Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill
It was the tweet heard ’round the world. On December 19 of this past year Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling sent this out to her more than 14 million followers on Twitter. The set of ideas, a seemingly non-threatening mix of standard Western liberalism and common sense, has since been “liked” more than two hundred thousand times and retweeted by almost forty thousand of the writer’s followers a few weeks later—but has also inspired untold numbers of Rowling’s fans to howl in anger, betrayed, they cried, by an author they trusted as a beacon of inclusivity.
Rowling was reacting to a decision by a UK employment tribunal that had ruled against Maya Forstater, fired for expressing certain now-radical ideas. As The Economist put it: “…an employment tribunal in London ruled that stating ‘gender-critical’ beliefs—for instance, that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ properly refer to males and females rather than to anyone who identifies as such—are a legitimate reason to lose one’s job. It found that the position of Maya Forstater, a 45-year-old tax expert who was sacked for tweeting that sex is immutable and cannot be changed, was ‘absolutist’ and ‘not worthy of respect in a democratic society’.”
Those who agree with Forstater, and have been fighting this increasingly volatile battle in recent years, were deeply heartened by Rowling’s tweet—and by the fact that, as of this writing, she has not backed down. The tweet is still at the top of her feed, and she has reportedly refused a requested meeting with representatives of the gay rights group GLAAD.
What a moment. What a time, in which simple biology is wildly controversial. How did we get here? Well, one way to answer that question is to look back for a moment, and try to figure out where we were, just a few decades ago.
I consider some old photographs. In 1964, at the age of four, there I was, surrounded by my gifts: a pedal-driven fire truck, a baby doll carriage—and a punching bag. My third birthday, a year before, I’m looking down at the cake, a small stack of books next to it, and then, apparently, my main present: a big, chunky, red-and-yellow Tonka dump truck.
Do you think she might be trans?
Not even thinking such a thing could be, not even worrying about it, we kept on truckin’ through the 70s, pedaling those cars, Barbies in hand; then getting older, eschewing makeup and maybe bras, our jeans’ cuffs trailing on the ground, determined to reject cultural and social stereotypes. And if that’s you, maybe you’re with here with me, wondering how in the world we’ve transitioned from that world in which expressions of “gender” were downplayed or even discouraged as stereotypical and limiting, to a landscape in which “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypical preferences and expressions have become straight-up pathologized.
Where little girls who like short hair and playing outside in the mud, or tween girls who are uncomfortable with their changing bodies, are told by online specters and crazy parents and greedy clinicians that these are clearly signs that they aren’t “real girls”; where they’re shot through with puberty blockers and given chest binders and, if they’re really blessed, mastectomies before they’re twenty; where boys who don’t like sports and present effeminately are told they are obviously really girls—because, you know…you can always tell a girl by how much she likes girly things.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
I find myself often wishing that Walker Percy was still around, both to satirize and to make sense of this world we’re in now—for that is sometimes how we best make sense of something, by mocking it. Percy, because his great concern was The Self. Who are we? How do we know who we are? What happens to us and the world when we get that wrong?
Percy comes to mind, too, because alienation was his great theme: the uncomfortable, persistent sense that I am not quite right in my body and in turn, not quite right in this world. He was, after all, a psychiatrist. His novels are all about people noticing this dis-ease and trying to figure out what to do about it, most of the time in the wrong way.
This is a bizarre, deeply damaging moment we’re living in, driven by a tiny minority of people suffering various forms of mental illness. And yes, there are various forms. Once you start looking into this world, you come to understand that there is really no such thing as the monolithic, gentle group of “trans folks” we’re gently reminded to welcome by gentle Father Martin, all gently seeking understanding for their differences.
There are different iterations and roots of this type of dysphoria, like any mental illness, not all understood. There are men who experience this desire, frankly, as a fetish. It’s called autogynephilia, and it’s a thing—a male being aroused by the idea of himself as a woman. There are young people who have been abused, who are on the spectrum, who are deeply influenced by what they see online; there are preteen and teen girls who are confused, disturbed, and revolted by the physical changes they’re experiencing and put off by the crass sexual expectations of youth culture. There are teen-aged girls and boys, young adults, who look at this weird world of strict gender conformity, the land of pink or the land of blue, and think…I don’t fit here. I’m different. Maybe I fit…there.
There’s a lot to say and lot to do and much to resist, but here’s the bottom line at the present moment: Resist and reject “gender self-identity” in all spheres of life, including the law.
That is to say: you are not a woman because you believe you are; you’re not a man because you’ve decided you are. You’re a woman because you are an adult human female. You’re a man because you are an adult human male. You may be wearing a dress and a wig, but you are still a man. Adult human male.
For this—the notion that one can simply decide one’s gender and then merit treatment and rights on that score—is the root of most current trans activism, including political activism, embodied in this country in the so-called Equality Act, endorsed by all the current Democratic candidates for president and passed by the House last spring. Most people don’t understand this. They think that “trans rights” is all about not being mean to people who have gone through counseling and years of medical treatment and surgery—right? Nope. Not at all.
