Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Unclean Spirit of Gender Ideology



There's been some buzz around the internet lately about the concept of gender ideology, and Pope Francis referring to it as “demonic.” So I wanted to talk about what exactly “gender ideology” is, and how it relates to the experience of transfolk.

Basically, gender ideology is a dualist ideology that collapses all of human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, into either biological difference or social construction. As is generally the case with dualism the body is considered to be relatively unimportant in relation to the mental/spiritual/interior aspects of the self and so the relevance of biological difference is usually downplayed. Sexuality interacts with the more fundamental aspects of the person only in terms of gender and gender, masculinity and femininity, is understood solely in reference to social conditioning which proponents of gender ideology see as basically arbitrary, and usually sexist.

It's an ideology that came out of second wave feminism, and it's largely the result of women trying to seize equality within a deeply hierarchical patriarchal cultural system. To put it simply, within a hierarchy there's a natural tendency to evaluate difference in terms of superiority and inferiority. There's also a general tendency within male-dominated structures to view relations, especially relations between human beings, in hierarchical terms. The Roman obsession with status, or the way that Late Medievals and Early Moderns stressed about exactly where in the Great Chain of Being their particular bloodline was situated, are prime examples of the hierarchical impulse in action. And of course throughout most of the history of the Western world it has been believed that sexual difference implies a distinction of value, with men on top.

Now Christianity did maintain that women possessed a dignity before God equal to that of men, but dignity before God did not generally manifest as equality within political or social structures. For second wave feminists seeking social equality, the path of least resistance lay in a denial of sexual difference. If a difference in kind implies a difference in status, then the simplest way of eliminating a difference in status is to deny that there is a difference in kind. Sexual difference in earlier cultures often manifested in terms of socially stratified gender roles, and sexual difference was almost universally invoked as a defense of those roles. Women couldn't be in the army, because they were weak. They couldn't be politicians, because they were naturally passive. They couldn't be academics because their reason was too easily clouded by sentiment.

Feminists of the second wave said “No!” Women are not weak, they are enfeebled by artificial, socially constructed constraints invented by men in the service of male interests. To a very significant degree, this was true – and demonstrably so. The curse invoked at the outset of history, “and he shall lord it over you” has in fact played itself out in the cultural arena and the beauty and dignity of sexual complementarity has been badly warped and tarnished by the presumption of men. Gender ideology allowed women to assert equality with men, but it came at a cost: the differences between the sexes had to be construed as trivial or irrelevant.

Now if we look at the contemporary situation, and especially at the development of Third Wave feminism and the men's movement, it's pretty clear that sexual difference has re-emerged as an important cultural concern. As soon as a social consensus surrounding womens' right to participate fully in the social, cultural, political and economic life of our civilization emerged, feminism shifted towards a defense of femininity qua femininity, rather than a denial of difference between masculinity and femininity. We've started to reap the good fruit of earlier forms of feminism, and we've also started to discard the chaff.

Gender ideology remains, however, within queer discourse, and for much the same reason. The dignity of same-sex love is defended by an attempt to present it as identical with heterosexual marriage. The dignity of transfolk is defended by an appeal to a socially constructed notion of gender. After all, if gender is just a social artifact, and society construes a particular male individual as “feminine” or “effeminate” then that person should be allowed to live as a female. It makes sense. Right?

The thing is that I don't think very many transfolk actually believe this. Admittedly I'm going from a fairly small group of people that I've spoken to personally, but one thing that seems to emerge in the actual experience of trans people is a fundamental appreciation for the meaning and significance of sexual difference combined with an intense feeling of gender dysphoria. Trans people do not believe that the differences between male and female are trivial, superficial, or irrelevant. They experience these differences as extremely relevant, as fundamental to “who I am.” A transwoman does not believe that she's a woman because she thinks that the differences between femininity and masculinity are abitrary, rather she believes that she is a woman because she experiences herself as feminine in the most profound strata of her being – and her femininity is sufficiently important to her that she is willing to risk social ostracism, loss of employment, derision, exclusion from her religious community, rejection from her family, and perhaps surgery in order to be able to express what she firmly believes to be the truth about herself as a sexually differentiated person.

