Jenner and Residential Schools; ‘Call Me Caitlyn’ and Call it Cultural Genocide

2015-Snyder-Dan

By Dan Snyder

“Have you seen the photos of Caitlyn Jenner?” posed one of my colleagues to the rest of us gathered around the lunch table the other day. Jenner’s transition had garnered international attention, and at the Ateneo Human Rights Center in Manila, my co-workers and I wondered if this would translate into more dialogue for LGBT rights here in the Philippines as well. The country is devoutly Catholic – over 90%. Even for myself, I remember worrying if revealing my sexual orientation would be a problem here since I’d be working at a Catholic university for the summer. (It’s not an issue.) Incredibly, one of my first projects will be to create a “SOGIE and the Law”[1] module that would be taught here at the school and replicated in workshops. I think my background has helped prepare me to work on LGBT rights in a Christian environment such as this.

While browsing Facebook the other day, the two major topics in my news feed were Caitlyn Jenner’s debut and the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report on residential schools. The following post by a friend was quite jarring to me:

There is something very evil about this whole ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ thing. The bible speaks of the unnatural and otherworldly phenomenon we will encounter towards the end, and I’m gonna go ahead and lump this in with that category of events.

I received clarification from the poster that the status was not ironic and that they were indeed serious. Though the comment really irked me, it also got me thinking about how around the world, religion is still a major influencer of people’s worldviews. Admittedly, I may forget this while studying at the “secular bastion” that is a university in Montreal, but it comes to the foreground in a place where communal prayer before lunch is second nature.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence of the jumble that is the News Feed, but the juxtaposition of the Jenner and TRC stories really stuck out to me.

In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just issued their summary report after 6 years of interviews. (I implore you to devote time to read it.) It is heartrending; thousands of children died during a residential school process that amounted to cultural genocide. I found this line from one of the commissioners particularly haunting:

Children were buried at schools that often had graveyards but no playgrounds.

In the past century, where were the Christians saying: “these residential schools are a sign of the end times, let’s work to stop the evil going on there?” The TRC report is clear that some church denominations were in fact complicit in perpetrating this violence.[2] If some people want to use a Christian worldview to guide their lives (and the lives of others), what does the Bible say about how God will judge people? In the New Testament, it says that the King will ask if you treated the oppressed and marginalized as if they were Jesus himself.[3]

Now how about Caitlyn Jenner. Trans individuals are some of the least understood and most marginalized people in our societies. Many spend most of their lives uncomfortable with the gender that society has attributed to them which may not line up with their biological sex. For most people, gender identity is not something that they ever think about because they are comfortable with the status quo paradigm. But for trans people, the status quo can be so oppressive that in the US, the rate of attempted suicide is almost 10 times the national average.[4] What puts them at such a high risk? Contributing factors include: family rejection, bullying, violence, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In order to begin to comprehend someone else’s lived experience, it requires empathy and an attempt at putting yourself in another’s shoes. No one wants to be socially ostracized or be rejected by their family. For many trans people, transitioning is dangerous because it makes one a target for increased discrimination. They aren’t doing this for fun, for attention, or because they are ill. From what I understand, they seek to more honestly be themselves and are risking a lot to do so — when the alternative is staying in a false reality that is unbearable. (I don’t want to speak instead of trans* people, please see the links below for more accurate educational resources.)

When faced with topics we don’t like, or people we don’t understand; our response must be based in compassion. Everyone deserves respect and we need to value the inherent dignity of each and every person.

“Evil” is a term I rarely employ, but I would apply it to the cultural genocide that occurred through the residential schools program and Canada’s federal assimilationist policies.

“Beautiful” is the word that I would use to describe Caitlyn’s debut. Hopefully those of us in Canada and around the world can come to admire her courage in transitioning so publicly as she journeys toward more holistic authenticity. Whether it’s the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, or learning to embrace trans people, some issues require more compassion, awareness, and understanding no matter where you are in the world.

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More trans* resources can be found here:

http://www.pflagcanada.ca/en/links-e.php?audience=transgender


[1] Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression

[2] Some of the denominations involved released a statement responding to the TRC report, acknowledging their role in what was done and supporting the recommendations, “…we know that our apologies are not enough.” http://www.anglican.ca/news/response-of-the-churches-to-the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/3004539/

[3] Matthew 25: 31-46

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