Saturday, November 23, 2013

Trans-formations

 (cross-posted from spiritualfriendship.org)

I wrote recently on being gender-queer, and I promised that I write about transsexuality.

Before I do that, I want to give some idea of where I’m coming from on this issue. I recently wrote a paper on transgender and transsexual issues, and how trans identities relate to the traditional Catholic teaching on essential sexual complementarity. The paper was 5000 words long. I could have written four times that. As the foundation for writing I talked to trans people, read their writings, and listened to the stories that they had to tell about themselves rather than just approaching their experience through the filter of the “experts.” I’ve seen my own experience presented by experts often enough to know that there is often something missing in an allegedly “objective” account, and that the something missing is usually the heart of the human person.

So the first thing that I would say is that understanding trans people’s experience of gender and sexuality is going to require a long conversation, and that conversation is going to demand an awful lot of listening before we start making judgements. This is something that I feel is lacking in a lot of the Christian/Catholic response to trans people: it’s often assumed that “trans” is kind of gay, only more so and worse. Trans people are seen as a wrecking ball levelled at whatever remains of the foundations of marriage and sexuality in the West, and their experiences (perhaps even more than the experiences of LGB people) are thus reduced to a political problem.

To give an example, a little over a year ago I was invited to do a brief interview on a right-wing talk show up here in Canada. I have a policy of saying “Yes” to almost anything that I’m asked to do, so I found myself watching clips of the show, trying to figure out what I had gotten myself into. On one of the clips that I watched, the host pointed to a picture of a trans woman (MtoF) and asked “Would you want this person teaching your kids?” The really horrible thing was that he was basically taking advantage of the fact that the person in question really wasn’t very convincing as a woman. If the host had used a picture of a really good looking transsexual, the audience reaction would have been completely different. He was appealing to his audience’s sense of revulsion towards effeminate men combined with their revulsion towards ugly women and was using that to undermine the right of trans people to work.

I really don’t think that the host had thought through what this kind of response to trans people means for the people in question. To him, as to too many Christian commentators, the person was entirely eclipsed by his or her sexual identity. The underlying assumption was that this person could just choose to behave and dress like a man, and that if they couldn’t it was because they were suffering from some form of psychological illness that would render them unfit for work with kids.

The problem is, there’s really no theological grounds for assuming this to be the case. Yes, the Bible seems to teach that our sexuality, male and female, is an essential part of our humanity “in the image and likeness of God,” but that’s doesn’t mean that maleness and femaleness are sacrosanct biological realities preserved from any kind of complicated conditions. We’ve known going back as far as the Old Testament that sometimes people are “born eunuchs.” The existence of intersex people – people born without a clear sexual identity, male or female, at birth – is a pretty unambiguous indication that a person’s biological sexuality is not always simple and straightforward.

How does this relate to trans people? Increasingly, medical evidence shows that our biological sexual identity extends to much more than just our genitalia and the “secondary sex characteristics” that we were taught about in grade 8. The Church has always known this, and has always taught it over and against gender theorists and feminists, like Simone de Beauvoir who wanted to collapse all non-reproductive sexual difference into socially constructed gender. In terms of the innate differences between men and women, the most important discoveries have been those which show that psychological, social and cognitive differences between the sexes are not merely the products of culture: that they are somatically encoded within the sexually differentiated structures of the brain itself.

This means that we have to expand our understanding of the ways in which a person’s innate sexuality might be ambiguous. If biological sex involves brain development as much as it involves genital development, then there is no reason to reject the possibility that a person could develop a female-typical brain in a male-typical body, or visa versa. Indeed, the medical evidence increasingly shows that this is exactly what happens in the case of many people who are transsexual. It’s not so much that the person has a mistaken perception about their body, as that they are aware of a deep discordance between the sexuality of their body and the sexuality of their brain.

It is precisely because maleness and femaleness are so important for our identity as human beings that most trans people feel compelled to somehow find a way of achieving a single, unified sexual identity as either a man or a woman. The internal conflict and confusion that arise from a lack of clear sexual identity can be profound, and the mental health sequelae are often severe – including, in many cases, strong and persistent temptations to suicide. Subjecting people in this position to social sanctions and justifying discrimination against them out of desire to uphold Christian ideals surrounding sex and gender is about as compassionate as putting a dunce-cap on the head of a kid with autism in order to set an example for the other students.

