A CHALLENGE TO COMPASSION

My good friend and fellow member of the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative LGBT Initiative, Beth Garascia, wrote this wonderful essay which was published in the latest edition of Justice Jottings, a monthly publication of the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative. I was so moved after reading it, I requested permission from her to re-publish it in my blog. She graciously granted my request. In in, Beth calls us to “work on improving our language about LGBTQI persons and continue to strive to live with the compassion and mercy our faith calls us to.” Thank you, Beth, for your prophetic voice and actions in the name of love, peace, and justice.

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Recently Bill, a friend of my husband’s and mine, forwarded us a Richard Rohr column in which Rohr referred to LGBTQIA persons. Bill wrote “I know what LGBTQ means (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and queer), but what does the I and A stand for? I immediately replied, “intersex and asexual.” Tony didn’t see my reply and wrote “inquiring and allies.” I’m not sure which of us is correct, or if we both are. However, that interchange as well as watching Hannah Gadsby’s new comedy special “Nanette” and listening to a sermon by Justo Gonzalez, inspired me to reflect on how very much I don’t know about what it means to be LGBTQIA in today’s world. These experiences also revealed to me how vulnerable some of these persons are and challenged me to become more merciful and compassionate to others.

First, here’s a short clarification of terms. Psychologists are now telling us that not only is sexual orientation on a continuum, but gender identity, biological sex, and gender expression are not the clear-cut binary phenomena that many of us were taught.

Sexual orientation is the internal experience that determines whether we are      physically and emotionally attracted to men, women, both, or neither (asexual).

Gender identity is one’s internal sense of being male, female, somewhere in between, or fluid. Since gender identity is interior, it’s not necessarily visible to others.

One’s genitals, chromosomes, and hormones all play a role in determining biological sex. Most of us are either male or female, but those of us born intersex can have any mix of sexual characteristics.

Finally, gender expression is how persons represent/express their gender identity to others, a combination of behavior, dress, hairstyles, voice, body characteristics or other gender-related behaviors.

These unfolding ways of looking at our gender and sexuality can cause deep internal conflict for some of us since they challenge our previous assumptions about a complex personal and important subject. Others of us may simply throw up our hands in confusion and wonder why young people present themselves in ways a more traditional person might label weird or just plain bizarre. What’s the matter with kids today anyway?

Consider the case of Caster Semenya, the 2016 South African Olympic track and field
phenomenon. It’s a complicated situation because she registers for track and field events as a woman and has a female phenotype (observable physical characteristics), but she has XY sex chromosomes. According to several news articles, she has broad shoulders, narrow hips and a prominent Adam’s apple. Her voice is deep and masculine. So despite having the morphology of a woman, she has many of the traditional attributes of a man. She definitely challenges the conventional understanding of our binary system of classifying individuals as men and women. If one considered who she is by using our traditional binary system of classification, one might label her with the previously mentioned adjective, weird. She is, however, a child of God, and as such deserves to be treated with dignity and love just as all of us do.

When one reflects on how Jesus responded to the outcast, our path forward is clear. Among those Jesus reached out to were women, the poor, the unclean, and racial enemies. Jesus spoke directly and tenderly to women although it was not the social custom at the time for men to speak openly to women. Jesus called one woman he cured “daughter” (Luke 8:48). He told His disciples that when they had a banquet, they should invite the poor (Luke 14:13-14) even though it was important for Jewish people at the time (and most people everywhere) to consider themselves better than the impoverished. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10-:25-37) is perhaps the
best-known example of Jesus teaching us to reconsider our stereotypes. In the story, a racial enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, cared for the victim of robbery and was thus the merciful one. In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus is approached by a leper, a member of the most stigmatized unclean group of His time. In this story, Jesus not only cures the man, he touches him. In all of these stories Jesus is tender, merciful, and compassionate to the other.

In our culture today, LGBTQI persons are definitely the other. Although their situation is
improving, still there are pockets of prejudice where they are unaccepted and even bullied. In his sermon to the United Church of Chapel Hill, Justo Gonzalez tells with great emotion the story of his young Catholic friend of Hispanic heritage, Julio, who was told by his dad that he could never disgrace the family and that he must be macho. Julio, who was gay, eventually died by suicide rather than cause scandal to his family by coming out. Gonzalez labels this rigid way of acting by Julio’s father bullying. In her 2009 study of LGBTQI youth and their families, Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues document the importance of families accepting and supporting their LGBT youth in concrete and loving ways. Struggling with family expectations, and sometimes the rigid way they are enforced, is one problem many LGBTQI young adults contend with.

Finally, in her comedy special “Nanette” Hannah Gadsby challenges stereotypes of LGBTQI persons with humor and personal stories. Gadsby jokes about growing up as a lesbian in Tasmania in the 1980’s. The general attitude, she says, was that gay people were not welcome: “You should just get yourself a one-way ticket to the mainland, and don’t come back.” While some of Gadsby’s stories of her experience as a gender non-conforming woman are uproariously funny, others are chilling. Americans are no better at welcoming LGBTQI persons than Tasmanians. The cases of Matthew Shepherd, the firings of many Catholic LGBT persons from Catholic institutions, and the gunning down of 49 gays at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 come to mind. Let’s continue to examine our deeply held assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, work on improving our language about LGBTQI persons and continue to strive to live with the compassion and mercy our faith calls us to.