Trans Ethics, Not Gender Ideology: Against the Church and the Gender Critics

Srlp_zine_making-
Trans zine-making workshop at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2016. via YouTube.

There is an unlikely overlap between two transphobic schools of thought: the official line of the Catholic Church and the looser “gender critical” stances of trans-exclusionary feminists. These strange bedfellows both depict transgender lives as the product of “ideology," one that sows confusion and delusion.

This misconception leads to reactionaries — clerical and feminist alike — to fall short of a proper accounting of the breakthroughs achieved by trans politics.

But trans people have achieved a great deal by working not as ideologues, but ethical instructors. This is a contrast to both feminist and Catholic critics, who had previously offered the vision of a life lived against patriarchy, or in harmony with God. Now however, Catholics and “gender critics” have effectively given up on advising trans people on how to live their lives, besides encouraging them to desist from transition.

By contrast, trans circles have shared with each other manifold resources and opportunities to assist each other’s transitions in concrete ways, a process which amounts to us showing each other how we can both survive and live, as out trans people. Working in this way, trans people have achieved rapid successes, in both developing the relevant skills among reciprocally engaged members of trans communities and winning recognition from the cis majority.

This rapid development in trans politics over recent years is well displayed by a recent mea culpa by Village Voice journalist Donna Minkowitz. Here, Minkowitz expresses remorse for what she describes as her “botched” reporting on the brutal murder of a young trans man, Brandon Teena. In the no doubt groundbreaking writing that marked the biggest hit of Minkowitz’s career and inspired an award-winning Hollywood film, she has found herself increasingly uneasy with her presentation of Teena as the victim of internalised homophobia. Her account, she acknowledges now, risked compounding the misunderstanding and prejudice that Teena had faced throughout his short life.

Explaining the context of her self-described professional failing, Minkowitz writes:

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.

Even in New York City, someone like me, a journalist who considered myself very involved in queer radical politics, could be massively ignorant about what it meant to be transgender.

In the mere 24 years which have elapsed since Minkowitz’s Brannon Teena reportage, the landscape of discussion around gender has been drastically transformed. A high profile journalistic account with failings of this kind would surely meet an immediate and ferocious social media backlash. It is increasingly unlikely for a young, queer journalist based in New York City not to know several trans people personally. Rather than the agents of normativity Minkowitz loosely believed trans activists to be in the early ‘90s, we are more likely to be depicted by transphobic feminists as an insidious force intent on undermining the breakthroughs of the women’s movement, or by the right as subversives intent on overturning civilisation. This eschatological turn itself is of course an immediate upshot of the breakthroughs in both formal and de facto emancipation which trans activists have achieved over the years, from the expansion of “informed consent” approaches to Hormone Replacement Therapy across the US, to the introduction of “self-identification” provisions to Ireland’s registration of gender in 2016, and more recently in Pakistan.

The pace of these changes has left many commentators baffled, and others aghast. Not all have undertaken the reflection and self-criticism  demonstrated by Minkowitz — and beyond the world of wags and bylines, several political tendencies have voiced their open opposition to the progress trans people have made toward our emancipation and free expression. As trans politics has achieved seemingly countless strings of successes, an unavoidable reactionary backlash has arisen, in a number of guises.

The Church and the “Critics”: An Unlikely Harmony

The most obvious point of convergence between the Catholic Church’s and “gender critical” feminists’ positions is a naive belief that the human body follows two possible prongs of a reliable fork: born either male or female, Catholics and so-called gender critics agree that men and women should be determinable from birth.

In the case of the Catholic Church, embodiment is seen to follow a natural order which matches a gendered ensoulment: in God’s plan either a male or female soul should find a male or female body (each of which complements the other, demonstrated in their unity during the Sacrament of marriage). In the most clearly articulated “gender critical” views, the anatomical form itself is determinant: society imposes prejudices and an upbringing dependent upon apparent sex at birth, with gender arising as the social process of this imposition (and particularly the oppression of women, as justified by the anatomical form and exploited in the reproductive capacity of most females).

