The trouble with ‘gender ideology’
The first time I was in a room where I was knowingly in the minority as a cisgender person, my mind went places it had never been before. I was with Luisa Derouen, a Dominican sister who has ministered for decades with transgender people—a ministry that she once had to carry out in secret. I was reporting on her work for a magazine article. I sat with her at a table for a support group one evening in Tuscon, Ariz., where those present shared their struggles with family members, ID cards, bathrooms and health. I left shaken.
In that room, my own sense of gender felt unstable in ways it never had before. Was I really so sure I was a man, deep down? Adolescent memories and anxieties came back. I tried to stabilize myself, to tell myself reassuring certainties. What I felt was a version of what has been convulsing through American society in recent years, as more people have had to come to terms with the existence of more gender-diverse forms of life.
Unlike most people with that sort of confusion, however, I had Sister Luisa with me. She always started with love. She listened and asked questions and sang prayers beautifully to people when they needed comfort. This was what I saw her do with her trans friends, and the fact that I happened to be a reporter did not prevent her from also ministering to me. She preached the Gospel, basically. Before any scary and confusing thing, God’s voice tells us: Be not afraid, for I am with you.
Many of the people with whom Sister Luisa works have struggled with gender for decades. I got over my shakenness in a few days. But I came out a better man for having felt it. I could not take who I am for granted. I saw a glimpse, in Sister Luisa’s friends’ lives and mine, of how firmly God can love us when nothing else is certain. Among them I started learning to experience gender as a gift that is not simple or obvious to receive, as a force in this universe with more going on in it than I had imagined.
The theory and practice of masculinity appear to be in a period of crisis. This feeling has become red meat for politicians who decry a “war on men.” According to the likes of politicians like Senator Josh Hawley (a Republican from Missouri) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (a Republican from Georgia), mainstream culture wants nothing more than for men to hate ourselves for our supposed privilege, to abandon male strength and virtue so as to smooth the path toward communism. Among liberals, the researcher Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution issues wonkish warnings, with policy remedies, regarding declines in male educational and economic attainment. Historic gains for women have brought not only declines in relative achievement for men but also the basic question of what men are for altogether.
The most acute manifestations of anxieties about gender have emerged around the blurring and crossing of gender lines. A few years ago, transgender people suffered from lack of public awareness; today, trans people using bathrooms and playing sports—and young trans people in particular—have become subject to vicious culture warring.
On this matter, Pope Francis has bucked his usual reputation for tolerance and for showing kindness toward queer and gender-nonconforming people. (In July, for instance, he reminded a trans Italian that “God loves us as we are.”) Throughout his papacy he has habitually denounced “gender ideology,” the belief that gender could be other than fixed and binary—male and female, he created them. The pope recently referred to gender ideology as “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations” in the world today. Despite his personal kindness toward them, transgender people are unmistakably avatars of this threat.
The source of danger, for the pope, lies in losing the unique callings of men as men and women as women in a blur of indistinction. He fears that gender ideology lures people into treating gender as a human creation rather than a divine gift. He offers Christian faith as a path from confusion to clarity, from vagueness to our specific vocations as gendered beings.
When I read those passages in the pope’s writings and speeches, however, I do not hear clarity. Instead, his comments bring to mind a friend who gave me permission to work on being a man, in my mid-20s. This friend taught me that being a man is something one can learn and get better at, even if you already are one, even if you think you are not great at being one yet. His name is Quince Mountain, and he is transgender. You might have seen hisappearance on the reality show “Naked and Afraid” or heard about the Internet-famous dogsled team he runs with his wife, the writer and musher Blair Braverman. He was the one who first introduced me to Sister Luisa.
Quince has thought more about gender than just about anyone I have met before, because he had to, because the gender that felt most real to him was different from what others saw. The world tried to beat that difference out of him, and bullies beat him hard for not being a certain kind of girl. He joined the Army, and that beat him hard, too. Afterward he studied radical gender theorists in college. But he also signed up for Christian “conversion therapy” camps, intended to help gay men live straight lives, because they offered a kind of training in a certain masculinity that he wanted to experience. Despite the harm those places could do, they were also where people would help each other carefully, intentionally, to come into being men. His clarity about his identity had cost him—physically, psychologically, spiritually—in ways I have never experienced.
