The Genesis of Gender: A Review
The Resurrection establishes a reality where brokenness can paradoxically present a greater goodness than an Edenic ideal.
As an undergraduate, I was taught that writings about love should be lovely. A philosophy of beauty should itself be beautiful. Writing about truth, goodness, and beauty should involve not only exposition, but also the invocation of that which is written about. A philosophy of the human person should not just be descriptive of, but an invitation to, the human person.
This is what Abigail Favale provides in The Genesis of Gender: the presentation of a philosophical theory that is not just theory, an intellectual history that is not just history, and a Christian commentary that is not just commentary. She invites the reader into her very self. This is where her book on Christianity and gender succeeds where others fail. She writes about the challenge of womanhood today, in part, through stories about her struggles with her own womanhood. She reads various failures of "gender theory" through failures in her own intellectual life. She shows, rather than just tells, how the individual Christian life is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the Christian life that spans across history. The intellectual history of “gender theory” and its relationship to Catholicism is also her own personal history.
At the center of her text is a distinctly--and committed--Christian vision. In the second chapter, "Cosmos," Favale beautifully outlines the plot of the Enuma Elish as a contrast to the creation stories of Genesis. In discussing Genesis, she brilliantly analogizes the insufficiency of the initial creation to the game of Memory:
"[S]omething unexpected happens. God looks at his creation, and instead of echoing the refrain from Genesis 1, he says the opposite words for the first time: it is not good that this human being is solitary, one of a kind. The human needs a counterpart, a companion. So begins one of my favorite passages: the parade of animals. God gets busy shaping and molding all kinds of creatures and presenting each before the human to 'see what he would call them'. There's something comical about this imagery: here comes God with a monkey, a sheep, a gopher, a parrot; the adam scopes it out, shakes his head, declares a name, and the misfit pageant continues, as if God and the adam are playing a protracted game of Memory, but the cards never match." (38)
The book is worth reading just for that paragraph alone.
Though Favale seeks to uphold a Christian orthodoxy, her views do not fall cleanly within many "traditional" narratives about men and women. (This is unsurprising, given her recent review of the book "Ask Your Husband.") She focuses on the createdness of human persons as male and female, but pushes readers to resist making easy assumptions about the meaning of this creation. Her vision of what it means to be "man" or "woman” is particular.
Favale presents a view that realigns "sex" and "gender," doing away with the necessity of the distinction altogether. For Favale, to be a "woman" is to have a body "organized around the potential to gestate new life" (120-121). One does not need to actually become pregnant--or even have a uterus--to be a woman. Abigail rejects a view of woman that requires the operability of particular bodily functions. Rather, her view is based in the biological fact that the human species is a species in which bodies are classified into those which produce either large gametes (ova) or small gametes (sperm).
Her view of manhood and womanhood, though framed as "a Christian theory," is distinctly biological. No technical, scientific, or social intervention can change the particular binary described by Favale. "There is no such thing as a third gamete or spectrum of gametes." (124). Favale argues that the alternative view, of placing sex/gender apart from the body, reduces manhood and womanhood to stereotypes in a way that renders the concepts meaningless. She writes:
"If girlness and boyness no longer reside in the body, there is no other ground for these concepts except stereotypes. Remember the definition for 'bigender' above, from Johns Hopkins University? Exhibiting characteristics of male and female roles. My first reaction to this is well, shoot, who is not bigender in twenty-first-century America?" (158)
(For a similar argument, I would recommend this piece by James Heaney.)
This focus on stereotypes, she suggests, contributes to trans-overidentification. She connects this partly to the devaluation of women in contemporary society, and especially the devaluation of the diversity of women's bodies. Favale suggests that to find value, many women feel a need to be more like men, which some later confuse as a self-identification as men. Favale also connects trans-overidentification to a contemporary "fantasy of seamless, painless self-invention" (176). And she connects it to the rise of the internet, where bodies "are no longer 'real'" and can be easily changed and remade (178-179). Though Favale writes with greater care and nuance, this line of thought places her views in a similar place to Abigail Shrier, who has argued that girls are being conditioned by society to reject their femininity and are over-encouraged to identify as men.
