When Trish and I visited Hawaii, we found several wonderful surprises. One was a night rainbow.
Rainbows are plentiful in Hawaii: fragments of rainbows and full-arch rainbows. Sunny days are punctuated by mountain-ripped clouds that trade some of their water for a change in altitude. The rainbows are beautiful in themselves and additionally beautiful to Jews and Christians for exciting biblical memories of a God who can forgive and will not always destroy.
Who pays the wages of sin for us so that we do not always reap what has been sown in unkindness and injustice? Maybe an answer is in the night rainbow. I had never seen a night rainbow before I went to Hawaii and have never seen one since. The sweep of the ocean gives a lot of room for moonlight to have its full effect. Although I would not have believed before seeing one that there was such a thing as a night rainbow, it fortunately did not depend upon the puny powers of my belief. Though lacking the prismatic display of its daytime counterpart, the night rainbow more than compensates with surprise - the recasting of the night as a time that can also hold the light in arched beauty and promise.
If we look to Hebrew scripture for a story of the promise of the daytime rainbow, where shall we look for the story of the promise that comes at night? Native Hawaiians have a worthy story to share.
A great queen, Liliokalani, was so highly venerated that she was treated almost as if she were a god. Her charisma was sensed as so great that if her shadow were to touch a loyal subject, the subject would be killed.
Queen Liliokalani might have acted like a superstar, running around and watching the people scatter. Instead, she stayed within her house during the day to protect her subjects. What a sacrifice -- to give up daytime movement. She swallowed her brightest colors in compassion.
But oh how she shone when she went out at night. Her compassion changed the night, and her loyal subjects could gather close to her and show their faces free of fear.
Such stories stand on their own and also help us appreciate a specifically Christian story.
Chapter 9: Transgender Channels of Grace
This chapter is protected by the copyright found in the printed version.
This chapter does not have endnotes. However, the place where endnotes are available in the printed copy are marker by a roman numeral)
Previous chapters have been devoted to building the best possible scientific basis for understanding transgender experience and expression. A consistent theme in my review of the scientific literature has been the emergence of possibilities for transgender experience and expression, given the contributions and limitations of our bodies, the development of psychological identities, and social relationships. This chapter turns the corner to consider what can be good about choosing gender possibilities that don't conform to either general cultural stereotypes or the specific mix of gender messages a person grows up with. Along the way, this chapter responds to hostile critiques of transgender expression and offers an alternative grounding for Christian theological, ethical, and spiritual concerns. Although this chapter is explicitly Christian, it is my hope and intent that non-Christians might find good news here as well.
Science, when it is well done, declines to discuss the personal or religious meaning of phenomena, but rather focuses on what is and how what is came to be. Phyllis Burke, Chandler Burr, and Anne Fausto-Sterling have spent considerable energy to point out that, when many scientists work with issues of sexuality and gender, they often stray from the standard of value neutrality.i Here, however, we take on a different challenge. When science studies individual people and social relationships, it is studying people who assign meaning to their choices and relationships. In studying the development of gender identities and expectations, it is appropriate for science to consider how people learn and incorporate meanings. While well-done science should not evaluate values in themselves it appropriately studies the formation and acquisition of meanings as held. When people reflect on the meanings they have assigned to objects, images, experiences, and relationships, and especially when people contemplate their direct experience of values, the discourse moves to theological, spiritual, and ethical considerations.
The first challenge of this book has been to point out that there really are people who have transgender subjectivity - who do not fit smoothly into bipolar gender stereotypes of man or woman. The second challenge has been to point out that this is a natural rather than a pathological process by showing that transgender experience and expression arise from common physiological, psychological, and social potentials and influences, not some special cause. Seen in this light, the issues of the value and the meaning of transgender experience and expression are appropriately discussed in general, rather than special case, terms. Such general framing supports a discussion of transgender experience and expression that is very different from discussions focused on helping (health) or controlling (legal) perspectives. Clinical and legal discussions have assumed that transgender experience and expression are highly unusual, pathological, disordered, or some other kind of special-case phenomena. However, I am not arguing that just because transgender experience and expression arise as a natural or normal or common possibility, it is therefore good.
For any readers who skipped the earlier scientific chapters, here is one more brief restatement of my understanding of the causation of transgender experience and expression. Gender roles and identities, including transgender roles and identities, are social constructions, which may be influenced by, but are not simply caused by, physiological and psychological factors. Instead of thinking of any physiological or psychological factor as an overwhelming urge that dominates gender constructions, the synthetic approach in this book directs attention to a range of possible outcomes that emerge from the interaction of common physiological, psychological and social factors. The importance of any single factor as a cause of transgender experience, as a cause of subjectively sensed urgency to engage in transgender expression, is an issue for empirical investigation, not a matter of ideological declaration. Whatever the degree of sensed urgency to engage in transgender expression, choices to engage in different kinds of transgender expression are influenced by an individuals awareness of, and projection of, social contingencies.ii
Earlier chapters gave substantial attention to what a physiological trait is and what a psychological choice is, and they presented a more complex picture of gender and transgender development than is seen by many people. Chapter 4 makes it clear that different people feel different degrees of urgency about gender concerns, and it points out that some people have complex rather than simple gender careers. The picture developed in earlier chapters is that some adults feel strong and unrelenting urges to express themselves as men, although they were defined at birth as female; or as women, although defined at birth as male. Other adults have less general, less strong, and more complex feelings and expressive desires. My emphasis on the development of transgender expression should not be reduced to the development of psychological choices. Many straight and transgender adults experience themselves as having little or no choice about their gender identification; others have more sense of choice. In addition to factors of psychological orientation and sensed urgency, people with transgender experience consider their social circumstances in making action choices. At this point it is important to remember that, whatever the urgency or complexity of transgender experience and expression, it is only the masculine and feminine experience and expression of people who are not expected to have such experience or the desire to offer such expression. That is all there is to the "surprise" of transgender experience and expression.
Previous chapters show how difficult life can be for transgender people who have to contend with the formal and informal sanctions of people and institutions that defend bipolar gender conceptions and standards. The intellectual grounding of legal and clinical professionals who defend such conceptions and standards is shown to be based on unjustified appeals to physiological or psychological essentialism. The first four chapters show why physiological and psychological essentialism is not scientifically justified. The seventh chapter appeals to the clinical professions to reconsider and restate their official opinions. Here I point out that some clinical professionals have appealed to the grounding of religious authority to justify their views. This chapter makes clear that claiming a Christian basis for transgender oppression is unjustified.
I offer my own contribution to scientific theory about transgender experience and expression in the Chapter 6. Here is my summary of my thinking, as exemplified by my own story: I am a transgender person. Although I was identified as a male at birth and raised as a boy, I nonetheless learned about the social role of woman and about cultural images of femininity from what was shown to me as I grew up. I came to claim the self-concept of woman as my best and most honest way to identify and share my sense of some aspects of myself. By making such a claim I realize that I am not meeting the expectations assigned to me as a male, and I recognize that I am not meeting the common expectation that I be either a man or a woman. Other people follow quite different transgender paths than I have followed. I believe, however, that most transgender people could summarize their stories within the theories developed in this book in general and within Chapter 6 in particular.
Few straight Christian writers have commented on transgender concerns. Those who have addressed transgender issues have mostly wanted to address the ethics of transgender expression or to raise pastoral concerns for transgender people. This chapter touches on such issues, but the larger purpose is to point to the good news that can flow through transgender experience and expression: good news for transgender people, good news for everyone. In addition to celebrating such good news, I hope this chapter is helpful to those who want to understand their relationships with transgender people, including those who are concerned about the place of transgender people in the life of the church.
A Theological Introduction
Developing a scientifically accurate picture of transgender experience and expression is an end in itself. Christians are hardly alone in valuing truth as a guide for pictures of reality. Indeed, those of us who are aware Christians need to continue to confess that we carry a story that has had too many antiscientific chapters. Christianity at its best welcomes the truth wherever it takes us. But Christianity has not always been at its best. Since we Christians believe that God is the creator, we have nothing to fear from the truths about creation. I can testify that appreciating creation, and trying to understand how it works, can be a spiritual path to coming close to God.
In earlier chapters I not only emphasized a synthetic reconstruction of what we scientifically know but also pointed out that there is a lot we don't know. Christian theology cannot live on the thin gruel of trying to fill in with faith the dwindling territory of what is not known. That approach misapplies theology to a scientific agenda. Instead, we need to ground ourselves in the most accurate scientific picture of transgender experience and expression, while remembering with humility, just as good scientists do, that our picture is inadequate and incomplete; and then do the best we can to live well.
We do not all need to be scientists, but we do need elementary honesty about the groundings of our opinions and beliefs to sustain more constructive conversations. Garry Wills has done a magnificent job of making this point in the realm of Roman Catholic discourse with his book Papal Sin.iii Protestant leaders also need to be reminded of this point, since many have also engaged in strategies that subordinate truth to other purposes.iv One wonderful example of Christian confession has been offered by Gil Alexander-Moegerle, the co-founder with James Dobson of Focus on the Family: "I apologize to lesbian and gay Americans who are demeaned and dehumanized on a regular basis by the false, irresponsible, and inflammatory rhetoric of James Dobson's anti-gay radio and print materials."v Confession and humility are not merely Christian virtues and scientific values; they are also critical to the development of social institutions and cultural images that empower mutuality of understanding. Confession and humility make transformative conversation possible, and that, in turn, makes possible the development of common goals and expectations aligned with the best we are capable of as human beings. To contribute to such conversation, this chapter asks how gender understandings might be reconstructed to better embody the eternals that all of us can touch but not grasp: love, justice, responsibility, truth, and beauty. We do not define the eternal realities. They define us. We can only point to them, celebrate them, and try to embody them.
Our knowing of the eternals involves cognition, but it is a knowing by the whole self. It includes the subjectivity of self-knowing as we participate in valued relationships. It starts with the sense that some things are important, really important. We know such things by participating in them, even if only by anticipation or imagination. The sciences can help us understand the possibilities that are open to us; theology helps us figure out what to choose. For example, even people identified at birth as females who urgently feel they must live their lives as men still have choices about what kind of men they want to be. My understanding of Christian theology begins with an appreciation of my life and world as God's creation, and with thankfulness for the redemptive presence of God, which lures me to turn away from what is ugly, false, and hurtful. I am interested in spirituality and theology as they inform and give direction to my life, my relations with others, my engagement of this marvelous creation. I leave it to others to lift up speculations outside of human experience.
Theology needs the sciences for grounding its pictures of reality as accurately as possible, while remembering that the sciences have grown and changed. One key element in achieving a rapprochement between theology and science in general, and in creating the best possible theology of transgender experience and expression in particular, is to remember that theology has no privileged grounding for truth assertions that are properly a focus of science. Although good theology helps to ground science as a valuable human activity because it is a search for truth, theology is a corrective to science only at those points where science overreaches its proper discourse and makes de facto theological statements. As whole people, scientists might be great theologians, and vice versa, but it is still important to keep the realms of discourse clear.
Theology is built from contemplation and reflection about what is important in life. Appreciation of what is most important is the spiritual work of private prayer and corporate liturgy. Applied theology offers guidance to culture, to society, and to individuals by grounding evangelism, stewardship, and ethics. Theology is about how people work with the things that are eternal - that are expressed in the midst of life but are not defined by limited human expression.
The core theological assertion in this book is that transgender experience and expression can be an expression of and an incarnation of love, truth , justice - just as much, and just as little, as other human experiences and expressions. Working with transgender experience and expression can sensitize a person to one or another theological issue, but neither transgender experience, nor any other kind of experience, is special for expressing what is eternal, what is precious. Just as "haystack," rather than "needle," facts and theories are emphasized in other chapters for understanding what we can learn from the sciences, this chapter treats transgender experience and expression as merely one more life path.
Some writers do theology as if they had a privileged grounding for declaring spiritual truth to others. As one who has experienced the love of God, I too feel that I have something precious to share. But I am aware that my personal sharing is testimony for the reader to evaluate rather than a privileged grounding for declaration. I will point as well as I can, but it is up to the reader to do the seeing.
As this chapter unfolds, several theological perspectives will be developed. But it seems only fair to the reader that my core testimonial should be clear from the beginning. As a person with my identity centered in a Christian understanding of salvation, I want to claim and express all the Christian virtues in my life without regard to whether our culture has named them as masculine or feminine. Because of my theological critique of United States culture, I am not willing to settle for life answers that uncritically accept cultural images and values - that simply adjust to social roles and expectations. I accept, and I want to explore, all the good gifts God has given me, rather than hide some away because I've been told they do not fit. I have chosen to violate traditional gender expectations in order to honor what seem to me to be more important values. I seek to express myself, and be open in my interaction with others, by using common cultural symbols and images to express my commitments, which are culturally defined as masculine or feminine. Others may judge my gender expressions to be clumsy or ugly or immature. From the inside out, what I can say is that I'm doing the best I can.
Other Christians have written to share their transgender experience. I particularly thank Vanessa S., Kathryn Helms, Frances Cormier, Karyn Kroll, Dana Cole and Dianna for their witness.vi I've been most moved recently by reading the sharing of Chris Paige.vii Those interested in Internet-based dialogue might want to take a look at www.whosoever.org.
Some nontransgender Christians have sought to respond affirmatively to the transgender community. David Horton, for example, offers a compromise with transgender people. On the one hand, he doesn't want transgender people to feel guilty for their existence, and he offers some limited biblical and ethical reasoning to that end. On the other hand, he repeatedly points to the selfishness of transgender people and urges them to stay in the closet as much as possible to protect the sensibilities of spouses, children, and church congregations. The saving grace to his pamphlet is an unanswered question written as the last sentence: "Do we represent Christian values to those who are different, or do we merely seek their conformity to our patterns of behavior to save ourselves from embarrassment?"viii It is much easier to affirm his pamphlet as a resource for the church than to affirm it as a resource for transgender people. Alhough I am concerned about the tone of his writing, I am thankful for the ministry and witness he has offered in Great Britain. In the United States, the earliest clear support from a church leader came from Rev. Clinton Jones, Episcopal canon, Christ Church Cathedral, in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1978 he wrote, "I see no reason for determining that transvestism is ethically immoral." He went on to call for sympathy and support rather than prejudice.ix
I began this chapter by setting the theological stage. Next comes a section contrasting a positive Christian natural theology to the antinatural theology that is such an embarrassment for Roman Catholicism. The biblical section considers biblical passages used by some Christians to attack transgender experience and expression, then claims the core Judeo-Christian themes that can help one appreciate transgender experience and expression. The section on doctrinal theology responds to those who are concerned about transgender experience and expression as sin. A section on liberation theology responds to some feminists who have attacked transgender experience and expression, then shows how liberationist thinking can appreciate and elucidate transgender experience and expression, with reference to other feminist authors. The final dialectic and constructive section aims at engaging the saving truths of Christianity as they relate to transgender experience.
Finally, before proceeding to these specific theological approaches, it is important to me to share my Christian understanding that the saving love of God can come through many channels, including non-Christian channels. This is good news, since Christendom has hurt so many transgender people so badly. As a result, many transgender people who grew up in the church have turned away to other religious expressions. The following sections are written with this hurting much in mind. Even though I write as a transgender person, I join the confession of aware Christians that we share in the sin and alienation done in our common name. We can do better.
Gaining Perspective Before Picking Up the Work
Oh the history books tell it, they tell it so well;
The cavalry charged and the Indians fell,
The cavalry charged and the Indians died,
Now the cavalry too had God on its side.
The Dylan lyrics remind us that theology books as well as history books are mostly written by the victors. The witness of Jesus, revelation in the midst of oppression, is different from the witness of later centuries, when Christendom had gained power and consolidated that power in the hands of church patriarchs.
Convoluted and misogynist theology in the early church, and its repetition and extension in the Middle Ages, helped shape some examples of transgender behavior. In the 4th century, Jerome, following the Greek philosopher Philo, said that "[so] long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man."xi This may well have been a common attitude, since Ambrose in the same century agreed. "she who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of her sex, whereas she who believes progresses to perfect manhood, to the measures of the adulthood of Christ. She then dispenses with the name of her sex, the seductiveness of youth, the garrulousness of age."xii
Later, Thomas Aquinas helped to set the patriarchal cast of Roman Catholic tradition in stone, writing, "good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates."xiii Although it is common to note that some church authorities continue to preach such woman-oppressing theology, it is interesting to note in the context of this book that a number of Catholic saints began their lives as women but came to sainthood as men. When, at death, their sex was discovered, their cross-gender behavior was counted as further proof of their saintliness. Pelagia is one of the best known of these saints.xiv The Roman Catholic Church once welcomed transgender leadership and has precedents it could use to justify supporting transgender leadership today.xv
Issues of the clergy standing of transgender people are beginning to show up within several denominations. Dr. Erin Swenson prevailed in a trial with the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and will be allowed to retain her ordination as a male-to female transsexual.xvi Transgender people are named in the new By-Laws of the United Church of Christ as one element of a coalition that is authorized to participate in the guidance of the denomination.xvii I have had standing as an ordained minister within the United Church of Christ for 37 years and officially explained my transgender status to the Association in which I have my standing in the mid-1990s. But the larger story is a story of rejection.xviii It is time, past time, for change.
Seeing the Hand of the Creator in the Creation
Natural Theology and the Sciences
In earlier chapters I take a synthetic approach to the sciences that honors and responds to the range of analytic studies that make up science, arranged within different disciplines. Instead of dividing a whole into parts, as does analytic science, the synthetic approach focuses on what is gained when parts are integrated into a whole. Aspects of reality that are only potential in the parts, and are therefore unobservable when only the parts are examined, become manifest when the parts are joined together. For example, human bodies can be analyzed in terms of the physical particles that make up the body, but many of the most interesting realities of human beings can be observed only when such particles are integrated in the marvelously complex ways in which the human body comes together. Similarly, it is only when human beings join together in social relationships that the hidden potentials of civilization begin to come into view.
