Monday, September 8, 2014


I've been rooting around on the internet for Catholic resources aimed at helping transgender people and their parents. It's a bit of wasteland. Most of the articles that you can find aren't even intended to be helpful to someone who is dealing with this – as a community we seem to be more concerned with defending Catholic sexual ideology than with ministering to trans people.

I think that there are several key misconceptions about transfolks that fuel that largely negative response. I'd like to briefly treat six of them here.

1. Trans people “suddenly” want to change their gender.

To folks on the outside, transition sometimes seems to come across as a shock. Someone who appears to have a perfectly comfortable male identity one day announces that they are going to be a woman. It can seem like a bizarre, even incomprehensible choice: after all, if someone has lived as a guy for 37 years why can't he just go on living as a guy?

When trans people talk about their experience of this situation a very different picture emerges. Often the person has struggled silently with their gender identity over years, or decades, before reaching the point where they are willing to discuss it in public. It's quite common for transwomen to go through a long period where they buy feminine clothes, secretly cross-dress, feel ashamed, throw out all of their feminine clothes and then repeat the cycle. People with gender dysphoria will often make a protracted and laborious attempt to “achieve” a functional cisgendered identity, perhaps living a double-life in order to gain occasional relief from the effort of performing a gender role in their day-to-day life that feels alien or artificial.

By the time that someone decides to make the leap and come out of the closet about their gender identity they have probably struggled with it behind closed doors for a long time. Even if the change seems sudden to others, it is usually the culmination of a long process for the person involved.

2. Every human being is unambiguously either male or female.

This just isn't true. There is literally no single criterion that can be used to accurately determine a person's “biological sex” in every single case. There are people born with partially developed reproductive organs of both sexes, people born with no reproductive organs at all, people with the external genitalia of one sex but the internal genitalia of the other, people born with male XY chromosomes but female external genitalia and a normal female phenotype, etc. etc. etc.

The fact that our sexuality, male and female, is an important part of our human identity does not mean that it is in some special protected category. Other equally important parts of our human identity, like reason, conscience, or free will, can all be altered, diminished or functionally eliminated by a variety of genetic, psychological or neurological conditions. It is an important pillar of Catholic thought that the full dignity of the person must be defended in all cases, not just in those where the person seems to be 'normal'.

3. Transwomen are men who are turned on by the thought of being a woman.

Some people have proposed that all transwomen suffer from a rare paraphilia called “autogynophilia” in which a man is sexually aroused by the thought of being a woman. First of all, this simply isn't true. It does seem to be the case that there are people who fall into this category, and that a very small minority of such people do seek sex-reassignment surgery in order to better act out their sexual fantasies, but that's rare and extreme. Folks for whom an opposite-sex gender identity is solely a sexual fetish are much more likely to cross-dress during sexual encounters while maintaining an otherwise cisgender identity. Such men don't want to be a woman in daily life in much the same way that people who have a bondage fetish don't want to wear leathergear to the office.

The perception that autogynophilia plays a much larger role in transwomen's lives than it actually does is partially a product of an assumption that if a trans person feels the need to cross-dress or assume their preferred gender role in order to have satisfactory sex, then their erotic sensibilities are the cause of their trans condition. This is actually kind of silly. If a persons experiences dysphoria and/or dysmorphia (the feeling that your sexual organs or secondary sex characteristics are at odds with your body image) while having sex it's both stressful and a big turn off. Most people want to be able to comfortably and honestly express themselves when making love, and may find it difficult to become aroused if they feel alienated from their own body.

4. Trans is the same as gay (but worse)

Transwomen are often oversexualized, both in the media and in popular perception. Within Christian circles, it's common to respond to trans people as if being trans were basically a sexual orientation, and many automatically assume that if someone is trans, they're gay. In fact, transfolks may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual.

Being trans is not primarily about sex, nor do people generally choose to be trans because they have rejected binary gender categories, or because they want to advance an agenda that seeks to undermine marriage or deny sexual complementarity.

5. Transfolk are just Tomboys and Sissy-boys

When Christian advice is offered to parents of trans people, or to transfolks themselves, the advice is usually concerned with how to address gender non-conforming behaviour. The assumption is that a trans person is basically a boy who wants to play with Barbies or a girl who wants to climbs trees.

