The Reality of Transgenderism:
A Stern but Necessary Critique of Carlos Flores’
“Stern but Necessary Critique.”
It’s time to address a piece of writing that’s made quite a stir in the small intersectional world of transgenderism and Christianity. Carlos Flores’ article “The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique” is what Baptist professor Denny Burk calls a “sharp argument for sharp minds,” and while it’s ostensibly a grade above most anti-transgender polemic out there, it still falls short on a number of levels. The questions Flores brings up are entirely reasonable, but his analysis is still fundamentally flawed.
In short, Flores argues that public policy must be made to reflect truths about the human person, and since transgender identities are obviously delusional, and delusions are necessarily antithetical to human flourishing, public policies should actively deny trans* rights. He goes on to compare gender dysphoria with anorexia or a delusional sense of self, and in anticipation of what a transgender “apologist” like myself might bring to the table, denies that sexuality has any inherent complexity to consider.
Put simply, the whole truth of human sexuality is a simple binary of male/female genitalia, and adding nuance to the subject is not only being complicit in a delusion, but is itself delusional.
While this simple “gender commonsense” may work for people who already agree with Flores’ viewpoint to begin with, any sort of inquiry into the subject opens up questions he seems to have no interest in engaging, much less answering. It is this unwillingness to engage the issue as substantial that makes the article so lacking. You can’t talk about a subject if you’re not willing to talk about it.
For another critique of the article, read my friend Edie’s response here or here. I thank her for not only informing me of the existence of “The Absurdity of Transgenderism,” but also laying the groundwork for this post.
NOTE: All references to Flores address him as author of this specific article. I do not intend any sort of attack on Flores as a person, nor do I wish to insult his intelligence. As far as I can tell Flores is an honest, clear thinker; he just happens to have written things I disagree with.
Flores’ primary mistake is his implicit (or perhaps blatant?) assumptions regarding human sexuality. He presumes a certain sexual simplicity which is, to many people, common sense; namely that for all intents and purposes (and beyond) humanity is divided into two categories: people with penises (men) and people with vaginas (women). Despite the occasional probing questions, most of what he says takes this as a brute fact and refuses to enter any ands, ifs, or buts into the equation.
This problem becomes most apparent when he addresses – or refuses to address – the existence of intersex individuals, people with mixed male, female, and sometimes undifferentiated biology. The existence of such people clearly points to a biological gradient. Male and female may exist as a statistically overwhelming binary, but there are clear instances of persons existing physically as male-and/or-female-and/or-androgynous.
Flores says transgender defenders bring up intersexuality to imply “that the nature of sex is up for grabs for everyone, intersex or not.” No, we bring this up to explicate the factual complexity of human sexuality. The point is that human beings are composed of sexed characteristics – among them genitals, gonads, hormones, chromosomes, and brain sex – and that these various sexed parts which we gender as male or female sometimes come in non-binary arrangements. Therefore, isn’t it possible – at least possible – that transgender individuals are among that segment where these biological factors don’t line up along a binary? This is a relevant question that Flores dismisses with a bit too much cavalier.
But Flores doesn’t even think intersex people are relevant to the discussion. To be clear, it’s not only that he believes intersex and transgender people are completely unanalogous to each other, but that intersex people have no bearing on our understanding of human sexuality.
This is a massive move, but it’s one anti-transgender polemics seems inclined to make. If they are to preserve a completely sterile, absolute-binary view of gender along obvious morphological lines, they have to deny any exceptions to the rule as “irrelevant.” This may be shrewd rhetoric, but it’s hardly rigorous thinking.
Flores hops on the bandwagon by making a very unphilosophical move. Staying true to the proud tradition of Western thought, he simply sweeps intersex people under the rug by pointing out that “intersex… are exceedingly rare.” First of all, intersex conditions are remarkably common, much more so than I’m sure Flores is aware. However, even imagining these conditions are as uncommon as he believes, or are limited to the genital malformations he addresses, even so the statistical consensus has little to say on the issue philosophically speaking! If we are actually investigating the anthropology and metaphysics of gender, a single case of intersex would be enough to widen our understanding.
