In recent years, the treatment of transgender students in Catholic schools has become one of the U.S. church’s most complicated and contentious issues. A number of bishops have written on the topic and issued directives as to how their schools should deal with questions related to transgender youth.
Meanwhile, Catholic school administrators struggle to decide how to provide pastoral care for their students. Because these issues are so controversial, many may feel little freedom to speak openly about their efforts.
Even transgender students and their parents often feel a great reluctance to say anything, either because their experience has been so painful or because they’re afraid their words could end up blowing back on those who helped them, undermining their efforts to help other transgender students.
In an effort to help Catholic schools trying to develop pastoral approaches to transgender students, I spoke to Ish Ruiz, Ph.D., a gay Catholic theologian at Emory University and former Catholic high school teacher, who advises Catholic schools on LGBTQ inclusion; a high school administrator with 30 years’ experience in Catholic schools; a transgender man who transitioned while attending a Catholic girls’ school; and his mother.
Their experiences offer many insights for Catholic schools trying to provide pastoral care to transgender young people today.
1. Appreciate that you’re in the realm of mystery
For Ruiz, the first question a school should consider when thinking about transgender students is its broader purpose. What is the job of a Catholic school, in their opinion?
He proposes that the purpose of a school “is to help students discern and form their consciences in communion with God and the church.” But, he points out, “that does not necessarily mean we are going to consider church teaching to be some sort of code that we are going to download into our brains as if we were computers.”
Often, questions of faith have no easy answers. The nature and identity of God itself is, as theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., wrote, a horizon that we never reach.
At its foundation, sexuality is similarly complex. Whatever one’s orientation or gender identity, “sexuality is largely a mystery,” Ruiz argues. “We don’t have all the answers here.” And when it comes to sexual orientation, there is the further complication that, on the one hand, church teaching declares that homosexual activity is a sin, “an intrinsic evil.” Yet, as Ruiz said, “here you have people are gay who are living joy-filled lives, grace-filled lives.”
He asks: “How do you minister to LGBTQ+ youth in that context where the church’s teaching and LGBTQ+ people’s experience are not talking to each other?”
Or, in the case of the transgender student: “How do you minister to a kid that tells you ‘I’m happy when I go by this name, this pronoun. I thrive, I flourish,’ but church teaching is telling you that such flourishing is an impossibility?”
He also points out, even among bishops, there seem to be deepening differences of opinion on these topics, with some calling for reform of the church’s moral doctrine and the blessing of same-sex marriages.
These differences invite school administrators to see themselves as fellow pilgrims with their students on the path to wisdom, suggests Ruiz. “Place yourself in a position of journeying, of walking through the uncertainty and being comfortable with not having all the answers,” he says. “We don’t understand this question just yet. Maybe we never will. So how do we walk together from that place?’”
Living out of this perspective, Ruiz explains, changes how an educator’s relationship with trans students. “I’m able to look at a trans person and say ‘I’m going to walk with you,'” he explains. “I don’t know where we’re going to end up, but the process of accompaniment and encounter is what’s important. That’s where God’s grace is [to be] found.”
It also changes the way that we think about the ministry of education itself. Rather than a procedure by which information is conveyed from teachers to students, education becomes a communal space in which we wrestle with important questions.
“A relationship with God can really only take place through community,” notes Ruiz. “So that’s what I want for LGBTQ+ kids, to have a space and a community where they can talk and wrestle together, to not feel isolated and alone.” That can mean a club, like a gay-straight alliance, or, if a bishop or others are resistant to such an option, it can mean some designated staff member. “A person can be a space” for their students, he argues.
2. Think of your work as locating and releasing pressure
When it comes to issues related to transgender students, says Ruiz, you’re invariably going to confront pockets of resistance. This could be, for example, parents who refuse to accept their child’s situation. He recalls the story of a trans student in a Catholic school whose parents insisted that the school refer to him using his former name.
It could also be the school’s board of trustees and alumni, who don’t want anything to change or even to be discussed. Or it could be the student transitioning and hitting obstacles. “Some students are going to be stuck in ‘My parents don’t like me,’” he explains. “In some cases, their parents accept them, their teachers accept them and it’s their friends [who don’t].”
