Thursday, February 12, 2015

Neither Man nor Woman

I've written a few posts about trans issues here and at Spiritual Friendship, and I've realized from my com-box that I probably need to help readers understand better where I'm coming from so that hopefully more of my Catholic readership will be able to follow me.

When I started looking at this issue I had a fairly typical traditional conservative Catholic point of view. I believed (and still believe) quite strongly in sexual complementarity, that sexual identity – male or female – matters tremendously in terms of the formation of personality, and that there is a serious theological dimension to the creation of humanity male and female.

It seemed to follow from this that people should clearly and simply fall into one category or the other, and that becoming oneself would always involve embracing a sexual identity based on more or less obvious bodily characteristics. I didn't have a well thought out position on trans issues; in so far as I thought about them at all, I simply adopted the position that I encountered in most Catholic media. I felt that acknowledging trans identities, legally or personally, would involve co-operating with delusion. More importantly, I feared that such acknowledgement would undermine Scripture and present a serious challenge to the Church's teaching on a variety of issues from marriage and sexuality to women in the priesthood.

So how and why has this changed?

First, I have to acknowledge that there is a personal dimension to all of this. Long-time readers will be aware that gender identity is something that I've struggled with over a long period. In my first book, I wrote that giving up lesbian sex was easy but that embracing and understanding femininity was hard. I have, at times, been inclined to underplay the degree to which it has been hard – and to overplay the degree to which I have succeeded.

There are some aspects of that experience that I've been hesitant to write about, at least in part because I don't want to be tarred with the stigma of mental illness. I have not, for example, written much about my own experiences of dysmorphia: that is, the feeling that the feminine aspects of my body shape are “wrong” or alien, and the corresponding experience of a male body image. Sometimes I look at my arm, and it seems to me like it's a boy's arm – even though I am perfectly rationally capable of understanding that it isn't particularly masculine in appearance, and that it in fact belongs to a female body.

After a number of years of trying to deny this and of seeking to build a narrative in which my gender conflicts were being slowly resolved, I crashed. Something I didn't get to mention when I wrote about this a few years ago was a conversation with my sister Jamie where I talked about feeling gender-queer, and about how that seemed to conflict with my faith. She pointed to the existence of intersex people, “I don't believe that God allows people to suffer for no reason,” she said, “I think that He created intersex people to show us that maybe being male or female isn't just straightforward.”

For a lot of traditional Christians, the comparison between trans/queer experience and intersex conditions seems specious or stretched, but for me, where I was at that time, it was a revelation. As in Flannery O'Connor's fantastic story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the intersex body became a kind of shattering iconoclasm. My categories, my intellectual constructs, my theology of the body, and my own identity – the femininity that I had worked so long and hard to scrabble together under the aegis of Catholic sexual theory – all of it began to crack.

I wasn't able to approach the intersex question merely as an intellectual exercise because I encountered it as a deep existential challenge: if there is no single defining biological feature that allows us to say, with certainty, which individual bodies are male and which are female, then it means that the concepts of man and woman possess a kind of natural elasticity. To say this is not to deny or to defy the natural order of Creation, but rather to recognize that there is not an absolute congruence between the natural order and our abstract conceptualization of it.

I realized that I had unconsciously absorbed the idea that sex, male and female, was a specially protected category. It had assumed the aspect of an idol which must be maintained, inviolate, and any transgression against it seemed to be blasphemous. I had internalized a discourse that practically divinizes male and female difference, usually in order to defend the sanctity of marriage, justify a male-only priesthood, and reject the use of female pronouns for God. I had never encountered, and had certainly not internalized, the Catechism's caution that “In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes.” (CCC 370)

The mystery of the intersex body opened up a conceptual space in which it was possible for me to honestly approach the questions that I had about trans and queer identities. I noticed, for example, that the Genesis narrative is full of binary distinctions – not just male and female but also darkness and light, night and day, land and sky. With the rest of these binaries we have no difficulty whatever with the fact that there are natural gradations that are not easily placed in one category or another. No one thinks that mangrove swamps are a violation of God's plan for the separation of the waters from the firmament. No one is upset about twilight, or disturbed by the question of whether an environment lit only by ultra-violet is in darkness, or in light.

We are able to accept and enjoy these natural variations without, in any sense, undermining the rich theological tradition in which the distinctions themselves bear spiritual significance. For example, Scripture repeatedly uses the imagery of light and darkness to express the movement from sin to salvation, from despair to hope, from death to life. In John of the Cross' mysticism this imagery is turned on its head: he speaks of a “night more lovely than the rising sun,” in which the lover is transformed into the beloved. Yet neither the original sense of the imagery nor it's mystical inversion depends on trying to enforce a strictly defined night/day binary on the actual creation. The theological significance of light and darkness, day and night, is not threatened by a lunar eclipse or by the invention of the electric light.

