The challenging puzzle of gender dysphoria: Diocesan committee on gender continues its discernment process

By Father Thom Hennen
For The Catholic Messenger

When I was vocation director for the Diocese of Davenport, I used to do an activity with young people in schools and parish faith formation programs. I would divide them into small groups and ask for one volunteer in each group to be blindfolded. The others assisted that person to assemble a simple puzzle. Those assisting could not touch the blindfolded person’s hands or maneuver the pieces in any way. They could only hand the pieces to the blindfolded person and give them directions. Just to make things extra interesting, I gave them a time limit and left out a piece.

When they had completed the activity, I used this little exercise as a way to explain discernment. There are many things we cannot see. There are many voices in the world. We need to listen attentively for the voice of God and rely on the help and good advice of people we trust. If we are not careful, we may be missing something essential. The full picture of our life and calling may only be revealed when the “puzzle” is finished. All analogies limp, of course, but this was a useful way to begin the conversation about how we discern God’s call.

This image is what comes to mind as I think of the work of the diocesan committee exploring a pastoral response to gender dysphoria, transgender persons and their families.

Fr. Hennen

We have been given pieces of a very complicated puzzle. First, there is the data of the body itself. Then, there is what we know (and are still learning) about the human mind and the nexus between body and mind. There are numerous social and cultural influences and considerations. There is what we believe about the nature and fundamental dignity of every human person from Scripture and our tradition. Finally, there are the actual experiences of those dealing with gender dysphoria, however few they may be relative to the general population. How do these pieces all fit together to reveal an integral pastoral response by the Church to this issue?

Many voices are giving us advice. All are sincere and most are well-meaning, but often they are giving us confusing or even contradictory instructions. There are some for whom even taking up the question is seen as bending to the culture. There are others for whom anything short of the unquestioning and blanket acceptance of certain premises, language and therapeutic options is seen as regressive and transphobic. What is the Church to do?

Let’s return for a moment to the puzzle activity. The groups that had the greatest success were able to fit into place the border pieces first and then fill in the middle. In the same way, with this issue we need to define the edges. There is good consensus, for example, that gender dysphoria is real, that transgender people are not “pretending.” Individuals do not choose to be transgender, at least in terms of the experience of this deep disconnect between their bodies and their perception of themselves. This incongruence often persists from a very young age and is part of the middle of the puzzle we are still working on, and not just in the Church. In either case, telling people who experience gender dysphoria that they don’t exist is not helpful.

Another “border” is that whatever pastoral response we make and any guidelines we may eventually develop must treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. That is a hard edge, a non-negotiable. The question has never been whether or not we are called to love those who experience gender dysphoria, but how to love them in the most authentic way possible. This is one of the few points of absolute agreement from both “sides” of this issue.

In the face of this challenging puzzle, we do have other options. We could abandon the puzzle altogether, but when lives and souls are on the line, how can we? We could simply throw away the pieces we’re having trouble fitting. Or we can try to mash pieces into place, even where they don’t fit, just to be done with it, but this is not really finishing the puzzle and we may regret the outcomes.

The fact is, we do not have a perfect or near complete answer to this question, not in our diocese and not in the Church as a whole. We can only patiently, calmly try to fit one piece at a time, listening to the best advice available from sources we trust and to the experiences of those who experience gender dysphoria and their families. Please pray for the work of this committee and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(Father Hennen serves as vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport and pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. He has an STL in moral theology and is completing studies for a Doctor of Ministry with a focus on pastoral leadership.)

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The Church calls us to listen to people on the margins

By Bishop Thomas Zinkula
For The Catholic Messenger

I have been haunted by a story a parent shared with the diocese’s Gender Committee a couple of months ago of a child who was told by the pastor how the youth had to dress at the confirmation Mass. Even after complying, the pastor didn’t allow the youth to receive Communion. The next Sunday the pastor preached that LGBTQ+ people will go to hell. On Monday, the young person attempted suicide. This type of thing should never ever happen.

Bishop Zinkula

Experiences like this one were part of the reason for the formation of the committee and for the recent series in The Catholic Messenger, “A Pastoral Approach to Gender.” Most of the feedback has been positive, but some of the commentary has not been. I would like to address this directly.

A few people consider it an imprudent use of time and space to address something that affects only a small minority of the population. It is true that the percentage of people experiencing gender dysphoria is small, but does that mean we don’t need to minister to them? Jesus told a parable about the good shepherd leaving the 99 to go in search of the 1 lost sheep. We are obliged to seek out and minister to LGBTQ+ persons who are so often misunderstood and even vilified.

