Betty Greene Salwak

Iowa Catholic Church Fires Woman Over Transgender Counseling

Filed By Betty Greene Salwak | January 21, 2010 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Catholic church, iowa, priest, Susan McIntyre, trans news of 2010, transgender, transgender counseling, transsexual

A recent article in the Des Moines Register reports that in September of last year a housekeeper at a Catholic student center at Drake University was fired by the parish bishop. Susan McIntyre.pngSusan McIntyre, a transgender woman, is a certified social worker and counselor who felt pulled to "work with the sickest of the sick and poorest of the poor." A housekeeper at the Newman Center for ten years, she also counseled transgender persons. She was given permission a few years ago to use the center's offices on Saturdays to meet with and lead a transgender support group. Last fall, a priest new to the parish found a letter on a copier. The letter, written on the center's letterhead, authorized hormone therapy for a transgender person about to undergo a sex change. The letter was written by McIntyre. In a brief meeting with the bishop and his attorney, McIntyre was fired.

The reason given for McIntyre's dismissal was for using church letterhead stationery in her counseling work, "indicating that [she was] employed by and operating on behalf of the Newman Center as a counselor or social worker." Debate and dissension has swirled around this event as parishioners and residents discuss the church's stance.

The basic story is this: the bishop feels that McIntyre's use of the letterhead opened the church to lawsuits that might stem from dissatisfied clients. Since the church asserts that transgenderism is a psychological problem that should be fought with counseling and not with surgery, the bishop felt McIntyre appeared to be misrepresenting the church by using its letterhead and facilities.

The arguments about this affair run from legal to doctrinal. A parishioner states that if the bishop was truly basing his argument on connection to the church, he could have accomplished his goal by simply asking McIntyre to counsel her clients offsite; her job as a housekeeper had nothing to do with the case at hand. Joel McNeil, the priest who found the letter, states that "It's about 2,000 years of consistent teaching...we are not free to reinvent Christianity."

Here we have the question facing all Christian churches today: do we try to jam the modern world into a Bible-shaped box, changing the world to fit; or do we use the Bible as a structure upon which to build a new understanding of the world? Those who claim to maintain fidelity to the Bible forget that, as they crammed the world into that box (which itself has changed, but that's another post), they had to chop off those bits that didn't fit over the years: slavery, equal rights for women and people of color, and so much more as our standards changed with the culture. Not free to reinvent Christianity? We've been doing it for thousands of years. There's your tradition.

A 2007 study done by research firm The Barna Group found that the vast majority of young people (age 16-29) surveyed perceive Christianity as anti-gay. Interestingly, a 2008 Harris Poll for GLAAD states that 57% of mainline Christians (and 51% of Catholics) support enactment of nondiscrimination laws for gay and transgender people. There appears to be a dichotomy as to who constitutes "the church:" is it the people or is it the hierarchy? Is Christianity pastoral practice or is it doctrinalism?

Hat tip to AndrewW for the lead and link.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Angela Brightfeather | January 21, 2010 5:32 PM

"There appears to be a dichotomy as to who constitutes "the church:" is it the people or is it the hierarchy? Is Christianity pastoral practice or is it doctrinalism?"

The Catholic Church has always been about the hierarchy and they have made no bones about that at all, especially when that heirarchy is challenged in any way. It always comes down to the point of, what does the priest say, then it goes to what does the pastor say and then on to what does the bishop say, the archibishop say, the cardinal say and then the Pope say. Where in that line of decision making do you find the word "people"?

My heart goes out to Susan and the members of her support group. But she should have used other facilities, knowing full well that the Holy Sea would one day wash down upon them all if provoked in any way.

Also, please keep in mind that there are literaly hundreds of these support group meetings going on all over the country every weekend and some week nights in the USA and other countries. None of them should be connected to an unfriendly church or one that has "policies" about GLBT people other than embracing them fully. I have been to literaly hundreds of support group meetings in my life and any of them that affiliate their agenda with a church, even the most liberal of churches, take the chance of one or two parishioners bringing up this kind of controversy. Any Trans leader who leads their group into such a position where the group depends on a church for it's services, needs to think twice about it for the sake of those who need the support so badly.

I am sorry to say this, but this woman was in the wrong when she used Church letterhead for the letter. She was not an agent or employee of the Church and to use the letterhead represented her counselling operation as being such.

I am sympathetic, but using the letterhead left her in the wrong

Lynn Miller | January 22, 2010 3:23 AM

Maura, I agree with you that if Ms. McIntyre used the church's letterhead she would have been very much in the wrong. But I am not sure the stationery belonged to the church or student center.

I hope I am not parsing words too finely, but I let me quote from the Des Moines Register article about the controversy:

...the incoming priest at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Student Center at Drake University noticed a piece of paper on a copy machine in the parish office.

On it was a counselor's authorization of hormone therapy for a transgendered person about to undergo a sex change. On a letterhead that included the center's name and address.

