Thursday, October 16, 2014

Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane

This is one of the talks that I gave for Trinity school for Ministry over the weekend.

Beyond the Culture Wars: Listening to LGBTQ people in the Parish Today

I've been told that there are two types of people in the world. There are people who work from the particular to the general: they start with a single concrete example and then they work out from there, deriving principles along the way. A lot of contemporary writing, especially writing for women, is in this style. You pick up a woman's magazine and the story almost invariably begins with a little slice of life, someone's particular story, or a cute event that happened while the author was baking apricot crumble. There are other people who work from the general to the particular. They start with grand universal theses and then slowly focus in their particular area of interest. Everyone who has ever attended high-school knows that this is the way that we are taught to write the introduction to a formal essay. You start with a grand statement like “Star-crossed love has been a perennial fascination since first human beings began to tell stories around the fire,” and you end up with a tight, focused thesis like “Romeo was a trumped up playboy, and Juliet was a ditz.”

Typically, women prefer the former, men prefer the latter. That's by no means a hard and fast rule – apart from “only women can have babies” almost nothing about gender is a hard and fast rule – but it is a pattern. So naturally because I'm a woman, people tend to assume that I will start with my personal story, and then work outwards from there. And there are good reasons for doing it this way. The best of these is that I have a very unusual story. I was born Anglican. I became involved in a lesbian relationship when I was about 12, and I became an atheist when I was 13. I was little intellectually precocious, and I'm afraid that I became addicted to books at the shockingly young age of five. I started out innocently enough on Dick and Jane, but by the time I was ten I had moved on to more serious stuff, reading Shakespeare by flashlight when I was supposed to be in bed. Lying to my parents about my sleep habits. Sneaking books into the classroom and reading them under my desk. Making up injuries so that I could read in the locker room during gym. This reading thing really started to take over my life. At fifteen I was introduced to John Keats and the shady pleasures of the Romantic revolution in poetry. From Keats I learned that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," and this was the start of a downhill spiral. Soon I had moved on from the soft disciplines of poetry and literature into the hard writings of the philosophers. I tried Plato. Marx. Sartre. Kierkegaard. Kant. By the time I was 18 I was a hardened rationalist-objectivist-feminist-atheist with socialist leanings, though critical of Marx's theory of violent revolution, and I had just come out of the closet as a lesbian.

This is where the story gets kind of weird. I had a girlfriend, the same one that I had been with since I was 12. She identified as bi and we were in an open polyamorous relationship. I had just broken up with my boy-on-the-side after he threatened to murder me for being a cold lesbian bitch. That might sound really horrible, but at the time I was, as I said, a hardened Kantian. I therefore considered a human being to be an autonomous rational agent of infinite worth and dignity. I had also really bought in to Plato's idea that when someone does evil they harm themselves more than they harm their victim, and that no evil can befall a good person. So as far as I was concerned my ex had exercised his autonomy in an immature way, contrary to his rational dignity, and this harmed him more than it harmed me, so I was indifferent to his threats. Perhaps his description of me wasn't all that far off.

I also had a male best friend who was a little shocked and alarmed by my total emotional dissociation from this situation, and he undertook to fish the burned photograph with the death-threat written on the back of it out of the garbage can into which I had casually tossed it, and he confronted me about the problem. He tried a lot of arguments that I basically ignored and then finally he discovered my Achilles heel. “If you are out of touch with your emotions,” he said, “You will never be a poet.” This really troubled me. So for the next three days we argued about whether I had any emotions to be in touch with, and whether I had to articulate them out loud in the event that they existed, and finally there was a massive confrontation that went on into the wee hours of the night during which I admitted that yes, I had emotions, but protested that no I couldn't articulate them, I didn't even know myself what they were, and this was cruel, and unfair, and why didn't he go away and leave me alone, and... finally... at about three in the morning I blurted out “I love you....” and then, after a suitable embarassed pause I added, “Not romantically, of course, but not just Platonically either. I don't know.” And after that we went back to being best friends, and eating ice-cream and playing in a garage band, and arguing philosophy as we had always done.

At this point the story gets weirder. So my best friend, whose name is Chris, introduces me to one of his friends, whose name is Dave. Chris is into Zen Buddhism, the writings of Alistair Crowley, heavy metal music and Russian literature. Dave is a devout Druid, apprenticed to one of North America's foremost practitioners of Druidism, and he's reading Sri Ramakrishna, Thomas Merton, Yogananda, Joshu and St. Francis of Assissi on the insructions of his mentor. We break into his father's liquor cabinet, light up a pipe of cherry tabacco, and start arguing about the existence of God and the supremacy of reason. To make a very long story short, in about six months the three of us butting our heads together come to the conclusion that we should convert to Christianity, which we all do within about a month of each other.

Now, I'm still an existentialist at this point, I'm just no longer an atheist. And I believe that to be a Christian without accepting the teaching of my church on homosexuality is clearly a manifestation of “mal fois,” that's Sartre's idea of “bad faith.” If I stay in my lesbian relationship, I will be inauthentic. So I call my girlfriend and explain this to her, and tell her that we're breaking up.

I want to pause at this point, because most of the time when I'm speaking to a traditionalist Christian audience this is seen as a kind of moral high-point. I choose authenticity and reason over desire and sentimentality. I make a heroic sacrifice for the sake of truth, and the love of Christ. I would like to demythologize that a bit. First of all, I don't think that my relationship would have lasted if I had kept it up. It was clear that we were moving in different directions, and as I calculated it I was choosing between a long, messy break-up and a swift, clean one. I had just been through a long messy break-up with the boyfriend who ended up burning my photo, and I didn't want to do that again. Secondly, I had always been a complete coward about break-ups. I usually made the relationship so unbearable that the other person would break up with me, rather than being decent enough to say “it's over.” I did that very deliberately. I didn't want to do that here. Finally, in spite of my grand confrontation with Chris about my emotional life, I was still an intensely emotionally dislocated person. I broke up with my girlfriend because I cared about syllogisms more than I cared about people. That's not a virtue. It didn't feel like a sacrifice. It felt like a logical conclusion.

