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It came as a surprise to me to hear that Camille Paglia calls herself transgender, and more surprising that Ricochetti might be OK with it – more specifically, that there might be those who are OK with it when Paglia does it but not OK with it when others do it. It’s possible that what makes it OK for Paglia is that she’s not “gender dysphoric” – “She fully embraces her identity, both physical and mental,” and is “self-confident and passionate” about it, as @cm put it. This piques my interest, I admit, and in a way that goes beyond the merely academic.
If “gender dysphoria” is taken to mean “unease with the sex you were born into,” well, then I have a fair amount of experience being gender dysphoric. In my case, there now seems to be a reasonable explanation for it: a congenital defect whose severity would be considerably mitigated if I were born male – moreover a defect not identified until this year, so that I’ve spent most of post-pubescent life sensing (correctly, it turns out) that my body was somehow wrong and that being born female heightened this wrongness, while also having no socially-acceptable reason to give others for why I sensed this.
Had my 16-year-old self taken this quiz, for example, it would have told her “you have signs of Gender Dysphoria” and advised her to consult a professional. I imagine the prospect of an impressionable teen running across such a quiz and believing it is a frightening one for parents, especially conservative parents. Especially since “gender dysphoria” doesn’t just mean unhappiness with being the sex you were born into, but has been conflated with the positive desire to transition to the other sex:
I suppose most of us suppose that most youths can’t escape adolescence without having felt at least a little unease about their sex characteristics. Especially girls – there’s a reason the English-speaking world nicknamed the curse “the curse.” Yet when you look up “gender dysphoria” on Wikipedia, you read that people who have it aren’t just unhappy, they’re transgender.
Conservatives are quite reasonably suspicious of such a designation. How can it be that everyone who has been unhappy – even deeply unhappy – with the sex characteristics they were born into could be transgender? Of course it can’t be so. Indeed, the prospect is so absurd that it’s no wonder that some conservatives have become quite wary of profound unhappiness with this aspect of bodily life. A dissatisfaction that goes deep enough that ridding yourself of your genitals and sex hormones begins to sound appealing? Why, that must be delusional!
It’s not necessarily, though. And if we wish to get youths to listen to us when we try to talk them out of regrettable attempts to sexually re-engineer their still-growing bodies, we should be honest that unhappiness over sex characteristics so deep that ordinary people have difficulty relating to it, or even accepting it, does exist, and can have biological causes. It did in my case.
Even at 16 (well, before 16), I was a curmudgeon. So I doubt my teenage self would have heeded advice to “seek professional help” about being “gender dysphoric,” much less that I could have been persuaded to transition, rather than just joke about transitioning. But joke I did (perhaps I was unintentionally ahead of my time in edgy humor here), and of course the joke was straight gallows humor – about as funny as a heart attack.
Knowing how seriously I was joking, I can quite easily picture the risk that pressure to transition puts on youths who might otherwise grow out of their misery, or who might at least find some way of coping with it in the body they were born into. But I also know the pressure people face to dismiss what’s really happening to them and to their bodies as “delusions” just because it doesn’t fit in with people’s expectations.
After all, I had my young self convinced for quite a while that I was “delusional” for experiencing my body as my body really was. I was prepared to believe misery of the body was “merely” a manifestation of some misery of the soul. In my more hopeful moments, I could think of the misery as atonement for my sins – if not for sins of commission (of which, looking back, it seems I had fewer of than the typical teenager), then for sins of omission: I didn’t/wasn’t ________ enough, and so I deserved what I got. Perhaps it sounds strange to label self-accusing “I deserve this” moments hopeful, but consider the alternative: if the misery wasn’t atonement, what meaning did it have?
For this and other reasons, perhaps, I found in my youth that church – even the mainline, politically liberal church I attended – gave my life a structure my natural family couldn’t. Natural family (even an exemplary natural family) may fail as an organizing principle for someone whose only experience of the “gift” of sexual maturity is as a “curse.” The church family, fortunately, is not a natural family. You’re not born into it, but adopted; you don’t add to it through your physical fertility, but through other means.
Many with stigmatized sexual and gender orientations speak of finding a community not based on the natural family that “adopts” them into its “family” when they find themselves unable to relate to their natural family. For me, that community was church, not so much church as a social outlet, but as a liturgical bond. (Having recently heard that transgender economist Deirdre McCloskey is also a Christian leaves me wishing I could ask her if church served as a similar sort of adoptive family for her.) Just knowing, for example, that the William Cowper who wrote so many of the hymns in my church hymnal was the same William Cowper who wrote the poem “Hatred and vengeance,—my eternal portion” helped church feel like home to me in a way the family home couldn’t. In church, I could hope that, even if “Hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all / Bolted against me,” maybe God wouldn’t.
Of course, it’s widely supposed that Cowper himself was no more than delusional when he wrote that bit of verse. But I know now that I was not. Moreover, I now know that trying to explain away my discomfort in my own skin as mere “delusion” was not just unrealistic and unjust, but ultimately destructive. The meaning I got from continually hoping the misery was no more than some subconsciously self-inflicted (and well-earned) penance came at a steep cost. Losing that meaning is saddening, actually – I still miss it – but for me, the real delusion would be believing that what I felt obligated to dismiss as mere delusion was merely delusion when it wasn’t.
For that reason, I’m hesitant to dismiss others whose struggles with their body, though quite different from my own, still strike an unsettlingly familiar chord with me. It’s possible to avoid dismissing a sense of mismatch between the soul and the body’s sex characteristics as “delusional” while also urging youngsters who sense such a mismatch to wait and see if they can make peace with the body they were born with rather than re-engineering it at a tender age.