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.