Listening Carefully: A Critique of Father James Martin’s Critique of “Male and Female He Created Them”

Listening Carefully: A Critique of Father James Martin’s Critique of “Male and Female He Created Them” November 6, 2019

In his response of the recent document of the Congregation for Catholic Education, “Male and Female he Created Them:” Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, Fr. James Martin asks the Congregation, and Catholics more generally, to “Listen to the L.G.B.T. person.” It is true that in the section on listening (the first of three sections in the document, the following two being reasoning and proposing), the Congregation is concerned not primarily with the experience of individuals, but with the theoretical frameworks being proposed and promulgated by which people interpret that experience.

While it is critical of these frameworks, it is in the “Points of Agreement” part of this section that some of the more quoted and quotable elements of the document appear. In particular, Martin and others do not fail to note the Congregation’s commending “a laudable desire to combat all expressions of unjust discrimination” and agreement on “the need to educate children and young people to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics.”

While I agree with Father Martin that future work in this sensitive area unquestionably requires listening to the experiences of real concrete individuals created in the image and likeness of God, it is important to recognize that the kind of listening Father Martin is encouraging does not necessarily lead to the kinds of conclusions he seems to presume it will. Indeed, in my own work in this area, I have been privileged to learn from the stories of many people. I want to share two of those stories here (anonymously), not because they trump all other such experiences and can be used to deny the experience of others, but because they intersect with and complicate Father Martin’s critique of the document at two very specific points.

The first story:

A young woman grows up not feeling particularly feminine and struggles with what this means for her identity. She is self-consciously not like other girls. As she grows up, she encounters the possibility that some women who are different from other women are lesbians and discerns that this describes her as well. Presently she enters into a romantic and sexual relationship with another woman. At a certain stage in her journey, medical tests indicate abnormally high levels of testosterone and correspondingly low levels of female sex hormones.

Time passes. The notion of being transgender, often colloquially described as being “a man trapped in a woman’s body” (or vice versa) becomes more culturally widespread. This new, to her at least, understanding actually seems to describe her situation in a much more satisfactory way than her earlier attempts at self-understanding through identification as a lesbian. Her hormones actually are out of balance! The “inside” of her body actually is masculine! The truth of her identity is now clear: she is not, in fact, a woman at all. She is really a man. Accordingly, she begins hormone therapy, not to correct the imbalance in her system, but to exaggerate it. She takes more male hormone and undergoes top surgery (the removal of her breast tissue) in her effort to live the truth of her masculine identity.

In his critique, Father Martin argues that “Male and Female He Created Them” “relies mainly on the belief that gender is determined solely by one’s visible genitalia, which contemporary science has shown is an incorrect (and sometimes even harmful) way to categorize people. Gender is also biologically determined by genetics, hormones and brain chemistry – things that are not visible at birth.”

That this is a remarkable claim about the document becomes apparent when read next to the following quote from paragraph 24 of the document itself: “the data of biological and medical science shows that ‘sexual dimorphism’ (that is, the sexual difference between men and women) can be demonstrated scientifically by such fields as genetics, endocrinology and neurology.” The document is not only aware of other biological factors related to the biological determination of gender; it lists them in the same order as Father Martin. Nowhere does the document mention external genitalia.

The most generous interpretation I can find for Father Martin’s claim is that, in his basic approach to the question, any critique of a transgender framework for interpreting human experience is necessarily and by definition tied to a belief “that gender is determined solely by one’s visible genitalia.” And so he can read the document as “relying mainly” on a belief that is nowhere indicated in the text itself and is, in fact, contradicted by it.

But the problem is worse than that. When Father Martin appeals to genetics, hormones and brain chemistry, he is grasping a sword that cuts both ways – for he is still in the realm of biological determination. For its part, in its indicators for a transgender diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 makes no mention whatsoever of biological factors. The various criteria are all purely subjective and appeal above all to an interior felt sense.

As indeed they must, for the very definition of a transgender identification is that it is an identification that transcends one’s body. It says that, no matter what you can discern about my body with your scientific implements, I know my own inner experience, and that alone is the determining factor. An appeal to genetics, hormones and brain chemistry means, very simply, that we can medically test for a transgender condition. One wonders what Father Martin would make of the results.

With this reference to genetics, hormones and brain chemistry, Father Martin is not, in fact, discussing the transgender situation at all. He is talking about a variety of intersex conditions. Such conditions are often invoked to explain or understand transgender phenomena. (At one point, the document itself even unfortunately seems to equate the terms “intersex” and “transgender” as “efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference.”) But, despite some superficial similarities (the superficiality of which is clearly recognized by actual intersex persons!), a transgender identity is in an important sense the very opposite of an intersex condition. For in the first instance the internal sense is at odds with a completely unambiguous male or female body, while in the second instance the central question is the ambiguity of the body itself.

