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By Jason Michael

TRANSGENDER PEOPLE and their experiences as a minority in our society have not featured greatly in my own experience of the world. Over the last few years, however, we have all become aware of a growing debate concerning the rights of trans people, and more particularly where these rights come into conflict – or are perceived to come into conflict – with the hard-won rights of women. This deeply polarising discussion has swept through the Scottish independence movement, causing division and a bitter and entrenched fight between trans rights activists and women’s rights activists who make the case that men cannot become women and therefore cannot access female spaces or occupy the same spheres of gender and socio-historical experience as women. Not fully understanding the complexities of the discussion, and as someone not belonging to either of these groups, I was content to remain silent and keep my own counsel on the subject.

Two days ago, however, I was forced to abandon my neutrality and take a side. My decision, after reading someone on Twitter describe all trans women as ‘fetishists and predators,’ was to take the side of humanity, and defend the right of trans people to be people; without being subjected to such appalling dehumanising and vindictive generalisations. What ultimately pushed me to this decision, other than my disgust at this comment, was my encounter with a trans woman in church. For a number of years this person came to church, always arriving late, sitting at the very back, and leaving before the end of Mass. I would see her from the altar and the pulpit and wonder who this was and why they studiously avoided contact with other people – of course, I knew the answer, but it played on my mind and I often tried to create an opportunity to introduce myself.

An opportunity presented itself once – and only once – in the supermarket. ‘Hoy, you!’ I said in my best humoured voice. ‘Why don’t you ever want to talk to me?’ Then followed our only conversation in which I said all that really could be said: ‘You are always welcome!’ Listening to this person’s story and hearing their anxiety, I put a hand on their arm and reminded them that they are a child of God and the Church was as much their home as it was mine or anyone else’s. After this, while still avoiding contact, this timid little person began receiving Communion again. Every Sunday thereafter we got to exchange a few meaningful words: ‘Body of Christ’ and ‘Amen.’

‘She spoke of you very highly,’ said her daughter over the phone. This confused me. We didn’t really know one another, and until this phone call I didn’t even know her name. Simone [not her real name] had taken her life.

This funeral was challenging. Not for feminist reasons, but for reasons of theology and Church teaching, I do not believe that someone born a man can become a woman. I knew that Simone was really a he and not a she. I like to think that God doesn’t make mistakes, but, then, I don’t really know God. We haven’t had a single conversation. There is the Jewish belief that sometimes a Jewish soul gets lost and is born in the body of a gentile. Maybe male and female souls sometimes get lost too. I don’t know. But it was Simone’s funeral, and I had to work out how I would gender this person in what I said. In the end I was compelled to follow my conscience: Simon would be Simone and he would be she and him would be her. This would not change the biological facts of who was being committed to God’s eternal care, and I assumed the God who knows her own would do just that.

Conscience, a word and a concept almost entirely alien to the times in which we live, is in this present reflection an important factor. It is no secret to those who know me that Benedict XVI and I never quite saw eye to eye. He was not my favourite Pope. Back in 1984, however, in his early years as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome (better known perhaps by its former name, The Holy Inquisition), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – as he was known before becoming Pope – published a short treatise On Conscience in which he wrote:

…conscience is the highest norm that man is to follow, even in opposition to authority. Authority – in this case, the Magisterium – may well speak of matters moral, but only in the sense of presenting conscience with material for its own deliberation. Conscience would retain, however, the final word. Some authors reduce conscience in this, its aspect of final arbiter, to the formula ‘conscience is infallible.’

Calling Simone ‘Simon’ or referring to her as ‘him’ in order to make a point or to be in some way correct at her funeral would simply not have sat well on my conscience, and to disobey the dictates of my informed conscience would have been – according to Christian moral theology – sinful. Others have to obey their consciences, and I have to obey mine. Yet, I was aware, as Ratzinger points out, that this opens the way to something quite dangerous – moral relativism. Referring to someone I know to have been born male by a female name and in my language treating them as a woman is in the strictest sense an untruth, even a lie. A good many people, over the past couple of days, have been keen to remind me on social media of the mendacity of using feminine pronouns for a ‘biological male.’ And this was not something I had neglected to consider.