If we assert, as Flores does, that all persons are male or female, and what determines male or female is simply genitals, then a single exception to this belief renders it unsound.
This brings us to Flores’ deeper problem. His unwillingness to engage intersexuality as a relevant topic reveals his underlying problematic assumptions about sex. For him, sex is determined simply by genitals. Nearly all persons have a penis or vagina, or in the case of intersex people a deformed penis or deformed vagina. Never mind that there exist intersex people with both penis and vagina, or with undifferentiated gonads.
An analysis of the subject in the Catholic bioethics journal Ethics & Medics treats the issue with a little more nuance:
“A basic issue is whether or not a person’s external anatomy uniquely and automatically reveals that person’s gender. While it does in the vast majority of cases, there is some bases for thinking that the relevant determining factors are several and complexly related. For example, external genitalia are not always a sure sign of gender, because instances of true hermaphrodites, having both male and female genitalia, have occurred.” [Mar. 1981]
Placing the burden of the binary solely on reproductive health is tenuous at best.
For one, there is no acknowledgement of chromosomes or any of the many other components of biological sex. I wonder what Flores would do with a person who has male xy chromosomes and a vagina? Presumably he would consider them female because of their reproductive potential – i.e. their presumed-to-be-functioning vagina/uterus. Now what if that person identified as male? Would he consider them delusional, even though their underlying chromosomal structure is male? Does he consider any gender identity that does not line up with genital morphology to be delusional, or are transgender people a special case?
If he retreats to the idea that chromosomes are in fact what make a person male or female, which is still rendered problematic via genetic intersex conditions, then he’s faced with the same issue. If a person who has female xx chromosomes and a male penis identifies as a woman, would that be delusional?
In addition, this case provides a prime example where “apparent” and “underlying” sex don’t match. If it’s possible for a person to be ostensibly male but have female chromosomes throughout their body, or vice versa, doesn’t this also leave open the possibility that a person could seem ostensibly female but have, say, a male brain? At the very least, intersex people with hidden underlying conditions remind us that appearances can be deceiving.
However he would respond to these complexities, the article contains a clear assumption that “genitals are destiny.” While this might contain a grain of truth about human personhood and the role of sex in reproduction, it’s ultimately reductive of what we generally mean by sex or gender, and of what me mean by a sexed person.
Presumably the goal of the article is to get at what we, as sexed human beings, are ordered toward. Genitals are ordered toward reproduction, with the two kinds – penises and vaginas – ordered toward different aspects of the same procreative act. The line of reasoning seems to be that if these are the sole ends of genitals – which is itself questionable – and if sex is determined solely by genitals, then a person’s sex is ordered to one half or another of this reproductive process.
Therefore we, as sexed human beings, are ordered toward producing viable sperm or ovum, and any denial of this production is delusional. Notice how detached this sort of assertion is from social life, personhood, persons as ensouled, human individuality, or any concept of life that in any way transcends sexual reproduction. I don’t think Flores means to reduce humanity down to reproductive machines, but it’s what this view ultimately comes out as. With his idea of genital essentialism comes a complete conflation of all gendered aspects and an assumption that all persons are essentially simple and consolidated in these aspects and all deviations from these constitute a grave but irrelevant disorder.
To reduce a person down to an animal reproductive potential is to erase their personhood. We have to wonder what this sort of reductionism would spell out not only for transgender and intersex people, but persons suffering from infertility or women past menopause. The point here is to broaden the scope of our discussion on sex.
When we call someone a “man” or “woman,” we hardly ever mean that they are simply an organism with a particular kind of reproductive potential. Especially in conservative Christian circles, there is a cascade of assumptions made about a person from the label “man” or “woman.” By those categories we make assumptions about how a person acts, relates, desires, and is in the world.
