Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” in the pages of Vanity Fair this week caused a stir, well, pretty much everywhere. Much of the commentary I saw was positive. There were some on the left, particularly feminists, who raised questions about Jenner’s decision to embrace a highly sexualized image of femininity. Some religious conservatives expressed sympathy to Jenner personally but joined most of their colleagues in criticizing her decision to live as a woman and undergo gender reassignment surgery.
I’m increasingly of the belief that the state of Catholic teaching on these issues is more unsettled than at first it might appear. It’s true that a few bishops--including Pope Francis--have offered negative appraisals of “gender theory,” which is popular in transgender circles. But this is a very new issue and I’m not sure one can appear to a clear and consistent teaching on the matter that has been universally held for a long period of time. The Catechism is pretty much silent on the matter.
The question as I see it is whether a person with a gender identity that is at variance with their chromosomal/physical gender necessarily violates the moral law if they choose to live according to their gender identity and (although this is a separate question) ultimately undergo gender reassignment surgery.
The argument that is usually offered against the idea that these actions could be morally licit is some version of the “divine will” argument. In this case, the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.
I think this argument quickly runs into some problems. There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance. Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal. I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it.
The rejoinder, of course, is that a normal chromosomal gender (i.e. XX or XY), in and of itself, is not a “disease” that needs to be treated. My response would be that the disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.
If we see transgenderism as a brain disorder (and, as I will note later, no means all or even most transgender activists would accept this) the question is how to treat it. Many religious conservatives seem to assume the only morally licit answer is, through some form of therapy, to change the brain (b.t.w., even “talk therapy” does this). But the brain is an organ too. Either way, you are changing the physical operation or structure of the human body. I’m not clear why a person is morally obligated to choose one form of treatment over another given that there are risks and side effects associated with both.
Ultimately, the concern of religious conservatives with transgender individuals who choose to transition seems to be a fear that this is merely another triumph for expressive individualism and a rejection of the idea that gender, per Genesis 5:2, is actually encoded in the fabric of creation.
I’m not certain that this need always be the case. Indeed, the actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct. They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success. Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery. It was not a decision motivated by ideology.
To be fair, there are a large number of transgender activists who embrace a more fluid concept of gender under the rubric of “gender theory” that may be at variance with Catholic teaching. Ironically, such a position may undermine some of their public policy goals, such as obtaining health insurance coverage for hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery. If transgenderism is a medical condition that requires treatment, then coverage would seem appropriate. But if one is seeking a surgical procedure merely to outwardly express a subjectively chosen identity, the case for coverage is much weaker. Most health insurance plans do not cover cosmetic surgery.
In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation. Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation. Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.