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.
Thank you so much for this. I’m thrilled to see a devout Catholic dealing so honestly and intelligently with this issue. Looking forward to more!
I needed to read this. Thank you for the work you’re putting in to acknowledge the voice dignity of people so often misunderstood… I know I have a long, long way to go myself in showing trans* people the love they deserve.
I look forward to the rest of the series.
I have to say, I’m impressed by this post. I worked with homeless trans youth for years and have yet to read anything worthwhile from the Catholic perspective on this subject. You’ve been doing your homework!
I attended a conference for gender non-conforming children and their families over the summer. There were many faith communities present for spiritual support and counseling… except for Catholics. They don’t even seem to be a part of the discussion.
I get emails from my archdiocese about their lobbying efforts to defeat a transgender rights bill… and yet I have never heard or seen them reach out to the trans community…. ever. Why should I expect anything different… they don’t even reach out to the LGB community… and I live in San Francisco!
“They are, first and foremost, the face of Christ, marginalized, bullied, misunderstood, spit upon and rejected, and absolutely beloved of God.”
You’re right. At the moment many become “throw-away kids”. I have worked with hundreds of them.
First of all, I want to say that I appreciate your call for people to think deeply about this issue, and to express unconditional love for those who identify themselves as transsexual. I think that there is often a deep abrasiveness that develops within the transsexual person, which is both caused by the words and actions of Pharisees, and also caused by the transsexual’s own — sometimes misplaced — sense of guilt, which is often responded to by avoidance (instead of engagement) with people of faith.
In order to be loving to everyone involved, though, including children, I think we ought to be quite clear in saying that transsexuality is a distortion. It is a distortion like blindness or paralysis is a distortion. There is no moral wrong in it, but it is not ideal. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that people from relatively stable and morally temperate families rarely are transsexual. In other words, it is a genetic abnormality.
I sure hope you do not think, in saying that, that I am saying something unloving. Indeed, I think that Jesus offered a wonderful corrective for those of us who are tempted to say that, since transsexualism is abnormal, we should stay away from transsexuals. The teachers of the law ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he would be born blind?” And Jesus answered, “It is neither because of his sin nor because of his parents’ sin, but so that the work of God might be made apparent through him.”
I believe that holiness and healing is available to those who are born eunuchs. I don’t know what healing looks like, and I don’t imagine it looks like “conventional gender roles” — which, as you discussed in your previous post, are not good guides anyway. But I, for one, am committing to understanding and loving transsexual and transgendered people, without putting my moral standards up as a mote to blind my eyes to them.
I said, “it seems to me that people from relatively stable and morally temperate families rarely are transsexual. In other words, it is a genetic abnormality.”
To be clear, those sentences are loosely connected, and I don’t really mean to say it’s genetic — rather, just that it’s caused by an objective abnormality of some sort. As a comparison, I live in an inner city, and I engage with a lot of people who have severe mental problems. I know for a fact that these problems are often caused by their mother’s drug use when they were pregnant. This makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me treat the person with any less dignity.
Daniel P., this reply is for dialog, not to disagree with you.
I’m from a very stable, model Catholic family with no history of abuse, perfect Catholic education, etc, and I’m still transgender.
It’s clear that being transgender is “disordered” in the sense that it is more ordered for a person’s body and mind to be in perfect conformity with each other. However, that doesn’t make the feelings incorrect or disordered. As far as I can tell, my body is masculine and my soul is feminine. Most people would tell me that my soul is disordered and should conform to my body. As a Catholic I cannot help but believe that my body is disordered and should conform to my soul. Doesn’t Christ say “Do not fear the one who can destroy the body, but the one who can destroy the soul”? The soul and body are intimately connected, but the soul has priority, and it is precisely this intimate connection that makes gender and gender expression so important.
Well, I’m certainly happy to chat. To be clear, my original posts were there to address transsexualism, and I feel like (from what you’re saying) you experience transgenderism. To me, transsexualism seems biological in nature, whereas the origin transgenderism is less clear, and probably not biological. And if it’s not biological, it wouldn’t be genetic (or a genetic disorder) either.
