Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Catholic Sensibility and Trans People: Another Perspective

At the Catholic Sensibility site, Todd Flowerday provides his own riff on the discussion of how Catholics should respond to trans people that I discussed yesterday. As I noted, Commonweal now has a discussion thread chewing over this question, and I find that thread frustrating to read because of the we-vs.-them way in which the discussion is framed from the outset — we Catholics vs. those trans people.

The claim is made in this thread, and it's often made as Catholics engage groups of people they choose to regard as the other (it has long been made as Catholics deal with gay folks), that it's possible to love those who are other while deploring the actions and choice made by those we define as other. I contest that claim. I see it as a self-serving claim on the part of people who have framed their approach to those they're choosing to see as other than themselves. From the outset, this way of engaging the humanity of a group we choose to define as other precludes the kind of compassionate listening, compassionate understanding, and compassionate encounter that are the very essence of love.

To define entire groups of people, segments of the human community, as those folks who do those actions and make those choices is to reduce these human beings to the actions they do and the choices they make. It's to reduce groups of human beings to actions and choices in a way that I daresay we ourselves would resent if the group to which we happen to belong were treated inthe same reductionistic way. Reductionism of this sort — supercilious reductionism in which we define ourselves as the norm by which others ought to live and the goal towards which others should aspire — militates against love in the most fundamental way possible.

It's a lie to pretend we love others when we frame our encounters with those we've defined as other with caveats about how we love these others despite their actions and choices. Love is about letting down the defenses, removing the barriers, which are built right into the we-vs.-them model. Love is about learning to engage the other along with the actions and choices of the other which are essential to defining his or her identity. It's about learning to engage the other along with the actions and choices that, in fact, make the other who he or she happens to be.

It's a lie to say that "we Catholics" can love those who are gay or trans while we deplore the actions and choices that are essential to the lives of those who are gay or trans, as expressions of their very humanity. We deceive ourselves when we imagine that we can love people as abstractions divorced from everything that gives their humanity particularity and real meaning in the real world in which real human beings live alongside us.

It's a lie to say that "we Catholics" can love and understand people to whom we do not even choose to listen, in their radically different particularity. People whom we do not invite into our circles of conversation as equals, when we define these people as "them" who stand over there apart from "us" who inhabit the cozy closed circle we define as the Catholic circle . . . . 

And so I'm heartened to read Todd Flowerday's conclusion (which is citing a portion of the essay by Rand Richards Cooper that provoked the Commonweal discussion thread to which I myself responded yesterday and have continued to respond in the remarks above):

I like the "real connections to real people' notion. I think that is the start. I hope trans people are finding the needed support from friends and loved ones to continue on a path to healing and fulfillment, if not holiness. I hope I would be a good friend or supportive family member. I know I would be listening carefully.

Flowerday (along with Cooper) notes his skepticism about the celebritizing of Caitlyn Jenner. I will freely admit that I myself share that skepticism. I was not particularly enamored of Bruce Jenner, and I find myself equally lukewarm about Caitlyn Jenner and the media cult that now surrounds her.

What I won't do, however, is to identify every trans human being in the world with Caitlyn Jenner. I think I'd do a great disservice to all other trans people in the world if I identified all those other people, in their great socioenomic, regional, and ethnic diversity with a single highly placed celebrity member of the trans community. It's precisely that kind of reductionism that I'm kicking against in the we-vs.-them model that many liberal Catholics continue to employ as their framework for approaching groups of human beings they've defined as the other.

I will also continue to defend Caitlyn Jenner, even at the same time that I find some of her choices (she's a trans woman defending the Republican party?!) less than understandable and appealing, because, by stepping out and making herself a very visible and prominent example of a trans human being, she has provoked a much-needed conversation about all the other trans people living amongst us. She has shone a much-needed light on all the other trans human beings who are every bit as human as you and I are, and who deserve to be treated as members of the human community — not roped into a reserve by we-vs.-them ropes that define their humanity, from the outset of my encounter with them, as different from (and implicitly less than) my own humanity.

To me, the centrality of these insights to the definition of what it means to be Catholic at the most fundamental level possible seem so self-evident that I continue to marvel at the ability of many U.S. Catholics, especially in the intellectual elites that define American Catholic identity, to continue the toxic we-vs.-them discourse applied to those defined as the other. I'd argue that the understanding of what it means to be Catholic demonstrated by the Irish people in their recent referendum — we're all in it together, and the humanity we share is the same humanity across lines of sexual orientation —  ought to make American Catholics think a whole lot harder about the atomistic individualism (and social Darwinism) that drives so much of our thinking, even as we claim to be exemplary Catholics who model what it means to be Catholic for the rest of "them."

(I'm grateful to Jim McCrea for sending me a link to Todd Flowerday's article.)

The photo of the detail from Michelangelo's fresco of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is available for sharing at Wikimedia Commons, and was uploaded by user Amandajm.

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