Both the Catholic Church and the “gender critics” have objections to trans people related to their prevailing worldview: as masterfully shown by Sophie Lewis, a certain strain of radical feminism can only hold contemptuous views of trans women’s bodies, for the same reason they have narrow, one-note views of sex work and surrogacy. The imperative to follow "God’s plan” proposed by the Catholic Church’s opposition to trans rights is also the origin of its endorsement of restrictions on abortions and assisted suicides. Catholic theologians seem largely oblivious to intersex conditions, at best pointing to a scriptural reference to “eunuchs born eunuchs” (hardly a description most intersex people would today accept). In a similar lacuna, transphobic radical feminists are usually keen to stress how rare intersex people are, a point which shades immediately into implying they should be left aside altogether. Usually “gender critics” stress the importance of discussing intersex and trans issues separately. But they never seem to get around to tackling pressing issues such as Intersex Genital Mutilation, while seeming to have all the energy in the world for organising and theorising against trans people.

That this assumption of insurmountable sexual demarcation is shared between Catholic theology and a trans-exclusionary feminism has been often remarked upon (especially as it places them together as the opposing side to breakthroughs in queer feminism that are now approaching forty years old...Albeit a less impressive timespan from the perspective of the Church, compared to the women’s movement). But beneath this most obvious shared failing of Catholic and “critical” perspectives, a still more profound unity underlies these two hostile conceptions of trans people. Both reduce trans politics and community organisation to a matter of “ideology.” So far, this shared feature of official Catholic and transphobic feminist thought has received little attention.

“Confusion” and Other Canards

The Catholic Church is unlikely to revise its hostile stance towards trans politics for the foreseeable future. While Pope Francis is mostly known for his rejection of Papal pomp and reformist efforts that have drawn fire from more traditionalist clerics, he has advanced both dramatic comparisons of transgender people to nuclear weaponry and more sustained rebukes of breakthroughs in trans emancipation (framed always as the percolation of ideas contrary to nature.)

The term “gender ideology” has been a signature feature of this analysis. Although deployed intermittently since the 1990s, the phrase was brought to the spotlight in a 2014 letter from the Polish Bishop’s Conference, which warned: “we are compelled to speak out clearly in defence of the Christian family and the fundamental values that support it, on the one hand, and, on the other, to warn against threats stemming from propagating new forms of family life.”

“Ideology” in this use appears to refer strictly to a structure of ideas, opposed to the natural order (the family) or immutable, Creator-ordained truths (biological sex demarcation).

References to gender politics as “ideology,” in this sense, have since been deployed by Catholic clergymen and lay activists across Europe, seeing especially heavy usage in Poland and France. The term has also appeared prominently in major national campaigns (both electoral and direct democratic) in Colombia and Costa Rica. Opposing “gender ideology” has proven flexible for those pursuing a conservative agenda, and has not been exclusively deployed against trans people, also serving as a watchword for opponents to gay marriage and adoption, as well as against campaigns to tackle domestic violence and improve the representation of women by quota. (Presumably these are measures which almost no feminist “gender critics” would oppose.)

More recently, however, the term appeared again in an official memorandum entitled: “A Statement on Gender from the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales.” The passage in which the good Bishops set out their party line is worth quoting in full:

The idea that the individual is free to define himself or herself dominates discourse about gender. Yet our human instinct is otherwise. We know that there is so much about our lives that is foundational. Today we are faced with an ideology of gender which, in the words of Pope Francis: ‘denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual difference, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”… It needs to be emphasised that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (Amoris laetitia 56)’.

We are deeply concerned that this ideology of gender is creating confusion. As we continue to reflect on these issues, we hope for a renewed appreciation of the fundamental importance of sexual difference in our culture and the accompaniment of those who experience conflict in their sense of self and God-given identity. We all have a duty to protect the most vulnerable.

