Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sister Jeannine Gramick Tells a Story of a Transgendered Young Man: Catholic Readers React

At National Catholic Reporter, Sister Jeannine Gramick discusses the case of Isaac Gomez, who was born biologically female, but who identified as male from early in his life, and made the decision to transition biologically to male as a young teen--with his parents' support. The lesson that Sr. Jeannine draws from this story:

Just as one's conscience must be obeyed, even against any political or ecclesiastical authority, so too one must become the person God intends, despite social acceptance or rejection, because it is this becoming that constitutes the very dignity of the human person.

And, of course, the responses to the story and Sr. Jeannine's reading of it are across the board. They range from Catholic compassion at its finest, to the claim that gays should be forced to remain either male or female (though this story is about a transgendered person, and so those pushing the gay analysis are wildly missing its point), to "I personally do not consider psychiatry medicine" and "I don't think the psychiatrists know anything useful." The last two statements: our old friend Purgatrix Ineptiae, who, as I've noted before, has informed her fellow Catholics at the NCR blog site that there's simply no such thing as sexual orientation or homosexuality. 

Homosexuality is all an invention of "powerful, rich" gay men who are behind a "well-funded lobby" (a phrase she drops into the discussion of Isaac Gomez's case) that's out to deceive the public to promote its selfish and socially corrosive goals. Purgatrix's advice to Isaac's parents and other parents whose children feel anguish about such questions of gender identity: "[T]he best course of action is to encourage their child to learn to live with his or her dissatisfaction with his or her biological sex and make the best of it."

As Maia Szalavitz reports this week for Time as she comments on the Chelsea Manning story, "[R]esearch is beginning to suggest there is a biological basis for gender dysphoria, or distress over a perceived mismatch between one’s visible gender and actual identity." And:

Like Manning, most transgendered people know that they are different very early in life.  "The research that I’ve done suggests that it’s on average between [age] four and five, which has been supported by other studies," says Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who is transgendered and does not identify as either male or female.  Beemyn adds, "Some say from their earliest memories, they recognize that there’s something different about their gender, as compared to their playmates."

Szalavitz notes, too, that though research into the brain and neural functions of individuals experiencing gender dysphoria is in its infancy and not all studies point in the same direction, there's increasing evidence that people who identify with the opposite gender from early in their lives show brain patterns typical of those of the gender with which they identify, and not with those of their biological gender. As she also points out, "And despite many people’s assumptions that transgendered people identify as homosexuals, sexual orientation and gender identity are separate issues— transgendered people can be straight or gay, just as occurs with those whose genders match their physical appearance."

It's interesting to watch how Catholics seek to deal with scientific findings that challenge traditional notions of the fixity of gender--traditional notions that God has designed things such that male or female gender is assigned as a task on which our salvation depends. And so the refusal of the task implied by one's biological gender assignment--as in the "choice" to be gay, or the choice to transgender--is seen by such Catholics as a form of rebellion against God's will. It's seen as a form of rebellion against the divine will that threatens all of us, since it opens the door to any kind of rebellion at all in the human community, these Catholics want to maintain.

What complicates matters for Catholics, of course, is not only that the foundational documents of our faith, the gospels, focus overwhelmingly on the call to love, justice, and mercy as the central imperatives of Christian discipleship, and are not in the least preoccupied with matters of obedience to biological imperatives encoded in gender. What also complicates matters for Catholics is the natural law tradition, which requires us to pay careful attention to the natural world, to the role of reason in understanding the natural world, and to scientific findings--since the same God who delivers truth to us by means of divine revelation also imparts truth through the natural world and the reason we employ to understand the natural world.

Our Catholic theology at its best has always been in close dialogue with the best scientific findings of any period of history. And when we've ignored or repudiated those findings because they run up against cherished theological notions, as in the case of Galileo, we've paid a steep price for doing so and the mission of the church has been significantly undermined due to our stolidity. 

