Gender in trouble?

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.

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being human, part 1

Made_in_Gods_Image_by_MacIomhairIn my quasi-professional life, the life in which I write the sorts of things academic theologians are supposed to write but without any compensation for doing so, I am working on an essay on Catholic moral anthropology. Mostly I stick pretty close to what the official teaching of the Church is–this piece is, after all, for the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.

The official teaching is good, I think, so I feel no need to stray. There is an emphasis on the way in which we human creatures are meant to live, that is, to live up to the image of God in which we have been made. Again, this is good: I do believe that we ought to be the image of God in the world. Elaborating on this, I would say (and will in the piece to be published) that means following Jesus in humility with love. I remember walking along the path by the river one afternoon in the weeks following my mother’s death. Having seen her lifeless body, and yet speaking to her, and knowing I ought to grieve, but couldn’t–well, the experience put me in a pretty strange space, spiritually speaking. So I lamented on that day by the river, ‘if only I could see you, God.’ Silly, I know: no one has ever seen God, etc. What came to me that day, though, was not the appropriate material from John’s gospel but a new attentiveness to what was in front of me. ‘That,’ I heard/realized/saw, ‘is the closest you will ever get.’ That was a person, a stranger, walking towards me on the path. He passed by, not realizing that he had changed something forever in me. People show (or fail to show) God to one another.

Believing that human beings are the image of God in the world has–from the evidence of Scripture and on the strength of that encounter–two very important implications. First, we must be the image of God. Jesus said, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ He himself did only what he saw the Father doing. His work on earth was (not only, but importantly) to make the Father known. So also we, who claim to be his disciples, must never forget this charge: to make the Father known. The weight of that responsibility did not occur to me immediately, but it is obvious. Bearing God’s image is not something we do chiefly for ourselves, but for our neighbor. We show God’s love and forbearance, or fail to show God’s love and forbearance, in every encounter. (I don’t know about you, but by day’s end I cannot count my failures to do this even on all ten fingers.)

Being in God’s image, second, requires us to respect that image in our neighbor. Here the official line is clear: every human being is created in the image of God. This of course has implications for the way we treat people at the ends of life, respecting the beginning and not hastening the end. It also, and crucially, must inform the way we regard every human being at every stage of his or her life. My children are all in the image of God, all equally so. The bouncy and bright four-year-old and the intelligent and high-strung twelve-year-old, the creative and brooding 9-year-old, and the happy and determined 14-year-old.  The fact that one of those children has one more chromosome than the others makes no difference to her being in God’s image. It also–and this is in many ways more difficult–means that however well or badly the children are behaving, however they reflect or fail to reflect the love and forbearance of the Father (and they do, more often than we see it, I think), we owe them the same respect. (An aside here, though: respect is not the same as capitulation. I make no claim to be an expert in parenting, but I do not think that letting our children get away with everything is respect. How to treat them with respect when they are behaving abominably? I can only say that the failures I mentioned above mount up very quickly in just that context.) It may well be that my children challenge me most, but I have opportunities every day to be patient or irritated, to be kind or scornful. Just because I am bound to fail doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for patience and kindness always.

Calvin (in the above comic, not the famous theologian of Geneva) both gets the point and misses it entirely. Yes, we ought to recognize God’s image in ourselves and bear it proudly. The image of God is not, however, something we see best reflected in a mirror, but in one another. I know I am in God’s image in part because you show me–by reflecting God’s image to me, and by respecting God’s image in me. So I pray for the grace to fail less, and to be more like Jesus, today and every day.

For that grace, Deo gratias.