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.