Transitioning as care for the body

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.

What does it mean to have an identity?

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?

Identity Model

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.