In his article The Absurdity of Non-Transgenderism: A Critique of a Critique, Christopher Damian raises the question of how to define the gender of a transgender person. For this individual, can we definitively say whether he or she is “ontologically” male or female? I would like to offer some reflections on this question from the perspective of Theology of the Body (TOB).
First, John Paul II says nothing in the entire Theology of the Body about transgenderism. Answering this question is a tricky matter of applying what he says about normative sexuality to a very specific, difficult, and confusing situation of non-normative sexuality.
Here are some potentially relevant ideas from TOB.
Being male is a different way of being human than being female, in physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Sex is not purely physical. “His sex is not only decisive for man’s somatic [bodily] individuality, but at the same time it defines his personal identity and concreteness” (TOB 20.5).
Masculinity and femininity have two major dimensions: the objective dimension of the body as a sign of a gift and the personal experience of that body as a gift. (This is the spousal meaning of the body.) They are “two reciprocally completing ways of ‘being a body’ and at the same time of being human … two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body” (TOB 10.1). John Paul II was a phenomenologist—he considers personal experience of something essential to what that thing really is. Someone who had the objective male body, but lacked a proper male experience of his body, would not have the fullness of masculinity or male sex/gender. By the same logic, given that it were possible to have female experience without an objectively female body, true femininity and the female sex/gender would not be present.
A person cannot be known apart from his body. We know each other only through the medium of the body. “Nakedness [without shame, of Genesis] corresponds to that fullness of consciousness of the meaning of the body that comes from the typical perception of the senses” (TOB 12.3).
It is precisely in his concrete personal details, including the sexual, that a person is real and therefore knowable. For a person with a male body and significant female psychological characteristics, both are a part of his individual existence, and he cannot be fully known as a person while disregarding either.
Returning to the question of “ontological gender,” a physically male person can never be said in any meaningful sense to be female, as the female body is essential to being female. On the other hand, saying that such a person is unequivocally and entirely male, full stop, no qualification, is inaccurate because the experience of masculinity is essential to being male.
Given that for other incomplete instances of a general idea, like a house without a roof or a man without sexual organs, we still assign the label of “house” or “man,” it would seem reasonable to call a physical male without a complete male experience a man/male, albeit a broken one. On the other hand, as this may be a case not only of lacking an element but of actually having an element of something else—if he is not only a man without some male experience but a man with some female experience added on—then the answer may be more ambiguous. Would we say that a dog with significant cat anatomy is still a dog, and at what point? Just the heart?
If a transgender person were truly not simply an individual of one sex lacking something but somehow an amalgamation of two sexes, then the question of ontology becomes very complicated. How much of a male or what parts of a male can be female before he becomes female, or simply neither/both?
Note finally that we have been discussing this at an “ontological” level, which is different from the practical or pastoral one; denying philosophically that a person is female does not necessarily mean that calling him a woman in other contexts would not be the most charitable thing to do. I claim here neither that it is nor that it isn’t; I merely note that, while practical and philosophical answers about transgender persons should mutually inform one another, the solutions themselves need not be identical.