The question of how to best integrate the realities of trans experience with the traditional teaching of an incarnational faith is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot of honest work from people of good will. I do think, however, that there is one thing which is absolutely clear: that integration cannot even begin to take place unless space is made within the discourse for trans people themselves. Trans folks are not a problem for experts and theologians to solve. They are, first and foremost, the face of Christ, marginalized, bullied, misunderstood, spit upon and rejected, and absolutely beloved of God.

14 comments:

  1. Melinda, once again I thank you for your efforts to build bridges between Mother Church and the human beings surrounding her. I'm the same Brian who has posted before. This time, I feel confident enough to post my main screen-name here as well as the link to my website (I am trying again to establish a public presence as an artist in training). I admire your work. God bless you.

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  2. Might I suggest that a transgendered person is unfit to work with kids for an entirely different reason? Kids are impressionable, and being transgendered is hard. Why would you want to infect a kid, who already may be struggling with precocious puberty and all the gender confusion that brings naturally, with the assumption that transgender is normal? Looks like a recipe for creating suicide to me.

    I am HFA/Asperger's, and while I would wish that the autistics would be better protected from NT bullies, learning to deal with the NT bullies is a life skill worth learning, because they are EVERYWHERE. But I'm not about to suggest I should be allowed to work with children, when my disability would prevent it, any more than I would suggest that I should be able to work crowd control at a rock concert, something I would also normally avoid.

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    1. Dear Theodore. I transitioned from male to female in 2011. I do not work with children so i cannot comment directly on what impact this might have in a classroom setting. However, I do have a few observations, based on the response of my family. Children, i think, seem to be remarkable adaptable and it's usually the prejudices of their parents that creates any issues. One family member will not allow me to have any contact with their children and have not, to my knowledge, even told them. Thus it becomes something shameful, some perversity or mental illness that seems to have the very potential of 'infecting' them. My closest sister however, was very open with her two children, aged 6 and 4. She explained what was happening as best she could in terms they would understand and they responded beautifully. When I first went to see them as lucy I was afraid they would be hiding somewhere but i was greeted with two laughing, running children calling 'aunty lucy,come and look at this' and vying for my attention.

      Yes, i agree that puberty does bring it's own issues as adolescents engage in the process of forming their adult identity. However, what is wrong with the assumption that transgender IS normal - ie, that a certain percentage of the population feel an incongruence with their physical body and internal self. Surely if we are open and honest about this and allow children to discuss it, then those for whom it is an issue can process this in a supportive environment. Hiding it away and trying to become something you're not seems like a more probable recipe for suicide to me, tho I was fortunate enough that things never got to this stage in my case

      I freely concede that this is not an easy topic. There is no one right way and every that transitions has a slightly different story, despite many common underlying themes. I think there is a fear out there that children who know someone who is transitioning will copycat this or might start questioning their own gender, but i'm not sure that there is any evidence to this case. My nephew came home from school one day with his nails painted and proudly showed his mum that they were just like aunty lucy's, before clearly affirming he was still a boy though! In this case at least, the kids are alright :)

      regards lucy :)

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  3. Theodore, do you realize that there are people who want to push transgendered people (as well as gays and lesbians) totally out of the public square, don't you? That might not be what you intend to say, but there are people who take that logic far further than you intend. That would be like calling for the likes of you and me (I too share your disability) to be completely pushed out of the public square.

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    1. Yes there are. There are also people who want to push autistics out of the public square, and white cisgendered males out of the public square, and any other group you can imagine.

      That still doesn't deny the fact that there are some situations and jobs that an autistic would be horrible at- like insurance sales. And some jobs that an autistic would be downright harmful to society on, like a security guard at a rock concert (can you imagine the damage you could do with the combination of righteous anger and a gun during a full-on sensory overload meltdown?!?!?). Likewise, there's damage that a transgendered person could do working with children in the 8-28 age group, merely by being who they are. And it is worth acknowledging that.

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    2. I'm not going to bother arguing in-depth with your post. I only want to mention "people who want to push...white cisgendered males out of the public square". That's a nasty straw-man attack on liberals-- who in fact want all human beings to take part in the public square without slaughtering each other or cancelling the others' existences--that comes straight out of right-wing talk radio, white-nationalist websites, and neo-fascist political parties. I feel that I must warn you about mindlessly running along with right-wing memes. I'm beginning to rethink commenting on this blog.

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  4. Im interested in hearing more about the brain wiring problem. I believe brain wiring has a lot to do with personality but Im skeptical about its influence on gender identity. Because I have known men that were effeminate but were still comfortable with their male gender and butch women comfortable with their female gender, am I making a huge mistake in this line of thinking? How is a "typical Male/Female" brain wiring identified? When we use terms like typically female or typlically male are we falling in to the gender as cultural contstuct problem? Do have any suggestions for further reading?