I did not have to suffer as he did because of my gender. Despite some basic teasing for being insufficiently athletic or confident, I never questioned that I was a boy and then eventually a man. But I did not think much about what either of those words meant, either. I went through the expected coming-of-age rituals, like graduating from high school and leaving home, but most were gender neutral by default.
A mature gendered life requires a sufficiently mature theory and practice of gender.
It was only years later that I got to learn with Quince—in hours and hours of conversations, on long highway trips and by the fireplace in the house he built—about what it means to be a good man and, once we both eventually married, a good husband. He gave me the outlines of a language to measure myself by as a man, like developing “competence” and finding “ministries” where one can be useful. When he took me skeet shooting in the backyard of a roadside bar, or A.T.V. driving through muddy trails, it was an intentional crafting of gender together. We played a lot of pool, and the last time I visited him he gave my son his first pool lesson in one of those roadside bars. Because Quince had experienced gender as more than simple and obvious in his own life, he helped me see my gendered self more fully.
That is why the denunciations of so-called gender ideology have never sat right with me. People like Quince, for whom gender was not straightforward, have lessons to teach the rest of us. In order to better understand the gift of gender, we need to pay attention to when it is most challenging, not just when it seems deceptively clear. A person who has been homeless knows, in ways others do not, the value of a home and a roof. The easy distinctions we learn as children—good and bad, right and wrong, us and them—are rarely sufficient for the complexities of adult life. A mature gendered life requires, one might say, a sufficiently mature theory and practice of gender.
This is not a gender ideology. An ideology is an idol that keeps us from perceiving reality beyond what is already in our heads. Maturity means that we can see past our ideologies, as well as our fears, in order to be open to whatever revelation may be unfolding among us.
The Making of a Cudgel
What is gender ideology, actually? It is, first of all, pejorative. The term arose in the 1980s and ’90s, primarily among Catholic thinkers. They wanted to warn about emerging ideas that questioned a strict, male-female gender binary based on genital configuration. According to a recent Heritage Foundation report on the topic, gender ideology is “a spectrum of beliefs that practically deny the significance of bodily sex for personal identity.” The 2015 report from the Synod of Bishops on the Family (later quoted approvingly by Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love”) described gender ideology as a teaching in which “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, which can also change over time.”
The supposed gender ideologists do not use that term to describe themselves. Nor do they necessarily hold the alleged beliefs. Quince, for one, never perceived his masculinity as a choice; he says he would have chosen to be a woman if he felt he could.
The ur-text for academic gender theorists, Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble, regards gender-associated behaviors as cultivated through social performance and cultural context. This is at least as true as the fact that, a century ago, American culture considered pink a color for little boys and regarded women as incompetent for public life. Butler and others go on to argue that gender is something that people understand and co-construct through culture, not a fixed absolute.
To say something is a social construction, however, is not to say it is arbitrary, imaginary or unimportant. Race is a social construction—to a far greater extent than gender—but it is self-deceiving to claim that one can be blind to it. While marriage is a gift from God, it takes many different forms in different societies. This is because elements of marriage are social constructions, too. If it did not involve social constructions, we would not feel the need to define its meaning carefully, devise rituals around it or provide extra support for those who undertake it. Through these performances, we participate in a mystery that we only dimly understand. As with gender, some norms of marriage change with time and place. Others stay remarkably constant, though it is not always easy to predict what those will be.
To better understand the gift of gender, we need to pay attention to when it is most challenging.
Both pop psychology and ancient spirituality agree that a mature life involves coming to terms with the ambiguities of gendered life. Men are counseled to discover their inner femininity, and women to embrace dimensions of masculinity. Male priests lead the church that tradition regards as feminine; women are not exempt from the call to imitate the life of the male-bodied Christ. Even while social norms organize gender according to specific associations and roles, those same norms are usually porous in places. They have to be. Nobody’s full humanity fits squarely in the box of a single gender.
In contrast to the allegations of gender ideology, theorists like Dr. Butler do not disentangle gender entirely from physical characteristics. Dr. Butler argued that the social constructions of gender and sex are deeply intertwined. People who undertake gender-related medical interventions, such as hormone treatments and surgeries, accept the accompanying risks precisely because they understand their gender identity as tied to their bodies. They experience the life-and-death importance of gender and sex, while many of us simply take it for granted. Those who seek medical interventions to affirm their perceived gender hardly “deny the significance of bodily sex for personal identity,” as the Heritage Foundation put it.
