Are We Just Too Compassionate to Transgender People? (No)

Up here in Westchester County, New York, some folks are in a snit because New Rochelle High School is switching to gender-neutral graduation gowns -- that is, all students will wear the same color, instead of boys wearing one color and girls another. This is, to my mind, clearly a good decision. It costs the graduates and their families no additional pain or difficulty. If anything, it saves some trouble. And yet there are people -- not students, from what I have seen, but community members and internet commenters -- who are attacking the decision because it was motivated by a desire to make non-gender-conforming students' lives a little less fraught.

In the Journal News, the paper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley, columnist Phil Reisman gave voice to the complaints of "ardent traditionalists" who "say this is a classic case of autocratic overreach and a poor attempt to placate the concerns of a few kids at the expense of all the rest."

Questions he does not pose include: In what way is this a "poor" attempt? And what "expense" does it impose? What value is there in dividing the graduating class by sex, and what exactly will be lost if that tradition is abandoned? (A later column looks at another school in the area that made a similar decision, and the various disingenous comments made online by parents who oppose it.)

Reisman focuses on the opposition campaign of one man, "a lifelong city resident" (who seems not to have children currently enrolled in the New Rochelle school system) who, he says, is "concerned that his cause would be misinterpreted as intolerance. 'These kids have a hard enough life as it is,' he said. 'This is America and they have right to the pursuit of happiness. So I’m very uneasy to target the kids. It’s not the kids that are the issue — they aren’t what I take exception to.'”

Except, of course, that they are. When you are fighting to maintain a pointless separation of the sexes after the school board has decided to do away with it, you are privileging that separation of the sexes over the comfort of the individual students, however few they may be, who will be forced into making a public statement with which they cannot be comfortable. It's the same reason that what this man proposes as a compromise solution -- allowing students to choose the color they wear -- is no solution at all. Besides being needlessly complicated for whatever poor teacher or administrator has to deal with ordering the gowns, it preserves the very binary that the district wants to do away with. And the only reason for preserving it is to resist the growing conviction that gender-identity issues exist among high school students and are best handled with compassion.

What this man wants to do is what many people want to do in the face of confusing sex-and-gender battles: erase the specific people who identify as LGBTQ from the debate and make it a simple question of liberal-vs.-conservative identity politics.

The rather sudden prominence of transgender rights also provoked an op-ed in the Journal News from a local Catholic pastor (not mine, thank God), which begins: "Suppose I were to come to believe one day that I feel more like a chicken than a human being, and I publicly announced to the world from now on I want to be considered a chicken?"

Stop me if you've heard this one.

Fr. Andrew Carrozza warns against "a misplaced compassion, which is far more harmful than a lack of compassion." He does not refer to any specific case that has prompted his reflections, but given the angry flap over graduation gowns in New Rochelle, I can't agree that a surfeit of compassion is something any of us need to worry about.

Carrozza is making the gentlest version of the church's basic claim that we have nothing left to learn about human sexuality. This claim is simply not plausible to a growing number of people, especially young people, and volunteering it with placid confidence in the face of something as complicated as gender identity and public accomodations for transgender people is not doing anything for the church's credibility. Can anyone believe that "suppose I said I felt like a chicken" is a helpful way of framing the question -- that it has just never occurred to transgender people or their families to think of it that way?

So glib an approach to the subject betrays a lack of interest in the actual experiences of transgender and non-gender-conforming people. In the comments on Rand Cooper's post about trans issues, I recommended a Frontline documentary called Growing Up Trans, which for me was a moving and eye-opening introduction to what transgender kids and their families go through as they enter this uncharted territory. I don't think we're at the "easy answers" stage yet, not by a long shot. But the issue most certainly exists, and not just as a mass delusion or an assault by godless progressives on traditional social norms. We owe it to ourselves to listen to the people whose struggles we are trying to address. "I am not naive about the real pain experienced by people and families in these situations," Fr. Carrozza insists, but the fact that he believes gentle ridicule is the right approach here makes "naive" the kindest word that comes to mind.

I believe (still!) that the Catholic Church has important wisdom to offer when it comes to sex and morality. But in the face of gender-identity struggles, saying "Oh, that's not real" over and over is simply not an adequate response. When you characterize supportive accomodations for trans people as "misplaced compassion," as Carrozza does -- arguing, "We’re so afraid of being accused of lacking compassion or discriminating that we don’t tell people the truth for fear of hurting them" -- you are refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to that compassion, in many cases, is ostracism, depression, and suicide. What should the church's priority be? Can't we agree it's good to treat the urgent wounds first? Pope Francis's "field hospital" imagery comes to mind here. Too often, though, church leaders see themselves as ministering primarily to those who are upset by any challenge to their longstanding comfort, even if it's just ideological comfort. That's how the church gets itself wrapped up in identity politics and ends up standing against the marginalized and compounding their pain.

Carrozza concludes, "It’s time we start facing the hard reality that encouraging people to identify themselves as 'transgender' is convenient and accommodating in the short run, but in the long run it only makes things worse." Well -- citation needed, as they say at Wikipedia. The truth is, there has been no longstanding experiment in accomodating trans people that would allow us to draw any conclusions about how things turn out in the long run. In fact, we're just beginning to face the possibility that the opposite of Carrozza's claim here is true -- that while accomodating non-gender-conforming people can be complicated and confusing, working through those complications and making hard decisions may turn out to be better for all of us in the long run. Weighing the costs and benefits in real terms has led many people, especially transgender people and their loved ones, to be willing to do the hard work up front and hope that the road will be smoother ahead. Students like the ones who campaigned for the change at New Rochelle have no problem choosing to err on the side of compassion over offering tough love that doesn't look like love at all. That's the reality the church is up against, and if pastors can't do better than scoffing and warning of the dangers of too much compassion, it will be left even farther behind.

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Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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