Gender & Essence: A Critical Distinction

After watching a 20/20 special about cases of transgender children in today's world, I was lead to reflect upon the significance of meaning present when one says the word, "gender." So much is hidden in this one word—even the fullness of reality conveyed in a person's proper name is coincidentally bound up with some gender identity. It is quite undoubtedly impossible to speak of any animate object without in turn applying some gender-specific pronoun: "he," "she" or the specifically neuter, "it." Nothing within the realm of human speech—at least in the English language—falls outside these categories. Gender seems to permeate the entire world of human experience. We cannot escape it.

A problem arises, though, when 'gender distinctions' begin to blur. This happens in a variety of ways, especially in modern society, but all such cases result in similar outcomes. A loss of gender-based clarity occurs in everything from inflated gender identity to transgender self-identity. The fundamental consequence of blurred gender distinction, it seems, is the inability to further view the human person as an individually created and objectively important reality. Separating 'gender' from 'who-ness' is a dangerous business; it supposes the self-assumed identity to be the objectively-assigned identity. In other words, it presumes that the subjective apprehension of self suffices in articulating the divine and objectively ordered meaning present in the individual human person.

The case which comes to mind right now is that of 20/20's transgender children. It seems to provide a good example. Although I don't profess to know much about the hormonal and biological aspects of opposite gender identification, merely looking at the issue through the lens of philosophy tells us much about the realities hidden below the surface. To begin, an objective and observable reality (one of primary import to human life) is disregarded as 'false.' The ostensible sign of masculinity or femininity is dubbed insufficient for discerning whether or not the person in question is truly masculine or feminine. Hereafter, a quest for self-identity ensues which is no longer rooted in the empirical observation of facts, but rather in the subjective experience of 'self,' and that self's assertion of what it is that truly constitutes its own essence. The observable facts are thrown out all together. The outcome is that the essential qualities of the individual subject seem thus to be consequents of the self's autonomous pre-existence. The ultimate result: an existentialist notion of reality, wherein overarching human essence is meaningless until actualized in the individual person—a person identified not by his or her notable qualities, but rather by means of an Enlightenment-esque, epistemologically grounded mindset.

While this syllogistic line of reasoning may be lacking a full exposition of its implicit premises, the deduction should appear quite clear: the basis of gender distinction cannot originate in the subject. At the same time, it cannot originate completely in the object. Rather, full account of the objective facts surrounding the individual subject must be made, and the subject ought then rightly to conclude that the physical phenomena of gender, present in the body, point to the truth of gender present in him or herself. In this way, neither the existence or essence of the human person is isolated from the other, and a more integrated, organic approach to personhood is maintained. This integration is foundational to the Christian perspective of what it means to be a "human person," formed in the "image and likeness of God," and tending toward likeness with Christ, who is the fullness of Truth and Self-Knowledge.

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - July 1, 2008 at 9:13 AM

    Good post. Very interesting and touchy subject. I like the way you philisophically grounded the discussion, but I think it is worth noting the legitamate confusion of some individuals who due to an apparent disharmony between what they observe of themselves and think. There seems to be a very specific kind of suffering and experience of the cross in this. It also seems to be another result of the fall: either a disorder physically from birth or phsychologically from the disorder in the parents (abuse, etc.). What do you think?

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    # by Andrew Haines - July 1, 2008 at 11:06 AM

    There is definitely a strong case for the things you spoke of. I'm not sure how the clinical aspects are rightly diagnosed, and how they fit into the more super-psychological and physiological notion of "gender," though. In fact, I'm not really sure that we can talk about gender in a synthetic way yet--i.e. combining the philosophical and psychological elements--since I'm pretty sure we are still hampered with sorting both aspects out independently.

    Seeing the Cross in blurred gender identity is a distinctly Catholic position, it seems. I agree that it makes sense to look at it that way; especially in a "pastoral" environment, the Cross sheds meaning that would otherwise be indiscernible. Like anything else, though, thinking it through in philosophic and scientific terms will be the only way of coming to understand the problem, per se, more completely.

    Nevertheless, I'm not sure just how to do that...