In short, being a man or woman touches on who we are as ensouled/embodied individuals. Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft sums up the intricate amalgam of sexed characteristics that constitute a sexed PERSON, both physical and metaphysical, when he says: “in every soul there is—to use Jungian terms—anima and animus, femaleness and maleness; just as in the body, one predominates but the other is also present.” Or as John Paul II says in his Theology of the Body lectures:
Corporality and sexuality are not completely identified. Although the human body in its normal constitution, bears within it the signs of sex and is by its nature male or female, the fact, however, that man is a “body” belongs to the structure of the personal subject more deeply than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female. Therefore, the meaning of “original solitude,” which can be referred simply to “man,” is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity. The latter is based on masculinity and femininity, as if on two different “incarnations,” that is, on two ways of “being a body” of the same human being created “in the image of God.” [“Original Unity of Man and Woman”]
Man is a psycho-somatic unity, and being a man or woman is more than a functional feature derived from a component part; it’s an element of the person as a whole. It is not reducible to “what the temporal body can do,” but rather an all-encompassing way of being an embodied person.
Rev. Albert S. Moraczewski, founder of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, applies this specifically to the issue of transexuality: that while “the distinction between sex and gender does not seem operative among any animals apart from man,” this human-specific distinction exists because humanity is equipped with self-awareness. Through this self-awareness, the human person “can recognize itself sexually to be a male or female and attach to that recognition a cluster of characteristics.”
Beyond the mere recognition of physical maleness or femaleness, there is also something more personal that happens. In this gendered self-identification,
“a female person sees herself not only as a biological female but as a personalized female, namely, a woman. Similarly, a human male perceives himself as personalized male, a man. Thus, gender identity (and gender role) are elements added onto the perception of one’s anatomical sex… Gender identity, then, appears to be based on a person’s perceiving herself or himself as a woman or man.” [Sex and Gender 301]
Thus Flores’ dismissal of identity is somewhat troubling from a Catholic ethical standpoint. He asks, “Why think that what one “identifies as” is significant at all?” Why? Because we aren’t working in an abstract, depersonalized void (or ought not to be). Because in dealing with identity, we are dealing with personhood. As soon as ethics fails to deal with persons as persons, it becomes unethical.
What do we make, then, of Flores’ analogies for gender identity? According to him, being transgender is on par with being anorexic or delusional about one’s age or race. Or as one of my readers commented:
would you be willing to re-read your own post and remove references to “sex/gender/ man/woman/ male/female” and replace them with “species/’inner species’/ turtle/human/ rational animal/sensory animal”? “I am really a turtle because it is a starting premise. I may have the body of a human but I am spiritually a turtle. God intended me to be a turtle.”
Do these analogies hold? Do they bear any weight? How is a trans* person any different from these examples? Even if we take trans* identities seriously insofar as deeply considering them, do we have to accept them as a true identities?
To give Flores credit where credit is due, these analogies are not only the most thought-provoking section of the article, but some of the most thought-provoking questions period with regards to transgender identities. For an anorexic person, they believe themselves to be fat (or not skinny enough) even if they are remarkably thin. For Flores’ Finnish man Gunther, he believes himself to be of Sub-Saharan descent even though he is quite visibly of Scandinavian descent. For a person who is deluded about their age, they believe themselves to be 16 when in fact they are 60. And in the turtle analogy from my reader, the turtle man believes himself to be a turtle when he is in fact a human. Similarly, a transgender person feels like a woman while in fact being a man, or vice versa. It’s the same thing, right? Um, not so fast.
For one thing, medically speaking gender dysphoria is distinguishable from a delusional sense of self, disassociation, or schizophrenia. Sexologist Harry Benjamin addressed such comparisons back in 1966:
A rather extreme but actually published objection to the operation by a psychoanalyst was expressed in this hypothetical question to a hypothetical doctor:
“If a patient came to you and wanted you to remove his normal left eye or his right hand, would you do that, just because he asked you to?”
