The reality is that at least twenty-two transgender people have been killed in the United States since the beginning of 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Eighty-two percent of these victims were women of color, most were under the age of thirty-five, and more than half lived in the South, a region where no state has passed LGBTQ protections. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force interviewed more than six thousand transgender and gender nonconforming people from every state and found that 41 percent reported suicide attempts (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population). High percentages reported bullying in school, harassment on the job, and physical and sexual assault.
Michael Vazquez, a twenty-eight-year-old gay Catholic in Durham, North Carolina, says the bishops’ rejection of the Equality Act sends a message of exclusion: “They say ‘we don’t support discrimination,’ but the rest of the letter is a lengthy objection, and that really undermines any way in which the Catholic faithful might understand a commitment from the church’s leadership toward protecting LGBTQ folks from discrimination and violence.” Vazquez describes coming out to his traditional Catholic family as a “messy experience,” and his relationship with his family remains strained. He started Brave Commons, an organization for LGBTQ students at Christian colleges that now works with about twenty schools, and last year, he founded Vine & Fig, an online community for LGBTQ Catholic millennials. “I would love to see the bishops uphold our church teaching about the human dignity of every person,” Vazquez says. “So instead of writing a letter condemning the Equality Act, they could have spoken in very specific and robust language about how important it is to protect gay and queer folks.”
Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia professor and scholar of religious-liberty law, thinks we have reached a stalemate in trying to strike a balance between respect for religious freedom and LGBTQ equality. Religious institutions that see a threat to their conscience rights and LGBTQ advocacy groups have become “deeply intolerant and have no respect for the rights of the other side,” Laycock says. “Both sides are dug in.”
The Catholic Church and other religious institutions that hold traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality are facing what Laycock calls “unprecedented demands” to provide birth control and other services. “There is no precedent in American history for asking our largest religious groups to violate central tenets of their faith,” Laycock says. At the same time, he notes, religious individuals and faith-based institutions have often overreached in making religious-liberty claims. A reasonable accommodation of religious-conscience concerns in a diverse public square, Laycock argues, is different from an absolutist understanding of religious liberty that has no limits. He says that so-called First Amendment Defense Acts pushed by conservative lawmakers go too far in “creating a total carve out” for religious exemptions, even when the government fails to articulate a compelling interest. He sees the opposite problem with the Equality Act: a lack of any accommodations for religious groups. “The demand for religious exemptions is proper, and there are none in this bill,” he says.
But Lisa Fullam, a professor of moral theology in the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, argues those religious exemptions are at the heart of the problem. “The bishops seem to want to carve out space for Catholic institutions to practice exactly the kind of discrimination the Catechism forbids, and use shaky justifications to that end,” Fullam says. “It would seem obvious that the bishops would support this legislation since the Catechism explicitly rejects any form of ‘unjust discrimination’ against LGBT people.”
As for the USCCB’s concern that the Equality Act would potentially force Catholic doctors to perform gender-reassignment surgery for transgender patients, several Catholic-health-care experts see that as unlikely.
“We would assess the risk of being compelled to do these surgeries as very low,” says Fr. Charles Bouchard, the senior director in theology and ethics at the Catholic Health Association. Bouchard emphasized the need to receive and welcome transgender patients with respect and dignity. “A lot of transgender people avoid health care because they have had bad experiences, and we don’t want that to happen at Catholic hospitals,” Bouchard says. Some Catholic healthcare systems have learned from hospitals that have expertise working with transgender patients, and staff have received training in treating these patients with sensitivity. But there is still a steep learning curve, according to Bouchard, given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and some Vatican officials have only fairly recently engaged these issues in a specific way. “Our hospitals call us all the time asking about what we can do and what we can’t do,” he said. Unlike church teaching on homosexuality, there is no developed church teaching when it comes to transgender issues. “As Catholics, the deeper question for us is an anthropological one,” Bouchard acknowledged. “What is the human person and what determines gender and sex? This is where a lot of disagreement in society comes in.” Misinformation and fear can often distort the conversation. “One of the challenges is most bishops encounter transgender issues through the so-called bathroom wars,” he says. “That is not really our issue in Catholic health care. We are focused on people in clinical situations. But many bishops got spooked about the bathroom debate.”
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