Such a synthetic approach to the sciences makes the interface between science and theology much easier to understand and work with. In contrast, analytic science defines the parts that make up a whole and shows how they come together, without addressing what is gained (what potential is released) by the coming together. Analytic science draws its enormous power from focusing on what can be observed; and potential, by definition, cannot be observed. When analytic science considers the whole, in turn, as a part of a yet larger whole, what was merely potential has become manifest and can be observed. Analytic science assumes that the potential, which was released by the joining of parts into a whole, was caused by the joining of the parts. But, when the whole is a human being, the whole has some choice about the integration of its parts and more choice about how it wants to fit into larger social wholes. Things become infinitely more complex because human beings take account of social factors in shaping themselves. A tennis player practices tennis and builds up some muscles rather than others. Human beings, by taking account of the wholes of which they are a part, are thus shaped not only by the influence of their parts but also by the influence of larger wholes (social relationships) of which they are parts. Human beings choose among the potentials, and that means that analytic science cannot assume that human beings are simply caused by their parts. Theology enters the picture by considering the intrinsic values, such as goodness, beauty, justice. These intrinsic values can be perceived, but not manipulated or defined by human beings. If one acts in an ugly fashion, that does not change beauty. Although we human beings cannot define the eternals, we can perceive them and measure our actions and products against them. Indeed, instead of always pursuing survival as we assume other animals pursue survival, sometimes humans decide not merely to shape their lives to perceptions of the eternals, but to give up their lives to express their valuation of an eternal.
Analytic science has the appearance of completely explaining reality because there is a scientific discipline assigned to each higher level of integration: physics, chemistry, physiology, psychology and sociology. But there are two consistent problems with this approach. The first, and for this book the least interesting, shows up in internal debates within any single discipline. Some physiologists focus on the elements of cells, such as their genome, and others are interested in the interaction of cells in a body. You can study the human genome as if it existed as a separate reality, but the genome of a cell can and does change because of interactions of the cell with its environment. The genes in a cell help to create a cellular reality, which, in turn, introduces environmental effects into the cell and changes the genes. Thus, although it is possible to study the human genome as a separate reality, such a study is not a complete study, because it does not consider how a genome is affected by its environment but only how it is affected by its parts. Whenever scientists reason from a part, or a collection of parts, to the whole and argue that some element of the part determines the activity of the whole, they are making the essentialist mistake of disregarding the potentials for interaction that were hidden in the parts but become manifest in a joined whole.xix Synthetic science is interested in the variety and complexity of a whole, in and of itself, instead of focusing on how the whole contributes to the next larger reality of which it is a part.
The second, and more important, problem is that an analytic scientist may easily correct the essentialism of scientists working with less complex wholes but may become an essentialist about his or her own object of study. Psychologists may correct physiologists by asserting that transgender experience cannot be explained by merely physiological factors, but the psychologists may in turn fail to give sufficient weight to the significance of social factors. My analysis in Chapter 3 of Sandra Bem's work is an example of why this failing can matter a lot. An additional way to make this second point is to remind readers that the complexities and potentials of brains make possible the complexities and potentials of minds. The complexities and potentials of minds in turn make possible the further complexities of societies and cultures. When societies and cultures make the impact of the eternals more manifest, it is easier for individuals to perceive the eternals.
I've emphasized that sociology can analyze how meanings as held are used by people in shaping social relationships. But analytic sociologists are as blind as other scientists to taking values in themselves seriously. Such blindness is an analytic virtue which helps to sustain focus on social processes related to values as held. When we ask the synthetic questions about how the engagement of values in themselves reveals human truth, we have stepped outside analytic science. It is one thing to disregard values in themselves to sustain analytic focus, but it is sociological essentialism to deny the reality and significance of values in themselves. We cannot stand in God's place and see any larger whole, but we can see the creation that we live within, and we can see the effects of value choices in social relationships. Furthermore, in ecstatic moments, we can feel ourselves to be at one with the eternals, with God - the source of the eternals. We can sense the eternals - goodness, truth, beauty, love, justice - even though we do not define them. They define us. What we can do is appreciate the eternals and use them to guide our relations to each other and our environments.xx But we do not stand above or outside our participation in creation. Birth and death help remind us of this.
The virtue of a synthetic approach to the sciences for interfacing with theology is that focusing on human awareness of values in themselves as potentials released by the conscious participation of human beings in social relationships and environments, makes the discourse of theology reasonable even though the analytic method is no longer relevant. A synthetic stance sensitizes us to the questions we can ask as people who are part of larger wholes, not merely to express the range of possibilities released by the physiological, psychological, and social integrations of our parts, but also by taking seriously the eternals we can sense but not grasp. Such synthetic awareness does not posit any teleological arguments, any appeals to a hidden design.xxi I merely implore my readers to join me in trying to recognize and engage the best of the potentials in our lives, to welcome each other into the common enterprise of trying to create the best possible social relationships, the best possible standards and laws, the best possible societies and cultures.
Good natural theology begins with an appreciation not only of the Creator who has given us the manifest world, but also of the Creator who has given us the opportunity to experience the eternals. We honor the Creator when we celebrate these gifts and use them to guide our participation in giving life and shape to the eternals. Our artistic creations, our scientific understanding, our civilizations, our sexual sharing and gender relationships can express the eternals. The intrinsic goodness in being born as creatures who sometimes want to engage in sexual sharing and who construct gender relationships is the possibility to experience and express love, beauty, responsibility, and mutuality in sexual sharing and in gender relationships. Taking seriously the possibility of such goodness is one channel to awe of the Creator. For many of us, our engagement comes first and reflection comes later. Seen in this light, faith is our unarticulated thankfulness coming to consciousness. This is good news for transgender people when we learn we can embody the eternals in our sexual expression and gender relationships. When nontransgender people come to understand this transgender truth, it can be good news for them as well; it can lure them into thinking about the eternals as a challenge to their sexual sharing and gender relationships.
Natural Theology and Christianity
All Christian theologies hold that creation, in itself, is a good gift from God. However, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies quickly put this theme aside by arguing that human sin ("the Fall") has corrupted creation. Drawing upon Greek dualism and Roman stoicism, Roman Catholic theology has asserted that things of the body are bad and that Christians should focus on things of the spirit. Protestant theologies have mostly affirmed this element of Roman Catholic theology but have modified or qualified it in various ways. Christine Gudorf points out that "Augustine taught that intercourse was, even in marriage, at least venially sinful because it was virtually impossible to have intercourse without pleasure."xxii This line of thought comes from Greek and Roman sources and is also supported by Jewish and Christian ascetic and apocalyptic traditions, as found in the Essenes of Jesus's time and in several biblical writings.xxiii Such theology transformed the life-affirming witness of Jesus into a life-denying focus on going to heaven after death or after the end of the world. Life on earth was to be endured. Fortunately for contemporary Christians, the life-affirming witness of Jesus keeps breaking through our limited constructions.
The Roman Catholic version of natural theology emphasizes that the function of genital sexual activity is the reproduction of children. An example of this position can be found in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger concerning homosexuals:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil....It is only in the marital relationship that the use of sexual faculty can be morally good....A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally....Homosexual union is not a complementary union, able to transmit life, and so it thwarts the call to a life to that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves, but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.xxiv
Ratzinger regards homosexual inclination as inborn, therefore natural, and therefore not sinful in itself, but he still claims that it produces a strong tendency to evil. The defense of such an incredible position is that human sin, "the Fall," has corrupted not only our human constructions within creation but creation itself. This position, as Garry Wills points out in his book Papal Sins, takes these parts of Roman Catholic teaching outside the realm of reasonable discourse. For those who are interested, Wills provides a detailed analysis of how Pius XI backed into the foolish sexual assertions found in the encyclical Casti Connubi in 1930 and why these mistakes were repeated by Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.xxv These encyclicals focused on opposition to contraception, but the supporting arguments reemphasized the principle that the only acceptable purpose for intercourse was procreation. Gudorf spells out the several negative implications of the Roman Catholic emphasis on procreation for a positive Christian social ethic.xxvi Here we need only note that Ratzinger asserts that the only virtuous expression of sex is within marriage. Since the Roman Catholic hierarchy denies marriage to same-sex couples, they have placed themselves in the position of trying to block the possibility of loving and responsible erotic sharing between people of the same sex. To cap the irony, Ratzinger says it is homosexuals who are disordered. It seems to me that a theology that tries to block the possibility of loving and responsible sexual sharing is disordered.xxvii
Ratzinger's assertion that gay and lesbian sexual activity is not self-giving because it cannot transmit life is a travesty and an outrage, not only for gay and lesbian people, but for all people who give deeply of themselves in sexual sharing without trying to create a new life. It is an offense against the Gospel, as well as common experience, to assert that self-giving is defined as physiological procreation. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Jesus, who focused his words about salvation on giving and loving and never said a recorded word about procreation. Ratzinger tries to escape the horrid implication of his statement by tossing a bone to homosexuals, allowing that homosexuals might have a generous intent but that their erotic expression is nonetheless sinful because it cannot produce children. This kind of natural theology cannot be set right with a few nuances, exceptions, or compromises. The correct natural theology question is whether erotic expression between two people with the same kind of genitals has the possibility of expressing the eternals of love, beauty, and responsibility. There is a parallel question for sexual sharing between people of the same gender, whatever their genital makeup. That is what is important, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy needs to confess its error and seek forgiveness for all the damage it has done by denying and hiding from this Christian truth.
Perhaps Ratzinger realizes the unattractiveness of his position. In any case, he offers one more argument that is not part of historical Roman Catholic thinking. He asserts that the homosexual inclination is "disordered." In this society, such a word is most fairly heard as an appeal to the pathologizing perspectives of the clinical establishment. First the clinical establishment said homosexuality was abnormal because it didn't meet cultural norms, meaning primarily Christian norms. Now, Ratzinger appeals to psychology to buttress his unattractive theological position.
The most telling exposure of Ratzinger's smallness of spirit is his condemnation of all homosexual sexual expression as self-indulgent. But, before my homosexual friends stoke their anger any higher, it is important to remember that Ratzinger feels this way about all sexual expression that is not intended for procreation within marriage. Celibacy is the standard of Roman Catholic sexual spirituality, and anything less is worldly or self-indulgent.
Given the comments above, it is time to assert that Ratzinger's comments, and all that they reflect in Roman Catholic teaching, should no longer be called natural theology. There are two basic reasons that such theology is not natural. The first is that many people - straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and those "under construction" - actually engage in a lot of genital sexual sharing in pursuit of pleasure rather than to create children. Pleasure is a common and natural function of sexual expression. Ratzinger and other Roman Catholics may not like pleasure, but to deny that it is a natural function of genital sexual expression is to deny the truth available from observation and experience.xxviii When pressed, we shall see that Roman Catholics actually back off from claiming their "natural" theology is grounded in the observation or experience of nature.
The second reason that Roman Catholic sexual theology isn't natural is tragic. Roman Catholics emphasize the importance of marriage because marriage links the power of sexual appetites to the obligation to care for children. Yet once a child is born, there is no good Roman Catholic reason to have any more sexual expression which further links couples together emotionally. What is good is the bonding of love between people who share parenthood. It is the loving that makes the sexual exchange good. Such bonding is not an assertion of will. It is a discovery that can come with the experience of sexual sharing. The failure to celebrate the potential for directly experiencing love as part of sexual expression denies one of the most precious gifts of creation. This denial is one of the most damaging results of antinatural Roman Catholic sexual theology.
A group of Roman Catholics, organized through the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center, created a dialogue between themselves and leading researchers. The consultation was held in 1982, and a book based on it was published in 1983. The book, Sex and Gender: A Theological and Scientific Inquiry, consisted of papers by the scientists about homosexuality and transsexuality with rejoinders from theologians asserting the scientists were wrong.xxix Some of the theological criticisms were appropriate recognitions of the points where the scientists had overstepped the boundaries of their disciplines and inserted their values into their conclusions. Although several of the theological respondents were clearly trying to reach out to sexual minorities, they repeatedly came back to positions as ugly and outrageous as those of Cardinal Ratzinger. For example, Benedict Ashley, after once again explaining that sexual expression by people with the same kinds of genitals is a mortal sin because it doesn't produce children, clarified that his use of the word natural did not mean "things as they are" but really meant "healthy."xxx Ashley is claiming a revelation-based knowledge of health, calling it nature, then trying to force the truth about nature through his sieve. The truths that don't make it through this sieve are discarded. There could hardly be a better example of the breakdown of dialogue between theology and science because of the hubris of the involved theologians. It is a sad story, because Ashley started off so well, doing his best to lift up the importance of love as a proper measure of sexuality. Albert Moraczewski, in the same book, is more blunt when defining the word nature. For scientists, he says, natural is "what a population of a species actually does," while for Catholic theologians natural "is that which is in accord with God's revelation."xxxi This is not natural theology in the sense of trying to draw close to the Creator by contemplating the creation.
Though a poor understanding of biology may have influenced historical Roman Catholic positions on sexual sharing, contemporary advocates who are very skilled in the biological sciences are still focused on defending the sacredness of human life from the moment of conception. They are unwilling to distinguish between human life and a human person. This position gives no weight to the emergence of the human person through a developmental process for which conception is a necessary but not sufficient condition.xxxii No degree of scientific sophistication can cover up for an ascetic distortion that lifts up the sacredness of undeveloped potential at the cost of the sacredness of fully formed people seeking to embody the highest Christian values in their sexual sharing and gender expressions.
The pathologizing of transgender experience and expression by the clinical establishment is a strong support for those who see transgender experience and expression as abnormal. Transposed into theological language, this becomes "Transgender experience is not part of God's natural order." The earlier chapters that deal with the issues of how transgender experience and expression came to be pathologized are offered in rebuttal of this assertion. As noted before, the clinical establishment often refers to the religious basis of contemporary cultural tradition as part of their arguments that transgender experience and expression are abnormal. George Rekers was quoted earlier in this regard. Timothy and Joseph Costello, in their chapter on sexual disorders in their textbook Abnormal Psychology, write, "In that part of the world which is influenced by the Judeo-Christian traditions, normal sex, as prescribed in their religious writing and moral codes, is sex in which the goal is penile/vaginal intercourse (coitus)."xxxiii Despite sparring on other issues, the religious establishment and the clinical establishment have powerfully supported each other, and circularly quoted each other to defend traditional sexual ethics.
The second line of thought that intrinsically challenges the naturalness of Roman Catholic theology has to do with the overlap of characteristics, such as height, that are supposedly distinctly distributed by sex. Saying that males are taller than remales is true as a statement of average but fails to convey that a lot of females are taller than a lot of males. The failure to appreciate overlap is a major grounding for the argument that the sexes are opposite and therefore need each other to be complete. My concern is not merely that such assertions are used to justify patriarchal oppression but also the larger concern that it leads heterosexual partners to misunderstand each other and suggests to gay or lesbian couples that there might be some fundamental incompleteness to their loving relationships. Instead, I suggest that all couples consider whether they are different or similar on any particular point, and then consider how to deal with the pluses and minuses of either relational truth. The point for Roman Catholic theology is that if males and females, men and women, are substantially similar then there is no natural argument for treating them so differently, as, for example, being unwilling to ordain women to the role and status of priests.
In Chapters 2, 3, and 4, attention was given to studies of sexual differences between males and females as they relate to gender differences between men and women. The review found more similarities than differences. Following the review I argued that it would be helpful to give up the use of the word opposite for describing or identifying the sexes. Indeed, if we define sex-linked characteristics as broadly as do writers who are seeking to show sexual differentiation, then the fairest conclusion would be that most people are at least partly intersexual. I do not favor such a broad definition, because I do not think research shows that most of the factors studied are meaningfully differentiated by sex. Adopting a narrower focus means recognizing more similarity between males and females, men and women.
In showing that cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are not natural or neutral expressions of an underlying physiological order, Chapters 2,3, and 4, lay the groundwork for alternative ways of thinking about gender. The urges of people that do not fit traditional gender role expectations, such as a man's urge to nurture, create discomfort with assigned sex roles and enculturated images. In Chapter 6 I developed the theory that transgender experience and expression can be seen as one outcome of a human search for interior congruence and social responsibility.
Although earlier chapters challenge the view that "anatomy is destiny," I continue to affirm that bodies matter. Human beings are not disembodied spirits. Our bodies contain resources and limits, predispositions and opportunities. We all have to work out our lives with what we have been given in our individual creation, with what we gain and lose in interactions with all our environments. Natural theology, at its best, notices the embeddedness of the theological quest. Embedded theology brings an incarnational understanding of individuals into interaction with the createdness of other people and our many environments.
A Desirable Natural Theology
The most fundamental beginning point for all Christian natural theologies is that we are all created by God. We do not know life as disembodied souls, whatever our capacity for imagination, but as human creatures. The most fundamental celebration of God is thanksgiving for our most precious gift from God, our life. Part of our experience as human creatures is awareness of the eternals. Even so simple an eternal as the mathematical concept of unity cannot be reduced to perceptions of phenomena. Rather, mathematics is used as one aspect of seeing order in our perceptions of phenomena. Brains make it possible to bring together awareness of the eternals with perceptions of the manifest world and the result is usually called mind.xxxiv When we use our minds to become self-aware and guide our social relationships, we are releasing the possibilities that are invisible in the carbon, oxygen, and other physical elements integrated into our bodies. We shape concepts in our minds and interchange the concepts through the use of language. In this process we synthesize some of the potentials made possible by our physiological integration with some of our direct experience of the eternals. Gender concepts are such constructions. We can discuss how our gender concepts relate to physiological factors and we can discuss how our gender concepts relate to our awareness of the eternals. This way of describing human reality reminds us that we do our experiencing and thinking as creatures and not as God.
