Cloutier, Johnson and Coakley--Thinking Through Transgender Issues

There was a piece in Commonweal magazine that I read a week or so ago that I wanted to write about, but it took me a while to put together my thoughts.  It's about, in broad terms, a Christian (or, in this case, explicitly Roman Catholic) approach or response to the transgender questions that have become very prominent and contentious in the U.S.  It's worth reading, even though I don't really agree with either of the authors.

Let's start first with David Cloutier's article.  As I see it, he raises three basic points--two of which I basically agree with, if not in the way he means it, and one that I disagree with very strongly.  Cloutier's first move is to point out the core conundrum of at least some presentations of this issue.  On the one hand, gender identity is presented as being so sacrosanct and central to one's core nature that forcing someone to live in a manner inconsistent with that identity is to do violence to the person; on the other hand, gender identity cannot be reduced to a fixed schema, with everyone expressing in a unique way the essential "radical plasticity" of gender expression.  These two concepts are, at a minimum, in tension, and as Cloutier notes holding them together often leads to a radical libertarian conception of the self--I should and must be free to express my own entirely idiosyncratic sense of my own gender identity, with no outside force having anything to say about it.  This leads to Cloutier's second point, which is to encourage us to take seriously the way in which social norms inform how we see ourselves, and to ask questions about how this libertarian conception of the self influences other aspects of our social life.  While I think this stance can be, and has been, outrageously and destructively demagogued by opponents of transgender rights ("if we allow this, boys will decide to become transgender due to peer pressure/to snatch a peak at women in the bathroom," etc.), I think it is important not to swing too far in the other direction and pretend that these decisions do not have broader social consequences.

I want to come back to these two points later, but for now let's turn to Cloutier's third point, which is that transgenderism represents a gnostic or quasi-gnostic rejection of embodiedness.  Drawing on John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Pope Francis's encylical Laudato Si', Cloutier asserts that attempting to "change" one's physicality to reflect an internal sense of self or in order to achieve a better psychological harmony violates the "natural ecology" of human beings.  My problem with this argument is that, if taken to its logical conclusion, it would rule out a vast array of medical interventions that are generally seen as unproblematic; yet, somehow, this embodiedness argument never ends up being used in any context other than when we start talking about sex and sexuality.

Here's a personal example.  I'm 5 foot, 5 inches tall.  That's something in the neighborhood of the 5th percentile for height for men in the United States, which is low by any standard.  This outcome was not an enormous surprise--my Mom is about 5'2", my Dad is only about 5'8".  But, whatever the origin, I was basically always the shortest boy in my class, and when I hit 13 I stopped growing altogether.  However, there is nothing "wrong" with me--I'm just short, with no underlying medical condition.

My parents never raised this issue and it never occurred to me, but it is legal in the United States for doctors to prescribe human growth hormone (HGH) to children like me with "idiopathic short stature."  So, it was conceivable that I could have insisted at 13 in undertaking a significant medical intervention to change my body in a pretty fundamental way.  Such a change would have had the possibility of causing significant changes in the way that I related to my social environment, how I saw myself, and my general outlook on the world.  There is a very real social stigma around being short--there are studies showing that we earn less, we are less likely to major business leaders, and we are at a clear disadvantage if we are heterosexual in dating women.  It is not at all ridiculous to think that a hypothetical 13 year old me, or my hypothetical parents, might worry for my psychological health if I were to remain at 5'5", or that my bodily reality might have severe negative consequences on me going forward.

So, in light of that, here's my question to Professor Cloutier--suppose my parents had given me HGH at 13 (or, to remove the question of the ethics of medical interventions on minors, imagine that I could gain a few inches by taking HGH now).  Would taking HGH "erase[]" "[t]he reality of [my] body" in the way that Cloutier argues those who are seeking gender reassignment surgery are doing?  After all, there is no question that God designed my body to be short and encoded that determination in my DNA.  And the motivations and hoped-for outcome from the intervention in both cases is at least in the same basic genus.  There is very little to differentiate, in my mind, these two interventions.

Cloutier, I suspect, would see these two examples as radically different.  And that's my core problem with Cloutier's argument, and it is the same problem all of John Paul II's Theology of the Body suffers from--it assumes that the most important, defining feature of our embodiedness is the type of genitals we possess.  Cloutier wants to argue that the current move for transgendered rights and recognition reflects a gnostic denigration of embodied reality, but at most these interventions reflect a change to one aspect of embodiedness, not to the whole thing.  And the moment you start to protest that changing one aspect of embodiedness is the same as rejecting the whole thing, you are opening the door to a fundamental challenge to, frankly, modern medical science and its ability to make sometimes radical changes to the body-as-originally-designed.

In order to avoid that problem, I think too often the Roman Catholic (and conservative Protestant) solution is to wall off sexuality into it own protected space with its own special set of rules.  But that results in "embodiedness" becoming a synonym for "boy parts versus girl parts" in a very reductive fashion.  Or, worse, it takes "boy parts versus girl parts" as the physical manifestation of a whole host of fixed gender categories and norms that are then absolutized in the name of embodied "natural ecology."  This makes "natural ecology" a just-so story that justifies the currently fashionable complementarian program, of which a rejection of transgender expression is a logical extension.  Too often, and I think Cloutier is guilty of this here, all this talk of the importance of recognizing embodiedness is not really a defense of embodiedness qua embodiedness, but really a defense of a quasi-traditional, purely binary gender scheme (particularly when many of the same people immediately retreat from the praise of embodiedness when bodily sexual pleasure is raised).

