So this just happened.
And I couldn’t be more relieved. Now, before you alert the authorities of my transgression against the PC purity code, allow me to explain myself.
When I was at least three years old, I remember going through the drive through at McDonalds with my dad.
“Can I get a happy meal?”
“For a boy or girl?”
“Boy…but he wants the girl toy.”
“Ummm…ok. $4.99, drive around to the window” [muffled comments, giggles].
For as long as I can remember, I was drawn to what I was told were “girl toys.” While I did enjoy playing with trucks and hitting baseballs with my dad, I was never really a “Sporty Spice.”
Instead, I was fascinated by Barbie dolls and loved listening to the Spice Girls (and other icons of pop culture). It’s not so much that I identified more with Barbie than with GI Joe, but more so that I loved dressing her up without different outfit combinations. What I loved most about Barbie, along with Ken, Teresa, Kelly, and a doll of an ambiguous ethnic background I called “Pocahontas,” was having them interact with each other–talking about their lives, attending events which ranged from weddings to funerals, and getting into arguments that vaguely mirrored the ones I heard outside my bedroom door. GI Joe and his companions didn’t really give me the space to explore the complexities of human relationships as Barbie did, nor did he allow me to experiment with aesthetic beauty in the same way.
I remember being confused when kids at school called me a girl…I was pretty certain that I was a boy. But the name calling along with continuously being reminded that I was in the wrong section of the toy store made me start to question things. And after my parents divorced, I started to feel a tension with my father, who I saw less often than I saw my mom. Somehow in my seven year old brain, I started to perceive masculinity to be threatening, and femininity as more affirming. I started feeling guilty for the few “boy” interests I had, and decided to give up playing baseball and got rid of my toy trucks.
I started to force myself to act more “girly” in public as a means of easing my guilt. My parents, liberal as they are, started expressing concern when I tried on my mom’s dresses and heels. They told me that they love me no matter what and that I didn’t have to act like “regular” boys, but they drew the line with dressing like a girl.
The masculine guilt complex quickly wore away after I hit puberty, and though I was certain that I was male, I was still confused about what that really meant. Yes, I know I have a male body, but what does it mean to act like a guy? I still liked some feminine things, but was becoming increasingly aware of my body. I took an interest in exercising and playing sports. I didn’t know how to integrate my supposedly conflicting interests into my adolescent identity.
Ten years later, I was a newly converted Catholic and found myself reading Theology of the Body as a theology major. For the first time, I started to understand that masculinity and femininity do not point (necessarily) to certain personality traits, interests, and sections of the toy store. Instead, they are modes of being which are written into our bodies, minds, and spirits–together, forming an integral whole which we call a person. Though socially constructed norms do indeed emerge from masculinity and femininity as ontological/anthropological categories, not fitting neatly into said constructs does not imply ones is acting in a way that’s contrary to his or her gender.
I’m already masculine because I am a man, or rather, because I possess the “masculine genius.” My masculine genius is directly tied to the unique way that I fulfill my call to make a gift of my life–a call the defines my identity more than the products I prefer to purchase or the activities in which I partake. The way I am called to give is not “determined” by, but is revealed through my body.
Men play an “external” role in the generation of new life, where as women play an internal role. My “external awareness”–my attentiveness to the socio-cultural issues, my curiosity about the origins of aesthetic beauty, my determination to discover ultimate truth and my concern about my student’s pursuit of ultimate truth–are all expressions of my masculinity. I bring this masculine genius into the activities I carry out and the objects and people I engage with–even if society deems them to be “girly” activities or objects.
Now this is not to say that women can’t and don’t do all of those things I listed. Women can do pretty much anything I can do, except generate life externally. Even if they add on “extra equipment” through a sex change surgery, they still won’t possess the same genius as me. Instead, they carry their own, unique, and equally dignified feminine genius into those same things that I do.
Along with the writings of John Paul II, I found the Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman to be, ironically, one of the most helpful texts in learning to embrace my own manhood. Her focus on the complementary gifts of men and women in the workplace has allowed me to flourish in my work as a teacher and student, and to appreciate and learn from the gifts of other men and women with whom I work.
