A lot’s been said about the case of Olympic decathalon Bruce Jenner’s decision to undergo a “sex change” operation, and to call himself “Caitlyn.” Unfortunately, a good deal of it has been sound and fury, signifying nothing: either cruel jokes at Jenner’s expense, or accusations of bigotry for anyone who hasn’t hopped on the transgender bandwagon.
Both of these responses are worse than unhelpful. I think that a better approach would be to soberly consider the underlying philosophical problems raised by transgenderism, and then suggest a positive way of responding to trans-identifying people. So that’s what I’ve tried to do here, beginning with:
Problem #1: The Soul/Body Problem
Underlying the idea of transgenderism is that there’s a mismatch between your biological sex and … something. If you’re going to say that Jenner is a woman in a man’s body, you should be able to answer: a woman’s what? On a material level, of course, every part of him is genetically male. He’s not materially female. The answer seems to be that you’re saying that he’s got a female mind or a female soul in a man’s body. And indeed, that’s exactly how Jenner explained the situation to Diane Sawyer:
[Sawyer:] So Bruce Jenner is…
[Jenner:] Bruce Jenner is… I would say I’ve always been very confused with my gender identity since I was this big. I tried to explain it, because I’ve had all my kids sitting in that chair. And I’ve tried to explain it to them this way. God’s looking down, making little Bruce, okay? He’s looking down, he says, “Okay, what are we going to do with this one?” Make him a smart kid, very determined, and he gave me all of these wonderful qualities. And at the end, when he’s just finishing, he goes, “Wait a second, we gotta to give him something. Everybody has stuff in their life that they have to deal with you know? What are we gonna give him?” God looks down and chuckles a little bit and goes, “Hey, let’s give him the soul of a female and let’s see how he deals with that.” You know? So here I am stuck. And I hate the word, girl stuck in a guy’s body, I hate that terminology.
[Jenner:] I’m me. I’m a person and this is who I am. I’m not stuck in anybody’s body. It’s just who I am as a human being. My brain is much more female than it is male. It’s hard for people to understand that. But that’s what my soul is.
Ironically, this is a worldview that both atheistic materialists and classical theists reject as impossible. The atheist denies the existence of an immaterial soul or mind or psyche. All that there is, in this view, is matter. And all the matter, including the brain, is male.
The classical theist believes in a soul, but not as some sort of Platonic or Cartesian “ghost in a machine.” Instead, we recognize that the soul is the form of the body (this is what’s called hylemorphic dualism). But in that case, the idea of a form not matching the thing it’s forming is incoherent. That’s why Aristotle considered “the question whether the soul and the body are one” to be “as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.”
So, the short version of this problem is that forcing people to affirm transgenderism forces them to affirm a philosophically-incoherent spirituality that neither Christians nor atheists can affirm in good faith.
The longer version (and if this gets boring, skip to problem #2), is that there are really two mistakes at issue here: (a) thinking of his soul’s relationship to the body as something like a ghost in a machine; and (b) conflating the (material) brain with the (immaterial) mind. Jenner makes both mistakes in his response to Sawyer. And that’s not particularly surprising, since both mistakes are widespread. If you don’t make at least one of these mistakes, you can’t really affirm transgenderism. Making both mistakes leads to philosophical incoherence, as you can see from Brian Jay Stanley’s New York Times op-ed, “I am Not This Body“:
I do not identify with my body. I have a body but I am a mind. My body and I have an intimate but awkward relationship, like foreign roommates who share a bedroom but not a language. As the thinker of the pair, I contemplate my body with curiosity, as a scientist might observe a primitive species. My mind is a solitary wanderer in this universe of bodies.
Though I identify with mind, the mind itself is matter. I remember dissecting a fetal pig’s brain in high school. As I sliced layers of cerebellum and cerebrum, I imagined someone likewise cutting my own brain from my skull and examining the weird intersection of my mind and body. There I would lie in the petri dish, the whole mystery of my being made visible, the unutterable complexities of consciousness, thought and personality reduced to a three-pound mass of squiggly pink tissue. Hello, self. Where is the vaporous soul I am said to be, the exiled child of God from another world?