Fortunately, God suffers fools very happily provided they sincerely try to follow His lead. He is the master-conductor of an orchestra composed entirely of mistuned pianos, three-stringed guitars and french-horns that have been in traffic accidents – all of them played by inept 10 year olds with ADD. Such is His genius that with this rag-tag ensemble He is able to produce the music of the spheres. Somehow he was able to take my social awkwardness, my lack of compassion, my unfeeling self-sufficiency, and my almost fanatical devotion to reason and from this very bald and tattered hat He was able to produce a conversion, a vocation, and a love affair.

You'll remember Chris. The boy that I blurted out “I love you” to at three in the morning while I was still a lesbian and a long way from being a Catholic? Well, we fell in love. Since I knew nothing about Christian sexual morality apart from “though shalt not be gay,” we made love. In due time we also made a baby. Then we got married. This is more or less the unbroken tradition in my family. We have now been married for fifteen years and we have six bad munchkins who make sure that my home is always a mess, and that I have a plentiful supply of diapers to change.

So that's my story, or at least it's my conversion story. From here I'm supposed to go on to slowly develop a series of points and observations that lead us gently from my particular experience towards a set of general conclusions. Unfortunately, I don't think that way. I'm one of those people who thinks from the general to the specific. So I don't want to start my talk with a nice story, or a slice-of-life, I want to start by zooming way, way out and talking about the nature of history and its relationship to the Church.

I want to begin by proposing a way of looking at history that might be a little different from the way that we usually think about it. I want you to imagine history as a fractal. A fractal is basically a pattern based on a formula where if you zoom in, no matter how much you zoom in, you will be able to recognize the pattern and if you zoom out, no matter how much you zoom out, you will always be able to recognize the pattern. So if you think of a tree, which is kind of an imperfect fractal, you can see how any given limb of the tree is kind of the shape of the whole tree, and any branch going off from the limb is kind of the shape of the whole tree, and each twig is similar in shape to the whole tree, and even the leaves are kind of shaped like a tree. It's a rough analogy. A fractal is basically that principle only extended infinitely in both directions. History, then, is a fractal, it doesn't just repeat itself, but it plays out the same basic patterns over and over again whether you're looking at it on the level of civilizations, or on the level of particular eras within a civilization, or on the level of an individual human life, or even if you're just looking at the little narratives that develop over a couple of days, or even a couple of hours. These different nested stories have a common shape which is stretched or deformed in a slightly different way on each of its occurances – which is also a property of fractals – but the formula behind those stories is always the same: the life of Christ.

Okay. Neat. But why am I bringing this up in a talk that's titled “Beyond the Culture Wars”? There are two reasons for this. The first is that I want to be able to address a common fear of Christians who are involved in the Culture Wars: that is the fear that our age is a time of particular crisis, that things are bad and they are getting worse, and that we are probably counting down to the apocalypse. We are, of course, counting down to the apocalypse but so far the count-down has been on for 2000 years and we've been told definitively that nobody except the Father knows when zero hour is set for. And there's a kind of divine joke in the passage where Christ talks about this. He tells the disciples to watch for the signs that the end is approaching. “Wars and rumours of war” and so forth. If you read the list of signs, they're not specific at all. They're all things that are a perennial part of human life. Basically, Christ is reiterating, in a slightly different way, “You do not know the minute or the hour, so always be on your guard.” The conditions of human existence are the signs of the coming of the eschaton.

So are we living in a time of crisis? Yes, and no. We are living through the crisis of Gethsemene, with the spectre of the martyrdom and the cross looming before us on the horizon, not because this is a particularly dark chapter in the history of humankind, but because the fear and the horror and the blood-stained sweat, the betrayal, the confrontation and the arrest of our Saviour are features of the pattern on which all history is based. We face a crisis, but it is the crisis of being historical beings made in the image of God, and called to conform ourselves to Christ.

I would like, therefore, to look at the Culture Wars through the lens of Gethsemane, in particular through the lens of the battle that takes place in the garden.

Throughout much of Christendom there has been a perennial theme, the theme of the spiritual battlefield into which Christian soldiers march out to do war with the devil. This comes, in a large part, from the passage in St. Paul where he speaks of the Christian putting on the full armour of God and taking up the sword of the holy spirit. Militaristic metaphors have consistently spoken to a significant portion of the Christian world – and I'm actually very sympathetic to this on a personal level. I find it very compelling to compare the tactics and strategies of the people of God to the victories at Agincourt or the defeat at Cannae. I also suffer from deep-seated Stoic tendencies, so the idea of arming myself like a staunch warrior, setting my jaw and marching forward into the no-man's land of the Culture Wars really appeals to me – especially since I clearly lack the physical strength and prowess to become a real Legionary. Not to mention the problem of being female, and not living in Ancient Rome.