So where does gender ideology come in? Well, in more or less the same place that it came in for feminism. Generally, people can relate to the idea of wanting to escape from arbitrary social restrictions better than they can relate to the idea of a woman with a penis. If gender is socially constructed, then a person who chooses to transgress gender expectations may be weird, but they're sane. On the other hand, if a person has a male body but insists that they are female, they're crazy. They believe something that seems to be demonstrably untrue. Most of the stereotyping and discimination faced by transfolk is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to gender theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing gender dysphoria without being pathologized.

The problem with the Christian response to transfolk is that the beauty of sexual complementarity becomes weaponized. It is used to undermine the rights and dignity of a very small minority of people who are not privileged to experience masculinity and femininity the way that the majority do. It's not entirely dissimilar to the way that the beauty of rationality and health were used by the eugenics movement to undermine the rights and dignity of people with exceptional cognitive or physical challenges. The underlying assumption is that people should be valued based on their correspondance with an abstract human ideal, and that deviation from the ideal is a moral or social problem.

If we want to effectively demonstrate the falsity of gender ideology we have to start by realizing that trans people are not a manifestation of ideological confusion. Rather they are a group of people who have adopted (at least publicly) the only viable ideological solution to a complex social and personal dilemma. Telling them that they are violating God's plan for humanity, male and female, by deliberately denying their sexual nature does not help. It's not a viable ideological solution, and it's a suicidally dangerous existential solution (I mean that quite literally: I've known trans people on suicide watch for this precise reason.) Simply put, people do not choose to experience a deep-seated incongruity between the apparent sexuality of their body and their interior sense of self as masculine or feminine, and they certainly do not experience gender dysphoria because they have willfully rejected God's plan for humanity.

If the Christian community wishes to serve trans people, it will be necessary to provide a coherent alternative, an anthropology that maintains the dignity of sexual complimentarity without compromising the dignity of bodies whose sexuality is complicated: the dignity of intersex people who may not clearly be born either male or female, and the dignity of trans people whose bodies do not echo their interior experience of sexuality.

21 comments:

  1. Does any portion of this analysis break down when applied to "multiple systems" or "headmates"?

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    1. Excellent question from Anonymous.

      Melinda?

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    2. Sorry about the delay -- for some reason my response to this didn't post. Probably 'cause I'm computer illiterate.
      Basically the difficulty with this question is that it's comparing two very different phenomena that are only linked in so far as they kind of have one similar feature. Most of my analysis would break down if it were applied to multiples or headmates because it's not an analysis of either of those things, and there isn't a very a strong analogy to be drawn.

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    3. No problem. I'm curious on if you could expound upon some of the particulars that distinguish headmates from transfolk. I think this is especially interesting given your later analogy to autism in the comment below. I took your primary thesis to be,

      Most of the stereotyping and discrimination faced by transfolk is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to gender theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing gender dysphoria without being pathologized.

      which is very compatible with your comment on autism. But I don't see anything here that prevents us from saying,

      Most of the stereotyping and discrimination faced by multiple systems is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to plural theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing headmates without being pathologized.

      Unless, of course, we just say, "Well, actually, condition A is a pathology, because it satisfies criteria X, Y, and Z." In which case, I'm most interested in understanding how we determine X, Y, and Z without appealing to gender theory, plural theory, or what have you (lest the whole exercise become circular).

