This week’s Mere Fidelity podcast is our second discussion around the themes of Oliver O’Donovan’s book Begotten or Made? In this episode, we take up the subject of transsexualism, taking the second chapter of the book and O’Donovan’s Grove booklet Transsexualism: Issues and Argument as our starting point.
I have just listened through the podcast again and realized that I made a number of points in the course of the conversation which probably need much more unpacking than I could provide within the time constraints. The following are a few further thoughts on the subject and an elaboration of certain points that I made in the podcast discussion.
Something that I have long found interesting about transsexualism is that, although it is represented within the T of LGBT, relatively speaking it is so seldom discussed, even though it raises distinct questions of its own. For many commentators, LGBT identities come as a package deal and the vindication or condemnation of the second initial is sufficient basis for accepting or rejecting all of the others. While such an approach may be more understandable in the case of the L and the B, it is not so obvious in the case of the T (or of some of the other letters that are included).
A further interesting facet of transsexualism is that the transsexual subject so often regards him or herself as sexually determined in a dimorphic, male-female pattern. This raises some interesting questions for sexuality and gender theorists. First of all, as O’Donovan observes, such transsexualism bears witness to the principle of psychosomatic unity, to the relationship between sex and gender. On one level, there is something radically non-‘performative’ (inverting Judith Butler’s terminology) or constative about the transsexual’s self-conception: the transsexual wants to be what they feel that they are. The acute gender dysphoria that some transsexual persons can experience weighs against more extreme accounts of constructivism or performativity, challenging them with the notion that gender may not be as arbitrary and contingent as they think. Perhaps, contra de Beauvoir, there is a degree to which a person is ‘born a woman’.
Second, the phenomenon of transsexualism poses uncomfortable questions to much feminist and gender theory. Although we are more accustomed to questioning the causes of the extreme disjunction between gender identification and body experienced by some transsexual persons, it is important to recognize that this phenomenon intensifies the question of why so few of us experience such a disjunction. Transsexualism reveals that the conjunction of gender identity and body that most of us experience is a phenomenon meriting an explanation. While many feminists and gender theorists make much of the power of the relatively arbitrary social construction of gender, through its norms, messages, and assigned positions and roles, transsexualism problematizes and pushes back against this. If social construction is such a powerful process, why has it failed so catastrophically in such cases? A further explanation or mechanism must be sought to account for why social construction of gender ‘works’ for most people: what is it that differentiates such persons from those for whom it fails? If the transsexual person’s gender identity and body don’t naturally ‘fit’, what is the ‘fit’ between body and gender for the rest of us? Richard Beck raised similar questions from the case of homosexuality recently here.
Third, while many Christians may believe that transsexualism represents a problematic identity within their theological systems, it should be increasingly clear that they are far from alone in regarding it as such. I have already suggested some of the tensions that exist between transsexual identities and certain forms of queer and third wave feminist thought (even among those who would affirm transsexual identities). However, transsexuals pose different and more sharply defined problems for many second wave feminists, who are less on board with queer theory and the unworking of the gender binary. Feminists such as Germaine Greer (such feminists are often popularly referred to with the pejorative term TERFs—‘trans* exclusionary radical feminists’) have argued that the acceptance of male to female transsexuals as women results from a ridiculous notion that the removal of male organs is enough to constitute a body as female, as if womanhood could be achieved through the mere negation of manhood.
We should not be surprised that feminists who seek to take seriously the phenomenological reality of women’s bodies and the particular shape of the oppression that they believe that women are subjected to precisely within that reality should baulk at the idea of recognizing male to female transsexuals as women, even post-operation. The transsexual person lacks the natural woman’s formative and continuing experience of her body. The transsexual person experiences neither menstruation nor menopause. They have no womb and have bodies that are totally unrelated to the bearing of life. Their breasts bear little relation to the feeding of the nursing child, serving more as a sexual marker and manifestation of sexuality. Anyone who wishes to take the distinct phenomenology of the female body seriously will struggle to accept the male to female transsexual as a woman.
