Tag Archives: the Catholic transgender

GENDER AS SUBCONSCIOUS SEX (Reblog)

WHAT IS GENDER? PART 3:

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.

Gender breakdown transsexual

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.

Serano unpacks this distinction in her book Whipping Girl:

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.


Click here for Part 4, the conversation on “gender as a social grouping.”

AnnaMagdalena 4Christ, on “WHAT IS GENDER? PART 2” (Reblog)

GENDER AS DETERMINED SEX

This post is the second in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post.

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.

Gender breakdown intersex

[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.


Click here to proceed to Part 3, the conversation on “gender as subconscious sex.” 

 

annamagda4christ on “WHAT IS GENDER?” Part 1 (Reblogged)

WHAT IS GENDER? OR WHY THE TERM IS BOTH MEANINGLESS AND INDISPENSIBLE

This post is the first in a series on What is gender?


WHY WE NEED THIS PAIN-IN-THE-ASS WORD.


Probably the greatest challenge in writing a blog about gender is that no one – myself included – has any idea what the damn word means. I risk sounding unbearably flippant, I know, but it’s necessary to clear the air about that abominable word.

And I mean abominable. The problem with “gender” is that it encompasses altogether too many things, to the point where it’s almost meaningless. It’s kinda like the word “science,” which is really a fancy buzzword that could be expanded to include half the universe. When we say “science,” are we talking about the natural world, empirical exploration in general, natural philosophy, peer-reviewed studies, the scientific method(s), anything that’s falsifiable, anything-that’s-not-metaphysics, math?

Gender is even worse. It’s a nice fat term to throw into the fray, but what the hell does anyone mean by it? And yet we need such an all-encompassing word to communicate one of the core human experiences. With all the things that gender may or may not be, one thing that’s certainly true of it is that it’s something we experience.

For much of the history of the English language, “gender” just meant a grammatical designation. Was the word masculine or feminine? What pronouns did you use to refer to a person?

Some readers may ask: why must gender mean anything other than that? After all, the word “sex” is completely sufficient to talk about what we mean by “men” and “women.” The contemporary definition of “gender” is just a postmodern smoke grenade thrown into the mix to confuse people about the natural sexual binary.

On some very basic empirical level, people who throw out that objection are correct. In the animal kingdom, there’s no real need for the word “gender.” Animal bodies are coded as biologically male, female, both, neither, or mixed. It’s simple. It simply is what it is. If an animal is male, it’s male. The reality is purely reproductive – a mechanism of nature within evolution to create diversity and propagate the species.

Human beings are, to the chagrin of some, an entirely different animal (pun intended). While the basic reproductive coding remains the same, the physical reality of this coding is overlapped and transformed by mental, spiritual, interpersonal, and sociological dimensions. Animals are generally divided between male or female, but humans are divided much differently: as Men or Women. We aren’t just biological arrangements, but personalized creatureswho subjectively  experience and embody those biological arrangements. In the animal kingdom a creature simply has a masculine reproductive potential; in humans it is now a Man, a male person, who embodies that potential and swims in a sea of meaning stemming from his experience as that kind of person.

It is in light of this specifically human predicament that we need the word “gender,” because whenever we’re talking about the sex of a human person, we’re always talking about the massive world of meaning-structures attached to that sex.

Even the person’s sex is to some degree socially determined. Yes, a given person may have xy chromosomes and a penis. This is a brute biological fact. However, which of those discrete biological facts makes them (their whole person) male? Are they male because they have a penis? Or because they have xy chromosomes? This becomes an important question – or rather, we realize how important it has always been – when we’re confronted with intersex people, individuals with a mix of biological factors. If a person has xy chromosomes and a vagina, are they male or female? More importantly, are they a Man, Woman, both, or neither?

For more on the social construction of sex, I highly recommend Thomas Laqueur’s book “Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.” 

There’s little argument about the discrete biological factors, and this is why the word “sex” is needed. The intersex person mentioned above in fact has xy chromosomes. They also in fact have genitals with a morphology we’d label “vaginal” and “female-typical.” It’s a brute biological fact. But there’s plenty to argue about regarding which discrete biological fact is determinative of the entire person, and what that determination means for their place in society. And as long as there’s plenty to argue about, we need the word “gender.”


WHAT THIS PAIN-IN-THE-ASS WORD MEANS.


So we’ve established that sex – as opposed to gender – refers to biological factors that often exist on a binary. And gender – as opposed to sex – refers to how we interpret, embody, and personalize those biological factors, as well as all peripheral issues tied to them. The fact remains that we need that second word – gender – simply because humans do in fact interpret, embody, prioritize, and personalize their sex characteristics, and whenever we’re talking about sex, we’re inevitably talking about gender too. So the term is necessary, but it’s useless.