As for the soul conforming to the body versus the body conforming to the soul, I have two thoughts:
(1) Insofar as you are a fellow Christian, I do not need to understand why you are the way you are. At some core level, “there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, but Christ is all in all.” You are a child of the living God; everything else is secondary.
(2) I do believe that God made us male and female for a reason. It puzzles me why God would make someone biologically male who *feels* like a female. Please don’t be offended, but my first instinct is that there’s a psychological problem here. I’m resisting that instinct, but — theologically — it’s hard for me to understand transgenderism.
So I hope you’ll understand that I struggle understanding this issue, but I have no trouble understanding that you are my fellow Christian, and I hope that barriers to understanding can be broken down by God’s wisdom and our compassion toward one another.
To be clear, how do you define the difference between transsexualism and transgenderism? I tend to use them interchangeably.
I have to admit, I find it hysterical that a straight conservative catholic thinks he gets to define these sort of terms. From my perspective, he’s approaching the issue very, very poorly.
Huh. I actually thought I had a decent grip on a distinction between transsexualism and transgenderism, but now that I try to write it down I don’t see a clear distinction. Guess I’m just ignorant. *shrug*
There is a distinction, I think, between people who have genetic characteristics that are sexually unclear (XXY chromosomes, or genitalia that do not match up to their chromosomes, etc.) and those who have a clear biological sex but don’t experience this sex as their gender. It’s this latter group that I had meant by the word “transgender”.
Transsexuality and transgenderism are often interchangeable. The terms are confusing and in constant flux, but their most common use is to refer to a person whose chromosomal and genital reality is of one sex (in my case: male) whereas their inner identity is of the other (in my case: female).
The term you are looking for is INTERSEXED for a person who has an ambiguity at the chromosomal or genital level.
Recent science suggests that transsexuality/transgenderism might be a third kind of intersex condition in which the brain structure develops differently than the rest of the body. I blog about all this in more detail here: http://catholictrans.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/debunking-myth-11-sex-and-gender-are-straightforward/
I think part of the problem is how we often view the idea of “mind.” If I say my body is male but my mind is female, the word “mind” automatically conjures a nebulous subjective reality existing in the strange realm of “psychology.” However, for Catholics the mind is the weird union of two very real things: the brain and the soul. The brain is a PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and part of our embodied reality. The soul is our essence before God, our formal Heavenly reality. So when I say that my inner life is female, we have to look deeper. Sure, it’s easy to write me off as delusional. Maybe I am. But I don’t think that kind of reaction does justice to the spiritual depth of my experience or the physicality of what I have to deal with.
(1) I’m not sure why you would say that I am a “straight conservative Catholic.” I am Catholic, but I’m not particularly conservative. Moreover, I’m attracted to both men and women, which doesn’t make me very straight.
(2) I’m having a conversation, and I’m listening. I think annamagda4christ understands that. Do you?
I’m perfectly fine admitting that this whole issue is a new thing to me, and some of the ways I address it are almost certainly inadequate. I’ve been doing some soul-searching and trying to figure out why I originally posted on this thread. It’s sort of hard to explain, but I’ll try by using an analogy.
Sometimes on internet forums, somebody will bring up their own person experience with certain issue (usually homosexuality, in my experience) and a whole bunch of people will come out of the woodwork and start putting forth half-baked theories about how this issue is a deformity or disorder of some sort, and how X or Y or whatever is responsible for the deformity. I am completely frustrated by these people who respond this way. It’s not that they’re necessarily wrong — maybe their armchair psychology sometimes happens to be correct — but I just don’t see why they have to SAY something like that, especially in a context where it serves no other purpose than to make a child of God feel sad or excluded. (It’s not like these people are offering help; they are just spouting off theories.)
Well, now I am the one doing that. I know I certainly tried to be sensitive in my original comment above, but I think my real motivation was something else. You see, I feel screwed up in one particular way, by my own experience of same-sex attraction, but I feel comfortable with my own personal struggle. In particular, I have some messed up desire to say that homosexuals are one type (and there’s not all that much wrong with them) but transsexuals are different — not like me, and that makes them worse. Mind you, I want to be compassionate to “them”, but I’m not willing to see a basic commonality between them and me.