The first core truth pointed to by natural theology is thankfulness for being alive, for being able to participate in creation as aware human beings who can choose not merely how we want to meet our physiological needs but also what we want to do with our lives beyond merely existing until we die. This first truth makes possible the innumerable questions about how we might relate to, and incorporate, justice, beauty, and passionate love in our lives. One such question is about how we want to shape our gender images and activities. What values shall we emphasize? The good news in this book, whether you are gender-conforming or transgender, is that, even though you are not used to reflecting on your gender choices, you can indeed reflect on them. However you take advantage of such reflective distance, you can choose to change your gender commitments to more adequately reflect the values you respect and cherish.
In taking seriously the opportunity to become intentional about gender choices, some of us turn to guidance from Christianity. Christianity offers paths and conversations by which individuals can offer their personal contributions, and engage the contributions of others, to create and share in a larger community and story. Sadly, not all Christian communities are attractive, and not every telling of the Christian story is well grounded or spiritually inspired. Embodying transgender truth, just as the embodying of other important truths, serves the Christian community by pointing out helpful reforms so that the best of Christianity may be more clearly seen and appreciated. A payoff for transgender people for continuing to share conversation with Christian communities is that we contribute to building a spiritual home for ourselves and others.
I have already pointed out that Roman Catholic antinatural theology on sexuality is wrong because it recognizes only the function of procreation while denying the function of pleasure. Here I argue that it is more profoundly wrong because it is functionally constructed. Roman Catholic theology affirmed the function of procreation to moderate the ascetic denial of any goodness in sexual interaction for married people, while continuing to affirm ascetic denial as a standard for priests, the hierarchically appointed leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. Choosing self-denial to achieve a personal or social purpose such as saving money or donating to charity, is one thing, but to make self-denial an end in itself is life-denying and violates the great commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Roman Catholic theologians used the same kind of functional thinking to justify slavery. They argued, in the tradition of Aristotle and with appeals to Scripture, that slavery is a natural form of human relationships based on the obvious fact that some people are able to dominate others, then asserted that those who dominated did so because they were naturally superior. The assertion of Aquinas that men should dominate women because they are naturally superior has been quoted earlier in this book. The functional evidence of such superiority is that men did dominate women. The error of all of this kind of functional thinking is the underlying essentialism discussed earlier. This kind of functional thinking argues that if it exists it must be naturally caused, meaning that it is not caused by human motives. Misunderstanding a social pattern as natural rather than constructed creates the mistaken idea that it is unchangeable.xxxv Such presumed unchangeability has then been used to dodge the question of whether a social institution or norm is just. Such functional thinking has been used to argue that slavery and patriarchy are not unjust but only the inevitable playing out of forces beyond human control. The truth is that slavery and patriarchy are social constructions within human control. Christians commonly see all human constructions as likely to contain sin and thus likely to be in need of reform, using justice as one criterion.xxxvi Seeing gender standards and concepts as social constructions invites such reevaluation.xxxvii In contrast to functional thinking, the natural theology I offer is grounded in our best understanding of synthetically summarized scientific truth with attention to the emergence of possibility.
The kind of Christian natural theology I have been presenting can be useful as a guide to ethical issues. Oliver O'Donovan discusses the case of Corbett v. Corbett in his book, Transsexualism and Christian Marriage. The case resulted in transsexuals' being denied the right to marry in Great Britain.xxxviii O'Donovan argues that transsexuals should not be allowed to marry because the marriage would not be between a male and a female, because the transsexual partner lacks biological integrity. The lack of integrity, according to O'Donovan, is that the sexual parts were made by humans and not by God.
What is missing in O'Donovan, and in the more recent homophobic political effort by fundamentalist Christians to make marriage laws explicitly heterosexist, is an appreciation of what marriage is supposed to enable in secular law and celebrate in Christian community. O'Donovan and the fundamentalists emphasize a physiological essentialism that causes them to deny and oppose the observable reality of deep spiritual engagement and bonding, the formation and sustaining of families, and the loving and responsible support of children. The appeal to functionalism is wrong not only because of its refusal to recognize other natural functions but also because functionalism refuses to affirm the potentials for human relationships that are part of God's creation that can sometimes express the eternal values that Christians affirm. One of those possibilities is that people can change their bodies to affirm their self-understanding and value commitments. Failure to consider transgender experience and expression as one more human channel for God's love to enter the world makes O'Donovan and others blind to this activity of God in the world - an activity that shines forth in the good gifts that are exchanged within transgender families, in the children who have been well-raised, in the emotional and relational health that prepares people for their positive contributions to society. It is fair to apply Christian values and standards to all sexual and gender activity in order to see it for what it is, the good and the bad. It is ironic and tragic - it breaks my heart - to watch my brothers and sisters who are Christians block the release and engagement of the highest values that Christians affirm.
Not all transgender relationships are filled with Christian virtues, as is true of traditional heterosexual relationships. In all cases, the purpose of the Christian community should be to celebrate relationships that are loving and life-affirming and to help everyone further improve relationships in the expression of love, responsibility, beauty, and justice. Good Christian natural theology helps us to recognize that human life is a good and precious gift, even though it is a sexually transmitted and terminal condition, because it contains the possibility of embodying the love of God. One of those possibilities is loving relationships that include transgender experience and expression.
Another important application of good Christian natural theology for the creation of Christian transgender ethics has to do with "corrective" surgery for intersexual infants. The surgery is done to fit a bipolar conception of human sexuality and gender. The motive is not the affirmation of what God has given at birth but rather the bipolar constructions of gender carried by parents and/or medical personnel.xxxix Some intersexual people are protesting against the damage done to them by infant surgery, particularly the loss of capacity for genital arousal, and argue that such routine surgery flows from intrinsic prejudice against their bodies, which were made and loved by God.xl Phyllis Burke quotes Anne Fausto-Sterling's review of a substantial group of case histories of intersexual people, compiled between 1930 and 1960 before infant corrective surgery became common. "Almost without exception, those reports describe children who grew up knowing they were intersexual...and adjusted to their unusual status....there is not a psychotic or a suicide in the lot."xli Getting clear about natural theology will help us understand that an intersexual birth may be a cultural emergency for parents but that God's grace can flow through an intersexual person just as much as through anyone else. Taking away the intersexuality of these children is taking away part of the specialness, part of the gift of their birth. If a child were to show substantial discomfort with an intersexual status, some form of sexual reconstruction surgery (SRS) might be appropriate at that point.xlii The other side of this coin is that discomfort with one's assignment of gender as an infant is the primary justification for SRS for transsexuals. The difference is that the discomfort is felt by the transsexual person rather than by parents or medical personnel. The issue is not naturalness but the valuation of some body changes rather than others by those in authority.
The basic Christian question to ask about transgender physiological alterations is whether those alterations help the person to more completely experience and express their best gifts - to participate in human interaction in loving, caring, and responsible ways. It seems like a highly specialized question when applied to transgender transformations, but the question is only different in focus, not in kind, from other questions of body changes.
To help obtain a little reflective distance from the medical and legal technicalities concerning body alterations made possible by recent improvements in medical practice, it may help us to remember that since the beginnings of recorded history people have been changing their bodies in small or large ways to pursue psychological or social goals. To add one more example to previous discussions of history and culture, we might notice that in many cultures men have shaved their faces to present an appearance they felt was desirable, even though it approximates a female appearance. Is it wrong to desire a hair-free face because one is aware that it approximates a female appearance but acceptable so long as such awareness is lacking? Is it okay for a male to shave one's face, which produces a more feminine appearance, but wrong to shave one's legs? The issue is intent rather than a matter of physiology or technology.
What Can We Learn from Scripture?
I understand the Bible as Scripture. That is, I have learned saving truth from the Bible, and it is precious to me. My understanding of transgender experience and expression as one channel of God's grace is grounded, in part, in my understanding of the Bible.
The most important work of biblical theology is pointing to saving truth that can be engaged by becoming aware that the writings of the multiple biblical authors and editors points to an emergent understanding of God. The biblical path to increased awareness of God involves two interwoven challenges: seeing key themes that emerge over the centuries as the Bible was written, and separating the saving truth from its cultural context. I look to Jesus, as we may most reasonably know him, for primary guidance. I value Jesus as my savior not merely for his teaching, but because he showed that embracing the love of God is worth whatever it costs.
It is intriguing to me that over the course of the Bible so little attention was given to sexual expression as sin. Though sexual sin is a large concern in church doctrine, it seems to have been of little interest to most of the biblical writers. Where sexual sin is discussed in the Bible, it is almost always heterosexual sin. In reflecting on the overall place of sex in the Bible, it is interesting to me that the most intense biblical writing about sex and sexual attraction, the Song of Songs, treats sexual pleasure as a good thing.
Others have written extensively about the Bible and homosexuality. I particularly recommend the work of L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex; the work of Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality; and Chapter 8 of James Nelson's Embodiment. I am particularly indebted to Countryman for much of the detailed analysis in this section, and his book is well worth reading for a more complete development of numerous issues. Countryman, Nelson, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, John Spong, and others have offered extensive responses to those who would use the Bible to denigrate gay, lesbian and bisexual people.xliii For a more fundamentalist but transgender-friendly reading of Scripture, Julie Ann Johnson has edited the writings of Lee Frances Heller and friends that were published in the newsletters edited by Heller between 1989 and 2000.xliv
The scriptural reference most used to oppose transgender expression is Deuteronomy 22:5. It reads as follows in the Revised English Bible (REB).
No woman may wear an article of man's clothing, nor may a man put on woman's dress; for those who do these things are abominable to the Lord your God.xlv
This is unequivocal. There is no doubt that the biblical author of this passage meant to stop men and women from cross-dressing. Several transgender writers have picked up on the interpretation offered in the HarperCollins Study Bible and in the Harper's Bible Commentary that the rule against cross-dressing is based on opposition to the followers of Ishtar, who apparently cross-dressed as part of their ritual observances.xlvi Danielle Webster has offered an extended argument in this vein with references to conservative biblical commentators. This kind of interpretation makes sense to me, since opposition to surrounding religions is a major part of the Hebrew scripture.xlvii It is easy to understand the need of the Hebrews to differentiate themselves. As they began to have more success establishing themselves in the Promised Land, and particularly as they were able to move down from the hills and their lives as herders to establish themselves as crop agriculturalists, they became far more exposed to foreign religion and culture. The world of crops, planting, and harvesting had different gods, a different sense of seasons. God creates the sun and the moon in the first creation story in Genesis, making it clear that the Hebrews understood their God to be superior to the gods of the seasons.
Although it is reasonable to read the rule against cross dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 as a rule against becoming involved in foreign religion, it seems more compelling to me to face up to the rejection of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy as a freestanding rule. Instead of looking for a special exemption from this rule by referring to differentiation from foreign religions, although that is probably justified, it seems better to me to consider how the kerygma at stake here is related to the many lists of Hebrew rules.
The rule against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 is part of a long list of rules. Following are several of the other rules in this particular list:
- . If you find a bird's nest, you must let the mother bird go free and take only the young birds.
- . When you build a new house, you must build a parapet to avoid the guilt of bloodshed if anyone falls off your roof.
- . You shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.
- . You shall not wear clothes with two kinds of yarn in them.
- . You shall not make twisted tassels of the four corners of your cloak. (I'm doing pretty well with this one.)
There are a lot of rules in the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy). Some are good safety rules, like the building code for roofs. Others of the rules could be read as fashion statements of that day and time. All readers bring interpretive principles to the Bible, and one result is that it is common to give more weight to some rules than others. Sadly, most Christians dismiss most of the rules in the Torah as irrelevant expressions of a different culture that carry no saving truth. Fundamentalist interpreters, and those who call themselves biblical literalists, are selectively dismissive as well.
One positive way for Christians to work with the rules in the Torah is to see them as small pictures of Hebrew culture as that culture evolved over two thousand years. For example, the rule of an eye for an eye moderates the escalation of violence that is part of blood feuds. In turn, Jesus takes this concern a step further when he urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies.
In the case of Deuteronomy 22:5, we learn that at least one writer thought it was important to write a rule against cross-dressing. One learning from this fact is that there was apparently enough cross-dressing that someone felt a need to make a rule against it. Many of the rules in Hebrew Scripture, especially the rules related to fashion and eating, seem aimed at creating a distinctive cultural appearance and practice so that those standing in the tradition of Moses could be distinguished at a glance. This felt need to distinguish the Hebrew people leads to some of the harshest stories in Hebrew Scripture: genocide, slavery, treachery, rape, divorce of foreign wives and war after war after war. In this context, the rules of appearance don't seem so trivial.
The felt need to be a distinct people becomes visible in the varied circumstances that influence different books of Hebrew Scripture: escape from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, guerrilla warfare, a time of judges and then kings, of empire and dissolution, of diaspora and periodic regathering. The function of law as it relates to culture is very different when the context is competing tribes, empire, and learning to serve God when your culture is oppressed. The diverse challenges faced by the Hebrew people forced them to repeatedly reconsider the meaning of their laws and how they can best be followed. In such rethinking we get to see another of the major themes of Hebrew Scripture, the quest for what is universal in God's revelation, true in all circumstances. The Hebrew people lived in a creative dialectic, trying to remain distinct while also trying to serve a nonparochial God. Any specific expression of the law in Hebrew Scripture deserves to be evaluated in this dialectic context. The ongoingness of this dialectic as it relates to appearance and gender standards is visible in our day in the contrasts between Orthodox and Reform Jews.
Traditional Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5 is that it is a rule against homosexuality rather than transgender expression, probably specific opposition to the cult prostitutes (kadesh) mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:18 as a foreign influence on temple worship.xlviii There is debate about who the kadesh (or qaddesh) were, but, whatever the original meaning of this passage, it seems reasonable to understand its later importance as part of the strong patriarchal theme in Jewish culture, which separated the lives of men and women and limited women's education and participation in ritual practices.xlix
In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were taking paths that emphasized cultural distinctness in the midst of the Roman Empire.l Jesus, in sharp distinction, challenged the cultural laws of Judaism that had no saving power. Jesus continuously placed himself in opposition to the distractions of the purity laws. One example is found in Luke 11:37-42.
When he had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to a meal, and he came in and sat down. The Pharisee noticed with surprise that he had not begun by washing before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "You Pharisees clean the outside of cup and plate; but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside too? But let what is inside be given in charity, and all is clean. Alas for you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and rue and every garden herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. It is these you should have practiced, without overlooking the others.li
Some may point out that the Luke 11 passage is about eating rather than cross-dressing. True, but the Luke 11 passage is a far stronger rejection of the purity laws in the Torah than would be found in a remark about cross-dressing. The Torah is loaded with rules about eating whereas only Deuteronomy 22:5 refers to cross-dressing. Instead of appearance, Jesus emphasizes intent. Such a radical position contributed to the enmity that hastened his death. Following Jesus, I suggest that the core ethical standard for assessing transgender experience and expression is whether it expresses Christian virtues.
The closest Jesus comes to directly referring to transgender experience is his words about eunuchs. In Deuteronomy 23:1-2, eunuchs were barred from the assembly of Israel. This was probably for the same reason that cripples were barred. Cripples were seen as impure or incomplete. Furthermore, a eunuch could not reproduce and had no place in the traditional families of the day. But Jesus welcomed eunuchs into the community. In Matthew 19:12 we find the following words:
For while some are incapable of marriage because they were born so, or were made so by men, there are others who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Let those accept it who can.lii
This Revised English Bible translation, like other common translations, suppresses the word eunuch, although the underlying text is plain.liii In the Scholars Translation of the same passage, however, the underlying text comes clear.
After all, there are castrated men who were born that way, and there are castrated men who were castrated by others, and there are castrated men who castrated themselves because of Heaven's imperial rule. If you are able to accept this advice, do so.liv
Several biblical commentaries play down the castration theme in favor of an ascetic, nonsurgical affirmation of sexual abstinence.lv Although we can never know whether Matthew's third usage of the language of castration was metaphorical, one early Christian theologian, Origen, took the language literally and was voluntarily castrated.lvi Another, Tertullian, declared the Kingdom of Heaven to be open to eunuchs and encouraged many to castrate themselves.lvii Like Matthew, rabbinic and Roman commentators at about the time of Jesus also made distinctions between kinds of eunuchs. They included noncastrated eunuchs, so it might be fair to interpret celibates as voluntary eunuchs.lviii Although this distinction may matter to some contemporary transsexuals, the larger point for a transgender reading of Matthew 19:12 is that some men apparently felt it was important to turn away from some classical masculine expectations to more perfectly follow Jesus.lix` Whatever the details of transgender meanings, the basic point for theology today is that Jesus both recognized eunuchs and welcomed them into the household of faith. Furthermore, he praised some of them for their dedication, which included rejecting some of the traditional gender expectations of that day. This saying of Jesus is aligned with the second author of Isaiah, who wrote the following in the Chapter 56:
The eunuch must not say, "I am naught but a barren tree." These are the words of the Lord: The eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose to do my will and hold fast to my covenant, will receive from me something better than sons and daughters, a memorial and a name in my own house and within my walls; I shall give them everlasting renown, an imperishable name.lx
Most Christians who attack gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people on New Testament grounds skip right over Jesus and go to Paul. I find Paul a complex figure who tried to bridge two cultures. For me, the two greatest contributions of Paul are his inspiring mystical poetry and his missionary activity to make Christianity available to the Gentiles.lxi Paul's missionary work was critical to establishing Christianity as a separate religion. He broke out of the restrictions of other interpreters of Jesus by making it easier for Gentiles to become Christians because he asserted that Gentiles did not need to conform to the details of the Law, as found in the Torah, but rather should conform to the spirit of the Law. This is a prominent theme in many of Paul's letters, and especially in Paul's letter to the Romans. For example, in the second and third chapters of Romans, Paul offers an extended comment on the Jewish law of circumcision. The core of his argument is that if an uncircumcised man keeps the spirit of the Law, he should be counted as circumcised.lxii I find Paul's approach to the Law closely in keeping with the teaching of Jesus as discussed above, in my comments about Luke's understanding of Jesus's position on eating laws and Matthew's understanding of Jesus's position on eunuchs.
