A new book on Christian ideas about gender fails to do justice to the realities of many transgender and gender nonconforming Catholics, according to a trans book reviewer.
Abigail Favale’s popular book, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, was reviewed by Maxwell Kuzma for the National Catholic Reporter, who suggests that the book “leaves out quite a bit of the story.”
Favale, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, looks at the issue of gender from a conservative viewpoint. But from Kuzma’s point of view as a trans man and Catholic, the author’s assessment of sex and gender fell short, leaving him disappointed and leveling sharp critiques of the book. For instance, Kuzma wrote:
“The Genesis of Gender is a book full of ‘$10 words,’ as Favale calls them, and contradictory statements that are not intended to come together into a coherent defense of what she believes. Rather, they are designed as a shotgun-style attack against not only the identity of transgender and genderqueer people themselves but also against any philosophical or intellectual thought on the topic of gender that doesn’t follow a strict binary of male/female or appeal to Favale’s worldview. Her strategy hinges on firing off so many shots that the reader will be unable to follow the thread of her argument closely enough to ask questions or defend the concepts she’s attacking.”
Kuzma wrote that the perspectives in Favale’s book echoed theories he had heard and found dissatisfying while growing up Catholic and coming out as transgender:
“Writing in a matter-of-fact rhetorical style, Favale highlights philosophers and writers that either prove her point or provoke outrage while sprinkling in personal anecdotes and stories from detransitioners (while trotting out scientific studies that play to one side), to ultimately make the claim that she has fully and fairly vetted the field of gender studies — and found it wanting.
“Reading the book as a transgender man, I must say none of the theories, information or scientific studies sketched out in the book surprised me; after all, I’ve been on the internet long enough to see many theories come and go. But I was disappointed to see that Favale purposefully laid a breadcrumb trail of implications that would lead any innocent reader to a conspiratorial conclusion involving modern feminists, politics and ‘big pharma.'”
Kuzma objected to Favale’s language of a “gender paradigm,” a term Favale uses to describe “the increased visibility of the transgender and genderqueer community in modern social and legal discourse.” Kuzma argued that Favale “intends for us to believe the goal of this gender paradigm is social and individual destruction — and that it is succeeding.”
“The struggle of my own transgender life was not in identifying myself or in knowing who I was, but in realizing that those who told me they loved me would only respect me if I played a role that did not ring true to me,” Kuzma wrote. He described losing his parents’ support and transitioning as a young adult without their accompaniment.
For Kuzma, Favale’s view failed to acknowledge what trans people like him know about their bodies. He connected Catholicism to his embodied experience as trans:
“Favale references the powerful image of the crucifixion, but does not see the connection between the scars of Christ and the scars of a transgender person — she doesn’t make the final connection between Genesis and Calvary. The mystery of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are not just the source of human redemption but also a profound meditation on the experience of human embodiment.”
Kuzma reminded readers that a key part of Catholic faith is in how we see the sacred in one another, and, unlike for Favale, that is the focus when it comes to trans issues for many Catholics:
“In a world preoccupied with verifying or vilifying the experience of being trans, there are still Catholics who love me without question. Without deliberating over my name and pronouns. Catholics from all walks of life have made a seamless transition from using my old name to my new one, Catholics like my 73-year-old Aunt Dorothy, who wrote me a Christmas card the year I came out that said, ‘I am happy to have another nephew,’ Catholics for whom I am not a theological problem to be solved but a transgender person to be loved.”
Amid all the noise about trans issues happening right now, authentic progress in talking about gender in Catholic circles can only be made when love is truly the starting point.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, January 17, 2023