One trans student described a different kind of pressure. At his all-girls Catholic school, students were asked to wear formal uniforms once a week that included penny loafers or saddle shoes, knee-high white socks, a skirt and an Oxford.
Having attended Catholic school his whole life, he knew this was going to be the situation and had accepted it. Still, it was painful. “It just felt wrong,” the student said. “I’d walk around hunched and wouldn’t talk in class. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone. It was humiliating and demoralizing and just terrible.”
The student also noted the pressure that he felt to figure out what exactly was going on within himself. “Honestly, I got really fed up with having the thought [about whether he was trans] all the time. It was one of those things where [I recognized], I’m having this thought, it probably means something. But I’m going to ignore it for now, because it was really annoying and stressful to be constantly thinking about it.”
In light of these various kinds of struggles, Ruiz encourages administrators to think of themselves almost like masseurs. “A lot of this ministry is going to be figuring out what the walls are,” he says. “It’s like you’re massaging a body. You find the knot and you have to find a way to apply pressure there.”
Often, that comes down to asking a good question. For instance, with the parents who wanted their child to be referred to as a girl, Ruiz recalls the school asking the parents, “Do you really want to publicize ‘Hey, this is a girl?’ Because we don’t do this for any other student. We don’t go to their teachers and say ‘Hey, this is a male student, this is a female student.’ We’re worried about the kind of distress that may bring.”
Just asking that question helped the parents see things differently, and alleviated some of the mental obstacles. “They gave it some thought and said ‘Just keep it in the official records. Do not publicly embarrass our child. Whatever happens, happens.’”
For the trans student, giving himself a period of time in which he didn’t try to figure out whether he was trans or not similarly loosened the knot he felt inside. “Putting something on the back burner for a couple months,” he says, “was time to get used to the idea of it. It was a big thing to say to myself at 15.”
3. Don’t wait for a situation to consult and develop policies for transgender students
The Catholic high school administrator recalled that, as far back as ten years ago, he had suggested to the all-male school where he worked, that it talk about possible responses to a student transitioning in their school. “I thought better to get things started, before you have to get forced into a conversation,” the school administrator explained.
He was met with resistance. “Nobody wanted to talk about it. ‘Why do we have to talk about this, we’re only for boy students?'” “It’s clear,” others on staff said. They did nothing.
Then, a boy in the school announced they were transitioning. “It all came down to graduation,” the administrator recalled. “The student didn’t want to wear the traditional tuxedo. And I originally agreed: ‘Okay, why don’t we do something else, that’s conforming to the color coding of the school, more of a sweater-type of thing that they would be comfortable with.’”
It did not go over well. “The president kind of flipped out. It became a mess and the kid eventually didn’t come to graduation. Even though everybody’s stated goal was that they wanted her to feel comfortable at graduation, they decided not to come because they felt uncomfortable.”
Reflecting on his years working with boards of trustees, the administrator thinks the need to get ahead of potential situations is enormously important. “Boards in general are more conservative,” he explains. “They want to conserve and preserve the institution. People understand that to be their fiduciary responsibility.”
As well, he notes, “boards can become an echo chamber. …You have like-minded people, so you just don’t have the conversation.” In some ways, the administrator finds, it comes down to generational experience. “In their private lives, this idea of gender nonconformity is so much the norm today that it really doesn’t phase them [i.e. students]” he says. “Older people just have less experience with that.”
Ruiz points out that doing this kind of board preparation is often about finding the questions that bring out the points of tension. “What would it be like to know that a trans boy is graduating from your ‘all-girls’ school?” he suggests as a possible starting point for discussion. At graduation, “What would it be like for one of the students to be wearing a shirt and tie or a tuxedo underneath their gown?”
Many of those I spoke to noted that the situation in all-male schools is generally more fraught and in need of advance planning. “In our society, a girl wearing clothes that are traditionally accepted as male has historical validation,” said Ruiz. “Women started wearing blazers and pants a long time ago.” When teachers at an all-girls school are asked about outfits at graduation, “most immediately say they wouldn’t care.”
In an all-male school, on the other hand, “a trans woman deciding to wears a skirt and heels, that’s a threat to male power.” A parent who watched her trans son receive a warm reception at his all-girls school pointed out that, while we have long had ways of thinking about girls who dress as men, “There’s no word for tomboy for boys. The words we use to describe boys who dress as girls are all pejorative words.”