Favale argues that reducing the concept of sex to one which is focused on biological distinctions actually allows for a more expansive view of men and women. When there is less to worry about, in determining one's sex/gender, then one is allowed greater space to simply be. She argues that this view sets her apart both from many gender theorists and from many Christians who believe that being a good man/woman requires fulfilling certain roles and cultural expectations. Favale argues for the fluidity and diversity of roles, as long as the body is respected, acknowledged, and cared for in its given state.
She also challenges hierarchies between men and women, especially those found in certain Christian communities. She does this in remarkably clever ways. Indeed, her final chapter initially seems to present a God-mirroring hierarchy in which men stand above women, but then she inverts this hierarchy:
"If we take these biological realities as a mirror for God and humankind, the male sex is analogous to God because God endows life from himself but stands apart from it; he transcends. The female sex is representative of humankind because its power lies in receptivity; the human being is created to receive the love of God, be inwardly transformed, and let that love bear fruit.
"Receptivity to God, embodied in the form of woman, is humanity's ultimate purpose. This is the telos of our existence: to say yes to divine grace, to be subsumed by divine love, and to welcome the inner metamorphosis it brings. Woman, then, is the representative human being before God; she carries the image of this receptivity to which all are beckoned, male and female alike." (237)
One can easily miss what is happening here. Favale begins with the common Christian trope of the male body standing analogous to God. But she then challenges the male adoption of this image by following with the declaration that the female body manifests the purpose of humanity. So it is not that men are to lord over women in a God-created hierarchy. Rather, men are to reflect on God through the creation of their bodies, and then look to women as the exemplar of how they are to live their purpose. Men are like God, in a way, but in a deeper way they are called to model themselves after the creation of woman.
But though Favale challenges many common gender binaries, she remains committed to others. For Favale, the body reveals sex/gender. And she ultimately concludes that trans persons do not exist, at least not in the way they claim to exist. She writes: "I disagree with transgender anthropology, namely its denial of the sacramental principle that the body reveals the person" (199). Favale insists that the body must reveal the person, rather than be challenged to conform to a psychological sense of self through "artifice," whether social or medical (199). Indeed, she argues that, gender dysphoria (which she seems to define as an incongruence between one's body and one's sense of sex/gender) should both "be acknowledged and treated as a psychological illness" (196). (I'll come back to this later.)
One might be wondering what Favale makes of intersex persons, or those with "congenital conditions of sexual development" (CCSDs). In her fifth chapter, "Sex," Favale explores these conditions. She notes that sex is readily recognizable at birth for 99.98% of human beings but that, for some, "their developmental pathways of becoming male or female took some unexpected turns" (127). For these persons, multiple factors should be considered to determine a child's sex, particularly when the phenotype (genitalia) or kenotype (chromosomes) are unclear or inconsistent. She emphasizes the need to see gamete production as "the foundation of biological sex," with other sex characteristics being secondary (128). A person cannot change one's sex, according to Favale, because gamete production cannot be changed. To resolve ambiguity for those with CCSDs, Favale recommends "the discernment of sex by looking at the anatomical structures that support either large gamete production or small gamete production" (129).
This commitment to gametes for gender/sex identification arises out of the type of essentialism pursued by Favale. To determine what makes a man a man or a woman a woman, Favale goes out in search of "some distinguishing feature that all women have and all men do not, and vice versa" (117). She rejects the view that gender differences are grounded in stereotypes, are socially constructed, or are created arbitrarily. Because gamete production is the one universally distinguishing factor she is able to locate, she centers the distinction around them, setting aside stereotypes as stereotypes, and decentering other sexual characteristics as "secondary sex characteristics." These "secondary sex characteristics" are "a consequence of sex; they are the effect, rather than the cause" (128). She does not reduce maleness or femaleness to gamete production. Rather, she uses them as a sort of starting point for understanding the organization of the human body as a whole, looking at the ways in which they inform bodily development and integrity to identify what it means to be man or woman.
