In May 2015, a selection of bishops and senior theologians from Germany, France and Switzerland gathered in Rome for a study day in preparation for the 2015 Synod on family and marriage. The importance of the event is demonstrated by it’s being convened by the presidents of the three countries’ bishops’ conferences – and by the enraged uproar that ensued on a wide range of conservative Catholic websites.
Three themes were covered in three sessions
biblical exegesis on divorce,
each with one paper delivered in French and one in German:
Some of the material referred directly to questions of homosexuality, but all have relevance to the bigger questions of Catholic responses to people in what are sometimes termed “irregular situations”, and so of relevance to LGBT Catholics, especially two papers dealing with the importance of “narrative theology” – the value of paying attention to our real life situations and stories.
The day’s proceedings were subsequently published at the website of the German bishops’ conference, together with some introductory material, a press release, a concluding summary and translations of each paper into the other language, and also into Italian. The resulting single document is consequently lengthy, and not too easy to navigate. Because of the papers’ importance, for ease of access and navigation, I have copied the text, section by section, into a series of separate Google documents, one for each paper in each language.
Forgive the personal reference, but the same experience is marked by your parents’ divorce …
Yes, I come from a family of divorced parents.My father remarried.My grandparents were already divorced.So I very soon got to know the patchwork situation.I practically grew up in this reality, which is the reality of life of many people today.But I also experienced the essential goodness of the family.Despite all crises, all ideologies that we must denounce and call clearly by name, despite all this, marriage and family are the basic cell of human life and society.
I personally felt that in the Synod was a lack of two elements: attention to children and consideration of the family as a vast network of relationships (including grandparents, grandchildren, uncles and aunts …).It seems to me that the Synod has been had to present the nuclear family consisting of wife, husband and children, and has considered the situation from the point of view of the spouses.Do you not think that looking on from the point of view of the children and consider the families linkages that that they are able to create would allow evaluation of things differently, more completely?
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna is both a senior cardinal of the Catholic Church, once thought to be a “papabile” at the last conclave, and a notable theologian. He was a student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and later continued as a regular participant in the theological summer schools held by Pope Benedict XVI with his favoured former pupils.
His views are worth taking seriously – and are often prescient. When he remarked, a few years ago, that it was high time that the Catholic Church stopped obsessing about gay genital acts, to focus instead on the quality of the relationships, and should consider the value of those previously divorced wanting to remarry, when so many others simply reject the entire institution of marriage, he seemed to be a lone voice in the wilderness. It was widely expected at the time that he would be quickly reprimanded. This did not happen. Instead, many other bishops began to speak along similar lines, which soon became mainstream, and have since become an important thread through the family synods, of 2014 and 2015.
In a notable extended interview with the Italian Jesuit magazine Civita Cattolica, he offered some insights into the synod process, on marriage and family, and on pastoral responses to those in “irregular” relationships.
The published internview is available only in Italian. I offer here my own free translation of the complete Italian texts, in three parts:
The Synod Process and “Doctrine”
Marriage and Family
MARRIAGE AND PASTORAL CONVERSION: Interview with Cardinal Christoph Schonborn
(Antonio Spadaro SJ
During the extraordinary Synod on the family, which took place 5 to 19 October 2014, I was impressed with, among others, by the intervention of Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. We had a discussion, after his speech in the classroom, during a dinner with a mutual friend. Then he told me about his experiences as a child of a family that has experienced the divorce. His lucidity was not a merely intellectual reflection, but was the result of experience. Strolling under the colonnade of St. Peter, he told me about the absence of grandparents and uncles from Synod speeches. The family, he said, is not only wife, husband and children, but is a wide network of contacts, including some friends and not only relatives. Any divorce affects a large network of relationships, not only on a couple’s life. But it is also true that the network can withstand the impact of the split and support the most vulnerable, the children, for example.
We did not end the conversation. We continued for two subsequent meetings, after a few months, at the headquarters of Civiltà Cattolica. Once with his friend and fellow Dominican Fr Jean Miguel Garrigues, who I also interviewed for our magazine (1). And the interview finally, continued in Vienna at the Kardinal KönigHaus.The following interview is the result of these meetings, which eventually took the form of a dialogue unit. I asked the Cardinal for a reflection closely tied to his experience as a pastor. And this pastoral inspiration that gives body and breath to his words.During the extraordinary Synod on the family, which took place 5 to 19 October 2014, I was impressed with, among others, by the intervention of Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. We had a discussion, after his speech in the classroom, during a dinner with a mutual friend. Then he told me about his experiences as a child of a family that has experienced the divorce. His lucidity was not a merely intellectual reflection, but was the result of experience. Strolling under the colonnade of St. Peter, he told me about the absence of grandparents and uncles from Synod speeches. The family, he said, is not only wife, husband and children, but is a wide network of contacts, including some friends and not only relatives. Any divorce affects a large network of relationships, not only on a couple’s life. But it is also true that the network can withstand the impact of the split and support the most vulnerable, the children, for example).
