A recent case put before the Supreme Court (Harris Funeral Home v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) centers around the question of human sexuality, particularly as argued in the situation of those claiming to be transsexual. At issue is whether the Civil Rights Laws that protect against discrimination on the basis of sex should apply to individuals whose claims are made on the basis of a professed “gender,” regardless of their biological sex. For many, the case is simply a question of whether the protections enjoyed under current law should be extended to those who are “transsexual.” A deeper implication that underlies this is the uncoupling of sexual identity from the body itself. Are we what our bodies say we are, or are we only what we claim to be? If our sexual identity is not something dictated by biology, then, in effect, everyone is transsexual – only having a sexual identity because of choice.
I am aware of the rare condition of intersexed individuals and other such anomalies. The court case has nothing to do with that condition. It is, instead, a question of whether sexual identity is, in fact, independent of the body. If the arguments put forward were rooted in biology, then there is an obvious conversation to be had. If, on the other hand, we are speaking simply about choices, then it is a very different matter indeed.
I was unaware of this court case until listening to an interview on Mars Hill Audio with a professor who was one of a number of authors offering amicus briefs in the case. Her contention is that the case involves far more than the question of rights and involves the deeper philosophical question about human nature itself. How related are we to our bodies? Is my identity independent of my body? Are human beings only what they think they are, or does the body have a proper, even an over-riding role?
Earlier debates about homosexuality largely revolved around questions of behavior. A male heterosexual and a male homosexual differ in their behavior. However, both grant the fact that they are male. In transsexuality, questions center on identity and being, regardless of behavior. A male who identifies as a woman might still prefer female sex partners (like any other male). These matters have engendered debate within the LGBT community itself. There are competing, even mutually exclusive arguments within that community. It is strange territory.
Years ago, Fr. Thomas Hopko observed that the great debate of our age would center around the question of male and female. He said that the matters raised within that debate would be as defining as was the debate with Arianism in the 4th century. That, of course, was long before this present discussion. I daresay, he did not imagine a scenario in which the very notion of biological identity would be reinterpreted as a mere social construct.
The entire notion of reality as a social construct might be the most radical suggestion ever put forward in human history. It is interesting that it seems to be restricted to sexual identity. We do not say, for example, that disease is a social construct. We certainly do not argue that the climate is a social construct. But if things such as disease and the climate are not social constructs, then how can it be argued that someone with XX or XY chromosomes is only “assigned” a sexual identity at birth?
In truth, none of this would be of any particular moment were it not finding its way into law and public policy – a world where the notion of “social construct” is perfectly at home. Indeed, if all the world were a social construct, then law and policy could shape every element of our lives – which is perhaps the point.
I thought to myself as I took a break from writing, “Stephen, you’re paying too much attention to social media!” It is certainly the case that this sort of nonsense provokes loud reactions in various quarters. It is serious business, nonetheless.
As I read through a transcript of the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case (yes, I actually did that), I was struck by the fact that the discussion turned on whether an individual would “experience harm.” There was a consistent framing of the discussion in terms of psychological abstractions. The world that matters, it seems, is in our heads. I have written at length about the “two-storey universe” as a hallmark of contemporary Christianity – the separation of God and “spiritual things” from the hard reality of our material life. It is a habit of thought that permeates our culture. The latest abstraction is but one of many examples.
In point of fact, we are our bodies. We have no reality apart from them. Indeed, in Christian understanding, the separation of the soul from the body at death is an entrance into a tenuous existence, something that awaits the resurrection of the flesh. Of course, in our present culture, the resurrection of the body is a doctrine that feels almost like an embarrassment. “Who needs it?” we wonder.
The further we move away from the hard reality of the material world, the more deeply we press into delusion and fantasy. Part of the brutality of our modern age is bound up with our drive to force hard material reality to conform to our imagination. We find the undeniable humanity and personhood of a child in the womb to be an inconvenient obstacle to our lifestyle. Our fantasy and delusion turn to murder.
The goodness of God, however, abides in the very materiality of the world (and of our own selves). No matter how we might distort the thoughts of our minds, material reality remains unchanged. At most, we can only urge and coerce others to agree with false configurations of what actually is. Such efforts can only be maintained through some form of violence (and coercion) for they have no reality of their own to argue their case. Left alone, reality has an eloquence of its own. Gravity speaks with a clear voice as we fall from the heights.
The “experience of harm” evoked in the court case can, of course, be real or imaginary. Real harm is a serious business, as is all suffering. Imaginary harm, on the other hand, extends itself into the very nature of reality and endangers everyone.
In the movie, Cool Hand Luke, the protagonist repeatedly refuses to agree with the darkness of the prison regime in which he’s held. He is beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and pressed to conform. The warden repeatedly asks him, “Luke, have you got your mind right?” Freedom is not the ability to be anything we imagine; freedom is the ability to know the truth and live in accordance with it. If the demand is to “get your mind right,” then oppression becomes complete. The Lie will have won.
We live in very strange times.