In early March, Father Mario Rizzo, the head priest at the church on the campus of St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, called all of the school’s faculty members to a meeting in the cafeteria. The teachers at the Alameda campus were two weeks away from signing their employment contracts for the next school year. Parents would soon decide whether to re-enroll their children for another year. The faculty gathered in anticipation, wondering if the Catholic school’s leaders would shed light on some rumors that had been swirling for months.

About this series

This is part one of an investigative reporting series on potential policies at local Catholic schools regarding gender identity and expression. 

In part two, we will share the perspectives and experiences of transgender, nonbinary, and other students at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School who felt they belonged there—until now.

Rizzo welcomed everyone and explained that the Oakland Diocese, the East Bay’s Catholic leadership, was in the process of developing new “guidance” — rules that teachers and other staff members at St. Joe’s, as the school is commonly known, would be expected to follow — when discussing some things having to do with transgender and queer students. 

Rizzo did not specify exactly what changes could be in store, only that changes were being considered. He noted that local church and school leaders had been reviewing and discussing a number of documents published by the Catholic Church in recent years on gender identity and gender-affirming health care for trans people, which the church opposes despite widespread medical consensus on its efficacy. Rizzo did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Father Mario Rizzo. Credit: The Catholic Community of Pleasanton/YouTube

Earlier this month, Oakland Catholic diocese superintendent Andrew Currier — essentially the administrative head of all Catholic schools in the local diocese — confirmed that the Diocese does not have any formal guidance available for schools as of yet. He told us he and other local leaders are looking at recent guidance from the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, titled “Doctrinal Note on the Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body.”

Oakland bishop Michael Barber, the most powerful Catholic leader in the East Bay, is a member of the national Catholic committee that authored that document, which was published in March. “It’s an important document on ascertaining where the Catholic Church is on gender transition specifically,” Currier said. 

The document says the “human person, body and soul, man or woman, has a fundamental order and finality whose integrity must be respected. Because of this order and finality, neither patients nor physicians nor researchers nor any other persons have unlimited rights over the body; they must respect the order and finality inscribed in the embodied person.”

This document is one of several that local Catholic leaders with the Oakland Diocese are reviewing in the process of figuring out its guidance on these issues. In the past four years, more than 40 other dioceses across the country have decided theirs. Many have taken up bits and pieces of teachings from leaders across the Catholic world, including Pope Francis and various committees tasked by the Vatican with figuring out how Catholic educators should reconcile Catholicism with the ways increasing numbers of Catholic students, teachers, and parents feel about gender identity and gender expression.

Guidances can vary from place to place and diocese to diocese, spelling out rules for different kinds of people within church institutions, from church employees to regular parishioners to anyone enrolled at or employed by schools under diocesean authority.

Some recent guidances taken up by other dioceses in the U.S. state that “all individuals will be recognized by their biological sex and will recognize others by their biological sex,” stating that no person can use a pronoun other than those assigned to them at birth. Students, faculty, and staff at schools under the leadership of some of these dioceses are expected to “conduct themselves in accord with their biological sex.” Some rules prevent students and student clubs from advocating for queer and trans identities. 

The March meeting at St. Joe’s was the first time faculty and administrators had heard directly from school leadership about possible new rules coming down from the Oakland Diocese regarding gender identity, which could also be taken up by the eight other high schools and more than 40 elementary schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties under the Oakland Diocese’s leadership.

Merrill Collins was one of the St. Joe’s teachers present at that faculty meeting. Collins has been the accompanist for the choir there for two years and also worked for more than six years at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School as the music director of the drama department. She was alarmed by what she heard and feared that new rules from the Oakland Diocese could hurt her students.

As a pianist at UC Berkeley and the American Conservatory Theatre, Collins has worked with young LGBTQ+ musicians for 40 years and helped them express themselves through music. Credit: Amir Aziz

“The school is very diverse. We’ve got multiple languages and multiple ethnicities. It’s really wonderful to see the blends of all these people getting along and loving each other and having a wonderful, safe place. Going down [this] path is going to take that away from students,” Collins said.  

Collins and other faculty members present at the meeting told The Oaklandside that some teachers stood up and objected, saying the policies, if followed, would harm students’ mental health, shatter their confidence, and could result in students contemplating or committing suicide. 

“It became heated,” Collins told The Oaklandside. “One of the school’s psychologists took the mic and told [Rizzo] we live in a nonbinary world and that [his sermon] was scientifically not true.” Rizzo repeatedly responded to faculty members’ questions and comments by stressing that nothing had been decided and that local church leaders were in the process of figuring it all out.

Some faculty members continued to attempt to pin Rizzo down, painting a picture of what they saw as a dangerous slippery slope. They asked if the Oakland Diocese was considering taking down pride flags, forcing school counselors to “out” kids, or banning the school’s LGBTQ+ club. Rizzo didn’t answer definitively, but some teachers were left with the impression that all of these things could be on the table.

