Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense

We must begin with stories of self-narration.
Albrecht Dürer, ‘Adam and Eve,’ 1504 (Fletcher Fund, 1919/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is not unfair to say that Catholic conversation about sex and gender has a problem. More accurately, it has a pair of problems: one concerns our ability to speak credibly to the non-Catholic public; the other concerns our ability to speak productively to one another. The first problem is, I am sorry to say, largely our own doing. The Church has the canonical structures to bring women into the uppermost ranks of leadership without any alteration to our understanding of sacramental theology, but has not used them. Gay men remain officially barred from seminaries by force of a document whose reasoning cannot withstand thirty seconds’ thought. Catholic public intellectuals and bishops routinely talk about “gender ideology,” a term with no clear referent, in statements and interviews. In short, we are not credible both because our institutions are hypocritical and because we routinely spout nonsense in public—nonsense that, unfortunately, also structures our internal conversations, leading to the second part of the problem. But questions of sex and gender continue to have serious consequences for both our fellow Christians and our fellow citizens, and therefore we have a duty to think and talk about them in a serious and rigorous way. Most worthwhile discussions are difficult to some degree; that is no reason for us to shirk the effort of thinking through such an important, if complicated, subject with some degree of clarity.

The first step toward having more fruitful conversations about sex and gender is understanding what it is that we are talking about. We deploy terms like “sex” and “gender” in theological conversations as if their definitions were self-evident, even though they remain fiercely disputed outside of theology among people who have dedicated their lives to thinking seriously about their meanings. But if theology is “the discipline whereby we stop talking nonsense about God,” as Herbert McCabe once put it, then it seems to me that we should also stop talking nonsense about those created in God’s image. By examining what we mean when we talk about “sex” or “gender,” we equip ourselves to strip away various falsehoods and idols, and we prepare to encounter sex and gender as deep mysteries, which we live out every day but cannot fully understand.

Sex and gender are unique to created things, and specifically to living things. God is sexed only in the sense that the Son was born into the world as a male human being, but there is nothing in either Scripture or tradition that makes the maleness of Christ necessary. Indeed, the Savior’s birth seems to upend our entire understanding of sex, for Christ was a male child whose maleness and male body were formed not from the genetic material of another man, as all other male children have been, but only from that of a woman through the work of God. Indeed, great theologians of the Church like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa have relegated the bodily sex of humanity to creation after the Fall, rendering it a kind of ontological detritus, an inconvenient footnote to our humanity. I am not sure I would go that far, but such arguments remind us that this part of how we categorize ourselves does not seem to reflect, even by analogy, any known attribute of the God in whose image we are made.

Sex and gender are unique to created things, and specifically to living things.

In seeking to understand the terms “sex” and “gender,” then, we need to start elsewhere: at the beginning, by which I mean their first application to us shortly after we’re born. A person delivering a newborn child will inspect the child for certain signs, principally the shape of the child’s genital organs, and on the basis of those signs will assign and record a sex for the child. That becomes, for most of us, a matter of public record—a male or female birth is recorded and registered with the appropriate authorities. It is first and foremost a medical term, and most of its uses in our early lives are related to this: it serves as a shorthand for a certain amount of medical standardization, the outliers from which will merit closer attention from a physician. This continues to be the primary function of sex throughout one’s life.

Note that absent from this discussion so far has been any talk about which clothes a child wears and which sorts of playmates a child will be expected to seek out. This is because most people rely on a parent or guardian to give a true account of their child, and they expect the child’s dress and habits to confirm this account. As Judith Butler describes it, the child’s gender, in practical terms, is treated as “a kind of doing, an incessant activity,” and so becomes part of an identity, part of what Herbert McCabe calls a person’s life story. Growing up is precisely the process of taking over the telling of this story for ourselves, of asserting our right to decide what we mean by what we do and say. One of the most important parts of our life story is our place in the social categories that structure human social and erotic life. Not only is our social life structured and regulated to varying degrees by whether we are perceived as men or as women (and then as the right sort of men or women), but also by whether we are erotically attracted to men or women or to many sorts of people or to none. The social approval or opprobrium that this may entail has a dramatic effect on how we experience and portray ourselves as men, as women, or as people for whom those two words are inadequate. This diverse set of relationships, experiences, and acts of positioning is what we subsume under the seemingly simple term “gender.”

The responsibility that children assume for telling their own stories includes making corrections to the account our parents gave: I am not this sort of person, we say, but another sort. Many a parent has thrown around a baseball with their child only to have the child say one day that they’d rather be inside playing the piano or reading, and nearly every parent will one day face, with the utmost dread, a teenager’s desire to choose their own clothes. A child’s struggle to take on and grow into the responsibility for telling the story of who they are can be a source of tremendous conflict between parents and children, and one of the most frequent sources of conflict is a child’s growing knowledge and assertion of their own erotic life. When we revise the story that our parents have been telling about, for example, who we will grow up to love, we revise something tied up intimately with our personhood. It is only human beings who write biographies and only human beings who conceive of our lives as having a narrative.

