In Symbolic Rejoinder to Religious Right, Catholic High School Supports Transgender Teacher

(Photo: Scott Richard)A Transgender Pride flag flutters over San Francisco’s Castro District. (Photo: torbakhopper)

While the nation is embroiled in another hot-button culture war issue — this time over transgender rights — a Catholic high school in Burlingame, a small city located south of San Francisco, California, is dead set on doing the right thing. Mercy High, a four-year college preparatory school for girls, which is owned and operated by an order of Sisters of Mercy, has fully accepted a transgender English teacher.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker, “The announcement of support … offers a rare policy position on transgender rights from within an internationally respected Catholic order.”

The decision to retain Gabriel Stein-Bodenheimer, who came forward to Mercy High School administrators in October, was not made without great deliberation by school officials. “This is significant for us; we did not take this lightly,” Sister Laura Reicks, president of the 16-state region of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community, which sponsors or co-sponsors six high schools, told the Chronicle. “We feel because of our values, the choice was this, but that didn’t mean it was easy.”

“I love teaching at Mercy High School,” Stein-Bodenheimer, a Los Angeles native who is Jewish, said in mid-May. “For my own sense of authenticity in the classroom, it was important to name myself, to identify myself, to bring the whole self into the aspect of my teaching. It is important to speak to this issue, not to be silent.” He added that he has “been surprised and pleased at the amount of support from the sisters, from faculty members, from students, from the administration. It has all been very positive.”

They are presenting their inclusion of Stein-Bodenheimer not as something they are doing despite their faith, but as an expression of the highest ideals of their faith.

“We have not had any other teachers ask for any kind of coming out before,” Reicks added. “This is just our way of continuing to live out what our founders of Sisters of Mercy had always said, that regardless of what type of prejudice or feeling in society, we have to take a higher road and look at the person and how we can be supportive of each person.”

This is not the first time transgender teachers have dealt with the consequences of being out at a religious institution. The late Marla Krolikowski was a trans woman who taught at the St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, New York. In 2011, Krolikowski, a much beloved and respected teacher, was fired after a career of 30-plus years, after a parent of a ninth grade student complained about Krolikowsi’s appearance. According to an obituary in The New York Times, “Ms. Krolikowski’s firing prompted her to file a well-publicized lawsuit that ended in a confidential settlement [in 2013]. She and her allies saw the outcome — as well as a state judge’s decision to let the suit proceed in the first place — as a victory.” Interestingly enough, The New York Times noted, “For her funeral, … St. Francis provided a bus for faculty and staff members who wished to attend.”

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, and the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish organization, told Truthout that, “Religious schools are very different from one another, even within a single faith. There are more and less traditional Catholic schools, for example. Schools which require faculty members to be active members of the faith the institution represents, particularly those who see faculty as role models whose lives are supposed to exemplify the faith, have a hard time including openly transgender faculty when their faith is based on strict gender binary definitions of male and female.”

Ladin, the author of a memoir on gender transition titled Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders, which was a National Jewish Book Award finalist, pointed out that schools like hers (Yeshiva University) and Mercy High, which do not require that faculty members represent their religious beliefs, “have a wider range of possible responses, including having an openly transgender faculty member.”

She added, “In some cases, like mine, the school tolerates, but does not support or help the community understand or include the faculty member’s gender identity. But Mercy High seems to be going further, actively working to help the school community understand and embrace Stein-Bodenheimer.”

According to the Chronicle’s Jill Tucker, “The order’s leaders told staff, students and parents that the sisters prayed for guidance, and conferred with San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, but ultimately came to the only decision that aligned with their values.”

The National Catholic Reporter’s Dan Morris-Young reported that Cordileone was neither condemnatory nor completely supportive. In his May 12 statement, Cordileone said he was “grateful that leadership of the Mercy Sisters spoke to me in advance and explained their reasoning and their plan on how to address the situation. In so doing the sisters strongly affirmed our Catholic beliefs and values and that they and the school do not advocate for policies or causes that contradict these values and beliefs.”

Cordileone continued, “Often in such situations a balance must be struck in a way that distinct values are upheld, such as mercy and truth, or institutional integrity and respect for personal decisions affecting one’s life. In this particular personnel matter I am thankful to the sisters for seeking a response consistent with mercy and Gospel values and the corporate identity of the school as a Catholic institution of secondary education.”

Archbishop Cordileone has been at the center of several controversies related to the LGBT community. Last year, Cordileone issued a handbook with guidelines for his archdiocese’s Catholic High School teachers, which stated that regardless of their personal religious beliefs or lack thereof, teachers should adhere to Catholic doctrine in their professional and private lives.

In 2014, Cordileone, a vehement and vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, was a featured speaker at the second annual Washington, DC, March for Marriage, an event organized by several anti-gay groups.

In an email exchange, Dan Morris-Young, a West Coast Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, told Truthout, “There have been mixed receptions of LGBT persons in Catholic institutions, notably schools. It might be a fair observation to say that for the most part student bodies, faculties, parents and even administrators take an accepting and welcoming and nonjudgmental stance toward gender identity. Things become dicey, however, when, for example, a faculty member’s same-sex marriage becomes public. These situations are often caused or enflamed by blogosphere pressure on bishops, demanding that they enforce something.”

The Sisters of Mercy decision comes at a time when the issue of transgender rights has become part of a raucous national debate. In March 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an extremely controversial bill that, among other things, requires students in state schools to use bathrooms and changing areas that match the sex listed on their birth certificates. The North Carolina bill is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice, and a countersuit filed by the state of North Carolina.

In April, the American Family Association launched a petition drive — and boycott — after Target stores announced a policy of allowing transgender people to use restrooms and dressing rooms that correspond with their gender identity. While the petition has thus far garnered well more than a million signatures, Target officials have publicly stated that they are committed to diversity and inclusion.

The Department of Justice and the Department of Education recently issued a directive to public schools across the country advising them that transgender students should have access to bathrooms consistent with the gender with which they identify. The directive also covers such issues as housing, locker rooms, pronouns and gender references on identity documents. As of this writing, 11 states have filed a suit against the Obama administration in US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, against the Justice Department, the Education Department, the Labor Department and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the directive.

The response from the Christian right to the directive was as vitriolic as it was predictable: One religious right leader branded it a “missive” from “the lawless bullies at the Departments of Justice and Education.” Others labeled it “radical social engineering,” and a “leftist coup of local schools.” One longtime conservative activist is calling on Christians to remove their children from public schools.

Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, a religious right Washington, DC-based lobbying organization, sent a fundraising email maintaining that the directive was part of the administration’s project to “break down all sexual inhibition and morality,” cause “social chaos” and “destroy Christian morality, religious freedom, and the next generation.”

“I certainly recognize the climate we live in, and I can only speak for myself,” Mercy’s Stein-Bodenheimer pointed out, “but I am pleased to be able to continue in my capacity as an educator and department chair.”

“What I admire most in Mercy High’s response,” Joy Ladin added, “is that they decided that their core religious value was to treat human beings with dignity and respect, and that they are presenting their inclusion of Stein-Bodenheimer not as something they are doing despite their faith, but as an expression of the highest ideals of their faith. To me, that is a beacon of hope, pointing the way for faith communities to include transgender people.”