Now that all of the media hype about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition has quieted down, it’s good to take a look at some of the more serious questions that Catholics may have concerning such an event.
One of the more interesting things that I have read on the subject is a dotCommonweal blog post by J. Peter Nixon earlier this month. Nixon begins his examination with an important question that often gets unasked in Catholic discussions about transgender issues: Is a person’s true, God-given gender the one that a person’s body reflects or the one that a person’s mind experiences?
Too often, people err on the side of the former, as Nixon points out:
“. . . .the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.”
Nixon pokes an important hole in that argument:
“There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance. Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal. I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it.”
Nixon dismisses religious conservatives’ criticism of transgender people, noting that they actually seem to fear excessive expressive individualism and rejection of the idea that gender is inherent in the natural fabric of things. Nixon states:
“. . . [T]he actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct. They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success. Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery. It was not a decision motivated by ideology.”
While Nixon makes some good points, and ultimately his intent is to affirm the experience of transgender people, there are a few points in his essay which raise an eyebrow or two. For example, when he discusses whether or not gender questions can be labeled disease, he stated:
“. . . [T]he disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.”
Nixon makes this point to say that there is perhaps a medical reason why transgender people exist, but his answer seems to indicate: 1) that this idea is a definite cause, which it is not; and 2) that if a person is transgender, then that is a problematic situation that needs to be corrected.
Nixon ultimately answers that correcting “communication” between brain and body is not inherently preferable to gender transition (both seem to involve correction of physical features, either the brain or the outward appearance), his analysis fails to take into account the experiences of transgender people, many of whom see their unique gender situation as a gift, with many blessings, not as a “disease.” Just like with LGB people, the biggest problems that transgender people face is not with their own experience of gender, but with the discrimination they experience from other people’s rejection of the possibility that someone does not fit neatly into the male/female binary structure.
Nixon seems genuinely interested, though, in making a place for transgender people in the church, and that aspiration is noble. He offers the following analogy for gender transition which includes surgery:
“In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation. Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation. Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.”
Even with some of its problematic concepts, Nixon’s essay still helps to move the discussion on transgender issues forward in our Church. He acknowledges that he knows only a few transgender people. Listening to stories of more transgender people will expand his awareness. His heart and mind are already opened.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry