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The foundational (but largely ignored) problem with the Equality Act

Sex is real. To be a female is a real, embodied experience. It’s not a “belief.” It’s a reality. Gender identity, on the other hand, is a belief.

(Image: guille pozzi/

Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently published an opinion piece in Public Discourse about the Equality Act, legislation passed by the House of Representatives on February 25, the topic of a Senate Judiciary hearing on March 17, and now waiting upon a full vote in the Senate.

The focus of the Equality Act is adding two categories to that of “sex” accorded legal protection against discrimination: “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” It also, as Cardinal Dolan emphasizes in his piece, explicitly renders religious and conscience protections in this area null by denying any application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to claims. Supporters of the Equality Act attempt to obfuscate on this score, but the language of the bill is clear:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.

It is not surprising that Cardinal Dolan and other Catholic prelates choose to focus on the religious freedom aspect of the Equality Act. It would have a direct impact on all religious institutions, and it is a broadly appealing approach.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the Cardinal doesn’t give equal attention to the more foundational problem with the Equality Act: including “gender identity” as a legally protected category is unscientific, illogical and ultimately; it is deeply damaging to the cause of simple reality and then, more specifically, to women.

Sex is, indeed, binary. It is verifiable and observable. One doesn’t have to read Genesis to understand this. It would be refreshing if we could hear forthright language to this effect from Church leaders, as forthright as say, the words Cardinal Dolan used in a 2018 interview about family separation at the southern border:

If they want to take a baby from the arms of his mother and separate the two, that’s wrong. I don’t care where you’re at, what time and condition, that just goes against – you don’t have to read the Bible for that. That goes against human decency. That goes against human dignity.

Throughout history, women have been treated in specific ways, not because they “felt like a woman,” but because they were women. They were adult human females, born as female infants, grown through a female childhood.

The way of a female through a society and a culture varies, but no matter if she was constrained in the type of clothing she was allowed to wear, compelled to marry, prohibited from going to school, refused property rights or a vote, or, to go to a yet darker place, stalked, abused and raped – all of that happens in a woman’s life, and to women globally – because they are female.

In the United States specifically, women have spent decades – centuries – working and fighting for the right to own property and conduct business, to vote, to enter professions, to be paid fairly for their labor, and to have their voices and experiences heard in legal proceedings. They were not barred or restricted from any of these activities because they “felt” like a woman or because they had certain mannerisms. They were barred and restricted – because of their sex. They were women.

Sex is real. To be a female is a real, embodied experience. It’s not a “belief.” It’s a reality.

Gender identity, on the other hand, is a belief. “Gender” is generally understood as a form of expression. It is changeable, malleable, and subjective. It can be assumed and performative.

Moreover – and this is a point which is essential to understand – as currently understood in the United States and assumed by this legislation, “gender identity” is dependent on one factor, and one factor only: an individual’s self-assessment.

Many don’t understand this. They assume that if a man gets to declare himself a woman, that declaration has been preceded by psychological and medical care and assessment and perhaps even a legal process.

Well, no. That’s not the current situation in the United States, and that is not is assumed in the Equality Act.

It’s called “self-ID.” Which is to say – it is your right to define yourself as anything you wish – for a day, for a week, forever, or just in this moment.

Let me say this again: there is no formal framework for determining “gender identity” in the Equality Act.

What does this mean?

As individuals and organizations have been documenting across the globe, enshrining gender self-identity as a social assumption and a right wreaks havoc and casts uncertainty on to many areas of life that require exactness for their effectiveness, ranging from crime statistics to medical treatment.

It also means open season on women and girls.

This isn’t about declaring that individuals who experience gender dysphoria are wicked people determined to hurt women and girls. It’s about, among other things, acknowledging reality. Not only biological reality, but the reality that human beings are not angels.

We acknowledge the great, elaborate lengths that frankly crazy and perverted people will go through to act out their impulses and gain access to the vulnerable in churches, youth organizations, and education. In a culture awash in destructive, dehumanizing pornography, barriers and mutual care collapsed (or suspect), it is not unreasonable to acknowledge that men who want to harm women and girls or, for whatever reason their disturbed psyches are dictating, want to enter into women’s spaces, will use gender self-identity to do so.

Sex is binary. A woman is an adult human female. Many aspects of life call for sexually integrated spaces — but not all. Women deserve their own spaces when they are escaping from abuse, when they are imprisoned, when they are under medical care, when they are tending to personal physical needs, and if they desire, when they are educated, just to name a few.

Women deserve to be safe in those spaces, and the Equality Act, as written, would open up those spaces to the presence of men – the worst men, who for whatever reason, cannot or will not leave vulnerable women alone, or who are sexually aroused by pretending to be women in women’s spaces.

