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Denver Archdiocese to Catholic schools: Don’t enroll transgender students
November 7, 2022
The Archdiocese of Denver provides local Catholic schools with explicit written guidance on the handling of LGBTQ issues, including telling administrators they should not enroll or re-enroll transgender or gender non-conforming students, and that gay parents should be treated differently than heterosexual couples.
This 17-page document, titled “Guidance for Issues Concerning the Human Person and Sexual Identity,” was obtained by The Denver Post and confirmed by the archdiocese. In advising administrators on how to deal with gay and transgender students, parents and staff, it warns that “the spread of gender ideology presents a danger to the faith of Christians.”
Among other guidance, the document said schools should not allow students to use pronouns “at odds with the student’s biological sex.” School officials are advised not to promote students’ acceptance and approval of LGBTQ identities. Teachers who decide to transition are “not suited to teach in a Catholic school or to carry out the school’s mission in any capacity.”
At the same time, the document implores schools to show compassion for gay and transgender students, saying ministry toward LGBTQ students should be executed with “charity and prudence” and affirm God’s unconditional love while still being faithful to church teachings and “the truth.”
“Christian anthropology is unalterably opposed to many aspects of the gender ideology currently affecting the culture nationally and internationally,” the document notes. The guidance is intended to show “how schools can help Catholics withstand the cultural current that threatens to unmoor us from our foundations.”
The Denver Archdiocese’s guidance contradicts the American Academy of Pediatrics, which states LGBTQ youth should not be considered abnormal and are not inherently engaged in “risk behaviors.” Rather, LGBTQ youth who encounter homophobia often experience psychological distress, the academy said, which can lead to health disparities such as depression, suicidality, substance abuse and other mental health issues.
The Archdiocese of Denver confirmed the document was shared with Catholic school administrators “several years ago to clarify terminology and Catholic Church teaching regarding questions around gender.” Two sources from different Denver-area Catholic schools told The Post that the document was again distributed to administrators earlier this year.
When asked if schools could expect consequences from the Archdiocese of Denver for not following the guidance in the document, Cynthia O’Neill, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said: “If situations arise, they will be addressed individually depending on the unique circumstances.”
Officials with the Archdiocese of Denver declined an interview request for this story.
The document, which has not been previously reported, illustrates the growing friction between the archdiocese, led by conservative Archbishop Samuel Aquila, and some of the church’s more socially liberal parishioners in Colorado — and even among Denver-area Catholic schools, some of which have been more accepting of LGBTQ students.
The Denver Post spoke to local Catholics who said they can no longer sit quietly while leaders of their faith discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
“I am Catholic, and I am gay”
Johnny Hultzapple attended Denver Catholic schools for most of his academic life, but it wasn’t until he transferred to a public school his sophomore year that his mother felt like her son was surrounded by the spirit of Jesus Christ.
Molly Hultzapple watched her son, who came out as gay at 14, walk South High School’s hallways filled with immigrant students, vibrant languages, and varied religions and gender identities, all laughing and learning together. Johnny volunteered in a South class for students new to the United States, welcoming them to their school and country.
His joy reminded Molly Hultzapple of her cherished Catholic school days in Denver, a legacy that two of her sons continued. But Johnny Hultzapple, now 21, could no longer stomach the Catholic school environment knowing the Denver Archdiocese viewed the teen as a problem to fix.
“I am Catholic, and I am gay,” Johnny Hultzapple wrote in a 2019 Facebook post admonishing the archdiocese for sponsoring an event he believed promoted conversion therapy. “God made me gay, and I know that God wants me to use my voice to spread love and acceptance to not only the LGBTQ community, but to ALL people.”
Johnny Hultzapple declined to be interviewed, but didn’t object to his experience being shared in this story.
Molly Hultzapple remembers her son’s exact words the day he came out to her.
“I’m gay, and I’m no longer Catholic,” she recalled Johnny saying.