Favale therefore rejects the "medicalization" of trans persons through hormonal or surgical treatments so that their bodies can match their gender identities, suggesting that this arises from a focus on "cosmetic appearance" in identifying the locus of gender (130). She writes, "If 'man' and 'woman' refer to our generative potentiality, changing one's sex is an impossibility, because a man cannot physically adopt the procreative role of a female, and vice versa" (144).
"A Christian Theory"
One of my favorite parts of the book is actually its subtitle: "A Christian Theory." Not, "The Christian View." Not, "The Catholic Truth." Rather, "A Christian Theory." Before one opens the book, one is met with a very subtle form of humility. She suggests that her presentation is one Christian theory among others. Certainly, she presents this theory because she believes it is the right one. But she leaves the door open to other theories, or to corrections or elaborations on her own. The choice of framing is subtle, but it matters. One can contrast it with the title: "Ask Your Husband: A Wife's Guide to True Femininity."
She emphasize the importance of listening to others' experiences. She even leaves space in her closing chapter for "Addy" a devout Christian trans woman who believes that her Catholic faith and her trans identity can be reconciled (209-212). Favale thus places within the structure of her own book an opportunity for dialogue.
It is with a similar spirit that I hope to present some positions and perspectives that push against some portions of the theory presented by Favale. And I will close with some remarks on why I found portions of the book personally challenging.
Wholeness and Christianity
Many of Favale's arguments hinge upon an approach to bodily wholeness, integrity, and perfection grounded in Aristotelian natural law. Favale affirms the Christian principle that creation is a gift, including the creation of our bodies. She also affirms the biblical view that God created "male and female" (Gen. 1:27). She argues that human beings have a God-given nature that is revealed through the body, and that our sexed nature is revealed entirely through the bodies which we are given. Gamete production helps us identify the ways in which our bodies are organized as male or female, and care for the body involves cooperation and alignment with this organization. To be whole, healthy, integrated, and perfect under this view of human nature, from the perspective of the body, includes the possession of a fully functioning reproductive self in alignment with this male or female self. She recommends the principle, "do not harm a healthy body," and that "the body I am is always already revealing my personhood" (199). She therefore does not refer to "top surgery" with the medical term of "double mastectomy," but rather as "breast amputation" (182).
From the perspective of Aristotelian natural law, this makes a lot of sense. Human wholeness, integrity, and perfection means that bodily organs are fully functioning in concert with one another, including reproductive organs. To remove or alter fully functioning organs would be to harm the integrity and wholeness of the body. If Aristotle had a concept of heaven wherein human persons experienced a resurrection with a perfection of their bodies, these bodies would be sexually unambiguous and fully functioning, with no mutilations or scars or damage. This would be part of what it means to have a "perfected" self based on his understanding of human nature.
Christianity, however, pushes against this vision. Part of what the Resurrection of Christ provides is a view of the glorified and perfected body as one which has holes in it. The world of the Garden of Eden would have housed bodies in which their perfection aligned with the particular "natural law" vision I discussed above, as C.S. Lewis depicts in his novel Perelandra. But the Fall, Incarnation, Passion of Christ, and Resurrection establish a reality where brokenness can paradoxically present a greater goodness than an Edenic ideal. The particular type of essentialist treatment of human perfection presented by Favale, even if not destroyed by it, is challenged and pushed upon by the reality of the Resurrected Christ and His followers.
Consider the common story of St. Lucy, where she gauges out her eyes in order to save a man from lusting after their beauty. Or consider the many Christian saints and mystics who desired to have their bodies mutilated as Christ's was mutilated. Or consider the words of Christ himself in Matthew 5:
"But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."