Being trans is about more than just performative gender roles – it's about how a person feels him or herself to be gendered while performing all sorts of activities. A transwoman may be interested in playing with swords, but will imagine herself playing with swords as Joan of Arc. A transman is not simply a woman who likes power tools, but a person who perceives himself as male even when baking cookies.

6. Trans people identify only with superficial aspects of femininity/masculinity.

    I've encountered several Christian commentators who say that transwomen come across as a “parody of womanhood,” that they're obsessed with superficial things like wearing women's clothing or putting on make-up but have no interest in the essential aspects of femininity, like having babies.

Firstly, this isn't true (or fair). There are transwomen who want to get pregnant and nurse a child, but it doesn't get a lot of discussion because it's not actually possible. There are also transwomen who see their feminine identity primarily in terms of archetypal feminine traits like empathy or nurturing. Secondly, a trans person is unlikely ever to achieve the same easy relationship with their gender identity that the average cis person enjoys. Many find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” situation where they are ridiculed for being “effeminate” if they try to present themselves in public as a man, and are ridiculed for being “clocky” (that is, unconvincingly female) if they present as a woman.

If you're interested in a more complete list of misconceptions, or a more in-depth treatment of each, check out AnnaMagda's series at The Catholic Transgender.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Homeschooling and Paranoia

13 years ago, when I was a young mother standing on the pro-life picket line I was in an unusual position. Because I had a baby I was treated as one of the adults by the older members of the group and was therefore privy to all of the adult conversations about child-rearing, homeschooling and the dangers of modern society. As a 21 year old I was also accepted by the teenagers who had come along with their parents, and I encountered a curious effect. The parents raved about the advantages of homeschooling, particularly how they had been able to shelter and protect their children from all sorts of malign influences – especially too-early exposure to sexual information. From the teenagers I heard about how they had to shelter their parents from the realization that actually, secretly, they knew the same stuff that the secular schoolkids knew.

It's something that I mostly forgot about as I undertook the business of trying to homeschool my own brood, but a recent blog entry on homeschooling reminded me of it. There's a lot that I agree with in this article, but there's also an underlying current of hostility and paranoia towards public schooling that I find a little disconcerting. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that I'm not really sure that sheltering our kids is always the best thing, either for their psychology, or for their faith, or for the wider community that the Church is called to serve.

I also don't think that it's necessarily healthy for relations between parents and children. I'm currently raising a 14 year old, and she informs me that I am the Best Mother Ever. But there was a period in our relationship, a little over a year ago, where there was a lot of strain and tension which ultimately led towards lying, sneaking and petty acts of rebellion. The superficial stakes were pretty low: she wanted to be able to watch Merlin and thought that her father and I would disapprove. The actual stakes were a lot higher. Like those kids that I met on the pro-life tour, she felt that she had to put up a pretense when she was talking to me. She felt she had to pretend that she didn't know anything about sex, or secular TV shows, or what it is that I write about all the time. There was a Good Catholic Daughter persona that had to be maintained, and since my daughter is not especially great at the deceptive arts this persona was frustratingly unconvincing and difficult to maintain.
Recently she mentioned to me that she explicitly sees the turning point in our relationship as the point at which I made it clear that she's allowed to talk to me about those things, that she is allowed to form her own preferences and opinions, and that I would much rather provide guidance than censorship. I strongly believe that if I had continued to try to shelter my daughter our real relationship would have deteriorated. I also believe that encountering other ideas, perspectives, and experiences within a context where she can safely ask questions and develop her own Catholic identity will leave her with a more robust faith, and a greater ability to effectively share that faith with a wider community. (Confession: I hope that this will happen. Check back in five years and I might have a different brand of wisdom on tap :) )

Now, I do still homeschool. I offered my daughter the choice to go to high-school this year, but she decided that she would rather pursue an apprenticeship in alternative medicine. She'll be homeschooling with me half the time (doing her English and History and all the humanities type stuff that I'm good at) and the other half she'll be learning Biology, Chemistry, Herbalism and Business skills from her mentor. I'm also still homeschooling my five younger children. But my decision to homeschool is no longer motivated by the fears and anxieties that I had as a younger Catholic mom.

