“It’s bigotry.” Parent of transgender student condemns Catholic schools’ new LGBTQ policies

John Wilka says Diocese of Sioux Falls has lost its way
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 1:17 AM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - When John Wilka first read the “Human Sexuality in Educational Settings” polices handed down to the Bishop O’Gorman schools last month by the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, he found them to be so “frightening and dangerous” and bigoted, he couldn’t believe what he was reading.

“However, upon further reflection, it is just consistent (since) they are an arm or an organ of the new culture wars in America,” Wilka said. “They lost on gay marriage, they lost on interracial marriage years ago. And now, they are attacking trans and non-binary youth.”

That is how Wilka opened a candid, nearly 30-minute interview with Dakota News Now on Monday about both a letter Bishop Donald DeGrood sent to families of Bishop O’Gorman students on August 4, and the new school LGBTQ policies, which were handed down by the Diocese, are effective starting on July 1.

You can read the entire document of policies here > https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/22131508/bishop-ogorman-policy.pdf.

You can read the entire DeGrood letter, titled “Gifts of the Divine Creator: on being Male and Female” from DeGrood here > https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/22131509/gifts-of-the-divine-creator-1.pdf

“These policies in that letter are very frightening and very dangerous,” Wilka said. “It is my fear that it will cause more harm to children. That there will be suicide attempts. That there will be actual suicide occurrences.”

Wilka’s 15-year-old son Kris is the only known openly transgender athlete in South Dakota, and his story of transferring from the Bishop O’Gorman system to Harrisburg — a public school system — so he could play football was the subject of national outlets like GQ Magazine, ESPN, and ABC News.

Wilka feels the policies will “ignite or whip up possible violence against” transgender students like his son.

“God doesn’t think like that. Although (the documents) start off with saying they have to treat them with (God’s) love, they go off on this litany of why (being transgender) is so terrible and so frightening.”

The Bishop O’Gorman Catholics Schools declined to comment on the new policies, instead referring to them as a Diocese of Sioux Falls-created policy. DeGrood was unavailable for comment on Monday, when this story aired.

Some of what Wilka considered to be the strongest language in DeGrood’s letter was the claim that “transgender ideology undermines that very basis for marriage and family, which are foundational to human society itself.”

Wilka’s response?

”My son is no threat to you,” Wilka said. “He’s not going to come into your home and try to convert your children and win an air fryer. He just wants to grow up to be the young man God wanted him to be.”

Kris was the grand marshal of the Sioux Falls Pride parade on June 18, but declined an interview for this story and asked his image not be used for it.

“My son wants to become the man he was born to be,” Wilka said. “And he wants to live his life. He wants to keep learning how to play his guitar. He wants to keep playing on his Xbox or Playstation probably more than he should. Things like that, like every other kid.”

Wilka and much of his family grew up in the Sioux Falls Catholic churches and schools, and said the leaders and many parishioners of that community “have lost their way. Their job is to educate God’s children.”

Both father and son believe Kris’ experience as a transitioning male in Bishop O’Gorman’s middle school is the root of these new policies. Kris transferred to Harrisburg before he started seventh grade two years ago. He is now a freshman at Harrisburg High School and on the football team.

In the 14-page “Human Sexuality in Educational Settings” document, the Diocese said “students may not advocate, celebrate, or express same-sex attraction in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities or events.”

The same rules applied to “transgenderism.”

Wilka’s translation: “If you’re transphobic or if you’re not against same sex marriage... or if you refuse to be quiet about it, you’re not welcome here — faculty or students.”

The schools’ policy also states that “regarding the admittance or continued enrollment of any student at a Catholic school who claims to be transitioning or transitioned, the bishop is to be consulted and shall serve as the final decision maker,” and that “no student shall be admitted, enrolled or allowed to continue as a student at a Catholic school if that student’s expression of gender, sexual identity or sexuality is the cause of confusion or disruption to other students in the Catholic school system.”

“Instead of ‘that’s my teammate,’” Wilka said this form of exclusion will teach kids to think ‘Oh, no, that’s different. That’s bad. I must attack that. God doesn’t like that.”

“Transgenderism” is a term that the new policy defines as “the belief that an individual has the ability to change his or her gender,” while “gender dysphoria” defined in the policy is “the psychiatric or psychological condition of experiencing a strong desire to be a person of the opposite gender.”

The basis of the policy is DeGrood’s letter. Its stated purpose, DeGrood wrote, “seeks to examine transgender ideology in rational terms and to bring it to the light of faith, motivated by God’s love.”