Christians who oppose homosexuality on biblical grounds often turn to Romans 1:13-32, since it contains the only extended comment on the subject in the New Testament. Although the issue in Romans is homosexuality rather than transgender expression, the key is a proper Christian understanding of purity standards, and that is important because transgender expression could be viewed as impure because it mixes activities assigned to different genders. It is also important as a practical matter, since many opponents of homosexuality blur the distinctions between homosexuality and transgender activity.
My analysis of Romans 1 is heavily dependent on the work of William Countryman as extended by Daniel Helminiak, and I suggest that readers who wish to argue the fine points of biblical interpretation refer directly to their work, which is far more extensive and well-grounded.lxiii Romans 1 needs to be placed in perspective so that the comments on homosexuality will make sense. Paul wrote in anticipation of a trip to Rome, and, as in most of his writing, he directs his energy to the pastoral needs of the emerging Christian community there and to proclaiming the Gospel that can help his readers deepen their faith. Paul wrote to a Roman Christian community that he believed to be contentiously divided between Jews and Gentiles. It is a carefully crafted letter in keeping with the skilled rhetoric found in the Roman Empire. He begins by praising the Christians for the strength of their faith and then writes of his eagerness to come and see them and his desire to proclaim the Gospel.
In verses 18-23 Paul launches into his first sermon by attacking idol worshipers. This beginning point is most strategic, since it would appeal to a common understanding of both Jews and Greeks in the Christian community in Rome.lxiv Verses 24-27 take the critique of idol worshipers a step further - using the language of social disreputability to describe the homosexual acts of the idol worshipers. To the extent that Paul is referring to homosexual prostitution as part of the activity of worshiping idols, it is easy to understand his aversion as a Jew to such practice. (In Job 36:4, for example, cult prostitutes were considered the lowest of the low.lxv) Paul considers homosexuality to be disgusting and asserts that such activity is punishment for idol worship.
In verses 24-27, Paul does not use the language of sin to describe homosexuality, a language he commonly used to describe other activity.lxvi For example, in verse 26 the Greek word translated as degrading passion is atimia. Paul later uses the same word to describe how others evaluate his commitment to Christ.lxvii Similarly, in verse 27, the Greek word translated as shameless act, aschemosyne, is a word also used to describe a father who refuses to release his daughter for marriage.lxviii The primary point is that it is idol worship which is sinful and that homosexuality related to such idol worship is socially disreputable. However, Paul probably did not like homosexuality outside the context of idol worship either. It offended his Jewish attachment to purity. Although we don't have a comment from Paul on his feelings about homosexual erotic sharing when that is an expression of love and leads to bonded and responsible family formation, it is certainly easy to see that Paul's overall commitment to keeping the spirit of the Law should lead us to focusing on the virtues of love and responsibility, and other eternals, as our primary guide to understanding Paul's proclamation of the Gospel.
There is more to be gained from this passage in Romans. Paul provides a point of view that is relevant to the previous section on natural theology. Paul uses the Greek term para physin, which is commonly translated as unnatural. Verse 26 uses the term to describe intercourse between women. It is easy, but mistaken, to conclude that Paul means that homosexual intercourse is wrong because God created sexual intercourse to produce babies and that therefore it is natural only between males and females. Helminiak argues forcefully that the real meaning of para physin is untraditional and is not language about morality.lxix The term para physin was a common phrase of the Roman Stoic philosophers, and it seems likely that Paul was seeking to appeal to Stoics to notice how well their philosophy fit with a Jewish sense of a single invisible Creator rather than with the Greek cults, which were confused by idolatry. Stoics attempted to live ethically according to their ascetic principles. To offer a bridge to the Stoics, Paul emphasizes his agreement with Stoic opposition to living by undisciplined passion, as modeled by the prostitution associated with idol worship.
Paul was not a Stoic. Rather, his religious understanding turns on his experience of the Christ as risen and alive. Paul never knew the incarnate Jesus, and this limit to his perspective shows up here. Paul is cutting his ties to the world of experience in favor of the world of contemplation. Paul's contemplation differs from that of the Stoics because it is grounded not merely in an ascetic philosophy but in mystical vision. He ends his writing to the Romans with the following benediction:
To the One who is able to keep you firm in your faith, according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, based on the revelation of the divine secret kept silent for long ages but now made clear by the commands of eternal God to all nations to bring them to faith and obedience, as recorded in prophetic scriptures - to the only God of wisdom, made known through Jesus as our Christ, be glory for endless ages! Amen.lxx
For Paul, what is unnatural is to be apart from God. Thus the best question about sexual expression to be derived from the first chapter of Romans is whether such expression connects one with God. Instead of trying to reduce questions about sex and gender to opinions about God's revelation through physiological functions, we would do well to follow Paul, who grounded his understanding in a right relationship to God. I join the Roman Catholic hierarchy and others when they assert that revelation, rather than scientific analysis, is needed to guide sexual and gender activities.lxxi As I pointed out in the section on natural theology, the basic debate is about whether asceticism, or what kind of asceticism, is a Christian virtue. Paul contributed to asceticism when he emphasized desires of the spirit as being in opposition to desires of the body, but he trumps any tendency to a life-denying asceticism with his mystical poetry, which encourages Christians to embody the eternal virtues within this life and with his emphasis on the spirit of the Law for the guidance of everyday life.
With the above understanding of Paul in mind, it is easy to respond to the New Testament passage most commonly used to criticize transgender people - I Corinthians 11:13-15. It reads as follows.
Judge for yourselves: is it fitting for a woman to pray to God bareheaded? Does not nature herself teach you that while long hair disgraces a man, it is a woman's glory? For her hair was given as a covering.lxxii
The context of these verses is a discussion of the proper behavior of men and women at prayer. Verses 4-8 set up verses 13-15 and read as follows.
A man who keeps his head covered when he prays or prophesies brings shame on his head; but a woman brings shame on her head if she prays or prophesies bareheaded; it is as bad as if her head was shaved. If a woman does not cover her head she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for her to be cropped and shaved, then she should cover her head. A man must not cover his head, because man is the image of God, and the mirror of his glory, whereas a woman reflects the glory of man.lxxiii
This confused patriarchal declaration leads to verse 10, which extends the hair covering issue to "and therefore a woman must have the sign of her authority on her head." Paul tries to recover his balance in verse 11. He asserts that, in the Lord's fellowship, woman is as essential to man as man is to woman. (Essential perhaps, but properly subordinate.)
Paul's comment on masculine hair style has something to do with the dominant position of men in Paul's church. The Greek word for nature in this instance is physis. Physis is a common word with several possible meanings. The most relevant is native disposition in the sense of what is expected.lxxiv The physiological reality is that the hair of a male will grow long unless it is cut. It is cut hair that Paul is concerned about so the native disposition meaning is clearly Paul's intent. The context makes it clear that Paul is defending patriarchal culture in this passage. Paul may have liked short hair cuts for men, but even if he had preferred long hair for men he was willing to support the patriarchal oppression of women, just as he was at least willing to tolerate slavery, because his attention was focused not on public policy but on keeping peace in the congregation while waiting for the end of the world. If the purpose of biblical theology is separating out the kerygma from its cultural context, you could hardly have a better test case. Prayer is important because it lets a person draw close to God. The patriarchal misogyny of Jewish culture, including its appearance code, is exactly the kind of cultural purity rule that Jesus opposed and that Paul, at other points, also vigorously opposed.
It is important to place any dissension over the value of Hebrew cultural standards in the larger context of the emergent message of saving truth begun in Hebrew Scripture, clarified in the teaching of Jesus, and celebrated in Paul's greatest visions. The vision statement of Paul that bears most directly on transgender concerns is probably Galatians 3:28:
There is no such thing as Jew or Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.lxxv
Galatians 3:28 makes no sense as scientific observation. It makes perfect liberating sense by pointing out that what is important is love and justice, truth and beauty. The main theme of Galatians is that people are saved not by conforming to legal detail but by the direct experience of grace. Paul tells us to follow what is life-giving, and we are challenged to work out holy truth in our situation as Paul tried to work it out in his. We can best honor Paul and God by focusing on the saving truth Paul pointed to and leaving the rest behind.
The second story of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, deserves attention in this section because it is referenced in several places in Hebrew and Christian Scripture, because it is prominently referenced in two thousand years of Christian history, and because it is heavily referenced in current biblically grounded discussions of gay and lesbian people and has been applied to transgender people. A first-level reading of this passage certainly supports a bipolar understanding of sex and gender. If the story of Adam and Eve were a divinely inspired physiology text, it would weigh against an appreciation of transgender people.
If we read the story of Adam and Eve with a concern for spiritual truths instead of physiological truths, we see that the passage is about the relationship between human beings and God and about how that relationship changes when humans become aware of the difference between good and evil. This is a story about humans engaging eternal truth. We learn that such engagement can be hazardous for spiritual health - can lead us not to trust God but to rely on ourselves. We learn that relying on ourselves can lead to separation from God and that such separation has profound consequences. As many Christian writers have emphasized, this is a story about sin entering the world.
The setting of this story is a second creation myth in Genesis.lxxvi The story line talks about the creation of people. Adam is created as an undifferentiated human being. The Hebrew word adamah means simply ground or dust. Perhaps the author meant that Adam was a man or masculine. It was, after all, written in a patriarchal culture. If this argument is made it must follow that Adam was not adequately made because Adam was lonely, incomplete. The story tells us that to reduce the loneliness of Adam (sexually undifferentiated or incomplete male), God completed the creation of human beings by creating a woman from the tzela of Adam. This word is usually translated accurately as meaning rib. Another equally accurate translation of tzela is side.lxxvii If you read tzela as side, then, instead of seeing Eve as made out of merely a small part of Adam, you see the creation of Eve as a differentiation of Adam into two sexes and as creating the possibility of social partnership and an end to loneliness.lxxviii This story is an affirmation of life possibilities, even in the midst of our mortality and difficult circumstances, made possible by the emergence of human beings who can become partners in engaging the eternal truths God sets before us. Growing awareness can lead us into mistakes and can lead us to separate ourselves from God, but we are still a wonderful creation, and we have access to the understanding of good and evil to help guide us toward better social partnerships.
In all the ways that males, females and intersexual humans become men, women and transgender people, all the similarities and all the differences can be drawn together into partnerships that show forth the best or worst of what God hopes for us, what God has made possible for us. Jesus helps us understand what good choices might look like.
What Can We Learn from Christian Doctrine?
I was baptized a Presbyterian and first learned about doctrine in the Calvinist tradition. The concept of doctrine is that a single statement can capture some essence of the Christian faith. Christians who are interested in doctrinal theology spend a lot of time considering how their doctrines should be written, how their doctrines fit together, and how they contrast with the doctrines of other denominations. One of the larger problems of doctrinal thinking is that the meanings of words change over time and so do the larger envelopes of meaning within which words and doctrines fit. This means that once a doctrine has been articulated, a great deal of maintenance is required as language and cultural contexts change.
Whether Calvinist, Anglican, Lutheran, fundamentalist, or Roman Catholic, a primary goal of a doctrine is identifying sin. We Christians are against sin. A few million arguments later, we may confess some disagreements about what constitutes sin as a concept, about how we know what sin is, and about a list of particular sins. Other books that are solely devoted to doctrinal theology can assist you in the joys of such reflection. For this book, I merely direct your attention to three areas of consensus across most doctrinal lines that can guide responses to transgender experience and expression.
First, sin is a violation of the law of God, a concept that may be applied to, but not reduced to, social roles and expectations. A Christian understanding of sin makes us aware of the ways in which people's attitudes and practices are not in accord with the eternal values of love and justice.
Second, idolatry is a particularly bad sin, a direct insult to God. The essence of idolatry is to assign ultimate value to something that is less than God. Any time we give our ultimate loyalty to something less than God, that something stands in the way of seeing God, of being in right relationship with God.
Third, Christians believe that the eternal values, such as love, beauty, and justice, can be directly experienced. We experience love with excitement and appreciation, beauty with awe and heightened sensitivity, and justice as conscience - a sense of correctness.
Awareness that God's laws are not equivalent to human laws, not equivalent to social and cultural expectations, creates space for principled reflection about such human constructions. As with all human constructions, we can reflect on gender. In earlier chapters I make use of this reflective space to reconsider the accuracy of scientific, clinical, and common concepts about gender as a preparation for considering transgender experience and expression. In this section it is appropriate to reconsider the desirability of traditionally constructed roles of man and woman.
As developed in the second chapter, we are physiologically created as male, female, and intersexual animals. Earlier chapters emphasized the concepts of emergence and synthesis to link together and give proper weight to the contributions of physiological, psychological and social factors. Taking account of similarities and differences in our bodies - both direct implications and metaphorical potentials - human cultures have constructed varying roles of man and woman, and such roles have changed within cultures over time. Different cultures have made more or less room for people to play specific transgender roles of one kind or another. The doctrinal point to be made here is based on the perspective that there is nothing about transgender experience and expression that justifies some kind of special-case doctrine. Transgender behavior can be evaluated by the usual Christian values of love, responsibility, truth and fairness, and the like.
We make idols gender roles when we become more committed to defending these human constructions than to asking what God wants from each of us. When we refuse to deepen our spiritual reflection below our understanding of ourselves as man or woman, we have turned gender roles into an idol. Unless we can gain a little reflective distance, reconsider how our experience fits and doesn't fit with our understanding of the roles of man and woman, it may be difficult to be open to what God is about in this part of our lives. The good news of transgender experience and expression for straight people is that it may help to open up such reflective distance.
Does it seem radical or impossible to you to suggest that the roles of man and woman should be evaluated in terms of such values as love and justice? Merely asking this question points out that we don't need to spend any more time on debating whether other gender constructions are possible. It changes everything to realize one is assessing current cultural definitions rather than divine natural order.
What is good, true, beautiful, just, or loving in your conception of the roles man or woman? If you're interested in such exercises, you might stop reading for a minute and write a few key words or phrases under the headings man and woman. Then pause and ask yourself, are there any virtues of men or women that should not be expectations for everyone? If a man is nurturing to a child, really nurturing as you best understand that word, is this bad or sinful? Maybe it feels uncomfortable or uncommon, but would you say it is sinful? If a woman aggressively defends what is right, using behavior considered masculine, is this bad or sinful? Maybe it is uncomfortable or uncommon, but would you say it is sinful? To be doctrinally elemental, I can't think of a single Christian virtue that is not virtuous for everyone.
Even if we agree to pursue Christian virtues as best we understand them, confessing our sins and shortcomings as we fail, there are still multiple questions about how, or with what style, such virtues should be pursued. Some may argue that both men and women may be nurturing but that there are desirable gender differences in the style or content of such nurturing. Those arguing for gender differences in the style or content of nurturing have a tough argument to make. Whatever the situation, the goal is to provide the most effective nurturance possible. Whether nurturance in a particular situation requires strength or tenderness, whether individuals have been well or poorly prepared by their history of gender socialization, those facing the situation are still constrained to do the best they can with what they've got. Furthermore, we are all challenged to grow so that we may be more effective in more situations. Developing self-honesty and fostering sensitivity to the needs of others are the kinds of Christian habits that empower whatever there is of conscience within us. If our gender habits limit such awareness and commitment, our consciences are injured and our actions are less likely to be ethical.
People team up in many ways and for many goals, including seeking better understanding and the enjoyment of working together. Part of such teamwork often includes a division of labor. Some may argue that it is efficient, and therefore desirable, that men and women should divide various tasks along traditional cultural lines. For example, two parents may play some version of good-cop and bad-cop roles in raising children. Both roles would be conceived as having the child's best interest at heart. The roles would merely be different. Beyond arguing about the desirability of this particular example of role differentiation, and beyond arguing about who gets to be the good cop, there is the question of whether dividing any role or task by gender is a good idea. In following out this concern, we can begin by noting that some tasks are more physiologically based than others, breast feeding being a good example.lxxix On the other hand, for most physiologically influenced tasks, there is more flexibility and potential for sharing than is commonly noted by writers who emphasize the physiological dimension. Even though it is rare for males to be able to breast-feed, there is no reason males cannot actively participate in feeding infants.
When it comes to evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of a particular division of labor, a whole host of considerations come to mind. If one thinks it is effective and efficient for the best- prepared person to take on a particular role or task, shouldn't "best-prepared" trump the categories of male, female, or intersexual or of man, woman, or transgender? Perhaps most men would often, in this society, be better at playing the bad cop than most women. But if a mother happens to be a better bad cop than the father, is there any Christian reason she shouldn't do it? If parents need to back each other up on occasion, or if it makes sense to take turns, is there anything sinful about men and women learning multiple skills and developing their created potentials?
