By Fr. Carter Griffin
Fr. Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. A graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy, he obtained his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. After serving at St. Peter’s parish on Capitol Hill, in 2011 he was assigned to the newly-established St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., where he now serves as rector. He is the author of Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest and Cross-Examined: Catholic Responses to the World's Questions.
Why is transgenderism incompatible with Catholic teaching? It is my hope that this short dialogue will not be perceived as a pat answer intended to close conversations but rather as an opportunity to spark a deeper and more interesting exchange of ideas. Here are common objections and the Catholic reply.
Objection 1: Gender is “who I really am,” and biological sex refers to the bodily organs I happen to have. Particular sex organs are not essential to a person’s humanity or dignity and can be modified through medical procedures and other therapies.
Objection 2: Some people manifest an internal conflict between their biological sex and their gender (gender dysphoria). If, in order to attain greater inner peace, they choose to identify with an alternative gender, no one has a right to tell them otherwise. We should respect the gender choices of others.
Objection 3: Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that cannot be neatly classified as either male or female. These individuals demonstrate conclusively that gender is a fluid continuum. It is therefore not only unjust but also unscientific to limit human genders to male and female.
Objection 4: Respecting transgender people is a major civil rights issue today. Imposing binary gender theories on others leads to injustice, bigotry, fear, and often violence against transgender persons.
Objection 5: Binary gender thinking contributes to outdated stereotypes of masculine and feminine expectations which stifle genuine human fulfillment.
Reply to Objection 1: “Gender is who I really am.”
Biological sex begins in a specific genotype (XX or XY chromosome) that is embedded in every cell in the body. This cannot be changed. A person’s phenotype, including reproductive organs, can sometimes be modified hormonally or surgically. Gender is closely related to biological sex since it involves our self-understanding as objectively male or female, though it is influenced by social norms of masculinity and femininity. Thus, while both sex and gender are susceptible to some external influence, neither is malleable, and both find their origins in the actual physical body. The sharp separation of sex and gender suggested by the objection is not an accurate picture of reality.
Reply to Objection 2: We’ve no right to restrict others’ gender choices.
We should indeed respect the choices of others. We need not, however, always agree with them. Indeed, when someone’s personal choices are harmful and based on flawed assumptions, we have a duty in charity and justice to disagree. In addition, the use of limited medical resources for morally-problematic hormonal therapies and sex “reassignment” surgeries is a question with important repercussions for the common good.
Reply to Objection 3: Intersex conditions show that gender is fluid.
Some intersex conditions such as Klinefelter syndrome and Turner’s syndrome reflect a deviation from the normal genotypes XX and XY, while others cause a deviation between the genotype and the normal development of sexual organs. These disorders which result in ambiguous sexual characteristics call for deep compassion and individual treatments. Sometimes, for example, hormonal or surgical interventions can help approximate the sexual organs proper to one’s biological sex. Intersex disorders, however, are not evidence for a spectrum of genders. In fact, the very word “intersex”—“between the sexes”—suggests the essentially binary character of human sexuality. Exceptions do not disprove a norm; they emphasize it. Gender dysphoria is very different from intersex disorders. It is not a biological deviation, either in a person’s genotype or phenotype, but rather the psychological distress caused by discomfort with one’s sexual identity. It is often based on physical or sexual abuse or trauma. It should be treated with the same charity, and the same clarity, with which other distorted self-perceptions (such as body dysmorphic disorder or anorexia) are treated.
Reply to Objection 4: Imposing binary gender theories is a violation of civil rights.
Civil rights are an expression of human justice, which in turn is based upon the truth of the human person. Persons with gender dysphoria are entitled to full and equal treatment before the law. However, gender dysphoria is itself not a civil rights issue since it is based upon a false notion of the human person. Some activists, for instance, wish to eliminate male/female distinctions in public bathrooms and invoke the notorious Jim Crow laws that separated bathrooms along racial lines. Racial segregation, however, is unjust precisely because it is based on a human distinction (skin color) that is inconsequential to the use of bathrooms; whereas the reality of sexual difference is a human distinction that is entirely consequential to the use of bathrooms. The same applies to sports teams, locker rooms, the use of pronouns, and other similar “civil rights” claims. Respecting sexual difference, then, is not “imposing binary gender theories” on anyone but rather acknowledging the simple reality of the human condition.
Reply to Objection 5: Binary gender theories perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.
It is true that in some cultures gender stereotypes have restricted the possibilities for human fulfillment for both men and women. The proper response, however, is not to reject all sexual difference in favor of a grim and monotonous androgyny. Nor is it, as in the case of transgender activism, to recast gender as changeable and idiosyncratic. We overcome rigid gender expectations by recognizing and valuing the characteristics proper to each sex while acknowledging diverse ways to be masculine and feminine. Human beings are not entirely pre-determined by biology since our free will can give different expressions to our sexual identities; nor are we unmoored from our bodies and left to fashion our own self-expression without any physical foundation.
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While social norms and political movements are rapidly changing, the truth of the Catholic faith stands firm. In Cross-Examined: Catholic Responses to the World’s Questions, readers are equipped to address even the most sensitive topics, from the existence of God to the existence of hell, from women’s ordination to Marian devotion, from assisted suicide to transgenderism.