ROCHESTER, Minn. — A policy proposal floated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Winona-Rochester last month would prohibit students within the Catholic school system from using preferred pronouns, forbid them from attending school dances or proms as a couple with anyone but a member of the opposite sex, and prohibit any expression of a student's gender "that causes disruption or confusion regarding the Church's teaching on human sexuality."
The document, "Diocese of Winona-Rochester Catholic School Policy on Gender Identity for Students," was linked to a recent posting of the 2021-22 Cotter Student Handbook. It's not clear when the seven-page document was posted, but it was eventually taken down in response to the backlash it generated, particularly within the LGBTQ+ community.
At the end of August, parents of Cotter students were informed that the policy's implementation was being delayed.
"It generated a fair amount of response and feedback," said Sister Judith Schaefer, president of Cotter Schools, in a letter posted Sept. 2 on the Cotter website. "We have removed the document from our website, because we have been informed by the Diocese that the policy's implementation is being delayed until additional training has been held and all the school boards within the Diocese of Winona-Rochester have had the opportunity to review and deliberate on the proposed policy."
"We regret the concern and/or confusion that resulted from the posting of the policy," the letter concluded.
The delay in the policy's implementation wasn't announced until after the proposal had generated an uproar within the LGBTQ+ community and intense debate across the area Catholic community. A petition signed by more than 1,800 people called the proposal not only "completely discriminatory" toward the LGBTQ+ community, but a violation of a core Catholic teaching of acceptance.
It is not clear whether the policy was meant to apply just to Cotter or to all Catholic high schools in the Southern Minnesota diocese. On Sept. 2, the diocese issued a statement that appeared to conflict with the Cotter statement that implementation had been delayed.
The statement said the policy was in the "process of implementation, which includes consultations with school board members, staff and parents."
"After the completion of this process, the Diocese will speak more directly on the contents of the policy," said Peter Martin, a spokesperson for the diocese.
Mary Wright, a 2020 Lourdes High School alum, said she was saddened by the proposal. It was clear to her that the diocese didn't want "kids like me to be able to express themselves and feel true to themselves in their school."
"Even though I'm out living my life, not in high school, I instantly felt terrible for my friends who still go to school there," she said. "I just felt so sad and like, almost abandoned by the community that raised me."
Others questioned how some sections of the proposal, like the prohibition on same-sex couples attending prom, would be enforced. Wright noted with concern one section prescribing that students "shall conduct themselves in accord with their biological sex at all times."
"What does that even mean?" she said. "Are female students not going to take science classes, because at one time, that's what was appropriate for being a woman?"
Alumni say they knew of Lourdes classmates who identified as LGBTQ+, but most shied away from any public admission that put them in conflict with the schools' religious instruction. But there were signs, they said, that their numbers were big enough to form a kind of cautious community within the school.
"I knew other people in high school who identified as LGBTQ, but we weren't going to wrap ourselves in pride flags and run down the hall," Wright said.
Oliver Nation, a Lourdes alumni who signed the petition against the policy, said he was "disheartened and shaken" by the language in the draft, because the language was "so clearly discriminatory — and hateful, honestly."
Nation, who is a transgender man, said what bothered him was how the document misstates what LGBTQ+ people believe. The draft says LGBTQ people deny that biological sex is real.
"That's not the issue at all," he said. "Trans people know that biological sex is real. They're not denying that. That's a huge part of their identity. It's the fact that gender and gender expression don't match up. That's what the trans identity revolves around."