The illogic of this comparison is evident to an objective observer. First of all, a patient who comes in with such a request is, on the face of it, acutely psychotic. Transsexuals as such are not psychotic unless one wishes to interpret the gender disharmony as a “partial” or “localized” psychosis, hardly an acceptable diagnosis. Furthermore, the transsexual does not want a useful organ (such as a normal eye or hand) removed, and thereby reduce his efficiency; but he wants a more or less (to him) useless sexual equipment altered so that a more or less useful (to her) equipment will result.
[The Transsexual Phenonemon, 64]
Transgender people don’t come to therapy in a blissful state of hallucinogenic delusion with the certainty that they are fully flourishing as “the other sex.” Rather, they recognize the facts of their physical body, also recognize their persistent and hard to ignore inner identity, and seek a practical resolution to this conflict.
More specifically, transgender individuals aren’t deluded about their bodily morphology. In the case of an anorexic person, their evaluation of their physical reality is in fact warped. In the case of a male-to-female transgender person, there is no delusion that they have a vagina when they in fact have a penis. They are realists about what their body looks like; where they differ is their belief about what their body means and what it ought to be like. In this way gender dysphoria is utterly unlike anorexia.
But what about Gunther the African-identifying Fin? He seems realistic enough about his own Scandanavian-looking body, but he thinks he is African on the inside and ought to be African on the outside as well. This seems identical to gender dysphoria.
Similarly, what of the turtle-man? What if we say as a stipulation that this man is fully aware of his human form, but believes he needs doctors to help him surgically resemble the turtle he was always meant to be? Then isn’t the issue identical?
On closer examination these analogies fall apart.
There is first the issue of proximity, which is more aesthetic than strictly philosophical; namely that it would be one thing if Gunther had a Sub-Saharan mother and a Finnish father, and looked like his father but identified with his mother. But the case as Flores puts it is of a man with no Sub-Saharan genetics in his immediate family tree. Similarly, setting aside the problems of how a species evolves to become a different species in identity, there is a massive evolutionary and therefore biological gap between a turtle and a man.
With gender the issue of proximity is much closer to if Gunther had a Scandanavian father and Sub-Saharan mother. We are, in fact, built from the genes of one male and one female person, and by that fact alone have a piece of both male and female in us at our very beginning. This fact is meaningless itself but points us in the right direction.
The biggest problem with the turtle man or the Sub-Saharan Scandanavian is there are no analogous cases in which a person could be turtle-brained or African-brained. Biological sex, as we see in intersex individuals, can in fact exist in a gradient, but there’s no meaningful analogy with regards to the nebulous category of race, and certainly none with regards to turtle-human interspecies relations. It is not within the realm of possibility for a member of homo sapiens to have a turtle brain, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility for a person with male-typical genitals to have a female-typical brain. We’ll call this possibility “neural intersex.”
Despite how Flores misleadingly (or perhaps mistakenly) presents it, the possibility that transgenderism is a form of neural intersex isn’t merely a “position” set forth by “LGBT activists.” Flores asks “for empirical evidence that this dubious claim really is true,” as if the idea of brain sex is pure political agenda with no scientific basis. On the contrary, numerous studies have demonstrated this and related claims, including Zhou (1995), Kruijver (2000), Gooren (2006), Swaab (2004), Schneider, Pickel, and Stalla (2006), Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab (2008), Ramachandran (2008), Berglund (2008), Luders (2009), and Rametti (2010). You want empirical evidence? There it is.
This assortment of studies is impressive in that it managed to find neurological correlates (with compelling repeatability) in a field overshadowed by how difficult it is to map the brain and find neurological correlates for anything, much less a fringe phenomenon like transgenderism [cf. Breedlove].
That being said, the jury is still out with regards to the brain sex theory. Like any good scientific theory, it is still open to falsification.
The truth is that while the brain sex theory of transgenderism is the best we have right now, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter practically speaking. Flores’ hand-waving argument from neuroplasticity is weak, but it’s still within the realm of possibility. The truth is that whether gender identity causes changes in brain structure or brain structure causes gender identity is sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario and might not have as much relevance as we think.
