Sunday, June 7, 2015

Transgenderism, Part I: Girl, Look at That Body

It's been a long time since I've written a blog post, but a lot of people have asked me lately what my thoughts are on a particular issue that is dominating our media-sphere. Specifically, I'm referring to the matter of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, and more generally, to transgenderism as a whole. This is an issue which needs to be approached with tact, mercy, and generosity because of the emotional and societal implications it carries for those affected. So, as is customary for Internet dungeon-goblins like myself, I'll proceed to plow through it with all the grace of an Internet bull in an Internet china shop.

Or an Internet Liam Neeson in an Internet generic European neighborhood.
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There are three major questions that we have to ask about these kinds of things:
1. What is it? 
2. What are the moral or theological concerns? 
3. Knowing these concerns, what do we do about it? 

Unfortunately, it seems like the vast majority of the people who are weighing in on all sides of the transgender issue have failed to answer (or even ask) one or more of these questions. One blog post covering all of these at once would be far too long, so I intend to write three - one for each question. Please excuse the length of each individual post as well. Ideas such as these are beyond my ability to write both completely and concisely. St. Josemaria Escriva I am not.

So, on to question 1.

What is transgenderism?

The one thing that everyone seems to understand in common about transgenderism is its basic definition, which is stated very nicely and succinctly on the American Psychological Association's website: "Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth." Okay, so your gender doesn't match up with your sex. Easy definition, and one we can work with in practical terms. But before we can do that, we have to ask some follow-up questions: What do we mean by "gender" and "sex?" We can't just move on without knowing what we're talking about here.

The APA actually spells this out pretty specifically in the FAQ section of that same page: "Sex is assigned at birth, refers to one’s biological status as either male or female, and is associated primarily with physical attributes such as chromosomes, hormone prevalence, and external and internal anatomy. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women. These influence the ways that people act, interact, and feel about themselves. While aspects of biological sex are similar across different cultures, aspects of gender may differ."

Okay, so "sex" is your biological maleness or femaleness, and "gender" is your mental and social maleness or femaleness. Seems fairly easy to follow and, again, something we can work with practically. That's good. But it also means we also need to define our terms in another specific way. When we look to determine someone's sex and gender, what are the possible options for each? 

Biological sex is, for the most part, fairly straightforward: you have males and females, with no third option. 

Smizmars notwithstanding.
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There are people born with variations on this, such as malformed genitalia, Klinefelter or Turner syndrome, or other conditions, but it is clear that these are not the natural state of humanity. In biological terms, these conditions are, by their very nature, evolutionary dead-ends because they almost always result in sterility. You can't reproduce if your genitals don't work properly - it's a hard thing to deal with for those affected, but it's a fact nonetheless. These conditions are the result of physical deformities, a consequence of human biological imperfection, and do not constitute a "third sex." (I intend to deal more with this issue in the third post, so if you feel this hasn't been properly addressed, hang on and hopefully it'll be more satisfactory when I come back to it.) Only two options - male and female - actually allow all the systems of the human body to function properly, and thus these are our two biological choices.

Gender is another matter entirely. Ask the stereotypical conservative Christian and they'll likely tell you that mental and social gender can be either male or female, with no other potential options, and with fairly strict boundaries on what are acceptable behaviors and traits for each. Ask the stereotypical liberal atheist/agnostic and they'll probably say that gender is fluid, that it has as many possible iterations as there are people in the world. Obviously, both can't be right at once. Who's right, then? In my opinion, it's actually neither side, because both are not properly addressing the concept of gender.

By the definition of gender we're using, biology, physics, and the other natural sciences can't really help us here because we're not discussing a tangible thing - we have to use psychology, philosophy, morality, and religion to discuss the intangible mind and soul of a human being. So here's where I play the God card, and here's where I propose a new idea of gender: Gender is the role that a person is built to play in the eternal, universal exchange of love.

