Very recently, I had an essay, “Fallen Bodies, Eternal Genders” published in Sunstone, which I was ecstatic and over the moon for. Then my wife said the magazine mentioned my blog which I had let lay fallow for quite some time and I thought, oh dear, I’m going to have to update that or something. What would I write about? And then I re-read my essay and knew that the first thing I would have to write for this blog is a response to my own essay.
I first wrote “Fallen Bodies, Eternal Genders” for Sunstone early April of last year. While the editor (who was so patient and lovely) and I passed some edits and rewrites back and forth, any changes were more to tighten the writing and get it to flow better. In fact, I hadn’t looked at the essay in quite some time when it was published this January in 2015, almost a year later. During those eight to ten months, I ended up increasing the number of transgender people I interacted on a regular basis from “zero” to “definitely not zero” and in the process have learned so much. So much so, in fact, that when I re-read my essay in print form, during some parts I frowned and muttered to myself, “This is so problematic.”
Normally, this is fairly par for the course. We all learn, we all grow, and I’m more than content for other people to point out to me how wrong I am because, well, discovering error is an important learning experience and I am eager to have people correct me because it means I’m getting a little bit more knowledge and experience in my journey in life. However, one of the points I made I felt was dangerous, too dangerous for me to stay silent on and so I’m writing a response to my own essay because I wish to, first, publicly retract my statement, and, second, amend my statement with another statement which I feel is more accurate and less problematic.
I hope that it is a healthy sign of a young and growing academic mind that a mere eight months later you find your essay to have troubling, problematic points. I don’t know if there is much of a precedent of writers responding to their own work, but please don’t mistake this response to my own article as navel gazing or narcissism; rather, I want to address points made by 2014 Ted that 2015 Ted no longer believes to be true (so much so he’s willing to write about it).
Body Dysphoria Is Much More than Just Incompatible Sex and Gender
In the original article, I wrote:
“the biological sex of their body and the gender role they feel called to perform are incompatible with the surrounding culture.”
I depicted the dilemma of the transgender person as someone who wished to perform a gender that was mismatched with their biologically assigned sex. This was born out of well-meaning but total ignorance. No matter how well-meaning the intention, I cannot rest until I publicly declare this idea to be quite inaccurate and even hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. The “official” term of gender dysphoria is much more than just wanting to perform as a different gender; it’s not simply a gender/sex incompatibility but a sex/sex incompatibility. It’s also important to note that health organizations do not view gender dysphoria as a mental disease. It’s a feeling that the body itself is wrong and not just societal pressure or expectations. If US culture accepted that men could perform as women overnight, it still wouldn’t change the fact that a male experiencing body dysphoria would feel his body is the wrong body and desire to change it.
In my well-meaning ignorance, I acted out on my privilege of speaking for transgender people rather than listening to them. I wish to repent of this and sincerely ask forgiveness of any transgender people who I might have offended with my description of gender dysphoria in my essay. So once again, I wish to reiterate: gender dysphoria is more than just a gender/sex mismatch. It is much more complex and deep-rooted than such a simplistic and inaccurate depiction. I won’t speak more on the matter because I am by no means an authority on the issue, and I believe that anybody who wants to know more should speak to those who actually identify as transgender and not to a clueless, cisgendered man such as myself (and don’t listen to just one; speak to multiple people, just like how there is no one definitive Asian person, there is no one representative transgender person, either).
With that said, I do think that as a body of Christ, we need to seriously reconsider our current stances and attitudes towards transgender people in particular and the sex/sexuality/gender “problem” in general. What’s interesting is that our current doctrines could support the acceptance of transgender people and gender reassignment surgery without even my writing the essay suggesting an alternate reading of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Even if we use gender interchangeably with sex, the idea of someone having an eternal sex but feeling like their fallen, mortal body formed incorrectly around their eternal spiritual body is supported by current doctrines as they are. The recent news about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, her candid, open suicide letter, and the way fundamentalist (and, I would argue, extra-scriptural) Christian attitudes contributed to her distress that ultimately resulted in a teenager taking her life is a crucial wake-up call to re-examine what our own doctrines mean for and act out on transgender people. I sincerely believe that Christ would not want any of his doctrines to drive a person to loathe themselves so much that it would drive them to take their own life. I also believe that we as a body of Christ need to practice Christ-like charity in resisting our urge to talk over them or talk to them but rather to listen to the genuine and heartfelt experiences, tragedies, and sorrows of our transgender brothers and sisters. We are all too comfortable (and smug!) in our overeagerness in dictating and scripting the experiences of others, especially those who seem the most foreign or different from us.
One solid way of learning more about gender dysphoria is by playing the short and simple videogame Dys4ia, created by Anna Anthropy, a transgender game developer and critic. Dys4ia has received numerous acclaim for helping those who have no experience in this regard to develop empathy towards the experiences of those who experience gender or body dysphoria by depicting them in a videogame format. While the subject matter, language, and imagery might be more “crass,” “vulgar,” or “crude” than the average Mormon might be comfortable with, sometimes stepping outside of the comfort zone is one of the first steps to learning more about others. After all, Jesus had some particularly harsh words for those who preferred to associate only with their own while ignoring the sorrows and tragedies of others.