Part of what Christ teaches here is that we are to seek the same degree of purity within our hearts as we seek in our bodily activities. But he does more than this. He also blurs the line between the psyche and the body. What one imagines can count as something done. The man discussed here has not merely imagined adultery. He has committed adultery. Second, it is worth noting that Christ in this passage suggests that bodily mutilation may be necessary for the salvation of some. And this is precisely the argument of some persons who experience such distress with, for example, their breasts, that they truly believe that if they are not cut off, they will be led to suicide.
One also thinks about "gender bending" in the history of Christianity. In her martyrdom account, St. Perpetua dreams that she becomes a man, that this is who she truly is when she is facing martyrdom. St. Francis addresses himself as "a mother."
None of this necessarily conflicts with Christian views regarding the goodness of the body and the creation of man and woman. Rather, it adds complexity to how exactly some will live out these realities. One should not blithely harm a healthy body. But, at times, the Christian life may involve the decision to cause such "harm." What is needed is careful discernment of when, whether, and how this is truly necessary. Universals are always universal, until we get into the particulars. For one possible approach to this discernment, I would highly recommend Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky's Gender Identity and Faith.
At various points, Favale likens the trans experience (or, what she more broadly calls as "gender dysphoria") to eating disorders (170-179), feeling like an animal (155-156), and identifying as a different race (156-157). She does not dwell on these analogies at length, but they do cohere with her general view of gender dysphoria. (She treats the term “gender dysphoria” broadly as an incongruence between gender identity and bodily sex, whether or not this causes distress, thus departing from its current treatment in the psychological community). Favale insists that "gender dysphoria" is a a "psychological illness," a "pathology" (196).
"Gender dysphoria needs to be acknowledged and treated as a psychological illness. I understand the resistance to language of disorder and pathology, motivated by a fear that such language is stigmatizing. I understand, but I disagree. To reclassify disorder as order forecloses the possibility of recovery. I think of my own battles with anxiety, depression, self-harm. I don't want someone telling me those things are normal and good. I want to be healed. I think of Jesus in the Gospels, healing people from all kinds of maladies. They cry out to him, reach for him, call upon him, potently aware of their need for healing. We should not resist the language of pathology here. What we must resist is the stigma, the othering, of those who struggle with mental illness. We should normalize the experience of this struggle, but not the illness itself." (196)
This passage immediately brought to mind conditions like Down Syndrome and Autism. We understand these conditions well enough now not to attribute their origins to remediable pathologies. But prior to recent scientific developments, these conditions would have aligned more closely with our current understanding of trans experiences: largely unexplained and not really "treatable," at least for a large number of persons who have had these experiences since childhood and who have been able to address other psychological issues. What would we make of someone who said of persons with Downs or Autism: "I don't want someone telling them those things are normal and good. I want them to be healed. I think of Jesus who healed. We whould not resist the langauge of pathology. We should normalize the experience of this struggle, but not the illness."
It's important to note that Downs and Autism, when considered through the lens of an Aristotelean treatment of natural law, would be considered disorders. When we project Favale's experiences of anxiety and other mental health challenges, it makes sense that what we should ultimately desire for individuals with these conditions is "healing." But it's important to consider their perspectives on their experiences, as well as the perspectives of their friends, families, and (if they have them) caretakers. I think back to a story shared by Elizabeth Schiltz in a paper on disability and the resurrected body. Schitlz had been told about a mother with a child with Down Syndrome. The child asked, "Mom, will I have Down Syndrome in heaven?" The woman was a bit taken aback and responded, "Umm, I guess, you probably won't." The child responded, "Then how will you know who I am?" That child clearly does not conceive of his condition as the same kind of disability as anxiety, depression, or self-harm.