I don't homeschool because the education system is “poison” or because I'm a mommy-martyr who has rejected the worldly-wiles of professional activity in order to give her kids the best. Yeah, maybe I would get more writing done if I didn't have five homeschooled kids jumping on my head while I try to type, but on the other hand I know that my mother put in an equal amount of work and sacrifice making sure that her eight kids got the best possible public-school education – and it was a good education. I often have folks ask me what I'm doing my doctorate in, and I have to smile sheepishly and say, “Actually, I don't even have a BA. I just went to a really good high-school.” I should really add, “and I had my mom.”

A parent who is really involved and really cares about the education of their child can make either system work and a parent who models strong moral values in the home can be reasonably confident that their kids will grow up with strong moral values. Also, there's more to morality than sex and the schools I went to did a great job of promoting social justice, community responsibility, fairness, open-mindedness, respect for other cultures, peace-making, and all of those “soft,” “liberal” virtues that some Catholics sneer at but which are, in fact, virtues (and which are, like all virtues, actually hard to teach and hard to practice.)

So I don't homeschool because I'm scared of the school system. I homeschool because I think that it's better for my kids. My kids. Not necessarily anyone else's. There are about a hundred and sixty different factors that rightly influence a decision about how to educate one's children – everything from the personality and special needs of the child to the parents' ability to effectively advocate for their child in a school setting, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the local school, to the parents' own competence as a teacher, to the available network of support that a family has access to. A huge number of pros and cons get weighed up when deciding how to educate a child, and there really isn't a “one-size-fits-all” solution that is going to be best for every child or for every family.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pain, Labour and Suicide

The internet has been awash for the past couple of days with discussions of suicide. The discussion seems to break down into three basic groups: people who have actually experienced suicidal depression who are trying to explain what it is, people who have never experienced it but who are trying to offer compassionate support, and people who have never experienced it but are pretty sure that people who do are whining narcissists.

At the heart of the debate over suicide is a basic disagreement that has troubled philosophy for as long as people have been asking the Big Questions: Is it possible for a person to experience suffering of such intensity that they become functionally incapable of rationally exercising their moral free will?

The obvious test case is the problem of people's wills breaking under torture, but most of the time people discussing this case have no actual experience of being tortured so the discussions basically devolve into thought-wank. So instead I'm going to examine the closest experience that I have: giving birth.
Labour is, in my opinion, a fantastic existential laboratory for examining the relationship between pain and the will. Excruciating physical agony is there, freely on tap, and nobody will accuse you of being masochistic or self-destructive if you choose to confront it head on. Also, you can pretty easily set up conditions and then test your ability to pursue your pre-established goals once the pain sets in. For example, you can test things like “Can I continue to keep my thoughts sufficiently clear to continue reciting the rosary throughout the entire birthing process?” “Can I resist the temptation to ask for pain medication?” “Can I follow all of my midwife's instructions and maintain rational control over my actions?” “Can I prevent myself from screaming?” If you have a lot of kids, you can test more complicated things like “What is the difference between the relationship between my will and my body if I spend several months psychologically preparing myself to adopt an agonistic posture towards pain, vs. the same relationship if I prepare myself to adopt a cooperative/embracing attitude towards it?”

Obviously I only have tentative conclusions based on a very small pool of data involving a single subject: me. But based on that, I would have to say that I've arrived at two basic principles which I think are probably true.

a) It probably is possible, through the use of a variety of interior techniques, to achieve the Stoic ideal of rational detachment from any kind of pain.

b) This is not accomplished without practice. And I don't mean “practice” in the sense of performing various exercises to strengthen the will (though that may help), but practice in the sense of actually enduring the kind of pain that you want to be able to endure.

What this means in practical terms is that when you encounter a new kind of pain, or a new depth of pain, or a new duration of pain for the first time you're probably not going to be sufficiently well equipped to take it on. The radical volitional position is right in so far as it is possible to prepare the will for anything, but it's naive if it suggests that this can be done simply by willing it. Successfully resisting overwhelming pain involves technique and experience, not just guts and good will.