According to the Catholic Church of England and Wales, then, “fundamental” biological distinctions are insuperable, change in gender is not possible, and intimacy appears in appropriate male and female form. Muddying these boundaries, trans people threaten the family (defined by the Catholic Church as private, heterosexually monogomous households), and in this way endanger both society and God’s will for humanity.

Self-described “gender critical” feminists (better known as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs) have no official representation or hierarchy of the kind found in the Catholic Church. Indeed, this movement is so loose that it has become increasingly hard to define. The label “TERF” threatens to misdirect us from how the relationship between radical feminism and transphobic activism has been muddied in recent years. A key development here is the central role of two online subforums of Mumsnet and Reddit, hardly a pair of websites ever described as a hotbed of radical politics (except perhaps for the radical right). While some activists of this bent are still prone to proposals for “abolishing gender,” none have been forthcoming with strategic details on how this might be achieved. (And certainly, the platform of these gender abolitionists bears little resemblance to earlier proponents.)

Until quite recently this perspective was largely confined to internet communities, and likely to be experienced mostly in the rough and tumble whirl of social media, although transphobic feminism has been a notable force in academia since the apogee of the women’s movement, as well as on the left more generally. Today a certain revival has been seen particularly in the field of philosophy, responded to well recently by Aaron Jaffe here on the Verso blog.

Sharing no definable political character besides an opposition to self-defined gender markers, and generalised contempt for trans people not in perfect alignment with their worldview, the “gender critical” movement nevertheless employs a remarkably unified set of memes. One of them is the declaration to oppose gender ideology (hence the movement’s name), also termed “trans ideology." Some “gender critics” juxtapose their stance with liberal feminism, by which they mean all trans-inclusive strains of feminism.

“Gender critical” transphobic feminists are prone to caricaturing their opponents as focused on “feelings” over structures. Political theorist Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has claimed that she feels no internal sense of womanhood at all, and as such cannot distinguish herself from trans people who describe themselves as agender. One of the best known belligerents in the often sprawling conflicts between TERFs and trans users of social media, Cathy Brennan, has described herself as a “Gender atheist.” A common theme, then, is depicting their opponents as guided by emotions, or irrational convictions equivalent to religious belief.

Whereas the “gender critics” do not agree with the Catholic Church that there is any ontological distinction between male and female, they tend to espouse a simplified account of “socialisation,” that suggests sex assignment leads to two pathways that are equally insuperable, but for developmental reasons. The irreducible difference stressed by this school of feminism tends to reduce femaleness to reproductive capacity: “anyone who has to worry about getting pregnant is a woman,” as one internet activist had it (the implications of this for cis women who’ve passed through the menopause seem quite peculiar). On these grounds, trans women are considered disqualified from womanhood, just as trans men are ineluctably female (irrespective of any lived reality to the contrary). In this account, all questions of changing phenotype and corresponding changes in treatment experienced by trans people, dysphoria’s developmental impacts, or queer affinity are disregarded in favour of an exclusive focus on upbringing and reproductive potential. All trans people are either seeking transition through internalised hatred (homophobia for trans women, misogyny and lesbophobia for trans men), or perhaps through fetishistic desires (this accusation is much more often levelled against trans women). “Gender critics” tend not to believe in ensoulment, in most cases self-identifying as a materialist position. This materialism is a mechanical one, however: society imposes gender like a factory production line pushing down a stamp. The participation of the individual in gender is minimised, in this account, and the process is typically presented as immutable once completed. What is done cannot be undone. The “gender critical” stances sees the male/female distinction as just as binding as the Catholic Church’s account, seeing attachment to manhood or womanhood as wholly contingent, and imposed by society onto the individual.

This reductionist approach to trans people is also seen in a commonplace tic among the “gender critics” of referring only to “Trans activists” (or Trans Rights Activists — TRAs), and rarely if ever to “trans people.” The figure of a transgender person simply attempting to go about their lives has no place in their account: “transgenderism” is instead portrayed an autonomous force, ever endangering females and seeking to infiltrate their designated spaces, warping the minds of innocent children, and in all other respects behaving like an insidious cosmic squid of mediocre horror fantasy. Cisgender women who express solidarity with their trans sisters are contemptuously dubbed “handmaidens.”

