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Mark Krolikowski wore his hair at shoulder length, his nails long and well manicured, and his ears pierced. His appearance, which evolved over the 32 years he’d spent teaching at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, had always been considered a bit unconventional for a Catholic school teacher, but it had caused no problems until October 2011 when the parent of a freshman student complained, setting in motion a series of events that culminated in Krolikowski’s dismissal.
The former teacher says he was laid off because he informed school officials that he was transgender. He has filed suit. The school’s attorney says Krolikowski was fired for “nondiscriminatory reasons.”
The acronym LGBT has entered into common use in recent years, as a quick way of referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But even individuals who are L, G and B don’t always know much about those who are T. As Christians we believe that the church must work to dispel this ignorance, and to support this deeply stigmatized population.
In an extensive 2011 nationwide survey hosted by Penn State’s Consortium on Higher Education, 78 percent of transgender people said that they had been bullied or harassed as children. Forty one percent said they had attempted suicide. Thirty-five percent had been physically assaulted and 12 percent had been sexually assaulted.
Discrimination against transgender people is pervasive. Like Mark, 47 percent of those who responded to the survey said that they had suffered employment discrimination. Nineteen percent had suffered housing discrimination and a similar number had been denied health care due to their gender identity.
Until recently the U. S. medical establishment treated transgender people as though they were mentally ill. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual includes a category called “gender identity disorder,” but, in a significant breakthrough for transgender people and our society’s understanding of gender identity, the soon-to-be published fifth edition does not.
As Catholics, we regret that the leaders of our church and other conservative Christian organizations are leading the fight to deny transgender people their full human dignity and equal treatment under the law. In a recent address, Pope Benedict XVI argued against the very concept of gender, saying that one’s sexual identity is determined entirely by one’s biology.
The pope’s position is not universally shared by Catholics or by other people of faith. The Rev. Cameron Partridge, a leading transgender theologian and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University, has written that much of the church has “come to accept that God made us in more varieties than typical ‘masculine’ males and ‘feminine’ females who are to be paired only in ‘opposite’ gender couples. This insight helps us understand how we are created as part of a sexual/gender spectrum: people who marry people of the “opposite” sex; people who do not marry, including celibate religious; women who never give birth, by choice or necessity; people whose expressions of gender exceed the norms of their cultures; people born with a combination of female and male bodily traits; gay, lesbian or bisexual people; transgender people.”
Whatever their beliefs about human sexuality, members of the pope’s own church in this country reject discrimination against transgender people. A 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 93 percent of U. S. Catholics believed that transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as other citizens. The survey also found that approximately three-quarters of Americans-from across the political and religious spectrum-believe that Congress should pass employment nondiscrimination laws to protect transgender people. A similar majority favor Congress’s recent expansion of hate crimes legislation to protect transgender people.
As this poll indicates, U.S. Catholics are coming to understand that transgender people offer us the opportunity to understand more fully the body of Christ. James and Evelyn Whitehead, who offer courses and workshops with the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote recently, “Perhaps this year — within your family or your work site or your faith community — you may hear a personal story of courage and faith shared by a transgender person. This will be an epiphany and a grace…To our own surprise, we have been blessed by such an epiphany…We have been instructed by the witness of these often vulnerable members of the body of Christ.”
The U. S. Catholic bishops, on the other hand, have steadfastly opposed laws that extend legal protections to lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people.
Mark’s case is one of many in which the church’s teaching on the inherent worth and dignity of every individual runs into the stone wall of its pre-modern teachings on human sexuality.
But ordinary Catholics, like Mark’s current and former students, see beyond the bishops’ limited view. They have begun a petition drive on his behalf, and praised him effusively in media interviews. They understand our long tradition of Catholic social justice teaching in a way that the school’s leaders and church leaders do not. We are called to create a church that is a haven and advocate for persecuted sexual minorities, and not a menace to their well-being. While we hope for church leaders to gain a more generous understanding of human sexuality, we pray that Catholics will continue to support progress toward transgender equality in employment, housing and civil rights and strive to make our churches a place of welcome for all Christians.
Jim Fitzgerald is Executive Director of Call To Action, a member of Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic organizations that have spent more than 120 years working on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families.