According to the Washington Post, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco was invited to speak at a Catholic conference in New York City on June 3.(Gibson, June 3, 2015) The gathering was to discuss reintroducing the Latin Mass, but Cordileone also used his speaking time to declare, “The clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female.” He went on to remark about his bewilderment at the concept of gender identity being fluid and socially constructed. He drew laughter in reporting that one university has identified 14 different sexual identities of their students, and that he expects even more to be created over time.
This story captures the uncomfortable emotions and strained arguments that tend to surface when well meaning but differently informed people come into conflict over the nature of reality. When new information comes to light, it is not always welcomed by those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
The Pull Toward What’s Familiar
One challenging aspect of being human is that we feel anxious when the familiar is threatened. We move through life like snakes in the grass, approaching what is familiar and avoiding what seems strange. Seeking familiarity generally minimizes having to respond to uncomfortable feelings or perhaps the possibility of danger. Advocating something different requires courage to face the inevitable pushback or even attack. Similarly, defending an accepted truth when it is threatened by something new and different calls for showing confidence and strength.
Stability in families, communities, and larger groups tends to follow the establishment of social norms and shared understandings. Great institutions such as religions, governments, and social organizations are developed and appreciated for their role in maintaining common expectations. Rocking the boat creates anxiety, so a general bias for the status quo tends to be maintained by the majority who benefit from it.
Difficulties naturally arise when new information or ideas come along that challenge the status quo and thereby represent potential conflict. Today’s uproar over the emergence of more general awareness of transgender persons is a classic example of that phenomenon.
Common Tactic: Ignoring the Facts
Archbishop Cordileone states (quite falsely) that everyone is born male or female. This comment is an exhortation to his audience to hold onto what has been accepted by virtually everyone for millennia as patently obvious. Challenging such deeply rooted assumption makes it easy for defenders of the status quo to poke fun at those who present a new reality.
An apt comparison might be to the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for his new information about the earth orbiting the sun, not the other way around. The church needed to enforce traditional beliefs in order not to lose control over the people who sustained the Church’s power. If one story in the Bible were to be challenged by science, a chipping away of the credibility of dogma could ensue.
A simple Internet search for “ambiguous genitalia” turns up many pages of references to articles and research explaining and showing photos that in fact science has known for many years that some babies are born without clarity of the usual binary male/female gender distinctions. In these cases the parents must assign a gender at birth, and sometimes they guess wrong, in which case the individuals will experience enduring conflict between their internalized sense of gender and their biological sex.
According to Sallie Hunt, LMFT, in a recent presentation at the 2015 conference of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, “Dysphoria is defined as being unwell or unhappy, from the Greek word Dysphorus, which means ‘hard to bear.’ Gender Dysphoria is a persistent sadness which is on a continuum from mild to severe, centralized on one’s biological gender.”(Hunt, 2015)
The remarkable change that is coming over the world relatively recently is the surprising realization that untold numbers of men, women, and children are emerging out of social invisibility as gender dysphoric even if there is no ambiguity to their genitals, or discrepancy of them with the gender of the internal sex organs. In other words, gender identity is coming to be understood more deeply as non-binary (i. e., not limited to just male or female) and as being highly influenced by social constructs.(Dohrenwend, 2012).
New Understandings of Truth Can Be Mind Boggling
For something as basic as gender identity to be so radically changed is disturbing. As Maureen Johnston, LMFT, who specializes in counseling transgender persons and their families, put it,
“We are primed for finding where people fit. Are they this, or are they that? Seeing gender as socially constructed throws all that away. But exactly why do we think we have to know whether a baby is a boy or a girl? What does that mean? Why can’t there be more options?”(Johnston, 2015)
Our perceived experience of gender is one part of our core sexual identity. (The other parts are our biological sex, our preferred gender expression, and our sexual orientation.)(Hunt, 2015) When the unique psychological sense of authentic gender does not match what we show to the world, crushing psychological conflict can result. Rather than pathologize this diversity, modern psychology would suggest that it be understood, and that resistance to that goal be seen as the troubling problem.
Transgender individuals at long last are coming out of the shadows, disrupting many familiar beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be human. How peaceful this transition to new understandings will ultimately prove to be will be shaped by how efficiently the culture can adjust to startling but real new information. Perhaps a good starting place would be to get our facts straight first.
Dohrenwend, A., “Of What Am I Afraid?”, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2012;(4):371-372. Doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.1
Gibson, D., June 3, 2015, Religion News Service, Washington Post.
Hunt, S., “Assessment and Treatment of the Gender Dysphoric Patient”, presented at 2015 conference of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, San Francisco.
About the Author
Carol Campbell, M.A.
I am a graduate of Brown University and Santa Clara University. I received the Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award from the Division of Counseling Psychology and Education at Santa Clara University. I completed the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program offered by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. I am a clinical member of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology and of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
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