That’s just messed up on my part, and wrong. I repent. I’m sorry.
As for questions of mind and brain, these are interesting, but I don’t know I have anything illuminating to say about them. I imagine that transgenderism must be a tough cross to carry, socially, and you have my prayers.
WOW, that’s a really humble response. Thanks for making a real human interaction possible on the internet! So many people are just out to troll. Thank you for being so honest.
To be honest, I used to be the same way toward gay people. I used to insist on how different the LGB are from the T in LGBT because I felt that being associated with people dealing with sexual orientation somehow invalidated me. Now many many trips to Starbucks later, I’ve had many incredible conversations with other ‘queer’ people and come to realize how much we all actually have in common as far as social stigma and internal battles.
Thanks for your prayers! You have mine in return. 🙂
Ms Selmys, I’ve actually had the case of transsexualality in mind when looking at passages like Gal. 3:27-28—neither Greek/Jew, slave/free, male/female, for “all are one in Christ.” I’ve been lingering over that passage a bit, especially since it seems to be presented in the present tense, where Christ has justified us and our faith brings us beyond the law. Although we have rolls where there is the male priesthood only, for instance, which seems to have a symbological roll in the scheme of the liturgy, yet we are simultaneously called beyond gender. At least to me that is one implication in the passage, which is a theme that gets picked up in the Fathers, especially those like Maximus the Confessor.
What would your thoughts be in relation to this case, at least in the context of Gal?
Great post! And much needed discussion. I have to admit I am not as up to speed on this topic since its more unfamiliar to me. I have tended to think of trans issues as psychological and intersex issues as biological. But you are right that brain development can be a factor as well. I suspect its rather complex as it is for same-sex attraction–no single etiology can explain it. There may be biological factors for some and psychological for others.
When I was in seminary one of my professors mentioned a recent story about a trans woman who had crashed her car into a tree (suicide) and the professor commented to the effect that “Maybe it was better that way.” I immediately confronted his statement. I found it absolutely appalling. This was an otherwise very kind hearted person. But I think his comment captures where a lot of people are at: trans people seem un-redeemable. We tend to be disgusted by things we don’t understand, especially if something looks physically different. There used to be laws in the U.S. including a Chicago ordinance that did not get repealed until 1973 that said people with “disgusting” physical disabilities were barred from public view on penalty of a fine (see more on that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugly_law)
Some of the questions that come up for me regarding trans issues is what is really most helpful? For example, studies have shown that those who have undergone surgery to try to match their bodies to their psychological make-up often end up, eventually, quite unhappy with their bodies. John Hopkins Hospital stopped performing these kinds of surgeries in the 80s (?) because they were finding that surgery was not alleviating the psychological distress. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have such inner conflict. We really need to be so much more compassionate.
I once saw an photo-exhibit of trans women and one of the common things the trans women said was that they felt they did not feel freedom to express their sensual and emotional sides as men. And I wondered how it might affect them to live in a culture where it was okay for men to be emotional and sensual– if that would have helped with feeling integrated. In other words, I wonder how much surgery and gender dysphoria are related to genderqueer people who are not given cultural space to be themselves. Feel like they have to fit in this certain box of what a man or woman is.
I am not sure the way forward is to stay with the rigidly defined two genders/sexes boxes. It exacerbate dysphoria. For example, I had a lot of confusion about my gender and could have easily ended up transsexual simply because I was gender queer in a conservative environment that said women and men had to be a certain way. And I didn’t fit into that box.
