Many fans of the reality show Keeping up with the Kardashians noticed Bruce Jenner’s gender transition long before it hit the mainstream media. Then last year, Caitlyn had a fabulous Kardashian-worthy coming out party. The former Olympian announced she was transgender during an April interview with Diane Sawyer, and she graced the cover of Vanity Fair in June 2015 wearing a creamy satin bustier.
But the increased visibility of transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner does not necessarily signal widespread acceptance. I would not be the first to point out that Caitlyn is rich, white, and traditionally beautiful, and thus “represents perhaps the most palatable version” of transgender. In the same year we fell in love with Caitlyn, violence against transgender individuals increased in the US, most often against women of color.
At the core of both trans-activism and trans-phobia is a commitment to the embodied nature of gender. Where they differ is in their judgments about which bodily modifications enhance that nature and which violate it. And since I study religious ethics, I wonder: How do religions influence these judgments? Religious traditions certainly care about bodies; they care about sex; they care about human flourishing. So religious traditions might have intellectual resources—concepts, logics, ways of framing the issue—that are useful for thinking about how we understand the moral significance of embodied sex.
My research for the Enhancing Life Project explores this topic in a comparative case study between the clerical pronouncements from the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many of their teachings on sexual ethics appear similar at first glance: Both prohibit female leadership at the highest levels. Both have different moral duties for men and women. Both teach sex is permissible only within the context of a heterosexual marriage.
But they radically diverge on one issue: transsexuality. The Vatican rejects sexual reassignment surgery as a valid medical treatment. Post-operative trans-Catholics are not eligible to marry, to be ordained as priests, or to enter religious life as nuns or monks. This is grounded in the Catholic belief that sex isn’t just a physical attribute; it also structures our internal consciousness of gender. From this point of view, transsexuality can be a denial of the innate unity of body and soul.
In contrast, sexual reassignment surgery is not only permissible in Iran, it’s financially subsidized by the Islamic Republic. That’s because in the Iranian clerical logic, physical sex needs to reflect one’s internal gender identity—not the other way around. Post-operative Iranian transsexuals can apply for new birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and national identity cards to reflect their newly realized “true sex.”
From the Vatican’s perspective, Caitlyn’s transformation was a mutilation of a healthy body. For the Iranian ayatollahs, she was uncovering what was hidden. Bodies matter for both sets of religious authorities. But they differ on how they matter.
This is not just important for transgender issues. The difference between the medical interventions we support and those we do not has a lot to do with what we assume a “natural body” to be—and religions have done much to shape these assumptions. Let’s say we were going to remove parts of the body to promote physical health. It might make sense to surgically remove a woman’s breasts to increase life expectancy; similarly, we might consider removing a man’s prostate. But neither of these medical interventions is common, in part because we have deep commitments to the idea that “a woman has breasts” and “a man gets erections.” In Genesis, after all, there are only two kinds of bodies: male and female. And they are told to “be fruitful and multiply.” The body parts that are necessary to fulfill this obligation are thus invested with a lot of moral significance.
Other common procedures aren’t medically necessary at all. Take male circumcision. For Jews, the removal of the male foreskin is a symbol of the covenant with God. Most male Muslims are also circumcised for religious reasons. But what about secular American families who decide to circumcise their sons because it feels more natural? These parents clearly do not consider the procedure a mutilation, but why not?
Here is a case where religious reasons have been accepted by not only secular families, but also the medical profession. The health reasons that used to justify the procedure, such as hygiene or preventing penal cancer, are no longer medically accepted. But the American Academy of Pediatrics says the “final decision [about circumcision] should still be left to parents to make in the context of their religious, ethical and cultural beliefs.” These medical experts support parents’ right to circumcise their baby boys, even if they no longer find that there are health reasons to recommend it.
Let’s circle back to the discovery that Tehran is becoming a sex change capital of the world. Surely, this is startling to many of us. But why are we surprised? Is it because homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in Iran? Or because we think LGBT is not simply an acronym but a road map for progressive sexual ethics, with “transgender” as the last sexual dissident to gain rights? The Iranian case challenges our assumptions about what is “natural” when it comes to gender and sex. It raises the possibility that the West—including western medicine—is operating with a Christian view of embodied sex. This prompts an important question: can a comparative study of religious ethics change our perceptions of which body modifications enhance life and which don’t?
Read a Q&A with Elizabeth Bucar about her research here.