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By Jason Michael
TRANSGENDER PEOPLE and their experiences as a minority in our society have not featured greatly in my own experience of the world. Over the last few years, however, we have all become aware of a growing debate concerning the rights of trans people, and more particularly where these rights come into conflict – or are perceived to come into conflict – with the hard-won rights of women. This deeply polarising discussion has swept through the Scottish independence movement, causing division and a bitter and entrenched fight between trans rights activists and women’s rights activists who make the case that men cannot become women and therefore cannot access female spaces or occupy the same spheres of gender and socio-historical experience as women. Not fully understanding the complexities of the discussion, and as someone not belonging to either of these groups, I was content to remain silent and keep my own counsel on the subject.
Two days ago, however, I was forced to abandon my neutrality and take a side. My decision, after reading someone on Twitter describe all trans women as ‘fetishists and predators,’ was to take the side of humanity, and defend the right of trans people to be people; without being subjected to such appalling dehumanising and vindictive generalisations. What ultimately pushed me to this decision, other than my disgust at this comment, was my encounter with a trans woman in church. For a number of years this person came to church, always arriving late, sitting at the very back, and leaving before the end of Mass. I would see her from the altar and the pulpit and wonder who this was and why they studiously avoided contact with other people – of course, I knew the answer, but it played on my mind and I often tried to create an opportunity to introduce myself.
Pronouns: It costs us nothing and profits us infinitely to treat other human beings with love, dignity, and respect… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) October 22, 2020
An opportunity presented itself once – and only once – in the supermarket. ‘Hoy, you!’ I said in my best humoured voice. ‘Why don’t you ever want to talk to me?’ Then followed our only conversation in which I said all that really could be said: ‘You are always welcome!’ Listening to this person’s story and hearing their anxiety, I put a hand on their arm and reminded them that they are a child of God and the Church was as much their home as it was mine or anyone else’s. After this, while still avoiding contact, this timid little person began receiving Communion again. Every Sunday thereafter we got to exchange a few meaningful words: ‘Body of Christ’ and ‘Amen.’
‘She spoke of you very highly,’ said her daughter over the phone. This confused me. We didn’t really know one another, and until this phone call I didn’t even know her name. Simone [not her real name] had taken her life.
This funeral was challenging. Not for feminist reasons, but for reasons of theology and Church teaching, I do not believe that someone born a man can become a woman. I knew that Simone was really a he and not a she. I like to think that God doesn’t make mistakes, but, then, I don’t really know God. We haven’t had a single conversation. There is the Jewish belief that sometimes a Jewish soul gets lost and is born in the body of a gentile. Maybe male and female souls sometimes get lost too. I don’t know. But it was Simone’s funeral, and I had to work out how I would gender this person in what I said. In the end I was compelled to follow my conscience: Simon would be Simone and he would be she and him would be her. This would not change the biological facts of who was being committed to God’s eternal care, and I assumed the God who knows her own would do just that.
Conscience, a word and a concept almost entirely alien to the times in which we live, is in this present reflection an important factor. It is no secret to those who know me that Benedict XVI and I never quite saw eye to eye. He was not my favourite Pope. Back in 1984, however, in his early years as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome (better known perhaps by its former name, The Holy Inquisition), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – as he was known before becoming Pope – published a short treatise On Conscience in which he wrote:
…conscience is the highest norm that man is to follow, even in opposition to authority. Authority – in this case, the Magisterium – may well speak of matters moral, but only in the sense of presenting conscience with material for its own deliberation. Conscience would retain, however, the final word. Some authors reduce conscience in this, its aspect of final arbiter, to the formula ‘conscience is infallible.’
Calling Simone ‘Simon’ or referring to her as ‘him’ in order to make a point or to be in some way correct at her funeral would simply not have sat well on my conscience, and to disobey the dictates of my informed conscience would have been – according to Christian moral theology – sinful. Others have to obey their consciences, and I have to obey mine. Yet, I was aware, as Ratzinger points out, that this opens the way to something quite dangerous – moral relativism. Referring to someone I know to have been born male by a female name and in my language treating them as a woman is in the strictest sense an untruth, even a lie. A good many people, over the past couple of days, have been keen to remind me on social media of the mendacity of using feminine pronouns for a ‘biological male.’ And this was not something I had neglected to consider.
Belonging to Christ, and the resulting way of life, do not isolate the believer from the world, but rather make him… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Pope Francis (@Pontifex) October 18, 2020
The eighth commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20), forbids Christians to bear false witness – to deceive or to lie. But moral theology is not a blunt instrument. In the real world – the world in which Christians live – there are occasions when telling the truth is not possible. Sure, this doesn’t cover telling lies to the police or to the tax office, but in certain rare occasions telling the truth will have dire consequences for innocent people. Throughout occupied Europe, during the darkest period of European history, countless individuals and many convents and monasteries hid Jews and other people deemed undesirable by the Nazis. When questioned or interrogated by the authorities, they knew the truth would lead to the murder of these innocent people. Deceptions and untruths – or ‘mental reservations’ – were required, and Catholics, other Christians, and people of good faith intuitively knew what was required of them. Their heroic and saintly actions in many cases saved lives and they became the unwitting authors of a theological development; that in order to save human lives it is permissible not to tell the truth. In fact, in a morally complex world, this is a higher virtue than the truth.