“We always say we keep the student at the center of things,” says the administrator from the all-male school. “But it’s really hard. [A change] can seem like it’s going against tradition or against our values as a Catholic school or as a single gender school or an all-boys school.”
The parent also emphasizes the importance of planning ahead for potential transgender students whether or not the policy chosen is welcoming or restrictive toward them. “You’re going to hurt the child if you don’t. You’re not going to mean to, but you’re going to.”
The issue at hand, she explains, is responsibility. When a school makes decisions before there is a case before it, “Any backlash gets directed at you for making the decision and not at the child for being who they are.” If, on the other hand, a school doesn’t do anything until a child comes forward, “Who gets caught in the backlash?” the parent asks. “The child for whom you’re making these changes.”
“You’re the adult making the decision,” she notes. “So, be the adult. Make the decision. Take the heat.”
The administrator agrees. Without prior planning, he says, “When the transgender student comes along, it’s like ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ Or there’s the potential of ‘Oh my God, this kid is causing trouble.’”
Waiting for a situation to occur, he feels, is just a recipe for a bad experience. “We make worse decisions based on a panic mode.”
4. No matter what decisions are made, realize you’re in an ongoing process. (And you’re going to make mistakes.)
Everyone points out that these kinds of decisions are never as simple as decided and done. “The risk is that [we say] we’ve already dealt with it,” says the administrator. “We know where our red lines are and so we have no more conversations around it.” Whether one is welcoming or restrictive, new situations will keep coming up, he insists.
For instance, many news reports on transgender youth in schools have focused on the question of restrooms, and which one a student should use. But most of those I spoke to said this was a non-issue at this point, that everyone had single-stall restrooms that have been repurposed.
It’s other issues that are more challenging today. In co-ed schools, how do you negotiate sleepaway trips, like a retreat? “Is the trans student going to sleep with the boys or the girls?” Ruiz asks, noting he is often asked this by schools.
The best solution he’s heard came from a school that decided, rather than trying to puzzle out a solution by themselves, to talk to everyone involved, starting with the trans child. “If a trans boy is fine sleeping with the girls for whatever reason (perhaps he’s not ‘out’ yet), great let’s do that,” Ruiz remembers the school deciding.
“But if he doesn’t want to sleep with the girls because he’s not a girl, then we reach out to his parents, and then the other boys.” The point, he emphasizes, is to have open communication with the student, rather than making a decision without involving them.
(In the case mentioned, when the other boys on the trip were asked how they would feel about the boy bunking with them, “The boys listened and then said, ‘Oh, cool. Can he bring some candies or some snacks?’”)
At some point, says Ruiz, every school should expect to make mistakes. “I don’t think there is going to be a solution [to everything],” he explains. But he insists, that does not have to be the end of the world, either. Schools just need to be ready to admit what they tried didn’t work and apologize. “[Tell your students] ‘We’re figuring this out, we’re walking together,’” he says.
He finds that honestly admitting your mistakes usually increases your credibility. “If you tell parents ‘I’m really wrestling with this, I don’t know what to do,’ those parents are more likely to trust you as an educator and an administrator.’”
“There’s this old school mentality in the church that you have to have the answers, that’s how you generate authority. Authority comes from certainty,” notes Ruiz. “But that’s no longer true. Certainty actually breeds suspicion these days. Credibility comes from vulnerability and honest wrestling.”
A number of those I interviewed also pointed out that it’s important to remember trans students are going through a sometimes messy process. The parent remembers her son coming out as trans spontaneously, at a Kairos retreat.
“He’d already told his closest friends but he hadn’t really told anybody else.” After he finished, she recalled, he suddenly realized the new school president was in attendance. He had no idea what the consequences might be.
Similarly, the student watched another student transition some years before him. That student, he remembers, was “a bit more confrontational” in his approach to things like the formal uniform, resisting the idea of having to wear one at all. And things did not go so well for him: “He definitely had a much worse time of it than I did. He got a lot more backlash from the school.” But he was just a child, someone learning at times by trial and error, like every other student.
The parent suggests that it helps to understand everyone’s fits and starts along the way as part of the overall dynamic of transitioning. “When a child transitions, the whole family transitions, because everyone has to change in one way or another,” she says.