Your Eminence, what was, in your view, the intention of the Extraordinary Synod of the family? There has been talk of family joy and challenges of the family.
When Francis became Pope, the theme for the next Synod had already been set by his predecessor, Pope Benedict: general issues of Christian anthropology and, above all, bioethical issues. During his first meeting with the Council of the Synod, Pope Francis observed that it would be difficult to address these issues outside of a framework of background on the family and marriage and, consequently, little by little the issue moved without neglecting the anthropological questions, but placing them in connection with this original anthropology that is the biblical teaching about man and woman, their marriage, their vocation and the great theme of marriage and the family.
But why take up a theme that St. John Paul II dealt with exhaustively in the course of the 27 years of his pontificate?
I think that Pope Francis wanted above all to encourage us – and he repeated it several times – to look at the beauty and the vital importance of marriage and Family with the gaze of the Good Shepherd who makes himself close to everyone. He set in motion this synodos, this common journey, in which we are all called to look at the situation, not with a look from above, from abstract ideas, but with the look of the shepherds who perceive the reality of today in an evangelical spirit. This view of family reality and marriage is not, first of all, a critical look that underlines every failure, but a benevolent one, seeing how much good will and how much effort are there, even amid so much suffering. After all, we are asked an act of faith: to approach, like Jesus, to diverse crowd without fear of being touched.
In the convocation of the Synod on the family by the Pontiff we can therefore read a desire for concreteness, closeness …
Yes, a desire to watch real people in the joys and sorrows, griefs and anxieties of their daily lives and bring them the Good News, and find that living the Gospel in the midst of many hardships, but also such generosity. We must break away from our books to go into the crowd and be touched by the lives ocf people. Look at them and know their situations, more or less unstable, since deep desire is inscribed in everyone’s heart. It is the Ignatian method: look for the presence and action of God in the smallest details of everyday life. We are still far from achieving this auspicious start made by Pope Francis. We have not reached this dimension in ecclesiastical discourse and in the discourse of the Synod. We speak too with a language made of vacuous concepts.
According to some, however, the aim should be eminently doctrinal; some even fear for the doctrine.
The challenge Pope Francis puts to us is to believe that, with the courage that comes from simple proximity, from the everyday reality of the people, we will not turn away from doctrine. We not risk diluting its clarity by walking alongside people, because we ourselves are called to walk in faith. Doctrine is not, in the first instance, a series of abstract statements, but the light of the word of God demonstrated by apostolic witness to the heart of the Church and in the hearts of believers who walk in the world today. The clarity of the light of faith and its doctrinal development in each person is not in contradiction with the way that God works with ourselves, that we are often far from living fully the Gospel.
So what are the challenges with which the ordinary Synod will have to deal?
We can identify several key points which would be detrimental not give proper weight. The first that comes to mind is to become aware of the social and historical dimension of marriage as a family. Too often we theologians and bishops, pastors and guardians of doctrine, forget that human life takes place in the conditions imposed by a society: psychological, social, economic, political, in a historical context. This has been lacking in the Synod. And the thing is amazing compared to the enormous changes that individual during the seventy years of my own life. How can we forget that throughout history marriage has not been accessible to everyone? During several centuries, perhaps millennia, marriage was not what the Bible tells us of man and woman. For a large number of people, marriage was simply not possible, because of the social conditions. Just think of the slaves. We think in many professions for which marriage was both economically inaccessible, it is excluded former professed. In the countryside, up to three generations ago, there were used, farmers who did not marry because they had the option of paying the dowry. In the nineteenth century baptismal records in Vienna, about half of the children were illegitimate children of the servants of the bourgeois houses that they could not marry because they did not have the means. Think of the situation, also present in poor countries. It left me a little shocked that at the Synod we speak very abstractly of marriage. Few of us have talked about the real conditions of young people who want to marry. We complain about the almost universal reality of de facto unions, many young and not so young who live together without getting married civilly and even less religiously; we are here to deplore this phenomenon, instead of asking, “What has changed in the conditions of life?”.
You are a pastor. You are the archbishop of Vienna. What happens today in Austria?
In Austria young people are living – and they are the vast majority – disadvantaged by the tax authorities, if they marry. Furthermore, their work situation is often precarious, and they hardly find a stable and lasting as happened to my generation. How can we want to build a house, start a family in these conditions? We find a social situation that was very common in the last century, when many were excluded from the good of marriage simply because of their situation. I’m not saying that what happens is good, but we need to have a careful and compassionate look at the reality . There’s plenty of finger-pointing on hedonism and individualism of our society. It is more difficult to observe these realities carefully.
I feel that his speech is marked by a faith in the ability of good people, despite everything.
We must bear witness to a deep trust in man, child of God, loved by God, and a deep trust in marriage and the family, the vital cell of society. I was very impressed to hear this positive thread from Pope Francis. For example, when during the Synod he reminded us: “But you do not talk about their grandparents.” And it is true: our speech is often so formal! How many times has he talked about his famous grandmother that so marked his life! He invites us to look with love and with a fund of trust at this reality of the family.
