Overvalued Genitals and Undervalued Brains: A Trans Response to Christian Conservatives Uncomfortable With Caitlyn Jenner
The impact of Jenner’s debut has been nothing short of extraordinary. Media outlets that struggled to properly report on trans persons in police blotters just a few years ago are suddenly interested in the topic. “Ex-trans persons,” those few scattered across the country over many years, suddenly become resurrected. Christians of all stripes begin to weigh in directly, not simply flinging afterthoughts to their decades-long homophobia.
I’d like to address the response of the Christian conservatives. I had found it tantalizing during my years of advocacy in Maryland that some of those most opposed to gay rights and marriage equality were either supportive of trans persons or, at worst, apathetic. They wouldn’t support gender identity legislation, so as not to break with their anti-gay team which found the distinctions between and trans confusing, and thereby dangerous to consistency of message, but seeing trans as a medical condition they were surprisingly sympathetic.
Today, post-Jenner, with the surrender of many religious conservatives on the impending “redefinition of marriage,” they can no longer afford to treat trans persons as afterthoughts. We must be attacked head-on theologically. That, however, is proving to be rather difficult.
The most notorious transphobic person, the Catholic Professor Paul McHugh, a decade ago accepted the reality of gender identity when his Hopkins colleague, Bill Reiner, proved its existence scientifically. While he still sees trans women as mentally ill, because he can’t unravel gender identity from sexual orientation, he’s been left behind by his fellow psychiatric colleagues who long ago, with few exceptions, gave up any religious underpinning to issues of sex and gender. The article referenced above with his most recent rant (pity poor Johns Hopkins University which can’t get this guy to stop from embarrassing them) actually had the temerity to state that ” there are scientists who disagree,” as if there are today more than a handful. McHugh is a classic example of a professor in over his head — a psychiatrist who doesn’t understand the basics of human sexuality recognized by all professional medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, and a Catholic fundamentalist who seems to have never studied ancient texts.
An American Catholic theologian, Salvatore Cordileone, the Archbishop of San Francisco, sums up his critique of transsexualism by stating, categorically, “The clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female. “End of story. However, there are traditions in ancient Biblical culture (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 8:1) that had the first being as an intersex person, an hermaphrodite.
The Rabbis of 2000 years ago recognized six types of sex among humans — female, male, androgynous, tum tum, aylonit and saris — and the Torah (Isaiah 56:4-5), as well as later Christian Scripture, recognized eunuchs (saris, many of whom were either intersex or trans women) as a higher form of humanity. It’s very hard to pin your entire catalog of disapproval on one sentence in Deuteronomy, and those efforts pale in comparison to the concoction of millennia of homophobia rooted in one sentence in Leviticus.
So why this resistance? Even Biblical literalists must recognize there are many passages which conflict with the absolute pronouncements of a Cordileone or McHugh, who, by the way, was responsible for the Vatican’s pronouncement back when it was run by the right-wing Benedict. When they get down to it, they always revert to a view of biological sex as rooted in genitalia. But, as I’ve pointed out, religious authorities (and the Greeks before them) have for millennia recognized that sexual anatomy and physiology are not that simple.
This belief, that genitals = sex, has been so deeply rooted in society that intersex babies have been left to die or “converted” into vagina-bearing beings raised as girls once the surgical techniques allowed the condition of ambiguous genitalia to be resolved to the wishes of the parents. When modern medicine routinely considered the birth of an intersex infant to be a pediatric emergency, and hid the follow-up care in silence and obfuscation, it’s no wonder that the average individual can’t comprehend that we have minds that are sexed to the degree where we know what sex we are, irrespective of our genital anatomy. There are millions of intersex individuals whose chromosomes and genes don’t match their genitalia or whose genitals are ambiguous, and it seems clear that if they would only come out as gay and trans persons have over the past few decades, society would have a hard time ignoring the complexity of human sexuality.
It’s one thing to deny the embodied brain and its manifestation in a subjective feeling of gender identity, because that is a function of a theory of mind that as yet has few tangible physical manifestations. People’s difficulties coming to grips with all sorts of brain conditions and their mental and emotional manifestations makes that abundantly clear. But when presented with live humans with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or 5′-alpha reductase deficiency, it become impossible, short of a categorical denial of reality, to ignore the scientific evidence. Church leaders have been allowed for too long to evade the medical evidence.
Southern Baptists who talk of trans persons “rejecting your gender” misread the fact that trans people are doing the exact opposite – embracing their gender and their sex as embodied in their brains. Russell Moore, the head of the ethics arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “The cultural narrative behind the transgender turn … is rooted in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with the idea that the ‘real’ self is separate from who one is as an embodied, material being.” Aside from the fact that few people care about “ancient heresies” in general or Gnosticism in particular, the core of the trans experience is indeed rooted in “an embodied, material being.” Just not in the overvalued genitals but in the undervalued brain.
At times, it hard for me to accept that some men of religious persuasions are so intent to circle the wagons to maintain their hegemony and control over their womenfolk, and so afraid of a few hundred thousand trans women who are comfortable with being rid of an appendage that developed in opposition to their brain (because, if you bother to check, human sexual development in utero is a complex dance with many moves and, therefore, many outcomes). Acceptance of the trans experience will not lead to millions undergoing gender transition, just as the growth of same-sex marriage has not led to the catastrophic disappearance of opposite-sex marriage. If it’s led to anything novel, beyond the bourgeoisification of the gay experience, it’s the growth in gay divorces.
The Christian community is the victim of its 40-year tradition of equating every natural disaster with gay behavior, and imagining the worst possible outcome to every possible situation. Maybe that tradition derives from the Revelation stories, and so has a long and venerable history, but it’s a lousy way to live. Especially when it means driving your children to suicide or being in a state of high anxiety every time you enter a public bathroom.
I will take issue with Emma Green’s closing comment in The Atlantic piece: “The adjustment period on this issue will be complicated. And as the response to Caitlyn Jenner has shown, it’s only just beginning.” The adjustment period is at times complicated, but it has been going full throttle for the past 15 years. While few have been paying attention, science and medicine, academia, corporate America, the federal government, almost half of the state governments, and over 200 municipalities, many of which exist in red states, have been adjusting and doing so successfully. Cait Jenner just lifted the lid off the volcano; the pioneers have been at work for decades, and thanks to seemingly endless supplies of courage, tenacious advocacy and education, often against strong resistance and heavy odds, have made Jenner’s transition possible.
All that’s changed is that now, thanks to Jenner, “the whole world’s watching.”