The letterhead included the name of the Catholic student center and its address. But it could have also included her name. The article never says that the stationery belonged to the church or student center. It may well have been one she had printed.

Of course, I could be wrong. I had assumed the stationery was church property until I read the comments on the article, which challenged my assumption and made me re-read the article.

Christ on a cracker... this quote from your link:

"McIntyre converted to Catholicism in the 1990s"

Who in the WORLD converts to Catholicism any more?!?!
With all us recovering Catoholics take it as a freaking sign!!!

One day at a time. One day at a time.
It's always there. We will always be recovering Catoholics... but the addiction can not rule our lives.

I actually know the answer to your question. Laura Ingraham converted to Catholicism, and so did Robert Novack. That ought to tell you something.

Don't forget Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, and Tony Snow.

I think McIntyre was old enough when she converted to know she was joining an unfriendly religion, but, in her defense, she joined before the Vatican released its infamous secret document regarding its policy on transsexualism. Before this secret document was released, it could reasonably be said that the Catholic Church didn't have an official position regarding transsexuals.

The church's position on gay people and women were already quite well known by then, however. It wouldn't take much imagination to extrapolate from that how they would feel about trans people.

I'm going to guess that five Hail Mary's and two Stations of the Cross didn't cover all the particulars of that "confession".

This is all simple.

Under the First Amendment, the church - any church - is free to discriminate, period.

If someone in the hierarchy of the Church had experienced a sudden "understanding" which had previously eluded them, and that "understanding" dealt with those Bible passages that some church congregations in the south have used to denigrate African-Americans, then, legally, that person could have fired every African-American employee the church has... as long as the church's official doctrine embraces the same "understanding" of those Biblical verses.

Since we already know the church's stand on homosexuality (and, rightly or wrongly, the church lumps trans with the homosexually oriented), and the church's official policy, this fired employee was not wrongly terminated.

Was it unfair? You bet. Was it discriminatory? Without a doubt. But it was also completely legal discrimination.

Thank-you for giving this story attention and linking it to the current state of religion.

Episcopalians, Lutherans and some Methodists and Presbyterians are in the midst of a huge divide. If the "Church" is the people, part of the church is beginning to stand up for equality. "Homosexuality" is at the center of the division.

I have been following the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) and trying to understand what percentage of that denomination is fully anti-LGBT. The good news is that it appears to be only about 40% that cling to that literal interpretation "box" and are leaving the Church.

Other studies done recently by Pew, ARIS and Gallup confirm that being "religious" doesn't mean anti-gay. That group is only about 1/3 of all self-defined religious people.

Regarding Susan McIntyre, I think every compassionate and/or fair Catholic should send an email to Bishop Richard Pates. Here's an email address:

If anything, she should've been fired for authorizing hormone therapy without the actual authority.

She's not a psychiatrist, she's not a doctor, she's not a clinical psychologist.

She purposely used the letterhead-- of an organization for whom she was not in a position to make medical recommendations-- to add authority to her letter.

It is very likely prejudice only made it easier to fire her, but she would've been fired on procedural grounds alone.

A certified social worker is a therapist, and is permitted to write letters for clients for hormones. However, she probably should have done it on her own letterhead. That wasn't the best judgement.

I was a friend and co-worker of Jim Ford in the early 80s when he was doing graduate studies. As reported in the Des Moines Register:

He got a master's degree in social work from the University of Iowa...

As I recall, the work was toward becoming an LCSW:

LCSW is a social worker trained in psychotherapy who works with people with mental health and daily living problems. An LCSW typically holds a master's degree in social work, having taken courses in growth and development, sociology, metal health theory and practice, psychology, human behavior in the social environment and research methods.

We later reconnected in the late 90s, after we both had come out. I've known few people who are as conscious of and attentive to their ideals and ethics as Susan.

Susan McIntyre | January 24, 2010 4:16 AM

Bless ya.
By the way...
Because... that's where my office and mailbox were!!!!

Thanks so much for the support.
-Susan Mc.

Susan, you say:

"Thanks so much for the support."

Do I detect a whiff of sarcasm, or is it just my reading of your message?

Let me ask you: What did you expect?

The parish in which you practiced your unpaid counseling, and your - if I understand the particulars correctly - paid housekeeping duties is assigned a new priest.

That new priest discovers a letter you left on the parish copier; a letter in which you are authorizing hormone use for one of your clients in your role as unpaid counselor. That letter bears your name and personal cell phone number, as well as the street address of the church.

The newly assigned priest terminates your duties, and cites that forgotten letter as cause for your termination.

But, Susan, he didn't need to give a cause; he simply could have terminated your paid position, and your participation in any aspect of parish/church involvement because you are transgendered.

As the majority of the comments have re-iterated, the First Amendment's separation of church and state allows for churches to stand apart from any and all discrimination laws, providing it is not just an individual person/congreagation acting in a way that is not church doctrine.