Cardinal Dolan and other Catholic leaders should understand this dynamic better than anyone. As leaders of an institution that has, at local, national and international levels been dealing with the issue of sexual abuse for decades, this should be understood, communicated, and emphasized. Catholic chanceries and archives are bursting with files describing the activities, crimes and sins of individuals who, shall we say, self-identified as pious, caring and faithful, with great success.

Lessons learned? Here’s the opportunity to show if that’s true.

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About Amy Welborn 27 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.


  1. Our bishops have let us down over and over again. They are creations of a political system and see everything as political … it’s about gaining approval, seeking recognition and pursuing rewards. Those who move up the rungs of a political system (hierarchy) see everything through that prism. It’s how they got where they are, and, unfortunately, the institutional church (consisting wholly of bishops)rewards that behavior, and those in power pass it on from one generation to the next. Truth has become nearly as fluid among them as in our culture. They would do well to listen to the likes of Amy Wellborn, instead of holding their fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. But all that takes courage, and, sadly, courage is in short supply in the episcopacy these days. And truth is fairly meaningless without courage. Bishops have no chance of being convincing when truth is fluid and courage is lacking.

    • Excellent point, Mr. Pfannenstiel.

      Who could have predicted that St. John Fisher, a Catholic bishop with true courage, would be so relevant to our times?

  2. The left is utterly and completely detached from reality. Now we are obliged to believe that there are no objective criteria with which to determine an individual’s sex.

    Which means that there are no objective males, no objective females.

    Viewing a newborn’s genitalia is not pertinent in determining the sex of that child. We have to wait until it’s old enough to tell us what sex it is.

    Makes perfect sense, right?


    So be sure to thank the “self-identifying Catholics” who voted Democratic for bringing about this insane situation.

    By the way, in your replies, please keep in mind that my preferred pronouns are “your majesty/his majesty”.

    By the way, be forewarned: Ignore those pronouns in New York or California, and our friends the hate speech police will throw you into a very real, very hard and very objective jail cell.

  3. Why is it so painfully difficult for so much of the clergy to defend the faith and morals that proceed from the Word of God? It certainly is not charitable in the long run. Making the unnatural normative does not lead to happiness, which all seek. God knows this and that is why he gives us the Greatest Commandment and the Sermon on the Mount. Catholicism cannot concede to cultural norms or the churches will be vacant by social dilution. True love and true life are inextricable. The Ten Commandments apply to the correct relationships between rational beings.
    I pray our Church leaders do not run from the Cross when it gets very heavy in the near future. Our Lord did not. Pray for Grace.

  4. Children are pulled from their mother’s arms frequently. When the mother is incarcerated, when they have to go back to work after their child is born and they first drop their kid off at day care come to mind.

    For that matter, kids are pulled out of their dad’s arms all the time due to no fault divorce. This is from the court system

  5. Card. Dolan swings back and forth. He praised a footballer for “coming out” and now warns about the excesses of HR 1.
    He wrote to us that we were promised that abortions would be “safe, legal, and rare” which, I suppose, was alright with him until the NY State’s legislature voted to allow abortion until the due date. Was he caught by surprise? Seems so. Like most of our bishops, he just doesn’t get it.

  6. I find it deeply ironic that a publication devoted to opposing all forms of feminism suddenly starts caring what happens to women only when it allows them to abuse another disenfranchised group.

    Gender is a performance, and for women it’s usually a really stupid one. Women traditionally have to pretend to be weak, cowardly, dimwits in or order to be considered ‘feminine.’ Transgendered people expose the idiocy that is ‘femininity’ for the lie that it is. Women aren’t by nature idiots or weaklings; the Catholic church and other powers have forced us to pretend to be weak in mind and body. Maybe a few transwomen showing just how dumb it is to be ‘feminine’ will teach you all to destroy that worthless category.

  7. Except that jurisdictions that already accommodate trans men and women show no higher incidence of sexual abuse or violence against women. Nor is the historic violence, discrimination and harassment of trans men and women something that can be easily brushed aside. Nothing in the act licenses violence, loitering in bathrooms or victimizing women. In an ideal world, respect and acceptance shouldn’t have to be legislated. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in.

  8. Amy Welborn,

    We read here, we research there-
    We hear this, we hear that-
    Reshuffling, restacking,
    Stirring about,
    Turn it inside out,
    Tip it upside down,
    The same mix,
    In the same container–

    Now finally one person thinks the matter through-
    “The foundational (but largely ignored) problem with the Equality Act”

    Thank you for elucidating this matter so well.

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