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Who Is My Neighbor?

Some Catholics fight for trans rights even when the church won’t

As a cradle Catholic, I am tired of seeing the religion I was raised in used to justify curbing people's basic human rights. I know there are many Catholics like me out there who don't find any form of bigotry acceptable. We are Catholics who believe that Christ's teachings on love and social justice are central to how we turn faith into action.

Unfortunately, there are also many with clout, money, and the support of the institution of the church who think otherwise. On August 23, several states and religious groups, including the Franciscan Alliance Catholic hospital network, filed a lawsuit against the federal government to allow refusal of service to transgender patients. Specifically, the plaintiffs in the case want a religious exemption from a regulation in the Affordable Care Act that says such refusals are sex-based discrimination.

Once again, we're seeing a faith-based attack on people's rights predicated on cherry-picked biblical passages.

As appalling as that may be, we often forget that this narrow perspective isn't shared by all members of any given faith. I had to be reminded of this myself, even though I personally identify as both Catholic and an ally to trans and gender-nonconforming people.

The reminder came as I was interviewing Ezra Young, a staff attorney for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), about this story. My intent going in was to acquire and share an informed legal perspective on the lawsuit and what the ACA protections really mean for doctors and patients. But Young surprised me at the end of our interview when he spoke on a more personal note.

"There's a tendency to see a strict divide between people who have religious beliefs, whatever those might be, and people who are trans," Young said. "I just wanted to, you know, state the obvious here. There are many trans people, myself included, who are deeply religious. I'm an observant, practicing Roman Catholic. It's not appropriate to say it's Catholics versus trans people or any other particular group of believers. There are many people within those communities who don't hold the [same] views that the people, the plaintiffs, in this lawsuit hold and don't believe that their religious beliefs or convictions are at all challenged or opposed to the rights of trans people."

Young's words reminded me that many Catholics, myself included, see our faith as the guiding light that compels us to do whatever we can for our fellow human beings. In fact, there are Catholics who, not content to stop at mere tolerance, organize around their faith in support of transgender rights.

Take Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, a faith-based organization of Catholics who advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people. Duddy-Burke told MTV News that she sees two important aspects of Catholic belief regarding social justice teachings: "that everyone is a child of God and has the divine spirit within them," and "we are called to work to bring down any kind of structure that is oppressive or discriminatory."

In that respect, she asserts that efforts to expand religious liberties by exempting people from liability for discrimination "reflect a lack of willingness to understand who the people in their communities are." In turn, she says that transgender people have helped her to "find a broader sense of who God is. It certainly can take some time to overcome long-held beliefs, but it's really worth it, in terms of your own spiritual health and a way of living in a community with a wide diversity of people. So I think there's a real failure of imagination and a failure of faith exhibited by folks who insist on adhering to what is really a human construct at this point."

It's not trans people's job to help some Christians better understand God, but stories like Duddy-Burke's remind us that through compassion for others, we can attain a deeper understanding of ourselves. That one's Catholic faith can actually bolster one's dedication to trans (and all people's) rights. Duddy-Burke finds spiritual guidance in the question of "who is my neighbor?" that is woven throughout Christian identity, in the story of the Good Samaritan and in the passage in Galatians that states: "nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." These teachings from her faith, combined with testimony from transgender Catholics, support her convictions that it is imperative for Christians to embrace transgender people.

There will always be faith-based organizations and religious individuals who wield their faith as a weapon against people they are unwilling to understand, people who don't conform to their ideals. They want to believe that the very existence of queer people somehow warrants a religious crusade. But as we contend with the one side, we cannot forget the other: that there are those who, because of their unshakable faith, believe that they cannot abide any form of prejudice or the suffering it causes. They know that when we stand shoulder to shoulder with those who must fight for their survival, we find ourselves standing closer to the Divine.