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Catholic scholar addresses ‘gender ideology’ and transgender issues with compassion, honesty

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The Catholic Herald recently posed several questions about both the Equality Act and transgender issues more broadly to Mary Hasson, the Kate O’Beirne Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Hasson is a parishioner of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly and has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Equality Act.

Most Catholics are compassionate by nature and want to support others. What’s a constructive approach that Catholics can take without endorsing gender ideology and transitioning?  

In general, our faith calls all of us to treat everyone with respect and kindness, acknowledging the dignity of the person before us — a person truly loved by God. And we need to be compassionate toward those who suffer — literally, "suffering with" and accompanying the person. 

But the more complicated question is what compassion looks like in a given circumstance and the direction in which we accompany the person.  Authentic compassion seeks the good of the other person and accompanies them on the path toward healing and happiness, in light of God’s plan. It is not compassionate to validate a person’s sinful or harmful choices or to accompany the person toward serious harm — moral or physical.  

Catholics striving to be compassionate to a person who identifies as transgender need to see clearly the good for that person, according to God’s plan. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that each person should accept his or her sexual identity (2333). In "Amoris Laetitia," Pope Francis reminds us that our bodies are a gift from the Lord, to be received with gratitude from the Lord. It is not good for a person to assert an identity at odds (with) the body, because we are embodied persons. No one can be "born in the wrong body." And if a person’s self-perception conflicts with the reality of the body, then the good is to help the person gain a clearer self-perception, one that aligns with the truth. But that can be a complicated task, because of the psychological issues that are often involved.

A rapidly increasing number of adolescents have become caught up in the transgender trend. A decade ago, less than a fraction of a percent identified as transgender. In 2017 and 2018, studies reported 2 percent to 3 percent of teens identifying as transgender. In addition, other researchers describe a social contagion effect, which causes multiple adolescents within a single peer group to identify as transgender or non-binary. Abigail Shrier’s book, "Irreversible Damage," documents this trend with adolescent girls. Young people are being taught, in schools, peer groups and media, that their identities are self-defined and that the body can be manipulated to match their self-perception (gender identity). The most vulnerable young people — those suffering from mental health issues, trauma, abuse, autism or other issues — begin to believe the lies peddled on social media and among their peers that their feelings of unhappiness or not fitting in prove that they are really transgender.

Helping these individuals gain a more accurate self-perception may mean helping them expand their understanding of what it means to be a woman or man, beyond stereotypes that pigeonhole people on the basis of interests, personality traits or appearance. It may mean helping them explore why it seems so frightening, awful or inconceivable to embrace their male or female identity, as created by God. It may mean helping them address other underlying conditions, instead of expecting that transition is the ticket to happiness. A 2021 Australian study, for example, found that 88 percent of children and adolescents seeking clinical treatment for gender dysphoria (psychological distress over a perceived identity-body mismatch) suffered from other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. They had high rates of unresolved childhood trauma and loss. Other studies show that transgender-identifying adolescents often have other body issues (anorexia or body dysmorphia) and are two to four more likely to be diagnosed with autism. For these teens or young adults who are struggling with other issues, transition becomes the hoped-for solution to all their problems.

In short, the reasons why a person feels discomfort over his or her identity are complex — but one thing we know for sure is that attempting to alter the body to match the distorted self-perception is not the answer. In fact, it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that gender-affirming interventions cause grave harm, especially to adolescents and young adults, and fail to provide the promised benefits.

Regrettably, a booming gender industry affirms adolescent beliefs in a transgender identity, and then fast-tracks them toward medical interventions that will permanently disfigure their bodies and destroy bodily functions, including fertility. In the past year, countries including Sweden, Finland and the UK have halted gender-affirming medical interventions for teens, but the U.S. gender medicine industry refuses to acknowledge the growing medical concerns and continues profiting from these destructive and exploitative practices.

How should Catholics engage with others in their families or in the workplace when these topics arise?

It’s important to respect boundaries and to insist that your own boundaries be respected, too. The family and close friends of a trans-identifying person may have a relationship that permits them to explore underlying issues or challenge the trans-identified person’s self-perception in the face of reality — but most other people do not. It would be intrusive and uncharitable to raise those issues out of the blue. The right thing to do is to treat the person with kindness and dignity and respect their privacy. But it’s also important to have limits — to draw your own boundary lines, including insisting upon respect for our conscience and religious freedom rights and free speech rights.