So what does this have to do with suicide?

Well, basically suicide (at least in a contemporary context) is usually not a error in rational judgment. The days when Cato and Seneca calmly and philosophically contemplated their options and soberly arrived at the conclusion that self-slaughter was the most rational option are past. Most contemporary suicides are motivated by intense psychological suffering. The psyche literally hits a point where it is no longer capable of dealing with the amount of emotional pain that it is experiencing and it starts writhing around, contorting itself, looking for any possible way of alleviating that pain – not unlike someone in massive physical agony who constantly changes positions, moans, cries, screams, gets in the shower, gets out of the shower, lashes out, stands up, refuses to stand up, lies down, refuses to lie down, demands an ice pack, throws the ice pack across the room, etc. etc. etc. in a vain attempt to achieve some kind of relief.

In the case of someone in physical pain, we all understand. If a woman in labour starts screaming that she doesn't want to give birth anymore, or that she wants to die, nobody comes by and tells her that she's being selfish or narcissistic. If she has to make a hard moral decision that will result in the prolongation or intensification of her suffering, nobody will treat her like a self-indulgent whiner if she's unable to make it. Even people who have never been in that kind of pain themselves are able to see that the degree of suffering is clearly beyond anything that they've experienced, and usually they humbly suspend judgment.
In the case of emotional pain, however, there's very often an assumption that the person is somehow responsible for bringing this pain upon themselves, and that they are fundamentally always capable of dealing with it if they really try. This is exacerbated by the fact that the causes of unendurable emotional duress are often not observable from an outside perspective and the person suffering is rarely able to adequately articulate them. The kind of anguished cries that tend to issue forth from the lips of the suicidally depressed often sound like completely irrational nonsense. “I hate myself.” “I'm incapable of loving.” “I'm a bad person.” “I'm utterly alone.” Statements like these seem to reflect an error in judgment, but what they actually reflect is an experience so painful that there are no other possible words for describing it. Perhaps “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which was also not an error in judgment, coming as it did from the lips of a man who understood perfectly why He had been forsaken and who knew that in fact He had not been.

This experience of forsakenness, of emotional anguish to the point of desiring death, is not a product of selfishness, narcissism, self-indulgence, or ingratitude. It does not only happen to bad people. Scripture tells us so. Look at the book at Job: Job in his anguish not only pleads for death, but demands to know why the stars did not close their eyes on the day of his birth, why the womb brought him forth. He not only wishes for death as an end to his present sufferings; he is so overwhelmed by pain that he wishes his entire existence to be stricken from the scrolls of Being. And of course Job's very righteous and virtuous friends tell him that this is his fault, the punishment for some secret sin. But God tells them that they have spoken wrongly.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Eros & Thanatos

In these philosophical dialogues, questions of love, sex, death and retribution are explored by a group of characters representing a wide diversity and experience.

Unlike many books with a dialogue format, this one doesn't have a Socrates character who is always right. Each character brings some aspect of truth to the table and it is only through a clash of ideas and insights that they approach a solution to the problems they confront.

Catullus Kirkman is a young gay artist flirting with Christianity in spite of his parents' attempts to raise their children as good Roman Pagans. His angst over how, when and if to come out to his family form the backdrop for a discussion of sexual morality and the nature of love.

Germanicus is a devout Stoic whose dedication to rational abstraction rarely ports well to his personal life. His attempt to help his brothers with their respective struggles forces him into a deeper engagement with the complexities of truth, and the importance of the emotional life.

If Nietzsche does philosophy with a hammer, Juvenal does it with a chainsaw. Haunted by the restless spirit of a murdered child, he delves into the morality of necromancy, life after death and the nature of justice as he discerns whether to become the instrument of its bloody vengeance.

Get it here.

UPDATE: Now available on here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Criminalizing the Buying of Sex in Canada

Many political conservatives in the United States are accustomed to looking at Canada as a hotbed of liberalism, where the consequences of the sexual revolution have progressed further than they have at home. So it’s nice to be able to write about something that Canada is doing right.

Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s proposed prostitution bill, is currently being fast-tracked through Canada’s legislative system following a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to strike down the existing prostitution laws late last winter. The existing laws were challenged on the basis that they endangered prostitutes in order to advance a Victorian agenda of social decency.

Read the whole article at the National Catholic Register here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Unclean Spirit of Gender Ideology

There's been some buzz around the internet lately about the concept of gender ideology, and Pope Francis referring to it as “demonic.” So I wanted to talk about what exactly “gender ideology” is, and how it relates to the experience of transfolk.

Basically, gender ideology is a dualist ideology that collapses all of human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, into either biological difference or social construction. As is generally the case with dualism the body is considered to be relatively unimportant in relation to the mental/spiritual/interior aspects of the self and so the relevance of biological difference is usually downplayed. Sexuality interacts with the more fundamental aspects of the person only in terms of gender and gender, masculinity and femininity, is understood solely in reference to social conditioning which proponents of gender ideology see as basically arbitrary, and usually sexist.

It's an ideology that came out of second wave feminism, and it's largely the result of women trying to seize equality within a deeply hierarchical patriarchal cultural system. To put it simply, within a hierarchy there's a natural tendency to evaluate difference in terms of superiority and inferiority. There's also a general tendency within male-dominated structures to view relations, especially relations between human beings, in hierarchical terms. The Roman obsession with status, or the way that Late Medievals and Early Moderns stressed about exactly where in the Great Chain of Being their particular bloodline was situated, are prime examples of the hierarchical impulse in action. And of course throughout most of the history of the Western world it has been believed that sexual difference implies a distinction of value, with men on top.

Now Christianity did maintain that women possessed a dignity before God equal to that of men, but dignity before God did not generally manifest as equality within political or social structures. For second wave feminists seeking social equality, the path of least resistance lay in a denial of sexual difference. If a difference in kind implies a difference in status, then the simplest way of eliminating a difference in status is to deny that there is a difference in kind. Sexual difference in earlier cultures often manifested in terms of socially stratified gender roles, and sexual difference was almost universally invoked as a defense of those roles. Women couldn't be in the army, because they were weak. They couldn't be politicians, because they were naturally passive. They couldn't be academics because their reason was too easily clouded by sentiment.

Feminists of the second wave said “No!” Women are not weak, they are enfeebled by artificial, socially constructed constraints invented by men in the service of male interests. To a very significant degree, this was true – and demonstrably so. The curse invoked at the outset of history, “and he shall lord it over you” has in fact played itself out in the cultural arena and the beauty and dignity of sexual complementarity has been badly warped and tarnished by the presumption of men. Gender ideology allowed women to assert equality with men, but it came at a cost: the differences between the sexes had to be construed as trivial or irrelevant.

Now if we look at the contemporary situation, and especially at the development of Third Wave feminism and the men's movement, it's pretty clear that sexual difference has re-emerged as an important cultural concern. As soon as a social consensus surrounding womens' right to participate fully in the social, cultural, political and economic life of our civilization emerged, feminism shifted towards a defense of femininity qua femininity, rather than a denial of difference between masculinity and femininity. We've started to reap the good fruit of earlier forms of feminism, and we've also started to discard the chaff.

Gender ideology remains, however, within queer discourse, and for much the same reason. The dignity of same-sex love is defended by an attempt to present it as identical with heterosexual marriage. The dignity of transfolk is defended by an appeal to a socially constructed notion of gender. After all, if gender is just a social artifact, and society construes a particular male individual as “feminine” or “effeminate” then that person should be allowed to live as a female. It makes sense. Right?

The thing is that I don't think very many transfolk actually believe this. Admittedly I'm going from a fairly small group of people that I've spoken to personally, but one thing that seems to emerge in the actual experience of trans people is a fundamental appreciation for the meaning and significance of sexual difference combined with an intense feeling of gender dysphoria. Trans people do not believe that the differences between male and female are trivial, superficial, or irrelevant. They experience these differences as extremely relevant, as fundamental to “who I am.” A transwoman does not believe that she's a woman because she thinks that the differences between femininity and masculinity are abitrary, rather she believes that she is a woman because she experiences herself as feminine in the most profound strata of her being – and her femininity is sufficiently important to her that she is willing to risk social ostracism, loss of employment, derision, exclusion from her religious community, rejection from her family, and perhaps surgery in order to be able to express what she firmly believes to be the truth about herself as a sexually differentiated person.