En octubre del año pasado, en el mismo mes en que el Sínodo de Obispos dio a conocer un documento en donde hablaban de que los homosexuales tenían “dones y cualidades” para ofrecer y que había que aceptarlos (sin que comprometieran la doctrina católica de la familia), el sacerdote chileno Pedro Labrín viajó a Roma junto a miembros de la Pastoral de la Diversidad Sexual (Padis).
The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.” This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged. Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to do with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as certainly “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay. In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity, at His actions, and at His words.
The Jewish Family.
It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community. This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean. The detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity to their husbands, and were thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.
In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation. Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities. Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.
My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.
But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with. More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children. As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.
So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?
First, and famously, He did not marry. This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation. So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form? We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper. The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families. It is significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles: these were the people we must take to represent His closest family. Who were these men? If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.
Think about it: on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men. Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?
Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ? The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship. What was the nature of this household? Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family. The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters: Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life. Even at face value, this is an unusual household: Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother. Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention. For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sisters’ may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.
So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children. Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.
I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions. That I will do later in a follow-up post.
This post is the fifth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.
THE CONVERSATION ON GENDER EXPRESSION.
In the last post I talked about gender groupings and how one is perceived/treated as a gendered individual. The gender one is perceived as is largely determined by two factors: secondary sexual characteristics, and gender behavior. The first, secondary sexual characteristics, is the physical amalgam of sex-typical characteristics (facial hair, breasts), which is largely determined by hormones and can change over time. The second, gender behavior, is the varied ways in which a person displays femininity, masculinity, or androgyny in the world.
In my chart I break gender behavior into several terms. The first one is gender expression (or gender expressiveness), and for my purposes it means thenatural outflowing of masculinity or femininity. Generally this is affected by subconscious sex, gender identity, hormones, and any inherent masculine or feminine tendencies. The gay boy who cannot stop himself from having limp wrists no matter how much his parents try to beat it out of him might very well be expressing natural femininity, just as a left-handed person expressesnatural lefthandedness even if they’re taught to be ambidextrous. When I came out of the closet, at least some of the femininity in my behavior arose from a subconscious place that was natural to me but that had been shut down by society. Certainly the more integrated I’ve become, the more natural expression has emerged from the deep.
Gender performance (or affected gender) is the side of gender expression that isn’t natural. Some feminists would say that all gender behavior is performative, but I disagree. There are too many people who act naturally feminine or masculine despite being socialized in the opposite direction. However, some of gender is definitely an act. The little boy who hates sports isperforming gender when he pretends to like sports. When I tried to suppress my subconscious sex and redefine myself based on forced masculine role models like Teddy Roosevelt, I was studying how to perform gender. On the other side of the coin, a female drag king who dresses as a guy to entertain a crowd is quite literally performing gender. For some gay guys (certainly not all), their particular culture of gay-specific flamboyancy (or effeminacy as it’s derogatorily called) is a performance to mark themselves as visibly gay.
Both natural gender and performed gender combine to create gender presentation, which mostly has to do with how one deliberately appears to the world. If gender performance is how one deliberately acts, gender presentation is how one deliberately wants to be perceived. It is how oneattempts to have their gender perceived (not necessarily how other people actually perceive it).
As a transsexual woman my gender expression is now feminine because my femininity is unrepressed. My gender performance is also usually feminine, but more because of social pressures to conform to cultural notions of femininity, as well as my desire to be affirmed as a woman. The sum total is a female gender presentation: I present myself as a woman, with the hopes that people will perceive me as female (my perceived gender) and will group me with other girls (my gender grouping). Tension exists when all these factors don’t align. Just the other day I had an experience in which my gender performance and perceived gender didn’t match my gender expression, and the result was incredible anxiety.
Unfortunately, gender behavior is the side of gender that the media leans all its weight on. A lot of public discussions about gender behavior become steeped in pejorative sexism. Gay men and transgender women are confused with each other because both are considered “feminine males.” For those who define being a man as being anatomically male, both gay men and transgender women are effeminate men; whereas for those who define being a woman as being feminine, both gay men and transgender women are “basically girls.” Misogyny turns this evaluation into an insult, since (after all) it’s bad to be feminine or a girl, especially if you’re male. Of course, confusing gay men and transgender women is ridiculous and defies actual experience.
A place where gender-as-expression creates tension within the trans community is the de-medicalization of trans issues by trans liberationists. For many transsexuals, the existence of transsexuality or gender dysphoria as a medical diagnosis is extremely comforting. It aligns with our own experience, that being trans is problematic not only because of how society views us, but because our body itself experiences an innate tension that can be crippling. Gender reassignment surgery really is life-saving for some. Other transgender people who conceive gender primarily as a presentation which ought to be queered or usurped view hormone therapy and surgeries as elective cosmetic procedures. This is why the transgender community is sometimes schizophrenic on this issue, one moment demanding health care coverage and the next demanding God-like autonomy over their own bodies. The community doesn’t know how to treat issues of problematic embodiment separately from issues of gender performance.
