Challenging the Traditional Gender Binary is not a Disorder: The Insensitivity of the Diocese of Marquette’s Comparison of Gender Dysphoria to Anorexia

The Diocese of Marquette recently received attention for issuing a guidance stating that “a person who publicly identifies as a different gender than his or her biological sex or has attempted ‘gender transitioning’ may not be baptized, confirmed, or received into full communion in the church, unless the person has repented.”

To defend this, the Diocese compares transgender persons to persons suffering from anorexia.

“In this disorder there is an incongruence between how the persons perceive themselves and their bodily reality,” the guidance says. “Just as we would refer a person with anorexia to an expert to help him or her, let us also refer persons with gender dysphoria to a qualified counselor to help them while we show them the depth of our love and friendship.

This shows not only how insensitive and close-minded the diocese is toward LBGTQIA+ persons, but also how out of touch they are with the reality of those suffering with mental health issues (many of whom are also gay or transgender).

According to ANAD, eating disorders, of which anorexia is the most deadly, kill one person every 52 minutes. Although extreme weight loss and/or body dysmorphia sometimes accompany an eating disorder, less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically underweight. In other words, anorexia is not simply a thin person thinking they are overweight (which already is a problematic term given that the BMI is a racist, sexist standard that was invented to measure populations of white European men, not health). Going to sleep at night and not knowing if you or your loved one is going to wake up due to the physical effects of an eating disorder is an experience that I would not wish on anyone. I cannot believe that living with an eating disorder is living how God intended one to be, although I believe God’s love is never far from a person in the depths of one. 

Being gay or transgender is neither disordered nor unhealthy. The disorder, rather, lies in the hearts of those who remain closed to any challenge to a strict gender binary.  God desires our human flourishing, and unlike the case of an eating disorder, I cannot believe that a person being able to perform the gender identity that fits with what they feel in their heart is against God’s will or intention. What kind of God would want otherwise? The only reason being gay or transgender is life-threatening is our reactions. According to the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. As a college professor, I have read and talked to numerous students who have lost their faith in God due to the cruelty they have experienced from Catholic parents, clergy, teachers, and friends. I always tell them that with this reaction, they show a knowledge of God deeper than most. In the words of Edward Schillebeeckx, “it is better not to believe in God than a God than enslaves human beings.” Whatever “God” would treat them as such cannot be God at all.

When I was fifteen, I witnessed a gay teenager get kicked out of an eating disorder treatment program, a program he did not feel comfortable in since it was clearly and explicitly designed for cisgender girls. I can still vividly remember his mother’s cries. Perhaps, being only fifteen, people might let me of the hook for not saying or doing more. However, thirty-two year- old recovered me with a PhD in theology has no excuse and refuses to stay silent any longer.

I am a volunteer support group leader for people struggling with eating disorders, many of whom are transgender or non-binary. Transgender college students report experiencing disordered eating at four times the rate of their cisgender classmates. Eating disorders are linked to the experience of being forced to hide one’s true identity from others, to not be able to express themselves freely (something non-binary people would not have to do if we could all be more kind). Eating disorders are hell as it is. Imagine on top of that having to worry about where you can use the bathroom, or whether your relationship will be recognized by others, or whether you will be forced to leave your church, your gym, or even your family simply for being who you are. I hear stories like these all the time.

If the Catholic Church truly cared about people with anorexia, this comparison would never have been made. And, of course, the Catholic Church cannot claim to care about those with eating disorders and at the same time, deny sacraments to non-binary people. Eating disorders are issues of gender, sexuality, race, ability, and socioeconomic status. Discrepancies still exist among who gets diagnoses and treatment and who does not. You cannot be a true mental health advocate if you do not acknowledge this and attempt to dismantle gender and racial biases in health care.

Sure, many of you may tell me that this is just one diocese statement, that its likely not going to be put into practice in many parishes, and you are right. However, the words have been said and damage has been done. The pain of being rejected by one’s “home parish” is not always remedied by just going to a different, more progressive one, which, while it might be kinder, still cannot marry a gay couple. Also, not everyone has access to multiple parishes in their neighborhood.

The denial of sacraments to gay and transgender Catholics should bring pain to all of us. Leaving others out does not bring joy. Rather, it makes a mockery of the sacraments, which are not contests but encounters with God that are not meant to be reserved for the “in crowd.”

And yes, it also time for the Church to do something about weight stigma too. Funny the diocese mentions getting help for someone with anorexia, yet I cannot tell you how many people I know who have heard disparaging weight jokes from the pulpit during Lent.

It is sad how religious people often want to claim a certain “type” to be holy. Yet, God is beyond human, and therefore God does not have a size, a race, a gender, a sexual orientation, etc. So, really, we are all called to see the image of God in so many different people and places, and relationships. Maybe that’s challenging and uncomfortable sometimes, but Christianity was never supposed to be easy.

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