Once I realized that the existence of trans identities did not need to undermine or contradict my theological beliefs about the significance of the Creation, male and female, I was able to look at the evidence without political bias or theological prejudice. I was free to follow the evidence and see where it led, no longer afraid that it might lead me astray from a rigidly defined, pre-formulated destination.

This kind of freedom is absolutely necessary if we are going to approach questions about trans identities in an intellectually honest way. As Benedict XVI said in an address to the Roman Curia:

“I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.”


  1. Thanks Melinda, this is the clearest thing you have ever written about this topic. I hope you will follow it up soon with a second part. I am thankful for the term "dysmorphia" which I had never heard before. I know very well the experience you describe, but I didn't have a name for it. Another term for you: "syzygy", the union of opposites. Masculine and feminine are distinct, but like all opposites, they are supposed to unite. This can happen in marriage, but it can also happen within an individual person. I think people who experience various forms of gender queerness are called to a sort of fullness of personality, where male and female are more easily united than in people who experience their gender identity as unipolar.

    Thanks for the quote from Benedict. Intellectual Courage: bababa bum! Sound the trumpets! SHout it from the parapet!

  2. Melinda, I just finished reading "Sexual Authenticity" and found it to be both profound and enlightening. I was particularly moved by the closing chapter, "Beauty". Without a doubt, sexuality and chastity are very complex as a result of the Fall. Sexuality is such a defining aspect of our nature, and our nature is, it is not surprising that what God originally created and declared to be "very good" has been distorted. As a result, we are all disordered in some form or fashion. Gaining insight into the way(s) in which our sexuality has been disordered is integral to the process of allowing grace to straighten what has been bent.

    I have to admit, however, to being a bit confused by this post on "Neither Man or Woman". While I understand that gender identity confusion exists, and that its genesis is, most likely, complex and varied, I do not see how that dismisses the fact that every one has a body that is either male or female. The post seems to suggest (as I read it) that there are no biological criteria for identifying which bodies are male and which are female. Yet, as you know, morphologically the external criteria are quite clear. Moreover, you also know that every somatic cell in your body has either an XX or XY chromosome combination (thereby defining you--biologically--as either male or female).

    In other words, I understand that gender confusion exists from psychological standpoint. However, from the biological perspective, human beings are all divided quite sharply and distinctly into only two camps: those who are male and those who female.

    When we take this to the Genesis account of Creation, then, we see the writer affirming what is verified by human experience and scientific observation, namely: in terms of our bodies, we are all either male or female, and there is no confusion as to which is which.

    Again, I understand that we can have gender identity issues, but that is one more vestige of the Fall. Do we address those issues by denying observable reality?

    I am not trying to be argumentative. I am trying to understand.

    Thank you for such a beautiful book and for sharing the amazing story of the working of God's grace in your life.

    1. Reminds me of the charism of Celibacy, as described in the spiritual gifts discernment program Called and Gifted" ( as a gift or charism, "Celibacy empowers a Christian to be most fulfilled and spiritually fruitful by remaining unmarried and celibate for the sake of Christ" " it is always used in conjunction with other gifts and frees a person to total dedication to any work or calling". These people still form close relationships with the opposite gender. They may or may not have biologically the sexual organs of both genders from birth (rare). Vowed- to- celibacy priests might not have the actual gift of celibacy, except through common actual grace for the moment of need; one priest said they then excercise the discipline of celibacy. But these perhaps fit into your "twilight" of stereotypal male and female being: with the defining characteristic emphasis of give(masculine) and receive (feminine)still in place regarding human relationships; and the feminine receptivity in action for both genders when relating to God.

    2. by the way, the name given to physical organs of both genders in one person, was hermaphrodite, now maybe misleadingly called inter-sex. actual gender can be found with probably a simple skin scrape showing the DNA as female or male. In Chimerism, two distinct sets of DNA are said to be present, but guided by the most pronounced physical characteristics, a decision is made as to the actual gender, or said to be most advisedly chosen as Male ((easier cosmetic surgery) or wait...Several sources say most Hermaphrodites turn out to have DNA spelling them as Male. Pastorally, this is the particular cross that can be dealt with; many of these people, again, might have spiritual charism of Celibacy as previously described --settling several issues -- if only the Culture would accept celibacy better again, giving them the chance....

    3. WebMD reports Israeli studies show female brains are indeed different-- with a connection between the two sides , I believe, that is not present in the male brain. Dr Conrad Baars ( Psychiatrist, with daughter Suzanne maintaining his work) and Philosophers Robert and Mary Joyce made great strides in relating the ramifications of this, in wholesome identity and relationships!

    4. It is NOT true that people are either XX or XY. Some people are XXY and others are XYY.

  3. Bruce, you put on paper my thoughts - i just would not have verbalized them as well as you have. I'd love a response from Melinda...Thank you! I too have read her book and found it insightful and authentic. I have passed it on to so many people...

  4. Thanks Bruce - you have so eloquently expressed my thoughts and would love to hear Melinda's response. I too have read her book and found it to be from the heart and well written and i have passed it on to so many people...M.A.T


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