The eighth commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20), forbids Christians to bear false witness – to deceive or to lie. But moral theology is not a blunt instrument. In the real world – the world in which Christians live – there are occasions when telling the truth is not possible. Sure, this doesn’t cover telling lies to the police or to the tax office, but in certain rare occasions telling the truth will have dire consequences for innocent people. Throughout occupied Europe, during the darkest period of European history, countless individuals and many convents and monasteries hid Jews and other people deemed undesirable by the Nazis. When questioned or interrogated by the authorities, they knew the truth would lead to the murder of these innocent people. Deceptions and untruths – or ‘mental reservations’ – were required, and Catholics, other Christians, and people of good faith intuitively knew what was required of them. Their heroic and saintly actions in many cases saved lives and they became the unwitting authors of a theological development; that in order to save human lives it is permissible not to tell the truth. In fact, in a morally complex world, this is a higher virtue than the truth.

It is impossible now to say why Simone took her life, but it is not impossible to imagine that her struggle with her sex or gender identity and possibly how others treated her played a part in her decision. Affording her the dignity of the name she had chosen and the pronouns she preferred would in a real way preserve her life, even though she was dead. The God of the Christians ‘is not a God of the dead, but of the living’ (Luke 20:38); even the dead are alive to her. And so, rigidly sticking to what we hold to be the truth would dehumanise her – and this is a kind of death. And all around the world, in all of our communities there are other people just like Simone who deserve our respect for them as our sisters and brothers, as everyone deserves our respect for their humanity. In the end my conscience was clear with my decision, and I know this is not everyone’s decision – but it is mine. I cannot and will not apologise for showing another human being love and respect, and by my actions and words, however limited, affording them the dignity and care they are owed.

Over the past forty-eight hours a great many people on social media reacted to my thoughts on this subject with a great deal of anger and frustration. Many of those who replied to me were perfectly sincere, believing that what I had done endangered the rights of ‘real women.’ Others were more extreme; many of whom branded me a misogynist, as a man who supported violence against women, as someone who would subject women and girls to ‘rapists,’ ‘predators,’ ‘perverts,’ ‘peeping Toms,’ ‘men in dresses,’ and ‘abusers’ in ladies’ toilets and other female-only spaces. I have never suggested that trans women should have such access, but I was more wounded at this generalisation of trans people as dangerous – as ‘fetishists’ and ‘seedy.’ No balm could I put on the fury I had unwittingly unleashed, and this seems to have been rooted in my naïve use of the words ‘kindness’ and ‘compassion’ – advice, I was informed, which men deploy against women to keep them in their socially constructed roles as nurturers and mothers. True, I hadn’t thought of this.

Women who are gentle and kind, who smile and act meekly in front of men, I was told, invite upon themselves unwanted sexual advances which put them in danger. Yes, sadly I can imagine this is a reality for women. I hadn’t thought of this either. Thus, I am left to conclude, from the women and men telling me these things, that somehow unkindness and a lack of compassion, accompanied by cruel and truly vindictive words directed at innocent people are to be preferred to the awful and unforgiveable crime of reminding people of the value of kindness and compassion and ordinary human decency. It strikes me also that the argument that kindness and compassion and any show of the socially expected feminine attributes – whatever those are – invite unwanted sexual attention and sexual violence is quite similar to the suggestion that certain clothes invite the same. There is nothing wrong with men and women being kind, and it costs us nothing. It is not the fault of kindness or what someone has chosen to wear that a person is assaulted, it is always the fault of the assailant – it is their crime and only their crime.

