FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Transgenderism: Identity and Language 4 July 2011

Given my training in languages and literary-critical theory, I’m very conscious of the degree to which much of the discourse on gender issues revolves around defining the (politically, epistemologically) correct language to use about gender issues themselves. There is, for example, a big debate in, shall I call it, the ‘LBGTQI’ community about whether ‘transsexualism’ should be classed as a sub-category of the ‘transgender’ umbrella term.

I myself have had my own issues with the term ‘transgender’, as part of my long-running efforts to define myself in gender terms, which have seen various designations come in and out of favour. For the time being, I am using ‘androgynous’ rather than ‘transgender’; although I regard androgyny as being a sub-category of transgender. I have attempted to define what I mean by ‘androgynous’ / ‘androgyny’ / ‘androgyne’ in previous posts, so I won’t go over all that ground again. Suffice it to say that my own version of androgyny is psychological rather than being physical (i.e. having an outwardly gender-ambiguous appearance) or relating to my social gender role (i.e. acting in ways that cross the conventional social barriers between masculine and feminine).

But what does that mean? This is where I could go into a lengthy discourse trying to tie down the specifics of the way I identify as both male / masculine and female / feminine, or neither strictly male / masculine nor female / feminine. And that could all get very intricate, nuanced and self-absorbed. And that’s my point really: discourse that questions conventional gender dualities, particularly in a personal context, often becomes completely wrapped up in self-referential and jargonistic terminology, and nice distinctions, that can leave those of a more non-gender-questioning turn of mind completely floundering if not indifferent.

But that comes with the turf, so to speak. The reason why gender discourse can become so convoluted and terminologically fragmented is that it is trying to overcome the oppositional dualities that conventional language sets up: male vs. female, masculine vs. feminine, ‘cissexual’ vs. transsexual, etc. And we’re not talking here only about social or linguistic conventions that relate to the ‘content’ of language (i.e. what words ‘refer’ to) but about how language itself structures social-gender identity, or, conversely, how social gender is formed through a process of ‘linguistic identification’.

In the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, what I’m referring to is the process of identifying with / through the ‘Symbolic’, which essentially means language and other symbols / signifiers that have a conventional, ‘fixed’ social meaning. Language and the Symbolic order is inherently structured around binary oppositions: the presence or absence of the signified. E.g. ‘male’ is defined through a matching of the signifiers of the ‘male’ (i.e. ‘man’, ‘boy’, ‘he’, ‘male’ clothes) with their socially determined signified (an actually ‘male’ person or body), as opposed to a ‘non-match’ (a ‘female’ person). In other words, ‘male’ is the opposite of its opposite (‘female’), and so is defined in that opposition itself. Indeed, the opposition between ‘male’ and ‘female’ could be regarded as the primordial or archetypal binary that provides the template or foundation for all others. In this way, linguistic / conceptual binaries represent the means through which society both symbolises and structures itself, and inscribes biology (and biological behaviour) as meaning (i.e. as relationship). In particular, and primordially, this is what determines that ‘sex’ (and sex identity) is always already gender: pre-inscribed into the Symbolic as a function of being known and symbolised as anything at all, as opposed to being altogether beyond language, and therefore beyond knowing or telling.

Any discourse that questions such a fundamental, linguistically pre-structured opposition as that between male and female is automatically questioning the whole way language works: separating things into ‘logical’ opposites – one thing not (capable of) being its opposite. In this way, re-definitions of gender that seek to go beyond the conventional binaries end up having to define new Symbolic nodes: new signifiers that denote a convergence of concepts that are usually held to be mutually contradictory but which, by that token, are inevitably defined in relation to those binaries even if they posit their transgression. And so, for example, my concept of androgyny, which is: neither strictly both male / masculine and female / feminine, nor neither male / masculine nor female / feminine, and hence, though it is beyond the ‘sex’ binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and beyond the gender binary of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, nonetheless can define and articulate itself only in terms of those binaries even while acknowledging that they are inadequate to explaining what it is. The ultimate binary to which I am bound is that I can say what it is only by saying what it isn’t: neither the presence nor the absence of the conventional gender binary – or, in other words, the absence of either presence to or absence from conventional gender polarity.

