Man at His Best

A Teacher At A Catholic School Came Out As Transgender, And Found Acceptance

"The response I got was tremendously positive," he said.

BY JILL TUCKER | May 16, 2016 | Culture

Michael Macor / The Chronicle

Gabriel Bodenheimer could have lost his job when he recently came out as transgender to leaders of a San Francisco Catholic high school. Instead, in what some call a momentous step, the English teacher will remain at Mercy High, fully accepted as a man.

The announcement of support by an order of the Sisters of Mercy, which owns and operates the four-year college preparatory school for girls on 19th Avenue, offers a rare policy position on transgender rights from within an internationally respected Catholic order.

While there is no official Catholic policy or doctrine regarding transgender people, church leaders, including Pope Benedict, have addressed the issue, noting God created males and females and that anatomy defines identity.

"This is significant for us; we did not take this lightly," said Sister Laura Reicks, president of the 16-state region of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community. "We feel because of our values, the choice was this, but that didn't mean it was easy."

The decision, announced Wednesday, specifically reflects policy within the West Midwest Community, which sponsors or co-sponsors six high schools, including Mercy High in Burlingame and Cristo Rey High in Sacramento.

However, it is likely to ripple through a growing national debate on transgender rights, including access to gender-specific facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms.

The order's leaders told staff, students and parents that the sisters prayed for guidance, and conferred with San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, but ultimately came to the only decision that aligned with their values.

Supporting the dignity of each person—regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identification—was paramount, Reicks said.

"Take a Higher Road"

"We have not had any other teachers ask for any kind of coming out before," Reicks said. "This is just our way of continuing to live out what our founders of Sisters of Mercy had always said, that regardless of what type of prejudice or feeling in society, we have to take a higher road and look at the person and how we can be supportive of each person."

Sisters of Mercy is a canonical religious order that reports to the Vatican. The broader organisation sponsors dozens of schools across the U.S. and in four other countries.

Cordileone, who has drawn criticism for a rigidly conservative stance regarding gay rights, neither condemned nor fully endorsed the decision in San Francisco.

"Often in such situations a balance must be struck in a way that distinct values are upheld, such as mercy and truth, or institutional integrity and respect for personal decisions affecting one's life," he said in a statement. He emphasised that such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, "allowing for prudential judgment."

Reicks said the decision exemplified an overarching position within the order to hire teachers without considering gender identification, race, religion or sexual orientation.

"Their personal lives are completely separate from their qualifications as teachers," she said. "We are concerned about the education of young women and we do not consider personal criteria when we hire the best person for each position."

Even so, the school's employment contract does require teachers to be familiar with and support the philosophy and values of the school and to honour Catholic identity, regardless of personal faith.

Bodenheimer, who follows the Jewish faith, said he never sought to break ground in transgender rights.

"I love teaching at this school," he said, adding that after four years it was time to come out.

"It was very important to speak, and name myself, and not be silent," he said Thursday in a phone call between classes. "The response I got was tremendously positive."

Previously, Bodenheimer was known as Gadielle, though students called him Ms. Bodenheimer or just Bodenheimer.

But on Wednesday night, he received an email from a student—a simple, mundane note about rescheduling a meeting because of a doctor's appointment.

It started with, "Dear Mr. Bodenheimer."

Students Unfazed

"That was really a great moment," he said, noting that students, concerned about final exams, were largely unfazed by the announcement. "This is consistent with who I am. This is not some shocking information."

School leaders, however, told the community that counsellors would be available to help students and staff members process the acceptance of Bodenheimer as a male rather than female teacher. In addition, an informal meeting for parents was scheduled for Thursday night.

"This is still being processed," said Diane Lawrence, board chairwoman for Mercy High, adding there had been no complaints from within the community so far. "We work with the girls on being respectful, respecting the dignity of others. In my mind, this exemplifies what we're teaching."

From: SF Chronicle