So Stanley begins by drawing a stark divide between mind and body, and then immediately says that his mind is matter… which is to say that he views his mind as body. If your “mind” (and your “self”) is just the “three-pound mass of squiggly pink tissue” known as your brain, that’s part of your body, occupying its own space:
On a material level, a human organism used its appendages to type a tedious New York Times article about how it only “identified as” three pounds of its matter (not including said appendages). He might as well say that he identifies with his torso, but not his body. I suppose that it’s a unique weight-loss strategy — I just don’t “identify with” these twenty pounds — but it’s not a sound philosophy or anthropology. Furthermore, to the extent that Stanley wonders why his soul doesn’t show up when his brain gets dissected, there’s something curiously awry with his understanding of the soul. (And “vaporous”? Is he imagining that the soul is something like an intelligent fog, lodged somewhere in his skull?)
But this is all wrong. You are not your body, but you are also not your mind, and you are not your soul. You are a person, an individual substance of a rational nature, and that substance is made up of soul and body:
The first thing to note is that the soul is not the person. The person is the human being, the substantial compound of matter and form. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, but the soul is not such a substance — for it is the rational nature, not a substance with a rational nature. Hence, the fundamental flaw in the Cartesian conception of the person is the illegitimate identification of the person with the soul, taking them to be one and the same substance. It might with good reason be said that Descartes, having given up on the notion of substantial form, yet eager to preserve personal immortality, had nowhere else to go. Yet the mistake is basic, and leads to so many of the problems that have dogged Cartesian dualism ever since.
That was David Orderberg, in his essay explaining how hylemorphic dualism can account for the relationship between mind and body, as well as “the phenomenology of conscious experience, the felt quality of our interaction with the world,” while Cartesianism and Platonism and atheistic materialism can’t.
So to recap, again: transgenderism relies upon a misunderstanding of the mind and/or the soul’s relationship to the body. Solve these problems, and there’s no more room for a female soul (or mind, or psyche, or brain) in a male body, or vice versa.
Problem #2: Gender Reductionism
The second problem with transgenderism is a bit more abstract, and looks at why transgender-inclined persons think that they have a female mind in a male body (or vice versa). That is, what traits and tendencies do you possess that have lead you to believe that you’re not a real man, or not a real woman?
You can see why the question is important, I hope. If I said to a woman, “you can’t be a woman, since you like STEM and football,” you would immediately recognize this as gross sexism. It’s no less sexist for her to say to herself, “my love of STEM means I’m a man in a woman’s body.” And it wouldn’t be loving and affirming for us to say to her, “You’re right! You’re not a real woman!”
But that’s a lot of what we see in the transgender context. For example, the fourth edition of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes some of the symptoms of “Gender Identity Disorder” in children:
In boys, the cross-gender identification is manifested by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. […] There is a strong attraction for the stereotypical games and pastimes of girls. They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female characters.. [….]
Girls with Gender Identity Disorder display intense negative reactions to parental expectations or attempts to have them wear dresses or other feminine attire. […] Their fantasy heroes are most often powerful male figures, such as Batman or Superman. These girls prefer boys as playmates, with whom they share interests in contact sports, rough-and-tumble play, and traditional boyhood games. They show little interest in dolls or any form of feminine dress-up or role-play activity.
This risks collapsing into what feminists are fond of calling “gender essentialism,” treating all men and women like Ken and Barbie, respectively. And unfortunately, I think that it’s exactly what we see on Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover: an obscene amount of money spent on plastic surgery, coupled with makeup and Photoshop to show Jenner’s “authentic” self. If a woman had done this to achieve the cultural ideal of femininity, I don’t think her “courage” or “authenticity” would be praised. Quite the opposite.
But there’s another side to this gender reductionism. In saying that anyone who feels x is actually a woman, we end up reducing womanhood to feeling x. In response to the news that Spokane NAACP president Rachel Dolezal was actually a white woman pretending to be black, a pro-transgenderism Facebook friend tried to explain why the cases were different, commenting, “The materiality of skin colour, its relationship to one’s parents and the history attached to it (e.g. the oppressive genealogy of African Americans) isn’t a kind of social fiction or something White folk can dress up and identify with.” That’s a fair point. But that’s also true of gender. There are social and biological complexities of femininity and womanhood that Bruce Jenner can’t just “dress up and identify with” as Caitlyn.
So, to the extent that transgenderism treats gender-atypical behaviors or interests are taken as proof positive that you aren’t the gender that you appear to be, it’s obliterating that critical distinction between a “tomboy” and a boy. You cannot reduce maleness and femaleness to a set of interests or inclinations.
So How Should We Respond?