The problem is how to inhabit that space of being ‘beyond’ or opposed to the conventional social signifiers, but to do so ‘socially’: i.e. how to symbolise and express one’s gender difference in a manner that does not differentiate oneself – separate oneself – from society and from relationship with others. In other words, how do I express my androgyny – which is, as I’ve said, very much ‘in the mind’ – authentically in terms that conventional society can understand, relate to and – hopefully – accept?

Well, that’s a question not only for another time and another post, but an existential question that only time and my life journey can (begin to) answer.


Reflections On Androgyny (3) 11 September 2009

There are many criteria according to which sex and gender can be defined, and distinctions between – loosely speaking – masculine and feminine polarities can be drawn up and also put into question. Where combinations of masculine and feminine are present, some are defining of androgyny, and some are not. The table below is an attempt to set out just some of the possible different levels of gender distinction, and examples of types of personality (e.g. androgyne, transsexual, ordinary man or woman) that could be seen as demonstrating combinations of the genders as thus described.

Level of description Terms describing gender polarities Names for / types of combination
1 Anatomical sex Male / female Intersex; hermaphrodite
2 Neurological sex (i.e. relating to brain structure) Male / female Can include intersex. Also, transgender; e.g. transsexual (male brain in a female body or vice-versa), androgyne, etc.
3 Affective gender identity (relating to emotional, subjective, imaginary / fantasy identification with particular gender(s)) Male / female; masculine / feminine Non-transsexual transgender individuals: those who are able to live with their gender diversity and are more or less happy with the ‘gender’ of the body they were born with. This could include so-called ‘she-males’: men who have had hormonal and/or surgical treatment to give them the appearance of a woman but have not (or not yet) had the operation to remove their penis and shape a female organ. These are usually pre-op transsexuals, in fact; but some choose to remain permanently as hybrid male-females, and are to that extent not full transsexuals. Also, androgynes can belong to this category.
4 Social gender-role identity (related to the gender role(s) in society and relationships that an individual identifies with) Male / female; masculine / feminine This includes persons that identify with, and willingly embrace, social roles that were traditionally reserved for, and which society still identifies to some extent with, the opposite ‘sex’; e.g. women in business or in industrial jobs requiring physical strength, and house-husbands and full-time fathers
5 Social presentation or persona (the gender effect of the way the individual presents themselves socially; e.g. appearance, clothing, personal adornment (make-up, jewellery, etc.), mannerisms, manner of speech, etc.) Male / female; masculine / feminine Camp or effeminate guy (gay or straight); butch lesbian; transvestite man or woman; masculine-looking straight woman; etc. She-males (referred to under No. 3 above), and pre- and post-op transsexuals can also come across as gender-ambiguous in this way.
6 Physique (actual bodily appearance, abstracted from social presentation) Male / female; masculine / feminine Physical androgynes; intersex people can also look androgynous / ambiguous in relation to sex / gender. Also she-males; pre-op male-to-female transsexuals; and female-to-male transsexuals, who remain without a natural penis but in other respects appear male / masculine.

In the above table, one immediately noticeable thing is that where the terms ‘masculine / feminine’ are used to denote gender, the terms ‘male / female’ can also be used to describe the individuals concerned, depending on context. (See my discussion on the interchangeability of these terms in my previous blog.) For social gender-role identity, in the examples given, one could refer to the career-orientated businesswoman as fulfilling both a traditionally ‘male’ role (associated with men) or a ‘masculine’ role (associated with a male / masculine culture). Similarly – but perhaps with more far-reaching implications – people in ‘level 5’ whose social presentation is at odds with their biological sex can often seem to us to be of the opposite sex as well as gender. E.g. male transvestites – and even more so she-males – can be so effective at creating an illusion of femininity that straight men start relating to them as female, not just as feminine, even though the rational part of their brain knows they are male.

Another observation to make is that individuals can be – but are not necessarily – gender-ambiguous or polygendered on more than one of the levels described in the table. E.g. a hermaphrodite (a traditional name for an intersex person) can also be neurologically androgynous (having a brain that has developed in a combination of a typical male and a typical female pattern); affectively androgynous; ambiguous in both their social gender-role identity and social presentation; and physically androgynous (in terms of the appearance of their bodies when naked). However, it is rare for an individual to be mixed-gendered on so many levels. On the other hand, in our increasingly gender-egalitarian Western society, it is perhaps increasingly rare for an individual not to exhibit a single type of gender duality to any degree (not even that of ‘level 4’, for instance).

