Twenty-five years ago, the Roman Catholic Church offered a rare acknowledgment of error. It admitted that it was wrong to have condemned one of the great fathers of modern science, Galileo Galilei. In 1632, Galileo was summoned to Rome and forced to recant or else be burned at the stake for his endorsement of the Copernican theory of the solar system: that the earth isn’t situated at the center of the universe but rather moves around the sun — a theory viewed then as heresy by the Vatican. After much-anguished consideration, he reluctantly did so and was sentenced to live out his remaining years under house arrest. But Galileo — a devotee of truth above all else — didn’t entirely acquiesce; it’s rumored that as he rose from knees, the scientist quietly murmured, e pur, si muove — “and yet, it moves.”
This 17th Century dispute remains one of history’s great emblems of the longstanding conflict between faith and science, reason and dogma. Today, that conflict lives on in the debate over LGBTQ people.
On December 15, 2017, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published an open letter on their website entitled “Created Male and Female.” The letter, signed by 20 religious leaders representing a diverse array of conservative institutions, rejects the legitimacy of transgender identities, essentially proclaiming: Transgender people don’t exist.
The letter asserts that gender and sex “cannot be separated,” equating the existence of transgender people to a “false idea” that is harmful and “goes against reason.” Parents are discouraged from affirming their transgender children, and institutional authorities are called upon to maintain “policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology.”
Those who fall outside the confines of heterosexuality and a strict, biologically-based gender binary were once simply cast off as sinful and amoral. But as more and more people come out publicly as LGBTQ, this harsh disposal of people — real individuals who are also integral to families and communities that love them — sparks a cognitive dissonance that isn’t easily rectified. LGBTQ organizers have capitalized on this tension by mobilizing a “hearts and minds” offensive that can be credited with many of the civil rights gains made over the last decade.
The Religious Right, however, isn’t ready to accept defeat. Once rejectors of scientific fact and reason, conservative Catholic Bishops and fundamentalist religious leaders are now attempting to assert that their rejection of LGBTQ people is less about morality and more about science.
To fight back against progressive advancements, the Religious Right contends that feminists and LGBTQ people are attempting to impose a radical “gender ideology” on the world. They argue that gender as a concept is a new, invented rhetorical device that is antithetical to science and reason.1 Furthermore, it’s dangerous; the USCCB’s letter states, “Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt.”
LGBTQ people are painted as symptoms of the secularization of society — a process that the Christian Right views as an attack on their very existence. In the struggle for LGBTQ equality, Christian conservatives see themselves as the true victims. Failing to acknowledge the rampant violence, oppression, and discrimination experienced by transgender people every single day, the signatories of the USCCB letter argue that the “movement” to respect transgender people is “deeply troubling” and “compels people to either go against reason — that is, to agree with something that is not true — or face ridicule, marginalization, and other forms of retaliation.”
They aren’t judging people — they’re merely defending the “truth” and valiantly fighting to save society by preserving (and imposing) a Christian Right definition of what that means.
The fact of the matter is that LGBTQ people (many of whom are also Christian) do represent a threat to the Christian Right — not to their existence, but to their dominance over the discourse on truth. The “confusion and self-doubt” that the USCCB letter warns about is a reflection of the cognitive dissonance that has naturally emerged in the wake of brave individuals refusing to succumb to an antiquated mythology that LGBTQ people don’t exist.
In a statement responding to the USCCB’s letter, the National Religious Leadership Roundtable (NRLR) disputed its harmful and inaccurate contents point by point, echoing Galileo’s own “and yet.” Speaking specifically to USCCB’s proclamation that being transgender is a “false idea,” the NRLR countered, “And yet, millions of people of faith in the U.S. and throughout the world live a different reality that is true to them – they are transgender. They are young and old, some are thriving and some struggling, many are faith-filled and others have found only rejection in faith.”
Long before mathematical calculations proved it, and long before the Church reluctantly conceded, the earth’s place in the solar system has always been what it is. Thanks to scientists like Copernicus and Galileo, and thanks to the motivating power of confusion, doubt, curiosity, and courage, that immutable truth is no longer questioned. In the midst of debates and disputes over the legitimacy of queer and trans people, the scientific community (which is never immune to the culture that it exists within), is looked to for both validation and contradiction. But no amount of scientific scholarship and no amount of religious condemnation will ever alter the fact that queer and trans people have always and will always exist.
1 This framing also conveniently creates a common language for the Right’s assault on multiple (often disparate) issues, including LGBTQ people, “nontraditional” family creation, contraception, abortion, and women’s rights more broadly.