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    4. Okay, from what I can tell the situation with headmates is that you basically have a few different phenomena that are grouped together because they all involve a perception of multiplicity of personality within a single person. I would divide them as follows:
      1. "Natural" multiplicity -- probably a neurological relative of autism. The connection there won't be immediately apparent; I recommend Donna William's "Nobody Nowhere" which shows how that looks and works. Basically, in certain forms of autism a person has difficulty integrating all of the functions of their brain under a single personality, so they develop multiple personalities as a coping mechanism and a way of organizing interior space. One of the things that differentiates this variant from others is that usually there will be a single primary personality integrating the system. Is this a form of mental illness? I would say that it's much more a coping strategy for dealing with a potentially debilitating neurological condition.
      2. Trauma-based multiples. Under severe trauma, a person's psyche may invent alternate personalities as a survival mechanism. The alternate personalities may stick around post trauma, or they may be part of a person's overall coping strategy for dealing with post traumatic stress. Everyone agrees that trauma is a bad thing, so I think here that it's possible and reasonable to treat the trauma and see if the fracture in the personality resolves itself as a result. It might not, in the same way that a person may never regain the ability to walk after a severe injury, but in the same way that we accommodate folks in wheelchairs, I think it's fair to say that we should be willing to accommodate people who've been traumatized badly enough to suffer a permanent fragmentation of their psyche.
      3. Demonic possession. Rare, but I've seen enough evidence to believe that it actually does happen. Big differences here would include things like: lack of an integrated perspective, loss of memory when the alternate personality takes over, lack of underlying cohesion (the headmate is not a different manifestation of the same basic personality, but a completely different personality), and of course the headmate being dangerous and evil.
      Anyways, my basic point is that conceiving of multiplicity as potentially a symptom of an underlying pathology is helpful, but seeing it as pathological in and of itself doesn't seem to be an adequate response.

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    5. With the possible exception of case 3 (insofar as it's accompanied by an invalidation of the claim that the individual experiences the condition as the most profound strata of her being), I'm not sure how any of this is to imply that the analysis in your original post breaks down.

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    6. Are you saying that the analysis in my original post could also be fruitfully applied to multiple systems, or are you saying that the analysis in my original post is wrong because it could also be applied to headmates?

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    7. The former. I think the latter will be attractive for many people, though.

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    8. Okay. Sorry. I misread you. In that case, yes I agree. Although there are salient differences between trans experience and multiples, there are definitely significant points in common in terms of dealing with stigma.

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  2. How is gender dysphoria not a mental illness, in the strictest most objective sense? It seems that it is by definition a mental condition, and if it makes life significantly more difficult and drives people to dangerous (surgery) and self destructive (suicide) behavior, then it seems like an illness. Seeing gender dysphoria as an illness rather than an ideological claim or a deviant behavior as it is now seen I think would call for a more compassionate response from non-afflicted people, especially Christians. Like OCD or daibetes we would realize these people have particular struggles and deserve more latitude for coping strategies.

    If the contention is that it is not the transfolk, but society, that is "sick" in the sense of being disordered, what do you think about a potential for third or 'other' gender categories, rather than asking society or the Church to accept "women with penises"? Just as feminism went from saying 'women are just like men except for their anatomies' to 'women are uniquely female and that is great (if not superior!)', could we have a culture where we go from saying, 'transwomen are just like ciswomen except for their anatomies' to 'transfolk are uniquely queer, and that's great'. I find it very hard to entertain the expectation of Catholic anthropology that would call someone who can father a child a woman, or even refrain from calling him a man, but I can more easily imagine a culture where there are acknowledged, accepted and appreciated 'queer' ways of being where any of the accidentals of gender (dress, social role, mannerisms) are open to remixing. Would a more open culture like that even work for transfolk? Honestly I don't understand what it means to feel like you're "really a woman in a man's body" because I don't feel like I am really a man in man's body. I suppose that is just my cis-privilege, but I think if I woke up as a woman and this was all a dream, I think I would just a very tomboyish woman. I'd be annoyed that that is looked down upon, but I can't imagine I would think "but no, I'm really a man in here!"