Incidentally, the multiple ambiguities of the intersex / hermaphrodite condition have been neatly illustrated by the recent controversy over the South African athlete Caster Semenya, on whom what is referred to as ‘gender tests’ have been carried out to determine whether she is entitled to keep the gold medal for the women’s 800 meters she recently won at the World Athletics Championship. Several of the levels of gender ambiguity have been present in her case:

  • Level 4 (social gender-role identity): demonstrating ‘male’ strength and aggression in competing and winning at her chosen sport
  • Level 5 (social presentation and persona): the pictures of her that I have seen definitely suggest an ambiguous overlap of feminine and masculine presentation: no make-up or other attempts to ‘feminise’ and soften her appearance; a rather masculine voice and manner of speaking
  • Level 6 (physique): here again, her actual bodily appearance – abstracted from social-cultural symbols of gender – is quite ‘masculine’: muscular torso, flat chest, body hair; although, as I discuss further below, ‘normal’ women tend to have far more body hair than is generally realised. The difference is that, unlike Caster Semenya, most women rightly or wrongly take often quite considerable trouble to remove or disguise such hair; an endeavour that belongs to my level 5: social presentation and persona.

Today, there have been unconfirmed reports that the tests have indeed revealed that Semenya is an intersex individual: having parts of both the female and male sexual organs, although the organs of neither sex are fully formed or fully functional. If these reports should turn out to be true, then the fact that, biologically, Caster Semenya is both male and female – or neither male nor female – has thrown the whole conventional gender-classification system into complete disarray; and the IAAF – the international athletics-governing body – is unsure whether to allow her not only to keep her medal but to continue competing in future, which seems grossly unfair. The least you think they could do under the circumstances would be to allow to compete as a man in future. If such a suggestion is not too insulting to her, that could galvanise her into demonstrating that she was a worthy champion by even beating the men.

Note, however, that the levels at which Semenya’s ‘sex’ initially appeared ambiguous or even ‘male’ were those most clearly associated with cultural and social norms (levels 4 to 6), rather than the biological and psychological level at which hermaphroditism and androgyny, as I’ve defined it, are properly determined. If today’s reports are to be believed, it turns out that Semenya is indeed intersex (level 1). But what she is at level 2 (neurology / brain structure) is anyone’s guess; and at level 3 (affective gender identity), all the reports suggest that she is, or has been up to now, completely happy in her identification as a woman.

To return to the question of social gender-role identity in modern liberal societies, there is a big difference between embracing the ‘other gender’ and transgenderism proper. The house-husband who willingly stays at home to look after the kids while his wife goes out to work as the breadwinner would normally at most be described as expressing his ‘nurturing side’ or ‘being in touch with his feminine side’. Many same-gendered persons in the West today would accept the basic proposition that there were aspects to their personality that were typically of the ‘opposite gender’. Crass examples: men who prefer domestic crafts (e.g. knitting or crochet) to football (‘feminine’-type behaviour); or women who’d rather be sitting with the boys and watching the match over a tin of lager (‘masculine’). But that doesn’t make them in their totality, or even to a significant degree, feminine and masculine respectively, let alone ‘female’ or ‘male’.

A transgender person, on the other hand, does feel that their ‘other’ gender identity (the one that is associated with the opposite sex from their own sex) does represent a core – if not the core – of their identity with respect to gender or, more narrowly, sex. And this is what justifies the use of terms designating biological sex to refer to their gender. The terminological distinction is that by referring to gender as ‘male’ or ‘female’, one is describing something real or authentic about an individual: their objective bodily reality, as in the case of anatomical sex; or something that is a core characteristic of their personality, psyche or self-identity, as in the cases of neurological or affective androgyny. By contrast, the terms that are more associated with social gender or appearance (masculine and feminine) relate more to social stereotypes and cultural symbols of sex / gender – with the proviso that, as I’ve said, these cultural symbols can be so powerful (as in the case of male transvestism) that persons who transgress them can often genuinely appear to be transformed into the other sex.