Back to the new Vatican document…I’m happy that gender theory is being recognized for what it is, which is a potential threat to children, as well as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with experts on gender issues. Gender theory raises important, if not crucial, questions about gender expression. Intersex persons are real. Gender dysphoria is real. Violence against trans people is real. And most of all, socially constructed gender norms can be inadequate, confining, and at times, downright oppressive.
That being said, the attempt to “deconstruct” gender, claiming that the category itself is a social construct and that it does not in any way constitute an ontologically/anthropologically real category, is a blatant lie and is downright dangerous .
Again, I don’t deny the gender dysphoria is a reality for many people, and that they may see hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery to be the only way out of their affliction. But to me (and a whole lot of doctors) diagnosing a ten year old who likes to play with dolls and watch Hannah Montana with GD is a bit extreme. Perhaps that little boy will grow up to develop full blown GD, to the point that he can’t stand looking at his naked body and finds himself repulsed by male clothes. But making that determination at such a young age and performing treatments/surgeries that may prove to be irreversible is an injustice.
If my parents, teachers, or doctors determined that because I liked Barbies and dresses as a seven year old, I should start taking estrogen injections, I wouldn’t have had to opportunity to discover that I am a guy, and that I very much enjoy being guy. Instead, I would be stuck with a body that is not my own, and would be barred from being “my real self,” permanently.
It’s my hope that kids, especially those who don’t fit neatly into the boxes constructed for them (often times by powerful commercial corporations/industries), have the freedom to explore the complexities and nuances of their own birth sex. They deserve the same chance that I had to experiment and play around, but for the sake of discovering the mysterious, ultimate truth of their identity which lies beyond the confines of a socially constructed box: their masculine or feminine genius–the unique way that they have been called to bring new life into the world, whether physically or spiritually. These mysterious complexities of our humanity don’t usually bode well when trying to figure out how to successfully market a product, but then again, why should Toys’R’Us have a monopoly on determining the truth of a person’s identity (oh wait, they’re closed down)?
They also deserve to be told that they are fine as they are, and that their identity is not something they are burdened with constructing for themselves (and having to pay money for if they come to the conclusion that their identity is somehow wrong). Their identity is a beautiful gift, and constitutes an integral whole–they are one person, not a machine that consists of separate parts. Their identity is written into their body, mind, and spirit, and runs much deeper than the way they act or the products they like to buy.
Hormones and technologically attaching artificial appendages is not the solution for gender-confused kids. They don’t need their parents to give money to an industry that claims that they need technology to make them their “true selves.” Instead of telling them to change themselves, why not change the socially constructed/“performative” notions of gender (which was the aim of the second wave feminists, before Judith Butler got her hand in there) in the name of celebrating gender identity as a gift that constitutes the essence of one’s identity.
Thank God the Vatican is willing to step into the anathematized zone of cultural heterodoxy for the sake of “the little ones.” (Note: Francis condemned gender theory in Laudato Si as a result of the encroaching “technocratic paradigm,” in the infamous Amoris Laetitia as a means of relativizing the givenness of our identity, and in a homily given at Santa Marta as a form of “ideological colonization.”)
A few side notes…I highly recommend John Paul II’s TOB, Mulieris Dignitatem and Letter to Women, and Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman–for both men and women who are looking to understand the truth of their identity beyond the doctrines preached by the consumer capitalist Magisterium.
I also recommend Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria for these who genuinely have GD and are considering or have already transitioned.
Lastly, for those who have boys like me who prefer making dolls engage in complex social interactions or playing around with aesthetic beauty, try introducing him to philosophy. Secular culture offers kids few opportunities to explore the deeper meaning of reality. I found that philosophy (and theology) helped me to understand the very phenomena I was attempting to make sense of when playing with my “girly toys,” but allowed me to do so in a way that made significant use of my masculine genius. If you’re not clear on what I mean here, watch this lovely short from Saturday Night Love–it accurately depicts my dilemma as a kid.