In short, “Gender Critics” (otherwise known as TERFs, or as Aaron Jaffe described the scholarly variation, AFRETs — Academic Feminism Radically Excising Trans people) have joined with the Catholic Church in depicting the recent shift toward trans acceptance in terms of a prevailing ideology, tacitly implying that the “delusion and confusion” model is the best account for the increasing number of people willing to openly identify themselves as transgender.

Both these accounts, Christian and secular, have missed the true foundation of the striking progress trans people have achieved, and as such have failed to understand the immanent conditions of our current gender historical era. In truth, our present moment in gender history is defined by efforts (both organised and ad hoc) to advance transgender ethics.

Transgender Ethics: An Underground Field of Social Activity

The Church and the TERFs are not completely wrong in one regard: there is indeed a “(trans)gender ideology” shared widely, and of some importance. But it  is not easy to isolate exactly what features define it, since political worldviews vary as widely among trans people as they do among our cis counterparts.

The following is a rough attempt to boil down this “transgender ideology” into a few minimal propositions, which by my reckoning would be largely agreed upon by a hefty majority of out trans people:

• The apparent anatomical sex of a foetus or infant cannot be assumed to match the gender identity (woman, man, or other) which will develop throughout childhood, and into adulthood.

• Anatomical sex is not entirely reducible to male and female, with inherent or developmental variations defining the lives of trans people. Medical options including hormonal treatments and certain surgeries allow those with access to them to undergo substantive changes in physical sexuation.

• The autonomy of individuals (including children) expressing their own conclusions about their gender position should be respected in most, or all, instances. In other words, the best possible guide to determining which terms and pronouns apply to  a person will be found by asking them.

• Trans people have a reasonable expectation to receive high quality healthcare on a consensual basis, and to be treated in a respectful rather than pathologising fashion by medical professionals.

• Bureaucratic bodies should honour requests to change gender markers legally.

• Trans people face ongoing rejection by much of society, with fewer opportunities to realise their life potential, and great difficulties accessing much that would be taken as a given by cis people. Transphobia is widespread in society, and inhibits many trans people from realising fulfilling lives.

Beyond this, there are strikingly divergent positions on the most basic questions faced by trans people. Many activists have embraced the notion that brains form to match particular genders even before birth, which influential trans theorist Julia Serano calls the “intrinsic inclination model. Other trans people are committed to “constructivist” positions, which stress the impossibility of isolating individuals from their social conditions, or Judith Butler’s (easily misunderstood) performativity theory which argues that gender stylisations produce rather than reflect the self.

Despite the claims of “gender critics” that transfeminism amounts to a strain of liberalism, it’s unclear if most trans people are liberals. Politically active trans people have criticised liberalism from both the right and the left. Most trans people are working class, and we have been overrepresented in revolutionary movements in recent years. In contrast to the insidious “transgenderism” posited by the gender critics (ever reinforcing gender stereotypes even as it subervisvely threatens the interests of women) an increasing number of transgender revolutionaries are even committed what they describe as a strategy of gender abolition.

Disagreement over the most fundamental questions of trans existence and etiology has not proven much of a hindrance to trans movements, since developing and pushing an “ideology” is not the main activity which occupies our collective time. In truth, over recent debates there has been a largely spontaneous effort to produce a trans ethics.

That is to say: we have done our best to make our lives worth living, and through a wide range of means have aimed to secure our survival (as trans people).

A large part of this effort has developed through advice we give each other on how to live: both in terms of principles and very often with concrete details (from advisable doses, to how to write a deed poll, to how to come out to one’s kid brother). As I’ve described in my essay “Transition and Abolition,” trans communities collectively produce their own social reproduction.

In Aristotelian terms, we might say transition both requires and instills a practical wisdom concerning gender, which circles of trans people have come to share within burgeoning networks of ethical communities. (That is to say: trans circles are groups of people in affinity with each other, with shared commitment to moving through the world together, in accordance with matching principles, who are thus developing a shared way of life.)