Others insisted that by showing care to transgender people – transgender women in particular – that I was ignoring women and women’s rights. I am truly sorry and deeply vexed that anyone arrived at this conclusion. The respect we owe transgender people, we owe equally to all women and to men. The dignity, love, and respect we owe to one, we owe to every person by virtue of their humanity. It has upset me to imagine that anyone would think this commodity so scarce that by giving it to one we must withhold it from another.

This response has left me shaken. While I trust many came sincerely and in perfectly good faith, I am certain others came with malicious intent. That one man commented that it was ‘evil’ to support transgender people confirmed this belief. Evil? This word may have a different effect on a theologian than it does on some random character on Twitter. There was a time in western Christian thought when evil was the characteristic of a real devil and his demons, an imagery now largely consigned to horror movies. After the flames of the Holocaust, as Hannah Arendt informs us, evil is something far more subtle, less dramatic, more banal and ordinary than a horned red terror with a trident. Evil is what takes root in a world bereft of love and compassion, it is what grows when people fail to recognise the humanity and value of others, it is what eats away at the soul and robs the cruel and the violent of their humanity – turning father against son, and daughter against mother. Evil is what’s planted the moment we withhold compassion, the moment we begin to hate, the moment we refuse to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.

Those making these comments are not evil, but many of the things they are saying are evil and have the power to unleash even greater evil. We live in troubled times. Everyone is angry. Everyone has a cause to fight and a grievance. Everyone is on a crusade. Our ‘sides’ and our allegiances are as polarised now as they have ever been in the past, and the world is fast becoming the poorer for it. Social media allows people to avoid so much of the responsibility for what they say. Behind anonymous online profiles people are shielded and so feel they can say whatever they please without consequence, and this may be so. But this is not making the world a better place. It is making things worse. I can’t know if I am right and they are wrong. All I have to guide me is my conscience and my sense of duty to the wellbeing of others. Sometimes I get it wrong. Yet, when I interact with transgender people and others whose lived realities I don’t fully understand, I can only echo the words of a Pope I actually do like: Who am I to judge?

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Fr. James Martin: Building a Bridge


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24 thoughts on “‘Who am I to Judge?’

  1. A compassionate and thoughtful piece.

    Too many of us are too quick to take sides, form hostile opinions, polarise debate. If we could only all show more compassion, more tolerance, more humanity to our fellow beings, then without money, without a penny, spent, we could make our world so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with everything that’s been said here. My only “issue” with the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was the right of anyone to gain access to female only areas simply by “self identifying” as a woman, thus allowing penises into “vagina only” safe areas. I now believe the GRA does take account of this and the fears/bigotry being espoused by those who oppose it are largely groundless.

    It is a shame (in all senses of the word) that this issue is being exploited by supposedly pro-independence people to divide the Yes movement. Especially as independence is now more likely than it has been since 1707. Perhaps those who so vociferously oppose the GRA in its entirety harken back to that “simpler time”.

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  3. You have entered an arena inhabited by gladiators, not preachers. When you enter this area you need to be extremely careful about language as ambiguity is to invite condemnation. Twitter is the worst place to express complex opinions as there are too few characters not to be misconstrued. You believe your comment was not ambiguous but you need to look at it from others perspective, it looks obvious that many women took it to mean acceptance and submission (just to be clear I’m not a woman and It’s my opinion, I not trying to claim to speak for them).

    I would say you are trying to square a circle here, it’s a bit like telling Palestinians and Israelis all they need is a bit more compassion and tolerance. But this cuts deep to who they are, it is about the land and who possess it, it has effectively been going on for centuries, if not millenniums.

    It is no different from anyone’s belief’s, imagine I was ferociously anti God and wanted anyone using the word to be prosecuted as a hate crime, would you see your adherence as acceptable, are you that tolerant? Everyone is intolerant in some way, it is just a matter of finding the right button to press, anyone who claims not to be are either deceiving themselves or don’t see their point of view as intolerant.

