A New Theology of the Transgendered Body

 Why not write a gender autobiography to help understand the emerging LGBT movement? We can remember our own growing up, and imagine how it might have been different—or even tragic if we did not conform to the reigning group norms.

In The New York Times (1/6/15) Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgendered advocate and professor writes an Op-Ed piece describing the case of Leelah Acorn; Leelah was a transgendered teenager who felt so unsupported by her religious family that she committed suicide. Boylan mourns this young person’s death and recounts her own story to give hope to others who suffer.

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 Reports in the news have described new educational, legal, healthcare and ethical-theological challenges faced by transgendered persons. Should women’s colleges such as Barnard and Wellesley accept applicants who are transitioning to male identities? Can birth certificates be changed and legal marriages performed? Bioethical questions of fertility treatments also arise. Closer to home are the hard decisions facing parents in response to a child who insists that their “real” gender identity is different from that assigned at their birth. Leelah’s suicide note reported her parents’ arguments that she was just going through a phase and to accept that “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

 By contrast, three supportive families I know have enabled their children to transition from male to female gender identity. As another sign of the times, this year at my granddaughter’s college orientation, students were asked which gender pronoun they wish to be addressed by. (At a “cooler” campus she visits, other students refuse to answer to any binary gender pronouns.) Beyond these youthful cases, I was surprised when a middle aged ex-colleague, a distinguished philosopher, recently transitioned from male to female identity and published an article on the bioethical issues involved. After reading this essay I plunged into some of the many autobiographical books detailing the psychological and social processes of gender transitions. As with Jennifer Finney Boylan’s story, there was a great deal of psychological, physical and social suffering involved. Boylan recounts a difficult, but successful transition from being a married father with two sons to a happily reconfigured family with two maternal figures. It’s also true that other accounts of gender change do not end well.

 Part of the uncertainty for parents and individuals is that there isn’t any certain knowledge or agreed upon consensus on how gender identity emerges. Personal narratives differ; respected scientific authorities disagree. Every individual case is unique, and personal consciousness can constantly change. Is an experience of misery with one’s assigned birth identity (labelled gender dysphoria) irreversible? Or can it perhaps mask depression or other disorder? Inevitably, the different perspectives adopted on causality will influence judgments on treatments.

 Supportive parents are in a bind because the earlier a gender transition, the better the outcome in the long run. But fears can arise of premature medical interventions, or of prolonging a child’s suffering, or risking a suicide. Andrew Solomon in his monumental book on unusual parenting challenges, Far from the Tree, provides an excellent chapter on transgender dilemmas. The cases he examines include horrible depictions of children and families subjected to rejection, prejudice and persecution. Sexuality remains such a high-anxiety domain that deviations from the norm provoke violence—even suicide and murder. Society does not universally agree with Jennifer Boylan’s affirmation, “The world abounds with all sorts of ways of being human.”

 Yes, it’s true. And when we reflect on our own developmental history we can better see the various complexities involved. So much happens beneath and before conscious awareness. Gender identity emerges, I now conclude, from an interrelated interplay of genes, biochemical influences in the womb, infant and child personal experiences and social pressure. The brain seems hardwired early, perhaps in different degrees. But undoubtedly, random chance events determine individual developmental outcomes. While God does not make mistakes, God works through secondary causes such as evolution’s random mutations and variations.

 Fortunately, Christians do not have to wait for scientific consensus to understand and affirm religious truths. We know that God commands us to treat each human life with justice and love. In particular we must protect the vulnerable and relieve suffering. Moreover, the embodied person’s whole identity, deeds and character are more important than gender identity.

 Autobiographical reflections confront us with the mysterious question, “How does the self-conscious ‘I am’ relate to the ‘me’ of my body changing through time?” I’m now an old married woman who has experienced seven pregnancies, seen my children change from infancy to middle age and have physically declined with my aging spouse. I thank God that Christians value and protect every stage and condition of embodied life. We value embryo, fetus, infant, child, adult, aged, disabled and the dying. And we’ve been promised the gift of transitioning to resurrected life as members of Christ’s body. Can we hope now for an expanded theology of the body and person, to better understand gender and transgendered persons? 

