What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity

This post is the last in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.

I plead thee…

As a transgender woman who was raised as a boy and is a devout Catholic and devout feminist with a foot in both the gender essentialist and gender deconstructionist camps, I find myself hemmed in on all sides by quibbling voices that have no interest in doing anything but shout at each other. I’m not sure this makes me an expert in anything except the fruitlessness of shouting matches, although I like to believe I’ve gotten an accidental glimpse at a larger vista above and beyond these narrow entrenchments. I’m nervous to express this because in effect I’m disagreeing with everyone, but in another sense I’m finding agreement with everyone.

There’s a lot of liberation activism going on right now, for feminists, transgender, autism, Deaf, #BlackLivesMatter, and all manner of oppressed peoples. I first want to assert that as a follower of Christ, I feel it’s my duty to stand beside all those in pain, and my heart marches with you. Each and every person deserves unconditional respect in light of our dignity as human beings.

I also feel the need to cut some of the bullshit regarding gender. There’s a false cultural dichotomy being set up that creates oversimplified and often unnecessary tensions in discourse on gender liberation.

The previous posts are an elucidation of why I make claims of transsexual embodiment with a grain of salt, stand in solidarity with gender revolutionaries but also have reservations about the transgender ideological campaign, resist the invalidation of radical feminists while also feeling sympathy for the womyn-born-womyn mindset, and both distinguish myself from and relate to intersex individuals. Gender in its complexity is a site of massive intersectionality, and every person for which gender is a battleground is sharing in the same oppression. At the same time, gender is such a factually multi-faceted thing that we need to have more sensitivity, nuance, and room for complexity. Also, given the inescapable import that gender has on our lives, religious claims of gender essentialism need to be considered as more than “patriarchal prattle”; they need to be seen, at the very least, as a memory of humanity’s deep spiritual encounter with gender.

No matter what personal ideologies we hold or oppose, we need to dump less babies in the sewer with our smelly bathwater. There needs to be less “my experience versus yours,” and more collective imagining. Instead of cancelling out sex with gender, or cancelling out gender with sex, why can’t we consider both on their own terms? Instead of putting all the weight on nature or nurture, why can’t we consider both? Instead of using gender non-conforming people as deconstructive principles in academic textbooks, or as specimens of pathology in psychological freak-shows, why can’t we listen to their concerns and how they navigate their tensions?

So allow me a final moment of appeal, as a Catholic, transsexual, male, transgender, woman, feminist, gender idealist, gender anti-ideologue weirdo who finds herself caught very much in the middle of everything.

To fellow Catholics. When we talk about God’s created order, we need to actually talk about the order that was created. Yes, I know humanity is fallen and sin affects every physical and spiritual aspect of our life on Earth, but we really need to consider where our views of gender are coming from. A blind man may be blind because of the Fall, or because God made him that way, or (in Jesus’ words) “that the glory of God may be revealed,” but what’s certain is that he is blind, and his dignity is equal to the most far-seeing Tolkien elf. Steve may be a man like our forefather Adam, but he isn’t Adam; he’s Steve. So however Adam was created in the beginning, Steve was created different. Otherwise he wouldn’t be Steve; he’d be Adam. And yes, “all have sinned through Adam,” sure. But all have been redeemed individually, as themselves, and will stand before the throne of God in their own particular flesh. So before we start talking about “Biblical masculinity,” let’s actually read about the men in the Bible. Before we start talking about the metaphysics of gender, let’s consider (like good hylomorphic Catholics) the physics of sex. Before we start throwing around “natural law,” let’s deeply consider what’s in actual fact natural to man. If the design of the Creator is truly written in nature, then gender is a much more diverse thing than we give Him credit for.

To fellow feminists. Whether you’re a self-identified TERF, queer revolutionary, transfeminist, riot grrrl, or dyke, we need to recognize that these labels are sometimes distracting. Feminism isn’t first and foremost an ideology – it’s a community, or a set of intersecting communities.

It’s not enough that I identify as a woman. It’s not enough to argue about whether I really am or am not a woman. The more pressing matter is that I experience crippling gender oppression all the time. The fact remains that I’ve seen the face of misogyny. The fact remains that I need safe spaces, not to pet my own ego and validate my sense of identity, but to take shelter from the storm of gender oppression and share my experience of feminine embodiment.

We need greater unity. Feminism exists because our culture inherited a patriarchal view of gender that sees Man and Masculinity as the human ideal. This means that everyone who doesn’t conform to maleness, manliness, or masculinity is oppressed. Transsexual men, even though they identify as men, share in your oppression. Transsexual women, even though they were raised as boys, share in your oppression. Even gay men, with all the privilege they’ve gained in the last few decades, share some part in your oppression. The straight cisgender boy who likes My Little Pony and gets beaten up for it – he too experiences something of your oppression. Even the macho guy who makes sexist slurs like a foot soldier for the patriarchy because he’s so insecure in his own masculinity, and who can’t cry at night because he’s so emotionally repressed; even this bully needs a field hospital to dress his wound. These shared oppressions don’t need to invalidate your own, any more than they need to erase womanhood or crowd out woman voices. Intersectionality” isn’t just a PC buzzword – it’s an imperative. If we don’t see how these struggles interconnect, we won’t be able to make a dent in misogyny.