Whether these men were born with a small BSTc which caused them to become transsexuals, or whether these men became transsexuals which then caused them to have a small BSTc, the fact remains that their brains are physically different. And that difference is not trivial, because any difference we can detect with our primitive understanding of neuroanatomy is, by definition, not trivial. Thus we might regard transsexuality as a deep, abiding conviction. Presumably these adults could no more set aside their feelings about which sex they are than you or I could [Breedlove].
There is a pernicious fact behind all this sifting about in the sands of causality, and that is the brute existence of transgender persons. Regardless of where the physical locus of transgenderism is found, the fact remains that being transgender is an embodied reality that touches on a person as a person. If it is disordered, it is so to the point where the genitals are considered ordered at the expense of the person’s consciousness, i.e. the person is disordered as a whole. This is a heavy assertion to make, and to make it we’d need a much heavier argument than what Flores is giving us.
Reclaiming gender transition
Bracketing the issue of gender affirmation (or “sex change”) surgery for the time being, if we regard gender behavior simply as a social reality, Flores really has no argument against social transitioning. If a male person – so someone with a functioning penis – wants to live life for all intents and purposes as a woman – in dress, speech, name, and pronouns – it’s not clear what ethically forbids them from this. It’s not clear why their entire life has to be a walking billboard for their genital morphology. If functioning genitals are what determine whether a person is a man or woman, it’s hard to make the move ethically speaking from Fact A – person has a penis to Fact B – person ought to behave masculine.
If, however, being a man or woman is more than mere sexual function, we need to take the person as a whole into consideration to find out what they as an entire person are ordered towards.
With this view of the whole in mind, we can at last address the issue of gender reassignment surgery and transition. Flores asks: “Can we reasonably categorize gender reassignment surgery as a medical procedure in the first place?” He defines medicine as “the enterprise of restoring bodily faculties to their proper function.” His conclusion is that gender reassignment surgery isn’t even medicine because it destroys reproductive functioning.
The definition of medicine he gives is somewhat misleading because it only deals in component parts. From how he words it, the mind immediately jumps to medical procedures for the sake of restoring function to a particular part of the body, such as his example of restoring sight to the eye. There are cases however, such as in the case of a medical amputations or the removal of cancerous organs, where the function of one body part is sacrificed for the function of the whole body. There are, in addition, reparative and cosmetic surgeries recommended to improve quality of life. Thus we might refine his definition as: medicine is the enterprise of maximizing the overall flourishing of a human organism.
In regards to the overall flourishing of the whole person, we now stand at the same crossroads as a transsexual person. In regarding the good of the whole person, body and soul, it would seem that it is the duty of medicine to reconcile the brain to the genitals. If the two are in conflict, the most straightforward way to bring about flourishing would be to end the conflict, and the most straightforward way to end the conflict would to align one to the other. Which one though?
Flores obviously believes the brain should be aligned to the genitals, and vigorously defends the rights of therapists to use “reparative therapy” in an attempt to achieve that end. Never mind that there is to date little to no evidence of reparative therapy working on transgender persons, whereas there is much more evidence that gender surgery improves human flourishing.
Flores cites concerns about surgery, namely that there is a high suicidal ideation in post-op transsexuals. I would contend, given the statistics of transgender suicides before operation, and the known correlation between social rejection and suicide, that while post-op transsexuals have a higher rate of suicide than the general population due to life trauma, they probably have a lower rate of suicide than pre-op transsexuals, especially those with no hope of ever attaining surgery. I say probably because while this is pretty self-evident from all the statistics I’ve seen, there is no study to date (that I know of) that specifically compares pre-ops with post-ops. There is also the inherent limitations of any post-op study, namely that many post-op transsexuals choose to blend into society and it is therefore difficult to follow up with them or observe their post-op journey. Most studies of post-op transsexuals will be extremely self-selecting since transsexuals with successful post-op life will be less inclined to ‘out’ themselves for surveys [cf. Sutcliffe et al].