That passage of Favale's text also makes me think of the Church's treatment of homosexuality, because the arguments she makes concerning gender dysphoria are the same arguments that many have made regarding homosexual persons. They have argued that our condition, because the Church refers to certain of our desires as "objectively disordered," is a psychological illness, one not to be normalized and for which we ought to actively work towards "healing." In a rush to establish the methodologies for this healing, Catholic psychologists have sloppily developed on neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theories to explain the origins of our condition, insisting that the adoption of a "homosexual identity" is the final diabolical step in the establishment of this pathology.
This narrative, however, fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by "disorder" in the context of classical natural law theory. A disorder is a departure, but it is not a "pathology" in the sense of modern psychology, where one can discover an origin story (whether psychological or physical or both) that can provide a pathway for healing or change. In Catholic theology, the inclination to masturbate, fornicate, and engage in fornication are intrinsically disordered inclinations. But no one takes these to be indicative of a psychological illness.
And this narrative often functions in contradiction to Catholic theology. Catholic conversion therapists like Bob Schuchts have done away with the theological concept of concupiscence and the effects of the Fall with statements like: “Underneath every disordered desire, whether toward the same or opposite sex, there resides a healthy need that remains unmet.” There might be a way in which this position is defensible, reading it through a the principles behind Favale’s acknowledgement that “in every desire can be found a desire for something good, even if that good desire becomes distorted or aimed at the wrong thing” (199). But Schuchts and others read disordered desire through the lens of a story of pathology, wherein disordered desires can be done away with altogether through a “healing” process. This contradicts the Catholic theology of sin, where there are simply broken aspects of human experience that cannot really be explained, "healed," or done away with in this world. At times, seeking to simply heal that wound can distract us from recognizing the resurrected, glorified, and still broken body of Christ. There is glory in a body free from wounds, violence, and mutilation. But Christ also teaches us that, in a paradoxical way, there can be a greater glory through and with these. Christian integrity, wholeness, and perfection is not the same thing as Aristotelian integrity, wholeness, and perfection.
Expanding sex and sexuality
Favale believes (as do I) that "male and female, He created them." Favale goes in search of the essence of this distinction, not satisfied by others' reliance upon roles, appearance, or self-determined self-definition. I am with her here as well. But in her proceeding arguments, I find myself compelled by diverging views.
Favale holds that this distinction must reside in something we can identify in the body. Historically, this would have been externally visible structures of the body such as genitalia. But medical developments and modern technology have helped us to identify a variety of sex characteristics, including gametes. Favale notes each human body will be structured such that either eggs or sperm can be produced. And while she leaves room for a diversity of bodies and cautions against prematurely making changes so that bodies with CCSDs conform to gametic organization, she insists that gender identification must conform with that organization, regardless of what other sex characteristics or the experience of the individual suggest.
At this point, I would like to clarify a common misconception among many Catholics regarding the “self-determined choice” of trans identities. In 2019, the Congregation for Catholic Education published "Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education." The document seeks to respond to "gender theory," under which (the CCE states) "human identity [including gender identity] becomes the choice of the individual, one which can change over time." This aligns with Favale's presentation of "social constructionism" and "nominalism," wherein gender and other aspects of the human person do not reside in reality, but are simply created products of society and culture which can be made, unmade, and remade according to the will (117-118). She contrasts this with an "essentialist" view of sex/gender, where maleness/femaleness reside in a reality that one discovers and ought to respect. While I acknowledge that many in the academy hold this version of "gender theory," where gender/sex is a social/personal construction, I do not believe that this represents the actual experiences of trans persons. (Favale recognizes this as well.) Even many people who claim to believe that gender is just a self-created category don't actually believe this. Rather, they tend to treat trans and non-binary identities as realities that are discovered. Some form of essentialism is usually the basis of the call for "authenticity," whether this is acknowledged or not.
Where Favale and I diverge is in my openness to the possibility that struggles with gender identities, and trans experiences, can be manifestations of a reality that we do not fully understand. While gamete production may be a key locus for the identification of gender, it need not be the locus in every case. And while gender dysphoria may arise at times because of pathologies, the resolution of which will result in greater alignment between gender identity and bodily sex, I am not convinced that this is always the case. Nor do I believe we should assume a pathology whenever we encounter a trans person.