In light of the ideas and activities it is meant to represent, the talk about gender ideology starts to seem like a denunciation without a referent. Many are complaining about it, but it is hard to find anyone who actually believes or defends it.
Catholic teaching has more precise concerns about certain increasingly widespread practices related to queer experience. For instance, the dominant Catholic understanding of natural law binds physical sex to gender and treats both as determined for each person by God in either-or fashion. Hormone treatments, as well as the rarer surgical interventions, can seem in that light like “playing God”—changing something not meant to be within human power. In March 2023, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that prohibits Catholic health care institutions from participating in interventions that “transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex.”
These conclusions indeed follow from long-held premises. The precepts of natural law emanate from ancient observations about how the world works, further informed by centuries of science. Why would all of that change in just the last few decades, as queer experience has become more visible in certain societies? And why should we risk harming a body that God has made? It can be painful to watch a friend or family member experience changes to their bodies with uncertain side effects, seeking relief from an invisible ailment. I have felt this myself with Quince and other friends. The bishops err on the side of caution.
The queer lives I have had the chance to encounter, however, ring out of tune with the bishops’ logic. Rather than trying to violate a “natural order,” these people often see themselves as trying to live in a deeper relationship to it. They experience gender as given, too, just not in the way tradition expects.
Sexuality is easy for nobody good.
Further, the bishops’ statement notes that sacrificing parts of a body to heal the whole is a kind of medicine Catholic teaching accepts; for many of those who undertake gender-related therapies, it feels like a matter of survival. The mental health risks and staggering suicide rates among queer people are part of why many doctors support medical interventions that affect a person’s gender presentation. The dangers that people face, according to these doctors, can justify the risks they may choose to take when undertaking physical interventions. But the risks are real, and medical opinion about the benefits continue to evolve.
If so-called gender ideologists like Dr. Butler are right, the options before us are not fixed and static any more than our society is. Just as social constructions shape the meaning of gender, the exclusion and suffering that many queer people experience results from social constructions, too, and society can change.
From Ideology to Politics
For longer than I should have, I dismissed discourses about gender ideology from the pope and other famous Catholics as a misunderstanding that more pastoral experience would resolve. But the gender ideology meme has only continued to spread. It has migrated from a slogan in church circles into mainstream politics. The governor of Florida and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, for instance, has combined two memetic bugaboos incastigating “woke gender ideology.” He backs the talk up with laws that have instilled fear in Florida’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, effectively criminalizing certain explorations of gender identity and physician-guided therapies. This kind of legislation is now spreading rapidly across the United States. The laws especially target education and medical interventions among queer young people, who already face alarmingly high risks of suicide and other self-harm.
Gender ideology has also become a popular smear used by authoritarians worldwide. When Judith Butler co-organized a 2017 conference on democracy in Brazil, far-right protesters used the term while burning an effigy of her. A pope who emphasizes a pastoral approach to complex social issues should want to prevent his language from aiding a regime of terror.
If gender ideology were not an empty signifier and a political sledgehammer, I would want to see more of it—or rather, to see more courage to develop a mature theory and practice of gender among Catholics. Our world’s understanding of gender is in flux. Much of that flux is welcome, even if it comes with excesses. (Change always does.) Ending the monopoly of men over public life has enabled us all to benefit from incalculably more God-given creativity, intellect and heart. Greater public recognition of sexual assault has not only exposed perpetrators; it has promulgated a needed vocabulary for respect and consent. Enabling more L.G.B.T.Q. people to live out of the closet has saved lives and curtailed commonplace harassment.
The long memories of old traditions will persist in new ways.
Surely there are aspects of today’s gender explorations that, in decades to come, will be widely understood as quaint, ridiculous or morally wrong. The long memories of old traditions will persist in new ways. But we can never predict exactly how. Pretending there is nothing to be learned about the gift of gender is a dangerous kind of insecurity, one that will bring suffering and limit what we can learn. Easy clarity is not the way, in the long run, to live with our uncertainties.