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Carlos Orozco
2 years 11 months ago
Theology of the transgendered body. What a concept. I no longer doubt why Islam is seen as an unopposed, growing tide in the West.
Tony Phillips
2 years 11 months ago
I've got to agree with Carlos here. Take a person with a male body but (we're told) a female personality/mind/psyche/whatever. Clearly there's a mismatch here. Something's gone awry--one or the other needs to be corrected. But where do you really think this person's problem lies--in the body or in the mind? While so-called transgendered states are, logically speaking, the low-hanging fruit, but in principle the same applies to homosexual orientations. It's a mental issue: a mental illness, if you like, a psychological disorder. Maybe the person cited in this article did commit suicide because of the way he was treated by others. But we shouldn't be too quick to blame 'the others'--it's quite likely that suicidality and depression were part of his disorder as well as sexual confusion. People with abnormal sexual orientations need to stop blaming other people for their psychological problems. It's not society's fault you're depressed. It's part of the illness.
Robert Lewis
2 years 11 months ago
Ah, yes, "correction"! So you and your "Church" presume to know God's will ENTIRELY, in setting up so-called "natural law," right? You are aware, right, that slavery was once considered to conform to "natural law," that eye-for-an-eye legal justice systems were, that royal and dynastic pedophilia was, that killing for religious reasons was, and that--best example of all, for those who prate on and on about "traditional family values"--lifetime celibacy, or eunuch status "for the kingdom's sake" (and NOT connubial monogamy) was considered "naturally" optimal for all (and not just for clerics)? Don't you just love these supposedly "traditional" Catholics who seem not to know that they belong to the least "fundamentalist" of all Christian denominations because "bind on earth, bind in heaven" and "loose on earth, loose in heaven" is actually a license from the Founder to apply situations, as well as scientific evidence to moral questions and dilemmas. What's the "scientific evidence" that applies to this particular situation? That "complementarity" is primarily emotional, psychological AND spiritual (yes, there IS a "homosexual" way of being spiritual; if there weren't there wouldn't be so many verifiable "same-sex-attracted saints, e.g. Henri Nouwen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bernard of Clairvaux, etc.) Your "religion," if you can call it that, is materialist, vulgar and legalistic, because "complementarity" goes far beyond biology and bodily plumbing.
Katherine Hickey
2 years 11 months ago
Transgender issues will only continue to gain visibility and momentum within social and political discourses. It's important that Catholic theology have a clear, articulated, and informed contribution to the subject because as you noted, there are likely many individuals in our parishes who need to hear the Church talking about this for themselves or a loved one. But I think it has to start with creating a safe space for these individuals to share their autobiographies. Many Catholics are still hostile towards LGBQ people - I can only imagine how they would react towards a transgender person. There is so much work to do. Sigh.
Julie Chovanes
2 years 11 months ago
A theology of the transgendered is not difficult...the Bible begins with God making us in His Image, male and female, not male or female and ends with Paul saying in heaven there is no male or female. Jesus said some eunuchs are born and some are made -- for His Glory. The Psalmist sang He has made us fearfully and wonderfully. None of us know the workings of the mind of God. That is the message of Job, and of Isaiah 55:8: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” The persecutors of the transgendered are really the small minded, the doorkeepers, the ones of whom God said begone, you lay burdens on the people but lift not a finger to help them. And I don’t think, I know, as much as I know anything, Jesus would welcome me with open arms, as one of the persecuted and as one of his sisters, doing His Work in this world. None of us can judge, that is for God alone, and all we can do is act in Love -- the Greatest Commandment.
Colleen Fay
2 years 11 months ago
Your article here and the responses to it demonstrate how difficult it is to imagine how we transgender people see ourselves. It is a condition of our being, not a choice. So many of us consider, attempt or sadly do commit suicide. Each situation is unique, but our rates are appallingly high. Since sex is still such a difficult subject for us to be comfortable with, it is no surprise that we trans people evoke fear and discomfort in some by our very presence.We do not intend to be a challenge to you, but as we do not conform to customary definitions, the challenge is there. I have been a Catholic since my baptism more than 70 years ago and God has been so good to me, although my life has had its difficulties. Perhaps if we could all look not at a mind-body philosophy and theology, but a theology especially that celebrates the oneness we all share in Christ. Let us all love one another as Jesus mandated that we do and evolve always a more inclusive view. Although we can never comprehend it, we can always open our hearts and minds to God's astounding love for us -- for all of us.
Darlene Wagner
2 years 8 months ago
Thank you Sidney Callahan for advocating for transgender persons such as myself! It is encouraging to hear Christ-centered people promoting acceptance for those of us whose souls do not seem to match our bodies. I was raised Baptist in the foothills of Appalachia in Georgia. Over my past five years of living as Darlene, I've felt an increasing sense of spiritual homelessness in Christian communities. During the years preceding my transition, I began experiencing the Divine Spirit in my life as Mother. Since transition to living as female, my sense of Divine Mother in my life has intensified. While many of my trans brothers and sisters experience depression and marginalization, I've been blessed with an unflappable sense of joy. At the same time, I feel a sense of longing, almost hunger, for a community of people who experience the Divine Feminine. I've been disheartened by professed Christians with whom I've shared my spirituality. Many laugh at my faith in manner indistinguishable from the scoffing characteristic of atheism. Thank you again for your article. Peace and Love!

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