Another example of this, while I’m thinking of it, would be our biologically inaccurate idea that women are naturally devoid of body hair (i.e. that hair on the face, legs, chest, etc. is not just ‘unfeminine’ but actually male). And this is because the absence of hair in these places is a Western cultural symbol of femaleness – in just the same way as wearing dresses, bras and knickers. In other words, the cultural symbols of gender are so powerful that we take them as bodily signs of anatomical sex. The net result of this cultural myth about women is that huge numbers of them develop extreme complexes about their body hair being unnatural and unfeminine; whereas in reality, it is completely normal and female.

In my next blog entry, I will discuss some of the specifics of neurological and affective androgyny, which is where, incidentally, I would situate my own.


Reflections on Androgyny (2) 16 August 2009

Filed under: androgyny,gender,gender roles,intersex — John @ 7:04 am

I realise that when I used the word ‘closet androgyne’ to refer to myself in my last entry, that could have been construed as meaning I was a transvestite! I have in fact experimented in a minor, and indeed ‘closet’ (i.e. secretive) manner, with cross-dressing; and it is possible that I might do so on a more regular basis if my personal circumstances allowed. But this is not something that I generally feel a compulsion or irresistible need to do. Transvestism could be seen as a form of transgender behaviour. In the 1980s, people such as Boy George who blurred the boundaries between the genders / sexes by their flamboyant, public cross-dressing were indeed called ‘gender benders’ – a term which also neatly captured the ambiguity about whether they were also to be viewed as gay (‘bender’ being a slang term for ‘gay’ at the time). The same ambiguity is conveyed by the more contemporary term of ‘gender queer’.

Transvestites are in fact usually not androgynes, in either the physical sense of the term (having a bodily appearance that is ambiguous in relation to their sex or gender – when stripped of their cross-dressing apparel, that is, e.g. clothing, make-up, props, etc.), or the psychological sense: having a mixed or neutral gender identity. There can be a variety of motivations for cross-dressing. Very often, the male cross-dresser is in fact straight and masculine-gendered, and is acting out fetishistic fantasies about his ‘ideal woman’ or his ideal of himself as a woman: instead of, or as well as, projecting his ideals and fantasies onto real women, he turns them in on, or attempts to actualise them in, himself; but the ‘desire’ as such is heterosexual. Then there’s also a well established gay-transvestite scene, often involving highly theatrical drag acts. The relation of desire that such acts play upon could be seen as one where the conventional female / male pairing is replaced by a feminine-male (transvestite) / masculine-male (masculine-looking and/or straight-acting man) duo. I am told (and I really don’t have any direct experience of this; but if I did, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it) that gay transvestites / drag queens are often the object of sexual advances from ‘straight’ men, who – if that epithet is to be applied accurately – clearly view the drag queens as female, even though they know they are men.

In the above discussion, I have deliberately blurred the distinctions between terms such as man / male / masculine and woman / female / feminine. The basic distinction that is usually made is that male / female are the adjectives referring to the anatomical or biological sex of an individual, i.e. whether they are a man or a woman; whereas masculine / feminine relates to psychological and social gender (how an individual perceives themself or is perceived by others in gender terms). But in reality, this neat divide – and ultimately the gender divide itself – is difficult to uphold rigidly. Indeed, it’s not even maintained officially, in the sense that politically-correct considerations now require questions in official forms and such like to ask about a person’s ‘gender’ rather than their sex but still only give the options ‘male’ and ‘female’. But ‘male’ and ‘female’ are supposed to refer to sex not gender, and, in fact, the forms or questionnaires involved are trying to determine an individual’s biological sex, not their subjective / social gender identity. For instance, I don’t think the public-sector organisations requesting this information would be too happy if a transgender male ticked the ‘female’ box on the basis that his gender identity was not the same as his sex.

On top of which, these forms somehow omit to offer a third option for gender, such as ‘other’, which is what would be required for an androgyne! When confronted by online forms asking for my gender, for instance, I usually try to avoid providing an answer if all I’m offered is either male or female; but when you hit the ‘submit’ button, you’re told that the gender question is of course a ‘required field’!

