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.