Favale also believes that we have gone wrong in our treatment of the concept of "sexuality." She writes:
"By the mid-twentieth century, 'sex' qua biological sex was dethroned, both linguistically and conceptually. The word 'sex' no longer served merely as shorthand for one's biological sexual identity, but expanded to indicate any kind of erotic genital activity. 'Sexuality' no longer referred to one's maleness or femaleness, but to the flabor and expression of one's erotic desires. This dethroning of 'sex' created a conceptual vacuum, one quickly filled by the term 'gender.'" (145)
This view is consistent with Cormac Burke's view that contraceptive sex isn't really sex. Burke argues that sexual acts that are not procreative acts (contraceptive sex) between a man and a woman are not actually sexual acts, because "there is no sexual intercourse of communication." For Burke, sexuality is not defined by desire or activity, but by the distinction and complementarity between men and women. Intentionally rendering a woman’s body infertile diminishes her distinct capacities as a woman in relation to man, which, according to Burke, does away with her sexuality. This is consistent with Karol Wojtyla's treatment of sexuality in Love and Responsibility.
Broader society has changed its operative concept for sexuality, moving away from a focus on the distinction between men and women and towards a broader focus on desire. But the Church has done this as well. By the time Wojytla became Pope John Paul II and released the Theology of the Body, his concept of sexuality had changed to match the Catechism's eventual treatment of it. The Catechism's treatment of sexuality is not limited to male/female difference, but encompasses broader forms of erotic desire, such as "sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex" (CCC 2357). I would argue that if the Church can make room for this development in the concept of sexuality in a fallen world, we can do the same with the concept of sex (even if I also would argue that the Church should move away from the concept of "sexuality" and focus more on "eros"). Much more could be said, in terms of the justifications for my divergences with Favale, but I will leave that for another time.
The need for better care
I very much agree with Favale's call for better standards of care for persons struggling with their gender identity. Individuals should not walk into a Planned Parenthood without any previous medical or psychological support, receive a same-day prescription for a drug that will have significant effects on the body, and have no follow-up from a medical or other provider. Many people are not aware that this is the very approach taken by Planned Parenthood and other providers today. I have spoken with a therapist who has had to deal with the physical and psychological fallout of this isolated dispensary approach to medical care. Favale spends many pages on horror stories of surgeries and hormonal therapies gone wrong.
But rather than barring any type of medical transitioning for all persons, I would argue for a thoughtful discerning approach involving a team of qualified professionals. Though I recognize the need to provide safe and affirming care to trans and non-binary persons, I would fault Planned Parenthood in this situation for operating under a shockingly low standard of care. Stronger standards of care that reject the hasty approach to transitioning critiqued by Favale do exist. But for some reason, they don’t make it into her book. I would recommend exploring, for example, the WPATH Standards of Care.
I would also recommend Gender Identity and Faith, which I discussed earlier. In it, Yarhouse and Sadusky discuss their approach as psychologists to working with those who are exploring their gender identity. They discuss trying to find "plateaus" with their clients, the least invasive interventions that can be implemented so that a client can find stability to explore their gender identity and other aspects of their psychological life. Rather than rushing into medical transitions, Yarhouse and Sadusky help clients to identify areas of emotional and mental health they may need to address before committing to major decisions. For some clients, operating from a "plateau" can help them process, decide if this is a long-term place of stability and growth for them, or if (after a time) they need to work towards a different plateau in order to flourish.
The trans reader
I wish that Favale would have published this book in two volumes. Her intellectual history of "gender theory" was interesting, nuanced, and carefully considered. And I would love to read a broader commentary on Genesis and creation by her. Though I have offered some areas in which Christians might push back against some of her presentations of natural law, I found her exposition helpful and appreciated the opportunity to return to some of my philosophical heroes. And her review of the science surrounding sex was helpful and will likely reshape some of my approaches to these questions going forward.
