You may have noticed that I rarely write a post about a news topic while it’s still in the news cycle. The truth is, my laziest self is pretty talented at reflecting back, in more eloquent ways, the thoughts and feelings of those that I see and hear around me. But it’s the deeper, slower work of listening to myself that doesn’t come quite as easily.
Aside: I think that part of the slowness of this kind of work is my personality. By Meyers-Briggs typology, I’m a great big NF smack between an I and a J–for those who don’t know what the letters INFJ mean, just know that it means I am great at feeling all the feels, that I know with my gut way before my head, that I have strong opinions about what I feel and know, and that all this input from other people wears me out. On my best day, I’ll throw myself into oncoming traffic to save a stranger that I love on principle. On my worst day, the world makes me depressed and I want to play all the minor chords at the same time–but I still want my 3-5 besties to be with me and look into my eyes and see my soul while I wallow in being morose.
I find that, while my heart breaks over what I intuitively know to be a deep, complex topic, it takes me a while to feel how and why my heart is breaking, in order to speak into the conversation.
So, I hope you’ll forgive me for dragging up last week’s news, but I have some words to say about our conversation around Caitlyn Jenner.
I have the awkward privilege of the embodied reality of having lived some stretch of my life with the following identities: a white, home-schooled, conservative, Libertarian/Republican, Pentecostal Christian, with Feminist leanings, from the Deep South; a closeted, Emergent Christian, environmentalist, married to a woman, attending Seminary; a divorced, gay/queer, Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, instructor of theology, student of post-colonial theory, community garden-instigator, visual artist.
And these are just a few of the ways that I could describe some aspects of who I am and have been.
Basically, people are complex. Thank God that we change and grow–becoming dynamically different day by day, and becoming more ourselves in every way.
Our deepest creation myths tell us we are dust–of the earth and of stars–clay into which the breath of God in-spires, giving us life. We are malleable.
Contrary to the notion of human progress, every generation does not stand on the shoulders of the one before it. We inherit advantages and disadvantages, but each human, and each generation has to do its own work to learn to hold in our own bodies the wisdom passed down to us by others. While our genes might turn off and on various markers in our bodies that track the trauma, attachment, health, and heartache of our ancestors, it is up to each of us to, across the span of our own particular lives, learn how to love and be loved.
This is a huge reason why I participate in an organized religion, because it helps me catch the rhythms that teach my body how to trust goodness, to grow in compassion, and to love with wisdom rather than harsh judgement for myself or others.
We are beings who are good and beloved and are also in the process of growing, unfolding, and becoming ever more of who we are. It’s difficult to talk about this without falling into the patterns of classic liberal progressivism–the notion of “getting better.” And yet it’s important to wrestle with.
I know that there are some (most often on the liberal branches of the USAmerican tree) who hold (or are characaturized as holding) a pop-psychology of radical self-acceptance that goes like this: as long as you aren’t harming anyone else, whatever you do is okay. And it’s this over-generalization that terrifies the shit out of others (mostly on the conservative branches of the USAmerican tree) who say, “hold the phone! At what point does autonomous choice trump morality and justice?”
Some examples of this paradigm might be in the areas of self-harm and death with dignity. Should those who self-mutilate be blindly applauded for making their own choices about their bodies, or should those around them seek to reach out and be present with these people who appear to be in some type of pain? Should people with terminal illnesses be prevented from choosing a peaceful death or put through months of prolonged pain in order to preserve the sensibilities of those who are unable to stomach a valuation of life in terms of quality over longevity?
Other areas that are less stark, and perhaps more complex–recreational drug use, working in the manufacture of assault weapons, investing in stock market funds run by exploitative banks, engaging in BDSM sexual activities with consenting partners, driving cars fueled by petroleum, eating fish from depleted oceans, praying for people without their consent, playing three hours of Call of Duty or Candy Crush Saga.
You get the point. We live our lives, for the most part, without ever considering or evaluating our own actions by this metric. Yet, when pressed, all of us have some deep-set personal instinct about what is okay or not, healthy or not, “normal” or not, leading to a better way of life or not. It’s just that we rarely scrutinize our own choices, presuming our choices to be, by default, in keeping with the trajectory of our bias about what is a good way to go about humaning on this planet.
Where am I going with all this? What does this have to do with a celebrity’s transition from a public identity as Bruce to Caitlyn?
Well, the reality is, a personal experience of gender transitioning is far outside most our human experience. So it’s a lot easier to scrutinize than open ourselves to personal growth spawned from empathy.
