Trans substantiation


I was in an early wave of trans people who started the kind of reaction to so-called “misgendering” that we commonly see now, and I’m sorry everyone; really, truly sorry. Nevertheless, I come from a time when the status quo among trans people was that if you didn’t pass, you tried harder to do so.

Yes, instead of insisting that other people see something different than what they saw, you simply tried harder to pass. You felt some (ultimately not useful) shame, but you didn’t blame others for their perceptions or get self righteous about it when their perceptions did not match your desired image. You did what you could with that feedback to get where you were trying to go, as much as possible. You understood that if you were going to make a claim to being of a different sex, you were responsible for substantiating that claim, one way or another.

In that model there was still awareness of a social contract, instead of the now widespread sense of entitlement to unilaterally define others’ reality; the idea that it ought to be within one’s rights to control others’ ability to directly or vocally contradict your desired effect.

Transition used to be the way you tried to substantiate your claim. As we know, now there’s increasingly no need to do any such thing; to be asked to substantiate or to even call it a claim is supposedly tantamount to a hate crime. Many times any question at all, regardless of how fundamental (i.e., “In what sense can this bald, bearded, not on hormones or interested in surgery male who posts nude selfies be considered a transwoman, let alone a woman?”) is met with “because I said so.”

I knew this sober Catholic and I asked her once what she did when it was time for communion. Because if she took the blood of Christ, didn’t that trigger her alcoholism? And if she didn’t, wasn’t she admitting it was wine after all, and not Jesus’ blood?

She told me that in the church of her childhood, if you didn’t actually believe it was Jesus, you kept that to yourself and felt ashamed. You thought you were the only one and felt flawed, wrong, defective. You never admitted it. You doubted yourself: Maybe this magic actually happens for everyone but me. Maybe I’m just unworthy, too broken and evil for it to work. 

I thought, Maybe that feeling is the point. Because obviously nobody experiences the cracker as being actual flesh or the wine as being actual blood. So it seemed to me to be about taking away the power of trusting your own body’s perceptions, and letting male authorities define your experience in contradiction to those perceptions instead. I saw it as an abuser tactic, because once you do that, allow that, your mind is not entirely your own. Later I read Mary Daly make this exact argument and  felt validated, made-whole, because I saw that we had each arrived at this knowledge by undoing that kind of giving-away of power, by simply taking back our own perceptions.

So presumably there are some True Believers in transubstantiation. On some level they must know it’s a metaphor, but they live it so hard it might as well not be. Presumably, there are many more people who know it isn’t literally truth, but go along with the social fiction that it is, to remain in good standing in their church community. Some, perhaps, find it a beautiful metaphor and don’t want to break the spell of communal pretending–there is power and meaning in it, after all. They are willing to barter the lie of literal belief in order to preserve the usefulness of the metaphoric ritual. And then there are people who don’t believe in it at all and ultimately can’t abide living the lie that they do. Maybe they’re alcoholic, or maybe they just can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance. Because they are Catholic, this is a terrifying heresy.

If your world is “queer,” letting yourself know what you know–trusting your own embodied perceptions about sex and gender–is likewise a terrifying heresy.

Can I tell you all that the first time I felt a sense of relief from reading an article on Gender Trender, I went immediately into extreme distress and feared that it meant I was evil? Because of the PRONOUNS! Because of the PRONOUNS being used to mean sex, not gender. Because when I read the news item through the lens of sex, not so-called gender, I saw the real power dynamics so clearly and could no longer deny what I saw. I could feel my brain beginning to deprogram and I was afraid of what this would mean for my life. My hands actually went clammy with fear. I was afraid I was betraying everyone I knew, and that I would be punished. That I would be exiled. And when you are lesbian, already so outside of human belonging, perhaps already cast out from your original family–the prospect of exile is no light matter. I wanted to bargain: Listen, Gallus Mag, I need to keep reading this stuff but can you just do what you are ~supposed~ to do with the pronouns, because this is scary as shit and also “offensive” and I know I am supposed to shut this sort of thing down wherever I see it. But the meaning of the words was the point, and I knew it, and I was afraid of what I knew because I knew it meant I would have to change. And I felt the change bringing me back into my body and bringing my body into this new terrain, an unknown landscape defined by an overwhelming kind of clarity.

The fear. I can’t even tell you how palpable that fear was. I wasn’t raised in a religion that did this to me–it’s not like I was programmed this way, and then triggered. Yet my fear was the fear of a heretic raised in fundamentalism. This is how I know Daly’s right: patriarchy is the underlying world religion and all of these belief-ways are its many sects. 

So now there’s a sect that wants us to believe (or pretend to believe) yet another impossible thing: that you can be a male who is really female and was always female but at the same time is transitioning to “become female;” that the male body can undergo transubstantiation into a female body, and vice versa, not only through medicalized facsimiles taking on some velveteen-rabbit kind of magic “realness,” but merely through the incantation of certain sacred words.

Listen: if you read this blog, you know I love metaphors and I understand their use, their way of making meaning outside of what seems sayable otherwise. But I don’t believe in transubstantiation, and I’m less afraid to say it than I used to be.

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