Thank you for your concern

2012-06-26 19:44

I was sent a copy of a reply to my recent opinions piece in the Star Tribune. I think it deserves some commentary and consideration.

The entire letter is in a genre that I think everyone deals with occasionally; helpful advice from someone who isn’t actually more qualified than the person being advised. You know the drill; you mention you’ve been working with a doctor for three years on insomnia, and someone has to mention that it’s easier to sleep with the lights out, or maybe you should avoid coffee late at night.

Question one: Gender identity and the brain.

This starts with a helpful explanation of the nature of human sexuality, explaining that we can tell men from women because of X and Y chromosomes. Yes, thank you. I know this may come as a shock, but somehow having been married to a trans person for 17+ years in one form or another, I think it might reasonably be suspected that I would know as much about human sex and gender as, say, a typical third-grader. (Well, an atypical one; that’s about when I learned about chromosomes.)

See, there’s simple answers, and then there’s reality. Reality isn’t always simple. The simple answer is that things are male or female. Males have XY chromosomes, they have testicles and penises, and they are masculine. Females have XX chromosomes, ovaries and vaginas, and are feminine. That’s simple. Reality isn’t.

In reality, there are several different things we can talk about when we talk about sex and gender; enough of them that people are still trying to sort out the terminology. Purely in terms of the physical expression of the body, there are a number of known variants of intersexed people — people who have physical characteristics of both men and women. This ranges from true hermaphrodites (very rare) to cloacal exstrophy, to men who develop breasts and women who develop beards. One form that’s been in the news recently is androgen insensitivity, which can result in people who have XY genes, but whose bodies are fundamentally female in structure.

We can also discuss mental expression; the sense of identity that tells people whether they are “male” or “female”, for instance, or their comfort level and alignment with things identified as “masculine” or “feminine”. These often coincide, but hardly always; the world continues to contain tomboys.

Here’s the thing. The sexual dimorphism in humans is not limited to the obvious outward expressions; there are also physical differences (statistically, at least) between male and female brains. There is a lot of research on the relationship between the brain and gender identity. In fact, there is too much research on this topic for me to even pretend to link to it all.

The upshot of it all is: There are real differences, which are fundamental and physical, and which are determined long before birth. There is no known mechanism by which these things can be changed. We are not talking about a purely cognitive state that can be learned or unlearned, but about something fundamental and instinctual. You can no more convince a man that he’s really female than you can convince a bull that it’s really a cow. The underlying instincts are in the biology, and we don’t get a vote on them.

And, just as other aspects of sex are sometimes inconsistent between parts of the body, sometimes the brain doesn’t match some other aspects. XY androgen insensitives are not always some sort of intermediate balance between masculine and feminine; some are very feminine, and are usually regarded as unambiguously female until later development reveals abnormalities (such as lack of menstrual periods).

Long ago, we tended to a simple view of people as always and unambiguously fully male or fully female. Discovery of the variety of expression, coupled with the realization that many traits we viewed as “masculine” or “feminine” were culturally dependent, led to the belief that gender identity was a purely cognitive trait, rather than a biological one. This worked out extremely poorly. In many experiments, some perhaps in better faith than others, we have consistently found that no amount of arguing with the brain has any discernable impact; gender identity is in general biological, instinctive, and not subject to change.

So with that in mind, I assure my correspondent that, yes, I am aware of X and Y chromosomes, and of a lot of other things as well. I stand by my claim; gender identity is firmly established to be a biological reality.

Now, you might make a case that this means that in some cases, someone’s gender identity is “incorrect”. There are two key flaws in this position. The first is simply that it is consistently (>50%) lethal when used as a basis for treatment. People cannot survive that kind of denial of their sense of self. The second is better explained through a thought experiment. Assuming that you have a reasonably firm sense of your gender (not everyone does, mind), consider what would happen if a mad scientist were to show up with technology currently beyond our reach and transplant your mind into another body. If it were an ape’s body, would you suddenly consider yourself a non-sapient animal? Of course not. And if it were a body of the opposite gender, what then? Do you seriously imagine that you would suddenly identify with that alien form? Because all the evidence seems to suggest that you wouldn’t; you would be fully aware that you were by nature of a different gender than that of the body your brain was inhabiting. And it turns out we don’t need mad scientists to observe this, because this is what gender dysphoria is — the awareness that your gender does not match the body you’re currently in. That it does not match any body you’ve ever been in doesn’t matter; the same sense of certainty about who you are is present.