Here I will provide a quick sketch of the needs trans communities (online and IRL) provide to trans people today, to demonstrate the ways in which our survival has been collectively ensured (the immediate precondition for any expansion of trans populations, as we have unquestionably seen in recent years). The individual flourishing of trans people is enabled by the reciprocal working of trans communities, both smaller scale tightly knit groups drawn together by personal affinity, and looser resources accessible through social centres, online repositories, and educational networks.

As we will see, these points of focus are less to do with the dissemination of ideology, as with resolving practical affairs related to shared struggles. There are many obstacles to the lives of transgender people becoming bearable, and so the work done by trans circles has been quite varied:

• Legal advice particular to transition is often all too expensive to gather from specialists, but is shared freely among those who have faced down these processes themselves. While in certain states (such as Ireland and Malta) formal transition is relatively straightforward, typically one must  pass through some process of bureaucratic gatekeeping (if indeed the state permits any gender re-registration at all). In the UK the situation is at present especially tangled, with various differing bodies (the NHS, passport registry, and the committees which oversee the awarding of “Gender Recognition Certificates”) each having their own standards and expectations. The upshot is that a British trans woman could quite feasibly have convinced the NHS to provide her with hormones and surgeries, and the passport registry to have issued them a corrected passport (and even birth certificate), yet still find herself thrown into a men’s jail for lack of a “Gender Recognition Certificate.”

Navigating this tangle of legal interpellations is an arduous business, which few cis people have expended much energy attempting to imagine (and are often quite shocked to hear described). For seasoned trans activists helping others through this morass is par for the course, and compiled online resources can be both time and life saving.

• Medical advice is the focus of many online, with a rich collection of research papers, personal experiences, before/after photos, and advisory databases providing (usually free) information for those pursuing hormonal or surgical advancement of their transition.

Competent doctors can seem few and far between, and one resource provided between trans people is the recommendation  of trustworthy medical providers. This is especially pertinent for  mental healthcare, where various transphobic doctrines still permeate much of the various associated professions, and poor treatment can sometimes have negative legal ramifications on other aspects of transition.

Particularly in America (where even the milquetoast reforms of Obamacare have been clearly falling apart at the seams for at least two years) many trans people resort to “self medication.” Even where access to professional medical care is secured, it’s often reported as substandard: doctors often rely on out-of-date information (for instance conflating 1980s risk studies of synthetic hormones with contemporary sources), prescribe dangerous concoctions (the carcinogenic methoxyprogesterone instead of its bio-identical counterpart, multiple anti-androgens), or peddle fallacious claims (a commonplace encountered by trans women is that levels of estrogen reaching too high will result in some “converting back” to testosterone, a chemical impossibility). Some doctors have prescribed absurdly large doses of anti-androgens: diagnosing two at a time, or (as adult film star Bailey Jay recounted her first trans healthcare provider administering) 300mg of Spironolactone a day.

When medical professionals and institutions are committed to ensuring the best treatment possible for their trans patients, on the basis of informed consent, they can do immeasurable good. Allies in the medical establishment can be uniquely placed to best facilitate straightforward access to treatment from the state, and insurance firms. Primarily via “word of mouth,” but also community databases, trans circles ensure that telling good doctors from bad is not simply a matter of luck of the draw.

LGBT communities have always been obliged to take care of their own health needs, to a greater or lesser extent. While under somewhat less drastic circumstances, these efforts are reminiscent of the early years of the AIDS crisis, when a huge amount of effort was expended by activists (including many healthcare professionals) in compiling and navigating the available medical data on the virus, at a time the official medical establishment often displayed a callous disinterest in resolving the plague. Two of the earliest community attempts to staunch the spread of AIDS, “Play Fair! and “How To Have Sex In An Epidemic,” were written by respective pairs of registered nurses (both these texts were written before the HIV virus had been isolated). Similarly, faced with often incompetent or unavailable physicians, many trans people have set about making their own sense of endocrinological challenges posed by transition. Online information exchanges share relevant research papers and clinical experience, as well as advice on access for those left outside of the official medicalised channels (for whatever reason). In Brazil the transfeminist activist group ENTLAIDS bridges this gap, autonomously providing resources for avoiding and surviving HIV/AIDS to travesti and transsexuals.