    I wouldn’t become too upset about being ravaged on twitter, I thought it went with the territory.

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    1. Thank you for this exceptionally articulate reply. But the preacher is a gladiator and at times of great trial over the course to two millennia the religious have resisted tyrants and dictators. Preachers suffered and died in extermination camps and gulags, they resisted military juntas in Latin America and warlords across Africa. The Church has been at the forefront of the fight for justice for the poor and the marginalised in every society, and we will continue to do just that. Of course too we have failed, and terribly so. But we learn and we grow stronger. And yes, we all struggle with our prejudices and intolerances, but this does not absolve us of the great task of ‘overcoming the old man,’ as St Paul writes. God may indeed be offensive to some, and very often for good reason, yet when it comes to defending the rights and liberties of human beings we must never tire of shouting out that their oppression is always and everywhere an offence.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fear! That is at the root of most othering, certainly most phobias. Women are afraid and there’s little us men can do to assuage their fear other than support and where necessary defend. Womenfolk in my immediate family know Trans People, I do not. The Men living as Women whom they know are described as “Gentle Souls who wouldn’t do anyone any harm” They are NOT perceived as a threat at all.

    On the other hand, we can easily find online horrors, mainly young men who it would be kind in the extreme to describe their intended fantasies as only that. Out of their own mouths etc.

    I’m genuinely sorry when any human being is hurt by weaponised words. I only know that we are all God’s Children and that Our Father in Heaven must be greatly distressed at His family’s squabbling.

    Until the women in my family are at peace with all aspects of Trans, I reserve my full acceptance of all.
    You cannot undo thousands of years of social orthodoxy by legislation. That takes acceptance, and that currently seems in short supply.

    Thanks for the Article, it explains much, it causes me to think and reconsider, that’s what Good Sermons from Good Sheperds are meant to achieve, job well done Jason.

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  5. Thank you for writing this. I had missed the initial tweets that began all the stooshie and found it hard to square what little i know about you personally ( having only met you once before) with some of the things being said about you. Reading this makes it clear that you werent taking sides but appealing for some lessening of the cruelty that this debate engenders. We have lost the ability to debate without rancour and that never helps anyone at all. Take care

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for these wise and kind thoughts, Jason. I largely agree with what you say, and I too am horrified to be so vilified on twitter and elsewhere–by fellow independence supporters–simply for being transgender. This abuse is easily the worst moral stain on the independence movement. In its own way, it’s as bad as racism or homophobia or anti-semitism. It needs to stop right now.
    One place where I do want to go a bit further than you is this. You say it would be strictly speaking a lie to call a trans woman a woman. Do you think it is strictly speaking a lie to call an adoptive parent a parent?

    For my own part, I have found–as a Christian–that the only way for me to tell the truth about myself is to live as a woman, and so far as I can to be a woman. Which is never as far as I’d like but it’s better than nothing.
    There is no *lie* in calling trans women women. And no delusion either. We know perfectly well that we weren’t born as biological women. But sometimes what defines you in life is not where you come from. It’s where you’re going.

    Pax in Christo
    Sophie Grace

    https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/07/20/trans-women-men-and-adoptive-parents-an-analogy/

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    1. Quid est veritas? My dad is not my biological father, and knowing this fact I have never once failed to know the truth that he is my dad. He is my real parent, the only real father I have had. And you are right. The truth of something goes beyond the facts, penetrates deeper, and means more. Mr Malky asked that I ‘define’ a woman as a XX chromosome adult human female, and in spite of this scientific precision I pointed out the reductionism of this definition. My use of untruth or lie applied to the absolute biological reduction, and you’re right to point this out. The truth is never limited by empirical necessity.

      But I feel ashamed talking about this. Never in my life have I been asked to explain my existence or my ‘lifestyle,’ and yet this ‘debate’ means that your being and privacy are paraded about. This annoys me.

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  7. Jason

    “Pronouns: It costs us nothing…”.