Wilka said the term “transgender ideology” is not only “transphobic” but that “there is so such thing” as transgender ideology.”

“It does not exist,” Wilka said. “That is a phrase (used) by people who do not understand it, who are just against it. They are the same people who thought maybe you could ‘pray away gay.’ That is not going to happen.”

DeGrood and others who use the phrase “transgender ideology,” Wilka said, are trying convince others that youth who are trans woke up one day and decided to change who they were. Wilka said many trans youth felt they knew they were transgender at a very young age, “as soon as they were able to process things.”

One of them is Kris.

“My son tells people that the moment he could process thought, he knew he was a boy,” Wilka said. “He didn’t decide. He didn’t make a choice. Someone didn’t come by and try to convert him (so they could) win an air friar. It’s just a fact.

“It’s biology, pure and simple.”

In January, the World Health Organization decided to no longer classify transgender health issues as “disorders.”

All 194 countries in the WHO have defined “gender incongruence” — a condition in which the gender identity of a person does not align with the gender assigned at birth — as a medical condition, not a mental health condition, as the Diocese claims.

(A broader medical explanation of this from a transgender mental health counselor is provided later in this story).

Wilka cited a study that said transgender children “who are shamed and forced to identify with the physical attributes with which they were born, that their attempts and occurrences of suicide are 40 percent higher than the population at large. As the parent of a transgender child, that scares the heck out of me.”

Bishop O’Gorman’s new LGBTQ policies protect students from “bullying harassment, or threats or acts of violence” against them “based on that student’s perceived sex, same-sex attraction, or perceived gender identity.”

In his Catholic system elementary school, Kris was treated “wonderfully,” Wilka said. “Their reaction and position is ‘what can we do to make your child’s education a success?’”

At age 8, Wilka decided to start taking steps to help Kris “become the man God intended him to be.” For any medical treatment to aid a gender transition at that age, families in South Dakota are required to go through 12 sessions of mental health counseling, mainly because the family struggles to come to grips with the child’s feeling and wants to convince the child that he doesn’t really want to make a transition.

Kris was approved to move on to the medical step after one meeting because the counselor was astonished with the support the family gave Kris.

The next step was meeting with Dr. Keith Hansen, the Chairperson of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine, who is an expert on the medical treatment of transgender children and testified against proposed legislation in South Dakota that sought to criminalize such care.

Hansen also determined Kris’ gender incongruence as ‘this is what is going on, that it is not just a phase,” Wilka said, and they set what they believe is the appropriate medical regimen.

In middle school, Kris was told he had to play sports with the girls. The reason, Wilka said, is “concern was voiced about what negative effect he might have on them by just being there. Would it confuse the children, and stuff like that?’”

This is why the Wilkas believe Kris’ experience set the wheels of this “Human Sexuality in Education Settings” policy in motion. For sports, it reads:

“Students shall be eligible to participate only in those school-sponsored teams and activities that are consistent with his/her sex. Boys can only participate in boys activities/teams, and girls may only participate on girls activities/teams.”

The very next line reads: “The shared use of restrooms or locker rooms by any students of the opposite gender shall be strictly forbidden.”

Wilka said the school’s concern about the negative impact Kris would have by being a trans male participating in boys sports showed that these hateful attitudes don’t come from children but from adults with preconceived notions.

“It’s bigotry. But this is also from the same organization that used to execute astronauts who thought the Earth was not the center of the universe.”

These Catholic provisions are similar to ones the South Dakota legislature has been trying to pass for at least a couple years, including the “Fair in Women’s Sports” bill that Gov. Kristi Noem recently signed into law. A new campaign ad hails it as the strongest such law in the country, aimed at not allowing biological boys to compete in female sports.

“I just get so upset when all of these hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in South Dakota and elsewhere for situations where there are one or two children who fit this definition in each state,” Wilka said.

The South Dakota legislature, Wilka said, is made of what he calls mostly Republican evangelicals that are “Non-Christian Christians” who spew rhetoric that he said “attacks” transgender youth, cloaked in protecting young women.

For years, opponents of allowing medical treatment for transgender youth have accused parents (and doctors) of poor parenting or even mutilation.

“That’s along the same line of people who thought you could ‘pray away gay,’” Wilka said. “It’s just not going to happen. But if you bring the overwhelming power of the church to a transgender child and say ‘how you’ve felt your whole life is wrong and immoral,’ well, congratulations, you’ve just increased the risk of suicide by forty percent.”