‘At Odds With Everything’
Christianity itself once seemed to involve a kind of gender ideology. It certainly isn’t that gender ideology—the destruction of all distinctions, the infinite choice—but it looked to some outsiders like something similar when it first appeared. Many early women saints, like St. Agnes and St. Barbara, came into their glory by refusing to carry out the gender performances expected of them in their time and place. One of the institutional innovations of early Christianity, monasticism, established and protected spaces for behavior outside of dominant norms.
There is no easy equivalence between the monastic movement and contemporary queer experience. But both bear the urge to radically rethink what gender and sexuality demand of us.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries fled their cities to conduct holy experiments in the wilderness. Men, rather than fulfilling their obligations to public life, could hide in a cell or hermitage. Women could safely refuse the expectations of reproductive and domestic labors. They mortified their bodies to exercise and test their faith. In their hot pursuit of God alone, the worldly limits of gendered life began to melt away.
Theodora of Alexandria, for instance, escaped to the desert in male clothes and lived among monks. Once another of the Mothers, Sarah of the Desert, was approached by two monks who came to harass her for being a woman. She told them, “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.”
Some might be tempted to hear Sarah as expressing the gender dysphoria that trans people today describe. The words seem interchangeable—physical characteristics belie internal sensations. But Judith Butler-style gender theory and more conservative readers would respond similarly: You are taking it out of context. Her conception of womanhood, in a culture with a specific hierarchy of gender roles, carried different meanings than it might have to modern ears. Yet the resonance is hard to shake. What Sarah experienced is part of the same Christian outlook as a woman striving to imitate the male Christ or a man who belongs to a feminine church.
It can look like Christianity nowadays has made gender into an ideology, to the point of being an idol.
The scholar and activist bell hooks once insisted on defining “queer” not merely in terms of “who you’re having sex with” or what pronoun one prefers. Queerness, she said, is “the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” The same could be said of the flight to the desert, following a divine calling. For St. Augustine of Hippo, becoming Christian meant becoming “a question to myself.”
Seen from the desert of Sarah and the self of Dr. hooks, it can look like Christianity nowadays has made gender into an ideology, to the point of being an idol. We treat as eternal a particular set of associations about what men and women are. We forget what early Christians knew—that the prevailing wisdom about gender is full of cultural constructions fashioned by human performances.
God made male and female, yes. But God made day and night, too, as well as dawn and dusk. It can be day in one part of the world, or in one part of the solar system, and night in another. The stars are not merely a decoration on our world, they were its cauldron. When we learn more about them, the immensity of God’s creativity becomes so much greater. Discovering the story of human evolution invites us to rethink our understanding of Eden and of Adam and Eve’s relationship with other living things. God did a lot in the early chapters of Genesis that has turned out to be more complicated than the ancient Hebrews realized. Still, the awe they felt for the Creator is no less true. The stories they told have become true in new ways.
“As with the six days, so too with the two genders,” writes the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. “A small door opens up, one of many that are possible, where the development of doctrine becomes thinkable.”
I do not mean to suggest that every possible kind of gender identity does justice to God’s hopes for us, or that we should accept the latest concoctions of particular subcultures as divine revelation. There could be a danger of idolatry in treating relatively recent norms around pronouns as absolutes, as if they will exist for all time. Surely some of the changes activists are demanding will someday seem silly, just as some traditionalist fears will prove unfounded. But I think the God of love wants us to love even when the waves of change are choppy. That means granting people the basic dignity of treating them how they wish to be treated, of calling them what they ask to be called. When you accompany people like that, the battle lines of the culture wars start falling apart. There is space between utterly rejecting all gender ambiguity and uncritically accepting everything about it.
Quince once told me during his transition process, for instance, that he was not doing it for the people in his rural, conservative town, where everyone knew him. When we would go to the bars there, he would sit with the guys and talk about guy things. He was a volunteer ambulance driver in town and tamed wild horses. His physical transition, he said, was more about getting by in the liberal cities, the places that pride themselves on being so accepting. Walking around a city means a day full of anonymous interactions and other people’s judgments based on one’s appearance.
The God of love wants us to love even when the waves of change are choppy.
