Current Events Ink Slingers Misty

Bruce Jenner: What Does Love Demand?–Part 2

transgenderIn Part 1, we talked about how a person knows he’s transgendered. This is important, because we must ask ourselves if as a society we’re going to accept and accommodate individuals’ subjective realities, as we’re increasingly being asked to do with the transgendered.

Bruce Jenner says he’s a woman named Caitlyn. Are we required to accept him as such? And what do we do about transgender people–pre-op and post-op–using bathrooms, living in dormitories, and competing in athletic competitions? As Catholics, we need to wrestle with these questions, because transgenderism is a thorny issue that will have far reaching legal and social consequences.

In trying to influence the culture, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the transgender issue are men and women who are children of God. While lawyers and politicians duke out whether a trangendered man can compete with natural-born women in the Olympics, we need to consider the very real people who identify as transgendered. What is the most loving way to respond to transgenderism when we encounter it in our brothers and sisters?

Reading the stories of transgendered people, I’m convinced that the core issue for transgendered people is acceptance. In reading the 1,200-page journal of Melanie Phillips, who transitioned from a man to a woman, I noticed that every time a friend, coworker, or even stranger accepted him as a woman, his self-esteem soared; he describes feeling emotionally high for days whenever a colleague called him by his chosen female name or a stranger believed him to be a woman. Phillips reveled in being “one of the girls” when in a group of women, and even felt “honored” when asked to do traditionally feminine tasks like making coffee for male coworkers. He even enjoyed sexism, because it meant he was “really” a woman.

Why would encounters like this mean so much to Phillips? Because they came after a lifetime of feeling inadequate and rejected as a man.

Transgender people often describe feeling “different” from their peers from a young age. And most of them really are different, in that they possess traits atypical for their sex. Phillips was an emotionally-sensitive and naturally empathetic little boy who preferred “gentler” pursuits, which stood in stark contrast to the rough-and-tumble masculinity he saw in his male peers. He gravitated toward and identified more with girls. Transgender women-to-men often describe a similar if opposite experience as children; as little girls, they never felt “feminine” or enjoyed the activities most other girls did.

Phillips and others’ descriptions reminded me of my son’s 11-year-old friend, Noah, who has Down’s Syndrome. A few weeks ago while we were visiting Noah’s family, the father said to me, “Other kids sense that something’s different about Noah, but they don’t quite know what that is. So they avoid him. Noah senses he’s being avoided–even if it’s subtle–and that makes him act out and do something obnoxious to get their attention. Which only confirms for the boys that he’s to be avoided.”

Transgendered people often experience a similar scenario. The boy isn’t masculine (as society defines it); the girl isn’t feminine. Other boys instinctively feel something is different about the effeminate little boy, so they either openly or subtly ostracize him, as they do to Noah. The boy may even be harassed for being a “sissy,” as Phillips was. Gender norms for girls tend to be more flexible, but the tomboyish girl still isn’t likely to be included in female conversations and rites of passage. By the time these “different” children reach adolescence, then, they’ve endured a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle peer rejections.

In story after story written by transgendered people, I saw no evidence that they were objectively the opposite sex trapped in the wrong body. But I did see an almost universal experience of being rejected as children, either by their same-sex peers or adults, which had understandably led them to reject themselves and gravitate toward the opposite sex.

As a boy, Phillips was much like my friend, Kevin: his smaller frame, emotional sensitivity, and effeminate gestures led other boys to avoid or bully him. He describes being forced to wear a dress for Halloween by his mother, his initial shame giving way to happiness as strangers opened the door and pronounced him an adorable little girl. His insecurity about his manhood followed him into adulthood:

“As an adult, when crossing the street, I would never know what to do with my hands or arms. I was always afraid I would be laughed at for being skinny or not ‘male’ enough. I would pretend to scratch an itch on my face so I could hold up my wedding ring as proof that someone thought I was worthwhile enough to marry.”

Many transgendered people describe desiring to be the opposite sex even as a child and I’m sure they’re being truthful. But is it likely those feelings and desires stemmed from the objective reality that they are the opposite sex trapped in the wrong body? Or is it more reasonable that having experienced profound rejection for not meeting societal gender norms, they sought emotional comfort and social acceptance by embracing the other sex?

In reading transgender stories, I couldn’t shake the sense that becoming the opposite sex gave these wounded people a social “do over.” Having always felt like a rejected failure as their natural-born sex, they finally received the affirmation they desperately craved as the opposite sex. This is no doubt why transgendered people describe feeling “happy” and “free” once they’ve transitioned. When living as your biological sex is emotionally and psychologically torturous, I imagine it is a profound relief to be free of that particular burden. (Perhaps, too, this is why so many of the transgendered I read about described feeling the greatest peace when alone in nature–unlike society, the natural world places no masculine or feminine demands upon them.)

I’m genuinely baffled that doctors, psychiatrists, and the people closest to the transgendered are hearing their stories and NOT seeing the connection between the rejection they experienced specifically through their masculinity/femininity, and their desire to be the opposite sex. Why can no one see that transgendered people are deeply wounded souls whose perception of themselves has become pathologically distorted? These are people in so much emotional pain that they’re often willing to do violence to themselves to find relief–and the compassionate response is to encourage them in that course? Especially when transitioning to the other sex in no way resolves the person’s underlying psychological torment (see this article and this study for more).

“What I love about your son,” Noah’s father continued, “is that he treats Noah like a completely normal kid…they just play together and he accepts him just because he’s Noah.” Would the outcome be different if we embraced and accepted people as children of God regardless of what their masculinity or femininity looks like? Of course. Why, then, aren’t we treating transgenderism as a tragic mental illness, and encouraging treatment so these individuals can heal from their devastating wounds? Surely it’s healthier–and more compassionate–to teach a person to fully accept himself as God made him to attain peace than to help him destroy his very self in that quest.