But that's not the case here; the new priest is not acting outside of Catholic Church doctrine.

And, as many commenters here noted, that doctrine is, pretty much, general knowledge, even to persons who are not of the Catholic faith.

I think you've been treated unfairly, personally. I feel you've been discriminated against.

I'm sorry you had to face such ignorance in the 21st century.

But given the option of seeing you be treated fairly by a religious organization, and having that wall between church and state... I'm going to go for the wall, every time. What were to happen if that separation were suddenly gone?

Imagine a GOP/Teabagger controlled Congress and White House, and a nation in which prayer is mandated in the public schools. Imagine Biology 101 being replaced by "Genesis 1:1." Or medical schools that teach certain illnesses are "God's judgment" on certain groups of people.

As I said... I'm sorry, but the Church did no wrong.

Susan McIntyre | January 24, 2010 5:45 AM

Actually, I was trying to be appreciative. Sorry for any confusion.
In the end, a court will decide who was wrong.
My issue with this bishop is that many people, myself included, strongly feel that he and the new priest lied and stole and that these are behaviors that the catholic church should be confronted on.
Finally, a church leader who acts out of fear rather then faith is shameful.
I do thank all those who have been so kind and loving towards myself and others in our transgendered community.

There seems to be a lot of detail missing here. There certainly isn't enough to make judgments about Ms. McIntyre's qualification to make recommendations about hormone therapy. I think though that Angela's analysis of her judgement in hosting a support group in this venue is on the mark.

I hope the group finds another home and that Ms McIntyre quickly finds employment.

I believe that Ms. McIntyre's qualifications allow her to assess a client's eligibility for hormone treatment. That was not an issue, at least according the article. But McIntyre's faith plays an important role in her work. This is a complex case; you can find more details in the original article in the Des Moines Register.

I gotta say...if I had caught her misusing letterhead in that fashion, I'd have fired her myself. There's nothing complicated or unfair about it. She was committing fraud, whether she understood it or not.

I'm sorry for the fallout, but really she tied their hands.

Melissa Dunagan | January 22, 2010 4:36 AM

All the bishop had to do was tell her not to use the church letter head. And if she had refuse then he could of fired her then. If he was any kind of decent man he would of gave her a second chance.

I'm wondering why a therapist is working as a housekeeper?

Rory, Ms. McIntyre offers her counseling to those least able to afford it. She supplemented her income with housekeeping in order to keep her costs down.

I guess I'm missing something. She can charge whatever she wants for her therapy services, including $7/hr. or whatever the Iowa minimum wage is. I assume that's what she's paid as a housekeeper for the Catholic Church. So why not do the most good while limiting your own income and see clients instead of mopping the floors for the $7? Just asking.

Rory, I can't speak for Susan, but it occurs to me that a lot of people (not just nuns, priests, monks in the Catholic church) seek lives of quiet service and humility, simplicity and even poverty.

In addition, developing a practice as an independent therapist is an extremely tough road -- difficult to build up, difficult to sustain on a full-time basis. Here's what the article said about Susan seeing clients:

A few years ago, the priest at St. Catherine's gave her permission to use parish space to see counseling clients on Saturday mornings, she said.

So, the reasonable assumption is that she didn't have, and wasn't seeking, enough clients to run a full-time practice. And, even if clients were paying for services (the article makes no mention of the terms), a couple hours on Saturday mornings would generally not eliminate the need for steady, primary income.

The article also said that her work as a housekeeper was part time, so that wasn't her prime source of income, either. It sounds like she was achieving her goal of a limited income. And that's certainly her choice, whatever she does.

But I don't get why the explanation that she does both is that because on one hand, she doesn't have enough clients to make a living, but OTOH, she doesn't want to charge enough to make a living.

Hey Rory... A lot of us are living on temp and/or part-time incomes from multiple jobs (if we're lucky to have more than one), none of which are paying well, and figuring out how to live simply on what we've got. When I knew Susan McIntyre in the mid-to-late 90s, as well as when I knew her as Jim Ford in the early 80s, I admired her contentment with living an austere life.

i.e., if part-time housekeeping work provided much/most of her income, that wouldn't surprise me.

Tasha Elizabeth | January 23, 2010 7:22 PM

the article did not say she was using church letterhead, only that it contained the center's name and address.

if you are writing a letter for a client, dont you think it is reasonable to include the name and address of your place of business?

The article states that McIntyre's letter was written "on a letterhead that included the center's name and address." The St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Student Center is under the auspices of the parish and subject to its doctrinal policies.

Hmmmm - So I found this a year after the fact. Have there been any updates? What has happened? And my question is why was it left on the copy machine? This is VERY confidential information. It should have never been just "left" somewhere in a building that houses multiple types of business. As a Christian mother of a transgender child it makes me sad to see that judgement and bitterness is flowing both ways here. Time to live up to the bible (or to just being a good person if you don't believe in the bible) and stop putting each other down and placing blame rather then accepting responsibility and moving on.