Things started to break down for me with chapter 6, "Gender." I started to break in chapter 8, "Wholeness." The break happened for personal reasons.
As I read the "Truth-In-Love" section (202-208), I found myself shaking and trying (and failing) to hold back tears. The title did not help. I hate the phrase "speaking the truth in love." It has played a role in the lives of LGBTQ+ persons similar to the role of: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It offers consolation and reassurance to those who are engaging in the "loving" and the "hating," and it offers a diminishment to those of use who are the "sinners." So often, I have seen "truth in love" used as an opportunity to be, as Taylor Swift has put it, "so casually cruel in the name of being honest."
I commend Favale for arguing against a casual disposition towards these conversations and for recognizing that certain forms of "honesty" can be cruel, can be forms of dishonesty. She writes, "God's truth is love, and God's love is truth. If we ever find ourselves in a situation where we are sacrificing one for the other, we've wandered off the narrow track" (207). This is related to what I wrote in my opening paragraphs, that writings about love should be lovely, writings about beauty beautiful.
The same principles should apply to Catholics writing about those struggling with their gender identity. When writing or speaking about a suffering subject, and especially when critiquing that suffering subject's deeply held views about themself, it is extremely important to treat that subject with great care. For this book to capture the reality of these people, they need to be cared for in this book. It should be written with extreme delicacy.
Unfortunately, this book failed to do that at times, as when Favale chooses the term "breast amputation," analogizes trans experiences to eating disorders (170-179) or thinking one is an animal (155-156) (I feel this personally, as my same-sex desires have been bombastically analogized to bestiality by many Christians), and caricatures the work of affirmative therapists (194). She states that she will avoid using pronouns, if possible, when referring to trans persons, out of respect (208). But she fails to follow this practice in her discussion of Julia Serrano and Andrea Long Chu (172-173).
But the part I struggled most with was:
"Using sex-based pronouns, rather than gender-based pronouns, is undoubtedly disruptive and likely offensive to most trans-identified people. Such a move could close the door to a relationship with that person from the outset. Yet, if I use pronouns that conflict with sex, I am assenting to an untruth. More than assenting, in fact; through my own words I am actively participating in a lie." (206)
As Daniel Quinan has pointed out, the Church already does this sort of thing when, for example, referring "to an invalidly-ordained priest or bishop by their preferred religious titles in an ecumenical setting, regardless of what we believe theologically about the validity of their sacraments." But aside from this, I really struggle with the equality suggested by Favale’s contrast. It made me angry, and I think I'm starting to make sense of why.
I look back a time when I was publicly defending the position of the Church on homosexuality, regularly accepting speaking gigs and being invited into important conversations in the American Church. I didn't realize at the time how much I was struggling. I had significant anxiety. I was alienated from large parts of myself. In part to cope with this, I engaged in risky behaviors and put myself in potentially dangerous positions. But nonetheless, I occupied an easy place in my Catholic world, and my Catholic friends were very happy with how I spoke about and presented myself as a gay Catholic. Eventually things unraveled. I had a breakdown that my family and friends had to struggle through. I realized that I hated a lot about myself. I finally acknowledged to myself how unhappy I was. I needed to change. I publicly confessed to a double life.
Years later, I was in a different place. I started dating. I wasn't engaging in those risky behaviors. I was happy. I put in a lot of agonizing work to become a much more honest and integrated version of myself. I found myself much more capable of living up to my ideals, finally accepting that it would be messy and leaving space for the mess and, in the process, finding much less mess (and much less trauma) than before.
But because of the new structure of my life (especially the dating), many of my Catholic friends were unhappy with me. I remember hosting a dinner with the parents of the guy I was dating, and some of my closest friends chose not to come because they thought it would make them “complicit” with my sinful relationship. I found myself in a web of relationships devoid of their past mutuality. That is, they weren't really friendships anymore.