Others think that taking a pastoral approach to questions around gender is an approval of actions that violate Church teaching. I can assure you that the committee has no such hidden motives or agenda. The committee clearly stated at the outset that it was considering this matter within the context of Church teaching on human sexuality.

For example, we can simultaneously affirm Church teaching while sharing the concrete experience of one couple’s story of living with the tension of embracing their Catholic faith and accompanying their eldest child through a critical life challenge. Telling their story was a way to put a human face on the issue.

This is critically important. The committee discovered that 52% of all transgender and nonbinary young people in the U.S. seriously contemplated killing themselves in 2020. The suicide rate for transgender people is nearly 10 times the national rate. More than half think it would be better to be dead, rather than to try to live with rejection, isolation, loneliness and bullying.

In the committee’s numerous conversations with transgender persons and their family members over the past several months, none of them asked or expected the Church to change what she teaches. But they longed for a Church that welcomed and accepted transgender people as children of God. That is all they wanted.

Do we not want this for everyone? As one respondent observed, “Better for the Church to listen to the experience of transgender people. Before the Church can teach, it must listen.” In essence, the committee has been involved in a process of synodality: walking together with and listening to a population that is so often marginalized.

Finally, some people are nervous about putting this issue on the table due to a lack of familiarity with the topic. If the Church puts her head in the sand, closes her eyes, hopes this matter will simply go away and doesn’t say anything about it, she would be making a huge statement to people experiencing gender dysphoria and those who love them. The silence would be deafening. Basically, the Church would be saying that she doesn’t see you, hear you or care about you.

It is important to get to know people who experience gender dysphoria before jumping to conclusions. Our Christian faith calls us to love people. We cannot love them in the abstract. Love begins with personal encounter, with hearing someone’s story. Having a transgender acquaintance, friend, son, daughter, brother or sister guides the heart and gives one a more informed perspective on the topic.

The work of the committee is not about undermining Church teaching. It is about engaging a group of people who are on the margins, listening to them, accepting them as persons, accompanying them, loving them. That is the starting point to everything the Church does.

(Editor’s Note: This is a third article in a series on A Pastoral Approach to Gender.)

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A deacon family’s journey with transgenderism

Contributed
Deacon Ray and Laurie Dever of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, celebrate with Lexi, their eldest child, on her graduation day at Georgetown University in 2016.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s Note: This is a second article in a series on A Pastoral Approach to Gender.)

After their eldest child, then a college freshman told Deacon Ray and Laurie Dever that she was transgender they depended on prayer, their faith, love of family and each other for guidance. “As parents, we wanted to discern what was best for our child, and hopefully what was best for our family, our marriage and our Church,” Deacon Ray told The Catholic Messenger during an interview this fall.

The Devers, parents of three daughters ages 27, 25 and 23, live in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, and previously spoke via Zoom video conference with the Gender Committee of the Diocese of Daven­port. The committee formed about a year ago to learn more about gender issues, specifically transgenderism, a topic receiving scrutiny in education, sports, work places and the public square. Following their Zoom video conference, the Devers agreed to talk with the Messenger to put a human face on this issue.

“Transgender” is an umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with their sex at birth, according to the American Psychological Association. An estimated 1.4 million to 1.65 million U.S. adults identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, or about .6% to .7% of the population.

Signs of struggles
Lexi grew up as a boy in the Dever family, attended Catholic schools from preschool through college, including an all-boys Jesuit high school, and was an altar server. Lexi also attended homecoming and prom. Those events “often triggered depression incidents, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see why,” Deacon Ray said. “She was representing as a male and acting as a male, but that was not who she really was.” The facade of a seemingly typical childhood simmered to crisis proportions, manifested in life-threatening mental health challenges.

“She had some (suicide) attempts in high school and college. She thought of jumping off a bridge twice in her life,” once in high school and once in college, Laurie said. One time she found Lexi sleeping on the floor in her bedroom with red Sharpie marker “all over her body as if she wanted to kill herself.”

The summer after her freshman year at Georgetown University, Lexi went through gender dysphoria therapy and psychological counseling. Gender dysphoria refers to clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, DSM-5).

Lexi’s therapy eventually led the Devers to understand that she would need to transition from male to female. “We had been dealing with mental health issues but it started to come out over a period of time that her gender identity crisis was the underlying cause,” Deacon Ray said.    

Later, as a senior at Georgetown University, Lexi wrote about the deep self-loathing she experienced because of her gender crisis. “Back in high school, I tried to kill myself twice in one week. I tried to kill myself because I knew I was an abomination,” she wrote in a 2015 article for “The Hoya,” Georgetown’s student newspaper. “I barely made it out of high school alive.”