The problem with the image of the Christian soldier, the crusader, the Culture Warrior, is that this is not an image that Christ used, and when St. Paul used it he was very careful to make it clear that “we do not war against flesh and blood.” The warrior culture that dominates so much of the Old Testament is transformed by the New Testament, particularly in Christ's shocking statement “Love your enemy.” Keep in mind that this radical counsel is balanced by a counsel that says that if you hate your wife, and your parents, and your natural relations for the sake of Christ that you will gain a new family,  the Church. Christ here, as is so often the case, really upends our categories and our ways of thinking and loving. He cautions us against the potential to idolize the family, and also challenges us to embrace those who we perceive as our enemies.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ shows us what this looks like. This is the first and only military engagement into which He leads His followers, and He actually tells them to arm themselves for the conflict, asking if they have swords. They have two, so those get brought along to the garden. We know that Peter had one of them. So the enemy starts to close in, led by Judas Iscariot, the traitor. Judas kisses Jesus and the soldiers move in to arrest Him. At this point, Peter draws the sword that Christ told him to bring, and he rushes forward against this mob of men armed with swords and clubs. He's making good on the promise that he made at the Last Supper when he assured Christ that he was ready to die for Him. The odds are hopeless, but perhaps Peter has in mind the great victories of the past, when the Lord drowned the Egyptian chariots, laid waste to the armies camped outside of Jerusalem, or gave victory to Judas Maccabeus and his small band of fighters. Or maybe he has internalized Christ's words about the necessity of His death. Perhaps Peter simply longs for the opportunity to prove his loyalty and die at the side of his master.

Either way, I'm sure Peter expected to be rewarded for his courage. Instead, Christ turns and utters the only military command in His career. “Peter, put down your sword.” Then, having rebuked His loyal and faithful follower, He turns to the man that Peter has wounded – the sole enemy casualty in this exchange, and He reaches out and He heals the ear of the servant of the High Priest. This is a man who came to arrest Him. The folks who lobby for same-sex marriage, all they want is to have gay sex and pension rights. This guy was here to turn the only begotten Son of God over to be tortured and killed. This guy is an enemy of Christianity. But Christ heals him.

Nothing that takes place at this moment is coincidental. None of it is random. It is certainly significant that Peter, in his zeal for his saviour, cuts off the servant's ear. Not his finger, or his toe, or the tip of his nose, but his ear: the organ that would have allowed him to hear the gospel. Christ, in healing the ear, restores the man's ability to hear and opens up the possibility of listening. We're not told what happened to this man in the wake of this miracle, but we may certainly hope that this was a transformative moment. Christ's action was a scandal to Peter, who knew Him. It must have blown the mind of the servant, who thought of Christ as the enemy.

Christ's action in the Garden is radical. When Christ reaches out and heals the High Priest's servant, He does not see Himself as healing the enemy. That's our category, our perspective. He saw Himself as healing the ear of the beloved: He had come to give His life for this man, just as much as He had come to give it for Peter. This is where we find the scandal of the Cross in Gethsemane. I suspect it's also part of the reason why Peter got into such a funk in the courtyard outside of the High Priest's house. Peter was ready to die for Christ, and to die with Christ: he had declared this publicly, and he proved it when he stood to fight at Christ's side. To conceive of Peter's denial in the courtyard as an act of cowardice is to miss the psychological unity of the narrative: Peter denies Christ here because something happened to his courage between the moment when he drew his sword and the moment that he said “I do not know him.” These words have a particular poignancy if we consider that, in a sense, Peter may really have meant them. Not “I don't know the man” in the sense of “I don't know who he is,” but “I don't know the man” in the sense that He is not who Peter thought. In Gethsemane Christ confronts his most ardent defender with a mystery that Peter cannot understand, and that he is not yet ready to accept. The mystery of a lover who is willing to lay down His life for the sake of those who persecute Him.

After the resurrection, there is a beautiful scene where Christ reconciles with Peter, and reverses the three-fold denial. “Peter, do you love me?” He asks this question three times, once for each of the times that Peter said that he did not know Jesus. Each time Peter affirms his love, and after each affirmation Christ gives him a commandment: “Feed my flock, tend my sheep.” Christ is directing him towards a spirituality which is based on service, care, love: a kind of love which is deeply practical. Tend. Feed.

So let's take this narrative and see how its pattern applies to the Culture Wars. The Apostles here are a microcosm of the entire church. There is a small minority within that Church who are represented by Judas: they have lost their faith in Christ and are ready to sell out for a handful of silver and betray Him with a kiss. On the conservative side of the Culture Wars there's sometimes a tendency to imagine that most of the church is represented by this figure: that there is only a small zealous remnant who are truly faithful and the rest are all traitors. This is not the case. Most of the people in the Christian community who we might be tempted to think of as lukewarm, undercommitted, compliant, most of them are represented by the 9 apostles whose activity following the arrest of Christ is described in the gospel only by the words “Then all the disciples deserted Him and fled.” Keep in mind that these apostles who “deserted Him and fled” are remembered among the saints of the church.

There are only two apostles who follow Christ as far as the High Priest's courtyard, and only one who goes all the way to the foot of the cross. Keep in mind, these 12, they are Christ's hand-picked men. When the only Begotten Son of God, infinitely wise, reader of men's hearts, was able to choose the cream of the crop to be the original priests in his church, these are the men He chose. This was the night of their ordination, when Christ has prayed for them and interceded for them and sweated blood for them. This is as good as good as it gets. If you are ever alarmed by the state of the church, remember: this was how she was on the night of her birth.

Now, some of the people in the church today are heroically faithful, persevering in hope, willing to follow Christ to Calvary and to stand there, keeping vigil beside Him as He dies. I have nothing to say to those people, because they are better than me. I am a somewhat befuddled ex-Culture Warrior. I drew my sword. I lopped off some ears. I became angry and discouraged when I realized that this was not what Christ wanted of me, and I have certainly made my denials. I'm Peter. Anyone who is engaged in the Culture Wars is Peter.

