I want to start with the most basic question in debates around trans identities: what is the difference between sex and gender?
Distinguishing between sex and gender allows us to talk about two different sources of male and female identity. Sex refers to our biological make-up: everything from reproductive organs to body hair, from hormones to chromosomes. Gender refers to specific expectations, roles, ideas and images that we associate with masculinity and femininity within a particular culture. So, for example, in this culture kilts are worn primarily by Catholic school girls – but when they first appeared in Scotland they were a garment that men wore with pride (and generally without underwear). Today, it’s an act of gender transgression for a man to wear make-up unless he’s on-stage, but in the 18th century if you were an aristocratic guy it was totally normal to go to court wearing face paint, rouge, perfume, a carefully coiffed wig and even some articial beauty spots.
The problem is, a lot of the time people disagree about which aspects of masculinity and femininity are innate, and which are just social convention. St. Paul actually makes a natural law argument in favour of short hair for men and long hair for women. The Australian aborigines believe that women should never be allowed to play the digeridoo because it can lead to infertility and miscarriage. For almost every aspect of gender, from the idea that superheroes are for boys to the preference of pink as a girl’s colour, you can find someone somewhere who will argue that it’s a matter of nature, not of culture.
From this, you get two extreme camps: hard sexual essentialists who believe that all gender differences can be explained in terms of sex, and hard gender theorists who believe that all sexual difference really comes down to gender.
You tend to find extreme sexual essentialism in sub-cultures like the Christian patriarchy movement, or among men’s rights activists. Hardcore essentialists believe that gender roles are a natural expression of our innate nature. It could be that traditional masculinity and femininity are part of God’s design for Biblical sexuality, or it could be that evolution has hard-wired men to be tough, dominant and unemotional while women have evolved to be soft, gentle and submissive. These systems tend to promote rigid, stereotypical gender roles and they usually seek to justify the subjugation and objectification of women as “natural.” It’s not quite fair, though, to conclude that these philosophies are always bad for women and always good for men. They tend to put certain women on a pedestal, and to offer tremendous social and material rewards to those who find it easy, or even enjoyable, to try to live up to the ideal. On the other hand, men often face severe punishments (up to and including being beaten, raped or torched alive) if they deviate from exacting standards of masculine behaviour.
On the other extreme, you get a system often referred to as “gender theory.” This, not transgenderism, is what Pope Francis likened to a nuclear bomb. According to gender theory, equality between men and women will ony become possible if we collapse all sexual difference into gender – and then get rid of gender. This is the most radical possible rejection of sexual essentialism. It posits that (with the possible exception of gross anatomical differences) maleness and femaleness are oppressive social constructs that exist solely to create and maintain a hierarchical relationship in which females are subordinate to males. Extreme forms of gender theory even go so far as to suggest that the terms “male” and “female” don’t describe real biological categories, and that sex itself is not a fact but a construct which is assigned to a body at birth. Obviously, this latter philosophy is only tenable if you are willing to completely eliminate reproduction from your understanding of human sexuality.
Both of these systems fail. The first because it attempts to eliminate human free will and responsibility by ascribing culturally determined forms of systemic injustice to “nature” “evolutionary psychology” or “God’s plan.” The other because it tries to acheive radical freedom by denying the significance of the body and by erasing reproduction from the conversation. Fortunately, most people can see that neither of these philosophies really makes sense of our experience. The truth is that both sex and gender have an important role to play in the meaning of human sexuality and the development of our sexual identities. And, indeed this is what the Church teaches. As Benedict XVI put it, “Human nature and the cultural dimension are integrated in an ample and complex process that constitutes the formation of one’s own identity”.
Next time, we’ll look at how this all relates to transgender bodies and the experience of gender dysphoria.
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