• Medical aspects of transition are only one means trans people have adopted for managing (and to a certain extent, overcoming) our dysphoria. There are also a wide range of “stylisations” which we can fruitfully offer instruction to each other over.

Style guides, make-up tutorials, video guides for amending every affectation from voice coaching to posture. In many cases these resources were by no means originally created by trans people or with a trans audience in mind: work-out and make-up videos are of use to those who found their upbringing lacking in opportunities for physical expression along these lines.

The ease with which anyone minded to re-stylise their gender can today access this material is part of an objective set of circumstances that enable the intimate matter of transition for millions. At this point in time one can master one’s wing game long before confiding transition impulses even to close friends.

Other resources provided by trans circles are less related to opening up expression, and more to the unfortunate necessity of damage control.

• Dispossession: One commonplace for trans youth is finding themselves homeless, or physically endangered, upon their transition (or even gender exploration) being announced, or discovered.

Dispossession is a fact of life for any variation of LGBT youth, as journalist Rachel Aviv vividly portrays playing out on the streets of New York. However this outcome seems especially likely in the case of trans youth. Tackling this issue has been central to some trans activists since the 1970s: one of the primary projects of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries was founding a succession of STAR houses,” to provide accomodation for gender variant youths otherwise left on the street. Later attempts followed the same model.

Often alternative models of family life arise out of these strenuous conditions. These formations were most famously depicted in Paris Is Burning, where an array of gender variant black youths joined “Houses,” to navigate the 1990s ball scene. While these formations should not be romanticised, and feature as much fractiousness and opportunities for abuse as one might expect, they have provided a lifeline for those otherwise experiencing acute isolation, emotional abuse, and often the immediate risk of physical harm.

For those in less severe circumstances, trans circles offer advice in the often delicate, and sometimes, violent matter of outing oneself to parents and other relatives.

In many cases those going through adult transitions later in life have already founded private households of their own, with partners and often children. While achieving a workable resolution to the obvious predicaments this situation often causes is not always possible, advice from those who have gone through the process of revising or extricating oneself from these formal arrangements previously can be invaluable.

The Collective Work of Trans Survival

Altogether the wealth of experience and advice freely available to those accessing trans circles amounts to a source of shared knowledge and strength that is continually drawn from and contributed to. Within this myriad of resources and communities of purpose, more tightly knit circles form on a far smaller scale.

Rather than any shared program to be doggedly pushed, trans politics is best thought of as a collaborative effort by those operating from a multitude of particular positions and holding innumerable ideological stances. And the objective conditions which enable this effort, the fish in which early transitioners swim, extends well beyond those who consider themselves in any way politically minded.

The breakthrough achieved by trans politics as a whole in recent years can from one view be seen as the great aggregation of manifold encounters which took place on an individual level: across the world millions of trans people have built up relevant skills and knowledge of our condition, and often freely shared them. It’s this practical wisdom concerning gender transgression which is the bedrock of out trans people seeming to be ever proliferating.

This is a matter of infinite collaboration, based on untold hours of painstaking labour, and lessons learned the hard way.

In the new trans communities that have arisen, what could have been treated as a truly individuating condition — feelings of being a “freak,” or at least in a unique and isolating plight — are replaced with many situations and sensations becoming a matter of cliche, which those involved for several years will surely have heard dozens of times.