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  5. It seems like an error to claim that a brain could have gender independently from the individual as a whole.

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  6. Hi Joe,

    I wish I had recommendations for further reading. I took up the project assuming that there would be a lot of good Catholic material that I could draw on...and found that apart from the Culture Wars junk there was basically radio silence.
    Brain wiring has a huge amount to do with gender-identity. Basically, there are a large number of structures within the brain that are sexually differentiated. There are also sexually differentiated responses to various hormones and chemicals within the body. For example, the way that women get all gooshy and emotional around little babies has a huge effect on feminine personality, and it's also got a reasonably well-documented biological component. Typical male vs. female brain structures are identified by doing scans of a sizeable group of male or female brains. By doing that, you find that there are certain structures that are typically more developed, or less developed, or larger, or smaller, or more responsive to hormone x or less responsive to hormone x, etc. than is typically found in the other sex. It's the closest thing that we can get to a way of understanding sexual differentiation within the brain in a way that can't be collapsed to a cultural construct.

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  7. Thanks for the response. I guss I ave trouble thinking that a female typical brain could be a part of a male typical body. If a brain is part of a male body but behaves sort of womanly than it stops being a female typical brain and should be considered a unique male brain belonging to a unique male person.(the so called female-typical brain is made up of male genetic material after all). Is that over simplifying?

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  8. Joe, I think you're judging the brain by actions taken, where Melinda is talking about FMRI scans. Totally different.

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  9. Dear Melinda

    Thank you for your thoughts on the complex topic of transsexuality and spirituality. i came across this site whilst reading your book, Sexual Authenticity, which is part of a study i'm working on, looking at homosexuality, faith, the church. It's early days, but the other books haven't had a look in yet! (loving the authenticity by the way, it's very refreshing :) )

    My response to your post also has a personal aspect to it. I am, by technical definition, a 40 year old New Zealand Male to Female post-op transsexual, tho from my perspective, i am nothing more or less then 'lucy jordan, woman'. i am also in the process of restarting that long spiritual journey, having ignored it for the best part of 15 years and being drawn back into it as my transition unfolded. For all the ups and downs of transitioning (and there were relatively few downs) it's been this exploration of faith and spirituality that has ultimately been one of, if not the, hardest part of the whole process. I wish i could say it's going well but, truth be told, it's not been easy or pleasant and it's often lonely. I've no idea of what God makes of me or if he accepts me as i am (well, i think He does, but....?) It's certainly given me plenty of opportunity to look at my rather old and flawed models of God, tho it the absence of anything else i tend to cling to them desperately. All things considered, i have a lot of sympathy for C.S. Lewis's description of his search for God as that of 'the mouse searching for the cat'!

    I really appreciated the last paragraph you wrote in particular. I have had a very easy transition by comparison with others, largely supported by family, friends, workmates and the general public, who either don't know or don't care. I am very lucky, or as my mum would say, 'blessed'. And yet, i have a hard time believing that I am really beloved by God, I know this in my head as theory, but it's taking a long time for this to reach my heart. However, it never hurts to be reminded of this, so thank you :)

    Kind regards, lucy :)

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  10. Just found this thread. Without time to read in depth, will just say: What comes first in the brain ... the transgender "identity" or a person who detaches from their birth gender identity due to perceived real or imagined defensiveness, and the brain chemistry follows? In my case, I strongly wanted to be the opposite sex as a child and did develop a strongly-inclined attraction to being the opposite sex. However, there was a war going on within me to not feel those feelings. As an adult, at age 30, I asked God to help me through Jesus Christ, and He did. Forgive me for leaving much out. My attractions to same-sex were all but over, but the emotional needs were still there. That took years to settle, as God step-by-step re-parented me and rebuilt my inner core so I now live securely inside-out instead of outside-in (seeking affirmation from another same-sex, emotionally dependent relationship, which was excruciatingly painful). In the process, I re-discovered my birth gender, and love it! I find this is a core-identity issue. It takes guts and perseverance to redo what should have been apparent the first time growing up. Without God, I find it impossible. With God, all things are possible. I hope this helps somebody. Remember, there is no condemnation in Jesus Christ. I am not marginalizing anyone else's humanity. Just saying it like I know it to be.

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  11. Hi Melinda!
    Do you have this paper available somewhere? I just wrote you an email but it's an address at Vulgate magazine and not sure it's accurate anymore. I have also felt there seems to be zero information out there from a Catholic perspective on the trans experience and it's something I want to know more about.

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