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When the soul intuits that something is beneficial and healthful to the body, its thoughts are drawn to it, and it longs for it so as to remain free of bodily ills and afflictions.
Quote from Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda’s “Duties of the Heart” (חובות הלבבות), a medieval work of musar we’ve been reading excerpts of in Contemplative Readings. When talking about the love of God, Rabbi Bachya makes an interesting point: The body, as he sees it, is given to the soul as a kind of test, and it is the soul’s responsibility to care for the body and see to its welfare. While the soul has its own natural desires and inclinations, it must also see to the needs of the body that has been delivered into its care.
What this got me thinking of was a certain narrative about trans people I’m sure we’re all familiar with by now–the one that goes, “So-and-so is a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or vice-versa. The inherent dualism of this way of thinking is pretty obvious, as it seems to assume that a person (a soul?) is ontologically separate from the body they inhabit. Furthermore, it treats the body as basically inert, a shell or a tool which we are judging to be more or less compliant with the soul’s wishes and sense of self, with little inherent value of its own.
But what if we, like Rabbi Bachya, thought of the body as a living, suffering thing in its own right, with its own needs and troubles which the soul is obligated to redress? From this point of view, it becomes possible to look at transition (hormones, surgery, or what have you) not as the soul bullying the body into complying despite its resistance, but as the soul doing its best to care for the needs of a body that is crying out desperately to be other than what it is.
The way I experience it, being trans is not fundamentally a sickness of the soul. Insofar as I believe myself to have a soul, I understand that inner essence to be essentially sexless and probably genderless as well. If we didn’t have bodies, we wouldn’t ever have to worry about gender. The body, however, has a sex and serves as a locus for gender, and it is the body as well that suffers from the unpleasant feeling of being off-kilter, unbalanced and ill-fitting. Unlike a number of people in my life who appear to understand my transition as something unnatural I am doing to my body, I understand myself to be responding to my body’s need to feel more natural, more comfortable “in its skin.” This is what is at stake over the attempts in some quarters to redefine being transgender from a mental condition to a medical condition, and I support this move because it seems to make more sense from the standpoint of many of us who have to live with this on a daily basis.
Forgive me if I’m about to get a little abstract. If you are the kind of person who runs for the hills whenever philosophy starts to rear its lovely head, then you might want to start slipping into your running shoes. But it seems recently like I’ve been doing nothing but talk about identity of one kind or another. So I thought that it might be worthwhile to take a little time to ask the question, what does it mean to have an identity?
As I see it, the structure of identity is basically twofold, consisting of an internal and an external face. The internal aspect of identity boils down to the way I see myself, or want to see myself–both the way we are and the way we feel we ought to be both play an important role in how we perceive ourselves.
On its other face, identity has an external component consisting of social confirmation, recognition and–frequently–enforcement. We might want to claim that this aspect of social recognition is strictly speaking external to identity, that a person is what they are because of what they are, not because of how other people perceive or recognize that fact. But the fact remains that an identity is not merely something internal and self-defined–it is also a social reality that affects the roles we take on and the way we relate to the people around us.
It might be easy at this point to get caught up in the question of which side of this internal/external divide is more, for want of a better word, “real,” more “original” than the other. The truth is that my own understanding of who I am tends to affect the way others see me, just as the way others see me has a huge effect on the way I see myself. From the moment we come into this world we are surrounded by doctors, parents, governmental institutions and what have you, all already defining who we are from the outside based on critera that we’ll only come to understand much later, if at all. At the same time, as we grow and mature we begin to have a greater and greater role to play in maintaining and shaping our identity, and while the values that inform us in this task certainly come at least in part from outside of ourselves, the ways in which we adapt, select and prioritize these values seem to be quite unique to the individual, arising from some obscure inner place we can only label with such vague terms as “inherent psychological makeup” or “soul.”
Even so, the highly individual ways in which we come to understand our own natures and roles in the world do not exist in a vaccuum. A big part of the way in which we form our own identities is by observing those around us and identifying others we experience to be like ourselves. This process of identification–of feeling a heightened sense of kinship with certain others and seeking to have that kinship recognized–is extremely important to the way our own inner sense of identity comes to find itself. This is why being refused the connection that comes with having our sense of who we are recognized and supported can be so emotionally crushing–without the ability to connect with others who share important aspects of our own identity it becomes virtually impossible for that identity to grow and flourish.
The practical upshot of this is that neither aspect of a person’s identity is indepenedent from the other. They influence one another in a variety of complex ways. This complexity is only increased by the fact that we never have just a single identity, but multiple identities that overlap and interact as well: gender, religion, national citizinship, ethnic background, community, economic class, etc., etc., etc.
The field on which all these interactions meet and play out is that of presentation. Presentation is what we call the amalgamation of external signs and behaviors with which we “play out” our identities in the world around us. It can include everything from the clothes we wear to the language we use, from how we interact with different kinds of people to what we eat. Presentation represents the meeting point between our internal sense of self and the way others understand us and expect us to behave.
How this all plays out depends to a large degree on the individual and their relationship to the social environment in which they find themselves. In some ways, my own sense of identity and the perceptions and expectations of those around me will coincide, in which case presentation serves as a shared medium/network of meanings that I and those around me use to interact.
In other ways, my own sense of who I am may differ from the way others understand me, sometimes to an extreme degree. In these cases, my presentation ends up becoming a battleground on which I strive to have my understanding of who I am recognized while others strive to make me acknowledge their perception of me and abandon my own.
