Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, ignited a firestorm recently when it announced that “transgender team members and guests” are welcome to use the fitting rooms and bathrooms of their chosen “gender identity” rather than their biological sex. “Inclusivity is a core belief at Target,” the company said, and “everyone deserves to feel like they belong.”
Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for one of the country’s largest retailers to “celebrate” inclusivity by welcoming biological men into women’s fitting rooms and bathrooms so they could “feel like they belong.”
The public reaction to Target’s policy was swift — and polarized. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, spoke out strongly in support of Target, calling the statement a welcome “response to the wave of anti-LGBT legislation sweeping our country.” But many Americans were appalled that Target would let biological males into women’s bathrooms and fitting rooms. Their fear: that the policy opens the door for any male (including a sexual predator) to claim a female identity and intrude upon women-only spaces. In just five days, more than 670,000 people signed the American Family Association’s (AFA) #BoycottTarget pledge, promising to shop elsewhere until Target changes its “trans-inclusive” policy. (AFA suggests Target provide transgender people with single-occupancy, unisex bathrooms instead.)
But while bathroom politics grab headlines, they are indicators of a much deeper conflict. Target alluded to the larger context in its statement, referencing “proposed laws” (over conscience rights as well as bathroom access) that “reignited a national conversation around inclusivity.”
In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis — a champion of inclusivity — points to the source of the problem: gender ideology. He warns that gender ideology “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family… Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time” (No. 56).
Pope Francis sees gender ideology as a grave threat — to the family, to the very idea of what it means to be human, and thus to the Church’s mission of evangelization. His concerns echo those of Pope Benedict XVI, who said in a 2012 address to the Roman Curia:
“It is now becoming clear that the very notion of being — of what being human really means — is being called into question. … When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man, too, is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being.”
Understanding of gender
Put differently, gender ideology is a set of beliefs about the human person — beliefs irreconcilably opposed to the Christian understanding of the person. Let’s highlight just a few key differences:
First, as Christians, we know the person is a unity of body and soul. In contrast, gender ideology ruptures that unity, fragmenting the person: it posits gender as socially constructed, with no inherent connection between the person’s body (male or female), internal sense of self (gender identity) or outward expression of masculinity or femininity.
Second, Genesis 1:27-28 teaches that, “male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply.” Sexual difference matters to us — it’s part of the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation, has meaning and value, and lies at the heart of marriage. Only love expressed through the sexual difference of husband and wife is intrinsically and inseparably ordered to creating new life. Gender ideology erases sexual difference (facilitating marriage redefinition); without sexual difference, human sexuality is disconnected from procreation, and sex becomes an individualized pursuit of passing pleasure.
Third, as beings created by God out of love, we recognize that our dignity is rooted in our “creation in the image and likeness of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1700). But gender ideology suggests that people, in effect, create themselves; each person defines “who they are,” choosing a gender identity that feels authentic (regardless of anatomy or conformity to the natural law).
Examples in society
In many respects, gender ideology is a tsunami that’s already hit the shore, and young people are churning, even drowning, in confusion. (Yes, Catholics, too.) Both young and old absorb daily lessons in gender ideology from entertainers, celebrities, sports stars, the media and from the context of daily life. Consider a few examples:
Schools reject the “gender binary” (male/female) and teach students to accept the spectrum of gender identities; “marriage equality” and gender ideology are integrated across the curriculum while the language of morality is censored; anti-bullying programs promote homosexuality and gender nonconformity as normal and healthy.
Therapists, physicians and educators normalize “choose-your-own” sexual identity and behavior through sex education and counseling. Religious and moral perspectives are silenced as judgmental or intolerant.
Banks, corporations and sports associations (e.g., Wells Fargo, Target and the NFL) use pressure tactics and advertising to normalize “diverse” (LGBT) family forms and influence government policy to conform to gender ideology.
Employer (and university) mandated diversity trainings “mainstream” the vocabulary of gender ideology, disparage “hetero-normativity” and normalize various “sexualities,” orientations and identities.
Teen media: Seventeen magazine’s website (average reader: 16-year-old girl) includes glowing profiles (“awesome,” “brave,” “adorable”) of transgender celebrities, teens and children at least once a week, on top of the usual LGBT-themed articles.
Women’s magazines: Glamour promotes sexual fluidity among young single women (“Are you straight, gay, or just ... you?”), fostering a “new way to have sex” and promoting “invent their own” sexual identity.
Not surprisingly, the aggressive “mainstreaming” of gender ideology is having its desired effect: according to a 2015 Fusion survey, the majority of millennials believe gender is “fluid.”
Families and pastors are experiencing relentless pressure in all this, particularly as proponents of gender ideology demand not only the personal freedom to “decide” their own gender but also the right to insist that others affirm their decisions. Parents worry about the confusion being sown in young children’s hearts and minds, creating uncertainty about their basic identities as boys or girls. As gender ideology permeates the culture, reshaping language, habits and expectations, pastors and youth ministers may begin to wonder if the language and meaning of Catholic anthropology is still intelligible to the average Catholic.
It’s a difficult time.
Certainly, the bathroom battles at Target can be solved with common sense — ensuring every store has private bathrooms (perhaps relabel the family bathroom as a bathroom for guests who prefer privacy).
But the deeper problem — the rapid advance of gender ideology — will require strategic thinking within the Church on multiple fronts (law, health care and counseling, education, catechesis and ministry).
We have truth to guide us and abundant grace to fortify us. But as we search for ways to counter the culture and to protect our rights in the public square, we have to hold even more surely to the virtue of hope, so essential for the mission of the family. Pope Francis in a 2013 homily reminds us that families, united in prayer and imbued with the joy of the Gospel, have a unique role in evangelizing society.
“Christian families are missionary families ... bringing to everything the salt and leaven of faith ... the family which experiences the joy of faith communicates it naturally. That family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is the leaven of society as a whole.”
Theresa Farnan, PhD, is an adjunct professor at Franciscan University in Ohio. Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.