The same, she says, is true for any community that they’re a part of, including school. “It’s not quite as intensely personal as the family situation, but we’re all interrelated. We affect the people around us. There’s no way for the ripples not to spread.”
5. Don’t underestimate the thought or struggle that goes into the requests of transgender students.
As the administrator points out, if a school doesn’t prepare ahead of time, there is a danger of seeing a trans student as first and foremost a problem to be dealt with. We’re dealing with children, he notes, and usually children who are highly sensitive to the issues their presence is raising.
The student recalled that his main concern, as he spoke to his school’s administrators about transitioning, was how it would affect others. “My thing was, I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable. I don’t want some other kid to be uncomfortable that I’m now going to the women’s bathroom.”
The student also talked about the tremendous anxiety that came with talking to administrators in the first place. “I remember being super nervous,” he says. “I was like, this is the point where they could say ‘Don’t come back next year.’”
And this “anxiety brain,” as the student calls it, wasn’t borne solely of their understanding of church teaching or any past experience at the school. It’s instead a part of LGBTQ people’s existence. When you come out, there is always the possibility that people who have previously loved you will suddenly eschew you.
The parent and her husband had hypothesized privately for quite some time that their child might be trans, and did everything they could to be supportive. “I got lucky,” the student says in retrospect. “I had really good parents.” But even so, before he came out to them he called a sister to make sure he could stay with her if things did not go well.
“It broke my heart to know that he was still that afraid,” the parent says. “We had tried so hard to be really really intentional with all four kids. But he had already had two friends come out to parents and not go well.”
In fact, the student’s school responded with great openness. “They were very instantly like, ‘Oh, do whatever you have to do. What can we do to support you in this? How can you help us do better?’ That was it. I was like, ‘What?’”
“I think I had as good a time as anyone ever could with it,” he says looking back. But in the midst of it, he says, “it was still terrible, anxious, difficult.”
Similar stressors can also be carried by the families of transgender students. When your child is transgender, the parent explains, you live with the constant fear that others won’t respect them. “As a parent you want your kids to be loved. You want others to appreciate all the good that you see in your kids. And when you’re worried that people are not going to see any of the good,” she says, you live “anticipating a battle.”
You may not even know it, either. The parent remembers talking to her child’s First Communion teacher about the possibility of him not having to wear a white dress. “My husband and I didn’t want his experience of First Communion to be sidetracked by being really uncomfortable with what they’re wearing.”
The religious education director was immediately on board. The parent was so surprised she couldn’t quite trust it. “I had to ask a little further. ‘Is there anyone else I should talk to?’” she remembered. “She said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.’”
Only at that moment did the parent realized the anxieties she had. “I had no idea how much weight was sitting on my shoulders until she took it off,” she said.
“Anything a school can do to let parents know that they don’t have to worry, it’s huge,” she notes.
This is also why having things like rainbow flags in schools can be so important, she says. It’s a signal of care. “The expectation for the transgender kid is that things are not going to go well. So it’s on you to make it as clear as you possibly can that they’re safe.”
6. There are good reasons why students want to address these issues in high school.
As I spoke to the student, one thing that became clear is that there are some fundamental reasons why transitioning is becoming a more regular, particularly in high school settings. First, high school naturally provides tools and experiences that help students to begin reflecting more deeply on their own experiences.
For the student, high school was the first time he had ever heard terms like “gay” or “trans.”
Also, the pain caused by school uniforms tends to bring the question of one’s gender identity into sharper focus. “I was being forced to confront it,” the student explained. “It was kind of like the last straw, the real catalyst.”
And transitioning in high school gives students the chance to start fresh afterwards. “I transitioned at an all-girls school,” the student explains. “There’s no not telling people that’s happening.”
But because he transitioned then, when he got to college his life could be different. “It doesn’t have to be the first thing you know about me,” said his mother, “He wanted to go to college just as himself.”
7. Transgender students and their families can plan ahead and be strategic
After years of following his school’s policies on the formal uniform, the student decided to see if any change was possible. He arranged a meeting with administration, and made his case. “I said, ‘I get you want us to wear a formal uniform once a week. I’m not arguing that, I am not asking not to do that. The only thing I’m asking is I can wear pants instead of the skirt.”