For every one hater who calls Bruce Jenner a freak, there are three others offering him the false compassion of support as a woman. I doubt anyone will consider that both responses just confirm for Bruce that he was never adequate or truly lovable as a man. Surely, Jesus calls us to something more authentically loving. For only when we teach our children to accept others as God made them, and teach the deeply wounded to accept themselves, will we be able to truly love our transgendered brothers and sisters.

Current Events Ink Slingers Misty

Bruce Jenner: What Does Love Demand? Part 1

transgenderI was 18 when I encountered my first transgender person: Kevin was a sweet young man with a petite frame, high-pitched voice, and feminine mannerisms who hung around the common area of my all-girls’ dorm to avoid harassment and bullying from peers in his all-male dorm across the street. Kevin called himself a “pre-op queen,” and talked constantly about his desire for sex reassignment surgery. His plan was to become a woman, get married to an accepting man, and adopt a couple of kids so he could “be a mom.”

During those rare times when Kevin wasn’t talking about his future sex change, he was an engaging, intelligent guy that I enjoyed being around. We lost touch after he moved to a co-ed dorm across campus for safety reasons–someone had set off a small bomb in his dorm room.

Before Kevin, I’d never given the transgender issue much thought. And honestly, I didn’t give it much thought after I met him, either. When Kevin told me he wanted to cut off his genitals, grow breasts, and change his name to “Emily,” I privately thought that was a sad, extreme course for him–or anyone, really–to take. But having witnessed his abuse at the hands of male peers, the last thing I wanted to do was make Kevin feel rejected again.

So I supported Kevin’s decision; I even called him “brave” for being true to his “real self” by becoming a woman. It never occurred to me that I was offering him a false compassion or that I could affirm him as a person without supporting what I instinctively knew was a self-destructive path.

As rumors have swirled around Bruce Jenner over the past year, I’ve found myself thinking more about Kevin and wondering what happened to him. Did he ever have the surgery? Did he get married? Or did he commit suicide like many transgendered youth? If he is alive, does he still believe he’s a woman? Did he rejoice or weep when he saw Bruce Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair as a woman?

Facing the transgender issue every time I went by the tabloids this year made me realize how little I really understood about transgender issues. I figured it was time to educate myself, so I started reading everything I could about and by transgendered people. More than anything, I wanted answers to two questions:

  1. How does a person know he’s transgendered?
  1. What’s the most loving way to deal with transgenderism when we encounter it in our brothers and sisters?

Transgenderism: Pure Descartes

I noticed that no matter how many transgender articles I read, not one could explain how a person knows for certain he’s transgender. (And knows so certainly he’ll go through surgery to prove it.) My research led me to The Transgender Support Site, where I spent countless hours reading its pages, including the 1,200-page, 20-year journal of Melanie Anne Phillips, the site’s founder. The journal intimately details the emotional, social, and biological impact of Phillips transitioning from an ordinary married man and father of two kids to a full-fledged, anatomically-correct woman.

So exactly how does a man know he’s really a woman when his body is clearly male? Surely (I reasoned), if doctors are performing radical surgeries to turn someone into the opposite sex, then there must be an objective means of verifying a person’s claim that they’re really the opposite sex on the inside.

What I discovered is that transgenderism actually is purely subjective; in the famous words of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” If you think you’re a man, you are, regardless of what your biology declares. In fact, reassignment surgery doesn’t even have to be a part of the process anymore; transgender advocates are increasingly demanding that society accept–and accommodate–a person’s “true gender” based solely on the person’s subjective belief that they’re the opposite sex.

A vet in my own hometown highlighted this expectation in an editorial a few years ago, in which he blasted the state’s DMV for demanding evidence of sex-reassignment surgery before changing sex on driver’s licenses. According to him, the DMV–and every other government agency–should just take your word for it.

I sincerely have to wonder where this logically ends. If the only thing that’s necessary for a person to be accepted as the opposite sex is their belief that they’re the opposite sex, then on what basis do we have for denying anyone their subjective reality?

What if an adult says he’s actually an 18-month-old child on the inside, as this man does…does that mean we can’t hold him legally responsible if he commits a crime? What about the people who believe they’re animals, like this man in Pittsburgh? Does he have to pay taxes if he’s really a dog? What about the “tran-sabled,” who genuinely believe they’re disabled people trapped in a healthy body? And who, much like the transgendered, will physically alter (i.e., mutilate) themselves so that their body matches their interior reality? If a person insists he’s trans-abled, is he entitled to disability payments?

These aren’t facetious questions, folks. If a person’s subjective reality must be accepted by all of us as the objective social reality, then we need to ask ourselves how far down the rabbit hole we want to go.

In every other case of body dysmorphia–in which a person’s perception of themselves doesn’t match the biological reality–we understand that the person is mentally ill. The adult who thinks he’s a toddler, the man who thinks he’s a dog, the healthy woman who insists she’s paralyzed…these are psychologically unhealthy people who need serious therapy, perhaps even medication, to correct their skewed perceptions of themselves. We wouldn’t call them “brave” or laud them for living according to their “true self,” would we? And anyone who encourages those perceptions would never been seen as offering them true compassion, but actually as further harming them psychologically.

Why, then, are so many people applauding for Bruce Jenner right now?

In wrangling with transgenderism as a society, however, we can’t lose sight of the fact that at the heart of this issue is a person–a child of God. In Part 2, which will be posted later today, we’ll look into the heart of the Kevins and Caitlyns of the world, which will help us answer the most important question of all: what is the most loving way to treat transgenderism when we encounter it in our brothers and sisters? Stay tuned!