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Fabulous conversation between Jane Clare Jones, and Helen Joyce, the author of Trans reviewed here.

Jones is the author of a darkly humorous, but essentially accurate mock dialogue I’ve linked to before called The Annals of the TERF Wars.

It seems that I link to “must-reads” regularly, so perhaps the impact has been dissipated, but yeah, this is a must-read – if you want a relatively succinct look at the current conversation on this issue. Of course, you’d want to read the book – or one of several others out there – but if you don’t have time, this is a decent introduction – with the added value of Joyce explaining how she got interested in the issue, which includes the trajectory many of us have traveled – from puzzlement to sputtering rage at the stupidity of it all.

Helen: When I started writing the book, I could imagine that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meant something that’s not quite the same as ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male.’ But you can’t do that with ‘male’ and ‘female.’ They have really very specific meanings which are by no means just human meanings. When you say that a male person can be female, you can get to literally anything from that, because that’s like ‘zero equals one.’ During the research I was reading philosophy papers, and I remember [in] one paper I got to page 20 or something, and then there was a sentence: “I take it as axiomatic that trans women are women.” I actually shouted out loud, “For fuck’s sake!” How can you do that? That’s just like saying, ‘I take it as axiomatic that zero equals one.’ You’d have to do a lot of work, at the very least, to say that trans women are women. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was going to have to put in an entire appendix on arguments [that] ‘trans women are women’ and why they don’t work. And in the end, I just thought: “You know what, these are so shit.” These people are not debating, they’re not talking about their ideas; they’re just putting it out there. And people aren’t saying anything, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. So unsurprisingly, this is the most pathetically weak, appalling, stupid body of work I’ve ever seen. You know that I’m not an academic philosopher, I’m not a philosopher at all, and I can look at this, and say, “Oh, that’s where you went wrong. That’s where you said zero equals one.”

So the intellectual reason was just how appalling this stuff was. It actually intellectually offended me. And then the personal reason was seeing these girls. That night after the Detransition Advocacy Network, I sat there and I couldn’t sleep and I just thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to write the book.” Suddenly there were no more questions. It was very straightforward: “They are sterilizing gay kids. And if I write this book, they might sterilize fewer gay kids.” So that’s simple.

Jane: My perception is that the trans rights project isn’t being driven primarily by pharmaceutical interests, but rather by the desire for validation. But by this point these interests have very strongly attached themselves to it, because of the money in it.

Helen: Of course; that’s the way they work. The two biggest lobby groups in America are hospitals and pharma companies, so of course they’re lobbying on this now. But that’s opportunistic. They come in afterwards. The first impulse is definitely middle-aged men whose desire for validation as women is greater than anything else; that’s the ‘zero equals one.’ They’re the people who insist that you say that they’re women. And once you say that lie, everything else follows.

Jane: Yeah, everything else is collateral damage. I mean, I think women’s spaces are a prime target, because they serve this validation function … but the kids are collateral damage, because they serve as evidence for the notion that gender identity is an essence.

……

Jane: Maybe this is a good place to end, because I think this is one of the great accomplishments of your book. As you say, one of the ways that this entire thing has been enabled is because what they’re trying to do is so bonkers that it’s taken us a very long time to convince people that they are actually trying to do what we say they are. It’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, those are crazy women, they’re screaming about nothing. They’re hysterical. They just hate trans people.’ And one of the great achievements of your book is that you’ve managed to document this movement and its objectives, and you’ve done it with such lucidity and grace that it’s very compelling, and convincing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s you being the bonkers one.

Helen: Yeah, and on the other side as well, it’s very hard for a woman to decide, *deep sigh,* ‘I’m now going to dedicate two years of my life to something that’s mad.’ I know you can sympathize because you’ve done it too, but can [the] general [public] sympathize with somebody who has a million better things to be doing with their time and actually has to spend time writing down why we shouldn’t be putting rapists in women’s prisons?

Jane: That’s what makes me so angry, that we have to spend all this energy explaining …

Helen: I. Have. Better. Things. To. Do. With. My. Life.

The maddest bit of the whole book – there were many mad bits, but the maddest bit was saying, ‘Darwin actually worked out why there are two sexes.’ Sexual selection caused there to be two reproductive strategies, two reproductive pathways, bodies shaped by and directed towards two types of reproductive strategies. That’s it. There’s no other definition. It’s the same definition right across the animal and plant kingdom. That’s that. And I think that saved me a lot of time and stupid effort, although, God knows, I had to put a lot of time and stupid effort into this book. I mean, in a way, it’s been intellectually very interesting. But it’s also been ridiculous. And quite a lot of people in journalism have said to me, ‘Look, this is all so stupid, why are you wasting your time on it? Is this what you want to be known for?’ But the thing is, it’s all very well to think that this is so mad that someone will stop it. Well, someone has to be the someone.