As limited as our studies may be, the inadequate surveys do agree that “after sex reassignment, 80% of individuals with GID reported significant improvement in gender dysphoria… 78% reported significant improvement in psychological symptoms… 80% reported significant improvement in quality of life… and 72% reported significant improvement in sexual function” [Murad et. al.].
Despite the limits of our current studies, the fact remains that there is no evidence to date of a substantial transgender identity change (i.e. from feeling transsexual to not feeling transsexual). In fact, at the very least the anecdotal evidence against reparative therapy is overwhelming. Flores believes the banning of reparative therapy is “as absurd as the suggestion that therapy to eliminate anorexia should be criminalized.” Even if the point were to be granted (it isn’t) that gender dysphoria is like anorexia, should therapy which purports to alleviate anorexia but actually causes more trauma than healing be allowed, even for persons who wish to try the therapy regardless of (or oblivious to) its ineffectiveness?
So reparative therapy is out. Practically speaking, it looks like there’s only one way to go: physical transition.
But to continue with the false anorexia analogy: even if there is no cure for anorexic persons, do we then aid the anorexic person in starving themselves? Similarly, even if transition is the only way to resolve gender dysphoria, is it something we ought to do?
Here we come back to the nature of male and female and where to put our priority. It seems clear that if we consider the entire flourishing of the human person, the brain is much more instrumental in the unity of the body. The brain is the closest analogy we have to a union between body and soul: it forms and enlivens the rest of the body, directs the actualization of its potential, and reflexively regards the body as a self, whole, and unity. The genitals are a component part that remain a component part. The brain is a component part that is also mysteriously pervasive and present to the entire body via the concept of mind (which is, in a hylomorphic understanding, inseparable from the brain). If you excise the genitals, the person remains a person – notably still as a gendered person. If you excise the brain, the person no longer remains, neither as a living organism nor as a gendered individual.
So when we consider gender surgery, we need to consider how the body functions as an entire being: moving and thinking, relating and emoting, living and growing. Can we entertain the possibility, just the notion, that rewarding the gender-dysphoric brain with the proper genitals would be like restoring a limb, not severing it? Can we just begin to see how this might be the case?
The aforementioned Rev. Moracewzki seems to see just that.
“[I]f the biological interpretation of transsexuality is correct to any considerable degree, then there might be a basis for saying that what appears to be a case of a “man” inhabiting a woman’s body is really a case of a man inhabiting what appears to be a woman’s body… and that a sex change operation would be corrective and be similar to other operations which seek to compensate for, or overcome, a difficulty that is genetic or embryological in origin” [Ethics and Medics, Sept./Oct 1977; cf. March 1981, emphasis added].
In any case, as long as the jury is out with regards to the biological theory of transgenderism, the issue still remains before us. A tree is to be judged by its fruits, and no amount of surveys one way or another can eclipse the concrete experience of transgender individuals who have benefited greatly from physical transition, whether it be hormonal or surgical. Flores might not want to take the experiences of transgender people too seriously since he suspects us to be delusional, but our experience nevertheless bears unanimous witness to the fact that being transgender is an embodied experience. It is, to use John Paul II’s parlance, our unshakable way-of-being a physical body. “In the interpretation of the revelation about man, and especially about the body, we must, for understandable reasons, refer to experience, since corporeal man is perceived by us mainly by experience” (26 Sept. 1979).
I now come at last to that first painful moment of Flores “stern but necessary critique.” I don’t want to soundbyte him, so I think his intro is worth re-reading almost in its entirety. He says:
By now we are all undoubtedly familiar with the tragic suicide of Joshua Alcorn, the transgender teenage boy who, in late December, walked onto a freeway with the intention of ending his life. In an apparent suicide note, Joshua cites a host of reasons for why he was led to end his life, most prominent of which were his parents’ attempts to discourage his identifying as a girl and his being sent to therapists in an attempt to relieve these feelings. All of the problems that ultimately culminated in his suicide, writes Joshua, stem from the fact that, from the time he was a small child, he felt like a “girl trapped in a boy’s body.”
