Transgender Model

The anti-trans Catholic paper has nothing to do with human rights

The UN may have supported trans rights, but Catholic opposition is still working from the cheat sheet of predetermined do

On 17 June, the UN human rights council passed a resolution in favour of the rights of lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and trans people; the coalition that opposed this included Russia, Pakistan and Nigeria. And, of course, the Catholic church.

In the aftermath of that historic victory, a couple of US Catholic NGOs distributed a 2009 paper produced by three Catholic bioethicists – Richard Fitzgibbons, Philip Sutton and Dale O’Leary – from the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Their paper The Psychopathology of “Sex Reassignment” Surgery argues that trans people are mentally ill, and by implication need therapy not rights; it asserts that there is no evidence that trans identity, or indeed gay identity, is innate.

The motives behind the distribution may be to persuade the UN not to bother itself further with the rights of gay or trans people – surprisingly, one might think, given the astonishingly high worldwide murder statistics for the trans community in particular, and the number of states in which homosexuality carries the death penalty. The three doctors responsible for the paper are all committed anti-abortionists, but they are less voluble about the right to life of people who have actually been born.

For some Catholics – by no means all – human rights are best defined as the right to do what the church says is God’s will. There is a tottery structure of circular logic to this: the church knows what the true purpose of human life and sexuality is, and it is to do what the church says. O’Leary, for example, has written papers arguing that feminism is a heretical movement – a liberation theology she says in the snippy tones of someone for whom that is a “bad thing”. (Her and her colleagues’ dislike of feminism does not, of course, preclude their quoting those feminists – such as the ex-nun Janice Raymond – who happen to dislike and defame trans people as much as they do.)

One might expect that a paper claiming to be peer reviewed would cite and engage with some studies that took a different view, but, oddly, this does not. Human rights should not depend on such things, but it is surprising that a paper saying there is no evidence that trans is in-born does not even mention various recent studies of brain structure, which would seem to indicate that, in some cases at least, it is. But then, both Sutton and Fitzgibbons appear to have a problem with evidence that contradicts them; both advocate, and Sutton practices, reparative therapy for gay men in the face of statements by, for example, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, which considers all such therapies to be unethical quackery.

Instead they cite a ragbag of anti-trans and anti-gay colleagues such as Ray Blanchard and George Socarides, much of whose work has been subjected to withering intellectual criticism, and not only from those it belittles and pathologises.

Many bioethicists are, of course, rationalists and utilitarians, whose work is based in a spirit of free intellectual enquiry; the three authors of this paper, though, are working from the cheat sheet of predetermined doctrine, and every argument that they come up with aims at a foregone conclusion.

One might expect that a paper being presented as a contribution to a discussion of human rights might avoid defamatory language, but instead this one talks of deception and of innate repulsiveness. If trans people pass we are immoral, predatory deceivers; if we don’t, we are pathetic failures. To a quite surprising extent, these three academic medical people reproduce a sanitised version of the trans panic defence often brought up in court by murderers. There are times, when reading their paper, when you find yourselves deeply sceptical that any of the three has actually ever encountered anyone trans outside a consulting room, if at all; there is no sense in their paper of the wonderful diversity and surprising level of talent I meet every day in the trans community.

But then, unlike Jesus, the hand-washing hypocrites who claim to follow him don’t have to hang out with actual people. The UN declaration is a thin piece of paper, but in a world in which trans and gay people are regularly beaten to death, raped with broom handles and left dismembered in garbage heaps, it is the only protection some of us have. And the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute clearly wants to take it back – which is not a very good definition either of bioethics or of Christian loving kindness.

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