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.


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.