Marcantonio Raimondi, ‘Adam and Eve flanked by two trees, a town in the background,’ ca. 1512-14 (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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I’m glad to have read Daniel Walden’s essay in the March issue of Commonweal,  “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense,” and find something to agree with in it. He’s right that it’s an act of love to attend to how people speak and act; right, too, that how we dress, adorn ourselves, exchange caresses, speak, move, and so on, is significant; and right, finally, that there’s no straight line from anyone’s fleshly form or genetic makeup to their performance of gender—the assumption that there is such a line is, as Walden puts it, “nonsense.” So far, so good. But his essay isn’t free of its own distortions and crass simplifications, and these go deep enough, it seems to me, to make what he writes about gender its own form of nonsense.

First there’s ownership. Walden writes that as children grow, they assume responsibility “for telling their own stories”; that they come to know and assert “their own erotic life”; and—in a cliché now so deeply rooted that it reads like common sense rather than the nonsense that it is—that they “grow into the responsibility for telling the story of who they are.” And then there’s authority: people have, writes Walden, “the authority to interpret and narrate their experiences.”

This kind of writing assumes and implies self-ownership based on privileged self-access. Those, taken together, yield authority over what’s to be said about the self thus owned. In such a view, only I have primary access to my experience, and it’s that experience which, properly narrated, shows me who I am. I may share that showing with you, and when I do, your first task is to listen and nod. What I discover via introspection is myself; I’m the owner of me; and I am, therefore, the only one with rights to say who I am and to dispose of myself as I see fit. That’s the kind of authority ownership yields. That’s the grammar—the lexicon and syntax—of Walden’s essay. He modifies that grammar mildly by allowing for the possibility that others might criticize the self discovered and shown, but he doesn’t call its fundamental assumptions into question.

My actions do not disclose an identity I have discovered through introspection. My actions are me.

Put so bluntly, such a view should seem risible, especially in connection with the complex scripts that order the performance of gender. In fact, it’s not that my actions show something about me. They don’t disclose an identity I’ve discovered through introspection—trans, cis, gay, straight, bi, queer (though that word has a lot to be said for it just because it need not be an identity-word; it can also be a positional term that undercuts gendered identity-talk—a good Christian word, that is, when so used), or what-have-you. No, it’s rather that my actions are me: whatever the range of gender-signifying actions is, my performance of them exactly is my gender. There’s no glassy essence that underlies or informs them; no identity to be discovered, owned, and disposed of at will; nothing, in the sphere of gender, that I am, but plenty that I do, some of it deep-down lovely, and some of it violently damaged. And the same is true of you. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. And gender identities, especially introspectively garnered and owned ones, are very much beyond necessity.

For those who care about genealogy, what I’ve just written is good Wittgensteinianism, a fact I mention only because Walden appeals so often to Herbert McCabe, himself a good (subtle, elegant, careful, witty) Wittgensteinian. Walden, by contrast, shows himself to be a Lockean essentialist (self-ownership is the tell)—an identitarian, that is, with respect to gender.

Why does speaking about gender correctly matter, and by so doing avoid identitarianism, the thought of self-ownership, and the appeal to the authority of introspective and self-enclosed experience? Because, for all of us, but especially for Christians, speaking in those ways blinds us to what really matters about gender performance, which is that for human creatures—perhaps for other creatures, too, but certainly for us—it is one of the two most important ways we have of giving and receiving gifts. (The other is prayer.) To be given the gift of flesh we must caress and be caressed. We receive our gendered lives as gifts, and only as gendered persons, so gifted, can we give to others the gifts we’ve received. There are endless ways of doing this, of exchanging fleshly gifts, as endless as, and closely related to, the ways in which flesh can be clothed—all of them highly and locally scripted, and all of them the usual mixture in this fallen world of the gorgeously ordered gift-exchange, on the one hand, and the violently expropriative grasp of what’s not given, on the other. (About this last point, I expect, Walden would agree.)

Gender is a scripted performance with lots of room for improvisation. In performing, we don’t show our gender; the mode of our performance is our gender, which is what we should expect, since we are imago trinitatis, and the identities of the Trinitarian persons are, without remainder, the relations they bear one to another. There’s nothing further to discover, nothing further to have authority over, nothing further to appeal to. So also for us and our genders. That’s gender freedom; it’s queering identities, improvising on scripts, lipsticking mustached lips, dissolving the rigidities of local gender orthodoxies, hard and ungiving and violent as they often are, into the blood of Christ. It is not, emphatically not, opposing one form of owned gender-identity (mine, the one I’ve discovered, who I really am) to another (the locally prescribed one to which conformity is required on pain of violence). Walden’s essay fights on a battlefield he should have turned his back on, and if he should win, the victory would be worse than pyrrhic because a Christian mode of thinking about this matter would be made still less visible by it.

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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Published in the May 2021 issue: View Contents
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