This narrative aspect of our humanity, while often a source of conflict, is also one of the ways in which we participate most directly in the action of God. God’s revelation to us in Scripture is a narrative act, and its primary purpose is God’s own self-disclosure. This is “revelation” in its most fundamental sense: God telling us about God. But God always exceeds the limits of our language and our thought, and so we must learn about God through what God says about us. Since God is not history’s subject but its author, narrative revelation tells us about God through human events, imbuing the stories of the people of Israel and the Apostles with special importance as disclosures of God’s work in the world, culminating in the archetype of all revelation, God in Christ. We modern Christians receive this revelation secondhand, as it were, in Scripture, while the firsthand, personal revelation of the Incarnation experienced by the early disciples, what McCabe calls “the intensity of his bodily presence,” comes to us in the Eucharist.

We human beings, however, live within history and know ourselves through our telling of it: when we narrate our lives, we can speak directly and cogently about ourselves. But we do something more than that, for in disclosing ourselves we also disclose the work of God. Bearers that we are of the divine image, in these acts of narration we teach other people how to gloss that image, how to read and understand the icon that stands before them. To tell other people what our lives mean is to draw them deeper into ourselves, and to listen to what someone tells us their life means is to be drawn deeper into the mystery of both their humanity and humanity’s maker. To impose upon another the meaning of their life is, by contrast, a kind of pretense at divinity. It is to tell another person something that only God can tell them, to claim the ultimate interpretive authority over experiences that do not belong to us. In a final sense, it is to do violence to someone else’s humanity and to the very purpose of language, for we have language precisely in order to invite others into our own interiority, to tell them our story.

To tell other people what our lives mean is to draw them deeper into ourselves.

It is curious, then, that when it comes to something as complicated as gender, we are apt to deny people the authority to interpret and narrate their experiences, especially the authority to make a correction to the story that has been told on their behalf. In doing so, we also deny them the opportunity to give us the tools to see what God has wrought in them. Just as God’s revelation to us is what grounds our reason and enables the act of making sense, so, on a much smaller scale, must our making sense of another person be grounded in their self-disclosure to us. If I encounter a man and become red-faced and inarticulate, it might be because I find him beautiful and charming, or it might be because I know that I seriously offended him in the past and am embarrassed to see him again. There is no list of correspondences that will instantly decode the meaning of these signs for someone who sees me: their meaning will be found, instead, in my life story, in the sum of everything I say and have said about myself in speech, sign, and action. 

So it is with the clothes that we wear, the manners of speech we choose, the company we keep: all can express the set of relationships and desires that we call “gender,” but we can only make sense of them through the life story of a person—the full picture of a person’s being who and what they are. A woman’s decision to wear work jeans expresses her way of being a woman; a man’s decision to wear long hair expresses his way of being a man. This critical fact has, I think, been neglected by a Catholic theological discourse that treats safe and sterile conversations about medical sex as critical, while sorely neglecting the more difficult topics that carry real moral and ethical weight—namely, the communicative acts by which someone attempts to narrate such an important part of their life story, and how we Christians are to receive that story.

I do not posit here a duty to receive the life stories that people tell us, including about their gender, without any critical engagement. But the reflexive denial with which transgender people’s stories are met is only “critical engagement” with an intellectual culture that routinely mistakes contrarian punditry for discussion, paid advertisements for book reviews, and publicity-seeking pronouncements for moral theology. Authentic engagement—the sort of radical encounter with other persons that Pope Francis regularly lays out as an obligation for all baptized Christians—demands that we suspend such instincts for immediate reaction. To be properly critical, we must first understand what we criticize. We must understand what a person is saying: what their terms are, how they map onto experience, and how the arrangement of those terms draws sense and meaning out of the sequential events of experience. Such understanding comes not from a momentary reaction to a single statement, but from sustained engagement with a person’s full understanding of their own life.

 

The truth of biography is not like the truth of a newspaper report; if it were, there would be no point in writing biography. To write biography, to tell a life story, is not only to tell what happened but to bring the reader or listener further into the depths of the subject’s experience than mere factual narration will allow. Plutarch, at the dawn of biography, is fully aware of this when he says that he must be allowed “to attend to the signs of the soul” in his subjects rather than only the “great deeds and contests” that his era regarded as definitive of a person’s character. He knew that the truth of a life emerges only through our immersion in it, that it becomes apparent only through the mature understanding of a person on their own terms. This reflects the way we come to grasp the truth about God, whose work in our lives is hidden from us until and unless we enter more deeply into the Christian life of love. It is this love that must be our entry point into the life story of another. Only in and through love can we begin to understand what a person is telling us.

