Experience and Reality

In light of the PBS documentary airing this evening, Real Boy, about an individual born anatomically female, whose inner reality is sensed to be male; and given my own interactions with two trans persons, one born anatomically male but has always sensed herself to be female and the other born anatomically female but has always sensed himself to be male, I thought I would engage the subject from a novice perspective.

Perspective is king, as my English professor always taught us, and I think he is correct. I do not know what being you or Jennifer Lopez or Mike Pence or RuPaul is like and no one else understands what being me is like: we can only view reality through our own particular lenses. But how we view reality will inevitably differ because of our own particular lenses.

Think about the manner in which you view reality, and the manner in which each individual ever to exist views reality, as interpreting an event or a particular issue or a text. Not only will each one of us notice certain aspects of the event/issue/text that others may not, and even highlight them, but each one of us will also maintain varying degrees of dissimilar experiences with the event/issue/text. This is inevitable. I cannot view an event/issue/text exactly as do you, in exactly the same manner, because I am not you and you are not me. This conclusion is our collective reality.

One might suggest: This seems a concession to overt pluralism or absolute relativism. Dr. Stanley Fish disagrees: while an event/issue/text may remain "open to more than one interpretation," he argues, the same are "not open to an infinite number of interpretations."1 Moreover, the pluralist, especially, must concede that there inevitably remains an element in each event/issue/text that unavoidably "rules out some readings [interpretations or conclusions] and allows others" . . . and that his or her "best evidence is that in practice 'we all in fact' do reject unacceptable readings [interpretations or conclusions] and that more often than not we [even] agree on the readings that are to be rejected."2 How might we consider experiences in transgenderism using this motif?

Knowing and conversing with two trans people has, thus far, been enlightening and fascinating. But what has perplexed me most is the notion of gender itself. We might well accept that one of my friends inwardly identifies with what pertains to femaleness, and the other what pertains to maleness, and insist that none of the rest of us can comprehend such a feeling or cognitive experience. But what exactly do we even mean by "female" and "male" when we are discussing not anatomy but an inward reality related to characteristics and merely being human?


If we insist that females are inherently soft and gentle and weak, and that men are inherently hard and rough and strong, then we must answer the origins of these constructs. If they are social constructs, whence did they spring, and are they absolute? Even biblically we find evidence of soft and gentle men (such as Jacob, brother of Esau, cf. Gen. 25:27) and rough and strong women (such as Jael, cf. Judges 4:21; or Judith, cf. Judith 13:6-8). No author condemns these perceptually-inverted character traits.

Still, we are left wrestling with the reality of certain men desiring to be rough, and certain women desiring to be soft (passive, delicate, gentle). We are also left wrestling with the reality of certain men desiring to be soft and certain women desiring to be rough (strong, courageous, heroic). There are also varying degrees between the two extremes experienced by both men and women. Are these notions mere social constructs -- perhaps even social constructs left over from the age of patriarchy?

If a believer insists that we adopt the social constructs and gender characteristics found in the Bible then we are forced to ask a) are we not, then, permitted to allow for exceptions, since we clearly see exceptions in many stories/histories, as noted above; and b) why parents today cannot, then, sell off their daughters (Ex. 21:7), choose mates for their male sons (Gen. 24:1-67; Judges 14:3), force wives to call their husbands "lord" (1 Pet. 3:6), reintroduce the practice of polygamy (Gen. 4:19; 29:21-30; Ex. 2:21; Deut. 21:15-17; Judges 8:30), reinstate the practice of slavery (Ex. 21; Lev. 25; Deut. 15), and return to a government that is monarchical (1 Sam. 8:1-22)? We do, after all, want to be "biblical." But these insistencies are not mere rhetoric: we are not permitted to cherry-pick what parts of the Bible we deem relevant for today without serious consequences.

Whatever we conclude regarding gender, and gender characteristics, what I find impossible is demanding that an individual, whose inner reality does not coincide with one's outer reality (transgenders), must conform to a social construct imagined by others (cisgenders) who refuse them any other reality to be experienced or expressed than that which he or she "should" experience. Remember: you and I do not know what being someone else is like; and, frankly, no one has granted you or I the privilege to determine the inner reality of another human being. Let us proceed with caution, care, and great compassion.

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1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 341.

2 Ibid., 342.