The Catholic church, which includes 1.2 billion people worldwide and about half a million in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has largely not accepted LGBTQ+ people. 

Some reformers within the church, including Pope Francis, have in recent years tried to strike a friendlier tone. According to national polls, Catholics have slowly become more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, and individual Catholic parishes have welcomed LGBTQ+ members. But the church’s official doctrine, as spelled out in a “universal law” document called the Catechism, still posits that homosexuality is “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law,” and that queer people are “objectively disordered.”

About this series

This is part two of an investigative series on potential policies at local Catholic schools regarding gender identity and expression. You can read part one here.

In part three, we will closely examine the leaders of the East Bay Catholic church who are considering new rules around gender and sexual orientation in local schools.

This internal debate about whether or not Catholicism should be more accepting of gender fluidity and sexual diversity has been especially intense within Catholic schools. In the past five years, more than 40 dioceses across the country have set policies governing how staff and students at Catholic schools can discuss gender identity, according to David Palmieri, a theology teacher at a Catholic school in Massachusetts who has tracked the issue. Many schools have looked to Vatican committees tasked with figuring out how Catholic educators should reconcile their faith with the ways increasing numbers of Catholic students, teachers, and parents feel about gender and sexuality.

For instance, multiple U.S. Catholic dioceses have taken the position that a person’s gender is determined solely by the sex assigned to them at birth. As one diocese in Wisconsin instructed, “all individuals will be recognized,” “will recognize others,” and “conduct themselves in accord with” their birth sex. In practice, that would likely mean no person could use a pronoun other than one that corresponds to their assigned gender at birth. Some rules prevent students and student clubs from affirming their trans peers’ gender identities. For example, the guidance published by the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, only allows people to dress “according to his or her biological sex.” And school rules handed down by this Diocese state that “Participation in any sex-segregated activity [clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities] should be based on biological sex, rather than self-perceived gender.”

East Bay Catholic schools are seen by many as having more progressive cultures than Catholic schools in other parts of the country. Schools like Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, for example, have had openly LGBTQ+ staff for decades. Pride flags have been flown in classrooms at least as far back as the mid-1990s. One LGBTQ+ club has existed for at least 10 years at St. Joe’s, according to teachers at the school. At O’Dowd there has been an LGBTQ+ club for more than 25 years. Gay rights pioneers have been celebrated during spirit weeks at both schools. And in some Bay Area Catholic schools, like St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda and Bishop O’Dowd, LGBTQ+ faculty and students have long been viewed, and even welcomed, as part of the human tapestry, just as non-Catholic students like Jews and atheists are. 

We spoke to nearly a dozen St. Joseph’s students for this story. They told us they’re worried that guidance that East Bay Catholic leaders have been considering would amount to a setback for their school communities, abandoning some of the progress that’s been made in the Bay Area around acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

Some of the students who spoke to us identify as members of LGBTQ+ communities, while some do not. All the students we spoke to requested anonymity because they fear they could be bullied by people online or at the school. They all had the approval of their parents to speak to us.

“We never felt directly excluded”

Students in a school courtyard, some standing behind tables. One table has LGBTQ+ pride flags hanging from it and there's a large pride flag hanging from the overhang of a walkway.
St. Joseph’s students from the school’s LGBTQ+ club flew a pride flag in the school’s quad this year to celebrate diversity week.

Many St. Joseph’s students told us that until recently, queer and trans students felt largely at ease on the Alameda school’s campus. 

“We never felt directly excluded,” one current St. Joseph’s student who identifies as a member of the school’s LGBTQ+ community told us. They said that there were never any worries about displaying a pride flag on campus before this year.

“It was not a big deal,” another St. Joe’s student who has friends in the school’s LGBTQ+ community said in an interview over Zoom.

“Using they or them pronouns is really common,” a younger student told us. “Even though teachers don’t ask all the time, they sometimes will use the right pronouns. We have some gender-neutral bathrooms [too].” 

Another student, who spoke to us outside the school alongside his mother, told us that the school always appeared to be a learning environment first and foremost, and not a place for cultural battles to be fought. Restrictive gender guidance, he said, “has nothing to do with education.”

