Transmisconceptions

I’ve been rooting around on the internet for Christian resources aimed at helping transgender people and their parents. It’s a bit of wasteland. Most of the articles that you can find aren’t even intended to be helpful to someone who is dealing with this – the pastoral needs of trans people seem to get eclipsed by the political drive to defend marriage and sexual complementarity. What does exist tends either to vilify transfolk, or it oversimplifies the issues.

I think that there are several key misconceptions about transfolks that allow that largely negative response to be perpetuated. I’d like to briefly treat six of them here.

1. Trans people “suddenly” want to change their gender.

To folks on the outside, transition sometimes seems to come across as a shock. Someone who appears to have a perfectly comfortable male identity one day announces that they are going to be a woman. It can seem like a bizarre, even incomprehensible choice: after all, if someone has lived as a guy for 37 years why can’t he just go on living as a guy?

When trans people talk about their experience of this situation a very different picture emerges. Often the person has struggled silently with their gender identity over years, or decades, before reaching the point where they are willing to discuss it in public. It’s quite common for transwomen to go through a long period where they buy feminine clothes, secretly cross-dress, feel ashamed, throw out all of their feminine clothes and then repeat the cycle. People with gender dysphoria will often make a protracted and laborious attempt to “achieve” a functional cisgendered identity, perhaps living a double-life in order to gain occasional relief from the effort of performing a gender role in their day-to-day life that feels alien or artificial.

By the time that someone decides to make the leap and come out of the closet about their gender identity they have probably struggled with it behind closed doors for a long time. Even if the change seems sudden to others, it is usually the culmination of a long process for the person involved.

2. Every human being is unambiguously either male or female.

This just isn’t true. There is literally no single criterion that can be used to accurately determine a person’s “biological sex” in every single case. There are people born with partially developed reproductive organs of both sexes, people born with no reproductive organs at all, people with the external genitalia of one sex but the internal genitalia of the other, people born with male XY chromosomes but female external genitalia and a normal female phenotype, etc. etc. etc.

The fact that our sexuality, male and female, is an important part of our human identity does not mean that it is in some special protected category. Other equally important parts of our human identity, like reason, conscience, or free will, can all be altered, diminished or functionally eliminated by a variety of genetic, psychological or neurological conditions. It is an important pillar of Christian belief that the full dignity of the person must be defended in all cases, not just in those where the person seems to be ‘normal’.

3. Transwomen are men who are turned on by the thought of being a woman.

Some people have proposed that all transwomen suffer from a rare paraphilia called “autogynophilia” in which a man is sexually aroused by the thought of being a woman. First of all, this simply isn’t true. It does seem to be the case that there are people who fall into this category, and that a very small minority of such people do seek sex-reassignment surgery in order to better act out their sexual fantasies, but that’s rare and extreme. Folks for whom an opposite-sex gender identity is solely a sexual fetish are much more likely to cross-dress during sexual encounters while maintaining an otherwise cisgender identity. Such men don’t want to be a woman in daily life in much the same way that people who have a bondage fetish don’t want to wear leathergear to the office.

The perception that autogynophilia plays a much larger role in transwomen’s lives than it actually does is partially a product of an assumption that if a trans person feels the need to cross-dress or assume their preferred gender role in order to have satisfactory sex, then their erotic sensibilities are the cause of their trans condition. This is actually kind of silly. If a persons experiences dysphoria and/or dysmorphia (the feeling that your sexual organs or secondary sex characteristics are at odds with your body image) while having sex it’s both stressful and a big turn off. Most people want to be able to comfortably and honestly express themselves when making love, and may find it difficult to become aroused if they feel alienated from their own body.

4. Trans is the same as gay (but worse)

Transwomen are often oversexualized, both in the media and in popular perception. Within Christian circles, it’s common to respond to trans people as if being trans were basically a sexual orientation, and many automatically assume that if someone is trans, they’re gay. In fact, transfolks may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual.

Being trans is not primarily about sex, nor do people generally choose to be trans because they have rejected binary gender categories, or because they want to advance an agenda that seeks to undermine marriage or deny sexual complementarity.

5. Transfolk are just Tomboys and Sissy-boys

When Christian advice is offered to parents of trans people, or to transfolks themselves, the advice is usually concerned with how to address gender non-conforming behaviour. The assumption is that a trans person is basically a boy who wants to play with Barbies or a girl who wants to climbs trees.