This sort of cross-over between terms that are meant to refer to anatomical sex and those that relate to gender illustrates the argument that even the signifiers of supposedly objective, scientific distinctions (e.g. the distinction between men and women) to some extent mediate, and are articulated through, contingent socio-cultural distinctions: the option of ‘male’ or ‘female’ being described as that of ‘gender’ rather than sex. And indeed, the offering of only the choice between either ‘male’ or ‘female’ effectively enforces a binary opposition that is socio-cultural in origin rather than scientific. This is because, if the question was really designed to elicit one’s biological sex scientifically, it is now generally recognised that a third option would need to be provided: intersex. Intersex people are those who are born with a combination of often only partially formed male and female organs, and variations of the standard XY (male) and XX (female) chromosomal patterns. Our society and culture prefer not to acknowledge this ‘third sex’; effectively, the ancient cultural antinomy between male and female (i.e. anatomical sex as culturally understood and articulated) supersedes and overrides a more objective, scientific description. There is no official status for intersex people: right from their birth certificates, they have to be referred to as either male or female; and so they – and, indeed, everyone else – continue to be thus classified throughout the rest of their lives.

While this represents an injustice towards intersex people, it also doesn’t ‘do justice’ to androgyny: while the cultural (gender) distinction between male and female ignores (biological) intersexuality, it also denies androgyny as a cultural, gender phenomenon. This is in reality completely illogical: if it can be accepted that people can be made up of combinations of male and female in the anatomical sense (and, by extension, the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not exhaustively describe the realities of sex and gender even from a scientific point of view), it seems contradictory not to recognise that people can also be a combination of male and female in a psycho-social and cultural sense – particularly as the very terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ are culturally relative to begin with. But, of course, while in fact being relative, these terms articulate concepts that the culture takes as being absolute and grounded in objective truth.

In my next entry, I’ll look at some of the many different criteria by which sex and gender can be classified and differentiated. This will enable me to suggest a positioning of androgyny somewhere in the middle of a scale running from intersexuality to conventional forms of ‘same-gendered’ identity (male-identifying men and female-identifying women) that still integrate aspects of the ‘other gender’.


Reflections On Androgyny (1) 15 August 2009

I’m finally getting round to copying over into this blog a series of articles on my androgyny that previously appeared in a Yahoo 360 blog that has now been closed down. Here’s the first part:

I’m an androgyne. What does that mean? People often think of the terms ‘androgyne’ and ‘androgyny’ as referring only to physical characteristics: when a man or woman has an ambiguous appearance in gender terms and seems to be part-male and part-female. But this is not the kind of androgyne that I am.

Androgyny also refers to psychological gender as well as gender appearance. It relates to people who feel that the conventional dichotomies – male / female, masculine / feminine – are not adequate to describe their gender identity. The androgyne gender identity (one could call it ‘androgendity’) can comprise either a combination of what the person in question feels are distinctly masculine and feminine characteristics, or an absence of either polarity, or something in between these two options.

I would define my own androgyny as the former: I have personality and mental characteristics that I identify as female / feminine and others that I perceive as male / masculine. In terms of anatomical sex, I am, identify as, and am happy to remain male. This illustrates the fact that androgyny is not the same as transsexualism, e.g. when someone who is born with a male anatomy has what they experience as a female personality and mind, and who then might undergo a sex change (or in more PC terms, gender reassignment) to assume the outer bodily appearance of a woman.

In this sense, androgyny is a sub-category of transgenderism: when people have gender identities that cross, transcend or blur the traditional gender dichotomy or binary I referred to above. On this definition, transsexualism would also count as a type of transgender condition.

The kinds of thing I am raising here are often not easy to grasp or accept for people who do not experience any variance between their gender identity and their physical sex, or between their gender identity, and the role they adopt in society and the way they are perceived by others. Both types of variance are usually present for an androgyne. As I’ve said, my body is male and also looks male, despite the presence of what my girlfriend unflatteringly refers to as my ‘man boobs’ – which I prefer to see as less flabby than that description implies: the result of a combination of my sedentary middle-aged lifestyle and occasional bouts of press-ups and sit-ups, giving something (I like to think) of a muscular impression.