‘We’re leaving St. Joseph’s’: Some parents reconsider the Catholic school over potential new rules on gender identity and expression

St. Joseph High School as seen from the sidewalk in Alameda, Calif., on Jul 6, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Our three-month investigation found that teachers, students, and parents at St. Joseph’s sought input and clarity from the school and the Oakland Diocese on the coming guidance but received little to no response. 

That silence, combined with the specter of a new, potentially restrictive policy hanging over their heads, has led to disconnection, depression, and fear among a segment of the St. Joseph’s community, some of whom live in Oakland.

While several St. Joe’s parents, teachers, and students we spoke with say they have created close-knit communities there, some over decades, polarization over issues related to gender expression—and fears that more LGBTQ+ students could be targeted down the road—is causing some of them to lose faith.

A St. Joe’s faculty member who left the school last semester told The Oaklandside they decided to leave largely because they were unhappy with what the Diocese was considering regarding gender identity issues and the way its leaders had shared this information. They requested anonymity in this story due to concerns about job security in a new position. 

“People are leaving partly because of Father Rizzo’s naivety and clerical power. That makes for a dangerous combination,” they said. 

They recall Rizzo saying during a different staff meeting that he didn’t mind losing teachers over concerns regarding gender expression because he could hire new teachers who agreed with the church’s views.

The new guidance on gender identity, once finalized, could threaten the financial future of St. Joe’s and other local Catholic schools, as well as the Oakland Diocese, which is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings. More than a dozen parents of students at Catholic schools in the East Bay, including parents of students who do not identify as members of LGBTQ+ communities, told The Oaklandside that they would take their kids out of these schools, which can charge tens of thousands a year in full tuition, if policies aimed at transgender students were implemented.

“I’d be upset about this to the point that I’d consider not re-enrolling my [child] for next year,” one parent at Salesian High School told us. Salesian is a private Catholic school in nearby Richmond and is also part of the same diocese as St. Joseph’s. The parent asked to remain anonymous to prevent their kid from receiving unwanted attention at school. 

Parents of two unrelated St. Joe’s students told us that, due to what they have heard about potential new guidance on gender issues, they have already removed their kids for the upcoming school year and placed them in other schools in the East Bay.

“The reason we’re leaving St. Joseph’s is because of the miscommunications and real challenges to understanding the reason behind addressing the issue about transgender youth.  The leadership of St. Joseph’s really leaned heavily on the religious theory behind gender and was very much anti-gender study or curiosity. We felt really unsafe,” said Jeannine Cohen, a parent of a former St. Joe’s student. Cohen said their child was eager to leave the school after this controversy began.

In early July, The Oaklandside had a brief interview with the new principal at St. Joe’s, Father Steve Kim, outside the school. Kim, who was previously a pastor at St. Leo the Great church and school in San Jose, told The Oaklandside in an interview that any guidance enforced at his school would originate with the Oakland Diocese. “Talk to the diocese,” he told us, throwing his hands up.

The polarization over this issue at St. Joe’s also suggests that a version of the anti-LGBTQ+ culture wars being waged in statehouses as far away as Florida could come to Oakland through its private schools. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that prohibits classroom instruction and discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary school grades. While similar state laws are unlikely in California, private school officials may have the authority to implement similar policies.

A concert to celebrate ‘Every Living Soul’

By the time of the March meeting between Rizzo and faculty members at St. Joe’s, Merrill Collins, a staff member in the school’s music department and a renowned composer of music curricula, had been working for months on a new orchestration of one of her pieces, called “Every Man, Woman, and Child.”

In the middle of preparation for the spring concert, St. Joe’s students reached out to Collins. They asked her whether she could change the name of the composition to something that did not refer only to binary genders. The piece has been published and performed consistently under the original title since 1986. But Merrill wanted to do something to support her students, who she knew were shaken by recent discussions on gender issues at St. Joe’s. She retitled the piece “Every Living Soul.” 

“I told the girl who asked me about this, ‘You know, this is gonna cost me because I have to change all the titles on all the scores that I’ve published. But I wanted you to know that I’m willing to do that for you because it means a lot.’” 

Collins met with her score collaborator, changed parts of the melody, and replaced all references to the old title by the time of the concert

YouTube video

By the time of the April concert, Collins had decided to leave St. Joseph’s over what she had heard about the potential new guidance. She had met with Rizzo face to face in March and told him that, as a person who advocates for human rights, which include the right to freedom of expression, Collins could not stay in a place where these things were being challenged. Collins said Rizzo was elusive. She said she asked him whether the guidance would take away trans and nonbinary kids’ rights. He said he didn’t know. 

“If something is coming down from the archdiocese, and it’s going to hurt people, I don’t want to have any part of it. I’m an overly empathetic lady,” she told The Oaklandside.

About this series

This is part one of an investigative reporting series on potential policies at local Catholic schools regarding gender identity and expression. 

In part two, we will share the perspectives and experiences of transgender, nonbinary, and other students at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School who felt they belonged there—until now.

Jose Fermoso reports on traffic and road safety for our sister site The Oaklandside.