There are also interesting observations about how American culture and feminism have contributed to this movement.

Of course, I don’t agree with every iota of every point, and you know that I’d say there are dots that are not being connected in ways that would clarify a lot – but that’s the case with any discussion of any issue, isn’t it?

More of my posts on this here.

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Over the weekend, I read Trans by Helen Joyce. I wasn’t planning to read it because I thought – well, I’ve been immersed in these issues for a while and there’s probably little new in it to me. But then all the mess with the American Bookseller’s Association came down last week – in which including a sample of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage was met with weeping and gnashing of teeth by bookseller recipients and followed by an abject apology for the “violence” by the ABA, I decided to go ahead and spend some money to support these purveyors of violence.

And no, there’s not a ton new to me in the book, but it’s good to run through it presented in a cohesive manner, so here’s the thing – if this is an issue you’re in the least interested in or – especially – if you are involved in an organization or institution that is confronting these issues – including the Church – it’s an excellent book to read and pass on to others. Joyce – a writer for the Economist– goes through the history of this movement from the early 20th century to the present, and most importantly explains how the thinking about this matter has changed, accelerated greatly in recent years, from an idealistic conviction that by doing surgeries a man could “become” a woman to the current iteration – that “gender identity” is an almost spiritual reality unrelated to material reality of the body, and that if a person with male genitalia wants to be called and treated as a woman, society and the legal system must treat him as such.

Pretty crazy.

And as I keep saying – if you’re going to deal with these issues, you must understand this – that gender self-identity is the goal of this movement.

She touches on it all – the history, the wealth pushing this, the focus on children – all of it. It’s a good primer.

A few quotes then some comments:

Take, for example, an article for Therapy Route, an American website, by Mx Van Levy, a non-binary therapist, entitled ‘Why the term transition is transphobic’. The reason presented is that the word ‘transition’ is ‘based on the idea that gender looks a certain way and that people need to change from looking/sounding/acting/and more, a certain way for their identity to be respected . . . The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside . . . The term transition implies that we were one gender and are now another. But that is not the case. We are and always have been our gender . . . changing how we look on the outside is not a transition.’

In this, as in much else, the activists do not by any means speak for all trans people. But it is the activists’ version of the ideology that is in the ascendant, and that is being codified into laws.

And that’s what I keep telling you. This is not a niche issue. When local, state and federal jurisdictions declare, under pressure and lobbying, that one’s self-declared gender identity trumps biological sex in access to accommodations, and your daughter’s school, in an effort to just avoid lawsuits, declares all restrooms and changing rooms unisex …..you’ll see.

Democrat-controlled states and cities, however, continued to write self-ID into laws and regulations, both in schools and elsewhere. To give a typical example, an anti-discrimination law passed in New York City in 2019 defines sex as ‘a combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, facial hair, vocal pitch, development of breasts, gender identity, and other characteristics’. When these do not align, it says, ‘gender identity is the primary determinant of a person’s sex.’

Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are……

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion….

But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about – the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language – is collateral damage.

One business sector, in particular, has benefited from transactivism: health care. Helping gender-dysphoric people feel comfortable in their bodies makes no one much money; turning them into lifelong patients is highly profitable.

Now a couple of comments:

First, Joyce makes the decision to use preferred-gender pronouns in this book, which I suppose I understand. The book will be controversial and cancel-able enough without Joyce being accused of murdering trans people by using their dead pronouns or whatever.

Secondly, on matters of more substance.

Joyce’s understanding of the foundation and motivation behind the trans movement reflects, of course, her own worldview. How can it be any different? But as such, it’s lacking a certain philosophical weight. That is, an honest confrontation with the changes in sexuality in general over the past century – most specifically the development and universal use of artificial contraception – the stripping of function from the reproductive system, which leaves us – human beings – in a performative space and not much more.

She inches close at times, but still is pretty far away:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body-denialism. And if you spend a lot of time playing computer games, you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars who can be altered on a whim…

Absolutely. But there’s more, isn’t there?

As I wrote – gee, two years ago tomorrow (odd) in a post:

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Finally:

What Joyce – and other feminist thinkers opposing the trans movement – are unable to confront is the relationship of this nonsense, on a deep level, to abortion.

Because of course, opposing transactivism is about continually bringing out the facts of material, biological reality and emphasizing the point that no matter what you think or desire – you are who you are. A castrated man with breast implants and an electrolysized face is still a man. Our opinions and desires don’t determine reality.

And nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s race or ethnicity. Nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s age. Nor do our opinions change the reality of the rights due to a human being, no matter what age, and no matter where they reside – outside the womb – or deep inside.

So there’s a certain amount of frantic flailing that runs, as an undercurrent, in the work of anti-transactivists. It’s almost as if they can’t understand how this is happening – when from another perspective, it’s very clear: in culture in which sexuality has become performative and preborn human beings are treated as diseased organs, well yes – it becomes quite possible to enshrine, in law, the notion that whatever you think you are – you just are.

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EPSON MFP image

Hey there – thanks for the good comments. Let’s all gather round in our earth-tone plaids and do Spirograph and eat Burger Chef, shall we?

In a gender-neutral kind of way?

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You can probably tell where I’m going, but it’s going to take me a couple more days, simply because there are a few stages I have to work through to get to the point at which I can effectively articulate what is, quite frankly, something close to rage.

****

If we’re going to think about sex and gender, I suppose we should talk about them. About men and women.

Remember one of the motivations here: Genesis 1-2, forming the first readings this week at Mass. 

I hope this post won’t be as windy as the last one.

So, here we go:

I’ve been married twice, have four sons and a daughter and have taught hundreds of adolescents, male and female, have a mother and a father, have many friends and acquaintances of both sexes, and here’s what I think the differences between men and women are:

Women are always cold.

That’s really it. I can’t pin it down any more than that.

Because in every classroom, every office situation and in my home, that’s the crucial, unmoving divide: the guys always want the air conditioning turned way, way down, and the ladies are always freezing. (Including me.)

Just last evening, I went to the Piggly-Wiggly. Called “The Pig” in these parts. I walked down one aisle, and there was a woman about ten feet ahead of me. Another woman was headed our way in the opposite direction. As she passed the first woman, they exchanged words, and the subject was clear. One of them responded to the other saying something like “So cold.” And, joined with them and to the cycles of the moon, probably, I immediately glommed onto the meaning and added my two cents, “Always. Coldest store in town.” And we all smirked in agreement.

And beyond that – I got nothing.

It’s a joke, yes, but it’s not. Because this is what I know: Men and women are certainly different. Clearly, obviously. But to delineate those differences and try to figure out how?

Go for it. Good luck.

And really, I’m okay with that. I’ve read extensively, thought about it, lived it, and concluded – the mystery is okay.

We can – and do- say various things about these differences. We say that women are more emotionally attuned and nurturing, that men are able to distance themselves from emotions, etc. Women listen, men state things, want to fix things, and on and on and on.

Perhaps – maybe –  most of that is true for most men and women, but you know what? The other truth is that whenever you try to abstract from that or categorize actual human beings according to those traits you immediately run into exceptions and outliers.

And since books have been written about the subject, I’m certainly not going to attempt to summarize hundreds of years of thinking on it in a blog post.  So I’ll try to be brief about the particular angles on this that will pertain to my bigger point – coming in a day or two.

  • Male and female persons are different.
  • Why is this? Nature? Nurture? Socialization? Well, like everything about human life, the best we can say is: both.
  • Sex and gender are different things. Every human being is either male or female. That’s our sex. The way we live that out – the dispositions and expressions associated with that are gender. What we refer to, in part, in our binary way as feminine and masculine traits or expressions. Gender, rooted in sex, is certainly culturally and socially reinforced and conditioned.

There is, of course, no lack of discussion and teaching on this score in Catholic tradition. But here’s the funny thing.

Catholic reflection and teaching on sex and gender affirms difference. It has a very developed understanding of the relationship of body/soul/sex (more on that tomorrow). Catholic reflection on human anthropology also affirms what Genesis implies: some sort of male-female complementarity.

But what – aside from sex – defines or describes “man” or “woman” – what is “masculinity” or “femininity?” 

Contrary to what you might assume, Catholic tradition doesn’t dogmatically decree on the matter. Certainly Catholic thinkers and theologians with great authority have explored the matter and Catholic institutions and traditions have expressed various perspectives, usually managing to both reflect and challenge the social structures in which the Church is existing in that particular culture.

But for the most part, when it comes to the core of Catholic teaching, the mystery is allowed to be a mystery.

Looking at the Catholic landscape of the past few decades, you might not know that. Pope John Paul II wrote quite a bit about sexuality and the family, and many have found his teaching helpful – and it’s become the center of formation efforts and movements. John Paul II did reflect on male and female identity, elevating the idea of complentarianism and specifically the “feminine genius.”

His apostolic letter on women would be a place to explore this and, in a shorter form, his 1995 “Letter to Women.” 

His thinking has been quite influential. What does John Paul II suggest the “feminine genius” is about? Basically, a stance of receptivity, acceptance, sensitivity and generosity. You can read all about it in the links above. Maybe you’re really into it and you can teach the rest of us about it.

