Misguided and harmful — the easiest way to describe the anti-transgender comments made last month by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who has a history of targeting LGBT people.
Cordileone’s comment — that “the clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female” — suggests a lack of sensitivity to transgender people and no familiarity with gender dysphoria, which mental health professionals treat not as a disorder but as a profound experience of discomfort that an individual experiences with his or her assigned gender.
His comments trivialize the true distress that some people feel when their inner experience of gender does not match their biology. Cordileone seems to want to frame this issue in terms of “culture wars,” based on the idea that so-called liberals have an “anything goes” attitude toward defining gender.
What Cordileone needs to understand is that people do not wake up one day and decide to change their gender, and that being transgender is deeply rooted in who they are from an early age. There is simply a disconnect between the inner experience of the individual concerning how they identify as female or male, and their biology.
In fact, every major mental health organization insists that gender dysphoria is real and should be taken seriously by parents and health care providers. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the anguish that some transgender people experience with the contrast between how they look on the outside and the gender they identify with can be so intense that they can take extreme measures to reconcile the difference.
One wonders if Cordileone has in fact ever met with transgender people, listened to their stories, their pain, and their attempts to live authentically and integrate who they really are into how they function in the society. If he took the time to meet with trans people and consult mainstream researchers and clinicians, he would find that transgender people look to their faith and their churches for acceptance, often feel alienated from their places of worship, face great psychological distress, and are at a greater risk than others for suicide due to rejection.
In my counseling practice, I have worked with parents of transgender children as they work to accept and embrace their child’s journey. These parents have come to understand that human sexuality, orientation, and gender identification exist on a continuum and that their responsibility toward their children is to listen to their experience and to encourage them to fully accept who they are.
The archbishop’s attitude and flippant way of disparaging transgender people and even the LGBT movement unfortunately give Catholics who are struggling with acceptance of an LGBT son or daughter more freedom to minimize and disregard their own child’s feelings. Caitlyn Ryan, the founder of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, points out that LGBT children who experience significant rejection by their families are eight times as likely to attempt suicide as LGBT children who feel accepted, and are six times more likely to report high levels of depression.
What message does the archbishop’s trivialization of transgender people convey to the Catholic faithful? What message does his attitude toward LGBT people send to parents who might be struggling with an adolescent who just came out to them as LGBT? Does the archbishop really want to encourage parents of LGBT children to respond to their coming out in the same dismissive way that he presented during his comments?
One would hope that the archbishop would truly consult doctors, psychologists, and mental health counselors who have worked with transgender people to better understand this issue. Better yet, the archbishop would do well to actually listen to the experiences of transgender people who fight to be heard and be visible to the hierarchy. If he would only listen, he would understand that this is not about “gender politics” but about treating others with dignity and respect.