What’s a lot closer to all of our human experience is the awkward feelings that arise in our own bodies when we feel like we don’t quite fit into a present cultural narrative about how people with our genitals are “supposed” to feel, act, talk, move, love, or be in a given moment. From the kid with a penis who cries after falling down, to the adolescent with a vagina who wants to slam a fist in anger at being dismissed as less-than, we’ve all had some experience where our outsides weren’t allowed to match our insides; where we had to stuff something down in order to be allowed to stay in the room, at the cool table, or on the team.
And while it’s often appropriate to learn to not harm ourselves or others as we feel and express our powerful emotions over this game of fitting-in, the models of what’s culturally considered “healthy” can be deadly when people who experience discrimination, rejection, and mistreatment are taught to bottle up these feelings because it’s either not alright to express their outrage, or worse, there’s a silent pact that society’s made to pretend there is nothing about which to be outraged.
So, there are some (radical feminists and conservative Christians among them), who would suggest, patronizingly, that “the work” for transgender people is not to change their bodies, but to come to accept and love their gender identity even if it is different from what their bodies say about their gender. This tends to spring, on the feminist side, from radical acceptance of bodies, shunning fat-shaming and social requirements for women to be objects of desire. And on the conservative Christian side, it tends to spring from a certain gender essentialism, which insists upon a direct connection between genitalia and cultural norms associated with gender categories.
I find both of these positions problematic. For instance, It’s rare to see even my anarcho-feminist friends promote the radical acceptance of non-normative eyesight (other than, perhaps, certain discourse circles around disability and blindness). We have a sense of what a functioning eye is typically capable of, and we don’t hesitate to use technologies of lenses and lasers to modify the state of our bodies in order to have what we consider a better way of life.
And it’s just as rare to see conservative Christians take a vocal stance against non-necessary male circumcision of newborns. To believe so much in the essentialist nature of genitals, it’s really difficult to understand how painfully disfiguring the genitals of helpless newborns is not seen as a crime against humanity and God (again, there are some religious folks, like members of Christian Science and the Sikh faith, who would take exceptions to this issue. And of course there are arguments to be made about religions and cultures that practice genital mutilation–among these arguments, I’d chime in that if you want to cut your own junk, go for it, but let the kids decide for themselves.).
It’s rather arrogant to insist that we know what someone else’s personal emotional work is in relationship to their experience of their own life in their own body. It’s also foolhardy to assume that all transgender people 1) can afford, and 2) choose to undergo the difficult process of physically transitioning their bodies to any extent. There are as many experiences of gender identity as there are people (I apologize to those of you who have been looking for some kind of shorthand for this conversation).
Moreover, we live in a society where transgender folks who don’t have the privilege of “passing” as cis-gender regularly get assaulted for trying to use the bathroom appropriate to their gender identity. In this context, it is our society that demands bodily transitioning in order to “pass,” because we are too uncomfortable with the implications of a female with a penis or a male with a vagina–never mind the existence of people with both and neither express types of genitals, and the presence of varying percentages of XX and XY chromosomes in most of our bodies.
If we would like to hold a public conversation about gender identity and body autonomy vs. conformity, may we do so with compassion, curiosity, playfulness, and sorrow. May we listen to others’ stories with an ear for how they invite us to re-examine our own stories. May we turn hearts toward our own bodies and question our own ways of navigating the ways society invites us to shut down our own experiences of dissonance between what we feel and what is expected of us in regards to cultural definitions of gender.
Yes, there are particular mental health concerns specific to folks who are transgender. However, it’s too easy to think higher rates of suicide and depression have to do with a problem inside these people that needs to be fixed or a problem with their bodies that can be surgeried away.
There is a problem with our society.
There is a problem with parents who reject their children; with churches and communities that turn people away; with medical schools and mental health programs and seminaries that never breathe a word in their curriculum about LGBTIQ realities; with bros so insecure with their own place in the masculine pecking order that they measure their own penises by beating or raping men and women who use restrooms with the wrong stick-figure on the door.
There is a problem. Our experiences in our bodies do not match the idea that we have of ourselves as a society.
We need to be transfigured by a radical honesty that allows for us to feel and grieve and enter the space of growth that is opened up when we bring into the public light of relationships, the ways that we harm one another with labels.
We are, and are becoming, able to love more openly and completely. We do not let go of the notion that there is a better way to be human–it’s just that we’re saying it’s the way of vulnerability, of being awake and alive to our own experiences, and of being humble and curious about our own role in the suffering of others.
We can learn to love. It is an internal identity and it is lived out in our bodies. May we have the courage to lead one another by example into the manifold communion of this great pathway of love.