As I've noted in several postings recently, I think it's possible to read the resistance of some Catholics today (and, notably, of the hierarchy itself) to the significant shifts taking place in the scientific assessment of gender identity and sexual orientation in recent decades as another Galileo moment in the Catholic tradition, one that positions the church on the side of an obstinate stupidity for which the whole church is paying an increasingly high price. It's impossible to read much of the commentary of Catholics about these issues at various Catholic blog sites and not to wonder what has made so many of us so conspicuously dumb at this point in history.

So dumbed down, when our theological tradition at its best is all about listening respectfully to the voice of truth no matter where that voice comes from . . . . Obstinate stupidity coalesces with downright meanness in the commentary at many Catholic blog sites, when the topic of discussion is homosexuality and/or gender identity, as the "sodomite" tag continues to be slung around as if proud and defiant use of that term is a badge of authentic Catholic identity, and the best possible Catholic response to open discussion of the issue of how LGBTI individuals should be treated.

It's fascinating to see that, after Joseph Bottum recently published his essay at Commonweal admitting defeat on the issue of marriage equality, Catholics of the right are now ripping away at him as well with that word "sodomite." Here's one Maximus15 yesterday responding to Bottum's Commonweal essay: 

So apparently this article has been misread. Bottum is NOT saying that sodomitic relationships are ok. He's simply saying that the Church should stop publicly teaching that sodomitic relationships are harmful, immoral, and not to be enshrined in our laws as marriages. Get the difference? Because I dont.

It's almost as if centrist Catholics, who manage the dialogue spaces at places like Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter, and who have refused to put the savage, bigoted discourse of the political and religious right totally beyond the pale and to make unambiguous solidarity with their LGBTI brothers and sisters who are the object of such denigrating discourse, have created a monster, isn't it? Now that these centrist Catholics have begun to see that they've made themselves appear ridiculous in the eyes of many educated people due to their refusal to understand that the struggle for gay rights is a struggle for human rights with which these Catholics should identify as Catholics, even their most timid steps in the direction of affirming gay rights--as with Commonweal's choice to publish Bottum's essay--make them susceptible to the very kind of hate rhetoric we who are gay have long endured from the political and religious right.

As those centrist Catholics stood by in complicit silence.

I suspect it's going to get worse before it gets better. As Rob Shryock reports today at Religion Dispatches and as Fred Clark noted recently at Slacktivist, Baptist Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition is calling for anti-gay Christians to double down on rhetoric about the gays that will trigger people's gag reflex. As Anyabwile recognizes, anti-gay Christians are losing the battle against the human rights of LGBTI people because the discussion appears, in the minds of many folks, to be about well, rights. About love. Equality. Fairness. Justice.

Anyabwile proposes that Christians talk more about what they imagine gay folks do in their bedrooms. About sodomy. The "Christian" battle against the gays cannot be won without demonization of those who are gay, and all the slurs about dirty, disease-spreading, rich sodomites infecting our pure Christian culture and recruiting our children are all about keeping demonization alive.

For his part, the hoary old culture-war veteran and staunch homophobe Pat Robertson, a former Southern Baptist pastor, is doing his bit to keep the hateful lies alive: in a jaw-dropping discussion recently at his "700 Club" show, Robertson claimed that gay men in San Francisco wear rings designed to transmit the HIV virus to unsuspecting people whose hands they shake. With astonishing, vile lies like this, we truly aren't far at all, are we, from the blood libel myth of Christian anti-semitic history, a toxic lie that has had exceptionally tragic consequences at various points in history. 

History that continues to make me wonder how long Catholic blog sites will permit the rhetoric about sodomy and sodomites, and about dirty, diseased, child-molesting rich gay men with a well-funded agenda to continue at these sites . . . . 

(Thanks to Crystal Watson at her Perspective blog for linking to the article of Maia Szalavitz linked above.)

The graphic: a photo of the Gomez family taken by Sr. Jeannine Gramick and accompanying her NCR article linked above.

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