During the rollout of our university’s Preferred First Name Policy (PFNP), the McGill Reporter offered this apologia from one of the policy’s key architects:
“One’s name and gender are at the heart of who we are. For those of us who have a name that doesn’t reflect our reality it is a burden to have a ‘dead name.’ It can even be painful to be continuously confronted by an identity that one has rejected,” says Robert Leckey, Dean of the Law Faculty. “For example, if you have transitioned from Dave to Renée you do not want to be dealing with your old ‘dead’ name. It goes to fundamental issues of personal autonomy and choice.”
The grammar is a little painful, too, but we may set that aside. The striking thing about this paragraph is its unconscious borrowing from the following paragraph of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
What is unconscious must be brought in due course to full consciousness, so that a proper comparison can be made, but let us take as a fundamental point of agreement that one’s name and one’s gender are indeed, albeit in different ways, at the heart of who one is. The person who is deprived of his name in the gulag, and given instead just a letter and a number, is deliberately depersonalized. He is robbed of the dignity that belongs to him as human, and is treated as subhuman. Even lower animals are dignified by fitting names, sometimes even by individual names. Names designate natures, and within natures (if the nature is a rational-volitional one) individual or proper names identify persons. What could be more fundamental to who we are than our names? For it is precisely as a who, and not merely a what, that persons have names.
We shall come back to names, but let us take as a second point of agreement that gender is also crucial to our identity. What do we mean by “gender”? If we take “gender” as a synonym for “sex” (G1), we may say something like this: The sexed nature of our bodies matters because our bodies themselves matter. “Man is as much body as soul,” to quote Tertullian, and as such the body of any human person must be taken with full seriousness as an intrinsic, identifying feature of the person. That is one reason Tertullian, like Paul, has so much to say about the resurrection of the body.
Suppose, however, we do not take “gender” as a synonym for “sex,” but use it rather by extension to refer to the expectations that quite naturally, if somewhat differently in different societies, become attached to the two sexes (G2). Used thus, the word becomes more problematic or the concept more controversial. Where reference is made to established social roles—the usage here is generally adjectival, as in “gender expectations”—the term may be politicized as an attack on or a defense of those expectations or those unable or unwilling to conform to them. Here, there may sometimes be agreement that gender is not in fact crucial to identity; that identity is not or ought not to be over-determined by sex-based social expectations. Of course there will also be many disputes about whether or when identity is being enhanced or distorted by conformity or non-conformity to common expectations. This usage raises the question of how far identity is self-determined and how far it is determined by others. To this question also we will return.
More problematic yet is “gender” as used in the expression “gender identity” (GI). It is too little noticed—even by eminent people in eminent universities, rolling out policies that turn on this expression—that “gender” here remains undefined. GI is defined. In the words of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, GI is “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender.” But “gender” itself, in this context, is not defined. We might suppose it to be the person’s sex (G1), or the person’s sex considered in relation to social expectations (G2), but we would be mistaken. As the Commission goes on to say, GI “is a person’s sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.” That is not G1 and it is not G2. It is something else, but what?
Now, if we were content to say that GI is one’s sense of being male or female, we wouldn’t need to specify a third meaning, a G3. G1 would do nicely. Or if we were content to say that GI is one’s own alternative to society’s sense of what it means to live properly as a male or female, again we wouldn’t need a G3. G2 would do nicely. Either way, GI would specify something about our personal psychology. It would specify our internal, subjective response to something objective and externally accessible: either the kind of chromosomes we have, or the way society handles people with that set of chromosomes. That would be to miss the whole point, however, of talking about GI. Talk about GI is intended to break down the male/female binary as an objective referent for law and public policy.
GI, in other words, is not merely a subjective response to being male or female, nor to some collective determination of what maleness or femaleness entails socially. GI, as the Commission says, is our sense of being male or female, or partly male and partly female, or entirely male and entirely female (a Chalcedonianism of the sexes?), or neither male nor female. The “neither” is crucial, because it is precisely here that the binary begins, not only to break down, but to disappear. And when it does disappear, G3 turns out to be—the self in its absolute autonomy over the body. Gender identity (GI), then, is simply the story the self tells itself about its body, and gender expression (GE) is the acting out of that story, the laying down of public and/or private markers, whether physical or linguistic or behavioral, that signify the self’s exercise of autonomy over the body.