So what does the story of Peter in Gethsemane teach us? First, that our way is not Christ's way. We are to sheathe our swords. Specifically, we are to sheathe them in order to provide an opportunity for Christ to do His healing work. So long as we are fighting against the LGBTQ community, or for that matter any opposing group within the culture war, we are wounding their ears: we are preventing them from being able to hear the message of Christ's love. Not that Christ's love for the servant of the High Priest comes in the form of a word. Christ says nothing to this man. He heals him. It brings to mind a saying of Francis of Assissi “Preach the gospel everywhere, and if necessary use words.”

Second, that if we sheathe our swords there will be a terrible darkness. Why do we take up the sword, why fight the Culture Wars in the first place? For obvious reasons. We want to defend America. We want to defend Christianity. We want to defend our children. We want to defend our way of life. These are all things that we love, and we do not want to watch any of them get nailed to the Cross. We feel about the death of any of these things much as Peter felt when he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." To which Christ replies "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's.”

When Peter sheaths his sword, and Christ tells him “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Peter is plunged into a state of spiritual darkness and confusion. Up until this point he had a solid identity: he was a follower of Christ. He thought he understood what that meant, and what it demanded of him. Now he doesn't know what to do. His courage has come to nothing, his saviour has been taken away from him, his desire for martyrdom has been denied. He is asked about his Christian identity, and he is in no condition to give an answer for the faith that is in him. Instead, he says that he doesn't know what the people in the courtyard are talking about, the cock crows, he realizes his denial, and he weeps.

This is a very accurate psychological portrait of what it looks like to stop fighting the Culture Wars. It's hard. So long as you have that sword in your hand, you know who you are. You have an identity in Christ: an identity forged and tempered in violence. It doesn't matter that the violence is the violence of a com-box war, or a letter writing campaign, or a series of articles. The pen, after all, is mightier than the sword. We can imagine Christ in the Culture Wars crying “Peter, sheathe your pen.” He who lives by the pen, shall die by the pen? If we look at the state of the Mass Media traditional Christianity certainly seems to be dying by the pen.

Third, Peter's story teaches us that there will be faith beyond this darkness. It provides us with a way forward, a way to be Christian beyond the Culture Wars. “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.” There's an interesting detail here that you can miss in translation, which is that the first two times that Christ asks whether Peter loves him, he asks about agape, a form of love that is simultaneously more unconditional, but also less personal than philia. When Peter responds, he speaks of philia all three times. The third time that Christ asks, He rephrases the question in Peter's terms and asks about philia, about the kind of love that we think of when we speak of intimate, personal friendship. It's also interesting that Peter is hurt only this third time, when Christ throws his friendship, his affection into question.

So how do we feed Christ's lambs, how do we tend His sheep? We start by listening. What are people in the LGBTQ community hungry for? What wounds do they need healed? What obstacles stand between them and the sheepfold? And then we remove those obstacles, and we heal those wounds, and we provide for those hungers.

This can be addressed to some degree in the abstract. We can talk about general patterns in terms of what LGBTQ Christians need from their parishes and from their faith communities. But the main thing that they need is love. Not just agape, but philia. Not just concern for their good, but comraderie, affection, friendship.

I was asked once by the leader of a ministry to gays and lesbians – a fairly conservative ministry – what they could do better. One of my replies was “Don't hide in the church basement. Get people in the parish involved. Have straight allies.” This wasn't received with especial enthusiasm. But this is what we need. If our ministries to gays and lesbians consist of people meeting in secrecy, keeping their sexuality to themselves, supporting one another without very little outside support it's not going to work. That's not to say that you can't have private support groups for sex addicts, for married men who are struggling with same-sex pornography, or for anyone else who just isn't in a place where they are willing to be out in public. The needs of those people certainly need to be met. But we also need to care for those who are known to be gay or lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer.

Part of this, I think, is to reverse the taboo against coming out in Christian circles. I think there are a lot of people in our parishes who would be willing and happy to support LGBTQ Christians attempting to live out the teachings of the Bible. The usual ministries for Christian singles will not work in this case. Most of these ministries are targeted towards young people, many of them are kind of a dating pool, and it is assumed that people in these ministries are looking to marry. If it is known that a person within the parish is committed to singleness, and that marriage is an unlikely eventuality, then there becomes an opportunity for families within the parish to take responsibility for gay and lesbian parishioners. I remember growing up that there was an elderly women in our parish, a widow whose grandchildren lived far away. My family adopted her. All my siblings called her Grandma Grace. When she became unable to drive, my mother drove her. When she was in her final illness, my mother helped to care for her. If we hadn't known her life situation, we wouldn't have known that she needed to be included in our family.

We need to make LGBTQ people our friends. I do a lot of informal ministry, and a lot of what I do has nothing to do with telling the truth about biblical sexuality, or even with listening to people's problems. A lot of it involves following people on Twitter so that I know when they're having a bad day. It involves paying attention to what their favourite TV shows are and what music they like – and in some cases, going out of my way to familiarize myself with those shows and that music so that when they're feeling alone or isolated I can make a comment that will remind them of something that they like. A lot of days, my ministry looks like random jokes about Black Sabbath and Doctor Who. It involves inviting them to come and stay at my house, or going out of my way to stop in and visit them if I'm passing through their state. It involves talking on the phone about nothing much. In some cases it involves calling or writing to my gay friends when I have problems, because people get a lot more out of a relationship when they're not just a project, a charity case, but a genuine friend who has something of value to offer in return.

This brings me to my last point, which is that LGBTQ people in the parish must be invited to be more than just a pastoral problem. They must be given opportunities to give back, to be contributing adults within the parish family. These opportunities should not take the form of demands, and they should take into account the particular talents of the individuals involved. Throughout the rest of the day, hopefully we will explore more concrete directions for creating vocations and providing gay parishioners with a means of living full lives as faithful members of the Body of Christ.

