December 10, 2006

Born in the Wrong Body

I have a family friend (college age now) who is a female but has always been rather androgynous, if not downright boyish, in her dress and behavior. There has never been any talk or hint (that I've perceived) of homosexual tendencies, but things have taken a dramatic turn in the last year.

Her idle thoughts of identification with the opposite sex have turned to ideas that she ought to be the other sex. And this has been exacerbated by the fact that she's had her first infatuation: with another woman. Since she insists that she's not gay she's now thinking that a sex change is the solution to her problem.

This is an unusual situation — "unnatural" from my frame of reference — and I believe she knows this. I say that because her rationale for seeking a sex change is not something so neutral as, "It's just what I feel like doing." If having a sex change is a morally neutral action, like changing a hairstyle or buying a car, then there's no need of a defense. If you've got the means and desire, just do it, and anyone who's got a grievance against it is just expressing a personal distaste.

This, however, is not the way she's handling the decision. Instead, she states a rationale — one loaded with metaphysical overtones; one that implies the working out of an ultimate justice and design. She claims that she was "born in the wrong body."

The "wrong body," imagine that! It would seem that someone or something has made a mistake. Now, she's a bright person, but I'm not sure she means for such a statement to be closely scrutinized (though the world would certainly be less shallow and vulgar if people said only what they meant); it is just a thing that people commonly say in this situation. But if she does not really mean this, then why not state the real rationale? Let's give this reason the benefit of the doubt and take it as a serious idea. What can it mean, then?

The first thing to notice is that she has said "I" was born in the wrong body. This would seem to imply a form of body-soul dualism. If an "I" can be in a wrong body, or if "I"s are inserted into bodies at all, then this implies that there is a self that is independent from such things as bodies with genders. This makes sense in a theistic worldview, which believes in such things as souls. It also makes sense in an Eastern mystical view, which holds to the transmigration of the soul from one life and body to the next. But there are two problems with this idea where she's concerned.

First, if her soul has been intentionally inserted into a body, then is it possible to claim that a mistake has been made? Just exactly who has made the mistake?

If you are a theist, then you hold to a god's involvement in the grand scheme of soul making and destiny shaping. If you are born a particular sex and you believe that God has anything at all to do with that fact, then it would seem that no matter what your particular feelings are about your state that you are spitting in your maker's face to seek a change. Now there may certainly be congenital diseases and deformities that we seek to remedy due to the nature of living in a corruptible, material (even fallen) world — this is not heaven after all — but changing a perfectly functional body into something foreign is a categorically different proposition.

If you are more Eastern in your spiritual outlook, then you hold to some form of reincarnation. This certainly makes bodies and souls a much more dynamic association, but there is still a purpose and order to it. For Hindus and New Agers, your particular circumstances are a working out of the law of Karma. Whatever blessings or trials you are faced with are simply your just desserts for the deeds of former incarnations. So, for instance, if you find yourself feeling like a man trapped in a woman's body, it might be because you were a male chauvinist in a former life. While this may give a rationale for one's situation, it does not give a reason for escaping it. Anything not addressed in this life will simply be postponed for a future date. On this model, changing one's sex seems equivalent to ending one's own life; it's like saying, "I can't take this, I want out." Buddhism's view of the soul is a bit more complex, but its view of the physical world and self as "illusion" make worrying about your body enough to want to change it a sort of denial of the whole system.

Second, this person fancies herself something of an atheist. To remain consistent with this portrait of the world she must reject the idea that there is any self apart from her physical body. She simply is what she is; there is no "wrong" or "mistake" about it, because there is no one to have made a mistake and no design or purpose to have gone awry. If nature is all that is involved here then how can you really be something that you are not? By whatever cause, the fact is that she is female and it is only her feelings about that fact which are at issue.

But your feelings about a thing mean nothing about the thing itself. They do not make reality and, in fact, are notoriously abused in the pursuit of fantasies. To say that you ought to have been a thing because you feel partial to the thing is to make reasonable many absurd ideas, like, "I feel as though I should have been a cat," or, "I am really an amputee trapped in a body with 4 limbs." By purely materialistic standards, it makes as little sense to say that you are really a cat, or an amputee, or a walnut, as it does to say that you are a different gender. It is as far away to Oz as it is to Neverland.

If what you are and what you think you are happen to be out of harmony, then there is indeed something wrong with the person. But which is more reasonable to seek to manipulate: the thing or the feelings about the thing; reality or the recognition of the reality? Why is it that feelings trump all other considerations? Neither God, nature, nor reason can stand before them. True, you may have mixed feelings for your home or car and seek to change those things, but those are the kinds of transient, external things that are made to suit personal tastes. It is only modern science that even begins to allow us to entertain the extreme idea of gender shopping.