G1 we cannot deny outright, though we may fight against it by describing it (with the Commission) as something “assigned at birth,” as if it were no more than an arbitrary label imposed on us by society in suppression of our autonomy. This, of course, is to take an objection made, sometimes fairly, against over-rigid forms of G2 and to extend it backwards, altogether implausibly, to G1. That move is highly telling. For it underscores the fact that the whole business rests on a radically Cartesian, perhaps even a Gnostic, mind/body dualism. Which is to say: We will only come round to positing G3 if we have first set at odds the mind and the body, or at least determined that man is not as much body as he is soul. And if man is not as much body as he is soul, if indeed the self is the self apart from the body and even over against the body, if identity is determined by the mind—or perhaps we should say, the will—alone, then a number of things follow. I will mention just two of them.
First, authentic naming is, and can be, only self-naming. Both surnames and first names can and, on this reasoning, probably should be given up in exchange for self-selected names. Why stop with a preferred first name policy? Surnames don’t specify sex or gender (G1)—that is, chromosomes—but they do specify genes. They testify to derivation, to givenness, to what is inherited not chosen, every bit as much as do first or “given” names. The only reason not to give them up is that it would wreak havoc with law and public policy, generating in effect a nation of bastards, which, as Rousseau observed, would mean the end of the State itself.
Second, then, if authentic naming or identifying is a strictly private, self-governed enterprise, what is there that is truly public? If my public persona is entirely under my control, and if I can die to my old self and rise to my new self any time I choose and in whatever manner I choose, and if indeed I am not to be burdened by my old “dead” name, as the Dean of Law says, in what sense is my persona public? What, for that matter, happens to the rule of law? If Dave becomes Renée, can Renée leave Dave’s crimes behind as well as Dave’s name? That is worth pondering, as Carl Trueman has pointed out. It is one thing to ask whether the star of the McGill Redman can become the star of the McGill Martlets, another thing to ask whether Dave the rapist can return as Renée the ravishing.
There is a mediaeval analogue to this question, arising from the identity change that is Christian baptism. Against the charge that, if baptism really did remit all punishment due to sin, “it would be unjust, after baptism, to hang a thief who had committed murder before,” Thomas Aquinas replies that “although a murderer is freed by baptism from his debt of punishment in respect of God, he remains, nevertheless, in debt to men” (ST 3.69.2). Here he assumes, of course, that however profound—eternally profound!—the change wrought by baptism, in which the “old self” is crucified with Christ and a new self emerges, the person who is this self remains one and the same. He therefore cannot escape his obligations to man, even if that obligation be to put his head in a noose.
Perhaps the Dean of Law would want to say the same of Dave, as the M2F Trans person, Renée. If he didn’t, the rule of law would be very much in jeopardy. But consider: If at my baptism I take the name Thomas, in honour of St. Thomas, to whom I am now united in the ecclesial “body” of Christ, I add it to my given name, Douglas. I don’t abandon that name, or its responsibilities, though I take on a new name and new responsibilities. But if I change my name to Renée, my old name (according to the Dean) is dead and gone. So perhaps it isn’t quite so straightforward for the Dean to say that I am still responsible for my actions beforehand. I have changed my name and my gender identity. I have changed myself. It is not that my old self is made new through union with someone else, but rather that I have changed my old self into a new and different self. Obviously, there is an analogy to this in marriage as well, and without a doubt it was the legal unraveling of marriage that led us to the present conundrum. Certainly no one should be surprised, after the legal demise of marriage as an act with sacramental potency, that the sacrament of baptism is now, so to say, an object of interest as well, even if that interest is less than conscious and somewhat confused.
Well, these are early days for the religion of Gender Identity, and perhaps it would be expecting too much to ask it to have its anthropological, juridical, and sacramental house in order. To be fair, it took Christianity a good while to achieve all that. But from a Christian point of view, GI is a religion, and a religion of a familiar type. If it is not a basically Gnostic or Manichaean religion that regards the body as no proper part of the person, who at bottom is pure spirit—or, as we would say, pure autonomy—then it is a modern Mystery religion, which through its own (largely sexual) rites of passage effects a death-and-resurrection conversion known only to initiates. That would explain the refusal to allow those who are not initiates any right to speak of it, despite the fact that, like the old Gnostic and Mystery religions, it borrows quite freely from Christianity, as my opening quotation illustrates.