In explaining himself, he tried to speak to the school’s stated mission to inform and empower the consciences of students, saying: “Here is what is true in my heart.” And he pointed out how this change was actually in keeping with the current dress expectations of the school. “Pants were already part of the [daily] uniform,” he explained.
His request was approved. Later, the student learned that the administrators involved were inspired by his respect and thoughtfulness. “They were like, ‘He literally just did what we’ve been training these kids to do, which is to speak up for themselves politely and work for what is better and right and good.’”
Given the sense of humiliation wearing that skirt had brought him—his sense of discomfort was so extreme he couldn’t bear to even have it in his home, instead balling it up in his locker each week—it would have been understandable if the student had been more emotional or insistent with the school.
By instead presenting his idea in a way that showed respect and spoke to the values of the school, he not only got what he wanted, he made his school’s administrators feel like it was a win for them, too. His request became an example of the school’s mission working.
Similarly, when the student decided, in the summer before his senior year, that he wanted to begin testosterone in the fall, his mother took him to meet with the administrators, so that everyone would be on the same page. The school “had been absolutely supportive” to this point, but would they be willing to allow the student to continue at the school as he transitioned? Were there legal or other issues that might have impeded his ability to stay?
“I’m thinking, ‘You have an insurance policy for the school and its students, but that’s for an all-girls school, and now you have a boy. Does that change anything?” she says. She wanted to make sure all the possible implications were known before they might impact her son.
By having that conversation with the school ahead of time, the parent and the student eliminated the element of surprise for both themselves and the administrators. If there were going to be issues, they and the school now had time to deal with them.
As it turned out, the administrators feared the parent and her son had called the meeting to remove him from the school. “We want him to stay,” they said.
8. Don’t expect transgender students and their families to be your educators.
Both the student and the parent praised his school for the way they handled his desire to transition. If anything, the student felt like he had to reel them in a little bit. “They were like, ‘Should we send an email to all the teachers?’” he remembers. “I told them no, don’t make it a big deal. I’m a very private person. I don’t want to be the center of attention.’”
Looking back, though, the parent did wish one aspect of their conversation with the school had been slightly different. “They asked our son and us as parents to educate them.” She acknowledges, in the moment that was presented “very positively. They were basically saying if there’s anything we can do better let us know.” It was clearly coming from a desire to be supportive and pastorally sensitive.
But in retrospect, she says, “it puts a lot of pressure on the kids and their families, who are in many cases just figuring this out as they go.” The student recalls one of his middle school teachers randomly writing him after he transitioned, looking for help with a transgender student coming to his classroom.
The student was baffled. “I haven’t spoken to you since seventh grade,” he thought to himself. “And I’m 16, 17. I just know my own experience. I don’t know how you should handle this kid.”
His mother notes that asking a student and/or their family to educate the school also seems to signal that the burden of providing proper care is being left up to them. “It creates a sense that we’re going to do the minimum required, rather than doing everything we can do because this child is worth doing things for,” she explains.
“It’s not fair to a transgender child or their family to expect them to educate you on what you need to be doing,” the parent says. There’s no need, either: There is plenty of research and speakers who can be brought in to talk to faculty and staff.
In fact, she recalls, the next year the school brought someone in to speak about gender identity to the entire middle school and high school faculty. “They invited me to come, which was really reassuring,” she said. “I learned a lot from it, and I got to see that the education they were seeking was positive” and affirming of transgender children.
“There are people who will come to Catholic schools who are not at all accepting that transgender kids exist,” she notes. “They’ll say these kids are confused or sick or that they’re just following some ideology that they picked up from the crowd.” For a parent that watched her son resist female gender roles from the time that he was a toddler, the idea that Catholic faculty would be offered such a point of view is “distressing,” she says.
In the conversation with his administrators, the student did offer one suggestion that he thinks all schools should follow: “Give substitute teachers students’ preferred names and a basic awareness that some kids with short hair might actually belong in an all-girls school,” he said.
More than once he had had to deal with a substitute using his dead name, or worse, questioning his presence in the school.
“I was wearing pants on a random Thursday, sitting in Spanish class after lunch,” the student recalled, “and this substitute teacher comes in, looks at me and she’s like, ‘What are you doing here? Who are you?’ And she wouldn’t leave it. She said, ‘You don’t go here, you shouldn’t be in this room.’ I’m in uniform, I’ve gone here since middle school. And my friends had to be like ‘No, he goes here.’”
