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October 27, 2005

More than its raiment

Filed under: Religion and sex — Camassia @ 6:15 pm

Sorry I’ve been gone so long. Honestly, I’ve been caught up in the minutiae of daily life and haven’t thought of any new Big Subjects to ramble on about. But I recently remembered that I had a vague intention to respond to this post by Graham, and there’s no time like the present (or perhaps I should say, a month later).

In discussions about these things, transsexuals tend to get lumped in with homo- and bisexuals (hence the acronym GLBT) and sometimes — as Graham does — with intersexuals. But there’s one feature of transsexualism that makes it different from the others, and that raises a host of knotty theological and psychological issues: this claim of being “trapped in the wrong body.” In fact, much of the language transsexuals use implies that their bodies of birth are a sort of dangerous illusion. Way back when I wrote this post, a transsexual wrote to me saying that I missed the point: the reason transsexuals identify with Ozma is that they really do feel that their natural self is the other gender, and the body of birth is like the evil spell in the book. So the surgery, however artificial it appears to us, is in fact restoring the true self.

This argument is actually the polar opposite of the one most gay people make, which is that they were born gay, therefore it’s natural, therefore it’s good. Intersexuals make similar arguments, with activists fighting for the right to remain in their natural bodies, however strange they seem to others, rather than be subjected to surgical alteration. Transsexuals, on the other hand, think that nature made a horrible mistake, and are upset when other people don’t recognize this and take steps to fix it. They don’t make this claim for anyone but themselves; but if it really is possible for a soul to be trapped in the wrong body, this has interesting theological implications for all of us.

There are some religions out there that believe that we’re all trapped in the wrong body, or that there’s something wrong with the fact that we even have bodies. The Manichean version of the Garden of Eden story had Adam’s “fall” manifest with his horrified discovery that he was trapped in matter (that is, his body). Scientologists apparently have a similar myth that we are all “Thetans” trapped in bodies encumbered by the souls of dead aliens (or something like that) and one goes through multiple levels of spiritual advancement to get beyond the body’s limitations. The Indian idea of reincarnation doesn’t regard bodies as evil so much as irrelevant — they are part of samsara, the transient physical world.

From the days of the early struggles with Gnostics, Christians rejected this idea in favor of walking a sometimes delicate tightrope between saying that the physical world expresses the will of its good Creator, and that it’s fallen and distorted by sin. The latter accounts for the fact that the Bible clearly regards some inborn qualities as flaws, which is why Jesus heals the congenitally blind, deaf and lame. Still, that is a different magnitude of flaw than what transsexuals are claiming. After all, we don’t generally hear blind people say that they’re sighted people trapped in blind bodies. Gender is more fundamental to the identity than simply having a malfunctioning body part. (Some deaf people today do “identify deaf”, but this is because they share a unique language, which is a different subject.) It is also something that involves both body and brain, which is perhaps why the coordination between the two sometimes goes haywire.

But assuming that nature does in fact go that wrong, the question remains whether it’s the body or the mind that actually has the problem. Another interesting feature of the pro-transsexual argument is that it assumes the supremacy of the mind, and that only the mind perceives the true reality. The body therefore has to be subject to, and shaped by, the mind. (That’s another thing it has in common with Manicheism, come to think of it.) To some extent we do that anytime we have a medical procedure, but again, this is a little different from fixing something that’s clearly defective. After all, the female body I have is perfectly fine for me; femaleness is not normally seen as a condition to be cured. The only reason we have to believe there’s something wrong with the bodies of transsexuals is their own conviction that there is.

But does the body have a vote on reality, as the mind does? In other words, if somebody insists that he’s actually female and his body says otherwise, who do we listen to? If science locates some part of the brain that’s responsible for transsexualism, should we treat that instead of surgically altering the body? And since we can’t do that at present, does altering their bodies do any harm?

