I wrote recently on being gender-queer, and I promised that I write about transsexuality.
Before I do that, I want to give some idea of where I’m coming from on this issue. I recently wrote a paper on transgender and transsexual issues, and how trans identities relate to the traditional Catholic teaching on essential sexual complementarity. The paper was 5000 words long. I could have written four times that. As the foundation for writing I talked to trans people, read their writings, and listened to the stories that they had to tell about themselves rather than just approaching their experience through the filter of the “experts.” I’ve seen my own experience presented by experts often enough to know that there is often something missing in an allegedly “objective” account, and that the something missing is usually the heart of the human person.
So the first thing that I would say is that understanding trans people’s experience of gender and sexuality is going to require a long conversation, and that conversation is going to demand an awful lot of listening before we start making judgements. This is something that I feel is lacking in a lot of the Christian/Catholic response to trans people: it’s often assumed that “trans” is kind of gay, only more so and worse. Trans people are seen as a wrecking ball levelled at whatever remains of the foundations of marriage and sexuality in the West, and their experiences (perhaps even more than the experiences of LGB people) are thus reduced to a political problem.
To give an example, a little over a year ago I was invited to do a brief interview on a right-wing talk show up here in Canada. I have a policy of saying “Yes” to almost anything that I’m asked to do, so I found myself watching clips of the show, trying to figure out what I had gotten myself into. On one of the clips that I watched, the host pointed to a picture of a trans woman (MtoF) and asked “Would you want this person teaching your kids?” The really horrible thing was that he was basically taking advantage of the fact that the person in question really wasn’t very convincing as a woman. If the host had used a picture of a really good looking transsexual, the audience reaction would have been completely different. He was appealing to his audience’s sense of revulsion towards effeminate men combined with their revulsion towards ugly women and was using that to undermine the right of trans people to work.
I really don’t think that the host had thought through what this kind of response to trans people means for the people in question. To him, as to too many Christian commentators, the person was entirely eclipsed by his or her sexual identity. The underlying assumption was that this person could just choose to behave and dress like a man, and that if they couldn’t it was because they were suffering from some form of psychological illness that would render them unfit for work with kids.
The problem is, there’s really no theological grounds for assuming this to be the case. Yes, the Bible seems to teach that our sexuality, male and female, is an essential part of our humanity “in the image and likeness of God,” but that’s doesn’t mean that maleness and femaleness are sacrosanct biological realities preserved from any kind of complicated conditions. We’ve known going back as far as the Old Testament that sometimes people are “born eunuchs.” The existence of intersex people – people born without a clear sexual identity, male or female, at birth – is a pretty unambiguous indication that a person’s biological sexuality is not always simple and straightforward.
How does this relate to trans people? Increasingly, medical evidence shows that our biological sexual identity extends to much more than just our genitalia and the “secondary sex characteristics” that we were taught about in grade 8. The Church has always known this, and has always taught it over and against gender theorists and feminists, like Simone de Beauvoir who wanted to collapse all non-reproductive sexual difference into socially constructed gender. In terms of the innate differences between men and women, the most important discoveries have been those which show that psychological, social and cognitive differences between the sexes are not merely the products of culture: that they are somatically encoded within the sexually differentiated structures of the brain itself.
This means that we have to expand our understanding of the ways in which a person’s innate sexuality might be ambiguous. If biological sex involves brain development as much as it involves genital development, then there is no reason to reject the possibility that a person could develop a female-typical brain in a male-typical body, or visa versa. Indeed, the medical evidence increasingly shows that this is exactly what happens in the case of many people who are transsexual. It’s not so much that the person has a mistaken perception about their body, as that they are aware of a deep discordance between the sexuality of their body and the sexuality of their brain.
It is precisely because maleness and femaleness are so important for our identity as human beings that most trans people feel compelled to somehow find a way of achieving a single, unified sexual identity as either a man or a woman. The internal conflict and confusion that arise from a lack of clear sexual identity can be profound, and the mental health sequelae are often severe – including, in many cases, strong and persistent temptations to suicide. Subjecting people in this position to social sanctions and justifying discrimination against them out of desire to uphold Christian ideals surrounding sex and gender is about as compassionate as putting a dunce-cap on the head of a kid with autism in order to set an example for the other students.
The question of how to best integrate the realities of trans experience with the traditional teaching of an incarnational faith is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot of honest work from people of good will. I do think, however, that there is one thing which is absolutely clear: that integration cannot even begin to take place unless space is made within the discourse for trans people themselves. Trans folks are not a problem for experts and theologians to solve. They are, first and foremost, the face of Christ, marginalized, bullied, misunderstood, spit upon and rejected, and absolutely beloved of God.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.