Which brings us back to our first story. We have met a young woman with a hormone imbalance, the medical treatment for which would seem fairly straightforward. There is nothing controversial about giving supplements to a person with a low level of a given hormone. Given that most cases of gender dysphoria in pre-pubescent children are resolved at puberty, with its attendant increase in sex specific hormones, there is even good reason to expect that such treatment would go a long way towards resolving her internal felt sense of not being like other girls – even if we grant that years of feeling and acting unlike other girls might well complicate the matter.

But this relatively straightforward and commonsense medical solution was ignored because a certain (and in many circles unquestionable) interpretive framework was used to make sense of one person’s experience. A person with a (relatively minor) intersex condition was (mis)diagnosed as transgender and a relatively simple medical intervention was overlooked in favour of a dramatic and invasive (not to mention expensive and largely irreversible) series of interventions that do nothing to address the root of the problem.

The second story:

A woman brings her son over to his friend’s house for a sleepover and is met in the driveway by the friend’s mother who informs the woman that the friend with whom her son is planning to spend the night is now a girl, and will be going by a new name henceforward. Moreover, the woman is told, this is very exciting because the mother has always wanted a girl. In fact, over the last little while, she has greatly enjoyed purchasing a brand new all-girl wardrobe for her new “daughter” and redecorating the child’s bedroom. Several months later the woman sees that the young man has returned to using his birth name on social media, but seems to have had some significant alterations to his secondary sex characteristics that are difficult to disguise.

Father Martin is concerned that “[t]he congregation also suggests that discussions about gender identity involve an intentional choice of gender by an individual. But people who are transgender report that they do not choose their identity but discover it through their experiences as human beings in a social world.” The most relevant quote from the document here (found in paragraph 11) is “the concept of gender is seen as dependent upon the subjective mindset of each person, who can choose a gender not corresponding to his or her biological sex, and therefore with the way others see that person (transgenderism).”

On the one hand, it is hard to see how the congregation did not see this critique coming. Any suggestion that people are arbitrarily choosing their gender was certain to be met with incredulity. The Catechism, at least, is more sensitive on the issue of choice when it comes to homosexuality (stating simply that “[i]ts psychological genesis remains largely unexplained” 2357). On the other hand, as both the stories we have looked at illustrate, the relationship between experience, choice, and identity is a lot more complicated than Father Martin’s “discover it through their experiences as human beings in a social world” would seem to indicate.

We do not exist in a cultural vacuum. We are only able to “discover” identities that our “social world” makes available to us. Even if, per impossibile, our experience of self was completely unconditioned by the categories of our culture, our interpretation of those experiences is not. And while we do not choose how we experience any number of phenomena, it is possible, given enough critical distance, to choose how we interpret that experience. Indeed, some critical distance from the culture’s regnant categories may well have introduced enough freedom into our two stories to have saved the protagonists from significant suffering.

One common response to stories like those shared here is that they are not stories of “real” trans people and so cannot be used to understand the experience, let alone critique the self-understanding, of “real” trans people. But does this not simply beg the question?

Indeed, whether one believes as Father Martin does, that such “real” trans people exist, or whether one believes, as the Congregation seems to, that such identities are never, in the final analysis, a helpful way of categorizing human experience, everyone implicitly agrees that at least some people who claim to be trans at one point or another simply are not. Furthermore, given the growing prominence of the category “transgender” in the culture, it would seem probable that the number (and proportion, unless the Congregation is correct and the proportion was already 100%) of such people is increasing, even dramatically so.

I would like to suggest that the Congregation would have been less likely to be misunderstood on the question of choice if it had adverted to a distinction between a given experience (“gender dysphoria”) and a given framing of that experience (“I am transgender” or “I am a man in a woman’s body”). It is clear that people do not choose the experience of gender dysphoria. On the other hand, there is a way in which we do choose to interpret our experiences given the frameworks available to us, even if we are not always conscious of doing so. To say “I am a man in a woman’s body” is one way of interpreting one’s experience. It sounds to many like a simple contradiction and therefore a meaningless statement. To others, however, it has become a way to make sense of their reality (or that of others) with language that is increasingly socially acceptable and accessible.

An irony emerges here. As the category “transgender” becomes more and more common and acceptable, even lionized, the “choice” to employ it as an interpretive lens for understanding one’s own experience becomes less and less obvious – until it is not recognized as a choice at all. That is to say, it is not that a given experience or set of experiences demands a certain interpretive framework. It is rather that a given socially constructed framework has become so second nature (I use the term advisedly) that it is no longer perceived as a social construct.

And this lack of perception is most common among the same people who most clearly see ways in which gender itself is a social construct. And so we end up speaking as if an experience of gender dysphoria is a more or less straightforward discovery of an immutable and innate transgender identity. But, as our two stories (and they could be multiplied) show, the experiences of concrete people are much more complex than that.

Let’s listen to them.

About Brett Salkeld
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina. The author of several books, most recently Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Baker Academic, 2019), he lives in Regina with his wife, Flannery, and their growing family. You can read more about the author here.
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