Monday, September 8, 2014


I've been rooting around on the internet for Catholic resources aimed at helping transgender people and their parents. It's a bit of wasteland. Most of the articles that you can find aren't even intended to be helpful to someone who is dealing with this – as a community we seem to be more concerned with defending Catholic sexual ideology than with ministering to trans people.

I think that there are several key misconceptions about transfolks that fuel that largely negative response. I'd like to briefly treat six of them here.

1. Trans people “suddenly” want to change their gender.

To folks on the outside, transition sometimes seems to come across as a shock. Someone who appears to have a perfectly comfortable male identity one day announces that they are going to be a woman. It can seem like a bizarre, even incomprehensible choice: after all, if someone has lived as a guy for 37 years why can't he just go on living as a guy?

When trans people talk about their experience of this situation a very different picture emerges. Often the person has struggled silently with their gender identity over years, or decades, before reaching the point where they are willing to discuss it in public. It's quite common for transwomen to go through a long period where they buy feminine clothes, secretly cross-dress, feel ashamed, throw out all of their feminine clothes and then repeat the cycle. People with gender dysphoria will often make a protracted and laborious attempt to “achieve” a functional cisgendered identity, perhaps living a double-life in order to gain occasional relief from the effort of performing a gender role in their day-to-day life that feels alien or artificial.

By the time that someone decides to make the leap and come out of the closet about their gender identity they have probably struggled with it behind closed doors for a long time. Even if the change seems sudden to others, it is usually the culmination of a long process for the person involved.

2. Every human being is unambiguously either male or female.

This just isn't true. There is literally no single criterion that can be used to accurately determine a person's “biological sex” in every single case. There are people born with partially developed reproductive organs of both sexes, people born with no reproductive organs at all, people with the external genitalia of one sex but the internal genitalia of the other, people born with male XY chromosomes but female external genitalia and a normal female phenotype, etc. etc. etc.

The fact that our sexuality, male and female, is an important part of our human identity does not mean that it is in some special protected category. Other equally important parts of our human identity, like reason, conscience, or free will, can all be altered, diminished or functionally eliminated by a variety of genetic, psychological or neurological conditions. It is an important pillar of Catholic thought that the full dignity of the person must be defended in all cases, not just in those where the person seems to be 'normal'.

3. Transwomen are men who are turned on by the thought of being a woman.

Some people have proposed that all transwomen suffer from a rare paraphilia called “autogynophilia” in which a man is sexually aroused by the thought of being a woman. First of all, this simply isn't true. It does seem to be the case that there are people who fall into this category, and that a very small minority of such people do seek sex-reassignment surgery in order to better act out their sexual fantasies, but that's rare and extreme. Folks for whom an opposite-sex gender identity is solely a sexual fetish are much more likely to cross-dress during sexual encounters while maintaining an otherwise cisgender identity. Such men don't want to be a woman in daily life in much the same way that people who have a bondage fetish don't want to wear leathergear to the office.

The perception that autogynophilia plays a much larger role in transwomen's lives than it actually does is partially a product of an assumption that if a trans person feels the need to cross-dress or assume their preferred gender role in order to have satisfactory sex, then their erotic sensibilities are the cause of their trans condition. This is actually kind of silly. If a persons experiences dysphoria and/or dysmorphia (the feeling that your sexual organs or secondary sex characteristics are at odds with your body image) while having sex it's both stressful and a big turn off. Most people want to be able to comfortably and honestly express themselves when making love, and may find it difficult to become aroused if they feel alienated from their own body.

4. Trans is the same as gay (but worse)

Transwomen are often oversexualized, both in the media and in popular perception. Within Christian circles, it's common to respond to trans people as if being trans were basically a sexual orientation, and many automatically assume that if someone is trans, they're gay. In fact, transfolks may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual.

Being trans is not primarily about sex, nor do people generally choose to be trans because they have rejected binary gender categories, or because they want to advance an agenda that seeks to undermine marriage or deny sexual complementarity.

5. Transfolk are just Tomboys and Sissy-boys

When Christian advice is offered to parents of trans people, or to transfolks themselves, the advice is usually concerned with how to address gender non-conforming behaviour. The assumption is that a trans person is basically a boy who wants to play with Barbies or a girl who wants to climbs trees.

Being trans is about more than just performative gender roles – it's about how a person feels him or herself to be gendered while performing all sorts of activities. A transwoman may be interested in playing with swords, but will imagine herself playing with swords as Joan of Arc. A transman is not simply a woman who likes power tools, but a person who perceives himself as male even when baking cookies.

6. Trans people identify only with superficial aspects of femininity/masculinity.

    I've encountered several Christian commentators who say that transwomen come across as a “parody of womanhood,” that they're obsessed with superficial things like wearing women's clothing or putting on make-up but have no interest in the essential aspects of femininity, like having babies.

Firstly, this isn't true (or fair). There are transwomen who want to get pregnant and nurse a child, but it doesn't get a lot of discussion because it's not actually possible. There are also transwomen who see their feminine identity primarily in terms of archetypal feminine traits like empathy or nurturing. Secondly, a trans person is unlikely ever to achieve the same easy relationship with their gender identity that the average cis person enjoys. Many find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” situation where they are ridiculed for being “effeminate” if they try to present themselves in public as a man, and are ridiculed for being “clocky” (that is, unconvincingly female) if they present as a woman.

