Today’s post for the Feast of the Holy Family is by Deacon Ray Dever, the father of an adult transgender woman, who is a retired Catholic deacon with almost 50 years of diverse parish and pastoral ministry experience. Deacon Ray has been invited to address LGBTQ issues by various national publications and Catholic organizations, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he frequently provides pastoral counseling to Catholic families with transgender children from across the US. He holds three graduate degrees, including a master’s degree in theology.
In 2014 on the Feast of the Holy Family, which the church celebrates every year on the Sunday after Christmas, I offered some thoughts for Bondings 2.0 readers about Catholic families with LGBTQ children, including my own. At that time, my family was still in the early stages of adjusting to and accepting the reality of our oldest daughter coming out as transgender.
I had come across a Bondings 2.0 post from a young professional woman, a lawyer if I recall correctly, who came from a conservative Catholic family and who was in a same-sex relationship. She poignantly recounted that what she wanted most was to be able to go home for Christmas with her beloved partner, which her parents would not allow for fear of violating church teachings. Her story touched me deeply, both as a parent and as a deacon, and I commented online about her situation from the perspective of a very Catholic family that had come to a completely different conclusion than her parents. That led to an invitation from New Ways Ministry to tell our story and to offer that initial blog post.
Much has changed for families with LGBTQ children over the past decade, for better or for worse. Beginning with the now famous words “Who am I to judge?” from Pope Francis in 2013 and continuing with his pastoral outreach to the LGBTQ community, there have been growing signs of hope that the church can move, albeit slowly, towards greater understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and their supportive families.
Just recently, two positive documents were released from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith: an October 2023 letter allowing the baptism of transgender individuals and a December 2023 declaration allowing blessings of same sex unions. Although both documents are full of limitations and loopholes, they have generally been met with euphoria by the LGBTQ Catholic community. And in the recently completed meetings in Rome of the universal synod of the church, LGBTQ issues were very much on the table for discussion, although it remains to be seen how the final year of the synod will play out with respect to those issues.
On the other hand, if one were to ask Catholic families with LGBTQ children how they viewed the changes of the past decade, I think you would hear significantly less optimistic perspectives. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who most of us came to know during the Covid pandemic but who was one of the leaders of the response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, recently warned that anti-LGBTQ sentiment in this country is the worst it has been in 40 years. The number of anti-LGBTQ legislative actions introduced at the state government level has skyrocketed over the past five years, with 2023 setting a record in that that regard. In many states, the lives of families with transgender children are in turmoil, as necessary medical care for their children has been banned and families have been investigated for child abuse for simply doing their best to care for their transgender children.
And there is a significant intersection between what is happening in government and what is happening in the church in the US, as many of these legislative actions have been publicly supported by local churches. Over the past few years, more than 40 dioceses have issued generally negative policies about gender identity and sexual orientation, many of which effectively ban transgender individuals from attending Catholic schools or receiving the sacraments. (One notable exception is the Diocese of Davenport, whose 2023 pastoral guidelines on gender and sexual orientation take a better informed, more compassionate approach than the other diocesan policies.)
If I am forced to weigh in on whether the changes over the past decade have been for the better or the worse, I would first reflect on how all this has affected my own family. On the positive side, our journey over the past decade has seen our transgender daughter thrive and has brought our family closer together. It has also helped open our minds and hearts not just to the struggles of LGBTQ people, but to the struggles of all those on the margins of society and the church.
On the negative side, all three of our adult children have left the church, mostly because of the lack of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. Our middle daughter, who was married in October bringing together two large Catholic families, did so outside the church mostly because she didn’t want the LGBTQ people closest to her and her husband, including her transgender sister, to be made to feel unwelcome on her wedding day.
And in the ultimate irony, our transgender daughter no longer comes home for Christmas, not because she is not loved and welcome in our Florida home where we have celebrated our family Christmases for the past 30 years, but because she does not feel safe traveling to a state where she could be arrested for using a public restroom. Instead, we now pack up our family Christmas celebration and travel to her.
On this Holy Family Sunday as we look upon those sparkling manger scenes in our homes and churches, we need to recall that this family from 2,000 years ago was also marginalized in many ways, even to the point of having to flee for their lives with a newborn baby. For those Catholic families with LGBTQ children who feel ostracized and who are struggling with everything happening around them, please know that your family has the same God-given value and dignity as any other family in the church. Look to the Holy Family, to the limitless love of God for all embodied in the Incarnation. Look to the mercy and forgiveness offered to all by the coming of the Christ child. And as the new commandment calls us to do, love one another as Christ has loved us, and most of all, continue to love your children.
—Deacon Ray Dever, December 31, 2023