The end of his sentence devastated her. Molly Hultzapple’s faith had served her so well, and she didn’t want her son to believe the God he had grown up worshipping was abandoning him because of who he loved.
“You’re banging your head against the wall because even if one priest is kind, that’s not the message coming from our archdiocese,” Molly Hultzapple said.
No enrollment of trans students
The document provided by the Archdiocese of Denver to its school administrators said a Catholic school cannot affirm a student’s identity as transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, gender-fluid, gender-queer “or any other term that rejects the reality of the student’s given male or female sexual identity.”
“Accordingly, enrollment or re-enrollment of such a student at a Catholic school would not be appropriate,” the document reads. “School administrators should communicate this decision to the student and his or her parents in the context of concern for the student’s well-being.”
The document states that a student confused or struggling with their sexual identity could enroll or be re-enrolled at a Denver Catholic school under certain circumstances, such as “the expectation that the parents and child will work towards an integrated sexual identity (aligned with bodily reality)” and in agreement that the student does not come out on social media.
The guidance even addresses situations such as how to deal with a tomboy (a girl who plays kickball with boys is OK, the guidance states, but a boy who wears makeup is not acceptable), as well as when to contact a student’s parents if a student appears to be struggling with their sexual or gender identity (ASAP, the document says).
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded any therapeutic intervention with the goal of changing a youth’s gender expression or identity is inappropriate.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of Social Workers — representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals — all have taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and is not something that needs to or can be “cured.”
“Reparative approaches have been proven to be not only unsuccessful but also deleterious and are considered outside the mainstream of traditional medical practice,” the AAP said.
Ben Mann, new non-binary associate pastor at Englewood’s Mayflower Congregational Church, works with people suffering from religious trauma. Most of Mann’s clients are former Catholics.
Mann, who is studying to be a therapist, partners with mental health professionals to provide healing from religious trauma, which Mann experienced growing up in the Evangelical church and later coming out as queer.
“I love helping my Catholic friends and brothers and sisters realize they are still beloved children of God,” Mann said.
LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers, not because of their sexual identity but because of how they are treated in society, according to the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project estimates more than 1.8 million LGBTQ people between 13 to 24 seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
The family of Alana Chen, a Colorado Catholic who said she was shamed and told she would go to hell by clergy because she was attracted to women, blame conversion therapy for Chen’s 2019 suicide. The Archdiocese of Denver denied that the church subjected Chen to conversion therapy.
The Trevor Project’s research finds LGBTQ youth report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces.
“It’s really unfortunate because the religious trauma causes this real rift inside them,” Mann said. “They know they have this faith yearning, they want something deeper, but the source of that is so scary to them that they don’t know what to do.”
“You’re hurting people”
Devout Catholic Tricia Williams said her faith has gifted her endless beauties. A connection to her grandparents, uncles, parents. A relationship with something bigger than herself. The knowledge that she is beloved by God.
Williams, 49, was one of the select representatives who gathered in March for the Denver Archdiocese Synod, diocesan-wide meetings of parishioners to discuss the present and future of the Catholic church.
In a small-group discussion, Williams told her peers that her 20-year-old daughter, Gaia Williams, is queer but no less Catholic. The Archdiocese of Denver needed to welcome the gay community, Tricia Williams said, but, instead, Aquila takes “a hard-lined approach” on the issue.
“The folks around the table told me how hard it is when our kids are struggling,” Tricia Williams said. “But my daughter is not struggling. She’s gay, and she is beloved by God.”
Later that evening, Tricia Williams said Aquila addressed his parishioners, reminding them that acting on same-sex attraction went against the teachings of the Catholic Church.
But the Centennial mother said it is Aquila’s vocal opposition to the marginalized LGBTQ community that stands in opposition to a Catholicism rooted in love.
Gaia Williams wasn’t afraid about coming out to her parents. The fear, she said, crept in when she thought about the Denver Archdiocese’s stance on LGBTQ issues.