So where does gender ideology come in? Well, in more or less the same place that it came in for feminism. Generally, people can relate to the idea of wanting to escape from arbitrary social restrictions better than they can relate to the idea of a woman with a penis. If gender is socially constructed, then a person who chooses to transgress gender expectations may be weird, but they're sane. On the other hand, if a person has a male body but insists that they are female, they're crazy. They believe something that seems to be demonstrably untrue. Most of the stereotyping and discimination faced by transfolk is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to gender theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing gender dysphoria without being pathologized.

The problem with the Christian response to transfolk is that the beauty of sexual complementarity becomes weaponized. It is used to undermine the rights and dignity of a very small minority of people who are not privileged to experience masculinity and femininity the way that the majority do. It's not entirely dissimilar to the way that the beauty of rationality and health were used by the eugenics movement to undermine the rights and dignity of people with exceptional cognitive or physical challenges. The underlying assumption is that people should be valued based on their correspondance with an abstract human ideal, and that deviation from the ideal is a moral or social problem.

If we want to effectively demonstrate the falsity of gender ideology we have to start by realizing that trans people are not a manifestation of ideological confusion. Rather they are a group of people who have adopted (at least publicly) the only viable ideological solution to a complex social and personal dilemma. Telling them that they are violating God's plan for humanity, male and female, by deliberately denying their sexual nature does not help. It's not a viable ideological solution, and it's a suicidally dangerous existential solution (I mean that quite literally: I've known trans people on suicide watch for this precise reason.) Simply put, people do not choose to experience a deep-seated incongruity between the apparent sexuality of their body and their interior sense of self as masculine or feminine, and they certainly do not experience gender dysphoria because they have willfully rejected God's plan for humanity.

If the Christian community wishes to serve trans people, it will be necessary to provide a coherent alternative, an anthropology that maintains the dignity of sexual complimentarity without compromising the dignity of bodies whose sexuality is complicated: the dignity of intersex people who may not clearly be born either male or female, and the dignity of trans people whose bodies do not echo their interior experience of sexuality.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Alaska Townhall Event

I’m going to be involved in a townhall event today in Anchorage Alaska. Up until this afternoon I’ve been kind of dreading it: reading the bios of the other four participants I felt like I was totally the odd duck in the pond. I’m female. Canadian. Queer. Catholic. They’re male. American. Straight or ex-gay. Protestant. But we had lunch together and talked about this afternoon’s event, and I’m actually really excited for tonight. I’m still the most liberal person in the group, but I don’t feel embattled about it, which is really good. Also the form is cool. Usually when I do stuff it’s basically a long pre-prepared talk followed by Q&A. It means that I write and rehearse a performance, and then give it on the day of, ideally without visibly relying on my crib sheet. (My long-term ambition is to be able to use the ancient ars memoriae to be able to give speeches with my hands entirely free in the style of a Roman orator. But perhaps it’s better that I can’t do that, since I might be instantly damned for vanity if I ever pulled it off.)

Anyways, this is going to different. The goal is a free-form discussion with some vague guidelines to help keep the conversation going. There should also be a lot of Q&A with the audience. I think that it’s going to be recorded and possibly be made available on the internet. I’ll let y’all know if that manifests. There’ll also be another event in Palmer tomorrow, so if it is streaming to the internet I can hopefully figure out where you go to watch in time for that one.

The basic outline is that we’re going to start off talking about the experience of being gay, then we’ll talk about the role of the Church, and finally culture. If I’m not totally dead as a result of jet lag, I’ll try to blog about how it all went down later tonight. 

Finally, if anyone has advice on how to dress like a real lesbian, please help! I probably won’t get your advice in time, but maybe you can improve my look for tomorrow. If it does go to TV, I’d like to look good enough that Terry Nelson won’t tell me I need a stylist!