The Personalist Project

Advocates of gay marriage had one more obstacle to overcome. They were making steady, even dramatic, strides, having happened upon some winning sound bites (“Love is love!” “Marriage equality!”). They had pointed out that only a bigot would object to a black man marrying a white woman. 

That was once deemed unthinkable and scandalous. And now look! Look how we all agree what an embarrassing remnant of the bad old days that attitude is. Love has conquered all. Oh, it takes a while sometimes, but society eventually comes around to embracing what used to be taboo. It’s the same with gay marriage.

Or so the story goes.

Lots of people accepted this narrative wholeheartedly. Others didn’t, but it hardly mattered, because they weren’t about to say so in public. Some were scared to sound like fundamentalists or prudes. Others, more pragmatic, just feared for their careers.

But a few still weren’t buying it, or even pretending to. This small but stubborn segment of the population kept insisting that whether you’re a man or a woman is central to marriage in a way that race is not. The holdouts weren’t all fundamentalists, either. Some couldn’t get past the sheer biology of the thing. Others persisted in their belief that intentionally depriving children of a mother or a father was a bad idea.

Suddenly, though, we’re in a new stage of the conversation.

We’ve gone from “Why can't a man marry a man?” and “Why can't a woman marry a woman?” to “Who’s to say who counts as a man or a woman anyhow?” and “Isn’t all this excessively ‘binary’ discourse missing the point?” 

The argument used to be that the distinction between males and females was irrelevant, because it was less important than the love between (presumably) two people. But now it’s not about males and females anymore. It’s about gender identity.

The thing about gender identity, though, is that it’s practically unknowable. It’s fluid, tricky to pin down. Your may have the physical appearance, the genetics, and the psychological identity of a woman.  That’s one possibility on the spectrum. Or you may have just one or two characteristics that "match." You can’t make assumptions based on somebody’s appearance, genetics, or behavior. You might identify as any one of 51 genders, according to Facebook (although there’s a lot of redundancy: I looked up their definitions, and they seems to boil down to male, female, sort-of-neither, sort-of-both, and formerly-one-but-now-the-other).

It would be hard to exaggerate this mainstreaming of gender confusion. The view that the difference between men and women, as the saying goes, consists of a few anatomical details “that only matter on special occasions”--that's old-fashioned. Our children, along with the rest of us, are being earnestly assured that being a man or a woman is something that can be altered with surgery, hormones, and voice training. That those extremely rare cases of people with ambiguous anatomy, or ambiguous chromosomes, are kind of unusual, maybe, but just one more place to be on the gender spectrum. And cases of gender dysphoria—a man feeling trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa (also very rare)—can be solved by “transitioning.” That gender is a mystery, to be puzzled out by weighing genetics, appearance, desire, perceived identity, and so on.

I'm all for avoiding reductionism, labeling, and false dichotomies. Sometimes it feels like that's all I write about. And I'm all for listening to people's own accounts of who they experience themselves to be. It's way too easy to assume you know them better than they know themselves, to label them as enemy or ally--or to exploit them by treating them as Exhibit A in some point you're trying to make. It's not open conversation that's the problem. 

What I'm talking about is the propaganda, the slow-building impression that maybe very few of us are simply men or women, and that calling someone "he" or "she" makes it so.

Just in the last few days, I’ve run across this story of a woman who’s genetically “mostly male” but gave birth to twins through IVF and this story about a man living as a woman married to a woman living as a man and how they plan to tell their children that “sometimes men have babies”; and of course every trip to the supermarket checkout line brings me face to face with Bruce Jenner, who’s “transitioning” from his “assigned” gender to a new one. Yesterday, logging into my email, I saw a story about a little nine-year-old girl whose parents, on the advice of their doctor, were preparing her for gender reassignment and pleading for understanding and support in a video they’d made. 

I can't think of a better description of all this than what Rabbi Guilles Bernheim calls "the irreversible scrambling of sexual identity." You can read my posts on his very perceptive work here and here, and you can read his own words in full here

There's a good case to be make for "male and female He created them." But not until we get past a lot of manufactured perplexity.

Comments (6)

Gary Gibson

#1, Feb 16, 2015 7:22am

Excellent points, Devra!  I agree wholeheartedly.  I did share this and expect a lot of flack and "unfriending".

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 16, 2015 8:26am

I'm convinced that the "powers and principalities" reason for the massive confusion is Satan's hatred for the Icon of the Holy Trinity that is marriage. He hates the life-giving union and communion of love that complementary sexuality allows. He hates true femininity and true masculinity. 

On an only slightly more mundane level, the arrogant philosophy of the world rejects the idea of the "given." Reality is whatever I will it to be.

It's the master/slave dynamic taken to its ugly end. I won't accept Reality; I will rule over it.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Feb 16, 2015 8:45am

Two other thoughts:

1) I know it's in the nature of propaganda to lie and distort and manipulate. But the radical incoherence of the premises we are expected to swallow is shocking.

I can be whatever gender I want, but I can't seek therapy to "change my sexuality"?

I should be sympathetic to the suffering of those who have gender confusion, but not to the suffering of those who regret their sex changes?

2) I'm shocked, too, in a different way, at how widespread this phenomenon seems to be. Until pretty recently, I was hardly aware that there was such thing as gender confusion. I am really wondering what it is, where it comes from, and how best to address it. I mean, how to love and help those who find themselves with it.

I think the answer of the world is deeply wrong and damaging. But the hardness and judgmentalism on "the religious right" is serving to drive them into the arms of the "LBGT community." 

Somehow we have to find a way of both cherishing "the given" and sympathetically opening ourselves to the experience of others. 

Devra Torres

#4, Feb 18, 2015 10:39pm

Gary, thanks so much! I hope it doesn't actually cause any unfriending.

Katie, yes, rejection of the given is one of the things Rabbi Bernheim delves into in his piece. And I hesitated to write this after that long thread of Janet Smith's--I have become convinced that we've created the impression that the only way for people with various kinds of gender confusion to get a welcome is to embrace the conventional wisdom that so enthusiastically embraces them. It's easy to fail to enter into somebody's experience because that gets confused with swallowing the pro-confusion propoganda. On the one hand, we don't want to be taken in and lose whatever social and political support for the truth about man and woman and marriage still remains--on the other hand, we don't ever want to approach a person as just an instantiation of an enemy type.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Feb 21, 2015 8:12am

What's odd and frustrating (post JP II) is that so many educated Catholics—even Catholics who consider themselves teachers of TOB—seem to share the assumptions of the liberals on this point, viz. that welcoming persons and sympathetically opening ourselves them and their experience entails abandoning objective truth. The liberals toss out the objectivity of truth; conservatives don't want to hear about the truth to be found subjectivity.

They hear "subjectivity" and they think "uh oh! subjectivism. Don't even go there."

And meanwhile, as JP II showed us so compellingly, the only way, really, to address the minds and hearts of modernity is, precisely, to go subjectivity and find truth there.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Feb 21, 2015 8:18am

This requires a tremendous act of faith on the part of conservatives—faith that truth is one. It also requires self-transcendence. We have to give up our imagined control over Truth. We're used to having a hold on it, to being experts on it. We've made it "our job" for the last  several decades at least to uphold Truth in the face of the onslaughts of relativism. Hence, we find very hard to let go. If we admit that other people have aspects of truth that we don't have— that might even challenge parts of what we think we know—we might lose our grip and become relativists. Better not go there. Better to treat anyone who talks about going there (even if it's the Pope!) as a threat to be rebuked and instructed.

I'm praying a lot for Pope Francis. What a challenge he's facing in us!

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