Contributed
Deacon Ray and Laurie Dever are pictured with their daughters on vacation earlier this summer.

Prayerful reflection
The Devers believe the discernment and training for the diaconate that had taken place a few years earlier allowed them to “give it over to God to understand where we need to take this. I prayed for openness, to understand, to educate myself and to ask, ‘what does this mean from both a physiological and spiritual aspect,’” Deacon Ray said. It was about coming to terms with what “God was trying to help us learn.”

When Lexi called her mother about a life-changing decision, “I wasn’t in the mindset to grasp what she was telling me,” said Laurie, who was out of town with another daughter at the time. Lexi “shared that she was going to transgender. I said, ‘Ok, let me talk to Dad about this …’ It was kind of difficult for me at first, for both of us. We wanted to ask the questions, ‘why and how do we reconcile this with our Catholic faith’ … as every Catholic parent would.”

Deacon Ray wondered about God’s plan in this unique situation — a deacon with a child coming out as transgender — an issue the Catholic Church has not addressed specifically in the Catechism (but did address in a 2019 document on education). “We first needed to take care of our child and then deal with the diaconate. It took a while to come to that in prayerful reflection,” Deacon Ray said.

Georgetown University proved to be a godsend for Lexi. “Georgetown and many Catholic colleges are supportive and accepting of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) students and helped her tremendously,” Deacon Ray said. In the article that Lexi wrote for The Hoya titled “The Georgetown that saved me,” she said:“A phone call from my RA was the only thing that stopped me from jumping off the Key Bridge during my freshman year. I was still an atrocity. I was still a freak. Then I started to talk to people. Not everyone, I realized, saw my wayward desires as a problem. There was even a full-fledged transgender student on campus. The queer community at Georgetown opened my eyes to a world where I could exist and not hate myself.”

Longing for acceptance
Transgenderism “is a life or death issue for so many of these kids,” Deacon Ray said. “They know they need to come out to live authentically but they are afraid that if they do they will lose their families, their friends, all that they have known. They are afraid of rejection by families.” Laurie said one of Lexi’s friends at Georgetown who was transgender, “who guided and advised her, was basically disowned by her parents when she came out.”

The Devers did not reject Lexi. “We all had to go through our process in our unique ways. Going through therapy to understand,” Laurie said. “We had to mourn the loss of a son and gain the blessings of a daughter. It’s a matter of just loving a child.” Lexi’s younger sisters are fiercely supportive of her, their parents said.

“If anything, it has grown our faith in that it has been an eye-opening experience. We are all called to see those on the margins and reach out to the margins and include them. That was the central message of Jesus,” Deacon Ray said. “Sometimes our eyes are closed to the people on the margins. Going through this experience has helped us open our eyes more — to people on the edges of society in one way or another. It has grown our faith in a good way.”

“It has removed the scales from my eyes,” Laurie said. People who are transgender “want to be loved by God as we all do. Many want to continue their faith journey but don’t feel accepted.” The violence against them is real, Deacon Ray said. On its website, the Human Rights Campaign reported, “Sadly, 2021 has already seen at least 50 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported” (https://tinyurl.com/ vussxvyh).

“Have I told you yet that the average lifespan of a transgender person is 31 years?” Lexi wrote in the piece for The Hoya. “If I am ‘average,’ I will be dead within a decade. Let that sink in for a second. There’s a reason I’m not thinking about marriage, children or even long-term career plans. I don’t want to plan for a life I probably will not get to live.” Despite that grim outlook, Lexi today is doing well, with a career in graphic arts, her parents said. She has stepped away from the Catholic Church, however, because she does not feel welcome.

“People think it’s a choice,” Laurie said, “but in reality, God made them the way they are.” Evidence exists, Deacon Ray said, “that there is more to human beings and human sexuality than is incorporated into that Christian anthropology we believe in. It’s good, but it needs to grow. It isn’t just male and female he created them. They (LGBTQ) are God’s creation, too.”

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Reflecting carefully on the issue of gender

Screenshot
Members of the Gender Committee for the Diocese of Davenport include Bishop Thomas Zinkula, Father Thom Hennen, Deacon David Montgomery, Marianne Agnoli, Tiara Hatfield, Emily Pries and Lynne Devaney (not pictured).

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on A Pastoral Approach to Gender.)

Questions regarding youths and adults who identify as transgender continue to arise in society and the Church. Acknowledging that reality, Bishop Thomas Zinkula formed a committee 10 months ago to consider drafting a policy to help guide Catholic schools, parishes and others in their interactions with transgender persons and their families. “We need to approach this issue with humility,” the bishop said.