O’Donovan comments further upon the anomalous character of the ‘self-perceived gender identity’ of the transsexual, observing the manner in which it can float fairly free of ‘all other aspects of psychosexual orientation.’ Few transsexuals can easily act in their assumed gender ‘without a trace of staginess’. They may be sexually attracted to persons of their assumed sex, so that their choice of sexual partner corresponds to their biological sex. They also take many of the tendencies of their biological sex into their assumed sex. O’Donovan concludes:
Gender-identity, then, is not correlated with any other form of psychosexual measurement; cross-gender-identification is an anomaly that stands on its own. There is nothing, therefore, that the male-to-female transsexual can really be said to know about himself; certainly not that he has a feminine psychology…. All that can be said of him is that he has ‘feminine gender identity,’ which tells us what we already know, that he feels himself to be a woman.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that, despite the tensions that exist between transsexualism and other forms of gay, queer, and feminist thought, most people who fall into these camps will affirm transsexualism. When positions that exist in a measure of tension—though not necessarily contradiction—with a person’s theoretical stance on gender are so readily accommodated, it suggests the presence of a deeper affinity. In this particular case, it seems to me that the deeper affinity is found in the primacy of individual self-determination within the emancipatory narrative of liberalism. Theory is ultimately subservient to the realization of this goal. While theory can deconstructively push back against the rule of the norms of nature and culture, it is not permitted to be used to ‘police’ other people’s self-determined identities, even though they may be at odds with it.
O’Donovan speaks of the ‘artificializing of sexual differentiation’, the placing of our sex into the realm of our personal choosing. When we present our sexual identities as a matter of will, open to technological determination, we can come to regard even our ‘natural’ sex as a ‘special case of artifice’, an instance where we have decided to let nature run its course because it will arrive at our preferred destination.
From this observation, O’Donovan proceeds to argue that this will be accompanied by the placing of sexual relationships into the sphere of ‘play’. Although there will always be a dimension of play to sexual relations, ‘the element of play is limited by the ‘natural’ ends of marriage, its ordering to procreation, to self-control, and to permanence.’ However, when sexual relations are cut loose from their natural ends, ‘the element of play predominates.’
At this juncture, I believe that O’Donovan’s analysis could be developed further with a distinction between different modes of play. For want of a better way of expressing it, ‘postmodern’ playfulness surrounding sex and gender is an ‘artificializing’ play, as O’Donovan describes. For theorists such as Judith Butler, while certainly not entirely changeable or fluid, gender itself is artificial, parodic, and ‘performative’ and its unstable character can be exposed through subversive forms of ‘drag’. In this ‘play’, depths are revealed to be illusions created by the flux of surfaces and distinctions formerly regarded as certain—male/female, gay/straight, masculine/feminine, etc.—are exposed as radically contingent. This play is subversive and deconstructive.
There is a sort of ‘premodern’ playfulness that stands over against this. Rather than a playfulness of anarchic subversion of any supposed natural order, this is a playfulness of elevation, an ecstatic activity through which we are revealed to be part of something greater than ourselves. While Butler’s performative subject, for instance, subversively plays in the universal instability of a flattened discourse, this alternative playful subject is ‘caught up’ in a deeper and a higher playfulness.
C.S. Lewis discusses this in his book The Four Loves. In friendship, Lewis argues, each person stands for themselves. However, in the act of love we stand for more than ourselves. The man and the woman cease to be just two individuals, but for a brief window of time represent far greater realities. Masculinity and femininity, the ‘universal He and She’, the ‘Sky-Father’ and ‘Earth-Mother’ are ‘momentarily focused’ in the couple. This identification, however, is held in check by the buffoonery of the ‘Ass’ of the body (Lewis here references St Francis’ description of his body as ‘Brother Ass’), with its clumsiness and obstinacy and its frequent reminder of our animal nature. However, this comedy is no less part of the ‘play’ into which we are caught up. As our bodies play their natural and often messy, ungainly, stubborn, and ridiculous parts in copulative relations, we are participants in an act that is at once both profoundly animal and mysteriously ‘spiritual’.
This form of playfulness is not subjectively generated. Rather, it occurs as we are ‘caught up’ into a dance of life and meaning that exceeds us and in which we come to exceed ourselves. It occurs as the bodies of man and woman participate in an act in which they are temporarily united into a larger whole in the natural procreative play of flesh and as they themselves are united as husband and wife, participants in a sort of ‘play’ in which a pale shadow of the mystery of Christ and the Church is seen.