One last point to ponder: Thinking that you really ought to be the opposite sex implies that you think that you feel like that sex. But how would one be confident in knowing what the other sex felt like? If you are not the other sex, then there is a very good chance that there is a subjective difference which you could never experience or even imagine unless you were by nature one of the gang. There may be some stereotypical behavioral elements with which you identify, or some affinity for different biological equipment, but there is a perceptual element that may never be achieved no matter how much gender dress-up and social engineering is affected. If you pave your driveway with yellow bricks and paint your house emerald green are you really in Oz, or are you just indulging a fantasy?



At 12/11/2006 4:04 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I think this girl is in denial if she has had her first infatuation with the opposite sex while at the same time claiming that she's not gay. If she has such a strong aversion to being "gay," I wonder is having a sex change is, at least in part, so she can avoid that lable.

I think there must be a difference between somebody who is gay and somebody who wants to change their gender. Most gay people are happy with their own gender. I mean think about it. Suppose there are two girls who are both gay, so they both like other girls. And suppose they happen to dig each other. Well, if one likes girls, and the other becomes a boy, I would think it would be the end of the relationship.

So I think there must be something else going on in the mind of a person who wants to change gender than in the mind of a person who is gay but happy with their gender. I'm just speculating, of course.

At 12/14/2006 11:50 PM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

It sounds as if she has too much of the "I" in her mind [I was born in the wrong body, I am supposed to be a man, etc.].
There are 3 types of relationships:
Pimp & Prostitute - heterosexual couples living together for convenience.
Husband and Wife - the safest relationship, where each has legal rights and there is a model based on mutual respect.
Narcissism - love of oneself, when the object of your affection looks a lot like you.

Your friend is a woman who's somewhat masculine. Big deal. My wife criticizes me at times because I tend to plop down on the bed in a feminine way when I am tired. That does not make me gay. We are made in God's image both male and female. There are varying degrees of gender identity with all people while our natural sexual function is clear.

What your friend needs to do is get over herself - demote the "I" a little; get a puppy, take a vacation alone, etc. That too harsh?

At 12/15/2006 11:31 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Whilst I share some of your scepticism about whether what is really going on is remotely like the interpretation given by the participants in situations like these, as an atheist I would like to pick you up on the point you made about the 'wrong' body.
I think this is just everyday speech. It is not intended to be picked apart philosophically. An atheist with cystic fibrosis might say they had inherited the 'wrong' code on chromasome seven, but they would not be talking literally.
You made an interesting implicit parallel with body dysmorphia when you mentioned the amputee. It could be that gender misalignment is a variant of body dysmorphia but on the other hand there is an empirical question (which may have been answered, I haven't looked it up) which is: if there are distinct male and female brain types, is it possible for there to be a mismatch between body and brain? if so, there is an atheistic sense in which one could say 'I am in the wrong body' and that is, for example, I am my brain and it is a male type, but my body is female. If this were the case, how should society and the medical profession proceed? I would say with care, compassion and on the basis of evidence. i do not think it will do to say 'get over yourself'.

At 12/16/2006 4:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I agree that it probably qualifies as "everyday speech." But she and others use these kinds of phrases as though they are deeply profound justifications. There is an implied metaphysical sense that something higher is going on than simply biochemical wires being crossed.

From any worldview I think we can say that something is broken, but the tendency I see with these kinds of things (homosexuality included) is to say that there is nothing wrong with "me"; it is something external to me that is the problem, i.e., in this case the "body," and with homosexuals it is "society's tolerance" that is the problem. There is an allergy to labeling anything that we desire an "illness" or "disorder."

In the atheist's materialistic worldview you might say that experientially "I" am my brain, but it is actually the case that "I" am the sum of my parts — the body is not external to "me." It seems odd to me that one could have all those female parts and still imagine oneself to be male because of a matter of desire. It's as odd as calling a human a "cat," as I argued, and your suggestion that brains could be wrongly coded/developed by gender type implies that such a thing could happen in theory (even while not likely).