This way of thinking is just as relevant for discussing explicitly sexual activity as it is for discussing nurturance. We might, for example, ask whether any particular sexual act was joyous, responsible, and loving. Merely picking up this topic may seem pretty radical for some doctrinally oriented Christians, but I'm hoping it is becoming apparent that the emotional heat about transgender expressions of sexuality has not changed the basic doctrinal conversation. Inadequate and destructive doctrinal thinking cuts off conversation before reflection has even begun. Helpful doctrinal theology aids and encourages reflection about the relevance of Christian virtues to experience and expression.
Turning aside for the moment from the list of "Thou shalt nots" that stops so much Christian doctrinal conversation about sex before it has even begun, let's focus for a moment on what can be good about sharing sexual passion. Passion is good if lets the love of God in. Respecting people's needs and vulnerabilities is good. Giving and taking is good as long as what is given and taken is good. Feeling one's feelings is good, especially if space is made for God-given ecstasy.lxxx Conceiving a child is good if the couple is ready to take responsibility for such a child. Not conceiving a child is good if a child is not sought. This line of thinking builds on the understanding that Jesus threw away a long list of culturally oriented Jewish laws by asking about intent.
Transgender sexual sharing, like other sexual sharing, can be all of the good things just listed, or none of them,. If the sharing is good for both partners, if both feel loved and affirmed, if both give and take, if both are responsible, then where is the sin? If transgender awareness increases expressive flexibility, increases appreciation of the partner, increases access to feelings locked away behind rigid cultural stereotypes, then transgender sharing has made love all the more real, all the more present, all the more revealing of the mysterious presence of God in all human loving.
Assuming that Christians should oppose exploitative sexuality in all its forms, is there anything intrinsically exploitive about transgender sexual sharing? The answer is interactional. If a transgender person demands or forces an unwanted sexual interaction, it is just as exploitive as such force or demand in a traditional gender pattern. It is surely true that some potential sexual partners are not willing to engage in transgender sexual sharing. Force or manipulation in such a context would be sinful. But there are couples who are quite pleased with transgender sexual sharing. Perhaps more important, there are couples who are in between, who are working things out. A Christian guide to such working out calls attention to what is really important. Is it loving? Is it respectful? Are the needs and desires of both partners taken into account? Is the communication honest?
As in natural theology and biblical theology, this section shows there is nothing intrinsic to Christian doctrine that opposes the sharing of transgender experience, including sexual sharing. In fact, Christian doctrine should hold that when transgender expression, including transgender sexual expression, is loving, responsible, mutual, and creative, the marks of God's good gifts are present, and we should celebrate such relationships. This understanding is the most important thing that Christians can contribute to our current cultural debate about transgender expression.
Earlier chapters made it clear that there is no scientific basis for pathologizing transgender relationships. This chapter makes it clear that a Christian understanding of nature, a Christian understanding of the Bible, and doctrinal affirmation of all loving and responsible transgender relationships eliminate any Christian grounding for the claim that transgender experience and expression are intrinsically sinful. Since some psychiatric and psychological leaders claim that their assertions of pathology are based, at least in part, on the current normative culture of the United States, which has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a direct responsibility for the church to help correct the errors done in its name.
I realize that there will be some within the transgender community, as well as some within the bisexual, lesbian, and gay communities, who will find it alarming to start discussions of theological grounding for social standards from an affirmation of the choice of loving and responsible transgender expression. Earlier chapters, and an earlier part of this chapter, dealt with the issue of choice as a complex question and concluded that whereas some people have little sense of choice about their gender expressions, others do have choices to make - choices that respond to varying psychological and social costs and benefits. Christians are expected to use Christian understanding and perspectives to guide their personal and social lives. This lead Christians to ask how best to confront destructive and oppressive social realities. I believe that it is both right, and also the best political choice, to focus on holding up the fact that transgender expression can be loving, responsible, and desirable. There are special-case arguments that can be made for those who have little choice about their gender orientation, including their choice of sexual partner, but there will be no cultural or social room for many of us until we are prepared to affirm the goodness of our choices, claim ourselves more deeply, offer our love and responsibility to other individuals and society more honestly, and seek the acceptance of others for our good choices.
The great 20th century challenge to doctrinal thinking came from Paul Tillich, who championed dialectic thinking. He pointed out that two truths can be in tension with each other and yet be true at the same time. For example, any person is both existing and changing (being and becoming) at the same time. The last section of this chapter, "A New Wineskin to Hold All the Life-Giving Truth," works from a dialectic perspective, and it is also responsive to the next section, on liberation theology.
Liberating Sex and Gender
The Chevalier(e) d'Eon, the most famous transgender person in Western Civilization who lived in the 18th century, upon becoming a woman in middle age became a Christian feminist, and tried hard to open up privileged masculine positions in French culture to the participation of women. She wanted access to the same kind of interesting life she had known as a man. Unfortunately, "libertine" France was moving in the opposite direction, and her life ended in poverty in London.lxxxi Stories of d'Eon often emphasize his prowess as a spy and a swordsman. But, both before and after becoming a woman, s/he wrote prolifically on many subjects. The Chevalier(e) also collected books and had one of the most complete collections of feminist writing in her day. Although it is easy to think of feminism as coming to full flower in the 20th century in the United States, it is interesting to remember that feminism had multiple sources. This section follows in the tradition of d'Eon and is aimed at providing a helpful word from a transgender perspective.lxxxii
The word liberation usually carries the meaning of freedom-from. In the Latin American context, liberation theology begins with a concern for freedom from economic and political oppression. Although not often held up in this way, Christian theology provides a grounding for science by valuing a liberation from ignorance and error. In the United States, feminist theology has emphasized liberation from patriarchy. In the context of Hebrew Scripture, liberation is commonly linked to the story of Moses and the escape from oppression in Egypt. The Hebrew prophetic tradition holds up the theme of liberation from oppressive kings. Jesus points to the liberation theme in a time of diaspora - the possibility of liberation in place, of liberation before the political world is made right.
Liberation theology also carries some themes of freedom-for. In Latin America, part of the liberating vision is about democracy and the transformation of economic structures. In feminist theology, part of the vision is about sisterhood and interpersonal wholeness. In addition, liberation theologies carry transcendent themes such as love and justice. It is transcendent themes that allow people walking one path of liberation to create bridges to people walking others. It is critical to note this, even though some expressions of liberation theology give transcendence relatively little attention. Without a transcendent element, liberation becomes a new parochialism, and one liberation can be played off against another. If liberation is jonly for me and people like me, what has been liberated has to be defended by walls of one kind or another. If the vision is one of liberation for all, we have to find ways to join hands against all injustice and oppression.
The contrasting of freedom-from and freedom-for is also an issue for transgender people. It is easy for speakers to cry out for freedom from gender oppression. But too often our speeches have little sense of positive direction other than that everybody should be free to do their own thing. Some transgender leaders have created a "Declaration of Gender Liberty."lxxxiii The Declaration has gone through several drafts and been distributed at transgender conferences. It asserts rights to identity, to gender expression, to participate in sexual activity, to parenting, and the like. But, in the referenced draft of the Declaration, there is nothing of a transcendent theme, such as "justice for all." From my point of view, the Declaration is best understood as taking the first step by naming what had previously been unnamed. Fortunately, a larger affirmation of liberation shows up in the comments of some transgender leaders and in the guiding documents of such transgender groups as GenderPac.
Vanessa Sheridan calls for a Christian theology of liberation for transgender people.lxxxiv Her book shares her own story and several other moving stories of transgender people. She criticizes institutional churches for hostility toward transgender people and encourages individual transgender people to look past the rejection of pastors and congregations to the liberation stories in the Bible and particularly to Jesus and the uncompromising love of God.
Liberation and Movement
If doctrinal theology is static in the sense of attempting once-and-for-all statements about right and wrong, liberation theology is active in the sense of seeking to undergird social change. To empower such change, liberation theology has the double task of freeing people from being locked into the limits of their own traditions and of projecting a believable future in which things can be truly different. I aim here at the liberation tasks of helping transgender people gain freedom from oppression, and of creating space for transgender experience and expression in the larger common culture. Chapter 7 and 8 discuss many of the legal and cultural challenges facing transgender liberation.
In Chapter 8, no claim is made for a specific transgender lifestyle. Instead, the great variety among transgender people is emphasized over the course of this book. This point bears repeating, because the radical Christian right mistakenly attacks a gay "lifestyle" as if there were only one way of being gay. The ugly name-calling attacks of the radical Christian right then misconstrues the lives of those who most meet their stereotypes of a gay lifestyle.lxxxv In contrast, this chapter names some Christian concerns that are grounded in the saving truth of Jesus and asks freshly, "What is loving, what is responsible?"
As a start toward a liberation theology of transgender experience and expression it is fairly easy to name the freedom-from element. The social roles man and woman, and the cultural themes masculine and feminine, are flawed human constructions in need of reform. Since feminist theologians agree with this starting point, it should be easy to build a bridge between a feminist and a transgender perspective. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott offers such a bridge in her book Omnigender. She writes, "I wish I could believe that as soon as religious people learn in detail the plight of intersexuals, transsexuals, and other transgender people, they will repent of their oppressive attitudes and open their hearts to transformation. That's really all this book is asking for."lxxxvi
Sympathy is a start, but I'm hoping for a stronger foundation based on appreciation. Unfortunately, some feminists are neither appreciative nor sympathetic, so there is work to do to create a better-grounded conversation. Transgender people can build their end of the bridge by going deeper into their personal transformation work and realizing that their energy for escaping gender restrictions points to a larger cultural truth and not just to personal needs for an identity change. We transgender people also need to apply to our goal genders the same quality of critique we apply to our assigned genders.
I hope some of the bridge building by feminists will include revisiting their stereotypes about transgender people and reconsidering the complexity of the relationships between sex and gender. I'm aware that gender images projected by some transgender people are painful to many feminists. Perhaps earlier chapters in this book will help feminists appreciate why some transgender people express gender caricatures. Many transgender people who are seen (read) in public have not had much experience in public settings, have not had a lot of time or support for creative reflection. Conversely, many of those most accomplished in transgender expression become invisible. Although I'm aware that some transgender people have caused pain for feminists, I must also testify to the pain some feminists have caused for transgender people. Hopefully we can get beyond reliving our pains and come to a fresh meeting.
An Enemy Picture
The most total and unrelenting feminist challenge to transgender people was drawn by Janice Raymond. As the author of the first feminist book to respond to transsexual expression, she had a decidedly negative effect on conversation between feminist, lesbian, and transgender communities. Although I don't see Raymond as a dominant figure in the current feminist intellectual world, I see that she is not alone.
It is a bit unfair to focus on Raymond, because she started writing in 1973 and her book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, was published in 1979. By 1979, transgender people had not been able to claim much public voice other than in a few autobiographies.
Raymond created an "enemy picture" of transsexuals. She noted no positive or neutral aspects and came close to exhausting the English language in her negative comments. On the basis of 15 interviews with transsexuals, Raymond tells us only that most transsexuals had stereotypic understanding of gender and that some practiced prostitution as their source of income.lxxxvii In discussing a news story of Paula Grossman, a transsexual who lost a court case in which she was trying to keep her job as a schoolteacher, we learn only that she looked pretty in a traditional way but had big feet.lxxxviii
For Raymond, transsexualism attempts to "wrest from women the power inherent in female biology" and is attempting to "make biological women obsolete by the creation of man-made she-males."lxxxix In response to female-to-male transsexuals she writes, "in a transition period during which the biological woman is in the process of being made obsolete by bio-medicine, the aim would be to assimilate (thus eliminate) those women who do not conform to male standards of femininity."xc
While Raymond is highly critical of those transsexuals who play stereotypic gender roles, she is even more hostile toward transsexuals who claim to be feminists. Such transsexual feminists try to be women, she asserts, but betray themselves by the typical masculine gestures of possessiveness and by typically masculine obtrusiveness. This masculine obtrusiveness occurs when male-to-female transsexuals participate in women's meetings and even dare to take leadership positions. In addition to betraying themselves, transsexuals are also deceptive, because women would never accept them if they knew they were men. She paints a picture of Olivia Records, an all-woman organization that knowingly accepted a transsexual recording engineer, as betraying the women's movement.xci She compares transsexually constructed lesbian-feminists to the pseudolesbians found in Playboy magazine.xcii
At several points Raymond uses the word rape to describe transsexuals. For example, "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating the body for themselves." Furthermore, they "violate women's sexuality and spirit as well."xciii And again, "The transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, having castrated himself, turns his whole body and behavior into a phallus that can rape in many ways, all the time. In this sense he performs total rape...."xciv Following up the language of rape, she accuses women who accept transsexuals of being traitors because such acceptance "mutilates" lesbian-feminist reality.xcv
Raymond attacks the decisions made by males to undergo SRS because, she asserts, no real choice is involved. This is because transsexuals can choose only between patriarchally defined alternatives. Furthermore, transsexuals cannot offer informed consent, because they are in the prison of patriarchy. She further attacks the choice of transsexuals by comparing it to addiction to heroin which people seek to ease their pain.xcvi
Raymond is as hostile to the medical establishment that provides transsexual services as she is to transsexuals. She asserts that SRS is part of the tradition of unnecessary surgery in the United States, that the experimental aspects of SRS are hidden, and that the doctors probably don't tell the transsexuals of the physical hazards. She further compares SRS to the surgery performed in Nazi death camps against Jews and others.xcvii She compares transsexual surgery to lobotomies and clitoridectomies used by some to control unwanted behavior such as masturbation.xcviii She denies even elementary humanity to transsexuals when she writes, "Instead of developing genuine integrity, the transsexual becomes a synthetic product."xcix And again, transsexuals are guilty of "reducing the quest for the vital forces of selfhood to the artifacts of hormones and surgical appendages."c
Perhaps Raymond's greatest insult comes at the end when she writes, "It is my deepest hope that this book will not be viewed as an unsympathetic treatment of the anguish and existential plight of the transsexual."ci The source of her "sympathy" is her appreciation as a woman of the suffering caused by patriarchy, including hatred of the body.cii Her "sympathy," however, does not lead to tolerance. The cost of tolerance would be the continuation of more medical casualties; and, far more importantly, "sympathetic tolerance will only strengthen a society in which sex roles are the norm...." Tolerance of what is "radically evil" makes it seem good, and that radical evil is the "control of women."ciii
Lack of tolerance is one thing; oppression is another. Raymond writes, "I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence."civ Fortunately, she doesn't have murder or imprisonment in mind. Unfortunately, she does have in mind the equivalent of the religious tradition of banning, where deviants were thrust out of the community and abandoned to starvation or suicide. She writes, "Transsexuals are not women. They are deviant males and their particular manifestation of gender deviancy needs it own unique context of peer support."cv The path to transcendence for transsexuals, according to Raymond, is to reject being either a man or a woman.cvi She writes a whole chapter about why women should not accept transsexuals into their midst and repeats her points at the end of her book. Realizing that her strategy of banning transsexuals from the company of women might be thought of as cruel, she writes that transsexuals should simply suffer because even people in severe pain or suffering from deformity have learned to transcend their condition.cvii
As one might guess from these quotes, reading Raymond felt as toxic to me as reading the works of the establishment psychiatrists and psychologists who name us sick and of some theologians who name us sinful. Despite all Raymond's negativity, however, there are a few things to be gained from working with her ideas. But first of all a bit of analysis and response is needed.
Why does Raymond hate transsexuals so much? Is she really afraid that transsexuals will make females obsolete? Her reference for that charge boils down to the written comments of one transsexual named Angela Douglas and one biologist named John Postgate. Was she merely being politically competitive because she was in a feminist group that accepted leadership from a transsexual? The point of greatest distress, as named in her book, came at the point where she was fighting for a lesbian-feminist definition of who women most truly are. "It is a critical time for woman-identified women. The best response women can make to this is to see clearly just what is at stake for us with respect to transsexualism and to assert our own power of naming who we are."cviii
Raymond's construction of "who women really are" is fundamentally mythic. She writes about having a direct intuition of be-ing which is the source of all integrity. She writes about such intuition as a kind of "mystical grace."cix Her claim, written in secular terms, is essentially the same as a claim of direct revelation from God, written in Christian terms. What is Raymond's intuition? "The real mytho-historical memory may have been that of an original psychosocial integrity where men were not masculine nor women feminine."cx This revelation leads her to assert that the "real Fall" was not the creation of male and female but patriarchy's creation of masculine and feminine.cxi This claiming of revelation is an attempt by Raymond to assert a deeper grounding for her gender definitions than patriarchy can claim. Her myth is that creation is distinctly male and female and that she has intuited what it is to be female. For Raymond, female involves such things as multidimensional creativity, whereas patriarchy has imposed false categories of masculinity and femininity in the interests of oppression. That is, Raymond sees her categories as not mere social constructions but as the expression of the really-real, which she knows as directly intuited mythic truth. Following Mary Daly, she asserts that this is a far better picture than Christian theology, which has an anthropomorphic understanding of God that is hopelessly attached to patriarchy.cxii For a more holistic feminist engagement of the same mythic material, readers may wish to refer to Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels.
By claiming an intrinsic valuable femaleness, Raymond attempts to place her position above feminist deconstruction techniques, which have been used to analyze patriarchy as an oppressive social construction. I'm hopeful that other feminists will work with all gender constructions as social constructions that can be evaluated with reference to the eternal values. Here we need only note that transsexualism is a threat to Raymond's mythic claim because transsexuals assert that males can become women.