For the reasons discussed above, the transgender claim to be a woman trapped in a man’s body is objectively false. But that doesn’t mean that trans-inclined persons are lying. It just means that their feelings aren’t describing objective reality. And that still leaves us with a problem. Given all of this, how should we respond?
I see three possible options, two of which I don’t think work.
The first response is to treat trans-inclined people mockingly. Do I need to explain that this response is cruel and un-Christian? That the way to respond to a person with crippling body image issues isn’t to make fun of them for it? This response seems to forget the second half of St. Paul’s admonition to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
The second possibility is to embrace the falsehood. In the name of identity and self-expression, we affirm something we know to be contrary to the truth. Here I’m reminded of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which three members of the Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This idea, which Justice Scalia would later refer to this (mockingly) as the Court’s “famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage,” is what’s at issue. Do freedom and self-expression include the right to redefine reality? To put it another way, is reality the foundation of personal liberty, or simply an obstacle to be overcome?
The most immediate casualty in our “liberation” from reality has been language. I’m reminded of a famous scene from Through the Looking Glass:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
It’s this philosophy of language that’s at work when, for example, the Associated Press’ style guide calls for personal pronouns to reflect the subject’s self-identity, rather than biology.
This Wonderland view of language and reality is rampant these days. If you and your partner(s) want to say that you’re “married,” great! No need to determine what “marriage” means, or whether your relationship meets that definition. If you want to say that you’ve been ordained a “female Catholic priest,” congratulations! No need to find out what the Catholic Church has to say on the matter. If you want to say that you’re Christian, then you are! No need to hold to any particular Creed or belief. (Obviously, this right of self-definition doesn’t extend so far as to apply to jihadists: liberal secularists have excommunicated such people from Islam).
Taken to its logical limits, this nihilistic nominalism is literally insane. If the atheist down the block should claim (in all seriousness) to be the first female pope, we wouldn’t be dealing with history being made, but with a man losing his grip on reality. A self-identity that contradicts reality isn’t an identity that society needs to rush to affirm.
To treat reality as an obstacle to your freedom is to immediately descend into falsehood and delusion. Here, my point is aided by serendipitous timing. My Facebook feed for the last couple weeks looked something like this:
“Bruce Jenner says he’s a woman named Caitlyn, so she is.”
“You can’t just decide to ‘change’ your sex: it’s biologically impossible. By that logic, why couldn’t I just ‘change’ my race or any other innate characteristic?”
“That’s ridiculous, nobody would ever…”
(Rachel Dolezal NAACP story breaks)
The timing was amazing, as was watching MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry muse with Alyson Hobbs about whether Dolezal might be “transblack.” Ultimately, it seems that Dolezal’s claim is being rejected by social progressives, on the grounds that she lied; but this is an argument against Dolezal, not transracialism. And really, if you’re free to reject reality in your quest to “redefine” who you really are, why can’t you claim to be a doctor, or Napoleon? Even the notion of Dolezal “lying” seems hopelessly quaint, since it suggests some deference to reality. After all, her skin is every bit as black as Jenner’s soul is female.
So we must either commit to language and beliefs that reflect objective reality, or language and beliefs that ignore it, or subordinate it to our whims. My vote, clearly, is for the former.
Finally, make no mistake: this isn’t a harmless delusion, and transgenderism isn’t a harmless self-identity. 41% of self-identified transgender persons reported that they have attempted suicide, roughly 9 times higher than the overall U.S. population (4.6%), and a number that goes up to 50% for “”those who disclose to everyone that they are transgender or gender-non-conforming.” These are people who struggle with serious body-image issues, not entirely unlike anorexia. It would be cruel to mock an anorexic, but it would be perhaps more cruel to knowingly encourage their anorexia.
What they need instead is what all of us need: to be loved and accepted. So I want to suggest a third option: love and accept transgender people, but without affirming a lie about them. It’s true that there are people that don’t fit neatly into social stereotypes about what maleness and femaleness look like. Few of us fit all of the norms for our sex, and some of us don’t fit many of them. We don’t need to pretend that this isn’t the case, or make people feel awful for it. But we also don’t need to pretend that this part of their personality makes them a member of the opposite sex.
Finally, there’s a deeper truth that needs to be told. These men and women (and boys and girls) struggling with gender issues aren’t some sort of mistake, or a cruel joke that God plays on them to balance out all of their nice attributes. They are made in the image of a God who loves them dearly. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Don’t let them forget that.