Magazine article Commonweal

The Church & Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possiblities

Magazine article Commonweal

The Church & Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possiblities

Article excerpt

David Cloutier

The phenomenon of transgender identity is difficult to discuss, and not least because each side tends to present it as beyond discussion, an open-and-shut case. One side views accepting an individual's chosen identity as paramount and resistance not as simply erroneous, but downright offensive. Moreover, there is a (correct) recognition of the real struggle and suffering experienced by trans people. Yet the other side views the plain reality of male and female biology as so obvious (and often as a matter of religious truth) that it can envision no possibility of acceptance. What has increasingly resulted from this opposition are not reasoned arguments, but acts of coercion--whether in the Obama administration's well-publicized anti-discrimination directives compelling schools and hospitals to accommodate "an individual's internal sense of gender," or in such backlash responses as North Carolina's infamous "bathroom bill."

Such fractious approaches to questions of social change signal that important things are at stake--and make it all the more important for us to have a careful and civil discussion. To this end I would like to consider two questions. The first is seemingly simple: What does a claim to transgender identity mean? The second is more complex: How does the debate over transgender identity and rights impact the common good?

Comprehending the phenomenon of transgender identity turns out to be no easy task. An Atlantic article, discussing the term "cisgender," explains that "'Cisgender' refers to people who feel there is a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel themselves to be. You are cisgender if your birth certificate says you're male and you identify yourself as a man or if your birth certificate says you're female and you identify as a woman." The stress in this construal is on the feeling of identification with the gender you were born into--or, in the case of transgender people, of incongruence with it. But how can we clarify what that feeling of identification is in the first place?

The clinical diagnosis of "gender dysphoria" does not help much, since in the DSM-5 the focus is not on the experience of gender incongruence itself, but rather the subsequent impairment of normal functioning; the goal, quite understandably from a clinical perspective, is easing the distress caused by the experience rather than delving into the experience itself. (Or, perhaps, the range of experiences; according to the manual Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, "Transgender and gender non-conforming people have many different ways of understanding their gender identities.")

One difficulty for science is that the phenomenon is not only complex but relatively rare, so good data from large survey populations is not easy to find. Both science and anecdotal evidence tend to recognize that sex/gender identification is not absolute. The ways we define "gender identity" in the first place have to be part of the question. A strong gendering of certain activities may increase a sense of incongruity in someone who is drawn to things associated with the opposite gender; the symptoms in the DSM diagnosis for children include, for example, "strong preference" for wearing clothing of the opposite sex, for toys and activities associated with the opposite sex, and for playmates of the opposite sex. Of course, many persons who experience some sort of affinity with the opposite gender express this affinity without having a persistent desire or conviction that they are the "wrong" gender. Thus, a key challenge is trying to arrive at a conceptual understanding of what is meant by this deeper desire.

And that's really hard to come by. Noting the diversity of experiences, psychologist Mark Yarhouse recounts the saying that "if you've met one transgender person, you've met one transgender person." The Atlantic article posits that gender is not a matter of two possibilities, of "cis" versus "trans," but rather simply of "possibility itself"--not a fixed transgender identity, then, but a radical plasticity that is all about individual self-creation and autonomy. …

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