Wilka said “one of the great misnomers” thrown out by anti-transgender rights legislators and activists is that medical treatment for a transitioning child is easily approved because the child is “someone who just decides they want to be one gender or another.”

“That is where the real harm comes from,” Wilka said. “Let’s say the outside linebacker for Roosevelt — 6′3, 255 (lbs.) — has a great game at Howard Wood Field on a Friday night and then says ‘oh, I want to be on the girls basketball team. I’m trans.’ Give me a break. It’s not like that. It’s insane.”

Kris, meanwhile, is thriving as a football player at Harrisburg. Before father and son met with the Tigers’ head football coach and athletics director about joining the program and how to handle where Kris was going to undress into and out of uniform, the school already had alternative arrangements in place, “and they have worked just fine so far.”

“He was accepted by the coaches and accepted by the players,” Wilka said.

Kris was a starter in seventh and eighth grade, and just recently learned he made the cut to join the freshman team this season.

“Luckily, my son is not being judged on how he identifies,” Wilka said. “He is judged on whether he can make that block or make that tackle, which is the way it should be.”

To boot, Kris was a 4.0 student last year and “one of the most popular kids in his class,” according to Wilka. “He’s a well-adjusted, well-spoken young man. I’m lucky to be his father.”

To Wilka, that’s living proof that a system of support for a transgender youth in a school will make a happy and healthy youth, which is contradictory to what the Diocese letter and policies project.

As for how he feels about his own faith as a lifelong Catholic after what his son went through and these new policies that he feels, Wilka said he’s unsure.

“I have to decide if I am going to mail in my ‘super decoder ring,’” Wilka said. “But I’ve always been taught that it is the people who are the church, not the ones who wear the fancy outfits,” Wilka said. “They have to serve us as opposed to telling us that how a person is born is unnatural.”

Wilka doesn’t think DeGrood “speaks for the Catholic church,” because of beliefs Wilka thinks are archaic and too reliant on the Old Testament.

And Wilka said these new Catholic school policies, created and approved by DeGrood, don’t differ much from ideologies implemented when his left-handed mother was in Catholic school in the 1930′s.

“They used to tie people’s hand behind their back if they were left-handed,” Wilka said. “We all know being left-handed is the Devil’s work.”

He repeated that he feels like the Diocese of Sioux Falls and Bishop O’Gorman schools has lost its way.

“When O’Gorman was first started (in 1961), the mission was that every child who wants to be educated will be,” Wilka said. “They didn’t talk about gender. They didn’t talk about race. They didn’t talk about income. Things have changed.

“This is also the same Diocese that joined in the lawsuit to stop mandated vaccinations for Covid. Thank God they didn’t fight mandatory vaccinations for polio or we’d be in a real pickle.”


More on transgenderism — medical vs psychological:

Dr. Anne Dilenschneider is one of only two licensed mental healthcare providers in South Dakota who have transgender healthcare within their scope of practice.

She said research shows that gender incongruence is due to processes that happen in utero — before a person is born.

“The way a person’s body is set (sex) and the way their brain is set (gender) are due to the way the developing child responds to hormones in the mother’s body during the first and second trimesters,” Dilenschneider said.

“Sometimes, the way the child’s body and brain respond to these hormones doesn’t match up. We also know there are differences in brain structures, and in the way DNA is signaling within at least 12 genes. Sex and gender are complicated.

“This is not unusual. Often, things don’t “match up” during development in utero — think of cleft palate, for example. We don’t say being born with a cleft palate is against God’s will. Instead, we do what Mr. Rogers advised — we ask: Where are the helpers?

“The same is true for persons with gender incongruence. And it takes an entire mental and medical health team to help. This is not something people just “decide.” Gender incongruence is a real physical condition.”

Dilenschneider said anyone in a newborn intensive care until can tell you 5.5 million persons in the U.S., sex is unclear and could not be assigned at birth.

“These ‘inter-sex’ persons not “mistakes,” Dilenschneider said.

“Sometimes things happen in utero that God gave healthcare professionals the skills to “repair” — like cleft palates, holes in hearts, etc. We can do this for transgender persons, too. And it would be outright cruelty to refuse treatment in any of these situations.”

Wilka referred to it as enzymes taking a left turn instead of a right turn before the child is born. He believes this happened to Kris, and the medical treatment he is getting during his transition is “making him the way God intended him to be.”

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