Why is it useless? Because gender means so many different things. When people argue about whether Caitlyn Jenner is a man or woman, more often than not they’re shouting past each other while wielding one particular facet of gender. When people from different parts of the transgender spectrum talk about their identities, they’re often pointing to completely different pieces of the gender puzzle. This is why the narratives of genderqueer and transsexual people often seem to contradict each other. The two groups are usually focusing on different aspects of gender.

So if we’re going to salvage the word, we need to break it down into its components. We need to realize that when the media soundbytes gender, it’s usually taking all these different substances and blending their most superficial aspects into a frankenjuice. Radical feminist gender theory, transsexual personal narratives, social commentaries, sex biology, and drag performance are smeared into one colorless conversation when really there’s about twenty different conversations we need to be having.

Here is a chart where I break down a few (only a few) of the major components of gender and their interactions with each other. As you can see, there’s a lot going on.

Gender breakdown 3Each and every one of these is its own conversation, its own conundrum, and its own locus of problems for people who don’t fit into a gender binary. It’s absolutely vital that we keep all these elements in mind when we talk about gender. If we’re going to talk candidly, we need to break away from the false debate between biological essentialism and gender ideology. Both sides want to reduce sex-gender complexity down to an easily-digestible single idea, but both sides in doing so cover up the factual complexity.

To biological fundamentalists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to what’s between your legs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that male-female sex id is complicated. The fact is that coding blue as “masculine” and pink as “feminine” is a recent historical construct. The fact is that some males are naturally feminine, and it has nothing to do with childhood trauma.

To gender ideologists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to oppressive social constructs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that human sex usually exists dichotomously and bears experiential meaning that goes beyond social groupings. The fact is that many cisgender men and women are naturally masculine and feminine irrespective of social pressure. The fact is that many transsexual people experience first-hand the reality of physiological and hormonal sex differences that go deeper than social conditioning.

In other words, both essentialists and deconstructionists are at once right and wrong. We need to stop parsing out the facts in an oppositional way and start looking at the big picture without taking a side in a cultural agenda. Ockham’s Razor needs to be as discerning as it is useful.

Instead of formally defining each term, I’m going to talk about how they each serve as sites of gender embattlement for people who don’t fit into a rigid binary. There’s an important intersectionality between all people who deal with gender, whether they’re female-to-male transsexual or bronies, and I don’t want to lose that sense of interconnectedness. But since all aspects of gender are so often conflated, I think it’s important to highlight different kinds of gender narratives.

I want to delve somewhat in depth into each of these gender conversations, so as a primer allow me to first outline why each one is its own conversation. Many different people identify as transgender or queer, but not all of them do so for the same reason. An intersex guy who was literally assigned a sex at random by doctors because they couldn’t figure out what he is might identify as transgender because the doctors guessed his biological sex wrong. A transsexual who feels like a woman even though her body is male-typical might identify as transgender because although the doctors perceived her body correctly, they made massive assumptions about her sense of embodiment and how she would experience her sex. A transgenderist who lives as a “male woman” or “female man” might identify as transgender because they don’t fit into the expectations of masculinity or femininity placed upon them and want to live according to the gender expectations placed on the other sex. Agenderqueer person might identify as transgender because they don’t feel like they fit in as a boy or girl and want an identity that will allow them to simply be themselves. Many other people might sympathize with the transgender movement because they have aspects of themselves that are stereotypically associated with the other sex, like sensitivity in men or tomboyishness in women. Each of these “types” of transgender people are headbutting against one aspect of gender, although it’s a different aspect for each of them.

End of Part 1. Proceed to Part 2

Catholic Magisterial Teaching on Transgenderism

We tend to speak freely about LGBT issues, but in practice, most of the time, we’re really thinking LG(bt), with both bi- and trans afterthoughts – if we think about them at all. I would imagine that most of us like to think about ourselves as trans allies, but it’s difficult for us actively to promote issues we don’t really understand. Ideally, we need to allow trans activists to speak for themselves.

At “A Catholic Transgender” (Blogging about being transsexual at the intersection of Calvary and Rome)there’s a useful, systematic assessment of what the magisterium says about transgender (i.e., nothing), together with well argued rebuttals of the usual claims that the Church cannot approve or recognize gender transition.

Here’s the opening: Continue reading Catholic Magisterial Teaching on Transgenderism