Taylor Alesana was only 16 years old when she committed suicide on April 2 in Fallbrook, California. Taylor’s friends mourned her death at a vigil last Thursday night at the LGBTQ Resource Center in Oceanside, California. In December, Taylor posted a video online in which she said she did not feel safe at her high school. Because of persistent bullying, Taylor wondered what to wear to school. “When everything gets safer and people learn to accept transgender people for who they are, then definitely I will come back out,” she said in the video. Taylor was the second transgender teen to commit suicide in two months, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, and their deaths came just months after the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, whose death received national attention in part because of the way her Christian parents rejected her transgender identity.
What responsibility do I have as a cisgender Catholic when I learn of stories like Taylor’s or Leelah’s? How can my faith tradition work to make the world safer and more just for all people, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation? These questions take on new urgency each April as my school prepares to host the drag show, an annual event sponsored by PRIDE. This year’s Celebration of Gender Expression will happen on Thursday, April 16, just two weeks after Taylor’s death.
Some claim that because USD is a Catholic university, we should not allow this event to occur on campus. The group Alumni for a Catholic USD has petitioned to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, asking them to denounce the event. This group claims that the drag show causes scandal. This year they asked people to sign a petition which reads: “I am signing this petition because as a practicing Catholic I believe what the Church teaches about gender ideology and sexual immorality. I cannot stand by and just let this happen at a University that claims to be Catholic.”
I feel differently about the drag show. As a practicing Catholic, I believe what the Church teaches about human dignity. I believe that I have a responsibility to listen and learn from people whose life experiences are different than mine. I believe that human sexuality is a gift from God and that our embodiment is worth celebrating. I believe that practicing kindness, compassion, inclusion, and mercy is a more helpful posture than personal attack when one wants to affirm life and persuade someone of the relevance of one’s faith tradition. Leelah Alcorn did not think that Christianity offered any hope for her life. She did not see her parents’ faith tradition as nurturing of her identity as a beloved child of God. Had my experience of the Church been similar, I might have come to similar conclusions. But my experience of the Catholic Church is different, and for that I am very grateful. But with this gratitude comes pain, as I realize the harm that can be done with even the best of intentions when one tries to correct or “fix” another person.
The Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality are complex, and should be recognized as such. Catholic teachings affirm human dignity and promote sexual responsibility. Drawing on a particular methodology called the natural law, sexual ethics offers an interpretation of human nature, reading in the embodiment of human beings the intent of the creator. Magisterial teachings cite the creation stories of Genesis 1-3 as evidence for the claim that God “created them male and female,” and that this gender binary is therefore part of God’s divine will for heterosexual coupling. According to official church teaching, same-sex acts violate the natural law because they do not conform to heterosexual gender complementarity and they cannot be procreative. But to be homosexual is not a sin in the Catholic tradition. Sin requires freedom, and since the church argues that sexual orientation is discovered, not chosen, a homosexual orientation is not sinful in itself. Official church teachings forbid same sex genital acts as well as same sex marriage. The Catechism provides the basic argument for the above teachings.
But it must be said that Catholic teachings are part of a dynamic faith tradition that must learn from new data as it is presented. The best theologians of the tradition—including those who shaped the above teachings—did so as people in particular historical-cultural contexts. As a tradition that has developed over time, Catholicism must engage the latest research in sociology, psychology, biology, and the rest of the sciences. And there is still so much we do not understand about our sexuality. How do hormones shape desire? How are sexual attractions socially constructed? How are appropriate norms for dressing constructed by our culture? The church does not have any explicit teaching about fashion. The Catechism does not discuss high heel shoes or bow ties. So we must be careful not to overstep our claims when we discuss “church teaching on gender ideology.”
Church teachings on sexual ethics are rooted in the claim that human society should be stable and should protect the vulnerable. Church teachings on heterosexual marriage promote mutual self-giving love in the covenant of marriage, and children are seen as the fruit of this union and as a good gift from God. Thus the fundamental commitments of Catholic sexual ethics have to do with social justice and care for the vulnerable. These commitments can be a guiding light as Catholics continue to discern the moral questions that arise when we listen to the lived experiences of transgender teens, many of whom feel different, alone, and afraid. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note ended with the plea:
“My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
What does it mean to fix society? What can the Catholic community do? At the very minimum, we should name bullying as wrong. Second, our schools should be places where questioning and transitioning teens feel safe to explore their own identities and to dress in the way that feels right to them. We should have support groups and counseling services for students in crisis, and encourage students to recognize the signs of depression and the warning signs for suicide. Often peers are the first to know when someone needs help. Our schools should be places not of shame or microaggressions but of hope, support, and love. And when an adult has the opportunity to discuss sexual behavior with a teen we should encourage self-care and responsibility. We can foster open discussion of sensitive issues and encourage students to keep asking questions. And as people of faith we should help students to see that God loves them, no matter what, and that each person is precious in the eyes of God. Some students are hungry to learn about Christian prayer and discernment; our schools should help them to see the breadth and diversity of spiritual traditions and offer opportunities for spiritual guidance through pastoral ministry, retreats, and spiritual direction.
I belong to a pilgrim Church, a Church with the doors open, a Church called to transform the darkness of the world by the light of Christ. I am proud to work in a Catholic university that hosts a drag show as a way to raise awareness about gender diversity. While the drag show will not “fix society,” it represents one small step towards a more inclusive, intellectually rigorous, and joyful approach to the complexity of human experiences of sexuality.