At the core of the Equality Act, and similar efforts in England, is the notion that a person should be treated according to the gender he or she (?) claims, even if they are still physically intact, have never had surgery, and maybe never even intend to. It doesn’t matter if they “pass” or not, or what they look like to you.
You’re a girl because you say you are.
If you have the opportunity to interact with a politician who claims support for the Equality Act, ask them questions about it and don’t let go. Don’t accept platitudes. Ask, over and over—Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces, such as locker rooms? Well, we need to be an inclusive society, welcoming of all people. Great. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces, such as locker rooms and restrooms? Trans folks experience a lot of discrimination, you know. That’s too bad. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces such as locker rooms, restrooms, and prisons? I’m for equality for all people. Good for you. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces, such as locker rooms, restrooms, prisons, and shelters for abused women?
A frequent response to these arguments involves taking great offense at the supposed implication that a transgender person should be suspect. No. The argument against self-identification laws like the Equality Act is not about laying suspicion on transgender persons. It’s saying that someone who seeks to harm women or girls could easily take advantage of such a situation—with legal protection.
Trans activists are brutal in their battles to gain access to these spaces. Look up Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter—one of many examples—defunded by the city and vandalized by trans activists for standing firm on the definition of woman as born female, grown into an adult female human being.
The consequences of a contraceptive, sterilizing, affluent culture
In the future—hopefully not the too-distant future—people are going to look back at this transgender moment in the same way they look back at the lobotomy moment. They’re going be amazed, and maybe a little embarrassed for humanity’s sake.
They’re going to see in this moment the culmination of the worst aspects of misogynist thinking, aided by technology and profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies: the moment in which the best women are men and women are better off by becoming men.
It’s also—although no one will probably see this, because we’ll be deep into Brave New World/1984 territory by then anyway—absolutely the consequences of a contraceptive, sterilizing, affluent culture.
When human beings are sterilized and approach sexuality as sterile beings in a sterile landscape, when procreation has no necessary connection to sexual activity and everyone has—relative to what human beings have had through most of history—loads of free time and money, what do “sex” and “gender” become?
A costume to wear during the pleasure-seeking performative exercise called Life. And hence our anxiety about our costumes.
It’s called dysphoria. It’s about not feeling quite right. It’s about not feeling at home in your body or even in the world.
I am careful in speaking about mental illness, because it really is a challenge to understand and discuss. Who among us is “normal” or “whole”? Who relates to themselves and to the world with complete clarity? None of us. Not a one.
But when you separate sexuality from procreation, you do, indeed, lose your definitions. When you sterilize a culture, gender does, indeed, become a game of appearances and affectations.
But there’s just a bit more. Here you are in the West, in your affluent, sterile, leisure-oriented, performative culture—a material one stripped of the transcendent, with no road but an earthly one and no destination but a grave.
You’re taught from the beginning of your life on this earth that fulfillment and happiness are not only possible, but expected. That a great deal of this happiness and fulfillment lies in just who you are and the wonderfulness of you are and being accepting as the marvelous being that you are.
But what if you’re not feeling it?
What if you’ve had horrendous experiences in life that have made a sense of self—much less a contented, whole self—challenging? What if what’s inside doesn’t match what your family, your community, or even the big world tells you is correct and normal?
Raised in an appearance-, emotion-, and achievement-centered culture in which gender is simply another path on the road to feeling okay—why not do what you can to fix yourself? Surely the doctors only have my best interest at heart? Right?
We are created for more than this world
Perhaps there’s another way. And perhaps it’s a way that preachers and teachers can reclaim as they address this moment, as they should: to remind us that yes, we are so loved. But we are also so very broken, on a journey, and this is not our home.
Oh, the suffering remains, and the strangeness. But one just might be spared the perceived need to change and “fix” oneself and make what’s outside match what’s inside.
And the older you get, the more true you see this is.
That little girl with the fire truck and the dolls and punching bag and Tonka dump truck turns sixty this year. Unbelievable. Sixty. Body dysphoria isn’t just for the trans, believe me.
What does it mean to be “almost sixty” but to feel no older than, say forty, and to wonder—was I ever even 45 or 52? My appearance is changing, and I look at women two decades older than I and I know—God willing I make it that far—that there will be a day when I, too, will be unrecognizable to my younger self, and let’s not even talk about the toddler with the fire truck.
It’s very, very weird. It’s challenging. I completely understand why people, especially those in the public eye, get work done to stave off the sagging and the wrinkles. It’s so strange when what you look like on the outside doesn’t match what you feel on the inside. It’s disorienting. You might even say it’s dysphoric.
Centered in those feelings, living as though this were the only reality and all that matters, the temptation to use all the technology at one’s disposal to fix it—to make it all match up—might be very strong.
But it’s possible to understand that disassociation and sense of dislocation in another way: as an invitation. An invitation, a hint to listen to the heart that seeks and yearns for wholeness and unity, to understand that while it’s not perfectly possible on this earth, the yearning for it is a hint that somewhere, it does exist, and it waits—and the hard, puzzling journey we’re on does not, in fact, end where the world tells us.
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!