My own answer to the last question is “probably not.” Whatever’s going on with gender dysphorics, obviously they’re suffering badly, so it seems cruel to deny them something that could lessen their suffering. But I’m still a bit reluctant to go along completely with transsexuals’ insistence that they’re really the other gender, to the point of, say, calling people with male bodies “transsexual women” because they feel in their heads that they’re female. I don’t think gender is entirely physical, but I don’t think it’s entirely mental either. The body does have a vote, if perhaps not a veto. And to say that someone is as female as I am, because he feels like it and even because his body has been surgically altered to be more female, seems to be rather exaggerating the power of the human mind, will, and technology.

I’ve heard it said that one basic consequence of the Fall was that it pitted soul and body against each other, and gender dysphoria seems like Exhibit A. For that reason, though, it may be impossible this side of Judgment Day to completely fix it. I suppose we can just hope that when all bodies are raised and glorified — whatever that entails, exactly — it will all be set straight.

14 Comments

  1. Yeah, I have trouble with the “trapped in a wrong body” part of the transexual story. It’s hard for me to believe that our bodies can be wrong for our souls. Or that the bodies we actually have can not have some meaning for who we are.

    I’m not sure whether transexuals actually have mismatched bodies in some sense (it could be, after all, that there’s some physical/brain chemistry base to the “sould trapped in the wrong body” feeling), or whether it has more to do with formative experiences. In any case, I accept the surgery and gender reassignment on a pragmatic basis; some people really do appear to find a better fit this way than the other, and so, as you say, it seems cruel to deny something that could lessen their suffering, whatever the ultimate explanation for that suffering.

    Comment by Sappho — October 31, 2005 @ 12:30 pm

  2. I find the idea that the soul or mind or whatever could be “gendered” independently from the body pretty hard to understand. I mean, where else would you get your sense of gender besides your body? Especially since sex is determined genetically. That’s why I’m inclined to the “something’s gone wrong in the wiring” explanation. But, as you say, surgery may be the best way to alleviate suffering sometimes.

    Comment by Lee — November 1, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

  3. I am awestruck by your objective and thorough analysis of the subjects that you evaluate. I just found your blog on google searching for some Yoder articles and I have to tell you it is very refreshing to see such intelligent discourses relevent issues. Too often Christians alienate intellectuals and those taught in our current educational climate by making terse statements without adequate theological or ethical support. You try to be argumentatively sound and leave open plenty of room for discussion and you’re willing to admit when you have more questions than answers. I am person who has always had soooo many questions that reach beyond common theological, psychological, and sociological knowledge. I firmly believe that being a Christian is a well reasoned and intelligent decision and that we need to defend our moral and ethical standards by starting discussions like you have on your website. God has not doubt given you a gift in communicating that you have cultivated. I have all sorts of questions for you about topics that i’m sure you’ve researched/pondered! Sooo anyways, in a nutshell, you’re awesome. God bless =)

    Comment by Mitchell Frost — November 28, 2005 @ 10:58 pm

  4. Which is more likely? Jesus heals a person by transforming their mind through the power of His Word and the Holy Spirit to enable them to desire to use their naturally born phsyical bodies the way He created them to be used, orrrr Jesus touches a man and he grows female organs so that he can mate with what seems to him to be the more desirable sex?

    Either Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is the truthful Word of God and Paul has sound reasoning for declaring homosexual behavior sinful or it is argument of ignorance based on a lack of information on human genetics. Gender confused people are struggling with the depravity all people inherit along with a propensity towards sin (satan loves it when we hate our own physical bodies SO much in this day and age). Some 40 year old men are attracted to 8 year old boys, can we just chalk this up to genetics and say surrre go ahead and molest a child because your genetic code got really mixed up so you don’t like women and instead you like little boys? Natural moral law attests to the backwardness of transsexualism.

