Trying to figure out how to think about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner

I fear opening up a firestorm here, but I am at a loss.

I’ve seen all the coverage of Bruce Jenner deciding he should be called Caitlyn Jenner and how far Jenner has gone to cut, slice, and reshape his body. According to one story, Jenner has had facial surgery, surgery to reduce his Adam’s apple, and breast augmentation but has not had surgery on his genitals.

From a non-Christian stance, I don’t understand why this is seen as a reasonable thing to do rather than as a form of mental illness. This 2004 article about why John Hopkins stopped doing sex re-assignment surgery comes down on the side of mental illness. This 2014 piece in the Wall Street Journal by the same author — the former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins — cites research studies and argues that people such as Jenner should be getting treatment rather than surgery.

I know there are whole fields of social science and social theory dedicated to the proposition that sex and gender are socially constructed ideas, and advocates of these theories reject the kinds of arguments made by the psychiatrist above. (Here is one example of such a rebuttal.)

Shifting back to Christian concerns, I know as well that the theory of the social construction of knowledge is based on the theories of atheist philosophers such as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault and rejects the idea that their is any truth beyond what humans agree is truth. In other words, the theories of gender at the base of most of culture’s conversation about sex and sexuality are at their foundation antithetical to the idea God exists and that God’s truth might be something beyond and above our comprehension. Those foundations make me resist the counsel of such theories.

I’m only beginning to try to grapple with this. The Bible appears to me to be pretty clear in its view that male and female are categories of creation. I don’t see any support for the notion that we can choose what we are. So even as the entire culture celebrates and applauds, I have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that Jenner’s suffering requires something other than a scalpel, a lifetime of hormone injections, and a new TV show.

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Trying to figure out how to think about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner

  1. John, I appreciate the way you approach this. I found myself challenging you when you wrote that “male and female” are categories of creation. While this is true in the narrative, it doesn’t hold up in science. While we assume that boys and girls are being born all day, the reality is that in a day, a large number of “intersexed” children are born (this word covers a multitude of conditions).

    Because we don’t know, aside from the physical implications, even down to the level of what chemical implications might be for sexual identity, we already have a situation where the biblical narrative is not necessarily speaking to the scientific facts. As such, I believe we need to proceed carefully lest we make the Bible speak to something it doesn’t intend to speak to, as convenient as that may be.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Bill. I’m certainly not trying to make the Bible say anything, but I am trying to start from the place the Bible starts. I don’t know how to deal with exceptions or cases of disordered development. Does that void the categories? Does the fact that some people are born without fully developed limbs mean that humans are not creatures with two arms and two legs? And so on?

      As I read people write about this issue, I hear two different things. Some people say gender is a social construction. Others say gender identity is what a person feels in their own inner self to be the truth. My difficulty with the first concept is that it is based on the idea that there is no truth outside of social construction — which is theologically untenable for me. My difficulty with the concept of gender identity is that there are lots of things — lots of things — the people truly believe about themselves that are not healthy for them. Why is it that we are so sure that this is not one of those things?

      I confess I have not read, thought, or prayed enough about this, but you can tell where my leanings are. What I need, in the end, is a coherent theological case for concluding that when the body and the mind are not matching that the solution lies in cutting up the body rather than dealing with the mind.

      1. Whoa, forget Marx, you’re getting back to Platonic ideals in your first paragraph! 🙂 About the “two different things” you hear, maybe they’re just different sides of the same coin: “gender is a social construction” is a lot more about how society defines typically male/female roles, appearance & behaviors, while the identity part is about how someone feels they fit into those definitions. As this points out, when people say “gender” it can actually stand in for a lot of different things. You may or may not agree with the stance behind this graphic (http://www.transstudent.org/gender –written from a trans perspective), but it is a model that breaks out more specifically what “gender” can mean.

        1. To me, though, the identity narrative often suggests immutability. People say that they knew since they were children that they really were X or Y. It sounds like people are saying it is not a choice, whereas social construction clearly is.

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