Many stories of queer experience I have heard over the years began with a rigid religious upbringing—Quince’s included. Gender is taught as a single, stifling template about how to look and behave. I wonder whether some people would be less inclined to experience themselves as somehow nonconforming if there were a wider range of paths they could find for being a man or a woman. Perhaps risky medical interventions would seem less necessary if religious cultures attached less baggage to the appearance of one’s body or one’s conformity to a gendered ideal.
Over centuries, the escapades among the desert’s holy fools turned into more formal holy orders, with clearer protocols for conduct and values, approved by authority. Among the different paths they found to the same God, orders developed their own ways of performing gender, their own styles of masculinity and femininity. St. Catherine of Siena invited women to a different kind of womanhood than St. Theresa of Calcutta did. St. Francis of Assisi was a different kind of man than St. Ignatius Loyola, and they attracted different kinds of young men to their orders. While religious orders expect a lifelong commitment from their members, a midlife Jesuit still can turn more Franciscan in retirement. We laypeople can flit among these archetypes more freely—I heard a call to the contemplative Trappists as a teenager but have adopted a more worldly diocesan-type spirituality in my late 30s.
Orders developed their own social constructions, so to speak—of gender and much else. To the degree that they have been able to renew themselves over time, they have avoided letting themselves calcify into ideologies. But that development took time. I hope, for the sake of the people in my life struggling with gender, that they can find orders, too—mentors and communities that can guide them and feed their restless cravings for coherence. I hope the church can offer those things for people today, as Sister Luisa has for the people she serves. I hope we can say, with those who feel “at odds with everything,” that there is truth in what they are feeling, and we will search for it together. When our God became human, he seemed at odds with everything too.
Sexuality is easy for nobody good. We all need guidance and role models and rituals. We all lose our way somewhere, especially when we are young and at the mercy of ferocious chemistry. This is why mature cultures develop rituals for coming of age, for passing through uncertainty and finding a role in the community. Many of us have lost those rituals. But one thing the church has long been good at is holding many kinds of paths for her people at once, places where they can live, struggle and grow.
A Patient Church
St. John Paul II was a socially conservative pope who set out to challenge the sexual revolution. But he did not do it with just a “no.” In 129 lectures known as the Theology of the Body, he offered a positive, mystical, creative vision of humanity and sexuality. Because they did not just repudiate, those lectures are still widely used in marriage preparation, for instance. They give people something to aspire toward, to focus on, to long for. One can agree with the ideas in them or not, but in any case the ambition is admirable. When the tradition faces a challenge, do not imagine you can scold it out of existence. Take it as an opportunity to deepen the tradition.
We are an old church, and we must be a patient one.
We are an old church, and we must be a patient one. We cannot predict where the present dances with gender will land, what pronouns we will be using a decade or two from now, or what labels will make bathrooms appropriately welcoming. Catholics should offer our best understanding of our tradition, but also seek to advance that tradition in light of new experience. I hope for a church that is curious before it is judge-y, that sits at table with someone and hears their story before rushing to say “sin no more.” I wish that when fellow Catholics spoke about gender ideology, they were not simply making an excuse to dismiss whole categories of people and experiences but instead opening up spaces for discernment. The flux of gender today can be a chance to rediscover rituals for coming of age and reviving orders that can offer forgotten ways of life. The tradition can help us find new rituals and new orders, spaces in which to discover a more mature theory and practice of gender, one that receives the gift of gender more fully.
The trouble is, not everyone can afford the patience that work will require. Right now, Catholic ideas and Catholic leaders are being used to turn people into political pawns, ratcheting up the culture wars at the expense of people trying to find their way in the world. The backlash underway is needless and it is deadly, and language like gender ideology is aiding and abetting it. For now, we are playing into our worst, most censorious stereotypes, denouncing what we still only dimly understand. While the church is patient, it must also serve people who cannot wait a few centuries to be listened to and loved.
Like so much else in the universe God made, we are only beginning to discover who we are as gendered beings. We might regard feelings of dysphoria as an opportunity for empathy across the lines that most of us do not cross—a kind of spiritual insight, but one that needs focusing and discipline. We could offer retreats and vocations that enable people to explore more deeply who they are—within the guardrails of the faith and tradition, but without claiming to know where the way should always lead. We could discover many yeses for every no. The theory and practice of gender we need is not another cudgel for the culture wars but a curiosity about what God is trying to show us.