These assumptions and conflations become crystal clear with the media hype around Caitlyn Jenner. During her interview with Diane Sawyer she had some vulnerable breathing room to talk about her gender as both subconscious sex and social grouping – she feels a sense of belonging both to the female sex and the “woman” social group. However, perhaps in no small part because of how she presents herself, since then the media has only latched onto the most superficial elements of her femininity. It’s not her lifelong subconscious transsexual experience that makes her a woman, but her new hairdo, name-brand cocktail dress, and plastic surgery.
With Caitlyn Jenner we see the negative side of this view of gender. If gender is nothing but a set of superficial cosmetic stereotypes that mostly apply to women, then gender ideologists are right to tear it down because it’s essentially meaningless. There was no Christian Doir in the Garden of Eden, or even in the Bronze Age.
So much of gender is performance that it’s hard to see what’s genuineexpression. Expression is important because it points beyond the superficial to the subconscious and natural. The two are hard to parse out because they often coincide. When I wear a floral skirt, it’s predominantly expressive in that I just frickin’ love floral skirts, but it’s also performative in that I’m conforming to standards of femininity. We need to separate out these two elements so we can both talk about what this expressiveness says about my nature (are you listening, gender essentialists?), and what this pressure to perform says about our society (how about you, gender deconstructionists?).
The ways in which my gender behavior isn’t natural is only in the same way that some cisgender people unnaturally exaggerate their own gender behavior to fit in. Would I feel compelled to wear makeup as often as I do if the world was more accepting of frumpy women? Probably not. However, for transgender people there’s an added dimension to behavior concerns: namely the need to feel safe and validated. Transgender women in particular get a lot of flack for practicing their feminine voice or obsessing over “passing” as women, and cisgender people use this as proof that trans women are “performing” in order to “deceive” others or “play” at being women. They fail to empathize with the social ramifications of being a tall woman with a deep voice. This kind of “practicing gender” isn’t usually about “transforming into a woman,” but about having the luxury to live as oneself without being constantly accosted. The end goal is free expression – creating safe space in the world to allow oneself to be oneself.
A lot of conservative rhetoric against me assumes that in acting as a woman in society, I’m putting on an elaborate ruse to fool the outside world. They miss the fact that much of my female persona is a natural expression flowing from my inner self.
It’s this expression that forms the core of some peoples’ gender identity. An anatomical female may, for example, be naturally masculine but not have a subconscious male sex. They identify as transgender not because they feel an inescapable male identity at their core, but because their natural gender expression is so masculine that it puts them outside any recognizable female gender expectation. There’s nothing about “girlhood” or “womanhood” that resonates with them.
In this case, as is partially the case for a transsexual woman with a subconscious female sex, the issue is authenticity. However, it’s authenicity of expression, expectations, social grouping, and role rather than subconscious sex. This distinction is lost on most people, even some transgender people, but that’s why we need to have these more nuanced discussions about gender. The transgender person above has just as valid a complaint against gender oppression as a transsexual like me, but their complaint is entirely different. They quite naturally don’t fit into the binary, and in asserting themselves as transgender, they’re refusing to be shoved like a square peg into a circle hole.
If we can’t create a society that tolerates exceptions to the gender “norm” such as this, then we’re heartless. You can kick and scream all you want about how “it’s only natural that males be masculine and females be feminine,” but you need to read what’s actually natural to real people, just as you have to simply acknowledge the existence of intersex people. You can formulate a lofty notion of gender essentialism to define “what a woman is essentially,” but be careful not to ignore the individual woman whose essence doesn’t quite reflect the characteristics you thought it would.
Part 6, the conversation on “gender as role,” is coming soon.
This post is the fourth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.
THE CONVERSATION ON GENDER GROUPING.
As I detailed in the last post, for many transsexuals the site of gender embattlement is their subconscious sex, which is often confused withgender identity. Subconscious sex is a person’s persistent embodied sense of belonging to one sex or another. It is not how one chooses to identify, but how one experiences oneself. For example, technically speaking I had a male gender identity for much of my life. I identified as a male because everyone told me I was male, and I more or less believed them. I at least believed them enough to consciously think of myself as “one of the guys,” even if I didn’t experience myself precisely in that way. However, despite actively choosing to identify as a male, a boy, a man, and a guy, I had a persistent subconscious sex: female.
At least for my early years, I determined my gender identity according to mygender grouping. This gender grouping was a complex interaction of myassigned sex, legal sex, and how people perceived me (my perceived gender). All these factors made people treat me like a guy, so for all social intents and purposes I was one.
In that sense I’ve changed genders. Since I usually think of gender in terms of my subconscious sex, I think of it as being constant throughout my life because my subconscious sex hasn’t budged an inch. But for people who see gender as the social group one “swims in,” after transitioning my gender changed from boy to girl. With that change came a difference in how I was treated, what was expected of me, and who related to me familiarly.