No sooner had Joshua’s heart stopped beating than the story of his suicide was seized by LGBT activists and pruned to advance a familiar narrative of a sexual minority fighting cultural oppression. Joshua’s parents immediately began to be chided as “repressive” and “bigoted” and even began to receive various threats from LGBT internet crusader-activists.
I have not referred to Joshua by using female pronouns or by using his self-invented female name of “Leelah.” The reason I am not doing this is simple: Joshua was not a girl—he was a boy—and to address males with female pronouns or females with male pronouns is to contribute to our culture’s confusion about sexuality and the nature of the human person, which is literally leaving casualties in its wake.
Flores is right that this gender culture war is leaving casualties in its wake. He is furthermore correct that Leelah is a casualty of this war. However, I think he has it a little backwards.
Leelah wasn’t unwillingly appropriated by “LGBT activists” and their “gay agenda.” She (once a living, breathing human being with an intellect and free will) explicitly defined herself in the terms of a kind of martyrdom. She asked in no uncertain terms that she be remembered in a particular way. She wanted to live on even in death as Leelah.
A martyr though? Really? Isn’t that a bit melodramatic? I think it’s worth quoting Marc Barnes at the blog Bad Catholic, who posted a beautiful reflection on the difference between martyrdom and victimhood which I think is right on point.
The victim is available to being used as an emblem and symbol of the enemy, injustice or misfortune that killed her. A man might become the poster-child for an increased road tax by virtue of having been killed on an ill-funded road, despite living his life in quiet opposition to taxes of any sort, and not giving half a damn about the state of the country’s roads. But, insofar as he is considered as a victim, his life is irrelevant. It his death that matters, a death which happened to him without regard to the content of his life. Thus he may become a pure image of this misfortune — to the benefit of some political movement. The martyr, on the other hand, is a witness, and thus remains unavailable to such a postmortem re-shaping of the meaning of her existence. By giving her life away, she gives it a direction and an intention we cannot deny.
Now Flores is correct that both sides are using Leelah as a victim – a symbol – against the enemy, to prove the cost of this gender war. But given what she herself said on the subject, her alliance with the transgender cause is not merely symbolic, whereas her usefulness to anti-transgender polemic is pure use. To brush over the witness of her life – who she was and how she felt and who she claimed to be – is to use her and therefore abuse her. Her death may be objectified, but her life was as a radical subject – a human being – and cannot be abstracted.
Therefore, I will use the correct pronouns for her. Leelah was an embodied person, a rational creature capable of self-appraisal who was not reducible to the printed ink on her birth certificate.
Flores says: “We should make public policy and encourage social norms that reflect the truth about the human person and sexuality, not obfuscate the truth about such matters and sow the seeds of sexual confusion in future generations for years to come.” It is worth noting that a fundamentalist, rigid binary that leaves no room for God’s natural diversity has caused confusion, pain, and lack of flourishing for many individuals, from binary transsexuals to your ordinary tomboy. Numerous studies as well as my own personal experience witness to the fact that the hardest part of flourishing as a gender non-conforming person is not the battle with embodiment, but the battle with a world that is insensitive, uncomprehending, cruel, and close-minded.
Before we start using pronouns like mortar shells in this culture war, it might be good to remember the casualties. Not the statistical casualties, not the birth certificates or dog tags, but the actual human individuals. And in considering these individuals, it might be worthwhile listening to what they profess with their dying breath. Then, maybe, this culture war can turn the corner toward a cultural renaissance.
- A. Sutcliffe, S. Dixon, R. L. Akehurst, A. Wilkinson, A. Shippam, S. White, R. Richards & C. M. Caddy (March 2009). “Evaluation of surgical procedures for sex reassignment: a systematic review”. Journal of plastic, reconstructive & aesthetic surgery : JPRAS 62 (3): 294–306.
