Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Fair And Reasonable Question

What does the word ‘gender’ mean?

I have been wanting to write a post about this for some time. I realize that the very fact that I have written the above sentence is enough to brand me in some people’s minds as a ‘H8R’, a bigot, who should be jailed if not killed, and at the very least driven from polite society.

I find it interesting that asking a simple question about a definition of a common word yields that reaction. Gender has become the third rail of public discourse today, and to even touch on the subject with anything besides the rote and rather vacuous slogans of the day (‘Love Wins!’) is to take one’s life in one’s hands.

Well, nobody has ever accused me of being timid. So I’m going to jump on the third rail and ride it as far as it will take me here. The architects of critical gender theory, the activists of the LGBTQ movement, do indeed want their concept of gender to be the organizing principle of society, to deconstruct and discard the binary notion of male-female polarity for… well, what, exactly? What does the word ‘gender’ mean, as it is used by these activists? It seems to me that this is a reasonable and fair question, since we are supposed to construct society around their definition.

So let us first establish what gender is not, according to this world view. First, gender is not anatomy. It is not body morphology—men are shaped one way, women are shaped another way. This has nothing to do with the person’s gender—so we are told.

Second, gender is not sexual orientation. There are men who identify as men who are gay, women identifying as women who are lesbian.

Third, gender is not a list of personality traits. This of course was established by second wave feminism. It is sexist, we have been told (and I happen to agree, largely) to say that women are gentle, sweet, empathetic, emotional, while men are logical, aggressive, strong.

Fourth, gender is not defined by the things we are interested in or are good at. Women like flowers, clothes, cooking, babies, while men like cars, sports, guns. I also happen to agree with this, being very much a man while having precisely zero interest in cars and guns and only a slight interest in sports (I’m not much on flowers or clothes, either…)

Fifth, gender is not defined by social roles. Women stay at home and take care of the kids while men go out and earn money for their families.

So… gender is not your body, your personality, your interests, your actions, or who you want to sleep with. Ummm… what is it, then? Please, someone elucidate it for me. I swear I am not being sarcastic or asking the question rhetorically. I want to know what people mean when they say that someone with the body of a man is ‘really’ a woman, even if he (sorry, she) does not choose to have the radical body modifications needed to outwardly resemble a woman in body morphology.

It does seem to me that there is something almost mystical in this deconstructed notion of gender, something so interior and ineffable that it is difficult to put into words beyond the phraseology of ‘I just know it to be so.’ But, my brothers and sisters, massive and complete social reconstruction cannot be done on the basis of such interior and mystical knowledge – it is unreasonable to expect society to reconfigure itself around something ‘you just know.’ I just know that I am a Catholic priest, not as a job or profession but as a mystical configuration of my soul to Christ the head of the Church. But I would never expect a non-Catholic to call me ‘Father’.

For myself, I believe gender is, simply, body morphology, determined by chromosomes. Yes, there are the vanishingly rare instances of babies born inter-sex, and this is a medical and social problem for those very few people—but this is not common enough to justify jettisoning the male-female bi-polarity that has been the basis of every human society since human beings have existed.

And just to completely cook my goose, I wish to say very simply and without any rancor or dislike or indeed anything but great compassion and friendship for all people, that I believe the men who believe they are women and the women who believe they are men are in fact suffering from a mental illness and need psychiatric help, not surgical mutilation and society enabling.

I do find it odd that this is considered by many to be a hateful thing to say. That attitude itself seems to reflect contempt and hatred for people who are mentally ill. As a priest I have many people in my life who suffer from various kinds of mental illness. It is a hard suffering, but it’s not a death sentence and it is not inherently an insult to someone to say “I believe your problem is psychological.”

Anyhow, I don’t intend to write ongoingly about the whole ‘transgender moment’ we are having in our society right now – this is not that kind of blog, obsessing over whatever the controversy of the day is. But I think the question I raise is reasonable and fair. I have given my answer to it, and I would be interested to hear other answers, and other civil responses to it (for anyone who is new to the blog reading this, abusive nasty comments will be deleted without mercy!).

So, what does gender mean?


  1. A few thoughts on gender and transgender: first of all, a lot of people get confused between "gender theory" and "transgender". The former is a movement that believes gender is entirely socially constructed and that we should get rid of the whole idea entirely and let people be whoever they want to be. but for people who are transgendered, gender is very important, but they experience themselves as having the opposite gender to that which is indicated by their bodies.

    Trans people know what the rest of us know very well: gender is not just a social construction and it is not just biological sex, it is a very deep and fundamental part of who we are psychologically and spiritually.

    You mention people with intersex conditions, that is, people who are born with ambiguous genitals. It is true that these are very rare cases, and most trans people have perfectly normal sex organs. But we are learning more and more about neurological intersex conditions, and these make the situation more complicated. Briefly put, the male brain and the female brain are structured differently. Although much more work needs to be done on this, it seems that people who experience gender disphoria (i.e. feel they are the "wrong gender") will tend to have neurological characteristics from the opposite sex.

    Are transgendered people mentally ill? It seems that the problem with calling it a mental illness is that there doesn't seem to be a treatment for it. How could I say to someone, "there's something deeply wrong with you, but no one knows how to fix it"? It is much the same with homosexuality. People who experience same sex attraction do not "get over it" or "get healed", except in very rare cases.

    Could not trans people be a different kind of person? Does it have to be construed as either a moral fault, or an illness, or both? Is autism a mental illness or is it a different way of being human? What about down's syndrome? We often say in Christian discourse, that all people are created fundamentally either male or female and this corresponds to the sex of their bodies. Why are we so sure of this?

    One might argue that, for instance, the faculty of reason or the ability to use language is a fundamental part of what it means to be human and yet many human beings do not possess these faculties. Did God make a mistake? Or is humanity more diverse and strange than we thought it was.

  2. Sorry for going on and on, but I really thank you for opening up this discussion, and for doing it in a very respectful way. I think the Church really needs to talk about this. For anyone interested in reading more on this, Catholic blogger Melinda Selyms has done a lot of work on this. Here are just two of her posts.



    1. Well constructed response, Neil. It's a difficult concept to fully comprehend, this gender dysphoria, and your comparison to autism is very apt. There are so many things that we don't know about the human brain, let alone the mind.

    2. Well constructed response, Neil. It's a difficult concept to fully comprehend, this gender dysphoria, and your comparison to autism is very apt. There are so many things that we don't know about the human brain, let alone the mind.

  3. Well, for some it has been helpful to distinguish between gender and sex because it allows more conversation about sexual identity. Sex is typically refers to biological makeup and gender usually refers to social expectations associated with masculinitinity and feminity within a culture.
    I have heard some people so opposed to radical theorists that they deride the very word gender itself. I do not think that is where you were headed here.
    Gender is not a new concept- it is simply a word that people use to talk about aspects of masculinity and feminity that are socially constructed, rather than innate.

    1. I should also add that I personally do not believe that gender is wholly socially constructed. I personally believe that it is god given...and that it does not always match the traditional category of male and female. There is a lot biology we still do not understand...so confusion is expected...
      All of this is more complicated by Neil's commented about sexual dysphorias...
      So much pain and confusion...how much we need to talk about this and pray for each other....
      Bless you


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