This particular definition of gender – social grouping – is where a lot of the tension comes between transgender women and so-called trans-exclusive radical feminists. Since many radical feminists define gender as an experience of being part of a social group, they define their own womanhood and feminism in terms of their experience of being perceived and (mis)treated as women in a sexist society. Since I spent many years of my life being perceived and treated as a man, those feminists want to exclude me because my social experience of gender differs from theirs.
This assumption is partly untrue. While I haven’t lived my entire life being perceived and treated as a woman, I’ve lived some of it in that capacity, and certainly enough to have experienced a broad, frightening range of misogyny. In some ways, as a transsexual woman the degree to which I experience misogyny is heightened: I’m held to more demanding stereotypes of femininity; threat of rape also becomes threat of homicide; and my body is questioned, objectified, judged, interpreted, and claimed by patriarchal forces to an outlandish degree. Also, while my childhood was not marked by abuse and propaganda aimed directly at me, because of my subconscious female sex I still internalized a great deal of it. Even being treated as a boy, I still flinched with a sense of personal affront when men objectified women’s bodies.
Even my male privilege was a two-edged sword. I imagine it’s a parallel experience to a butch lesbian who get mistaken as a man. While the social benefits were appealing, all it did was reinforce the idea that it’s better to be perceived as a man; it didn’t particularly glorify me.
For some transgender people, their gender identity is based on this social grouping. For example, a very feminine male who expresses herself flamboyantly might identify with women because she fits in – with their world, their oppression, their perceived place in society. An androgynous female might identify as neither a man nor a woman because they don’t fit in with typical femininity, but they also don’t fit into the world of male privilege. Heregender means a different kind of belonging – not what sex you belong to, but which social group.
Conversations on gender, whether within philosophy, ethics, or sociology, need to take this perception of gender seriously. Gender identity is caricaturized as radical self-definition, just as willful and random as picking out a dress. Sometimes this is the case, but gender identity rarely happens in a void. Some people’s social reality simply lies outside the binary, and for them it’s meaningless to say “you’re a woman because you have a vagina,” if they haven’t experienced their social reality as a woman.
It’s sometimes remarked that “the experience of the sexes” is markedly different, and this is true. A female with regular menstruation has a different experience than a male with regular spontaneous erections. Even though I experience an emotional “period” from my hormones cycling and syncing to other women via pheromones, I do not bleed on a monthly basis. Similarly, the material fact that I have functioning mammary glands and a feminine center of gravity, as well as the possibility that my neurological wiring is transsexed, separates me out from males. These are material facts that can’t be overlooked.
However, “the experience of the genders” is much MORE markedly different. If you are perceived as a woman or treated as a man, regardless of your anatomical sex you are participating in a widely encompassing social experience. If you are a female who is perceived and treated as a man, the fact that you are anatomically female only means so much when it comes to your gender; your experience day in and day out of being perceived as a man is much more defining in some ways. Very few people ever “see” your “sex,” as in spot your genitals or chart your DNA. 99% of the time we rely only on perceived gender, from which we also assume anatomical sex.
This “social grouping” concept of gender affects a large array of people, both transgender and not. Bearded ladies, feminine men, butch lesbians, drag queens, transsexuals, tomboys, intersex persons… all may experience this distinction between the brute fact of one’s primary sex characteristics and where one fits into society. The fact that one’s perceived gender has such far-reaching effects can’t be overlooked. Most conversations about manhood, womanhood, and everything in between are meaningless without engaging the social grouping of gender.
This post is the third in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.
THE CONVERSATION ON “GENDER AS SUBCONSCIOUS SEX.”
For transsexual persons, their assigned and determined sex are more straightforward. The doctors see a majority of sexed characteristics lining up one way, and so they assign gender based on that sex. For a male-to-female transsexual like myself, a rigorous medical evaluation of my body would probably conclude that my primary sexual characteristics at birth – chromosomes and genitals – are male-typical. So I am, by most definitions of determined sex, a male. The doctors assigned my sex (male) without any consternation, and consequently assigned my gender (boy) without missing a beat.
I was born into embattlement because the doctor’s biological designation assumes something about my gender trajectory. She assumes that since my body has male-typical characteristics, I will embody those characteristics in a male-typical way and will experience them as normative. In other words, unlike intersex people where the locus of conflict begins before we even talk about gender, for transsexual people the locus starts with and encompasses all of gender and reflects back on sex.
For many transsexual people, their fight with gender is not merely social; there’s a deep physical component to it. The embattlement isn’t just with “you have a penis so you’re male so you’re a boy so you should behave in xyz fashion.” The embattlement questions whether having a penis makes one a boy, and sometimes even whether it makes one male, or whether one ought to have a penis at all. So even though the facts of sex development are at least mostly unambiguous, the interpretation of these facts is almost as problematic as for an intersex person. A conflict exists right at the point at which you start making assumptions about a transsexual based on their genital morphology.