- Barnes, Marc. “The Difference Between a Martyr and a Victim.” Web log post. Bad Catholic. Patheos, 22 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Mar. 2015.
- Benjamin, Harry. “The Transsexual Phenomenon.” (1966): n. pag. http://www.mut23.de/. 1999. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
- Breedlove, Marc. “The Chicken-and-Egg Argument as It Applies to the Brains of Transsexuals: Does It Matter.” Genderpsychology.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2015.
- Flores, Carlos D. “The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique.” Public Discourse. The Witherspoon Institute, 06 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Mar. 2015.
- Moracewski, Albert S. “A Reflection on Chapter Ten: Gender Dysphoria – A Theological Note”” Sex and Gender: A Theological and Scientific Inquiry. By Mark F. Schwartz, Albert S. Moraczewski, and James A. Monteleone. St. Louis, MO: Pope John Center, 1983. 298-319. Print.
- Moracewski, Albert S., ed. “”Sex Change” Operations.” Ethics and Medics. 2.5 (Sept./Oct. 1977): 4-5. Print.
- Moracewski, Albert S., ed. “When Is a MALE a Woman?” Ethics and Medics. 6.3 (Mar. 1981): 2-3. Print.
- Murad, Mohammad Hassan, Mohamed B. Elamin, Magaly Zumaeta Garcia, Rebecca J. Mullan, Ayman Murad, Patricia J. Erwin, and Victor M. Montori. “Hormonal Therapy and Sex Reassignment: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Quality of Life and Psychosocial Outcomes.” Clinical Endocrinology 72.2 (2010): 214-31. Web.
- Pope John Paul II. General Audiences: Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. EWTN. 7 March 2015.
- “Boundary Between Original Innocence and Redemption.” 26 Sept. 1979.
- “Fullness of Interpersonal Communication.” 19 Dec. 1979.
- “Original Unity of Man and Woman.” 7 Nov. 1979.
Outstanding piece, Anna. Thorough, charitable, and — rare thing on the internet — sourced. I am still not sure what to think myself, but I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to read this, and I’m glad that you’re lending your own voice to the conversation.
Thanks! Your blog is one of my favorites, btw
A fantastic read, and a great antidote to all of the negativity out there on this issue. I have read so much of it of late from both conservative sources and radical feminist sources, I was getting a heavy side order of shame to go with my usual issues… Great to see the record being put straight. 🙂
Thank you for this. A refreshing and much needed perspective. Just one tiny thing, because I wouldn’t want a minor error to undermine the credibility/substance of this fantastic piece…”intensive purposes” should be “intents and purposes.” (Can you tell I’m an editor?). 😉
Haha thanks for the correction! I’ve made that mistake before without noticing it
Reblogged this on Charissa's Grace Notes and commented:
Constance…PLEASE hurry over and read this article! It is a powerful examination of the issue of gender orientation.
One of the things I like about it is that it highlights how the intersex condition of so many human beings by definition illustrates that the location of gender orientation is NOT in the presence or absence of any body part! Because why? Because lots of intersex people have both sets of body parts present, and yet identify themselves still as male or female!
This observation is a basic one, and is not exclusive of others who identify even more fluidly, but they illustrate the point as well: awareness of the incredibly complex and intricate issue of gender orientation is growing, is expanding, and as with so many things in history, is changing as our medical technology has the ability to reveal the previously hidden realities of humanity, who is fearfully and wonderfully made!
You might find yourself very comfortable with Flores’ simplistic and presumptive thinking…until you finish the article, and if your mind is even a bit open, you will have much to chew on.
Constance, I know you to be open minded, thoughtful, and committed to understanding, so I am confident you will be enriched by the experience…Reader? You? Well, you still show up here, don’t you? For whatever reason, you are still making tracks to Grace Notes! So buckle up, take your courage in hand! Mindsets are far more elastic than you previously knew, and God is far bigger than the box you built for Them! You too…press into this article, and let the truth continue to set you free!
Much love and bountiful Grace be unto you,