For my part…I’m just not a fan. Again, if it helps you, great. I’m just way too attuned to the outliers of any abstraction or generalization to climb completely on board. I also experience extended, anxious, deeply-felt attempts to assure me of my full humanity as, in the end, condescending.

Are we again, back to the personal context? Perhaps. Perhaps being raised in a family by an  emotionally distant mother and a warm, friendly approachable dad has given me a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to generalizations about “femininity” and “masculinity.”

As, perhaps, did my own childhood and adolescence of feeling not quite attuned to girls as a group. I certainly had female friends – some of my best friends were girls!  – but you know what? When it came to high school, I was always the girl who drifted towards sitting with the smart, issue-minded boys, because none of the girls in my (admittedly small) class had any interest in issues outside of school or their social circle or personal concerns.

When I was a freshman in college, I, as many good Catholic girls did and do, consider religious life. I was guided towards an order that, I was assured, was “the female Jesuits.”  I visited a convent in Washington – this would have been 1979. There were a few aspects of the short visit that revealed to me that perhaps this was not my vocation, but the most vivid emotion I experienced, sitting there at lunch with these very nice women was a reality, descending like a bolt: If I join, that means the rest of my life  and my identity will be centered on a group of…women. 

The idea of that – the prospect of it, was, not to put it too strongly, almost repellent to me.

(Which is pretty much the opposite reaction my daughter had in college when she joined a sorority. It struck me as a bizarre, out-of-character choice, but I finally understood it when – this young woman, the only sister in a family with four brothers – posted on Facebook after she was accepted: At last! I have sisters! )

But did any of this ever make me question my femaleness? Nope.

The Catholic world has met contemporary gender questions and turmoil with its own set of movements and gathering spaces, where feminine and masculine virtues are celebrated and reinforced. Fantastic. One of my own sons has benefited greatly from one of these groups, and I’m deeply grateful.

But to recognize the risks with all that. There’s no Catholic doctrine or dogmatic teaching anywhere that insists on a particular set of “feminine” or “masculine” virtues or even characteristics. Yes, dive into JPII’s Theology of the Body and extrapolate from that and find benefit in it, but – deep breath – the insights of the TOB on this score are not dogmatic. They are rooted in dogmatic truth – the creation of man and woman as male and female by God’s will and the role of the family in the created order – but the notion that “femininity = innate receptivity,” for example,  while helpful, is not anything that anyone is required center their thinking on  – about women in general or themselves in particular.

So, if you are a woman who looks at the current feminine-genius-you’re-beautiful-every-woman-is-a-mother-in-some-way-love-Jesus-love-makeup-too landscape and thinks….not me. 

You’re fine.

We’re fine. 

And we’re still women.

Dig back into Dorothy Day, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard, Flannery, and all the other quirky Catholic women and feel right at home again.

We have to be so, so careful, in our determination to fight what’s wrong in the culture and celebrate the truth of the beauty of the human person, male and female, to not communicate a whole other set of expectations and assumptions that might, indeed, have some foundation in authentic Catholic thinking, but aren’t actually normative for every single person.

“The Real Catholic Woman” can be a mother of ten or none. She can be really interested in fashion or absolutely, totally indifferent to it. She can be hoping for a spouse or she can be fully content without one. “The Real Catholic Woman” can find “beauty” a helpful personal and spiritual concept – or not. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be ambitious and entrepreneurial or she can live more quietly, oriented to serving those around her in simple, ordinary ways.   “The Real Catholic Woman” can find deep connection and nourishment from being with other women – or she can find that from hanging out with the guys, or professional colleagues or in her garden or heck, with her cats. I guess. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be deeply into Church-y things – or she can hit Mass once a week, say her prayers and do her best in life.

***

Now you know what?

I’m going to swing right around again. I’m going to come full circle to the beginning of this post, and hopefully not into total incoherence.

Sex is binary.

Sex differences are real.

Gender is real and the result of both nature and nurture. Masculinity and femininity are complementary. I do think that there are qualities more associated with men than women, and vice versa. Defining them too specifically, however, is a minefield, fraught with exceptions and the risk of unjust judgment.

And finally –  the only – the only – logical and authentic way to understand gender is rooted in the roles of male and female in reproduction. It remains a deep mystery (see above), but any other foundation is arbitrary and ultimately oppressive and destructive.

So what’s our conclusion?

When you separate sexuality from procreation, you do, indeed, lose your definitions. 

When you sterilize a culture, gender does, indeed become a game of appearances and affectations.

Incoherence? Mystery? It all, as usual, depends on where you start.

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