So, to summarize: Yes, I think the evidence is overwhelming that my spouse is, in fact, “male” in some meaningful sense. I didn’t marry a body; I married a person. The idea that a simplistic hand-waving appeal to chromosomes would somehow change my mind is frankly inconceivable to me.

Question two: Christianity and the Bible

Sometimes, it’s hard to disagree with people.

I do not know if Seebach is the devout Christian he claims to be, but I know his views aren’t.

Well, I have to agree. My views are not of a class of things that are capable of being Christian or non-Christian. However, pedantry aside, let’s imagine that he said “his views aren’t those of a Christian”. No, that won’t work either; that would contradict the claim to now knowing whether I am a devout Christian. Perhaps “his views aren’t correct Christian doctrine”. Well, that’s possible, but it seems a little surprising to me that someone who isn’t the Pope would claim certainty on the issue. (It’s not that I necessarily think the Pope is correct; merely that I believe the teachings of his religion imply that he would have certainty on the issue.) But what, I wonder, is wrong with my views?

Christianity is Christo-centric, and Seebach’s views of marriage disagree with Christ.

This is an interesting point. It really has no relevance whatsoever to the question of whether or not I am a Christian (after all, nothing says that you have to be very good at it to be counted as an example), but it is at the very least an assertion. Sadly, it is not a particularly well-supported one.

Our correspondent continues:

Just because Seebach claims no one has explained the difference between gay relationships (which are never marriage, and cannot be) and marriage, doesn’t not mean the explanation is not right there in front of him. I urge this devout Christian to read his Bible. For Christ’s sake read your bible about marriage, for that is explicitly what marriage is about: Christ. Read it for his sake.

(The “doesn’t not” is presumably a typo.)

Marriage is not about living with your seventh grade heart throb, but is a pointer to Christ’s relationship to the church. The headship of the husband and wife roles are irreversible, or else the church is the head of Christ… or you have two heads, or no heads. Understanding what the bible says about marriage is precisely where Seebach has strayed. He not only jettisons marriage, but dispenses with the headship of Christ in his version of devout Christianity.

Harsh words, to be sure. And yet, I call attention to the tone; compared to many of the things people have said in the past, this is a really friendly writing. I do not doubt that it is sincere and well-meaning. However, I am highly skeptical of the theology.

This does offer an actual attempt to articulate a distinction between gay relationships and straight relationships; if we assume that the gender roles are themselves a crucial aspect of marriage, and not subject to alteration or discussion, then it is possible to argue that you need one of each. However, there is a tiny little distinction here: The model of marriage he describes is not spoken of by Christ, but rather by Paul, in Ephesians 5. I think I would rather look at what Jesus says about marriage.

I suppose I ought to start with perhaps the most famous quote:
bq. The Gospel According to St. Luke, Chapter 14, Verses 25-27
And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them, If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

Well, okay, maybe that’s not the best starting point. And yet, it does highlight a thing worth remembering, that Christianity is not exactly about staying in your comfort zone.

The Gospel According to St. Mark, Chapter 10, Verses 2-12
And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

This is a really interesting one. On the one hand, we have a handy reiteration of the “male and female” thing. On the other hand, what does Jesus say about divorce? “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

There is no reference to headship, or leadership, or an analogy to the relationship between spouses and Christ and the church. There is a pretty strong statement of permanence. And there is certainly a presumption that marriage involves “male and female”. The real question, and this remains a hard question for serious thinkers, is how we distinguish the accidents from the substance. Imagine, if you will, people who are not so rich that they can all have their own houses, so when their son gets married, his wife moves in with them. Woah! He has not left his father and mother before cleaving to his wife. Can we even call this relationship a “marriage”? Well, of course we can. That was descriptive, not prescriptive.

The question is, was the male/female thing also descriptive, or was it prescriptive? It’s pretty obvious that the people of the time didn’t even consider this question; it was not one they had the background to think about. There are only a couple of vague hints that this issue might even exist, and fewer still if you restrict yourself to things Jesus was recorded as saying. One does stand out:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chapter 19, Verses 7-12
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

A few things are worth mentioning. The first is that either there were two occasions on which Jesus gave roughly this speech, then played with some children, or there has been some kind of editing, because in one version Jesus qualifies the ban on divorce with “except it be for fornication”.

The second is that modern readers will not even perceive the shocking nature of this speech, which the disciples refer to when they say “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” You see, before Jesus said this, the listeners had never, in their entire lives, heard of the concept of a man committing adultery against his wife. You could commit adultery against another man, by having sex with that man’s wife, but there was no such thing as adultery against a wife. The concept we have today, that a wife also has a right to expect sexual exclusivity, was simply not present in the culture Jesus was speaking to. It is worth remembering this when we consider what writers in this culture said about the relationship between the sexes; Jesus was asserting a kind of equality between sexes that was completely unheard of.

