I read John Milbank’s piece (published last week), What liberal intellectuals get wrong about transgenderism. As expected, I found that some of what he says expresses (rather more forcefully) my own concerns. I hesitate to enter into a public conversation about these issues, both because I am a Catholic moral theologian who takes the magisterium seriously, and also because I sometimes suspect that my first reactions (which I’ve hardly got beyond) are likely to be visceral rather than intellectual. And nobody wants to hear what my viscera have got to say. So, I’ll let Milbank speak a bit.
What is more, it is possible that liberals have too easily assumed that there exists a new consensus over abortion rights, gay marriage, transgender issues and positive discrimination (as opposed to formal equal access) for women and racial minorities. In reality, it may well be that a large number of people either reject or have doubts about these things, but feel that it is no longer acceptable to say so. Their real views perhaps emerged anonymously as one aspect of the votes for Brexit and for Trump.
The only person I know personally who voted for Trump would cite dissent from that imagined consensus as one factor in his decision.
In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help toward a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.
But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.
My shaping by the academic lunacy Milbank later decries makes me cringe at ‘most people.’ Not because I don’t think it’s true. The majority of people don’t feel they’re in the ‘wrong body’ (though, given the choice, I would trade mine for Halle Berry’s or Angelina Jolie’s in a heartbeat), and are attracted to the ‘other’ body. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, this is what you’d expect. I’m just worried about the way that ‘most people’ have made life very difficult in the past for people who are ‘different.’ I am, after all, the mother of a teenage girl with Down Syndrome. Milbank again urges compassion, though:
I repeat that there are some people who really do have a psychic disparity with their gendered body. They may be a very small minority, but they should be listened to — and liberalism has certainly helped us to treat them with understanding and compassion.
But we should still consider irremediably psychic disparity with one’s gendered body to be a highly rare exception, and normatively one should assume (with the sensus communis of all ages) that gender indeed follows upon biological sex. Otherwise, one is embracing a most bizarre dualism of mind and body or soul and body.
True. And I would add that nobody who thinks s/he is in the wrong body wants one that is biologically, sexually ambiguous. Which makes me wonder whether it is not the oppressive ways in which ‘normal’ gender performance has been enforced that are to blame here. Listening, as Milbank recommends, seems indispensable here.
And without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender. This is the very simple point that is naïvely overlooked as too naïve by the Butlerian thinkers. It is dangerous to suggest that any and every claim to be in the wrong body requires the expenditure of scarce health resources, rather than some form of guidance. If we treat gender identity as so easily laid aside, we could lose our bedrock understanding of what human nature is.
Gender is, of course, not so easily laid aside: the Butlerians have got that wrong (if Milbank has got them right). One of the key points of Gender Trouble is that the social construction of gender does not negate its power. That’s one of the things structuralism tells us, rightly: that we are shaped by constructions like gender.
Sexual difference is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. As Genesis has it, ‘male and female [God] created them.’ While I am willing to fight for a flexible understanding of what ‘male and female’ means, I think that to give it up entirely is neither possible nor wise. And to do so would be to reject entirely one of the other beliefs that Judith Butler and this Catholic moral theologian share: bodies do matter.
Bodies matter so much that gender dysphoria drives young people to suicide. Whatever I might say, once I get beyond my visceral reaction to these issues, it will never lose sight of that.