The Gender Committee members set out to learn more about gender issues, specifically related to transgenderism. They have studied the terminology, latest research, networked with others in the Church on the forefront of this ministry and listened to stories of transgender persons and their families. Each committee meeting begins and ends in prayer.

“The more we talked about it and met with people who are transgender or whose loved ones are transgender, we came to understand them a little better and how they were feeling. It was very humanizing. Our approach to this issue has evolved. We’re probably leaning toward developing a statement rather than a policy,” said Father Thom Hennen, a Gender Committee member who also serves as the diocese’s vicar general and pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport.

His work with Courage, a ministry for Catholics who experience same-sex attraction, convinced him to approach Bishop Zinkula and the diocese’s Marriage and Family Life Coordinator Marianne Agnoli about the need to discuss the transgender issue. Same-sex attraction and transgenderism are separate issues but both require appropriate balance in applying Church teaching and pastoral care, the bishop said. “Starting this conversation is important. Providing basic information to the people of our diocese is a first step.”

God’s plan

Church teaching does not specifically address transgenderism. However, efforts in the culture to codify gender equality, protection against discrimination and public funding of gender-related surgery and treatment have compelled Church leaders to examine the signs of the times within the context of Church teaching on human sexuality in general. In 2019, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued a document titled “Male and Female He Created Them, Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” “This document was met with mixed support among Catholic institutions,” Agnoli said.

The introduction includes this excerpt: “In fact, it is from [their] sex that the human person receives the charac­teristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society.”

As each person grows, “such diversity, linked to the complementarity of the two sexes, allows a thorough response to the design of God according to the vo­cation to which each one is called” (No. 4).

The concluding paragraphs of “Male and Female” include this guidance: “Every school should therefore make sure it is an environment of trust, calmness and openness, particularly where there are cases that require time and careful discernment. It is essential that the right conditions are created to provide a patient and understanding ear, far removed from any unjust discrimination” (No. 56). “The committee was in support of such a recommendation but felt the document failed to provide practical procedures that demonstrate a full understanding of the complexities of accompanying transgender children and their families,” Agnoli said.

Growing awareness

“Transgenderism is a complex reality about which no one individual, organization or institution possesses complete wisdom,” Agnoli said. In its draft statement, the Gender Committee notes, “Persons who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming are our children, siblings, parishioners, neighbors and friends. They do not experience the same deep psychological and physiological association between sex and gender that most men and women experience. While this is not a new phenomenon, our greater awareness of it is new.”

Persons who identify as transgender represent a very small percentage of the U.S. population, about .6% to .7%, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The institute states that federal and state population studies from 2016 estimate that 1.4 million to 1.65 million U.S. adults identify as transgender. Among high school students, an average of 1.8% identified as transgender, according to population-based survey data from 10 states and nine urban school districts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/ 3b3knd7x). “It’s important to remember that for those who authentically experience this — however few people that may be relative to the general population — it is not something they choose. This idea that transgender people just out of the blue decide they want to be a different gender is mistaken,” Father Hennen said.

How the church can best accompany and minister to transgender persons is at the center of the committee’s discernment. “Somehow we have to figure out how to reconcile our theology, specifically our Christian anthropology, including the idea that we are body and soul, with how we approach these issues pastorally,” Father Hennen continued. “Yes, we are more than our bodies, but at the same time our bodies are really important. They are not just ‘containers.’ Our Catholic sacramental theology gets this. The body is how we interact with the world. We worship with the body, we show reverence for the body, even after death, and we look forward to a bodily resurrection.”

“How do we account for such things as the correspondence between sex and gender — which most people experience — the complementarity of the sexes and the fruitfulness of the union of man and woman?” Father Hennen asked. “How do we acknowledge those ideas, revealed in the ‘Theology of the Body,’ while at the same time acknowledging the presence, the dignity, the full humanity and, therefore, the need for authentic pastoral care for all people, regardless of sex or gender? The same language used by the Catechism in regard to homosexual persons can certainly be applied here, namely, our transgender siblings should be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Catholics’ approach to transgender persons should be “both/and,” not “either/or,” Father Hennen said. “This notion that we have to choose either to be faithful to our Catholic teaching on the nature of the human person or welcome, love, and accompany transgender persons is really a false choice. In fact, it is precisely our understanding of the dignity of the human person that should motivate our love for transgender persons. Are there some appropriate accommodations that we could make as a Church that neither ‘sell out’ on our beliefs nor slam the door in the face of transgender persons? I think there may be. That’s what we have to explore.”

Coming ahead

The Catholic Messenger will continue to provide articles that educate and inform readers about transgenderism and gender-related issues in future issues and provide updates on the work of the Diocese of Davenport Gender Committee.

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