We learn a bit more about the mythic threat of transsexuals when we consider Raymond's favored version of feminism: "lesbian-feminism."cxiii Lesbian-feminism is "a total perspective on life in a patriarchal society representing a primal commitment to women on all levels of existence and challenging the bulwark of a sexist society - that is heterosexism."cxiv The presumed superiority of lesbian-feminism, as compared to other kinds of feminism, is shown in the quote, "if female spirit, mind, creativity, and sexuality exist anywhere in a powerful way, it is here, among lesbian-feminists."cxv Lesbian-feminists, in Raymond's view, have the advantage of being more free from the intrusions of patriarchy. In the quest for such purity, any taint of males is unacceptable. And, in Raymond's view, male-to-female transsexuals are intruders and female-to-male transsexuals are "lost women."
Despite her criticism of lingering masculine traits in male-to-female transsexuals, her more basic posture seems to be that "Medicalized transsexualism creates male-to-constructed-females who are more feminine (in action, speech, and self-definition) than most biological women."cxvi She inserts the word "constructed" in her formulary to indicate that she doesn't concede that they are real females. Raymond attempts an argument of genetic essentialism by emphasizing that transsexuals are not chromosomal females. She names this particular facet with full awareness that there are other physiological sources of definition: "while transsexuals are in every way masculine or feminine, they are not fundamentally male or female. Maleness and femaleness are governed by certain chromosomes, and the subsequent history of being a chromosomal male or female."cxvii To justify her myth of a distinctive femaleness that is not socially constructed, Raymond needs a definition of maleness or femaleness that cannot be modified. The earlier chapters of this book suggest the shortcomings of Raymond's arguments about genetics.
Raymond does not settle for a merely chromosomal argument. She adds a psychological essentialism as well. She claims the argument of John Money that early socialization is what is critical.cxviii Although she relies heavily on Money for her clinical view of transsexualism and explains his theory, she fails to respond to Money's main point, that transsexualism is caused by something in socialization during the first 18 months of life. Her mythic needs lead Raymond to write as if gender socialization is always consistent with birth-assigned sexual categories. She simply skips a major theory of transsexualism that she knows about.
Raymond, in addition to saying that chromosomes are basic, and then saying that mind rather than brain is basic, completes the confusion by saying that social factors are basic: "the issue of transsexualism is basically one of social ontology - that is, an issue of what society allows and encourages its constituency to be."cxix The problem is not that she includes factors of physiology, psychology, and social interaction. So do other theorists, and so does this book. Her problems are that she forgets disciplinary distinctions when she discusses one or another facet of transgender questions and that she is inconsistent in presenting the causal implications of various factors.
Annie Woodhouse offers a different kind of feminist critique than does Raymond. She is a British psychiatrist who did some participant observation and interview studies with transvestites and their wives who are part of the Beaumont Society, a well-known transgender support group in England. Her book, Fantastic Women, was published in 1989. Woodhouse, despite being a psychiatrist, found little explanatory value in psychiatric or psychological theory for explaining transgender activity. Her primary interest, like Raymond's, is in the implications of transgender activity for changing gender standards in favor of a feminist position in gender politics. Woodhouse writes with far greater consistency than Raymond and uses definitions similar to those found in this book. She considers only male-to-female transgender activity.
Woodhouse offers a good deal of individual case study information, which shows a great deal of diversity in the transgender population. Her comments indicate awareness of further diversity. Some of her reports show transvestites struggling with their lives; while other reports show successful and highly functional people. She reports on all five of her interviews with wives. She found the wives to be critical of, or unhappy with, their spouses. (It seemed to me, however, that two of the reports from the wives could have been summarized more positively.) In any case, it is her sympathy for the wives that leads Woodhouse to the conclusion that transvestism should not be thought of as harmless. As a positive recommendation, she calls for support groups for transvestites and for their wives.
I agree with Woodhouse that ethics should consider relationships and not merely individuals. I do not know much about the one group she studied in Great Britain in the 1980's, but the relevance of her discussion is qualified by her lack of awareness that in the United States, transgender support groups and conventions, including an annual specialized convention for spouses, commonly work with the concerns of spouses and significant others. Some common themes are honesty and rebuilding trust, improving communication, giving space and time for growth, improving negotiations over practical issues, and consideration of family and social contexts. Peggy Rudd has published several books aimed at improving relationships between transgender people and their spouses or significant others.cxx For those interested in reading autobiographical stories written by the spouses and other family members of transgender people, I recommend Mary Boehnke's Trans Forming Families. Altough there is always room for improvement, my experience has been that organized transgender activity in the United States has been quite responsive to the kind of critique that Woodhouse raises from the point of view of wives.
Woodhouse is critical of Raymond for trying to have it both ways in her book: that gender should be changed and that there is something about gender that cannot be changed.cxxi For the most part, Woodhouse argues the social constructionist position and critiques transvestites from that point of view: "Transvestism is a form of fractured behavior which compartmentalizes masculinity and femininity; thus the possession of two wardrobes does not make for a more complete self, any more than it makes for greater sexual equality."cxxii Taking this sentence seriously points to the limits of Woodhouse's insight. Her observations are cross-sectional in time and show little awareness of growth and change in individual transvestites. Of course owning two wardrobes isn't of itself healing or transforming. It is what transvestites do with those wardrobes - the reflective inner work and the social engagement, that generates any wholeness.
Woodhouse observed transgender people at early points in their social emergence. The organized transgender community is still mostly in its infancy and was even more a work of beginners in the 1980s. Support groups, like the Beaumont Society, are often focused on the stress and strain of transgender people who are just coming out to themselves, with people who are wrestling with the challenging step of cross-dressing in a protected social setting. Such support groups listen to many tales of who and when to tell, consider strategies for handling rejection and loss, and help beginners learn the props and scripts of cross-gender presentations. More experienced transgender people talk about their challenges in being out in larger social settings, starting with selected bars and restaurants. For myself, I find it harder and harder to get to my local Transgender Education Association monthly meetings because I have so many competing family, church, and professional responsibilities and interests. But I well remember how important it was for me to go the first few times. To her credit, Woodhouse qualifies her critique of the "fractured" reality she saw by noting that some transvestites were holding up standards of integration. I just wish she had shown a bit more awareness of how hard that work is, both individually and collectively.
The most substantial negation of transgender people that Woodhouse presents is the charge that "Whether the situation is a club, a bar or a drag ball the thread running through and linking them together is that of dissembling - people pretending both to themselves and others, that they are something other than what they really are." And again, "Transvestism involves switching roles and identity, not only from masculine to feminine but also from reality to fantasy."cxxiii And again, "Transvestism does not mean becoming a woman. It does not even mean becoming a woman on a temporary basis. It relies on contrived appearance and a masquerade which bears little relation to most women's experience of daily life."cxxiv This charge is much like Raymond's assertion of duplicity and is aimed at justifying a social response that rejects the gender identity being offered when transgender people cross-dress.
The charge of dissembling seriously misunderstands the subjectivity of transgender experience. An earlier chapter of transgender people's stories in this book and numerous autobiographies of transgender people do not point to dissembling. The section in Chapter 4 on social construction, my theorization and comments in Chapter 6, and the extended analyses of clinical studies in Chapters 3 and 7 all point away from the charge of dissembling. Certainly some cross-dressing is pretending, or at least claims to be pretending, as modeled by the drag balls Woodhouse mentions. But, from the social constructionist view that Woodhouse affirms, much of the expression she responds to as dissembling can better be seen as exploration, play, and claiming. By play I mean the social growth and development activity that is usually thought of as existing in the realm of childhood. Play, as one approach to exploration, can be a very important source of growth for adults as well. For example, several kinds of psychotherapy can be thought of as very expensive play, of trying out feeling and expressions. For transvestites, many of whom were denied childhood play that allowed exploration of both gender roles, adult gender play may be regarded as an attempt at recovering lost learning. One part of that learning is the adolescent work of developing skill for making an attractive gender presentation.
Woodhouse was allowed "backstage," where many of the transvestites she observed were just beginning their social learning, just beginning their socially based self-acceptance, which generates and supports the possibility of a deeper and more coherent personal integration. It is not surprising that much of what she saw was not believable to her when matched against fully developed women.
All of us who work with developing transgender aspects of ourselves start with our socialized attitudes, reinforced by the responses of people like Woodhouse and Raymond, that what we are attempting is impossible and doesn't make sense. Coping with the resulting confusion, anomie, and anonymity is tough. The early steps out into the world, for those who take such steps, can be pretty scary. Such steps are not merely psychologically challenging. There are the social threats of losing jobs, families, and friends and of exclusion from churches and other groups. Beginning from the bipolar concept that man and woman are discrete realities, it is not surprising that self-understanding and self-esteem are huge challenges for many transgender people.
Scary or not, part of transgender growth work is the process of coming out - of telling and showing people the transgender aspects of oneself. Transgender support groups spend a lot of time on the motives, goals, and strategies for coming out. My process of telling family, friends, church and colleagues took several years. It is fair to criticize me as a beginner, as an inexperienced explorer, but it is not fair to criticize me for pretending or deception. I'm not hiding anything from anyone. Furthermore, in those moments when my feminine presentation is accepted and people respond to me as a woman, they are responding to the aspect of myself that is best imaged as a woman, given the constraints of a bipolar understanding of gender. They are seeing that truth in me.
The basic problem with Woodhouse's critique is that she sometimes slips from her social constructionist perspectives as a feminist to an essentialist view that is in keeping with her training as a psychiatrist. Her language of "masquerade" may be appropriate for describing a drag ball, but her own case studies show there is more to transgender expression than such entertainments. The idea that gender is a social construction includes the understanding that everyone's appearance is "contrived" to include gender messages. The shape of her study leads Woodhouse to deny the reality that some male-to-female transgender people complete a cross-gender social construction and live their lives as women with great integrity and believability.
One telling example of Woodhouse's lack of understanding can be seen in her response to a claim by Virginia Prince that transvestites are significantly motivated by the desire to receive the attitudes and behavior accorded to women: "Prince would appear to be unaware of the disadvantages accruing to women in sexist society."cxxv It is Woodhouse's mistake, not Prince's. Although it may not make sense to Woodhouse's feminist and psychiatric consciousness, many transgender people act with the subjective awareness that their alternative gender presentations are authentic, that they are expressing an inner truth by using the common cultural symbols for expressing such truth. Such claiming is sufficiently important for numerous male-to-female transgender people that they not only take on the disadvantages of living full-time in women's roles but additionally accept negative sanctions from those who reject their efforts.
Personally, my sense of self is not limited to my sense of self as a man. At the current moment in my delayed development, it seems most accurate to say that my sense of self as a woman is under construction, known fully in moments and partially at other times. I'm thankful for the modeling of transgender brothers and sisters who have spent more time and energy on their transgender growth.
Woodhouse ends her analysis with a relatively mild dismissal of transgender experience and expression as being irrelevant to a feminist agenda, because transgender people often choose to express feminine imagery that is used to oppress women; and as unhelpful because transgender people don't confront the patriarchal power structures on issues such as jobs.cxxvi In contrast to Raymond and Woodhouse, Janice Irvine notes that other feminists have opposed rigid gender definitions and argues that "feminism needed to respect the myriad forms of gender struggle that individuals experience in this culture."cxxvii Alice Echols names feminists who reject transsexuals "cultural feminists" who are arguing for the superiority of women.cxxviii In the United States, the National Organization of Women, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other feminist-conscious groups are beginning to forge alliances or working relationships with transgender people through groups such as Gender PAC. It should also be noted that numerous transgender writers have explicitly challenged patriarchal gender concepts; these include Martine Rothblatt, Kate Bornstein, and Leslie Feinberg. This is a very different picture from the one drawn by Woodhouse, who apparently found no feminist consciousness at all among the transgender people she studied.
Are Transgender Experience and Expression a Challenge to Patriarchy?
Despite the problematic ways in which Raymond and Woodhouse did their research and developed their ideas, their core concern deserves an answer that is more substantial than showing the limits of its development by these two authors. Do transgender experience and expression support or challenge patriarchy? This is a different question from, "Do transgender experience and expression support feminism?" For those who think the only possible challenge to patriarchy is feminism, it may be easy to miss this distinction. This section considers three issues that are relevant to the question of whether transgender experience and expression support or oppose patriarchy: the relevance of service providers, the activities of transgender people, and cultural responses to the increasing visibility of transgender reality in the United States.
Both Raymond and Woodhouse give a great deal of weight to the power of clinical definitions for shaping both the self-concepts of transgender people and popular opinions about transgender people. Both criticize the patriarchal distortions of clinical definitions and perspectives. Although transgender people have widely varying relationships with clinicians and other helping professionals, and although the larger society is hardly unified in its perspectives on the validity of psychiatric thought, I nonetheless agree that clinical opinion is an important factor in creating language about transgender phenomena and strongly influences the opinions of transgender people and the larger society.
How harshly should the pioneer clinical figures be judged for their patriarchy? Even though I am very unhappy with the damage done by people working within a clinical perspective, including the damage that flows from patriarchal bias, my unhappiness is tempered by my awareness that in the 1950s, when much of the pioneering clinical work was done, feminism was hardly a well-developed movement. Whatever their patriarchal commitments, it seems fair to recognize that the founding clinicians had the political task of creating enough legal and social space that they could explore and develop their services to people who were in great need of help. The founding clinicians certainly did not experience the patriarchal society of that time as welcoming their innovations.
Writing in the same period as Janice Raymond, Deborah Feinbloom names herself a feminist. Feinbloom was the director of a gender identify clinic that screened and prepared people for SRS. Although her writing is problematic on several grounds, including the nonrecognition of intersexuality, her existence denies Raymond's claim that the "transsexual empire" was totally run by men. More importantly, Feinbloom became more opposed to patriarchy because of her experience and research. She wrote, "I am much more aware of the need for new definitions of masculinity and femininity, free of the stereotypic definitions so long applied.cxxix
Feinbloom was able to see the general positive effects of cross-dressing in overall human terms. "What was remarkable that evening was that Phil, who had been a rather unimpressive male, tentative, nervous, and difficult to relate to, appeared as Helen, well-groomed, poised, articulate, and sensitive."cxxx When she brings a symbolic interactionist perspective to bear, she is willing to entertain the possibility that transvestite behavior might really be an "expression of the dual gender potential of us all...a harbinger of the ‘new' and unstereotyped society to come."cxxxi She links this last comment to her observation that women have already gained great flexibility in appearance expression. Whatever the reality of the 1970s, by the 1990s a host of clinicians show sensitivities feminists would commonly applaud. Such friendly clinical writers include: Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Mildred Brown and Chloe Rounsley, Gianna Israel and Donald Tarver.cxxxii Feminists may also be interested to know that some of the favorite speakers at transgender conventions are women therapists who model and speak for an appreciation of womanhood that is hardly stereotypical. For a counseling perspective that includes feminist awareness, readers would do well to start with Niela Miller's Counseling in Genderland.
One of the reasons that the times are changing for clinicians is that the transgender community is becoming more organized and is beginning to express itself more effectively. The justification for any clinical involvement is help. Slowly, people with transgender experience are beginning to claim more of a say in the consideration of what help looks like. That is, transgender people are more focused on getting help to understand their transgender experience and cope with the challenges that come when they engage in transgender expression instead of trying to fix their gender identities. For example, dealing with transgender issues may be part of an individual's commitment to being a better parent.
Turning to the question of the relevance of transgender expression in itself as a challenge to patriarchy, I begin by noting that as the decades unfold, transgender people in the United States have become more likely to live outside the clinical story lines projected on them. For example, more transgender people are interested in using hormones without choosing surgery. Others are choosing different kinds of cosmetic surgeries without doing hormones or SRS. Hair transplants lead to less dependence on wigs, and electrolysis allows man-to-woman transgender people to use less makeup. These developments create the possibility, which I and others enjoy, of presenting a face and general presentation more in keeping with feminist style standards.
When a transgender person gets all the way out into general social interaction, not just in the protected bars and clubs Woodhouse writes about, man-to-woman transgender people get the double experience of transgender oppression and the oppression of women. Some, like d'Eon or Jan Morris, grow into fighting for women's rights because of an awareness of what they have lost. How likely is it that such awareness will expand?
Transgender people who spend large parts of their lives presenting themselves as men, and occasionally present themselves as women, are largely motivated by the urge to claim what is feminine in themselves, to claim feelings and interests that are not so easily claimed while making a masculine presentation.cxxxiii It is more accurate to describe some cross-dressing as males claiming the feminine aspect of themselves rather than as their claiming the whole role of woman. It is when the feminine presentation is made to the larger society that the whole role of woman must be at least provisionally claimed. Claiming a feminine appearance in open social presentations requires a man-to-woman transgender person to experience being evaluated by audiences that use bipolar gender concepts. This is a lot different than presenting oneself in the safe space of a support group that makes room for transgender exploration. Worrying about passing, and about being harassed for not passing, is common for newly out transgender people. In this light it is not surprising that man-to-woman cross-dressers want all the props they can get to strengthen their feminine presentations.
Rachel Miller is one of several transgender voices arguing for the importance of personal integration and wholeness as the most important transgender goal. "We can create greater balance in our lives by integrating the dual aspects of our nature....Can only women be appreciative, caring, compassionate, considerate, gentle, gracious, sensitive, soft and sympathetic. Rather than defining the differences between men and women, these qualities should simply be considered human."cxxxiv Yvonne Sinclair, writing with regard to the population of British transgender people discussed by Woodhouse, focused on the spousal relations that so troubled Woodhouse. She has advice for improving spousal relationship while including many positive reports from wives. One of her pieces of advice is that man-to-woman transgender people should do more work with the whole experience of women. "Putting on a frock is not being a woman. Most of the time, for the average woman, the routine is pretty boring, and housework is a drudge."cxxxv This seems like good advice to me, but I'm aware that to share a broader experience of being a woman requires more welcome access into women's spaces and more woman-to-woman interaction.