Contemporary accounts of sex and gender tend to proceed with little attention to the reality of procreative bodily relations, nor to the symbolic force of Man and Woman as related yet distinct modes of human personhood in relation, with corresponding realms of shared subjectivity, albeit of unclear contours. Detached from these overarching processes and realities, sexuality and gender become properties of the abstracted individual instead, cut loose from any part in a greater drama, the author of his own autonomous narrative of self-realization, achieved through self-projection, rather than true participation.
In this chapter, O’Donovan speaks of how the man-woman relationship is ‘protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation.’ He continues:
When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships—with no further implications, no ‘end’ within the purposes of nature—then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly. They become simply a profound form of play, undertaken for the joy of the thing alone, and depending upon the mutual satisfaction with each partner affords the other for their continuing justification. The honouring of each partner by the other must be founded on the honour which the relationship itself claims, by serving a fundamental good of the human race.
Here I am reminded of the analysis of Paul Kahn, in his stimulating book, Putting Liberalism in Its Place. Kahn’s discussion of pornography, romance, and the politics of the family is quite perceptive, and has bearing upon the issues that O’Donovan raises at this juncture. Kahn observes that ‘pornographic’ sexuality involves a vision of freedom, founded upon a series of three absences. The first absence is that of children, as sex is cut off from procreation and its reproductive consequences. The second absence is that of the state. By cutting off sex from the bearing of children and the formation of the family, the body is released from the state’s claim upon it. The third absence is of economic labour, the market, and consequent socio-economic distinctions. The pornographic body is the sole possession of the individual, over against ‘family, government, and markets’. The pornographic is also ‘episodic’, producing no enduring relationship and without lasting consequences.
Kahn recognizes that the pornographic sexuality he has described has a great deal in common with our notion of romance. Like the pornographic, the romantic is also cut loose from the production of history and the institutions that achieve this. The romantic couple are caught in a binary pair, lost in their own reflections in the other’s eyes. As Kahn observes, in the romantic ‘there is no turn toward generation of either a new familial order or a new political order.’
Liberalism has established a sharp public/private distinction and takes the individual as its primary unit of explanation. The problem for liberalism is that of accounting for the reality of the natural family. As I’ve written in the past:
For liberal thought, with the autonomous and undifferentiated right-bearing individual as the primary unit of explanation, the realities represented by the family and children in particular pose immense problems and cannot easily be processed. A ‘one flesh’ union that expresses sexual difference, the ordering of male and female bodies to each other, and has the natural capacity to produce a new public reality, imposing an identity onto persons born into a ground level aneconomic order of gift that both precedes and transcends the political, just breaks too many of liberalism’s rules.…
One could in fact argue that the paradigmatic family of liberal ideology is the same-sex couple with adopted children or children born through reproductive technology, a family of purely volitional attachments (every child is chosen) between undifferentiated individual sexual agents for whom gender need not be stipulated, creating a privatized realm of sentimental bonds, where bodies are clearly autonomous and all relationships boil down to romantic or emotional attachment adumbrated by contract.
The connection between sex and procreation gives sexual relations between men and women their dignity and significance. Even for couples who are infertile, the act that they participate in can implicate them in a reality, natural process, and human project that transcends them.
Receiving the male and femaleness of our bodies and the naturalness of the male-female relation involves a recognition that our bodies are not our sole possession, but serve natural human goods, create greater realities, and are productive and expressive of a meaning beyond ourselves. In the sort of relation that exists between a man and a woman, there is a natural opening out onto realities beyond them. This natural opening prevents the relationship from becoming dislodged from the creation of history and its formative institutions. Through its establishment of an ‘intrusive party’—whether in the form of a child, in the horizon represented by the possibility of procreation (even if frustrated), or the natural and symbolic import of the male-female relation—it protects the couple from falling into the romantic or pornographic form and the effacing of the person that can occur in such a situation (see Peter Leithart’s stimulating discussion of this here).
It should be clear that the understanding precludes the transsexual route. O’Donovan suggests that it is ‘an extreme case of the liberal pursuit of unconstrained freedom in the private realm,’ establishing ‘a wide existential playground in which there is no objective reason for doing or being one thing rather than another, but in which one can exercise ingenuity for the sake of fuller self-exploration and self-disclosure.’ It wilfully cuts itself off from the potential of participation in the natural ends of sexual relationship, within which we express greater realities, and construes sex and sexual relationship as principally realms of self-expression instead.
Much more could be said, but for now I will leave it on that point.