This transmutation from isolation to cliche, and the mutual reliance of those passing through the process of transition and those  more seasoned, is found in much trans literature. Many of the short stories found in author Casey Plett’s first published collection A Safe Girl to Love, playfully rearticulate the commonplace of instructive writing: “The Young Man’s Guide to Wearing and Shopping For Women’s Clothes For The First Time” (which perhaps needs no further summary) and “How to Stay Friends” (a fictional account of a cis and trans ex-girlfriends re-uniting over lunch, only implicitly and obliquely a “how to” at all). Similarly, an early section in Imogen Binnie’s Nevada describes the daily ritual of shaving the protagonist passes through in great detail — surely at once a point much of the readership can relate to and learn tips from.

Trans theory, too, has often drawn richly from personal experiences. From Julia Serano’s classic Whipping Girl, to a pair of essays this year from Sophia Burns and Andrea Long Chu, thinkers have included reference to their own early lives and process of transition to explore transgender experiences more generally. Similarly, trans memoirists such as Janet Mock and Juliet Jacques have at once provided an exoteric role of relating their lives to their cis audience, and also purposefully provided narratives helpful to their trans readers (many of whom will not be out at the time of reading). The readiness of trans memoists to recount their own path through the world produces a concrete framework to draw from, for those still considering such a lifestyle.

Trans Ethics and Confused Critics

Catholic churchmen and “gender critical” feminists alike seem oblivious to these aspects of trans life.

In their haste to frame us as “objectively disordered” first and foremost, they have categorically misunderstood the bulk of the social activity which undergirds the rapid expansion of transgender communities and circles seen in recent years.

The upshot is that our critics (Christian or secular) have been unable to provide any historical accounting of the insurgent breakthroughs trans politics has made. In assuming that their opponents are simply ideologues, Catholics and “critics” alike fail to appreciate the social activity which undergirds the expansion of trans communities. The result is that theorising against trans people rarely, if at all, comes close to grasping that which the critics wish to dispose of. In their haste and contempt, transphobic feminists and clerics are left helplessly oblivious.

Most interestingly, the Catholic conservative (and more generally Christian Right) approach to trans issues is considerably further from the mark from the previously predominating gender issue of the day: gay men and their liberation movement. Opposing the increasing normalisation of openly gay men and a lesbian women in the public sphere, the Church often framed their criticism as opposing a “gay lifestyle,” which was depicted as ultimately callow and unfulfilling. Opposing lifestyles is a matter of particular relevance for the Catholic Church, which provides an ambitious Catechism to direct the lives of its congregants. (How trusty a moral guide the Church seems in recent years seems an open question, to assess matters generously). Juxtaposing the “lifestyle” of most gay men with that advised by its own teachings allowed the official stance of the Church to distinguish from those with disordered inclinations (who God still extended love), from a particular subculture (which it could condemn without reservation). While obviously a derogatory and conflationary term, references to the gay lifestyle at least conceded that homosexually inclined men (women were less often mentioned) had fashioned for themselves a distinctive form-of-life.

By contrast, critical perceptions of trans people settle for depicting us as simply deluded. Whereas gay men followed an ethical pathway the Church disapproved of, transgender people are apparently capable only of pathological reaction and generation of chaos. Needless to say, this stance eschews engagement with the extensive resources available freely online, which outline the manifold labours required to survive as a transitioning person. Instead the Church and transphobic feminists resort to an act of projection: asserting uncertainty, where in reality trans circles have provided clarity. As the statement from the Catholic Bishops had it: “the ideology of gender is creating confusion.”

In this way, transphobic gender critics and Catholic clergy have both failed to grasp the means by which the so-called “transgender moment” (which shows clear signs of becoming more of an era) has been achieved. Their contributions to discussion of trans issues will be primarily expressions of their own muddled thinking.

Meanwhile, trans politics has forged its own ethics in this sense: whereas the more narrow minded can conceive of us only as delusion, trans people have both survived, and shown each other how we might live as ourselves openly. Our current flourishing is not happening on the basis of a protracted misunderstanding, but rather a shared pool of practical wisdom, which grows deeper by the day. Until this matter of fact is grasped, those who would rather we hadn’t will find themselves in a continual state of confusion.

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a Londoner and queer academic worker based in Vienna.