Being trans is about more than just performative gender roles – it’s about how a person feels him or herself to be gendered while performing all sorts of activities. A transwoman may be interested in playing with swords, but will imagine herself playing with swords as Joan of Arc. A transman is not simply a woman who likes power tools, but a person who perceives himself as male even when baking cookies.

6. Trans people identify only with superficial aspects of femininity/ masculinity.

    I’ve encountered several Christian commentators who say that transwomen come across as a “parody of womanhood,” that they’re obsessed with superficial things like wearing women’s clothing or putting on make-up but have no interest in the essential aspects of femininity, like having babies.

Firstly, this isn’t true (or fair). There are transwomen who want to get pregnant and nurse a child, but it doesn’t get a lot of discussion because it’s not actually possible. There are also transwomen who see their feminine identity primarily in terms of archetypal feminine traits like empathy or nurturing. Secondly, a trans person is unlikely ever to achieve the same easy relationship with their gender identity that the average cis person enjoys. Many find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation where they are ridiculed for being “effeminate” if they try to present themselves in public as a man, and are ridiculed for being “clocky” (that is, unconvincingly female) if they present as a woman.

Melinda SelmysMelinda 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.

Cross-posted from sexualauthenticity.blogspot.com

24 thoughts on “Transmisconceptions

  1. Thanks for this Melinda –

    With all the work I’ve done to understand what it means to be a man who is Christian and gay, I feel like I understand the concepts of sexuality clearly. When we start talking about people who are trans*, I’m in much murkier territory. I get lost in a fog of sexual identity, gender norms, and gender identities. I’m working hard to gain understanding. I’m fortunate to have some online trans* friends who are very generous in sharing their experiences; that helps me put the bigger conversation in context.

    I get really angry when Christians of priviledge dismiss out of hand the experiences of people who are trans* (e.g., the last SBC convention, or last week’s article by Rusty Reno). To me, that shows a certain lack of compassion that is, unfortunately, becoming a badge of honor in certain conservative circles.

    This is an important conversation. Sexual minorities may have a special place/obligation in this conversation. Thank you for initiating it here.

  2. Hi Melynda,

    This is really helpful, thanks so much! I spoke at a meeting for university students recently on the subject of sexuality, and there were LOADS of questions about transgender issues. But I’ve been similarly frustrated by the lack of decent resources.

    Did your search turn up anything useful?

  3. Doesn’t #2 need some heavy qualification? I mean, it’s one thing to say that the Fall can frustrate and twist various aspects of human identity, but it’s quite another to imply that a person cannot be unambiguously male or female ontologically.

    • I think she was asserting that not EVERY human can be said to be purely male or female, not that NO human can be said to be purely male or female. In other words, though most humans are either male or female, there is a subset of humans for whom biological sex is indeterminate or does not fall into the binary of male or female — such as with intersex, XXY, or XYY people. That’s how I understood #2, anyway.

      • (Although XXY and XYY don’t necessarily cause sex or gender-related symptoms, just that they’re mutations of sex genes. And there are other genetic mutations that seem to be present in transwomen more than in cisgendered men.)

      • Well, that’s what I understood her to be saying as well. I just think it’s extremely problematic to posit the existence of a human who, in reality, is neither male nor female. Certainly I can except a whole range of conditions or deformities that might make it impossible for science to tell us the gender of any particular individual who lives under such a condition, but even that person would have to, in the end, be unambiguously male or female.

      • I was positing epistemological as opposed to ontological ambiguity. Though to be honest, I think that the ontological dimensions of masculinity and femininity are more complex than we usually admit. The use of feminine language to describe the Church and the soul comes to mind — we are able to speak of male Christians as being the Bride of Christ.

    • How do you figure out who is male or female ontologically? By their genitals or by their brain(as manifested by their feeling/ sense of being a man or woman.). What if the two conflict?

      • I don’t have a good answer as to how you figure out, objectively, what a person’s gender might be. All I’m saying is that the answer must be either male or female.

      • irksome, I don’t know if I would agree that the answer “must be either male or female,” biologically. If a person has male genitalia but an XX sex chromosome (i.e. is intersex), is it appropriate to say that person is strictly or purely “female”? The term somehow loses its accuracy in my mind.