According to the students we spoke with, the tone at St. Joseph’s started to around the time Mario Rizzo took over as the head priest at the campus church in 2020. Earlier this year, when rumors began to swirl about new guidance on gender and sex that the Oakland Diocese was considering, the climate became much more tense.

The Oaklandside contacted St. Joseph’s principal and communications officer and requested an interview with Rizzo and other school leaders but got no response. We visited St. Joseph’s in early July to request an interview with Rizzo and others. A school staff member said Rizzo was unavailable at the time and we received no follow-up.

St. Joseph’s students said the way the diocese has communicated possible changes and fielded questions has been sloppy, without regard for how policy changes will affect their LGBTQ+ peers.

One of the students we spoke to—who does not identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community on campus—said the diocese’s efforts to roll out new rules are creating more problems at St. Joseph’s than they’re solving. “A lot of my friends are nonbinary, and they’re just people. It’s not anything different to me,” they said. 

“These are just normal people trying to live their lives. And there’s nothing wrong with them,” another student who does not identify as LGBTQ+ said.

A renewed effort to assert traditional beliefs about gender and sex in schools

The Cathedral of Christ of the Light, where the Oakland Diocese is based, as seen from the sidewalk in Oakland, Calif. on Jun 22, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

In recent years, many Christian leaders across the United States, including in the Catholic church, have intensified their efforts to impose traditional beliefs about gender and sex—views that deny trans people’s identities and seek to restrict their participation in broader society.

In the last three years, Catholic school leaders in Des Moines, Iowa; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Wheaton, Illinois; and Lafayette, Louisiana have imposed new rules barring students from using gender-neutral pronouns or wearing clothing that doesn’t traditionally align with the gender they were assigned at birth. These moves are happening in the context of a broader national campaign led by other religious and secular groups to limit the freedoms of queer and trans children and their families.

In the Bay Area, which has a strong history of supporting LGBTQ+ rights, the Catholic church has recently—and repeatedly—taken stances against accepting queer and trans people as part of Catholic communities and parishes. 

The most recent development occurred in November 2022, when the Oakland Diocese met with leaders of East Bay Catholic schools. Head priests and principals of local Catholic elementary and high schools were part of these discussions, as was Andrew Currier, the Oakland Diocese’s superintendent of schools, according to records shared with The Oaklandside. Also present was Oakland Bishop Michael Barber. At the meetings, attendees discussed a 2019 document on church doctrine published by the Vatican called “Male and Female He Created Them.” 

Authored by two high-ranking Italian leaders of the Catholic church, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, who led the Vatican’s educational institutions, and Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani, the current archivist and librarian of the Church, this doctrine states that a person’s assigned sex at birth determines their gender identity permanently and that a person can only lead a fulfilling life by abiding by this label. People who transition aim to “annihilate” the concept of nature, and nonbinary identity is “fictitious,” the authors wrote.

Another Vatican document East Bay Catholic church leaders shared at the recent listening sessions with school communities was titled “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” It claims that science and technology have influenced “perceptions about the body” that are unnatural, raising “anthropological and ethical questions.” American Catholic leaders have interpreted this to mean that medical procedures and drugs used to provide gender-affirming care, should be prohibited. 

During these listening sessions, the Oakland Diocese let it be known that it is drafting its own new rules regarding gender and sexuality at Catholic schools. Some faculty and students at St. Joseph’s have been especially concerned about this because the campus is what is known as “diocesan school”—a school that must obey the leadership of the Oakland Diocese, the highest authority in the Catholic church overseeing Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 

There’s one other high school like this in the East Bay: Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd. We’ve attempted to speak to members of the O’Dowd community, including current teachers and administrators, but they did not reply to our calls and emails. 

Other East Bay Catholic high schools aren’t obliged to implement rules on handling LGBTQ+ issues that emerge from diocesan leadership. That’s because these schools are run by international religious orders, such as the Jesuits, and do not report to the Oakland Diocese. However, the bishops of these churches and schools could also decide to pursue more regressive rules around gender identity and sexuality. 

But the East Bay’s 40-plus Catholic elementary schools—including Berkeley’s School of the Madeleine and Oakland’s St. Leo the Great—could be affected by possible gender guidance. 