    That colon links 3 things that for many are not as they are for you. For you, it may cost you nothing and that may be your privilege, but for others that may not be the case. You may have just seen the primary arc of “Pronouns – to – love”. For others, the “cost us nothing” component appears like gas lighting by denying what they see and then saying if you see a cost, it is not so and to give way because you define that act as “love, dignity, and respect”. (Which by extension leaves not doing so…you know the next line)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am aware of the implications. Still, calling a trans woman ‘she’ does not alter the biological fact. It does not mean biological males should have access to female-only spaces. To deny it comes at a cost. It assumes that these people’s existences are a fantasy or a fraud, and that I just don’t believe to be true. This is a conundrum. We can at the very least approach it with compassion for all concerned.

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  8. Your naming of your beloved parishioner in the way she would have wanted gave a dignity which thé mistake of suicide tries to remove.
    I’m sure she knew,and that you eased her journey over the Styx by spiritually accompanying her as she delivered herself too early to her Maker.
    Thankyou on behalf of those of us who never knew her.

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  9. “a bitter and entrenched fight between trans rights activists and women’s rights activists”

    No. Trans rights activists often *are* women’s rights activists, and vice versa. The issue isn’t women’s rights activists, the issue is TERFs; Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. They consider trans women to not be women, therefore they want to deny trans women access to what have traditionally been women-only spaces. Bathrooms, etc.

    They somehow think that there will be CIS men pretending to be trans just to get access to women’s spaces, like there’s some forcefield stopping CIS men with bad intentions just going into women’s spaces in the first place.

    I personally couldn’t give a damn who’s in the bathroom stall next to me. Unisex bathrooms are a thing. Family changing rooms at swimming pools are a thing. We all share the same bathrooms in people’s houses.

    It’s all very reminiscent of not letting black people use the same facilities as white people in the past. The otherisation of trans people, treating them as if they’re less than, or dangerous, is going to be looked back on in the same way in a few decades.

    I don’t have a dog in the fight. I have no frame of reference to really understand what they’re going through. I’m as CIS as they come. I just hate seeing the way trans people are treated by a small but very vocal minority. I understand the fear, to a degree. It’s all quite new, relatively speaking.

    There are enough genuinely bad people out there that we should be careful of, without inventing another one. To deny trans people the courtesy of using their preferred pronouns, or to refuse them access to whichever bathroom they want, is cruel and dehumanising.

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    1. There is a great deal I don’t understand about this, but we can surely agree that we can hold certain opinions without dehumanising and abusing people who disagree. That was the point I was trying to make.

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  10. Beautifully written as always Jason. I keep it simple. Let people be WHO they are as long as it does NOT put others in danger. (well, except unionists)

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  11. My two cents worth. You are probably aware of the Barbie Kardashian case in Ireland. I’m sure the vast majority of MTF transgender people pose no threat to women, but there will always be some men who claim to identify as women for nefarious purposes, and many women have genuine and legitimate fears. Far too many women have suffered sexual assault and will be re-traumatized if they see a penis in the women’s shower room, however inoffensive the penis bearer may be. There is a lot of resentment and anger because many people feel unheard. Many transgender people feel unheard of course, but many women are also angered that their legitimate concerns are brushed off in knee jerk fashion as transphobia. I think as far as possible everyone should be listened to, their concerns addressed, and reasonable accommodation made for them. But when different concerns clash and cannot be resolved, priorities must be established. Physical safety should be a very high priority. Fairness should be a high priority – there is a lot of concern in the US right now about transgender women crowding out biological women in sports and putting them at much greater risk of injury in contact sports. Helping everyone to feel safe and accepted, and treating them with respect and dignity, should of course be the baseline.

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  12. Thank you for your humanity. The last line in your article says it all. That’s how everyone should behave. It is sad that people cannot have compassion for others. I often think the reason for this is they have at some time been treated badly in their life.

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