    What God holds as a Biblical standard for sexual conduct is dependent on your physical body, not what seems to naturally appeal to your mind. I sympathize with people who struggle with issues such as transexualism but I can’t go so far as to approve of a choice to live a transsexual lifestyle. If it is possible that some people are born with completley opposite genes for their body and their brain then the problem of evil in the world and man’s propensity towards sin is even more powerful than I would like to think. Even so, the Bible is clear.. the body determines sexual orientation, not the mind. Surgery to alleiviate suffering? The Christian life as exemplified by Jesus Christ means suffering for righteousness sake while we struggle with the temptations to sin (rather it be sexually or not).

    But perhaps for many people sexual orientation has nothing to do with sin and everything to do with genetic predispositions and whatever makes a person comfortable. However, that is an unbiblical and naturalistc world-view which is ultimatley worthless and based on mistruths.

    Comment by Mitchell Frost — November 29, 2005 @ 12:06 am

  5. Thanks, Mitchell, I’m honored. As a big questioner myself coming to the faith, I was fortunate enough to meet Christians who were good models for intelligent discussion. And I’m still meeting them.

    Anyway, as to the subject, I think there’s a difference between gender-identity disorder and sexual orientation, though like I said they’re often lumped together. Transsexuals may be attracted to either sex, and for them it seems not to be mainly about erotic fulfilment but a deeper issue of identity. In fact, I remember one transsexual writing that s/he hadn’t even had sex in the years since surgery, but it was still worth it. So I don’t see Paul’s words about same-sex activity as directly addressing the problem.

    It seems to me that a lot depends on whether we define this as mainly a moral or a medical problem. Jesus dealt with both in his mission, which strongly implies both are consequences of the Fall. But he dealt with them in different ways: sinners he told to “sin no more”, while ill and deformed people he healed. That’s why we don’t generally tell people with medical problems to “suffer for righteousness’ sake”; we try to heal them, even if it means significant physical alterations. However, we also can’t miraculously heal people the way Jesus could, but are left with the piecemeal work of medical technology. I have trouble putting people with gender-identity disorder in the “sin no more” category, since they can’t just decide to stop feeling it. But given that we don’t have Jesus’ healing powers (and faith healings are still, at best, atypical), should we do whatever we are able to alleviate suffering? I don’t know. Obviously, this whole problem is still poorly understood, so I’m hesitant to pronounce definitively on it.

    Comment by Camassia — November 29, 2005 @ 2:56 pm

  6. Camassia, just to clarify, the reason I (unintentionally) grouped transsexuals with intersexuals is because my only real experience with the subject is via a friend who only found out that they had received genital surgery as an infant once they had already realised they were “trapped in the wrong body.”

    I think this post is one of the rare occasions when I’ll have to disagree with you. I think there are far more questions to be asked here than you have addressed. After all, if someone’s mind can tell them they are the other gender and their body can be altered to match that, what else would have to happen before we would be willing to accept that they were (now, even if not before) a different gender?

    Comment by graham — November 29, 2005 @ 5:09 pm

  7. Well, keep in mind that medical science can’t fully transform someone into the other sex. A man who’s been “gender reassigned” has no uterus, ovaries, milk glands, etc. Which are, frankly, pretty important parts as far as femaleness goes. So there’s no, “presto change-o, he’s a she!” On the other hand, that person isn’t exactly just a man in disguise, so for social purposes I wouldn’t insist on treating that person as a man. But I wouldn’t say that person ontologically “is” a woman, if you see what I mean.

    Comment by Camassia — November 29, 2005 @ 6:36 pm

  8. I think that’s partly what I’m wondering. As there are so many aspects to maleness and femaleness, how do we determine who is and is not ontologically male or female? And do we need to?

    Comment by graham — November 30, 2005 @ 3:39 am

  9. “Transsexuals may be attracted to either sex, and for them it seems not to be mainly about erotic fulfilment but a deeper issue of identity.”