When I would see some of those people, I would find myself riddled with anxiety. On a couple of occasions after spending time with them, I found myself thinking about self-harm for the first time in a long while. I came to a suspicion: that, even if they wouldn't admit it, these people preferred being friends with me when I secretly hated myself while publicly speaking the life they thought I should live (even if I wasn't living it). In a way, they preferred the self-hating hypocrite to the person who was finally finding some integration in his life. They could not really appreciate the hard work I had put into becoming this better version of myself. Rather, they were preoccupied by the purity they wanted in my life and in their relationships with me.
Some would frame it in this way: "Not having dinner with you, or not recognizing your partner, is undoubtedly disruptive and likely offensive to you. Yet, if I do that, I am assenting to an untruth. More than assenting, in fact; through my own actions I am actively participating in a lie." But this framing misses out on the incongruity of the impact. I do believe that each person is called to follow their conscience. But you should know that a cruelty that is not casual is still cruelty. And the cruelty is this: by refusing to meet me where I am now, I feel that dark place in which I used to dwell being invoked. It's "triggered" for me, in that some of these experiences summon it and make it alive for me. I recognize the logical consistency of their position. It’s a position that I once held. But as someone who has been on both sides of that line, I can say that there is hardly a comparison. An insistence that friends join us for dinner, or speak about us the the language we have struggled to find, is far less intrusive and damaging of integrity than a refusal accept the invitation. When covered in the wrappings of “Catholic morality,” the rejection is presented as one which comes from God.
Acknowledging the pronouns that a trans person has come to identify with is not just the acknowledgment of the flipping of a switch, of an identity that was easily created. It's the acknowledgment of a lived life, of having made it through (thus far) an extremely challenging process, sometimes of a process of struggling to not want to kill yourself. The refusal to acknowledge and use a person’s pronouns can feel like an invalidation of that process, of that progress, and can feel like the invocation of an earlier self and all of the darkness of that time. The stakes are high.
I don’t write this because I believe that Favale or other should be forced to speak about or interact with persons in violation of their consciences. What I hope I can provide is an explanation for why LGBTQ+ persons might back away from relationships where we can’t integrate our full selves. I understand the challenge of conscience with the position of Favale and others. I used to hold this position. But I now recognize why this position may just not really be compatible with true friendship with many LGBTQ+ persons.
One key to true friendship is to be able to see a friend through their eyes. A fundamental understanding is needed for trust. Otherwise, one is left with merely goodwill. This is, and should be, a source of grief. I think about all the Christians who are missing out on the rich friendships to be had with members of the trans community. How impoverished others must be, by their inability to say "she."
More to say
I recognize that there is something unfair in a review and critique I have thrown together in a few hours, in response to a book that Favale has spent many months writing, and many years preparing to write. I acknowledge Brenda Ueland’s entirely correct characterization of literary critics:
“[T]hey are like big game hunters, killing from a great, safe distance, with great egosatisfaction (though they are entirely safe themselves and the shooting requires no muscular effort and not much skill) some nice little creature.”
(I do, however, consider Favale much more than “some nice little creature” and would be resistant to engage in a debate with her, as I’m confident she is much smarter than I am.) In this piece, I am this weak “big game hunter” that Ueland describes. I write, however, because I worry that critics of trans persons and their experiences often play a similar role.
My critiques and concerns are not meant to diminish the many valid and important points raised in The Genesis of Gender. In a way, I hope my thoughts can provide a small complement to Favale’s work. Favale’s book deserves wide readership. She thoughtfully engages challenging questions and works to seriously consider a variety of views. Though I would push back on some of her positions—and had to spend the entirety of a session with my therapist processing the anger unexpectedly evoked by some of her passages—I’m glad to have read her book. My primary point is not so much that I think she is wrong. Rather, I think there is just much more to say.