In terms of my social role and how I’m perceived by others, I think this is predominantly masculine, too; although there’s a slightly ‘camp’ aspect, linked to a predilection for exaggeration and word play. I think it would shock some of my male friends and associates if they realised that part of me ‘feels like a woman’ – including the sexual feelings; but I’ll delay getting into the relation between gender identity and sexuality (again, not a ‘straightforward’ one) till a subsequent post.

So the feminine / female part of me is not often openly expressed. I am, to that extent, a ‘closet androgyne’, or at least I was till I decided to ‘come out’ on the world-wide web, albeit under the blanket of a pseudonym! In my next entry on this subject, I’m going to try to weave a path through the thorny issues concerning the distinctions and interrelationships between male / female and masculine / feminine, and those between anatomical sex and psycho-social gender identity upon which they rely.


Sexuality, Gender and Catholicism 27 December 2008

As a bisexual, transgender Catholic, I feel it incumbent upon me to comment on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks in which he is reported to have affirmed that homosexuality and transgenderism are at least as great a threat to the survival of humanity as climate change.

I have to admit that when I first heard the report about this statement on the radio, I thought it sounded like a very ill-advised thing to say, at the very least: bound to encourage homophobia, and violence towards gays and transgender people. And it’s true, those words will inevitably lead some miguided people to feel they have a sanction to be even more discriminatory and hostile towards GLBT people.

That’s partly because utterances on controversial subjects such as this get reported only in part and out of context. That was certainly the case with these remarks. When you look at the Pope’s words in greater detail, he’s not in fact saying that homosexuality and transgenderism per se are a threat to the survival of humanity. What he appears to be repudiating is the undermining of the distinction between male and female that is expressed in active homosexuality and transgender behaviour, and the intellectual justification that is given to such behaviour through gender theory. He is reported to have said that it is not “out-of-date metaphysics” to “speak of human nature as ‘man’ or woman'”; and that blurring this distinction could lead to the “self-destruction” of the human species.

This is a more complex and less judgemental point than some of the media reports appeared to suggest. I do actually agree that within the life of the Church – which is the model for the life of the whole world as transformed by the Holy Spirit – there are distinct roles for men and women. For instance, I believe that God confers authority in the Church on men, as expressed in sacramental priesthood and the authority of fathers in the family. I should stress, however, that this is an authority based on the service of God and of those over whom one holds authority; and it should not be – though often is – synonymous with authoritarian partriarchy. Similarly, women very often, but not always, have a vocation for more ‘maternal’, nurturing roles – whether motherhood itself, teaching, nursing / doctoring, etc.

However, these gender roles should not be interpreted in a narrow, exclusive way. E.g. because the Church, or much of it, believes that men have a leadership role and that women are suited to more caring, maternal roles, there should not be an automatic expectation that all men (biological gender) will be natural leaders (social gender, personality) or that all women will be natural mothers and care givers. Yes, one can insist on a fundamental distinction between male and female (although how does one deal with the real, empirically verified issue of intersex persons?); and one can legitimately expound a view of the Christian faith that promotes the exercise of certain roles on the part of each sex. But to assert that all men have to be (only) masculine as well as male, and all women should be feminine (only) as well as female, seems to me to ignore the rich and complex diversity of gender identity and roles that is simply an ordinary part of the make-up of human beings and societies.

I think there is a need for greater clarity and precision on the part of the Church in these matters. Pope Benedict is a highly intelligent man, and if he wishes to open up a debate about gender, and not merely about sexuality where the focus normally lies, then the Church’s position needs to be set out in a manner that does not appear to replicate the naive tendency to mistakenly equate gender with biological sex. Apart from anything else, much of the gender theory that the Pope’s statement seems to be castigating does not at all put in doubt the polarities of male and female, and masculine and feminine; on the contrary, these antinomies are integral to understanding and articulating a whole host of transgender and non-heterosexual personality and behaviour types.

And that includes my own: to abandon my self-understanding as bisexual and androgynous (part-female and part-male psychologically, and even neurologically – in terms of how my brain is wired) would be to abandon a hard- and long-fought struggle to come to terms with my inner complexities and contradictions in a way that has enabled me to remain true both to myself and to my faith.

One can be bisexual, transgender and a faithful Catholic. And if the Pope wants me to explain how, I’d be happy to enter into conversation with him.