Also, I do not experience trans women as women. I don’t think we need to pretend that trans women are exactly like those who are born female or that they are like those who are intersex who have a different life experience than trans people as well. For example, I am fairly uncomfortable with the California law that was passed allowing trans girls/women to use the women’s bathroom/locker room. This feels as unsettling to me as if a man would walk into the locker room where I am changing because–no matter how trans women see themselves–I experience trans women as male. Plus, there are differences between growing up female and certain aspects to being biologically female that a trans woman will never have access to. The same is true for trans men. I still experience trans men as more female than male. And I know lesbians can sometimes be attracted to trans men (because they still sense their femaleness) but on the flip side lesbians are not typically attracted to trans women.
So, I don’t think we should pretend there are two rigid boxes. It seems we need more room in our culture–as some other cultures do–to acknowledge there is some spectrum. I don’t know how trans people would feel about this since it places them on a spectrum instead of solidly in a certain box, but some of that could be because we don’t accept or allow anything in our culture except those two boxes. As a gender queer person, I could also benefit from a culture that has more than two rigidly defined boxes.
I’m fascinated to see how a trans persons experience can be justified and validated in a religious movement that’s gender and sexuality theology is pretty blatantly hostile to what trans people stand for. The existence of something that completely contradicts what this religion you prescribe to teaches and believes in.
I look forward to the next post detailing not the reality of trans people, but what they can do with religious teachings and institutions that completely disregard the realities of their existence.
Personally I don’t think there’s anything in Catholic philosophy that really invalidates the transgender reality – at least if we really look at the whole history of Catholic thought and not just the politics of today. I think the big issue is what you said about most Catholics completely disregarding our existence. Officially I don’t exist, according to the Church. Officially I’m just a man with a fetish who wants to cut his body apart, which I’m not on any level. If the Church were to acknowledge what transgenderism actually is, however, I think its philosophy and theology would actually affirm and be affirmed by the trans experience.
I don’t understand what you mean by “a religious movement that’s gender and sexuality theology is pretty blatantly hostile to what trans people stand for.” Do trans people stand for something other than themselves as human beings, dealing with the mess of being souls and bodies at the same time?
I want to thank Melinda for her clear and beautiful comments. I think often this conversation is muddled and even bloodied because we too easily conflate the demand for love and respect (a Christian one, for sure) with the pressure to capitulate ethically or politically. There must be greater pastoral and community outreach–where to begin? John 13:34-35. If our love is not sincere, why would anyone trust that we had their best interest in mind (namely, salvation, let’s be honest)? If it is not clear that we all struggle, albeit differently, with this aspect of being human, how could anyone respect our opinions?
Anecdotally (which is perhaps to say uselessly), as essentially a celibate myself, finding value without reference to a physically expressed sexuality challenges me daily. The expectation that “the good life” requires any and all desires to be fulfilled in our earthly time, in our culture, puts an especial emphasis on sexual activity. (This is not to say sexual expression, which is so much more than our physically sexual behaviors.) For Catholics, especially, emphasis on worldly fulfillment above the spiritual in any arena–wealth, food, comfort, sex–must remain deeply problematic.
To be “born eunuch” or outside heterosexual marital vocation finds greater and more glorious room in the Catholic worldview better, I think, than most mainline Protestant thought I’ve come across so far. I cannot speak to the LGBTQ groups as though they are monolithic, obviously. Conversations I’ve had with just about anyone of any orientation/identity about the harsh beauty of celibacy go over like a lead balloon.
Christian sexual orthodoxy has always been difficult to embrace and keep balanced in every culture it has reached. It is not surprising, but always frustrating, that both sides can become so defensive about the ethics questions that the charity the ethics require goes immediately out the window.
I am so grateful to the commentators and writers on this blog for searching genuinely, lovingly, and faithfully, because it is truly a rare and noble thing. Prosit.
What I wrote was pretty blatantly obvious.
The Catholic and ‘Christian’ worldview completely ignored the reality of trans people, and the LGBT population. Written by straight people, for straight people, understood by straight people. Homosexuality, as anyone with an ounce of knowledge knows, is a word we find in the New Testament- yet is a word that was completely absent in the language that Paul was writing in.
Context is important. Unfortunately, for persons born in the nests of vipers, context matters little over constant, and self-affirming, shame and indignity.