If you're interested in a more complete list of misconceptions, or a more in-depth treatment of each, check out AnnaMagda's series at The Catholic Transgender.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Homeschooling and Paranoia

13 years ago, when I was a young mother standing on the pro-life picket line I was in an unusual position. Because I had a baby I was treated as one of the adults by the older members of the group and was therefore privy to all of the adult conversations about child-rearing, homeschooling and the dangers of modern society. As a 21 year old I was also accepted by the teenagers who had come along with their parents, and I encountered a curious effect. The parents raved about the advantages of homeschooling, particularly how they had been able to shelter and protect their children from all sorts of malign influences – especially too-early exposure to sexual information. From the teenagers I heard about how they had to shelter their parents from the realization that actually, secretly, they knew the same stuff that the secular schoolkids knew.

It's something that I mostly forgot about as I undertook the business of trying to homeschool my own brood, but a recent blog entry on homeschooling reminded me of it. There's a lot that I agree with in this article, but there's also an underlying current of hostility and paranoia towards public schooling that I find a little disconcerting. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that I'm not really sure that sheltering our kids is always the best thing, either for their psychology, or for their faith, or for the wider community that the Church is called to serve.

I also don't think that it's necessarily healthy for relations between parents and children. I'm currently raising a 14 year old, and she informs me that I am the Best Mother Ever. But there was a period in our relationship, a little over a year ago, where there was a lot of strain and tension which ultimately led towards lying, sneaking and petty acts of rebellion. The superficial stakes were pretty low: she wanted to be able to watch Merlin and thought that her father and I would disapprove. The actual stakes were a lot higher. Like those kids that I met on the pro-life tour, she felt that she had to put up a pretense when she was talking to me. She felt she had to pretend that she didn't know anything about sex, or secular TV shows, or what it is that I write about all the time. There was a Good Catholic Daughter persona that had to be maintained, and since my daughter is not especially great at the deceptive arts this persona was frustratingly unconvincing and difficult to maintain.
Recently she mentioned to me that she explicitly sees the turning point in our relationship as the point at which I made it clear that she's allowed to talk to me about those things, that she is allowed to form her own preferences and opinions, and that I would much rather provide guidance than censorship. I strongly believe that if I had continued to try to shelter my daughter our real relationship would have deteriorated. I also believe that encountering other ideas, perspectives, and experiences within a context where she can safely ask questions and develop her own Catholic identity will leave her with a more robust faith, and a greater ability to effectively share that faith with a wider community. (Confession: I hope that this will happen. Check back in five years and I might have a different brand of wisdom on tap :) )

Now, I do still homeschool. I offered my daughter the choice to go to high-school this year, but she decided that she would rather pursue an apprenticeship in alternative medicine. She'll be homeschooling with me half the time (doing her English and History and all the humanities type stuff that I'm good at) and the other half she'll be learning Biology, Chemistry, Herbalism and Business skills from her mentor. I'm also still homeschooling my five younger children. But my decision to homeschool is no longer motivated by the fears and anxieties that I had as a younger Catholic mom.

I don't homeschool because the education system is “poison” or because I'm a mommy-martyr who has rejected the worldly-wiles of professional activity in order to give her kids the best. Yeah, maybe I would get more writing done if I didn't have five homeschooled kids jumping on my head while I try to type, but on the other hand I know that my mother put in an equal amount of work and sacrifice making sure that her eight kids got the best possible public-school education – and it was a good education. I often have folks ask me what I'm doing my doctorate in, and I have to smile sheepishly and say, “Actually, I don't even have a BA. I just went to a really good high-school.” I should really add, “and I had my mom.”

A parent who is really involved and really cares about the education of their child can make either system work and a parent who models strong moral values in the home can be reasonably confident that their kids will grow up with strong moral values. Also, there's more to morality than sex and the schools I went to did a great job of promoting social justice, community responsibility, fairness, open-mindedness, respect for other cultures, peace-making, and all of those “soft,” “liberal” virtues that some Catholics sneer at but which are, in fact, virtues (and which are, like all virtues, actually hard to teach and hard to practice.)

So I don't homeschool because I'm scared of the school system. I homeschool because I think that it's better for my kids. My kids. Not necessarily anyone else's. There are about a hundred and sixty different factors that rightly influence a decision about how to educate one's children – everything from the personality and special needs of the child to the parents' ability to effectively advocate for their child in a school setting, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the local school, to the parents' own competence as a teacher, to the available network of support that a family has access to. A huge number of pros and cons get weighed up when deciding how to educate a child, and there really isn't a “one-size-fits-all” solution that is going to be best for every child or for every family.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pain, Labour and Suicide

The internet has been awash for the past couple of days with discussions of suicide. The discussion seems to break down into three basic groups: people who have actually experienced suicidal depression who are trying to explain what it is, people who have never experienced it but who are trying to offer compassionate support, and people who have never experienced it but are pretty sure that people who do are whining narcissists.

At the heart of the debate over suicide is a basic disagreement that has troubled philosophy for as long as people have been asking the Big Questions: Is it possible for a person to experience suffering of such intensity that they become functionally incapable of rationally exercising their moral free will?

The obvious test case is the problem of people's wills breaking under torture, but most of the time people discussing this case have no actual experience of being tortured so the discussions basically devolve into thought-wank. So instead I'm going to examine the closest experience that I have: giving birth.
Labour is, in my opinion, a fantastic existential laboratory for examining the relationship between pain and the will. Excruciating physical agony is there, freely on tap, and nobody will accuse you of being masochistic or self-destructive if you choose to confront it head on. Also, you can pretty easily set up conditions and then test your ability to pursue your pre-established goals once the pain sets in. For example, you can test things like “Can I continue to keep my thoughts sufficiently clear to continue reciting the rosary throughout the entire birthing process?” “Can I resist the temptation to ask for pain medication?” “Can I follow all of my midwife's instructions and maintain rational control over my actions?” “Can I prevent myself from screaming?” If you have a lot of kids, you can test more complicated things like “What is the difference between the relationship between my will and my body if I spend several months psychologically preparing myself to adopt an agonistic posture towards pain, vs. the same relationship if I prepare myself to adopt a cooperative/embracing attitude towards it?”