“I was lucky enough to grow up in a very supportive environment,” the student says, “so it wasn’t the most painful thing to have happen. But it still stung. I’m in my own school, where I’m supposed to be, and I’m 15. What the hell?”
His mother agrees about the need to speak to substitutes. “If you’ve got kids in your school that don’t represent in the expected way, you need to figure out a way to let those substitute teachers know. Otherwise, they are going to be suspicious that someone is playing a game with them. They’re going to challenge the child about their identity because it’s not making sense in their heads.”
9. Making changes to support transgender students helps everyone.
When schools taking their education upon themselves, says the parent, it conveys to their community that transgender students are not to be viewed as some kind of exception to the rules, but rather as full members of the student body. “If you’re asking the parent or child to always be the one to tell you what they need, it feels like you’re asking for special privileges,” she says. “Ideally. it shouldn’t be that way.” Providing for transgender students is not a special benefit, it’s the proper duty of care.
And, as a number of those I interviewed pointed out, some of the changes made to support transgender students end up addressing the needs of other students, too. “By the time I left,” says the student, “it was written into the handbook that pants were included in the formal uniform. And I’d say half the school was wearing pants on formal uniform days. Because pants are just better. They’re more comfortable, they have pockets. Come on.”
“Most of the all-girls schools have started moving to let girls wear pants,” Ruiz concurred. “It’s mostly because of weather reasons. Are you really going to make the girls wear a skirt and possibly be outside when it’s cold?”
The student notes that the changes in dress code at his school have extended to graduation, too, with other students, including some who are not trans, asking to wear pants. At first, he says, the school resisted this. “They were like, ‘Well no, you have to be trans to do that.’”
Eventually they were convinced. “Graduation is supposed to celebrate the fact that you just spent four years here,” the Student notes. “I had friends who graduated before me who hated graduation because they had to wear a dress. There are so many people who identify as women who just don’t like dresses.”
In the end, the student argues, “Making things more inclusive relieves more problems than having to have special case scenarios every time.” It can also do students a further service.
“If you let guys or girls wear skirts, or girls wear pants, you make it a non-issue. Then kids can experiment in their bodies, in their own selves without having to worry about breaking the rules and getting backlash.”
In a sense, this goes back to Ruiz’s comments about creating a meaningful space. In a community where students can dress as they please, they have the chance “to figure things out for themselves,” says the student. “They don’t have to suffer in trying to figure out something that everyone goes through.”
10. If Catholic schools won’t make room for transgender students, the church will lose both them and others.
Listening to Ruiz, I wondered whether he thought acceptance of LGBTQ people by the church could help that community feel more comfortable and at peace, in the way that that acceptance by family and friends does. “One hundred percent,” he answered. “The church can be a source of that love, too.”
And when that love is withheld, says Ruiz, it also does damage. “Billy Porter, the gay actor, said the first thing they take away from us is God,” he notes. “That messes us up.”
“While I personally believe that every human being is in need of God, I’ve also started to see other groups, like a lot of atheists that are perfectly fine and flourishing without God and the church,” he notes. “Now, theologically I throw in with Karl Rahner, who says those are anonymous Christians, still being inspired by grace and living a life that is similar to Jesus.”
But he feels their happy and meaningful lives outside the church have implications the church should consider. “If you exclude LGBTQ+ people, we are going to leave the church,” he warns. “We will leave as a form of self-preservation, even though it would be amazing if we could stay and feel that grace and community inside the church. And we will be fine. We will find a way forward as a community. Some of us will even forge a relationship with God. But the church won’t be a part of it.”
And, he adds, “along with the gays are going to go the straight and cis people. They are all going to go.”
The student agrees. “Trying to exclude all these people is a great way to cut off blood to the heart,” he says. “If self-preservation is a thing that you’re going for as a Catholic Church, meaning that you want to continue spreading the message that you believe, then you should probably stop excluding.”
“I go back to what I first said,” concludes Ruiz. “Abandon certainty, live into the mystery, lean into the discomfort.” And even though we may disagree, “we can be in community together. We still all have some central belief in Christ and love, and charity that we’re going to live by.”
Thank you! This is so helpful!
Brilliant article, thank you.