I just can’t let this comment go. First, homosexuality is NOT a word that is found in the New Testament. It is a word that some English translations of the original text use. That being said, scholars do not find agreement on the precise meanings of the Greek words utilized by Paul in his letter, and we certainly don’t have English equivalents to the words, and so we use the closest word we have in English which is “homosexual”.
Second, the Bible is written “by straight people, for straight people, understood by straight by people.” It is written by prophets, apostles, and disciples, moved by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for all people of all times, to be understood by sinners of every type. Its not a sexual ethics handbook written by people defined by a certain orientation. It contains much more than sexual ethics and isn’t simply a tool to beat down gay people.
Third, context is important, you’re right. The context of Catholic moral teaching on sexuality is not self-affirming shame and indignity. It is a context of mercy, love, redemption, and solidarity between sinners of all types: homosexuals, thieves, murderers, liars, blasphemers, etc.
The true nest of vipers are the ones like you anon, who couldn’t care less about the Bible, but think that they know and are able to better understand the Bible than the people who love it, who seek to falsely marginalize sinners and then blame the Bible/Church for doing so. You create a type of warfare, pitting different parts of the Church against each other in hopes of killing the institution you hate so much for refusing to tickle your ears.
As a gay man, and a Catholic your comments disgust me.
That’s all. 🙂
Melinda, thank you so much for your incredible article. As a practicing Catholic and trans person, I thought your article well represented me and my trans brothers and sisters. Thank you!
You said that as of now spiritualfriendship.doesn’t have a trans blogger. I might be able to get on board if I’m deemed to have the right credentials. I blog at catholictrans.wordpress.com, and I’m a philosophy/film major at U of Notre Dame.
Reblogged this on The Catholic Transgender and commented:
I just discovered this incredible site for Catholic LGBT (mostly LGB) issues, where solid, committed Catholics are tackling these issues with intellectual savvy and careful sensitivity. One writer, Melinda Selmys, gave trans people a shout-out. I really like what she had to say.
I left the Church an awful long time ago. Yet, it is good to see this subject treated with such unexpected dignity & respect… listening to trans* people… calling us the face of Christ…
Wow, and thank you.
Thank you so much for writing this. I am currently trying to best discern language in order to teach in a pastoral way, how the Church might address or look at those who would identify as transgendered. This starting piece is quite helpful. If you have any suggestions of further resources, I would really appreciate it!
I’m Catholic and a transman, and I found the book “Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith” to be really helpful, and you might too, though it is written by a UCC minister. I would love to see some theological work done on in this area from a Catholic perspective. Thank you for your work and your care!
I am impressed by your take on this subject. I never really thought about the philosophical implications of the existence of biologically ambiguously gendered people, and how it relates to people who appear to be naturally one sex or the other, and yet feel like the opposite sex. As a chaste, bisexual Catholic female (I met you once at a Courage conference), who has no gender-identity confusion, I am familiar with reparative therapy, and how it posits that most homosexual or gender confusion stems from the child’s early relationship with his or her parents, particularly the same-sex parent. I am not sure how I feel about this, especially since I think it can sometimes create a kind of witch-hunt within the family of origin, often leading people to look askance at their parent(s), who may have had their own weaknesses, but were otherwise loving. I am aware of deficits in my relationships with both my mother and my father, some of them severe, but they were loving and supportive in the best ways they could be.
I am a relative of person with GID (gender identity disorder), whom I and my whole family are trying to understand and support. I would be interested in reading your 5000 word paper on the subject, and also to find out where you came across the biological evidence you mentioned, that, “a person could develop a female-typical brain in a male-typical body, or visa versa.” I have read a little of Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons on the subject of transgender, and he seems to take a purely psychological, or somewhat reparative approach.
I am new to blogs. I don’t really know if you have access to my email address if I leave this post. If you could somehow reply, that would be great. I greatly appreciate your honesty, candor, and integrity in both your speaking and writing. I have read your book and enjoyed it very much. Keep up the good work!
I’m glad you found the post helpful. I don’t have access to your address, but if you want to get in touch with me mine is firstname.lastname@example.org