To be clear, I’m not talking about all transgender individuals, but specificallytranssexuals with serious body dysmorphia. I’m talking about people who feel and experience themselves very strongly as belonging to a particular sex, even when the physiological data of their sex characteristics would beg otherwise. I’m talking about transsexuality here as a phenomenon, not an identity. Some transsexed individuals identify as transsexuals, some as transgender, and others as gender non-conforming.
I use the word “belonging” very deliberately because I think it’s the most accurate word to describe the transsexual experience. Phrases like “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” or “I always knew I was a girl” are oversimplifications. Other phrases like “I want to be female” or “I desire to become a woman” are also oversimplifications. The reality is somewhere in the middle, with a feeling of belonging, of ought-ness, regarding the other sex. On one hand I grew up knowing full well what it meant to have a penis and be called a ‘boy,’ so I didn’t assert that I wasn’t male. But at the same time being female felt so right and proper to me that it wasn’t simply that I wanted “tobecome a girl,” but “to be as a girl.”
I’ll try to illustrate what I mean with a personal experience. Freshman year of high school I learned about intersex conditions. I heard that some girls are born with ambiguous genitalia, and that doctors surgically “fix” the genitals to be one way or another (see the previous post). This caused an earthquake in my soul. I spent almost a full week completely convinced I was an intersex girl. I would do regular checks on my penis in an attempt to find evidence of a surgical intervention. I thought my penile raphe – a dark line extending along the penis shaft to the anus – must be a scar from when they surgically constructed my neo-phallus. I almost asked my parents if this was the case, but a quick google search told me that a penile raphe is male-typical. I almost cried. I’d finally found a word – intersex – that somehow fit the feelings I didn’t have words for. I was not happy to find out my genitals were “male-typical.”
I want you to reflect for a second on how visceral this experience was. The word “intersex” brought up feelings I couldn’t even begin to articulate. Not that I wanted to be a girl or express femininity, but that my body was a girl’s body that had been altered to look like a boy’s. That I was in fact a girl – a boyish intersex girl, but a girl nonetheless. The feeling wasn’t so much in my head as in my bones. When I heard about intersex conditions, it was like my whole body screamed YES at once.
The term gender identity is often used to describe this sense of belonging to the other sex. The problem is “gender identity” nowadays simply means what you “choose” to “identify” as, which does little justice to the transsexual experience. That’s why I’ve decided to distinguish gender identity fromsubconscious sex, a term coined by Julia Serano.
Personally, I have always found the term “gender identity” to be rather misleading. After all, identifying as something, whether it be as a woman, a Democrat, a Christian, a feminist, a cat person, or a metalhead, seems to be a conscious, deliberate choice on our part, one that we make in order to better describe how we think we fit in the world. Thus, with regard to transsexuals, the phrase “gender identity” is problematic because it seems to describe two potentially different things: the gender we consciously choose to identify as, and the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be…
I am sure that some people will object to me referring to this aspect of my person as subconscious “sex” rather than “gender.” I prefer “sex” because I have experienced it as being rather exclusively about my physical sex, and because for me this subconscious desire to be female has existed independently of the social phenomena commonly associated with the word “gender.”As mentioned previously, my initial experience with my female subconscious sex was not accompanied by any corresponding desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity… And my female subconscious sex was most certainly not the result of socialization or social gender constructs, as it defied everything I had been taught was true about gender, as well as the constant encouragement I received to think of myself as a boy and to act masculine. (78, 82)
There’s growing scientific evidence that this subconscious sex is hardwired in the brain – what I call brain sex. The evidence isn’t conclusive, and there are problems with how people approach the idea of brain sex. Most people think of it in terms of having a stereotypically feminine or masculine hard-wiring, like a ditzy cheerleader brain versus a dumb jock brain. Most of these stereotypes center on sexist, derogatory assumptions about men and women, but are notwhat we’re probably talking about with regards to brain sex. I don’t have a female brain because I’m bad at math. That begs the question why my many girl friends who are great at math aren’t transsexual or at least butch (or why this stereotype even exists when in high school many of the best math students were girls). When we talk about brain sex and subconscious sex, we’re talking about something that’s clearly there regardless of social norms of femininity or masculinity.
In 1965 a boy named David Reimer was born biologically male, but a botched circumcision left his penis horribly mutilated. A prominent sexologist John Money firmly believed that gender identity (and by extension, subconscious sex) was socially and environmentally created, and that any child could have any gender identity bestowed on them by upbringing and hormones alone. He performed a sex reassignment surgery on David to transform his mutilated penis into a neo-vagina. Money was certain that David would happily live as a girl. However, from ages 9-11 David clearly developed and identified with a male gender identity. The social experiment was a failure; David’s brain was hard-wired with a male subconscious sex that thwarted any effort to raise him as female. At age 13 he became suicidal and told his parents he’d end his life if he had to see Dr. Money again.