Health experts say repressive policies around gender and sex can lead to long-term harms

Doors leading into to St. Joseph Basilica, a catholic church in Alameda, Calif. on Jul 6, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: fdrosten

Research has shown that discriminatory laws, and rules within institutions like schools, harm LGBTQ+ people in numerous ways. 

The national movement to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people has coincided with a rise in queer and trans youth who say their mental health is declining. The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on preventing LGBTQ+ suicides, published a survey last year that found that 45% of transgender and nonbinary youth “seriously considered” attempting suicide. This is partly due to the harassment and exclusion they face. The same survey found that youth who attended schools that are LGBTQ+ affirming are much less likely to attempt suicide.

When there is explicit transphobia and fewer social connections within their communities, trans people are more likely to have low self-esteem. For school-age children, this can lead to lower grades and less interest in school.

A separate 2022 study by the Trevor Project found that only half of trans and nonbinary kids feel their schools are affirming of their identities. Canadian researchers who spoke to trans and nonbinary students published a study last October that found that “openness, validation, and support of gender diversity at school” are important for young people’s health and happiness. 

Marianne Duddy-Burke, the CEO of Dignity USA, an advocacy organization for Catholics who are LGBTQ+, told The Oaklandside that current Church doctrine on gender and sexuality not only is a barrier to patients seeking gender-affirming care but could push trans people away from seeking other types of care at Catholic facilities.

Duddy-Burke said this might get worse later this year when Catholic bishops in the U.S. vote on expanding the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, a document that governs services at Catholic hospitals. According to the directives, any kind of gender-affirming care for trans and nonbinary people should be prohibited at all Catholic-affiliated hospitals. More than one in seven U.S. patients is cared for in a Catholic hospital, according to the Catholic Health Association.

Students are concerned the school is heading in the wrong direction

Students at St. Joseph’s Notre Dame High School say teachers and staff have largely respected their choices around gender but they fear things could change. Credit Amit Aziz

The St. Joseph’s students The Oaklandside spoke to said they’re still feeling stressed about the potential changes the diocese might impose on their school. 

In mid-April, the school’s leaders, including Rizzo, held an information session for the students about the potential new guidance. At the meeting, several students read excerpts from the Vatican document “Male and Female He Created Them,” that diocese leaders have been considering. The students asked Rizzo to reconcile parts of the document that appeared to them to be close-minded when compared to the broader messages of understanding they saw as being part of the Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

“It didn’t seem like the Diocese of Oakland officials were listening to us,” one student said. “It seemed like they were trying to persuade us of their position, and that was annoying and sad.”

Other students worry that new rules at St. Joe’s will change the school’s current atmosphere of acceptance, regardless of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. If school leaders start marginalizing trans or nonbinary students, they said, other groups could also be targeted down the road. Some also fear that if parents start pulling kids from the school and alumni stop funding programs, the school’s highly-rated academic, arts, and sports programs could suffer. 

“This is a school that I’ve come to love. It has something palpable that is unique and different from other schools. It has a strong school spirit and a strong school community,” a student told us.

“I think the mindset should be that if you don’t fully understand nonbinary people and what that lived experience is, you can still respect it,” one student said. They added that if someone asks to be referred to using a particular pronoun because it makes them feel more comfortable, everyone should respect that request. “But Father [Rizzo] thinks this isn’t right, and that is very upsetting,” said the student. 

Most of all, students felt the conversation around gender guidance was a departure from their experience at the beginning of this school term. Last September, the school distributed a survey that asked students whether they felt comfortable using their preferred gender pronouns in school.  

“It felt very like a good sign for the school, as I filled it out [the survey] with mostly all yeses,” one student said. “Yes, I do feel like my sexuality and gender identity and expression are supported at the school. I haven’t experienced racism or sexism or homophobia that much, especially not from the teachers. I felt very happy with that. And now that this is happening, I just feel like we’re making strides in the wrong direction.”

About this series

This is part two of an investigative series on potential policies at local Catholic schools regarding gender identity and expression. You can read part one here.

In part three, we will closely examine the leaders of the East Bay Catholic church who are considering new rules around gender and sexual orientation in local schools.

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