In my own life, I was committed to a feminist assessment of gender politics before it had begun to be popular. In my first career line I repeatedly expressed a feminist commitment in my research as a sociologist.cxxxvi As a pastor I used inclusive language and sought to empower more up-front leadership of women in the church. Now, as a policy advocate, I sustain a feminist perspective in my work on welfare reform, child care, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and more.cxxxvii My feminist commitments grew at a time in my life when I hardly had enough transgender consciousness to realize I was in a closet. Instead, my growing feminist consciousness was closely related to my commitment to racial equality as an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Part of that time I was in seminary or working as a pastor in Essex Community Church, which included sharing in community organizing activities with The Woodlawn Organization. For me, it was a time of intellectual reflection as much as direct action, and I was gifted with a wife who was working to claim her independent identity. I supported that in several ways, and I thought about it. The parallel of her struggle to the struggle of those resisting the impacts of racism was clear to me.
An assessment of the level of feminist consciousness claimed by man-to-woman transgender people needs an appropriate study. Anyone attempting such a study should pay attention to the various stages in the development of an individual's transgender career. Deeply closeted transgender people have little to work with other than their own imagination. As they gain social experience, more of the challenges facing women in a patriarchal culture are likely to become of greater concern. Distinctly feminist presentations at transgender conventions and support groups may improve feminist consciousness.cxxxviii Whatever the level of feminist consciousness in man-to-woman transgender people, many of their stories are filled with distress about not meeting patriarchal expectations. Although I lived a fairly standard boy childhood and made my high school varsity teams in baseball and basketball, many of my transgender brothers and sisters tell of the multiple ways they did not fit in. Whatever the level of consciousness, whatever the shape and intensity of intention, all transgender experience and expression challenge patriarchy for the simple reason that they say that the patriarchal understanding of gender reality is not accurate.
Part of the distress between man-to-woman transgender people and feminists concerns the images that transgender people present. For the many transgender people who pass, this is not much of an issue. Some transgender people do not manage very attractive presentations, and some transgender people present themselves in traditional stereotypical images. Some even present images that could fairly be called caricatures. Not surprisingly, some of the least appropriate presentations are most easily remembered. The most common activities in transgender support groups, and popular workshops at transgender conventions, concern image presentation. There is a general emphasis in the groups and conventions on appropriateness and good manners.cxxxix
Whatever the issues raised by less attractive or less appropriate feminine presentations of transgender people, it seems fair to me to ask feminists about their standards for assessing the great majority of transgender presentations, which are respectful and appropriate and include the many transgender people who pass in their goal genders. Are feminine as well as feminist virtues to be affirmed? Are feminine as well as feminist images and styles to be affirmed as presentations that claim and celebrate the contributions traditional women have carried in society? Realizing that there has been pain in the feminist community over this subject, I hope it will help to ask these questions from a slightly different angle. Is it possible to affirm what has been symbolized in this culture as distinctly feminine without having that be understood as giving in to a patriarchal definition of what is feminine? Assuming that for many feminists the answer is at least partly yes, and assuming that a great deal of the mythic reconstruction of "what it means to be a woman" involves including what is feminine, the transgender question becomes "Is such a reconstructed feminine aspect of self good for everyone?" If the answer is yes to that question as well, the transgender question is "How should people who were defined as male at birth, and who nonetheless desire to participate in such goodness, express themselves?"
The response of the general culture to transgender expression is so complex as to require a book for just that purpose. Fortunately, Marjorie Garber's book Vested Interests does a good job of analyzing transgender roles in the arts and literature of recent Western civilization, and argues that transgender images have played a critical role in breaking open locked-up gender stereotypes. Phyllis Burke is a wonderful example of a lesbian mother who was trying to figure out how to raise her son in a sexist and patriarchal world and wrote Gender Shock as a powerful critique of gender roles, informed by transgender examples. My personal and lightly grounded assessment of what I've seen in popular culture and entertainment is that audiences seem confused, sometimes angry, but engaged by the emergence of more visible transgender experience and expression. Apart from any analysis I might offer, watching culture respond to transgender expression makes me feel like a canary sent into the gender mines to find the poisonous gender gas.
When transgender people try out their subjective sense of self in action, society gets a glimpse of the fact that current gender constructions are not automatic, natural, or universal. At a minimum, such transgender expression opens up the conversation about gender beyond discussions of mere reform of the bipolar concepts. Transgender expression that is not dismissed as some kind of disease changes gender conversations more deeply. Whether the contribution of transgender expression to a societal and cultural reconstruction of gender concepts is helpful or not helpful depends in part on what transgender people say and also depends on the readiness to listen and respond of those who are intentional participants in the gender debates.
In addition to consideration of current changes, some feminists may find it interesting to reflect on the intertwined history of feminist and transgender consciousness. As mentioned in Chapter 7, feminist expression was once lumped with transgender expression as a kind of mental illness. Furthermore, historical and literary feminist models often included a transgender element, including a resistance to the feminine dress standards of that day. One might consider such figures as Joan of Arc, d'Eon, or the then well-known fictional "female mariner" of the war of 1812 in the United States.cxl Despite her modeling of traditional femininity, Christine Jorgenson derided the sexism of the press for being more interested in what she slept in than what she believed in.cxli
The hope for a more solidly based bridge for feminist and transgender conversation also depends on a reconsideration of the goals of gender transformation. If the feminist goal is transcendent - to get beyond bipolar thinking about gender - then we can build a solid bridge and have a lot of fun dancing on it. Do feminists want to develop their potential apart from the rest of the world or in engagement with the world? The metaphor of breathing in and breathing out suggests my hoped-for answer. When you go deep into conscious breathing, the sense of what is in and what is out changes.
My concern at this point is not to "balance" feminist theology with masculine concerns. Rather, it is to lift up the idea that the very name feminist theology may have unintended consequences for strengthening bipolar thinking. The name lends itself to oppositional rather than transcendent understandings. Feminism is just the right name for the freedom-from aspect of the liberation agenda. It claims the right to a space to stand in on one's own. Claiming space as women means differentiating from, and in some cases standing against, men. Claiming space has been about rejecting restrictive definitions of women and feminine as defined by patriarchy. Claiming space as women supports the political work of claiming interests and power that have been reserved to men.
For some women, claiming feminist space has meant at least a period of time of rejecting what is called feminine. But feminism has also been about claiming a woman-constructed understanding of things feminine. In doing this kind of work, it is handy to have a sense that there are core differences between men and women. Then one can claim a new and free identity as a woman, the way women were really meant to be. When feminist theology takes this remythologizing path it is choosing a bipolar path.
Transgender experience suggests a deconstruction of the concept of gender, not just of the role and identity of woman or man. Such a deconstruction has already been initiated by some feminists. This larger deconstruction makes room for a reconstruction that directs everyone to all the virtues. The dancing on the bridge part comes when we find our rhythms, when we see that our gender constructions are ways we make available true things about ourselves. This is not an argument for androgyny but for all that is true and life-giving within the matrices of sexuality and gender.
Women's liberation has had at least two core tasks. One has been for women to claim some of the virtues, strengths, and resources controlled by men. This has amounted to recognizing and claiming the power women found in themselves, which had been falsely called masculine. "If I'm a woman and I do it, it must be feminine." This kind of claiming is very much like transgender claiming, but with different naming and modes of expression. The second core task has been to create revised versions of what a good woman is. In effect, this second task is the revision of the role concept woman and a revision of what counts as feminine. Transgender people who are becoming women, in whole or in part, are seeking to become good women as well, and there is a rich opportunity for conversation - conversation for which many trangender people are most hungry.cxlii
Mary Coombs, a Latina feminist and lesbian, summarizes much of the above conversation within the feminist community as a debate between "Liberal Feminists," who are interested in legal changes that minimize the differences between men and women, and "Cultural Feminists," who are more insistent that men and women are different. Then she writes,
All the schools of feminism, however, have tended to leave sex untheorized. There simply were biological differences between men and women. The focus of analysis and political protest was gender. In this sense, feminism, like traditionalism, historically assumed that sex was a natural phenomenon to which gender had unfortunately been attached."cxliii
Coombs has become interested in the transgender community because of its potential contribution to the consideration of the relationship between physiological status and gender construction. She goes on to make two points with implications for the future of the gender conversation. She embraces some kind of multigenderal future where gender lines are not drawn so clearly, or at least where more alternatives exist. She also argues a legal point. Unless room is made for transgender expression, rules of appearance will be used to oppress women. In this sense she sees the transgender community as fighting a major battle on behalf of feminism.
Coombs makes an additional point based on what she has learned from the transgender community: that people who affirm both genders in their own lives are more of a challenge to traditional gender stereotypes than are assimilating transsexuals. She goes on to envision a society in which gender is multitudinous and delinked from sex.
I'm hopeful that transgender people can have more mutually beneficial conversations with feminists. As a person who values the best things about myself that are called masculine or feminine in this society, it is pretty hard to be treated as suspicious by traditional men and women, by substantial elements of the gay and lesbian community, and by many feminists. There is a temptation to try to create an apparently well-protected transgender community. But I feel stuck in the middle. We may be an embarrassment to a range of agendas, but we exist just the same. My hope is that wrestling with the theological issues at stake will be unifying, even if political agendas leave us at occasional cross-purposes.
Freedom for Gender Development
The liberating word from transgender experience is that anyone can claim all that is good that has been carried by men and women in our culture, can claim all the virtues that have been named as masculine or feminine. This claiming of a freedom for development makes possible a transcendent bridge between feminist theology and transgender theology. Suppose we were free of patriarchy, what would we do? Such a question points to rich possibilities for feminist and transgender collaboration. I hope that all schools of feminism will come to affirm the potential to grow as a person who embodies everything good that was once called masculine and everything good that was once called feminine. Then we can ask of every gender choice, "Is it loving, responsible, courageous, generous?"
To claim all the virtues doesn't mean you have to claim a style or culture of androgyny. I will be sad if the hard-won transgender word becomes a call to a new singular conformity. (This seems highly unlikely to me, for reasons discussed earlier.) I like wearing my earrings. I like claiming both my sensitivity and my assertiveness. But men shouldn't feel any pressure to wear earrings in search of some new political correctness. The liberation point is that I shouldn't have to give up my earrings in conformity to an old bipolar political correctness.
I am aware that my transgender journey has happened within a subculture and a particular generation in the United States. People from different subcultures and different generations, people from outside the United States, will walk transgender journeys different from mine. Maybe wearing earrings won't matter much to other transgender people, but getting my ears pierced was a rite of passage for me.
The prefix trans has to do with moving between. It is usual to think of transsexual people as moving from one sex and gender to another, then making their life in the new place. As presented in earlier chapters, transgender reality is more complex than that. I'm one of the myriad of transgender people who move back and forth between roles. Like Leslie Feinberg, I resent being defined by appearance alone, and I report that my subjective sense of self doesn't "move around." I'm the same person all the time. I just choose to show and emphasize different aspects of myself in different settings and from time to time. From this point of view, liberation does not mean merely freedom from masculine role conformity or merely freedom to appropriate feminine appearance aspects or feminine subjectivity. Most fundamentally it means the freedom to be me, to express myself as creatively, as responsibly, as lovingly as I wish. This means that I can claim such liberation when I'm sitting around in jeans and my Chicago Bears sweatshirt, drinking beer, and watching the Bears crush the Packers.cxliv As a modified physiological male, traditionally socialized to be a man, it takes a lot more consciousness, a lot more work, a lot more courage to claim and express myself by dressing out of my feminine subjectivity and going to a hotel for a Christmas banquet, but the point is the same. Embracing liberation encourages me to embrace my growing edge as part of knowing and showing all that is true about me.
A New Wineskin to Hold All the Life-Giving Truth
Liberation theology provides space for new truths to emerge by deconstructing established points of view and emphasizing the humility that comes with remembering that our points of view are influenced by our life experiences and circumstances. Dialectic theology tries to hold all truths in tension. Holding truths in tension is the synergistic work of theology, which is comparable to the synergistic summary of the sciences offered in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Holding truths in tension reveals potentials that are not clear when truths are looked at one at a time. The revealing of potentials, especially the potentials for transformative embodiment of the eternals in human settings, complements the freedom-from aspect of liberation theology.
Done well, dialectic theology has a double relation to science. Dialectic theology seeks to ground itself in the best possible assessment of scientific facts while supporting good science in the correction of scientism. Scientism subverts science to political or religious goals. It shows its face when science is used to create rationalizations to prop up, or to attack, existing cultural standards. It's bad enough when scientific findings are used like proof texts of biblical passages - to prop up political or religious opinions. The most prominent example of such scientism reviewed in this book was Brain Sex by Anne Moir and David Jessel. But even Chandler Burr's excellent book, A Separate Creation, was critiqued for its commitment to the premise that homosexuality is not a matter of choice and or the book's resulting blind spots. Scientism is worse when political or religious motives creep into the reporting of the basic science itself. Several physiological and clinical studies were challenged earlier for such bias.
Well-done dialectic theology, while wanting to be well grounded in science, is clear that its theological work is to engage the presence of the eternals that we can touch but not hold: love, truth, beauty, justice, and more. I assume that others will correct any scientific mistakes I have made and reground my theological work as more becomes known. Although I care about offering a good scientific grounding for this enterprise, I am confident that those who are reaching for the eternals will keep on reaching whatever the darkness of the scientific glass I hold up. I take comfort in Paul's mystical humility.
At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God's knowledge of me.cxlv
Paul's words seem to me to echo the Psalmist who wrote:
You it was who fashioned my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for you fill me with awe;
wonderful you are, and wonderful your works.
You know me through and through:
my body was no mystery to you,
when I was formed in secret,
woven in the depths of the earth.cxlvi
A passion for truth is one of the marks of the Holy Spirit welling up into individual and shared lives, a welcoming of consciousness to help form our minds. For those who dare drink from this stream, other questions soon arise: What shall I do with my understanding of the truth? What is beautiful and fulfilling? How will this truth affect the ways I lovingly relate to others? What does this mean for fairness and justice in social institutions? Such questions and answers are larger than the questions and answers of science. We can learn a lot from Scripture and from other stories that bear saving truth, but there is still the embodiment and work of making any guidance live here and now. Dialectic theology rubs liberating truths together in the pursuit of a holistic vision that cares about not only what is true but what is most important: the release and engagement of love.
Paul finishes his mystical poem as follows:
There are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.cxlvii
What is loving, healing, beautiful, responsible, and fun in our gender expressions? Affirming all that is life-giving in masculinity and femininity allows us to respect and explore the best potentials made available to us in creation and encourages us to build bridges so that we can more deeply discover and appreciate each other.
Transgender consciousness reminds us that even if we were to stretch the roles of man and woman so that both affirmed all that is human and good, the work would not be done. Why would we want to divide the world up into two "teams," as if our primary purpose were to play against each other? Rubbing masculine and feminine truths together releases the pungency of shared similarities and differences. When we ask "What is just and life-giving for everyone?" we move beyond a world divided into teams, a world where your win is my loss. I am not holding up an androgynous vision, although androgyny can be creative and life-affirming, but an engaged vision, where caring for each other is more important than defending our boundaries.
In Protestant and Roman Catholic theological traditions about sexuality, a great deal of attention has been given to the desirability of complementarity. Anne Gilson traces the development of this doctrine of sexuality nicely in Eros Breaking Free: Interpreting Sexual Theo-Ethics. Gilson identifies her task by writing, "I will engage in the feminist liberation theo-ethical task of moving from an alienated and despised eros toward an erotic mutuality grounded in justice...."cxlviii I particularly affirm Gilson as a feminist theologian because she claims a freedom-for element of feminism and Christianity.
Gilson quotes Helmut Thielicke as a major proponent of complementarity. Thielicke argues that to be an appropriate partner for sexual sharing, the "neighbor," as in "love your neighbor as yourself," has to meet several conditions: "he belongs to the opposite sex, that his age be in proper relation to mine, that he be my ‘type' in physique, character and mind...and thus be in a highly specialized complementary relationship to me."cxlix It seems very funny to me that Thielicke said that a partner has to be "my type" to be complementary when the point of complementarity is difference. Furthermore, captured by his use of patriarchal language, we see Thielicke naming himself in a gay relationship when he meant to affirm the opposite. He makes a second anticomplementary comment in asserting that "his age must be in proper relation to mine." Were women of the same age too threatening to Thielicke so that he wanted to prop up shaky patriarchy with maturity versus innocence? After laughing about Thielicke's packing so much self-contradiction into a brief quote, we must seriously consider Thielicke's commitment to complementarity. Thielicke wants the comfort of a staked-out territory of superiority and is willing to balance it by allowing the partner her own areas of superiority. Instead of mutuality, we have a vision of territorial truce.
Gilson points out that the principle of complementarity has been used as a basis for attempting to tame eros. Thielicke thinks marriage would be more stable if it were based on a reciprocal need for each other, based on his belief that men and women feel incomplete without the other. Tome, it seems more healthy, and more stable, to form passionate relationships that claims all of oneself and affirms all that the other is. Thielicke's doctrine of complementarity leads us to limit ourselves to culturally defined roles and to specialization. That may be fine for some kinds of societal work. But passionate bonding seems to me to intrinsically include the whole self rather than just a role. Fully erotic sexual experience engages the whole body, commands the whole attention. That is its greatest power, its greatest gift, its sacramental potential. The transgender message to "be all that you can be" is well matched to such a potential for full erotic engagement.cl I do not mean, however, that one has to embrace nontradional gender roles to be all that one can be.