In the preceeding paragraphs I’ve attempted to lay out in general terms a few ideas about what it means to have an identity as a human being. If all this comes across as somewhat abstract and academic, I hope that it will nevertheless help to serve as a kind of framework for some of what I want to write about some of the specific areas of identity that have had a serious impact on my life, namely gender and Jewishness. My hope is that this framework will help to hold up the ways in which what I want to say about identity in these two areas is more closely related than it might otherwise seem.
Now that the increasingly misnamed Fall Semester is starting to wind down at last, I’ve finally got a little time to address some ideas I’ve had on the back burner. One of these is something that came up during a program on gender here at RRC this fall. We had been discussing the gender binary as a rigid structure that causes problems for people who don’t fit within its either/or classification. Someone spoke up at this point and voiced their confusion about what to do with the fact that many of the people who don’t fit into the binary still tend to describe different aspects of their gendered experience in terms of male/female. Wouldn’t getting rid of the binary entirely invalidate those people’s identities to some extent?
This discussion quickly turned to the question of what to do with non binary gender within a religious framework like Judaism, which relies heavily on oppositions to do a lot of its conceptual heavy lifting:
“Blessed are you, Ha Shem, ruler of the universe, who separates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are you Ha Shem, who separates the holy from the ordinary.” (Havdalah blessing)
It was at this point that a faculty member (go, go Vivi Mayer!) brought up the passage in the Mishnah (in the oddly tacked on fourth chapter of Bikkurim) that deals with the halachic status of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), i.e. a person born with ambiguous genetailia. According to the Mishnah, when it comes to the the androgynos, “there are ways in which he (sic) is equivalent to men, and there are ways in which he is equivalent to women, and there are ways he is equivalent to both men and women, and there are ways in which he is not equivalent to men or to women.”
What is fascinating about this passage is the way in which it uses a binary distinction (man/woman) as a tool with which to define a more complex and ambiguous identity (the androgynos) by means of a carefully articulated set of similarities and differences. As it turns out, this framework (like X in some ways, like Y in some ways, like both X and Y in some ways, like neither X nor Y in some ways) is used more than once in the Mishnah to work out how an ambiguous edge case fits into the overwhelmingly binary structure of halachah. In adopting this framework, the ancient rabbis were able to acknowledge the existence of subjects that don’t fit into that binary structure without thereby expelling them to some undefined space “outside” the boundaries of the halachah (which for them would have been basically indistinguishable from erasing them altogether).
And what occurs to me in this context is that there’s another area in which an apparently simple binary is used in increasingly complex combinations to create something more subtle and interesting, and that’s the binary code that underlies the functioning of computers. When you drill down to the most elemental level, all computer code is ultimately made up of ones and zeroes. A single bit, a single position, can only ever be either/or: 1 or 0, this or that.* But at that level of simplicity, very little can be accomplished. One bit doesn’t give you very much information at all. But once you start stringing positions together, more complexity can be achieved. With two bits, you now have four possibilities rather than two: 00, 01, 10 and 11. String together four bits and you have enough for the numbers 0-9 and you can now do math with decimal numbers. Once you string seven bits together you’ve got enough for the full range of alphanumeric characters and you can write a book, all with nothing but ones and zeroes.
But here’s the thing: Just because a long string of ones and zeroes is a useful tool for encoding a text file of, say, Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that Moby Dick is itself a one or a zero. The ones and zeroes are the material it is made up of, but the book transcends these materials to do something new, something much more complex and interesting. If I were to decide that the ones and zeroes were the most important part of Moby Dick and go around dividing it, and other books, into two big piles based on whether there were more ones or more zeroes in each one, as if that actually said anything significant about the book, you’d call me crazy. The same might be said about gender.
When we say that we want to challenge the gender binary, we aren’t necessarily saying we want to (or even feel like we can) live in a world where we have to make do without reference to gendered language. What we’re saying is that our culture is heavily invested in the idea that all books are either ones or zeroes, and that this creates serious problems for books that feel like they’ve been miscategorized, or that the category into which they’ve been assigned doesn’t say everything (or even anything) important about them. We’re saying that using the gender binary as a set of rigid categories in the first place is possibly the least useful and least interesting thing we could do with it, like fixating on the ones and zeroes stored in a computer instead of combining them in interesting ways to do math, or write books, or create software that allows us to launch a simulated bird at a tower of evil pigs.
With this in mind, I think the helpful answer to the person who spoke up in the discussion would be that we need to get to the point where we think of the binary as a language for programming in and not a set of rigid and sterile containers. As an exercise, I invite you (if you aren’t the kind of person who’s in the habit of thinking this way), to look at the following list of things that we habitually lump into the single, all-encompassing container of “gender” and consider them as individual, discrete “bits” in a string of gendered information, with regard to each of which individually a person might be “equivalent to male, equivalent to female, equivalent to male and female, or equivalent to neither male nor female.”**
- Biological sex
- Genetic sex (chromosomes)
- Anatomic sex (genetailia)
- Physiological sex (reproductive function)
- Assigned gender (what the doctors put on your birth certificate)
- Legal gender
- Gender expectations (how others expect me to behave, present and identify)
- Pronouns people call me by
- Pronouns I prefer to be called by
- Behavior patterns of others toward me (personal space, language, communication style, assumptions about preferred social groups, etc.)
- Gender identity (how I think of myself)
- Gender presentation
* At some level the analogy doesn’t hold, because beyond “1” and “0” the rabbinical formulation from the midrash has access to the additional (and very useful) positions of “both 1 and 0” and “neither 1 or 0.” This makes the system even more flexible, and I hope the general similarity is apparent.
** It’s important to note that this list is in no way comprehensive, and that each item on the list is itself a complex construction possibly made up of a network of other, more subtle “bits.”