The trans-identifying person may sincerely believe that he or she can self-define an identity, unconstrained by the sexed body, but it is not true. The trans-identifying person may be convinced that they have a right to compel others to validate their desired identity (at odds with biological sex), but that’s not true, either — no one has a right to compel others to tell a lie (e.g., to say that a male who identifies as a woman is a woman). At the same time, it’s reasonable to call an adult co-worker who transitioned by the person’s new chosen name, because adults have the right to choose or change their names. But it’s not reasonable for a company to compel other employees to use particular pronouns that conflict with reality (e.g., to use she to refer to a male). Nor do they have a right to compel you to do or say something that violates your conscience or religious convictions.

For example, activists have filed lawsuits seeking to compel Catholic hospitals or physicians to remove the healthy breasts of young females who identify as transmen so they will appear more masculine. The Biden administration also seeks to compel hospitals and physicians to perform requested transgender procedures, with no exceptions for conscience or for physicians who judge those procedures to be medically unsound. Catholics should resist those laws and refuse to comply. We have the right to draw those boundaries.

Similarly, a Christian professor recently won a case against his state university that sought to compel him to use a transgender-identified student’s chosen pronouns. The professor refused to use the requested pronouns, because he believed that to do so would be to tell a lie and thus violate his conscience. (The student was female and he would not call her by a male pronoun.) The student’s feelings were hurt, but the professor was right to draw those boundaries: The state has no right to compel him to speak certain words or to comply with a student’s request to say something he does not believe is true (and that isn’t factual either).

We need to be confident and convinced about the truth of who we are as human beings — and unafraid to state our beliefs. I have found that whenever one person speaks up to affirm the truth about male-female sexual difference and the immutable nature of sex, 10 other people will be nodding along. Sometimes all it takes is one person bold enough to speak the truth. And although we hold these beliefs as a matter of faith, we don’t hold them only as a matter of faith — science clearly affirms the reality that there are only two sexes (male and female) and sex cannot change. And that’s why a broad coalition of people, from radical feminists to atheist biologists, to people of faith, are working together to oppose gender ideology.

It sounds as though your email and phone both have exploded with inquiries from schools and parents seeking guidance. Do any cases from Virginia come to mind? 

The proposed regulations from the Virginia Department of Education are set to take effect this fall. There is at least one lawsuit challenging them, but even so, many of the school districts already have implemented policies similar to what the department has proposed. These regs require schools to permit access to bathrooms and locker rooms on the basis of gender identity — which means girls will have no privacy and their safety is at risk. The schools will be promoting gender identity as the basis of a person’s true identity from kindergarten on. It is a recipe for confusion — destabilizing every child’s self-understanding. Vulnerable kids are likely to spiral off into the transgender pathway, where they will find instant validation from teachers, staff and peers — and parents will not be notified about what is going on with their children.

Parents across the country are being shut out by schools that unilaterally decide that the parents are not safe (i.e., trans-affirming). The schools then facilitate a social-psychological transition, where the child is treated as the opposite sex or nonbinary (a fantasy category) for months until the parents are brought into the loop, usually either to pressure them into providing puberty blockers or hormones or because the child’s mental health issues are worsening.

I have spoken to parents in several different counties in Virginia who experienced identical problems with their public school. In each case, the schools introduced the vocabulary and concepts of gender identity and encouraged students to explore their own feelings about gender. When the students (mostly girls) decided that they were transgender or nonbinary, the schools permitted them to use different names and pronouns at school, and to use whatever restroom they wanted, and never informed the parents about what was going on. This went on for months, and when their kids finally came out to the parents as transgender, the parents were blindsided and scrambling to figure out what happened. The school counselors also had been affirming the transgender or nonbinary identities and told parents that if they did not support their children’s trans identities, or prevented them from taking hormones, then their kids would likely commit suicide. It’s terribly manipulative.

Over time, several families have successfully helped their daughters reject the trans mirage and embrace their female identities. Others are still fighting for their kids’ lives, because their kids are still caught in what some describe as the transgender cult. Those who succeeded did so by removing their children from the public school and cutting off social media and friends who (were) encouraging their children’s transitions. Another family I know actually moved to a different part of the state because the promotion of transgender ideology was so pervasive — and their child was very vulnerable.  

