Sunday, February 15, 2015
Having talked a lot about the need to include trans voices in the conversation, I'm thrilled that one of my friends offered to do a guest post. Edie is a transgender Catholic studying for a Masters in Theology.
by Edie Fetch
Recently, Carlos Flores of UC Santa Barbara wrote an article that’s been making the rounds among those sectors of Internet Catholicism concerned about trans issues. I felt that, as a transgender Catholic who is at least making a healthy go of trying to be both, it would be beneficial to engage Flores directly.
This is obviously something deeply personal for me; it is not solely an academic question but speaks about my deepest experience of myself. It has been an ongoing existential challenge for me, and one which I spent years deeply resisting. I even spent a year in seminary as part of my attempt to reify and strengthen the hard walls of the strict binary which I found myself constantly straining against.
That said, my goal here is not polemic; neither is it entirely personal. I am addressing Mr. Flores as a fellow ethicist and traveler, and assume nothing but the best of intentions.
I want first to note that I don’t know Mr. Flores; I can see, though, scanning his brief bio, that he appears to be a devotee of Elizabeth Anscombe and a writer for Ethika Politika; both of these things speak strongly in his favor, as Anscombe has become something of a philosophical hero of mine, and EP is a remarkable magazine.
But Flores’ article is profoundly wanting. This isn’t to say everything in it is off-base – he is quite right to call attention to the epistemological question of how a trans person can make the internal movement by which one identifies an inner sense of self with something exterior. It’s a question that keeps me up at night, and has caused me not a small amount of distress. Maybe we can’t account for this movement. Maybe it’s just a brute fact. But the fact remains that, accounted for or not, it happens. It happens all the time. And that makes it relevant data about human nature.
Mr. Flores questions the relevance of a distinction between sex and gender: why should how I identify be catered to when it’s contrary to reality? After all, he rightly points out that to all exterior appearances I am a male; why ought my self-proclaimed female identity be respected? This seems an odd question for someone who presumably believes that something which appears in every way like simple bread and wine might really be the Body and Blood of Christ – clearly, appearances are not all that matter – however, Flores also does not meaningfully consider the possibility that the distinction isn’t between something physical and something immaterial, but between two material things.
Human sexual identity – maleness and femaleness – is not confined to our genitals. As the future Pope Benedict XVI put it in 2004, “‘Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each of their expressions.’ It cannot be reduced to a pure and insignificant biological fact, but rather ‘is a fundamental component of personality, one of its modes of being, of manifestation, of communicating with others, of feeling, of expressing and of living human love…’” Men and women are meaningfully distinct in ways that are not merely reproductive, or entirely social. Indeed, there is ample evidence of neurological differentiation. Consider the possibility – just the possibility – that dissonance between body and brain sex is possible, that neurological intersexuality is possible.
This is the possibility I’d like, above all, for Mr. Flores to admit. There is no comparable phenomenon by which someone might theoretically have a “black brain” but a “Swedish body,” as in his absurd Gunther example. Bodily sex in itself is a very complex phenomenon which is known to be subject to difficulty in the form of intersexuality, the incidence of which is far higher than Flores assumes. Many intersex people do not even discover their intersexuality unless they undergo hormonal or genetic tests. Intersexuality goes beyond ambiguous genitalia and hermaphroditism; it encompasses people who are genetically male but phenotypically female alongside various chromosomal irregularities like Klinefelter’s syndrome. The incidence is as high as a solid one percent.
Flores is simply dismissive of both neurological sex and the possibility that intersexuality might offer reasonable insight into trans experience. He insists (wrongly) that intersexuality is both restricted to genitalia and so exceedingly rare as to warrant no meaningful philosophical investigation. More than anything, this bothered me: that he seems profoundly uncurious about one of the central questions. And what a question to be investigated! What does intersexuality have to say about maleness and femaleness? Does it say that sex is up for grabs? Does it paint a gradient? How does this affect Catholic marital theology? These questions fundamentally matter. They matter deeply, both because questions of sexuality are a serious flashpoint in ethical, philosophical, and theological discussion, and because we are talking about real human beings. This is relevant data which he simply dismisses because he cannot account for it. In the hard sciences, this is called confirmation bias. In the humanities, it’s plain foolishness.
Whether or not you think it’s ok to pursue gender transition, intersexuality exists in a wide variety of forms. Whether you want to attribute this to God or to transcription errors in cell division or to hormonal problems in utero, the hard division between male and female does break down in certain areas on the level of the human body. It is therefore not impossible that this is a neurological phenomenon as well.
At present, studies regarding transgender brains are not conclusive, however a number of studies do suggest that transgender brains are structurally closer in key areas to their identified gender. Flores account of this, that “acting female” somehow changes our brains structurally, is both dubious and bizarre. In any case, I highly doubt he wants to attribute sex differences in the brain entirely to behaviour.
In support of his position, Flores cites Paul McHugh’s findings on transsexuality. Although neither Flores nor I have the necessary qualifications to offer a full critique of McHugh's research, it must be acknowledged that McHugh is not representative of the consensus view within psychology. Does this make him wrong? Not in itself, but when the bulk of an academic field repudiates a view, it generally means either that the view is unfounded or insufficiently supported by subsequent research. Given that McHugh represents a minority view, I am struck with the suspicion that Flores sought data in support of a conclusion. Anyone interested in a critique of McHugh can find one here.
Flores presents his argument as though the only possible explanation for trans experience is opposition between a delusional mind and a real, physical body. But what if it's a matter of one part of the body struggling against another?
The question is very much "what is that which defines me?" It's not easy to address.
It is easy to be dismissive of a sex/gender distinction when you don't feel any tension between the two. Cis people don't readily perceive themselves as having a gender per se because they have no reason to tease that concept out, having never experienced it as a tension (on a personal note, I have a great deal of difficulty understanding how it can even be possible that most people don’t feel this way, so the separation is entirely intuitive to me).
I suspect that primacy of identity belongs in the interior experience of the self rather than in bodily configuration; this is the human living as a human and not as an animal. I think one could reasonably define an animal's sexual existence by their genitals; I think this is much harder to do for a human being. Beyond the wealth of nuance in sexual expression and interests, human beings live their sexuality as creatures possessed of ratio, the ability to reflect on and examine their own existence. I think that that's not something to be ignored. I spoke earlier about the interior movement in which trans people recognize themselves in the opposite sex; this movement, which I can't adequately describe, is part of that rational self-examination. Does this reduce people to their brains? Perhaps. But better that than their genitals. That is more respectful of the totality of their being, instead of addressing people as though they -- and their sexuality -- were merely instrumental in the production of further people. I think we can reasonably agree that the rational power of man is the thing that makes man...man.
The theological questions are there; they have to be addressed. They have to be addressed honestly and plainly in the full light of both revelation and lived experience. Trans lives offer a wealth of data to be considered and thought through and yes, theologized. But this must be done with respect for their experience, and not simply by addressing whether they fit into the system. Trans and intersex people are a challenge to Catholic sexual theology. This challenge needs to be squarely faced.