I recently experienced this refusal, when on February 2 I attempted to analyze the Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Identity movement in a quasi-public setting. I was literally shouted down by protesters who demanded to know what right I had to speak of things Trans when I was not myself Trans. A colleague from Toronto experienced the same thing, when it came her turn. Apparently it is fine to be gender non-conforming, but entirely unacceptable to be gender ideology non-conforming. Which brings me back to the PFNP. The PFNP does not shout. It wears a smiley face: Are you a Charles who prefers the instant intimacy of “Charlie”? Great. Are you Renée, when once upon a time you were Dave? Even better. Whatever you prefer, we’re here to accommodate you. Why? Because our creed is “personal autonomy and choice,” and how you name yourself is a fundamental expression of your autonomy. So is your GI, which you may now select from an ever-growing and, in principle, infinite list of options, LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA …
The protesters, incidentally, were quite keen to discover whether I could identify what each and every one of those letters stands for. Apparently they do not understand the principle that if everyone is special, then no one is special; or the Hegelian principle, especially operative among Hegel’s Marxist heirs, who initiated today’s attack on gender (G1 and G2), that as we ascend toward the Infinite the individual is of “too trifling a value” to bother with. In short, they don’t understand history or our philosophy of history, and they haven’t yet seen that, as we shed our attachment to the body, we will also shed their own special interests in the body or the appearance of the body. Trans issues are all the rage now, but for how long? Trans people, like many other people, will be left behind, broken and discarded by the next phase of our utopian autonomy project.
I said that the PFNP doesn’t shout—yet. That it will begin to shout, as the rollout continues, I have little doubt. It is being justified, after all, under the university’s Policy against Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law (which, despite better intentions, has a slight whiff about it of the old Soviet Article 58 against “counter-revolutionaries”). Meanwhile, I am rolling out a new policy of my own. I am learning to use only surnames in the classroom. Why? Because I am a Christian, not a Gnostic. I believe in given names, mind you, just because they are given. And I believe in borrowed, baptismal names too. The former emphasize, together with surnames, that identity is a gift before it is a choice. The latter emphasize that identity is also a choice; that is, the willing receipt of a gift.
Says Jesus in John’s Apocalypse: “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.” Replies Anselm, gratefully, in his eleventh Meditation:
You drove back the pursuing foes, and stood forth against them in my defense. You called me by a new name, a name which you gave me after your own; and, bowed down as I was, you did raise and set me up so as to behold you, saying: “Be of good heart; I have redeemed you, I have given my life for you. Do but cleave to Me, and you shall escape the miseries in which you were, and shall not fall into the deep whither you were hurrying; but I will lead you on, even to My kingdom, and make you an heir of God, and a joint-heir with Myself.”
This, friends, is how Christians think about names and identities, because as Christians they believe what Gnostics deny, viz., that the one true and altogether good God created this world of ours, the world in which man is, by design, as much body as soul, and that the same God has provided for its redemption.
From this belief follow many other things that I cannot talk about here, though they are germane to my critique of PFNPs and safe spaces and the like—the whole campus paraphernalia of Gender Mainstreaming and the Gender Identity movement. But permit me in conclusion to take a page from one of our Sexual Diversity Studies (SDST) syllabi, so as to put this in language you can more readily understand. I may not share much in the way of substantive presuppositions with the instructor who drew up the syllabus in question, but I do share the methodological presupposition he draws from Jean Piaget, who “stressed the importance of disequilibrium (a sense of being unbalanced and/or uncomfortable) in the learning process.” My classroom, you see, like this SDST classroom, is not altogether a safe space. You can count on some disequilibrium. If you are attentive, however, you will have occasion to discover or rediscover certain authentic sources of the self—not of the buffered self, to use Charles Taylor’s language, or the would-be autonomous self, but of the real self, the gifted self—and indeed some signposts to safety. For I do think it quite right to be or become yourself, even if I think it rather odd, even ungrateful, to talk about a right to be yourself.
Douglas Farrow is professor of Christian thought and holder of the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University in Montreal.