The third thing is the cryptic passage about “eunuchs”. The translation is not ideal; the Greek word does not have the meaning of “men who have been castrated”. Men could be mistaken for eunuchs, or pretend to be eunuchs. What this refers to is not a particular physical trait, but a broader notion that there existed men who were not planning to have sex with women. And this, I think, is where we see the crack in the defenses of the “it must always be exactly like this” argument; the explicit and direct recognition that this teaching is perhaps not something that everyone can comply with.

There are two parallel arguments to be had here. The first is to consider God’s statement in Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” Humans, as they exist in this world, benefit greatly from marriage, and a marriage which allows two people to partake in these benefits is a much better thing than no marriage at all. Paul says that he would prefer that people not marry, but that it is better to marry than to burn with lust.

The second is to punt, and go with Luther and Bonhoeffer. If you must do a thing, do it. Luther advises Christians to “Sin boldly!” Bonhoeffer suggests trusting Jesus to justify the sinner, not the sin. Which is to say: Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is “sinful” or not; if it is the only thing you can do, do it. There is forgiveness of sins; there is nothing to fear.

That said, I have spent plenty of time on this issue, as have many other people I know, and what I have found is this: If the question of whether a gay relationship could be acceptable has any relevance to you, the answer consistently seems to be the same answer Christians get to everything: Act in love and stop worrying. I have seen many people wrestle with this after being raised to think that gay sex was a horrible thing, and they have consistently found this same answer; furthermore, finding it has consistently transformed them and made them free. Sin corrupts; if they were wrong, they would be corrupted by their persistent and committed error. They are not corrupted by it, so I conclude that it is not an error.

I was really hoping for a more substantive argument than handwaving appeals to Ephesians 5. And, just as with the previous argument, I have to wonder how anyone might think that someone who has spent time and effort on this issue would not be aware of these lines of argumentation. This particular framing might differ a bit from some of the hundreds of previous attempts I’ve seen people make to insist that their view of marriage is the only acceptable one, but it’s not really a new line of inquiry. It does not rise to the level of supporting the claim that a gay relationship can “never be marriage”, or articulating a genuine difference between relationships. Mostly, it’s just complementarianism (the belief that men and women have carefully delineated roles that are complementary, but must stay to these roles), which is a theological form of “separate but equal”, and remains fundamentally flawed. As Paul says, “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Question three: What does this law do?

Finally, we get a fascinating assertion, which is that the proposed amendment is completely worthless and accomplishes nothing. Well, not exactly:

The writers of the marriage amendment repeat: under this amendment NO ONE will lose any rights he or she already has. None.

This is hard to believe; if this were really true, why bother passing such an amendment? The answer, of course, is to make it much harder to grant people certain rights. However, there are ambiguities about rights and recognitions that might already apply. For instance, if people are married in another country or state, does the state of Minnesota recognize those marriages? This seems a little unclear now, but the answer is clearly “no” if the amendment passes.

But really, this amendment exists to deny one very specific group of people one very specific right which they currently have: It is an attempt to deny the legislators of our state the right to pass a law recognizing gay marriages. If the amendment passes, that right (one they currently have, because the legislature is entitled to alter the law in general, as long as they aren’t violating the Constitution) may be abridged.

But, like anti-miscegenation amendments, the real purpose of this is simply to raise the bar — to make it harder for advocates of civil rights to get those rights recognized by law. There is no real doubt, at this point, that there will be a time in the future when Minnesota, like the rest of the US, recognizes gay marriage. It is quite likely that today’s anti-gay protests and anger will look as ludicrous in forty years as slogans like “Stop the race-mixing march of the antichrist!” do today. The purpose of the amendment is simply to delay this.

And the reason for that is that, as our courts have commented, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The goal is to prevent some people from getting married as soon as they otherwise might, in the hopes that it will prevent some of them from getting married at all. Every time someone dies alone in a hospital because the person they have cleaved to for twenty or fifty years is not legally allowed to “marry” them, the anti-gay-marriage crowd wins what is, for them, another victory.

Thank you, O correspondent, for attempting to clear up my alleged confusion. You may wish to give some thought to your own.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. You also should mention 1 Corinthians 10:23 which is oddly contradictory in the context of the whole passage if you want drag Paul in to it. It’s a very interesting passage to contemplate…

    romeosidvicious · 2012-08-16 20:05 · #

 
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