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    1. In terms of whether or not it's a mental condition, the difficulty lies more in the stigmatization of "mental illness" than in the categorization of dysphoria as mental illness. To give an example, autism used to be seen as a mental illness which meant, among other things, that autistics were punished for displaying autistic behaviours, that parents of autistic people were blamed for making their kids autistic, and that autistic people weren't seen as being capable of rational self-determination. Now autism is seen as a neurological condition, and it makes a huge difference in real terms when we look at the treatment of autism, the right of autistic people to advocate for themselves, the supports that are available, etc. Basically if a phenomenon is seen as happening only in the mind, it's assumed that the person has psychological issues and that they ought not to be "encouraged" in displaying mentally ill behaviour, whereas if a condition is perceived to be hard-wired as a result of brain structural difference, the person is given a lot more meaningful compassion, support and latitude for coping strategies.
      I do agree with you that an adequate anthropology of trans and intersex persons has to take into account the reality of the body and of its sexuality. Transmen are "masculine" in a very distinctive way, and transwomen are "feminine" in an equally distinctive way that is significantly different from cisgender people.
      Re: the question of what it means to feel like a woman in a man's body, I think that'll require a post of its own :)

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  3. Hi Melinda

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and compassionate piece on topic very close to my heart. Couldn't agree more with the para

    "Trans people do not believe that the differences between male and female are trivial, superficial, or irrelevant. They experience these differences as extremely relevant, as fundamental to “who I am.” A transwoman does not believe that she's a woman because she thinks that the differences between femininity and masculinity are abitrary, rather she believes that she is a woman because she experiences herself as feminine in the most profound strata of her being – and her femininity is sufficiently important to her that she is willing to risk social ostracism, loss of employment, derision, exclusion from her religious community, rejection from her family, and perhaps surgery in order to be able to express what she firmly believes to be the truth about herself as a sexually differentiated person."

    Yes, Yes, a thousand times Yes!! :) :) :)

    Likewise with the piece on the dangers of telling transfolk they are 'violating Gods plan for humanity". My transition went very smoothly for the most part, with work, family, friends and society. It was getting past the notion that God's love was unconditional for everyone except for those like me that was the hardest part of the process, hands down! I don't know if you could ever put yourself outside of God's love but this seemed like a pretty good way to find out :( Fortunately i was introduced to a community of compassionate and loving Christians that have demonstrated Gods love again and again, such that the old models of a vindictive, punative and angry God have been exposed for what they were. Always room for further growth, mind, but the storm has passed for the time being :)

    Thanks again regards, lucy :)

    P.S How did the event in Alaska go? Been hanging out for updates these past weeks

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  4. COR JESU MISERERE NOBIS

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  5. Hi Lucy,

    Sorry for the delay. Life happened :) Thanks tremendously for the feedback. Alaska was lovely, beautiful mountains. I should do a more elaborate deconstruction of the actual event, but I've been busy working on finishing up a project that's basically a fusion of pomo philosophical dialogue and Greek tragedy so I haven't been getting around to stuff... :)

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  6. Regarding autism, as an adult raised by an autistic parent, I experienced tremendous abuse (both emotional and physical) from a parent who received a lot of compassion and kindness from the rest of the world. Where does the line between being compassionate as well as protective of negative behavior lie?
    I was in a relationship with another autistic individual and there also faced severe abuse and threat to my life even. All the compassion I displayed garnered me traumatizing abuse.

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  7. The descent into Sodom
    Pastors fought over grazing land. Tensions grew. Abram realized that he and his nephew Lot had separated. (Both had numerous servants, flocks and possessions.) So Abram said to Lot, "Let there be no conflict between us, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? I pray thee, from me. If you take the left hand, go to the right; and if to the right, I will go to the left. »1 Lot looked around and saw that the land east to the Jordan, was very fertile, as" the garden of the Lord. " Thus separated and Lot dwelt in Sodom.