“I know that church communities can be beautiful and religion, itself, isn’t necessarily the problem,” Gaia Williams said. “It’s the utter disappointment with the archdiocese. When I was a kid, that made coming out that much more scary.”
Gaia Williams feared becoming ostracized by the faith community in which she had always found joy and comfort.
“You’re hurting people,” Tricia Williams said of the archdiocese. “You’re separating them from God. You’re causing them to be scared.”
Gay parents not equivalent to heterosexual family
To honor the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi — remembered for his kindness toward the poor, willingness to minister to lepers and his love for animals — many Catholic churches hold a blessing of the animals where parishioners can bring their pets to receive holy blessings.
“They won’t bless my daughter’s marriage, but they’ll bless my pet,” Tricia Williams said. “It’s not seeing her as a complete person.”
When Tricia Williams receives Holy Communion, she absorbs a bit of the divine, she said.
“Then it’s my job to be Jesus’s hands and feet in this world,” Tricia Williams said. “And I am using my divine power to speak up from the inside as someone who both cannot wait to be a grandmother to my daughter’s children one day and as a practicing Catholic.”
The Archdiocese of Denver, in its 17-page document, makes clear its opposition to gay marriage, telling Catholic school administration that enrolling a student with gay parents would lead to “intractable conflicts” and to seek guidance from the diocese if posed with this situation.
“A Catholic school cannot treat a same-sex couple as a family equivalent to the natural family without compromising its mission and Catholic identity and causing confusion about the nature of marriage for all students enrolled,” the document reads.
“If teachers and administrators were to treat a same-sex couple as if their relationship — and the situation of two mommies or two daddies — were no different from the mom and dad couples of other families, then it would not be surprising for other students to assume that same-sex couples are ‘just the same’ as other couples and having two mommies or two daddies is no different from having a mother and a father.”
If a child with gay parents is enrolled, the document said the school should list one parent as the mother or father on school paperwork and list the other parent as an emergency contact. The gay couple should agree to avoid public displays of affection at school functions and understand they may “face some limitations on their involvement in the school.”
The guidance notes, however, that “if a child being raised by a same-sex couple is enrolled, the school must make every effort to ensure that the child is not bullied or teased because of his or her family situation.”
“They are not going to win”
Sally Odenheimer — who sent her children through Denver Catholic schools and financially supported the church over the years — left the Catholic Church because of the Archdiocese of Denver’s position on LGBTQ issues.
Now, Odenheimer is back, and she will not return quietly.
“I felt if I was staying in the church, that meant I was supporting their ideology, but in order for things to change, I have to be involved,” Odenheimer said. “People are leaving in droves. I came back because they are not going to win. There are more of us who do not agree with them, and we will not let them do this.”
Odenheimer wrote to Aquila and other local Catholic leaders who share the archdiocese’s views on the LGBTQ community. Odenheimer told them Jesus Christ stood up for the marginalized, and she plans to do the same.
Gaia Williams remains devoted to her faith. Sometimes someone will spy her cross tattoo and ask if she’s Christian with a disgusted curl of their lip, she said.
“I tell them, ‘I am, and let me tell you about it so I can prove to you that not all of us suck,’” Gaia Williams said. “It’s like I have to prove that. I am Catholic, and I’m going to keep being Catholic the way I want to be Catholic.”
Molly Hultzapple said she doesn’t think any of her children will stay in the church, breaking generations of tradition. She said she has zero doubt that at some point, the Catholic Church will apologize for its treatment of the LGBTQ community.
Whether they will do so in her lifetime, she doesn’t know.
“I never believed the Catholic Church’s stance on gay people, but here’s what I didn’t do right that I know now,” Molly Hultzapple said. “I should have been more vocal about it. It shouldn’t take for your own kid telling you he’s gay for you to speak up.
“I know I’m not going to change the church,” she added, “but I want to plant a seed. I want them to know beyond the shadow of a doubt, there’s an LGBTQ kid sitting there listening to what you’re saying. Think about what you’re doing to them. Maybe one of them will just hesitate the next time before they start spewing hate.”