I find it difficult to believe that she has the brain of a boy and is simply wrapped in a girl's body. This girl has spent the night in my house — in my daughter's bedroom (who is quite attractive, BTW). Would I allow any male in a gorilla suit to do the same? Not on your life! Would I allow a male in a girl suit to do the same? No, as well, and he would not expect me to allow it. Yet this girl has had no problem relating to my daughter in a sexually neutral way — as a gender peer. If she really had a male brain I would expect a whole world of struggles over being a girl with access to the private sanctuaries of the female world. It is every boy's fantasy. I would imagine that the symptoms of being a lesbian and being a "boy trapped in a woman's body" would have certain similarities.

From my perspective, it is not that she is a boy; she simply wants to be a boy. Maybe that's what she needs to "get over."

At 12/16/2006 6:23 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Suppose for a moment that my idea of a mismatch of brain and body gender is true. In this context I find your reaction quite odd. Almost a retrospective alpha male protective reflex against a predatory trojan male threat. Then you seem to oscillate between two views, on the one hand you find it difficult to seperate the body from the brain as I portrayed it, then you talk of a 'male in a girl suit'. I wonder if you have taken the time to consider what it would be like to be in a female body, be raised as a female and yet to have inexplicable feelings of not belonging, of it all being wrong somehow. Doesn't sound like an appealing fantasy to me, more like an 'invasion of the bodysnatchers' style nightmare.
Now, I agree that things are not likely to be as simple as that and even from my atheist perspective, we are all intimately enmeshed with the rest of our body (and its endocrine system). But I cannot think of a solitary reason why somebody would choose a line of thinking, with its possible arduous chemical and surgical journey, on a whim. I just don't buy the iew that they are just confused in their desires. I doubt that this is so much about desire as identity anyway. After all, changing sexual orientation is practically much easier than mimicking a change of gender.

At 1/05/2007 10:12 PM, Blogger Jamey said...

As a transsexual who self-identifies as a Christian, I can affirm that this is not mere wish fulfillment. It is an agonizing disorder. A couple points:

Now there may certainly be congenital diseases and deformities that we seek to remedy due to the nature of living in a corruptible, material (even fallen) world — this is not heaven after all — but changing a perfectly functional body into something foreign is a categorically different proposition.

Aye, there's the rub. But if you cannot understand that a mind in extreme duress is not a "perfectly functional body," then you just won't get it. It's boiling down to the old, "If a psych has to treat it, it's of the devil and should just be exorcised instead" canard. A shame. I'm sure you don't put all DSM diagnoses in this category. Any particular reason for that other than "I really think this one's against the Bible"?

If what you are and what you think you are happen to be out of harmony, then there is indeed something wrong with the person. But which is more reasonable to seek to manipulate: the thing or the feelings about the thing; reality or the recognition of the reality.

First, feelings are a reality. The mind/body connection runs deep, and to dismiss it so cavalierly is despicable. The schizophrenic does not understand that he is sick... it's everyone else who's livin' in a fake world. But what if the former's been tried? Where do we turn when that fails as it does in so many cases that people are willing to take on the disdain and disgust of the world just to transition and feel a little more at home in their own bodies?

Lastly, I've yet to see a consistent Biblical argument against giving transsexuals the only consistently successful treatment that doesn't conflate it with homosexuality.

At 1/08/2007 3:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I did not mean to suggest that this is a case of idle fantasy, or that there is not genuine agony and personal struggle involved with this. But it seems that this does after all reduce to urge and feeling. How one would arrive at such feelings is a separate matter, but merely having a feeling does not justify its pursuit.

You are suggesting that it is right to make an accommodating change in order to help you feel "more at home" in your body, but there are many other persons who anguish over their own compulsions which I'm sure you would hope would deal with them otherwise. What accommodations do you suggest for those suffering from pedophilia, alcoholism, or anger management issues? Some are unlucky enough as to suffer from compulsions that society does not (presently) tolerate. Do we tell only certain poor souls that they must bravely bear their burdens?

It is interesting that you use the language of "disorder" for this as if to admit this as a mental illness. But you seem to be suggesting that the mental condition itself should be bypassed in favor of an alteration of the body. This seems equivalent (to follow your example) to changing reality in order to suit the delusions of the schizophrenic.

I don't mean to suggest that you have not struggled to address the desires and mental condition, and perhaps you came to a point of surrendering to the "alternative." Again, I would ask, what should the pedophile do in such a situation? I'm not attempting to equate the two morally, just making the principled argument that we do expect some people not to surrender to their urges. To go beyond this you would have to make the case that transsexuality is morally neutral, and by Christian standards I think the only reason one would be inclined to think so is that one first had an inclination toward it. If I were to read my own inclinations into the Scriptures I'm afraid there wouldn't be much left to call "inspired."


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