We must probe gender theory with reason

Salvatore Babones

13 June 2019 | The Australian

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

The Catholic Church has emerged as this week’s unlikely champion of open dialogue and intellectual freedom.

As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transsexual activists seek to close down society’s debate over the nature of sexuality and gender, the Vatican seems determined to pry it open.

On Monday, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education published a report called Male and Female He Created Them to lay out the church’s views on the proper role of modern gender theory in Catholic education. The title is a quote from Genesis (the book, not the band), chapter 5. The report, unsurprisingly, comes out in favour of traditional sex roles and gender identities.

Of course, those views have not been welcomed by LGBT activists or their friends in the media. Their attacks have been vicious, accusing the Vatican of encouraging hatred and bigotry.

Inevitably, gender activists have played their trump card: the suggestion that Vatican calls for dialogue may lead transsexual teens to commit suicide.

It is remarkable that so much powerful invective can be heaped on a document that advocates “listening carefully to the needs of the other” to reach “an understanding of the true diversity of conditions”.

The report acknowledges that “through the centuries forms of unjust discrimination have … had an influence within the church”, and emphasises that children should be taught “to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination” based on their sexuality.

Some of the more muted criticism of the Vatican report has foc­used on its provocative timing: during Gay Pride Month (a month otherwise known as June) and in the 50th anniversary year of New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots (a year otherwise known as 2019). The Stonewall riots, for those with shorter memories, were not riots against lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. They were riots by lesbians, gays, and transsexuals, who took to the streets to demand equal rights (and won).

Given that context, June 2019 seems an entirely appropriate occasion for the Vatican’s education office to issue guidance for schools, priests, and parishioners on how the church thinks they should handle gender issues in today’s gender-fluid society.

The report comes as liberal democracies such as Australia are moving beyond a healthy respect for difference towards the normalisation of radical medical interventions to make children’s bodies conform to their desired gender roles.

The diagnosis and treatment of a medical condition called gender dysphoria is on the rise in Australia, particularly in Victoria, where the number of children referred to the Royal Children’s Hospital’s “gender service” has risen from one or two a year in the early 2000s to about 300 last year. Comprehensive statistics do not seem to be publicly available, but the RCH estimates that about 45,000 children in Australia identify as transgender. In principle, they could all be referred for the kind of services offer­ed by RCH: puberty-blocking drugs, sex hormones and even gender-reassigning plastic surgery.

Many people believe performing these kinds of medical procedures on children is monstrous. Yet gender activists have sought to close down all debate over these procedures, labelling their opponents “transphobic” — or worse.

The quashing of debate in this manner is dangerous, doubly so where children are concerned. The Vatican knows this only too well. The scandal over child sexual abuse in institutional settings has affected all denominations, but the Catholic Church has had to reckon with the possibility that its culture of confidentiality might have encouraged the cover-up of abuse. The medical profession also has a culture of confidentiality, but if we can’t talk about transgenderism now, we’ll be forced to talk about it later. Whether the chemical and surgical treatment of children for gender dysphoria turns out to be a passing medical fad or the most important medical advance of our time, it is inevitable that at least a few of the thousands of children being treated will grow up to regret it: maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.

Certainly some, and (who knows?) maybe many or most of these future adults will feel they were betrayed by the doctors and counsellors who allowed them as children to choose their own genders. When these objectors reach their late 20s to find themselves socially isolated, sterile and trapped in a body they no longer want, there will be hell to pay.

Tomorrow’s angry survivors of gender therapies will demand an investigation into why their treatments were railroaded into medical best-practice guidelines. They will want to know why critics were sidelined or silenced. And they will spark a debate a decade from now that we should be having today. When it comes to the protection of children, considered criticism should be encouraged, not condemned. It shouldn’t take the suffering of children to remind society of the importance of free and open debate.

It may (or may not) be true that most of the children undergoing gender therapies will grow up to be happy that they did. Only time will tell. But when critics are silenced, mistakes are made. The Catholic Church was on the wrong side of that reality on sexual abuse. It is on the right side in calling for reasoned debate on childhood gender dysphoria.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and an associate professor at the University of Sydney.

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