can let a child tell you who they are.

Massingale added:

I think when a family member or a friend begins or is undergoing their transition that we also undergo a journey of transition. That just as when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian, the whole family has to make a coming-out journey…I think it’s only dangerous to the child to not recognize and respect their reality.

During a brief Q & A session, when asked about Church teaching, Massingale said:

…for many many years, Church teaching has been used to vilify people like me, and they used Biblical verses for it too, and they had scientific studies to justify it. What we are saying is that, the bar that we need to use is the bar of human compassion, because every advance in knowledge is fed from human compassion.

Following the LA Religious Education Congress, according to Heckel:

Also as a result of the workshop I spoke at[,] half a dozen parishes want me to come and speak at their church, teach their staff, meet their youth… “Stone by stone a mountain can be moved.”

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