To womyn-born-womyn. I’m not going to nail ninety-five theses to the door of your enclosure. I’m not even going to demand a space in your gatherings. I’ll take shelter from the rain under the awning outside where you set up shop, and if any of you wish to stop by and chat, I’d be happy to have a cordial discussion. I hope that one day I’m afforded some unobtrusive corner in (or near) your community where we can value womanhood together without invalidating each other; in the meantime my door is always open to sisterhood. I recognize that as a transsexual, I’m something of a gender orphan. I hope for adoption, but I’m not about to demand it.

To gender ideologues. You can say “all gender is constructed” ’til the cows go home, but I have to wonder why we couldn’t construct a male gender for me no matter how hard we all collectively tried. You can say “all gender is performative” ’til the last trumpet sounds, but I have to wonder why it takes so much effort to perform the gender I was taught, and so little effort to express the gender I am. And if these experiences of mine mean nothing to you, try to make them something to you. At least chew on them for a second.

I recognize your catchy phrases are easy academic solutions to the gender problematic, but are they true ones? My fear is that in making gender easier for some to swallow, you’ll make it easier for others to choke. If you can’t stomach the full ten-course meal of gender – if you must make it pill-sized – at least put a stipulation on it:

To gender essentialists. Attacks on rigid essentialism aren’t necessarily a sign of neoliberal thought police, and believing so is discrediting to you. After all, one of the major red flags for pseudoscience is the belief that all opposition to your theory is a conspiracy.

At least in it’s blanket idealized form, gender essentialism has issues. If any male who isn’t 100% masculine or any female who isn’t 100% feminine is disordered, then every human being on the face of the Earth is disordered by dint of having a personality. I realize this is a bit of a straw man argument, but it gets at the overarching problem with most forms of gender essentialism. It’s one thing to value masculinity and femininity; it’s another thing entirely to devalue people because they miss your ideal. The idealism of gender doesn’t promote individual flourishing, and therefore promotes neither order nor virtue.

Instead of focusing on overarching roles, we need to study relationality and how persons dynamically and intentionally co-express love and identity.

To fellow transsexuals. In your online forums and private communities where you hide from oppression, don’t start forming your own oppressive systems. When I first came out as transgender, I was scared by the way some of you treated other transgender people. No, being transsexual isn’t the “true transgender experience.” No, you’re not necessarily “more woman” or “more man” than someone who is less vocal about their gender identity, or who didn’t experience gender dysphoria until puberty. No, a domestic, passive trans woman isn’t more womanly, and certainly isn’t more Woman, than a tomboyish, outspoken trans girl. Wearing gender-conforming clothes, or getting all the surgeries, or only falling in love with the opposite gender, doesn’t make you more transsexual or more transgender. Another transgender person’s battle with gender may be different than yours, and they may use language in different way, but their pain and struggle is just as valid. Don’t forget that. “Treat others as you would have done unto yourself.”

We need our own space for specifically transsexual issues, but that doesn’t mean we need to drive every other person off the face of the Earth.

To transsexual women. I think we need a little more humility when approaching women-only spaces. Yes, we need safety and basic accommodations. Sometimes we even need to pee. We’re battered, beaten, bruised, and constantly invalidated, so of course we want change. However, we’re not exactly “women just like other women.” We’re “women similar to other women.” Let’s slow down a bit and show more grace. We don’t need to be invalidated by acknowledging our difference. Our difference will only be accepted by other women if it enriches rather than poisons women-specific communities.

To transgender activists. I know the easiest way to win a culture war is to rewrite the language and give people a politically-correct script to read off. And I know that the easiest way to justify hard decisions is “it’s none of your business what I do with my own body.” And I furthermore know that the easiest way to win freedom for gender-diverse people is to say “gender is a social construct”; it’s a nice, simple, short thing to say to brush all debate under the rug. But please, let’s not erase different experiences of gender. Let’s not erase the cisgender woman’s very real experience of not only being raised a girl, but of having to put up with menstruation. Let’s not cover up the fact that even in Native American societies, which are glorified for their “radical” two-spirit “third gender”, some of those two-spirit people saw themselves similar to how modern transsexuals see themselves, and would perform intense rituals to simulate menstruation and pregnancy. The complete erasure of gender (or sex) is as invalidating to those who don’t have the luxury/privilege to bracket gender (0r sex), just as “color-blind” attitudes are invalidating to people of color.

If we really want long-lasting change, let’s discuss real personal narratives, not scrubbed-up soundbyted clichés. Society will buy the clichés for a hot minute, but not a second longer. That, or we’ll be stuck in stereotypes of our own making for generations to come.

To all of you, PLEEEEEEASE, stop the name-calling! Call a cease-fire and talk. You all have deep personal stakes in the “gender war,” but that gives you all the more reason to stop firing bullets and start encompassing gender experiences with your hearts. We need some sanity in these gender conversations so we can stop talking about disconnected ideologies and start talking about people. If our ideologies eclipse the concrete experiences of individual people, then what’s the purpose in believing them except to be deliberately exclusive, self-righteous, and cruel? My hope is that any discourse on gender is aimed at truth – namely, to actually get to the bottom of the issues we face, not to pet our own egos.

If you take anything from this series on What is Gender?, let it be how humble we need to be in the face of such complex diversity and diverse complexity.

5 thoughts on “What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity

  1. Pingback: What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role | The Catholic Transgender

  2. Pingback: What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | Queering the Church

  4. Pingback: Giving birth, being adopted, becoming a “transphobe,” hating reality TV, and generally entertaining revelations against my will | Voila Viola!

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