It is impossible now to say why Simone took her life, but it is not impossible to imagine that her struggle with her sex or gender identity and possibly how others treated her played a part in her decision. Affording her the dignity of the name she had chosen and the pronouns she preferred would in a real way preserve her life, even though she was dead. The God of the Christians ‘is not a God of the dead, but of the living’ (Luke 20:38); even the dead are alive to her. And so, rigidly sticking to what we hold to be the truth would dehumanise her – and this is a kind of death. And all around the world, in all of our communities there are other people just like Simone who deserve our respect for them as our sisters and brothers, as everyone deserves our respect for their humanity. In the end my conscience was clear with my decision, and I know this is not everyone’s decision – but it is mine. I cannot and will not apologise for showing another human being love and respect, and by my actions and words, however limited, affording them the dignity and care they are owed.
Over the past forty-eight hours a great many people on social media reacted to my thoughts on this subject with a great deal of anger and frustration. Many of those who replied to me were perfectly sincere, believing that what I had done endangered the rights of ‘real women.’ Others were more extreme; many of whom branded me a misogynist, as a man who supported violence against women, as someone who would subject women and girls to ‘rapists,’ ‘predators,’ ‘perverts,’ ‘peeping Toms,’ ‘men in dresses,’ and ‘abusers’ in ladies’ toilets and other female-only spaces. I have never suggested that trans women should have such access, but I was more wounded at this generalisation of trans people as dangerous – as ‘fetishists’ and ‘seedy.’ No balm could I put on the fury I had unwittingly unleashed, and this seems to have been rooted in my naïve use of the words ‘kindness’ and ‘compassion’ – advice, I was informed, which men deploy against women to keep them in their socially constructed roles as nurturers and mothers. True, I hadn’t thought of this.
Women who are gentle and kind, who smile and act meekly in front of men, I was told, invite upon themselves unwanted sexual advances which put them in danger. Yes, sadly I can imagine this is a reality for women. I hadn’t thought of this either. Thus, I am left to conclude, from the women and men telling me these things, that somehow unkindness and a lack of compassion, accompanied by cruel and truly vindictive words directed at innocent people are to be preferred to the awful and unforgiveable crime of reminding people of the value of kindness and compassion and ordinary human decency. It strikes me also that the argument that kindness and compassion and any show of the socially expected feminine attributes – whatever those are – invite unwanted sexual attention and sexual violence is quite similar to the suggestion that certain clothes invite the same. There is nothing wrong with men and women being kind, and it costs us nothing. It is not the fault of kindness or what someone has chosen to wear that a person is assaulted, it is always the fault of the assailant – it is their crime and only their crime.
Others insisted that by showing care to transgender people – transgender women in particular – that I was ignoring women and women’s rights. I am truly sorry and deeply vexed that anyone arrived at this conclusion. The respect we owe transgender people, we owe equally to all women and to men. The dignity, love, and respect we owe to one, we owe to every person by virtue of their humanity. It has upset me to imagine that anyone would think this commodity so scarce that by giving it to one we must withhold it from another.
Supporting trans people is truly evil! What rights do they have? Support for real women is true and the correct thi… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
GAJMORROW (@GAJMORROW1) October 23, 2020
This response has left me shaken. While I trust many came sincerely and in perfectly good faith, I am certain others came with malicious intent. That one man commented that it was ‘evil’ to support transgender people confirmed this belief. Evil? This word may have a different effect on a theologian than it does on some random character on Twitter. There was a time in western Christian thought when evil was the characteristic of a real devil and his demons, an imagery now largely consigned to horror movies. After the flames of the Holocaust, as Hannah Arendt informs us, evil is something far more subtle, less dramatic, more banal and ordinary than a horned red terror with a trident. Evil is what takes root in a world bereft of love and compassion, it is what grows when people fail to recognise the humanity and value of others, it is what eats away at the soul and robs the cruel and the violent of their humanity – turning father against son, and daughter against mother. Evil is what’s planted the moment we withhold compassion, the moment we begin to hate, the moment we refuse to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.
Those making these comments are not evil, but many of the things they are saying are evil and have the power to unleash even greater evil. We live in troubled times. Everyone is angry. Everyone has a cause to fight and a grievance. Everyone is on a crusade. Our ‘sides’ and our allegiances are as polarised now as they have ever been in the past, and the world is fast becoming the poorer for it. Social media allows people to avoid so much of the responsibility for what they say. Behind anonymous online profiles people are shielded and so feel they can say whatever they please without consequence, and this may be so. But this is not making the world a better place. It is making things worse. I can’t know if I am right and they are wrong. All I have to guide me is my conscience and my sense of duty to the wellbeing of others. Sometimes I get it wrong. Yet, when I interact with transgender people and others whose lived realities I don’t fully understand, I can only echo the words of a Pope I actually do like: Who am I to judge?
Fr. James Martin: Building a Bridge