What do I mean by that? The way that God made us, as man and woman, was very intentional, for a specific reason. In our sexes and genders, we are meant to be a reality in the natural world paralleling a reality in the supernatural world - in heaven, the eternal exchange of love that is God Himself. That's a densely packed theological statement, but in a simpler sense, males are built to reflect God's role as "giver," and females His role as "receiver." Maleness, masculinity, is not a feeling, emotion, or aspect of a person's personality. It is a purpose for which that man was built. Similarly, femaleness, femininity, is a purpose for which that woman was built. Personal emotions, thoughts, or interests cannot and do not affect that underlying purpose. Our bodies, in turn, are constructed to be the means by which we carry out that purpose. Our sex is intended to be a physical manifestation of our spiritual/mental gender.

There is a corpus of Catholic teaching called the Theology of the Body that deals with this concept in great depth and detail. This post will already be long enough without going through all the ins and outs of the Theology of the Body (which has filled many books by many more intelligent men than I), but if you want more on that, click here for some reading material that explains it much more fully. I may just have to write another post specifically detailing what I mean about that "giver and receiver" relationship.

What it amounts to, though, is that both pro- and anti-transgender activists are both right and wrong in certain ways. Gender is a male-female dichotomy, yes, but because it is a purpose for existence and not a set of feelings, emotions, or interests, then there is room for a variety of those more subjective things within each gender. Both the overly conservative and overly liberal views of gender actually require a strict, dogmatic conformity to a set of social norms - "boy" traits and "girl" traits - that are not necessarily gender-based.

Let's make this more real and personal for a moment. I live in Texas, and down here, we have redneck girls. 

God bless Texas.
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They run, shoot, punch, dig, cuss, spit, play sports, don't take crap from anyone, and generally act in ways that a stereotypical view would consider "masculine." Are they men trapped in women's bodies? No. They are women who like football, beer, and guns. It happens. There's no need to label them as "gay" or "transgender" - they like what they like, their emotions are their own, and those things do not affect their ultimate purpose in God's plan, which is to receive and reciprocate love (the true nature of their gender). They do not need either to conform themselves to a more traditionally "feminine" ideal or to reject the nature of their bodies and conform themselves to transgender "manhood." Similarly, if a guy wears his heart on his sleeve, enjoys romantic comedies, and drinks wine coolers, that doesn't make him unmanly, nor does it mean he is a woman trapped in a man's body. It means he is a man who likes those things.

What does this mean, then, for our definition of transgenderism? Our original definition, from the APA, is that sex is biological, and gender is mental/social, and if the two don't match, then you're transgender. But if gender is an intrinsic purpose and value, and not a mental/social construct, then that changes the whole equation. Your gender, your role for which you were created (be it giver or receiver), is expressed fully in your body. It already is. There's no disconnect there. You have a purpose, a specific role to play in the universe, and your body was made for that specific role.

This realization should hopefully be liberating, not only for people who struggle with transgenderism or homosexuality, but for everyone. God made you for a reason, to play a particular part and fulfill a special role in all creation, and He gave you the specific physical body that you need to accomplish that role. The skin you're in is the skin you were meant to be in, and you are beautifully, wonderfully made in the image of God. 

Which is pretty awesome when you think about it.
Picture from Wikipedia.
Does this mean that transgenderism and homosexuality are non-existent, or non-issues? No. But it does dramatically re-frame the issue and refocus it on a different approach to one's own humanity. Instead of asking, "Why do I feel like a girl even though I look like a boy?", a person struggling with this situation can, with prayer, guidance, and the love of others, come to view themselves in a different light. "I am who I am. I have this body and this mind and this heart that God gave me. What is the plan He has in store for me? What will He use me to accomplish?" I'm not saying this isn't going to be a hard road - it's hard enough to wrestle with God's plan if you aren't GLBT - but it's the question everyone has to ask themselves, and it's much healthier when we don't try to do violence to our own bodies or minds, when we don't try to reshape ourselves into who we think we should be rather than who God wants us to be.

More to come soon.