The typical transsexual embattlement with gender differs from that of an intersex person and is more similar to that of David Reimer because it’s mainly about the subconscious sex. I have a transsexual friend who has both xx and xy chromosomes, so she technically has a genetic intersex condition even though she doesn’t identify as intersex. Her experience is transsexual because she has a subconscious female sex but was assigned male because of her genitals; her chromosomes had nothing to do with how the doctors perceived her or how she perceives herself. Her embattlement isn’t between her genitals and chromosomes, but between her genitals and her subconscious sex. This is why even if subconscious sex is determined by an intersex condition in the brain (brain sex), it doesn’t really matter. Transsexual women aren’t embattled because a brain scan shows we have a female brain or a gene test shows we have female chromosomes – even if that turns out to be the case. We’re embattled because of how our brain identifies itself versus our sex characteristics and how society identifies us.
If brain sex determines whether one feels male or female, then it’s possible that just as one can be born with genitals that are a mix of feminine and masculine, a person could have a brain sex that is biologically undetermined. This means that in some cases, gender non-conforming people who experience themselves as a “third sex” could have an androgynous brain sex. This could also explain why some intersex people don’t experience an inherent subconscious “male” or “female” sex, but a third “bi-gender” or “undetermined” identity.
Regardless of whether subconscious sex flows from brain sex, or is determined by other factors, it’s a pervasive component of gender that affects everything from perception of oneself as sexed to perception of one’s proper social group. The notion of having a subconscious sex is foreign to cissexual (non-transsexual) people because they never notice they have one. If their subconscious sex perfectly aligns with their assigned sex, they have no reason to tease out the difference between the two, and the subconscious sex remains unconscious. However, if a cissexual person is asked if they would change genders (“No, then I wouldn’t be me anymore”), or if they’re questioned about what makes them a man or woman (“My penis”; “But what if your penis is amputated?”; “I’d still be a man”), their subconscious sex emerges at least into preconsciousness. They’ll still never be forced to notice subconscious sex in the same manner as transsexuals, for whom it’s a constant self-awareness if they don’t transition.
We can talk about gender identity broadly in a way that encompasses subconscious sex, just as we can talk about transsexuals as part of the transgender umbrella, but we also need to talk about these things on their own terms. When a transsexual talks about their gender, they’re often talking about this pervasive, all-encompassing experience of sexual embodiment.
EDIT: I added two paragraphs on the politics of sex determination that I meant to discuss in the original post.
THE CONVERSATION ON “GENDER AS DETERMINED SEX.”
Our experience of gender begins, whether we’re conscious of it or not, at birth. When the doctor pulls us from the womb, she looks at our genitals and makes an evaluation – does the child look male or female? This evaluation isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. When the doctor looks between the child’s legs, the only thing she sees is the apparent genital morphology. She can’t see the child’s chromosomes, test the child’s gonadal tissue, or perfectly predict the child’s hormonal trajectory. All she sees is whether the child’s genitals look phallic or yonic, and from that she makes a broad biological assumption. This assumption is the child’s assigned sex.
For intersex persons with ambiguous genitalia, this process of assigning a sex is thwarted because their genitals don’t read one way or the other. In a more rigorous medical atmosphere, the doctors will then do hormonal and genetic tests to check on the person’s other sexed characteristics. If they find, for example, that the person has xy chromosomes, they may assign that person a male sex even though their genitals are undetermined. This is what I calldetermined sex, the biological pronouncement made once doctors do a thorough evaluation of chromosomes and hormones as well as genitals.
Problems arise when the doctors can’t determine one single dominant sex. What if the chromosomes are mixed as well? Often times, in this situation doctors will surgically assign a sex (what we might call constructed sex), and then assign a gender.
Assigned gender is the verbal pronouncement the doctor makes after she reads the child as male or female. She pronounces it “a boy” or “a girl.” From assuming the child’s sex, she then foretells – usually correctly, but sometimes incorrectly – that child’s entire gender destiny. This pronouncement most immediately determines the child’s legal sex, the little M or F that appears on their birth certificate, which will determine their legal status in all walks of life.
For intersex people, their site of embattlement includes all the above. The doctors aren’t certain about how their sex characteristics add up, so they not only guess at the person’s sex, but also guess at the person’s gender. If a person has both xy chromosomes and a vagina, the doctors are assuming what this mix means. Is the person a single sexed thing – male or female? And can we know from their biology how they will embody those sexed characteristics – as a boy or a girl? In this case, the facts of sex are clearly in question, which throws the world of gender into question as well.
[EDIT] Determined sex is largely a medical issue, although brushing it under the rug as “something for the doctors to figure out” overlooks the gender politics that overshadow intersex issues. When a doctor decides the sex of a physiologically “ambiguous” child, he never achieves complete objectivity on the issue. To choose the child’s sex, he first has to choose a theory of gender: often either based on genetics (the person is male because they have xy chromosomes), predominance (the person is female because most of their sex characteristics appear female), or convenience (the person will be made female because it’s easier to surgically create a vagina).