Celia Hahn diverges from Gilson by offering a contemporary Christian feminist argument for complementarity.cli While acknowledging the limits of bipolar thinking and noting areas of overlap between men and women, she comes down on the side of emphasizing differences. Her announced concern is intrinsically political. She fears that if similarity is emphasized, masculinity will be the normative standard and women will be judged against it. A transgender perspective challenges masculinity as a normative standard without creating the contentiousness that comes from posing femininity as a better or equal standard. Instead, from a transgender perspective one can affirm and express all that is good that is named masculine and feminine.
The core problem with complementarity thinking is that it makes a virtue out of individual incompleteness and substitutes power for love as the fundamental reality of partnership relations. I love it that Gilson, a woman, celebrates the wildness of eros, including its chaotic impact on social conventions. Such a hymn to wildness converges with the Robert Bly wing of the men's mythopoetic movement. But from a Christian perspective, wildness is a provisional virtue. Jesus goes to the wilderness to grow up, but he doesn't stay there. In the midst of experiencing the freedom that arises from knowing that life is a sexually transmitted terminal condition, and in the hope that arises from touching things that are not bounded by our limited lives, we are enabled to choose what is life-giving.
Transgender experience has helped me appreciate the saving truth that each of us can be whole human beings. We can choose each other for the full range of the images of God that shines forth: all that is beautiful, loving, just, and truthful; all that is courageous and nurturing, all that is hungry and searching and growing; all that is affirming, accepting, and engaging; all that is generous and rigorous and committed. By whole I do not mean finished or unchanging. I mean a fully aware, fully caring person who engages life's challenges as growth agenda and as opportunities to express one's gifts and one's love. As a gender statement, wholeness means that a person is engaged with the full range of human subjectivity and is willing to use the full palette of color, the full creativity of substance and shadow, to draw life pictures.
In contrast, the traditional bipolar approach to gender presentations is an appeal to the limiting conformity of two culturally stylized scripts. My affirmation of the fullness of each person, every particular mix of gifts and developmental challenges, is the opposite of forcing everyone into some kind of androgynous sameness. It is important to say this, because the proponents of traditional gender differentiation continue to assert that their opponents want to blur the differences between men and women. In contrast, transgender experience and expression affirm the differences that are blurred by pretending that men are all alike, that women are all alike. To sharpen the point further, some transgender people may be fairly criticized for expressing unrealistic stereotypes of the other gender. I've done some of that myself as I was first breaking out from the world inside my head into interactive experience in my feminine appearance. But, seen at its best, the crossing of gender lines sweeps away the false distinctions of sharply differentiated sexes and genders and makes room for the full potential of each individual. With understanding and affirmation, every human relationship is given room to shine brightly in its distinctness.
An equality based on eros and agape (passionate love and deep friendship) can only mean giving each other everything we have, everything we are. With spiritual awareness, such vulnerability makes room for the ecstatic expression of God's love, made momentarily manifest in ego transcending passionate identity. When there is similarity of strengths between two people, such similarity can be celebrated as an easy bridge to mutuality and understanding. When there is a similarity of weaknesses, such similarity defines a growth agenda for the passionate partners, an area for exploration, an opportunity for bonding by meeting at the points of mutual need. When one partner has a strength or gift the other lacks, the advantages of complementarity are present, as well as the opportunity for one partner to learn from the other. All these alternatives can be explored, lived through, without the socially and culturally imposed burdens of judgment as to what my strengths and weaknesses are supposed to be. Whatever my gifts and needs, the saving truth is that I can always start from where I am and meet people where they are. This understanding trumps the argument of complementarity by affirming sameness and difference and by freeing growth agendas from artificially imposed role restrictions.
I have criticized some feminists in this book for their attempts to remythologize femininity and "what it means to be a woman," as an effort deriving from a politics of separatism. To further explore the distortions of remythologizing, I turn to addressing the remythologizing effort as applied to men by a man, James Nelson. Lest anyone think that I do not value his contributions, I share with you that James Nelson is my favorite theologian with regard to sexual issues. I find his writing to be generally insightful and courageous, but not well-developed with regard to the specific agenda of transgender issues.clii
Nelson embraces many of the spiritual goals affirmed previously in this section, but instead of affirming anything named feminine for men, he offers a remythologized and expanded masculinity for males, which includes softness and vulnerability.cliii He intentionally restricts his remarks to males in a chapter entitled "Embracing Masculinity" because he wants to do for men what feminists did for women.
Nelson's solution calls on males to affirm their metaphoric penis, which is limp, vulnerable, mostly unconscious, hidden, and dark, as a balance to a personality dominated by the metaphoric phallus, which is strong, demands attention, is penetrating and generative, and rises to the light of fulfilment and logos. His proposed plan of transformation is for Christians (and others) to embrace the "Via Negativa" spiritual path, a path of emptying and silence. He asserts that Jesus taught both the "Via Positiva" and the "Via Negativa."
In developing his proposed remythologizing of masculinity, Nelson repeatedly attacks the concept of androgyny. He notes that he still affirms much about androgyny, as found in his earlier book Embodiment, but is now inclined to "move beyond the concept."cliv
Nelson, after initially affirming the androgynous theology/philosophy of Nicolas Berdiaev in the early 20th century, attacks androgyny in several ways. Nelson's challenge has two primary aspects. First, he sets up the concept of androgyny as a straw man by defining the term as a "combination" of masculine and feminine traits. By combination he means an unintegrated group of traits. Then he attacks androgyny for all the faults of the complementarity approach, even though he also assaults complementarity as "a giant step backward from androgyny."clv Nelson claims that the core assumption of androgyny is that there are "two distinct and primordial sets of personality characteristics - one ‘masculine' and the other ‘feminine.'"
In rejoinder to Nelson's approach to androgyny, I would first point out that the several creation myths of androgyny affirm intrinsic unity, not a combination. For example, Genesis 2:21-22 tells the creation story in which Eve is made from one of Adam's ribs. Usually overlooked is the fact that the Hebrew word tzela usually translated as rib also means side.clvi Read this way, men and women are viewed as arising from a common creation that is merely differentiated and not two separate creations. Second, this unity concept was at the heart of Berdiaev's theological androgyny, which Nelson names as the model of Christian theology on this subject. Third, the best known psychological work on androgyny was done by Sandra Bem and those who worked with her research method. As pointed out in Chapter 3, Bem's research does not find everyone to be androgynous and recognizes that different people have different mixes of characteristics labeled masculine, feminine, or common. Finally, although Nelson comments on the shortcomings of Carl Jung's work, he does not mention the Jungian Carol Singer, who specifically worked with androgyny as a fundamental archetype. Singer also emphasizes a unified rather than a combinationist approach.
Nelson's second fundamental critique of androgyny is that asking men to affirm their feminine is to ask them to learn a burdensome second language.clvii Nelson wants men to affirm many of the same virtues I have supported, but only when named as a masculine penis element of personality. For me, Nelson's program seems a convoluted and unattractive response aimed at building a separate men's team for social and cultural interaction because some feminists have called for building a separate woman's team.
Nelson's solution is unattractive to me for four reasons. First, it is a reductionistic understanding of human experience. For example, he speaks of sexual interaction as a phallic experience for men, while I see the phallus/penis as only one element of sexual and erotic experience. I agree with those who think of the brain as the primary erotic organ. Without relevant brain involvement, the "penis" does not become a "phallus." One of his given reasons for this reductionism might be taken as an insult to women: "We men traditionally have identified women with their biology and neglected our own. It is time that we inquire about ourselves."clviii On the other hand, if he is not really interested in reducing women to their biology - and his other writing makes it clear that he is not so interested - it draws attention to his larger confusion of the difference between physiology in itself and a metaphoric response to the phallus/penis.
Second, Nelson drifts in and out of claiming a physiological essentialism by suggesting, but not naming, what is distinctive for males. Anything he names as distinctive he quickly gives away to a feminist critique of patriarchal oppression. His "earthy" and "solar" phallus imagery is a hymn to physicality and to logos (the eternal "word"), and surely that is as available to females as to males.
Third, I have argued that both males and females learn the imagery of masculinity and femininity in our culture, although females are supposed to choose femininity for themselves and males masculinity. For males, feminine is not so much a foreign language as a forbidden language. The core growth task for men who wish to affirm softness and vulnerability is to integrate what they have already learned and taken in, the values and imagery that have been named and imaged in our culture as feminine. Whether or not men choose to affirm explicitly feminine symbolism, it is more honest for most men to pay attention to the fact that they are working with material that our society calls feminine. Knowing the name will also help to build a bridge to mutuality, as opposed to divisive team building.
My fourth and most fundamental rejoinder to Nelson, but also our best point of meeting, is to pay attention to the core deconstruction tasks attempted in the earlier chapters of this book.clix A fair picture of the social, psychological, and biological facts emphasizes overlap, complexity, flexibility, and interactiveness. Bipolar language does not point to the truth of our common humanity. For any specific individual, the story is that just as we are not all alike in our physiology, we have stronger and weaker predispositions and gifts along many continua. Freedom and responsibility come most deeply from claiming all that we are doing, all that we are exploring - all the virtues, whatever our culture names them. Such claiming for men is truer to physiology and more holistic and integrative than can be seen through the mythology of phallus and penis.clx Instead of following a via negativa with a wrinkled penis as my symbolic guide, I propose a path of naming and claiming the whole self. To men I say, "Claim all that you are whether others like it or not."clxi This is not the same as claiming unearned privilege. Pursue all the positive virtues and affirm the eternals of love, truth, humility, beauty, and justice. Build relationships that affirm all that is true and beautiful in your partner. And I add, for those with the inclination, have fun playing with all the imagery as a fresh path to exploring and experiencing forbidden realities. For me, at least, it has been a wellspring of integration and healing, a channel of grace.
There is a lot more to sex and gender than sexual sharing, sexual passion; a lot more to life than creating passionate relationships. To help us look at the wider horizon we can learn from Virginia Mollenkott who names 10 biblical themes that honor and affirm human diversityclxii. A condensed version of her 10 points is the biblical image of God as a single (monotheistic) person or reality that knows everything, loves everyone, is everywhere, and is solely worthy of worship and ultimate commitment. Mollenkott enjoins us to express our deepest freedom by giving it away in love for others as one expression of thankfulness for God's love for us.
The concept of a single loving creator is the core presupposition of Christian natural theology. For transgender people it is a powerful reminder that the same God has created everyone and not only those who fit the traditional images of one culture in one time period. One critical implication for the transgender community is that we do not need to appeal to any versions of sickness theory to justify our existence. We need recognition more than we need sympathy. When transgender people are seen for the good things we have done with the lives God has given us, we will no longer have to argue that transgender expression is beyond our control. From the point of view of well done Christian theology, what we as transgender people offer to others is good in so far as our expression embodies the eternals. Such good expression affirms our common humanity and our particular predispositions, gifts, and callings. Whether one, a few, or all of our interests and gifts are labeled masculine or feminine, we are each called to make the best life we can: loving others, taking responsibility, developing our gifts, following our callings, and spending our lives for what is true, beautiful, and life-affirming. The diversity affirmed by transgender experience and expression has nothing to fear from being grounded in the good gifts of a single creator God. It is only when we limit our understanding of God by distracting ourselves with single-gender attributions of God's reality, calling God exclusively father or mother, that we develop perspectives insensitive to the best that has been carried by men and women in this or any other culture.
Drinking In All the Life-Giving Truth
The pleading of Jesus that we should love everyone, even our enemies, directs us to clear all the wellsprings of love and affirmation. Our theological grounding gives us a basis for viewing all roles and cultural standards as human creations that need ongoing reform and transformation to bring them more closely into harmony with what is true and beautiful. Although this may be surprising to some, a Judeo-Christian understanding of sin is a significant grounding for the social construction theory that has played such a prominent role in this book and in feminist theory. It reminds us that although we have been given good gifts by God, all that we have done with these gifts should constantly be reviewed to see how the things we have created embody the eternal values we have been shown.
There is more to dialectic theology for transgender people than holding the truths carried by women and the truths carried by men in tension. Paul Tillich reminds us that each of us is at the same time the person we have been formed to be and also the person we are becoming.clxiii As individuals, and as part of relationships and institutions, we need to work at understanding our true unity (center) while engaging our diversity (extension). Transgender experience and expression are examples of living out truth in tension.
Despite my disagreements with Celia Hahn's feminist version of complementarity thinking, I find myself heading toward a convergence with her when she talks about paradox. She wants to affirm a human unity in the midst of the differences that she thinks are important between men and women. "The word paradox points to a transcendent resolution that cannot be explained logically....When I give up my simple answers, I consent to fall between the poles of the tension. This consent is a free fall in space where I must trust in God."clxiv This speaks to my self-understanding that I need more than reason to achieve a transgender resolution to my apparently conflicting desires. Beyond all the science, all the theology, and all the other conversations, I can testify to the peace that comes from feeling directly accepted by God. But Hahn seems to me to use the concept of paradox as an escape hatch that stops the conversation in the midst of ongoing dialectic tensions. Even though I am subjectively comfortable with my transgender sense of self, I still have to keep on working with all the truths carried by men and women, with all the pressures in each decisional moment.
Dialectic theology suggests that every moment in life can be a moment of new beginnings and that every moment has tensions. The goal of dialectic theology is not transformation as a mystical resolution of tensions in some other time, or place, of dimension of existence, or a resolution after death. Dialectic theology celebrates life, with all its tensions, here and now. Instead of falling between the poles of masculine and feminine, as Hahn's bipolar language frames gender dilemmas, people can move from one place to the other or choose to stand in both places and claim everything that is good. The faith to take a step that is grounded in hope as well as logic is partly the willingness to take the risk of standing where even sensitized and caring people like Hahn may not be affirming, partly the hope that there is some kind of wholeness that makes sense and is healing, and mostly the willingness to claim what is life-giving as seen from wherever you start and to follow wherever authenticity and honesty lead.
A dialectic understanding of sex and gender is not interested in blurring distinctions. Neither is it interested in sharpening distinctions into a false complementarity by denying the reality of overlap, flexibility, and interactiveness. All points in the gender matrix can be starting points where individuals and groups can get on with the work of love and justice. When the role expectations of man and woman and the cultural images of masculine and feminine are considered, Christian dialectic standards are not conformity and adjustment. Neither are they rebellion and resistance. Christian dialectic theology values what is good, loving, responsible, fair.
Instead of merely living out gender roles - even newly reformed and revised gender roles such as Nelson's remythologized masculinity or Raymond's woman-identified woman - a dialectic approach to life asks how one can live well within the physiological, psychological, relational, and institutional contingencies one faces. For example, in working out masculine liberation theology, as my friend Jesse Palidofsky has taught me, one can ask how men can reject patriarchy without giving up the best of masculinity. The good news of transgender experience and expression is that it is possible to affirm the best in masculine and feminist liberation theology and try to embody all of it in one life. To affirm a transgender alternative does not mean one has to oppose or belittle a life choice of gender conformity. One can live well within the best of either masculine or feminine understandings and expectations. The key to good news for people who choose a version of the masculine gender role, or a version of the feminine gender role, is to make such choices with the consciousness that it is one choice among many and to bear respect and caring for people who make other choices. In working through a life career it can be helpful to remember that most lives offer more than one moment of choosing.
We transgender people exist. God's love can flow through us as much as it can flow through anybody else. Part of the good news of the mere fact that we exist is the intrinsic invitation to everyone to play with and explore gender images, ideas, and values. Such an invitation may be scary for some, but, if the invitation feels vital or touches some resonance within you, you can know that you are not crazy, not alone. I'm not trying to recruit anyone to transgender experience or expression. I do hope that more people will freshly and creatively explore their own gender understandings and commitments. A woman doesn't have to get a crew cut or shave her head to explore toughness and risk taking. But if a woman wants to explore what it feels like to walk down the street with a crew cut or a shaved head, that can be informative, a growth experience.
For those who have claimed transgender exploration as a right path in their life's journey, a dialectic understanding encourages an embracing of, a living with, every eternal value and holding in tension all the concepts and images that arise in your spirit for embodying such values. You can push against your old bad habits, let go of old pains, and exit from dysfunctional relationships without turning away from all your personal history. If a transgender subculture ever becomes strongly developed in the United States, people can explore it without making it a new numbing conformity. If you keep asking yourself what is honest, what is life-giving, what is loving, what is responsible, you can know you are walking a path that was pointed to by Jesus at great cost. On such a path there are Christian brothers and sisters who can support you and hold you accountable despite the rejection of many Christian churches.
Apart from claiming all the truths in one's own gender journey, transgender consciousness can help one affirm everything that is good, true, and beautiful in others. Transgender seeing is just as valuable as transgender claiming. This may be the intrinsic reason why several cultures have drawn transgender people into shaman (healing) roles. The saving truth presented and lived out by Jesus helps us know our names, help us find a purpose and a home instead of wandering in confusion, and helps us move from alienation to affirmation. To the extent that old gender boxes keep us from knowing who we truly are (knowing our names), keep us from finding our gifts and callings and comrades to create a meaningful life (finding a home), or leave us alienated from ourselves and each other, then those old gender boxes are barriers to the free flowing of God's love and acceptance, barriers to embodying the eternals that make life more than existence, and barriers to creating social relationships that are channels of grace, joy, and meaningful work. Transgender consciousness can help to heal us from our gender hurts. The good news of the breaking in of the love of God is that nothing else has to be accomplished before you can start loving and caring and risking and healing.