Parents with children in Catholic schools are not immune either, primarily because social media exerts a powerful influence. In addition, the online pornography that saturates the teenage world is violent, perverse, and normalizes transgender, gay and fetishized sexual activities. Anime (Japanese-style animated comics) and online gaming increasingly allows transgender characters — or sometimes assigns them to players. All of this aims to normalize gender ideology’s deeply distorted view of the human person.

Parents must address the fallacy of gender ideology in a straightforward way with their middle school and high school children. Reinforce the truth — sex cannot change. And while parents need to encourage their kids to treat kindly those who are experiencing mental health struggles or identity confusion, parents must also reinforce the truth — hormones and surgery can alter the appearance of the body but it cannot change the sex of even one cell. Manipulating the body to destroy its function is self-harm, even when it’s sanctioned by "gender docs." It is simply not possible to be other than the male or female we are created to be — and the truth of the body shows us the path forward. No one finds happiness by waging a never-ending medical war on their own body. Transition is a seductive, but empty promise that normal adolescent pains and problems will magically disappear when the child re-invents him or herself as transgender. It’s just not true.

Parents of college-age teens need to be wary, especially if their son or daughter has a history of depression or anxiety or is on the autism spectrum. The new social pressures of college can create self-doubt and high anxiety — and lonely students will find a welcoming cohort in the LGBTQ clubs, and instant popularity from asserting a transgender identity. All of the Virginia state universities are gender-affirming and their student orientation sessions promote gender ideology in dogmatic fashion — no objections allowed. Many Virginia universities will provide or refer college students for cross-sex hormones on the first visit to the student health clinic. Because the students are over 18, parents are not notified.

During a recent appearance on the National Catholic Bioethics Center podcast "Bioethics on Air," you described aggressive and methodical tactics by the LGBTQ lobby to pressure businesses, medicine and others to "get with the program" or be labeled bigots. Was there a moment that you really came to appreciate the scale of the effort? To some, this issue has exploded out of nowhere.

I received a grant about seven years ago to look at the transnational emergence of gender ideology. I saw even then that this ideology was being driven forward by a coalition of influencers, each motivated by slightly different aims. 

Some influencers are driven by ideology — the academics, activists and some philanthropists — while corporations were first bullied into supporting the agenda (for fear of being tagged as bigots) and now have gone full "woke." There is also a large contingent of power-brokers at the United Nations and in other regional or international bodies and among the (non-governmental organizations). Governments (and professional associations in law, medicine, psychology, etc.) are "captive" of ideological interest groups.  

Who would have thought that LGBTQ activists, a group that until recently represented a tiny percentage of the population, would have the clout to radically reshape our laws, culture, language and policies — in less than two decades? The signs were there but I think most people hoped that after Obergefell (the Supreme Court decision establishing the legality of same-sex unions) things would go back to normal — after all, wasn’t that the promise: their same-sex "marriage" wouldn’t affect anyone else. But the truth is that normalizing a new view of "marriage," predicated on the much earlier separation of sex and reproduction brought on by the (birth-control) pill, has changed everything. Sex is disconnected from reproduction, reproduction is disconnected from sex, sexual identity is disconnected from the body, and the body is disconnected from identity and reproduction. These changes are shaking the very foundations of our families and our culture; they strike at the heart of what it means to be a human person, in relationship with God and each other. 

 Equality Act proponents published a recent list of businesses that they say support the legislation. Are many average Catholics aware of this? Should they be?

The watchdog group 2ndVote.com started tracking companies and their engagement on social issues. Catholics do need to pay attention to the power of transnational corporations and their complete abandonment of the basic moral principles of our society. They are all-in with the agenda that Pope Francis describes as waging a "global war" on marriage and the family.

More than ever, we need courageous Catholics who understand the truth of the human person and are willing to defend it, in policy, business, academia, law, etc. And to raise the next generation of Catholics even more committed to the faith.

Is there anything else you’d like to address? 

Catholics need to get behind the vision of Catholic education. It is never more urgent than today. Public schools (and many private schools that are no longer faithful to the truth) are awash in gender ideology. They are teaching a view of the human person utterly incompatible with Christian anthropology — the truth of the person revealed in Jesus Christ and proclaimed by his Church. Parents cannot raise kids in the midst of this culture alone. The church needs to be partners in the education of children. The church needs to raise up a new generation of faithful believers to spread the Good News.  

Our children’s peers are searching for truth and for meaning; they don’t even know they are searching for God. It’s our role to make that introduction. And that requires a new generation of apostles and evangelists. Let’s deepen our dependence on God, open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and say yes to whatever God asks.

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021