Doubling down on fixed gender roles to ward off the transgender "problem" is, in my view, precisely the wrong answer.  Luke Timothy Johnson's piece tries to argue that we should treat these questions as adiaphora (non-essential things), and not to worry about it.  But, I think that approach (at least in Johnson's somewhat unqualified form) is also a mistake, if for no other reason than it positions the Christian church to be unable to offer any support or guidance to people working through these complicated questions.  Instead, I would suggest that the correct theoretical framework is laid out by Sarah Coakley in her book God, Sexuality, and the Self.  I have talked about that book before, but the gist of her (brilliant and rich) argument is that Coakley, drawing on primarily patristic writers talking about prayer, asserts that gender identity is, and should be, "labile" (to use her word) as a consequence of our growth and transformation in the Spirit.  Thus, a certain measure of gender fluidity is both present in all of us in at least an inchoate manner, and something that we can and should see as part and parcel of the spiritual life.

This doesn't mean, in some facile, reductive way, that "everyone is transgender."  But I think this approach to gender does a change a number of things with regard to how to approach transgender questions.  Most importantly, Coakley's model would begin from the premise that some measure of dissonance between one's physical genitalia, the normative model of gender identity and/or one's sense of their own gender is normal and unproblematic, indeed a good thing and perhaps even a sign of spiritual development.  This is not to minimize the degree to which some people experience much more significant dissonances than the average person (nor, as Johnson points out, to erase the biological complexities of the relationship between gender and intersex people).  Instead, it points to the idea that experiencing gender dissonance is not some weird phenomenon that occurs only in some strange subset of people that we can label as "transgender," but is instead on a continuum of experience that is shared to one degree or another by most people, and maybe even everyone.

This more fluid understanding of gender has the effect of stepping away from the idea that gender dissonance is always and everywhere to be treated as a "problem" that requires some sort of "solution."  Ironically, here I think both (at least certain elements of) the transgender advocate community and their conservative opponents are actually in agreement.  Conservative folks see the dissonance as a problem without offering a meaningful solution (other than "get over it"), while some of the discourse coming out of the other side equally accepts that the dissonance is a problem, one that requires or at least authorizes any one of a number of interventions.     

This commonality segues nicely into something that does worry me about the current discourse on transgender issues, and it is something Cloutier pokes around at the peripheries of in his piece, which is the interplay between an essentialist vision of gender identity in the "cis" context and at least one conception of "trans" identity.  If you believe that being a male is a set of fixed, almost ontological givens (including "embodiedness" defined primarily in terms of genitals) that are not subject to cultural conditioning or negotiation, and you find someone whose genitals don't match that set of givens, but instead fit better with the female set of equally fixed givens, then a trans identity can be seen as a "solution" to this "problem."  After all, under this paradigm you are swapping one set of fixed non-negotiable traits for a different set of fixed non-negotiable traits, while leaving completely intact the notion that gender has a fixed non-negotiable meaning.  I have mentioned this before, but Iran is second in the world to Thailand in the number of gender reassignment surgeries performed per year--in a place with a very rigid understanding of gender identity, it is less challenging to the system to simply swap one rigid box for another.  I think there is a danger that essentialist accounts of trans identity actually reinforce fixed gender roles rather than subvert them, making fixed accounts of gender into two idols of which you must select between.

More practically, I worry that certain presentations of trans identity would encourage the idea that someone who feels that they don't fit with established gender norms has to make a completely binary choice between rigid definitions of "male" and "female."  In other words, if a person felt that he didn't fit with what is considered the standard presentation of being a "he," the only real option is to become a "she."  Whereas, it may simply be that the person is in a particular place with regard to their understanding of themselves in relation to gender categories, and if we stopped acting like that was a necessarily a problem to be solved, and instead just left this person alone, the person would be better off.  In the course of validating people who need to make more radical interventions regarding their gender identity, I think we need to be careful not to communicate that people who feel themselves out-of-alignment with some, but not necessarily all, parts of the standard gender presentation need to either "round up" or "round down" to one pole or another.

In this context, I think Cloutier's concern about social signaling is useful--telling people struggling with gender identity that they can, and indeed should, make a black or white decision between two choices might push people toward a radical decision (like physical surgery) that is unnecessary for them and potentially harmful.  In addition, following Coakley, we could recognize that a person's sense of identity might very well be a moving target, changing as part of a healthy personal (and spiritual) evolution.  Forcing someone to make an all-or-nothing choice risks locking in a particular place in development in a way that could retard growth.  Maybe just back off and give people space.

All of that is more on the theory end.  As for the practical and operational issues--which bathrooms to use and such--I am 100% with Johnson these things are adiaphora.  Let people use whatever bathroom and wear whatever sort of clothing that they feel comfortable with as they navigate their way through the complex and necessarily at least partially individualized journey of gender identity.  The safety issues that are often trotted out in this context appear to be entirely pretextual and pure demagoguery.

So, what can the church do for transgendered people?  It seems to me it can provide two critical things.  First, it can provide space for people to work out the contours of these questions in their own context, recognizing that this may be a process with multiple equilibria along the way.  Second, it cam provide a vision of gender that recognizes both than gender is a real phenomenon and that it is (and is OK to be) fluid in its contours and definitions.  Right now, in general, the church is doing neither of these things, as seen by the current moral panic.


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