    But the men of Sodom and the surrounding areas were most perverse degree, and God decided to destroy the city and all the neighboring towns. Hearing that Abraham (and now God was called Abram), advocated because cities are forgiven if they were at least 10 righteous men. As they could not even find 10 righteous, God rained fire and brimstone from heaven to destroy completely vile cities. This part of the land was instantly transformed from a fertile garden to the inhospitable region of the Dead Sea. In this story we see that God's anger was fueled by the unspeakable evil of the people of Sodom, who gave his city the name of that sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

    St. Paul advises great caution in speaking of the sins of the flesh: "But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness must not even be named among you, as becomes saints" and although this advice should always be kept in mind, a priest has the duty of care against moral hazards that present the fashions of our society; and therefore must speak (and write) against evil, lest the moral and faith of simple people is weakened by false teachings. Indeed, Paul himself spoke against sin that will mention, and warned the early Christians with harsh words (as discussed below) to shun the vices of their pagan countrymen. I speak here of sin against nature, the sin of homosexuality.

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  8. "One gains more merits by attending a Mass with devotion to spreading his all to the poor and traveling the world on a pilgrimage."
    (San Bernardo )

    "The greatest act of charity towards our neighbor is to save your soul from hell. (Saint Cura of Ars)

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  9. Folks, please pay no mind to the robotic traditionalist talking points from those last two anonymous comments. Melissa, please keep up your efforts to find the nuances of truth and build bridges between the Church and actual human beings.

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  10. As always, a very helpful and insightful reflection. I have a question: How should Catholic parents and Catholic schools handle a child or teen who insist that he/she is born into the wrong sex? I know it's a mind boggling question, but this is happening in Catholic schools. It seems to me that so far, our Catholic leaders do not have much of a clue in tackling this important issue. Right now, in my diocese, the child in question has been asked to transfer to a public elementary school. Meanwhile, the parents are filing a lawsuit against the Catholic school for not allowing their child stay enrolled in there.

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  11. Hi Cielo

    I transitioned at the age of 37 so I can't give you a personal answer on the best approach for children that don't conform to the gender binary. Nor am i a practising Catholic (at present) so I can't give you the official dogma and doctrine. This is an important question tho' and one i believe that's only going to come to the fore more and more as social attitudes change and the world of social media opens up connections to others wrestling with the same question at that personal level.

    I do have a number of friends that are in this situation with children aged between 3 and 7. They are not of a religious persuasion and their response in both cases (which i fully agree with) has been to give their children space to explore their identity. Both children are very strong-willed and the parents attempts to force them into the gender binary have been met with such resistance that further coercion seemed likely to cause more harm then good. I should say at this point that the media hysteria about letting them change so early before they 'know their real minds' is largely that. At the most the children will be on puberty blockers when they hit puberty (which are reversible) and allows a decision to be made at the age of 15 or so (possibly depending on where in the world you are). This single moment of letting them explore their identity does not contain all moments.

    As a Christian i can understand that people are often of the mind that 'as God made you, so you shall stay' and that the gender binary is paramount. I find it hard to justify this from the Bible or personal experience though. Ironically, had it not been for my transition I doubt God would have any place in my life, and 3 years on He is now at the centre of life, even if it's been a messy, painful and slow process to get there.

    My ultimate response to how this issue should be approached is by Love and Compassion. These children are not mistakes, or problems to be fixed or misguided individuals looking for a box to be put in. However their stories play out, whether they transition or not, whether they settle on a specific gender identity or embrace all parts of the gender spectrum, they are children of God and beloved by God as such - and they need to be told that! It took 18 long months and the beautiful agency of an intellectually disabled woman with a passion for The Sound Of Music before i finally 'got it' - 18 months to long in my opinion!

    Hope that helps - I am as you can tell, a little bit biased but I have no confidence that the old ways of understanding and doing gender identity will serve us well for much longer

    Much love from New Zealand, Lucy :)

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  12. This is really thought provoking, thanks.

    I do wonder though about this though: "As soon as a social consensus surrounding womens' right to participate fully in the social, cultural, political and economic life of our civilization emerged, feminism shifted towards a defense of femininity qua femininity, rather than a denial of difference between masculinity and femininity."

    Is it really fair to say that this is the situation at present? That there is a societal consensus about women's full participation in all of those realms? I'm not even sure this is true about the U.S. and it's certainly does not seem to be the case worldwide... Could you maybe say more about how you've come to this evaluation of "our civilization"? I feel like I must be missing something and am willing to listen...

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