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.