Emily Allen is a Catholic writer currently working on a collection of poetry inspired by John Paul II’s Theology of the body. She loves the Catholic Church, her husband, being Polish, the Office, and mac and cheese.
“What is it you want to change? Your hair, your face, your body?
For God is in love with all these things and He might weep when they are gone.”
~St. Catherine of Siena
To what degree do our physical attributes define us as humans, and to what degree are we defined by common experiences as a result of said physical attributes?
The phrase “appropriation” has been used in regards to a certain Rachel Dolezal, a civil rights leader who has, for years, been “passing” as an African American. She has changed her outward appearance, lied about familial relations, and been the victim of nine racially-charged hate crimes.
Everyone seems to be up in arms about Dolezal: is this race advocate actively living a racist existence? Certainly, if she were living as a black woman for fun, or because she felt she can better represent a minority, this would be true. Or is she “transracial” – no different from Caitlyn Jenner, simply making the changes to be the race she is on the inside?
I mean, if gender is a construct, so is race: it’s an expected set of behaviors, inclinations and values arbitrarily based on outward physical appearance (skin color/hair type/body parts/etc.) that is used to “identify” ourselves. We do not ask to be identified as male or female at birth, this is assigned based on the genitalia we are born with. Likewise, we do not ask to be identified racially at birth, but the doctors check a box based on external traits.The physical traits we carry is “nature” but the attitudes we adopt are “nurture”- based on how we are raised and our own preferences, so wouldn’t it be possible to identify differently from what we were assigned at birth and had no say in?
With that said, this woman clearly believes she is African American (or possibly has a personality disorder) – and has made changes to be so, and has supposedly had hate crimes perpetrated against her so that she shares the common experience of being suspicious of white people and feeling victimized de facto by her “race”- after all, what is the “common experience” she would need to share in order to be “properly” black? Being on welfare? Having a baby daddy? No, African American advocates would argue those are destructive stereotypes. One would think the common experience is being a victim of racism and facing discrimination, which, according to her, she has been.
If saying the common experience of a woman is having a period is being transphobic, and all that is required to be woman is to want to be a woman, then why can’t this woman be black? She clearly desires to represent herself as African-American. With race as a construct, and having shared in the common experience of African Americans, is she really appropriating? Or is she transracial?
If, however, race is not a construct but a fact, if our physical biology is allowed to dictate who we are and what experiences we are allowed to have, what sort of privilege we are allowed, (ie white privilege, male privilege) then gender must also be a fact as well. When we say that gender is a feeling based on interior identity, our humanity and sense of self become entirely subjective. In the same breath, we are rejecting stereotypes with disdain while simultaneously using them as rubrics to form our “new” identities. This is the crux of the matter: the seeking of body/mind harmony is a direct adherence to classifications, not a rejection of it. I feel female so I need feminine parts and must do girly things, but gender is an oppressive construct used to box me in. I feel African-American and must darken my skin and wear a weave and do “black” things, but race is an oppressive construct used to box me in. The mental dissonance required to do this is simply dizzying.
However, for those who celebrate Caitlyn Jenner and in the same breath condemn Miss Dolezal, you need to take a step back and look at what you believe biology dictates in regards to a person. Biology either has some dictates in who we are, in our experiences and in our identities, or it doesn’t. It cannot be true in one case and false in the next.
We have so many trans labels coming out now: transracial, transgender, transabled. transspecied. We are placing so much emphasis on the importance of the body, of our appearance and how it looks that we are forgetting about the soul. Our bodies are not our own toys, but should seek to glorify God: they are a temporal expression of our transcendent souls.
I sympathize with Caitlyn Jenner and with Rachel Dolezal (assuming she truly believes she is a woman of color.) I have not had the experience of feeling foreign in my body to the point of drastically changing my appearance to feel peace. I have not felt that I was limited by my appearance, that I must like feminine things simply because I am a woman, or that I must like Uggs because I am white, or that I cannot assist a movement simply by remaining as I am. I do not know what such things are like, and in a world where we can mold our appearance to our desires, it’s easy to understand why doing so affords a sense of control and relief. I do not envy the struggle they live with on a daily basis.
However, I also believe that our bodies are meant to be an expression of our souls, and that God does not mistakenly place a woman’s soul in a man’s body or vice versa. Our bodies express our inmost being, which is more than inclinations towards sports, or nail polish, or certain clothing. Perhaps harmony can be found by going deeper than those surface desires which are gendered by society. I highly recommend anyone who desires to better understand what it is to be human, what it is to be male and female, and where identity comes from, to study John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
I am not an expert on this subject and I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s experiences. I am simply a woman with access to the internet and an opinion, but I believe we can embrace our bodies even when our mental interior does not match up by looking at the deeper meaning of what we are called to, and- more importantly- what God calls us to. It’s natural to feel some dissonance between the body and the spirit, but the key to putting them into harmony is not by drastically altering them, but recognizing that we are merely temporal stewards of our bodies and giving them over to God in love and obedience.
We are meant to be transcendent, not “trans.”