    Homosexuals would claim the same thing I would imagine. Yes there are differences between gender crisis and homosexualism for certain, but I think in keeping with biblical morality both do have to be lumped together because they often result in the same behavior. I’m not sure i’m convinced that transexuals need a different body but a renewing of their mind. I think God wants us to accept our bodies for how they are, a lot of us dislike our bodies for reasons other than our gender and it’s still an issue. Either way, it’s the first time I’ve really thought on this issue much. However I think it’s wise to hang on to your “ignorance” as long as you can in these matters and I’ve never heard any respected Christian teachers claim transsexual behavior is acceptable. So I’m sort of jumping the gun and saying it is a moral problem, and not medical. Calling it a medical problem opens up a whole plethora of issues it seems.

    Comment by Mitchell Frost — November 30, 2005 @ 8:17 am

  10. Graham, apparently we do need to, because it’s so important to most transsexuals to be acknowledged by others as the sex they feel they are. The point I’m trying to make is that only God can make a man or a woman in full working order, while the ideology behind transsexualism seems to be that this is largely a human determination, both from the person’s self-declaration and from the surgeon’s art. How God sees those persons, only God knows; but we are not staying neutral by calling a M-to-F transsexual a woman.

    Stuff like this makes me wonder if those societies that conceive of a “third sex” are onto something. Some are born eunuchs, some are made eunuchs…

    Mitchell, I agree that this is more of a mental than a physical problem, but the thing is I don’t know of any treatment, either psychological or spiritual, that actually works. I noticed Mike Spencer recently complained that a lot of evangelicals’ attitude toward mental illness amounts to, “Some prayer and Scripture, that’ll fix ‘em up!” Which, as it often fails, can result in blaming the victim as having insufficient faith or being accursed for some reason. The brain is also a physical organ, and it can malfunction in ways the owner has no control over.

    I think the overarching point I’m trying to make here is that at present there is no total human cure for this problem, either mental or surgical, and it is best to acknowledge that in the proper humility.

    Comment by Camassia — November 30, 2005 @ 9:23 am

  11. The point I’m trying to make is that only God can make a man or a woman in full working order, while the ideology behind transsexualism seems to be that this is largely a human determination, both from the person’s self-declaration and from the surgeon’s art.

    If we are thinking in terms of God’s hand in the ordination of one’s gender, then we have to admit that ‘God’ sometimes gets it wrong. There are ‘mistakes’ and blurring of the lies. I’m not trying to tie the question of intersex to transsexuality again, but it does show the blur, I think.

    I don’t know – and haven’t read – of many transsexuals who view the question of their gender reallignment the way you have described. I think they tend to view it as more fully becomming what they actually are. You still seem to be coming from the assumption that they are actually are what their bodies say. I think that there are too many other questions that need to be addressed before I would be happy with that assumption with my starting point.

    (And, of course, at some point there needs to be discussion of societal factors.)

    Comment by graham — December 1, 2005 @ 3:17 am

  12. I’m not taking that assumption as the starting point. Like I said in the post, I know transsexuals believe the other gender is what they really are, regardless of what their bodies say. That’s why I asked, does the body have a vote in reality? You haven’t explained why it shouldn’t. As I and others in the comment thread have asked, how can you separate your “true self” from your body, your mental from your physical gender? And I did address the “God making mistakes” issue — see the fifth paragraph. You haven’t answered any of this, you just claim the questions haven’t been raised.

    Comment by Camassia — December 1, 2005 @ 8:00 am

  13. I don’t claim to have any of the answers. Sorry if I gave that impression.

    I also didn’t take your points as questions that I needed to answer (mainly because I haven’t got a position here that I’m arguing for). I’m just trying to think aloud with other people, as this is a topic that you don’t often get Christians discussing. So, sorry if I was coming across as argumentative; not my intention at all.

    Comment by graham — December 1, 2005 @ 3:12 pm

  14. It is important to consider the influence of socially imposed gender roles on the transsexual individial’s perceptions of maleness and femaleness. Is it possible that transsexuals are not unsatisfied with their sex, but with the gender roles and social constraints associated with it? Is there a higher percentage of transsexuals in societies where there is a great disparity between two genders? Is there a lower percentage of transsexuals in more androgynous societies?

    Comment by Sarah — December 6, 2005 @ 6:58 pm

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