Obviously I only have tentative conclusions based on a very small pool of data involving a single subject: me. But based on that, I would have to say that I've arrived at two basic principles which I think are probably true.

a) It probably is possible, through the use of a variety of interior techniques, to achieve the Stoic ideal of rational detachment from any kind of pain.

b) This is not accomplished without practice. And I don't mean “practice” in the sense of performing various exercises to strengthen the will (though that may help), but practice in the sense of actually enduring the kind of pain that you want to be able to endure.

What this means in practical terms is that when you encounter a new kind of pain, or a new depth of pain, or a new duration of pain for the first time you're probably not going to be sufficiently well equipped to take it on. The radical volitional position is right in so far as it is possible to prepare the will for anything, but it's naive if it suggests that this can be done simply by willing it. Successfully resisting overwhelming pain involves technique and experience, not just guts and good will.

So what does this have to do with suicide?

Well, basically suicide (at least in a contemporary context) is usually not a error in rational judgment. The days when Cato and Seneca calmly and philosophically contemplated their options and soberly arrived at the conclusion that self-slaughter was the most rational option are past. Most contemporary suicides are motivated by intense psychological suffering. The psyche literally hits a point where it is no longer capable of dealing with the amount of emotional pain that it is experiencing and it starts writhing around, contorting itself, looking for any possible way of alleviating that pain – not unlike someone in massive physical agony who constantly changes positions, moans, cries, screams, gets in the shower, gets out of the shower, lashes out, stands up, refuses to stand up, lies down, refuses to lie down, demands an ice pack, throws the ice pack across the room, etc. etc. etc. in a vain attempt to achieve some kind of relief.

In the case of someone in physical pain, we all understand. If a woman in labour starts screaming that she doesn't want to give birth anymore, or that she wants to die, nobody comes by and tells her that she's being selfish or narcissistic. If she has to make a hard moral decision that will result in the prolongation or intensification of her suffering, nobody will treat her like a self-indulgent whiner if she's unable to make it. Even people who have never been in that kind of pain themselves are able to see that the degree of suffering is clearly beyond anything that they've experienced, and usually they humbly suspend judgment.
In the case of emotional pain, however, there's very often an assumption that the person is somehow responsible for bringing this pain upon themselves, and that they are fundamentally always capable of dealing with it if they really try. This is exacerbated by the fact that the causes of unendurable emotional duress are often not observable from an outside perspective and the person suffering is rarely able to adequately articulate them. The kind of anguished cries that tend to issue forth from the lips of the suicidally depressed often sound like completely irrational nonsense. “I hate myself.” “I'm incapable of loving.” “I'm a bad person.” “I'm utterly alone.” Statements like these seem to reflect an error in judgment, but what they actually reflect is an experience so painful that there are no other possible words for describing it. Perhaps “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which was also not an error in judgment, coming as it did from the lips of a man who understood perfectly why He had been forsaken and who knew that in fact He had not been.

This experience of forsakenness, of emotional anguish to the point of desiring death, is not a product of selfishness, narcissism, self-indulgence, or ingratitude. It does not only happen to bad people. Scripture tells us so. Look at the book at Job: Job in his anguish not only pleads for death, but demands to know why the stars did not close their eyes on the day of his birth, why the womb brought him forth. He not only wishes for death as an end to his present sufferings; he is so overwhelmed by pain that he wishes his entire existence to be stricken from the scrolls of Being. And of course Job's very righteous and virtuous friends tell him that this is his fault, the punishment for some secret sin. But God tells them that they have spoken wrongly.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Eros & Thanatos

In these philosophical dialogues, questions of love, sex, death and retribution are explored by a group of characters representing a wide diversity and experience.

Unlike many books with a dialogue format, this one doesn't have a Socrates character who is always right. Each character brings some aspect of truth to the table and it is only through a clash of ideas and insights that they approach a solution to the problems they confront.

Catullus Kirkman is a young gay artist flirting with Christianity in spite of his parents' attempts to raise their children as good Roman Pagans. His angst over how, when and if to come out to his family form the backdrop for a discussion of sexual morality and the nature of love.

Germanicus is a devout Stoic whose dedication to rational abstraction rarely ports well to his personal life. His attempt to help his brothers with their respective struggles forces him into a deeper engagement with the complexities of truth, and the importance of the emotional life.

If Nietzsche does philosophy with a hammer, Juvenal does it with a chainsaw. Haunted by the restless spirit of a murdered child, he delves into the morality of necromancy, life after death and the nature of justice as he discerns whether to become the instrument of its bloody vengeance.

Get it here.

UPDATE: Now available on here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Criminalizing the Buying of Sex in Canada

Many political conservatives in the United States are accustomed to looking at Canada as a hotbed of liberalism, where the consequences of the sexual revolution have progressed further than they have at home. So it’s nice to be able to write about something that Canada is doing right.

Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s proposed prostitution bill, is currently being fast-tracked through Canada’s legislative system following a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to strike down the existing prostitution laws late last winter. The existing laws were challenged on the basis that they endangered prostitutes in order to advance a Victorian agenda of social decency.

Read the whole article at the National Catholic Register here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Unclean Spirit of Gender Ideology

There's been some buzz around the internet lately about the concept of gender ideology, and Pope Francis referring to it as “demonic.” So I wanted to talk about what exactly “gender ideology” is, and how it relates to the experience of transfolk.