    • Hi, irksome:

      Probably the most famous example of what she is discussing here is the actress Jamie Lee Curtis. It is biological fact which is public knowledge that she is genetically a man…she has XY chromosomes. However, she has a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which means that the receptors that were supposed to be on certain cells that would have caused her to develop into a male phenotype are absent. The default pathway for in utero development is toward the female phenotype, so that’s the direction in which she developed. However, upon reaching puberty, she would not have menstruated because she doesn’t have female reproductive organs, but in fact had (or would be expected to have had, I don’t know to that level of detail) undescended testicles, which would then have been removed to avoid her developing testicular cancer later on in life.

      We all recognize Jamie Lee Curtis as a female and she identifies as such, though genotypically speaking we are wrong. And I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t encourage someone with an outwardly female presentation which she had at birth to call herself a male simply because her genes say that.

  4. I think the biggest myth is this: It is our job to immediately engage with the morality of transgenderism when we meet a transgendered person. That is the last thing we should do — even if we meet the person in the midst of an online dispute about the subject. People need to be engaged with out of pure generosity and love.

    If they ask our advice, we should be willing to give it. But we should not consider their lives our personal garden which we can nurture however we want.

  5. Thank you for writing this! You’re right, it really is a wasteland.

    I attended the Gender Spectrum Conference in the Bay Area and the experience was something I could never have imagined. The first workshop I attended was on parenting… specifically with kids who are gender variant or gender nonconforming. I was thinking… no sweat, not a new subject for me. They had a little intro and then said they wanted people to say their name and introduce themselves a bit… like what brought them to the conference. I looked around and saw that this particular workshop was packed with probably around 60+ people and thought they were nuts for doing introductions. It did go longer than they had planned, but since it was going so well they just kept it going.

    I have to say, it was extremely intense, but absolutely fascinating. I heard one story after another from the parents of their experience raising a gender nonconforming child. It was often heart breaking, but others were inspiring… the parents were at different stages of this. The love these parents had for their child was stunning… so beautiful.

    It was my turn to introduce myself and I said that I was just there with a friend and that I’m not a parent, but that I’ve worked with homeless LGBTQ youth for years. At this point I was hit by a wave of emotion. It was just such a powerful experience! As I was standing in front of this group I started to cry… which is REALLY out of character for me! This was extremely awkward for me, but I held it together enough to finish what I wanted to say. I told them that I’ve worked with the “throw away kids” and that sitting in a room full of parents that love and support their kids is beautiful for me to see. I told them this is not something I could have ever imagined because all I’ve seen are the kids that have been rejected by their parents. I thanked them all for being there and I told them they are awesome.

    I was extremely interested in the aspect of support from faith communities. I found that others were interested in this too and they held multiple talks on the subject. I was pleased to see a number of faith communities there. Obviously I wanted to talk to the Catholic priest or deacon or sister…. but there wasn’t one. It seems (from what I’ve seen) that Catholic religious aren’t very involved in this discussion. It’s a shame because there are a number of Catholic families needing support.

    • The two terms are often used semi-interchangeably. Sometimes a distinction is made such that transgender would mean a person who adopts a new social identity, but doesn’t have sex reassignment surgery, whereas a transsexual would be someone who has had surgery, but that’s not really a hard and fast rule. Also some trans people object to the use of transsexual at all because even though the word “sex” is being used in this compound to mean male or female it tends to suggest “sex” in the more colloquial sense, and some theorists feel that contributes to the oversexualization of trans people in the public mind.

  6. As many have already written, thanks for posting this! The post itself, as well as the discussion in the comments section, has been very informative.

    Just as I want Christians with a completely straight orientation to take time to try and understand people like me, I want to do the same for trans people, but like so many other commenters have mentioned, the whole topic is very clouded and confusing to me. It helps me to have a little mercy on straight Christians whose glaring misconceptions often make dialogue so difficult.

    Thanks so much for doing the hard work of researching, and here’s to hoping that trans people will eventually have the same access to encouraging resources that other sexual minorities have been gaining in recent years.

  7. Pingback: Mid-September Links of Interest | A Queer Calling

  8. Pingback: » A Meager Two Cents on ERLC2014 (becoming) remedied

  9. Thanks Melinda for handling these basic misconceptions very well for a cisgender Christian audience. I hope my work at Togetherstyle.com is not considered only a little esoteric and not part of the wasteland. Bless you for your caring.

  10. Excellent post Melinda, thank you. As a post-op Catholic transman it is heartening to see objective and accurate information about trans people presented to a Christian audience.

    A book that has been really helpful for me – and might help others – from a Christian theological point of view has been “Transgendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith” by Justin Tanis.

    Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s