And what a person tells us when they take over and correct the story of their gender is terribly important. When a person identifies as transgender, they are saying that the relationships our society has allowed them to form are not adequate, that there must be more authentically human ways for them to live. They are saying that the language used about them up to this point, the personal language that in English is highly gendered and is even more so in many other languages, has felt like a lie, one that can no longer be borne because of how much of their life it distorts or obscures. They feel that there must be other, truer ways of speaking about their life. They may even be saying that they feel a severe kind of wrongness about their body and how it has developed, that their brain is not interacting properly with the rest of their body such that their mind and spirit are afflicted, a condition now called “gender dysphoria.” There is nothing in the teaching of the Church that binds us to disbelieve these things when we are told them, and indeed much that urges us to take them seriously. In making such a revision to their life story, a person is trying to be their self more fully, to come into a mature sense of who they are that makes sense of their life as it has unfolded so far. It is, as McCabe might put it, a revolution of the self, a breakthrough that does not make sense in our old ways of thinking, but after which our old ways of thinking make a new kind of sense. In this way it is much like falling in love: we do not fall in love in discrete and deliberate steps. Instead, we come to realize that we simply are in love, and this realization rewrites the story of our past and draws anew the horizons of our future. Such a revolution affects everyone who knows such a person, and it invites us, too, to make a new kind of sense of their life and the way we fit into it. If we take seriously Christ’s pronouncement that we, his disciples, will know the truth and the truth will make us free, then we owe it to other people to receive their attempts to tell the truth about themselves and to try to see the truth in what they say, even and perhaps especially when our customary ways of speaking and thinking do not easily accommodate it.

To the objection, popular in more conservative circles, that transgender people’s understanding of their own gender is defective, one can only say yes, of course it is, in the same way that yours and mine are defective, though most trans people have spent a good deal more time thinking through the subject than the rest of us have. Our ideas of gender are formed in a fallen world, in societies created by fallen human beings that have taught us the importance of fighting wars and having babies, but have frequently neglected to teach the still greater importance of being courageous and raising children. In fact, given the poles of male violence and female abnegation that structure our culture’s understanding of gender, we should be surprised, not that some people consider the assumptions, expectations, and strictures they impose to be an unbearable lie, but that most people ever bear them at all. Though our understanding of gender may be in some way founded in truth, I don’t think we are capable of saying what that truth is. Scripture tells us that “male and female He created them,” but unfallen persons differ a great deal from fallen ones, and whatever is meant by “male and female” in Eden, we cannot today say how unfallen humanity expressed gender. Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that “we cannot know the form of a paradisal human society” or even “a primal relationship between the sexes, since the first children were born outside of Paradise,” and John Cavadini says that we cannot speak about unfallen sex for much the same reason: our will is fallen and our thoughts are sinful, and the ways in which unfallen humanity lived are not available to us except in the examples of the Savior and His Mother, whose lives Scripture covers only briefly. Transgender people often see this gap in our knowledge better than cisgender people do. What the life stories of trans people show us is that we do not yet understand Scripture, that “male and female He created them” is not a template but a mystery, one deep enough that we cannot yet fully map its contours but must approach it with hearts humbled by love.

Above all, this humility means being conscious of our own sin. The way we live gender is objectively wicked: marriage and religious life are both schools for exposing this and teaching us to live better. That someone’s attempt to live it truthfully might baffle our understanding says far more about the smallness of our understanding than it does about the other person, just as the need to change our language about a person says only that our language has always been inadequate. None of this is new to a Christian tradition in which God forever escapes our speech and yet expresses His work in the lives of everyone we meet. Nor does it entail that people cannot give a mistaken account of themselves; indeed, it presumes that all our accounts of self are in some way mistaken, and that our mistakes may only become visible in light of others who live in God’s truth differently than we do. Even so, we have no other place to begin than the stories people tell about themselves: to impose a foreign life story onto an icon of God is to read another person through the eyes of our sin and the lies that sin has taught us. It is to sin—and we have so sinned—against them and against the God who made them, when what we really owe them is a new beginning. We cannot take back the wounds that we inflicted when we demanded false stories in lieu of true ones; only Christ can make all things new. But in our own small way, we may admit our mistakes and start to listen, knowing our ignorance and not being ashamed of it. McCabe observes that “To give love is to give the precious gift of nothing, space. To give love is to let be.... Creation is simply and solely letting things be, and our love is a faint image of that.” When we take the time to let a person be who they are and tell the story of their being, we are also participating, however faintly, in the act of creation, and in doing so we become more fully the human beings we were created to be. When we have learned to do this, we may start to talk real sense. 

Published in the March 2021 issue: 

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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