The underlying problem is the social pressure to immediately determine the child’s sex and “normalize” it. When a child is born sexually ambiguous, doctors, parents, and clergy often freak out and treat it as a medical emergency. This forces the medical team to make brazen decisions which often leave the child scarred from haphazard invasive surgery. When the child’s sex is undetermined, in many cases the doctors’ guess is as good as anyone’s as to whether they will grow up to be a boy or girl, and so any choice that’s made on behalf of the child is essentially Russian roulette (see the discussion in Part 3 on David Reimer). This is why many intersex activistsadvocate forgoing surgical interventions until the child is old enough to both know their gender identity and make an informed decision.
To a limited degree these problems also apply to transsexuals. There is thebiological possibility that transsexuals have a brain that is physiologically sexed as the gender they identify as. This is what I call brain sex. So we can talk tentatively about transsexuality as an intersex condition (what I call being transsexed), in which case assigned and determined sex are thrown into question. If I have a “female” brain and male genitals, why should the doctors assume that my genital sex trumps my brain sex? I think these are valid questions, although I don’t think they’re the primary site of embattlement for transsexuals. I talk about this more in the next section.
In March 2010, Fr Owen O’Sullivan published an article in the theological journal “Furrow” on the inclusion of gays in the Church. The CDF seem to have found this article dangerous, and have ordered him not publish anything further without prior approval. In the modern internet age, this attempted censorship simply does not work: the original article has been published on-line in a series of posts at an Australian Salvation Army blog, “Boundless Salvation”.
Here is the eighth (and final) extract:
Are homosexuals showing church and society a way forward?
There is a long history in the Christian community of the stone which the builders rejected becoming the corner stone, the ‘sinners’ being preferred – as in the Gospel – to the holy huddle of the mutually approving who follow the official line.
Forty years ago, in Ireland as in other countries, homosexuality was a subject that ‘decent people’ didn’t talk about. But homosexuals found the honesty and courage to come out, to declare themselves, and to share their thoughts and feelings, often in the face of derision, hatred, violence or the threat of hell. They began to organize, to challenge the system, and to go political. They have brought about a 180 degree turn in public attitudes, exemplified by the Civil Partnerships Bill now going through the Oireachtas (legislature), something unimaginable forty years ago. Would that the church had so re-invented itself in the same forty years! Maybe the missing ingredients were the same: honesty, courage, openness, dialogue, challenging the status quo.
One finds a similar process at work among the ‘Anonymouses’ – alcoholics, gamblers, narcotics- and sex-addicts. They are at the bottom of the heap. By coming out, facing the truth, revealing their feelings, supporting and challenging each other, they have built communities which reflect what the church is meant to be – but often isn’t. Leadership is from the bottom up, the despised and rejected at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid showing the way to the wise and learned at the top.
And recently we have seen how it was the suffering of the most helpless in society – children – which eventually led to the exposure of much of what was rotten in the church.
Will homosexuals help us to re-discover new/old ways of doing theology and developing pastoral practice, where human experience is the starting point? That has happened already with other teachings that didn’t tally with human experience or meet human needs. Will they help us to read scripture with one eye on the page and the other on life? They are equally parts of one process. Perhaps they will show us that human experience is as valuable as scripture, as Saint Ignatius Loyola, for one, affirmed. ‘The word became flesh…’ (John 1.14) – God still speaks.
Perhaps, too, homosexuals are showing men a way forward out of self-imposed isolation, out of individualism built on machismo, and a way of dealing with personal issues such as men’s identity, men’s spirituality, addictions, domestic violence against men, male suicide, how abortion affects men, bereavement, paternity and parenting, access to and custody of children in a separation, and care of one’s health. The issues are different, but the qualities needed to face them are those that homosexuals developed in recent times.
Some of what the Scriptures say.
A few quotations: –
‘God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.’ (Genesis 1.31)
‘God does not see as people see; people look at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16.7)
‘Anyone who is not against us is for us’. (Mark 9.38-40; Luke 9.49-50)
‘Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ (Luke 12.57)
‘Whoever comes to me, I shall not turn away’. (John 6.37)
‘God has no favourites.’ (Romans 2.11)
‘We belong to each other.’ (Romans 12.5)
‘Each must be left free to hold his own opinion.’ (Romans 14.5)
‘You should never pass judgment on another or treat them with contempt.’ (Romans 14.10)
‘Do not let what is good to you be spoken of as evil.’ (Romans 14.16)
‘Your bodies are members making up the body of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 6.15)
‘By the grace of God, I am what I am.’ (1 Corinthians 15.10. See also 12.18-21, 26)
‘Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received him from God.’ (2 Corinthians 6.19)
‘You are, all of you, children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. All baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.26-28)
‘We are what God made us’. (Ephesians 2.10)
‘Everything God has created is good.’ (1 Timothy 4.4)
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of ‘the whole church in which everyone is a “first-born” and a citizen of heaven.’ (12.23)
Or read 1 John 4.7-21.
For those who don’t like the above, the great consolation is that it’s all God’s fault. Why? For creating in diversity instead of uniformity, as we see all around us in – guess where? – nature, for making some people different from others. Or did God make a mistake?