Basically, gender ideology is a dualist ideology that collapses all of human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, into either biological difference or social construction. As is generally the case with dualism the body is considered to be relatively unimportant in relation to the mental/spiritual/interior aspects of the self and so the relevance of biological difference is usually downplayed. Sexuality interacts with the more fundamental aspects of the person only in terms of gender and gender, masculinity and femininity, is understood solely in reference to social conditioning which proponents of gender ideology see as basically arbitrary, and usually sexist.

It's an ideology that came out of second wave feminism, and it's largely the result of women trying to seize equality within a deeply hierarchical patriarchal cultural system. To put it simply, within a hierarchy there's a natural tendency to evaluate difference in terms of superiority and inferiority. There's also a general tendency within male-dominated structures to view relations, especially relations between human beings, in hierarchical terms. The Roman obsession with status, or the way that Late Medievals and Early Moderns stressed about exactly where in the Great Chain of Being their particular bloodline was situated, are prime examples of the hierarchical impulse in action. And of course throughout most of the history of the Western world it has been believed that sexual difference implies a distinction of value, with men on top.

Now Christianity did maintain that women possessed a dignity before God equal to that of men, but dignity before God did not generally manifest as equality within political or social structures. For second wave feminists seeking social equality, the path of least resistance lay in a denial of sexual difference. If a difference in kind implies a difference in status, then the simplest way of eliminating a difference in status is to deny that there is a difference in kind. Sexual difference in earlier cultures often manifested in terms of socially stratified gender roles, and sexual difference was almost universally invoked as a defense of those roles. Women couldn't be in the army, because they were weak. They couldn't be politicians, because they were naturally passive. They couldn't be academics because their reason was too easily clouded by sentiment.

Feminists of the second wave said “No!” Women are not weak, they are enfeebled by artificial, socially constructed constraints invented by men in the service of male interests. To a very significant degree, this was true – and demonstrably so. The curse invoked at the outset of history, “and he shall lord it over you” has in fact played itself out in the cultural arena and the beauty and dignity of sexual complementarity has been badly warped and tarnished by the presumption of men. Gender ideology allowed women to assert equality with men, but it came at a cost: the differences between the sexes had to be construed as trivial or irrelevant.

Now if we look at the contemporary situation, and especially at the development of Third Wave feminism and the men's movement, it's pretty clear that sexual difference has re-emerged as an important cultural concern. As soon as a social consensus surrounding womens' right to participate fully in the social, cultural, political and economic life of our civilization emerged, feminism shifted towards a defense of femininity qua femininity, rather than a denial of difference between masculinity and femininity. We've started to reap the good fruit of earlier forms of feminism, and we've also started to discard the chaff.

Gender ideology remains, however, within queer discourse, and for much the same reason. The dignity of same-sex love is defended by an attempt to present it as identical with heterosexual marriage. The dignity of transfolk is defended by an appeal to a socially constructed notion of gender. After all, if gender is just a social artifact, and society construes a particular male individual as “feminine” or “effeminate” then that person should be allowed to live as a female. It makes sense. Right?

The thing is that I don't think very many transfolk actually believe this. Admittedly I'm going from a fairly small group of people that I've spoken to personally, but one thing that seems to emerge in the actual experience of trans people is a fundamental appreciation for the meaning and significance of sexual difference combined with an intense feeling of gender dysphoria. Trans people do not believe that the differences between male and female are trivial, superficial, or irrelevant. They experience these differences as extremely relevant, as fundamental to “who I am.” A transwoman does not believe that she's a woman because she thinks that the differences between femininity and masculinity are abitrary, rather she believes that she is a woman because she experiences herself as feminine in the most profound strata of her being – and her femininity is sufficiently important to her that she is willing to risk social ostracism, loss of employment, derision, exclusion from her religious community, rejection from her family, and perhaps surgery in order to be able to express what she firmly believes to be the truth about herself as a sexually differentiated person.

So where does gender ideology come in? Well, in more or less the same place that it came in for feminism. Generally, people can relate to the idea of wanting to escape from arbitrary social restrictions better than they can relate to the idea of a woman with a penis. If gender is socially constructed, then a person who chooses to transgress gender expectations may be weird, but they're sane. On the other hand, if a person has a male body but insists that they are female, they're crazy. They believe something that seems to be demonstrably untrue. Most of the stereotyping and discimination faced by transfolk is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to gender theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing gender dysphoria without being pathologized.

The problem with the Christian response to transfolk is that the beauty of sexual complementarity becomes weaponized. It is used to undermine the rights and dignity of a very small minority of people who are not privileged to experience masculinity and femininity the way that the majority do. It's not entirely dissimilar to the way that the beauty of rationality and health were used by the eugenics movement to undermine the rights and dignity of people with exceptional cognitive or physical challenges. The underlying assumption is that people should be valued based on their correspondance with an abstract human ideal, and that deviation from the ideal is a moral or social problem.

If we want to effectively demonstrate the falsity of gender ideology we have to start by realizing that trans people are not a manifestation of ideological confusion. Rather they are a group of people who have adopted (at least publicly) the only viable ideological solution to a complex social and personal dilemma. Telling them that they are violating God's plan for humanity, male and female, by deliberately denying their sexual nature does not help. It's not a viable ideological solution, and it's a suicidally dangerous existential solution (I mean that quite literally: I've known trans people on suicide watch for this precise reason.) Simply put, people do not choose to experience a deep-seated incongruity between the apparent sexuality of their body and their interior sense of self as masculine or feminine, and they certainly do not experience gender dysphoria because they have willfully rejected God's plan for humanity.

If the Christian community wishes to serve trans people, it will be necessary to provide a coherent alternative, an anthropology that maintains the dignity of sexual complimentarity without compromising the dignity of bodies whose sexuality is complicated: the dignity of intersex people who may not clearly be born either male or female, and the dignity of trans people whose bodies do not echo their interior experience of sexuality.