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.”