Divine Images: Our Self-Narratives of Gender

Jesus talking to a crowd of listeners

I really like “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense,” an essay by Daniel Walden in the March 2021 issue of Commonweal. It’s a beautiful, Catholic piece of writing about transness and self-narratives. I legit cried the first time I read it. I highly recommend you read it, as well as Paul J. Griffiths’ response to Walden’s essay, and Walden’s response to Griffiths’ take, for a deeper and more nuanced engagement with the original essay.

I feel within society at large, we often talk as if we understand what gender is. Walden, however, acknowledges that gender is a mystery. He writes, in beautiful prose:

“What the life stories of trans people show us is that we do not yet understand Scripture, that ‘male and female He created them’ is not a template but a mystery, one deep enough that we cannot yet fully map its contours but must approach it with hearts humbled by love.”

That resonates with me. I’ll let you in on an open secret: I don’t understand what gender is. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about gender, but I still don’t really understand it. I identify as trans/nonbinary/agender. I like the term “agender” because it captures my experience reasonably well: gender is not a thing that applies to me, not to my internal sense of who I am or how I want to be perceived in the world. Gender is a complicated mystery, and I confess I only understand some of it. It’s nice to see that reflected back in humble, Catholic language.

I’m not an expert in gender, but I am an expert in my own life, in my own experiences of gender, or at least my own narrative of my own life. It’s under this framing, this lens of self-narratives, that Walden approaches gender identity. He writes:

“Growing up is precisely the process of taking over the telling of this story for ourselves, of asserting our right to decide what we mean by what we do and say. […] The responsibility that children assume for telling their own stories includes making corrections to the account our parents gave: I am not this sort of person, we say, but another sort. […] When we revise the story that our parents have been telling about, for example, who we will grow up to love, we revise something tied up intimately with our personhood. […] In making such a revision to their life story, a person is trying to be their self more fully, to come into a mature sense of who they are that makes sense of their life as it has unfolded so far.”

Since I was born, my parents and others have been telling a story about who I am. At least when it comes to gender and sexuality, that story has been wrong from the get-go. I didn’t correct people when I was younger because I didn’t think that was an option. (I really think we ought to raise children as gender-neutral, or perhaps as “gender-free,” until they come of age and tell us otherwise.) When I tell people I’m nonbinary, this is what I’m trying to do: correct their story of who I am and live more honestly, with greater maturity.

I appreciate that Walden’s essay is less about identity and more about our own life stories and self-narratives. For me, Walden’s framing captures my experience of being trans much better than the more common metaphor of identity.

For me, being trans is less “I have an internal sense that I am trans!” and more “The way you treat me does not align with how I understand myself.” I don’t perfectly understand gender, and I don’t have a perfectly clear sense of my own gender, but I do know that what others seem to assume of me is wrong. Every time I hear someone use “he” pronouns for me, my brain does something similar to a computer throwing a “does not compute” error. They are putting forth a narrative of who I am that conflicts with my own internal narrative, my internal process for making sense of my life. It’s confusing and annoying, and it feels like they are not listening to me. At least for me, as a nonbinary person, I don’t feel like I’ve been living my gender wrong — I feel like most people around me have been understanding and communicating my gender wrong.

Walden gets this! In his reply to Griffiths, Walden writes:

“Precisely what makes talking about gender difficult is that some gender-acts are petitionary—asking that a person be treated a certain way, talked about in certain terms, grouped and categorized with others in a certain way—while others are purely expressive, and a great many are both at once. […] In order to live honestly through our acts, including our gender-acts, we need the cooperation of other people, because we need them to understand what it is that we’re attempting to communicate. When we use our speech to intervene in their social-interpretive processes—that is, when we explicitly seek to revise other people’s interpretations of our acts—it’s an invitation to help us live more honestly: we’re asking them to really listen to the story we tell, and join us in making new sense of those acts.”

I had previously thought of some gender-acts as expressive, but I hadn’t thought of other gender-acts as “petitionary,” as needing the “cooperation” of others, not in that exact language. That’s beautiful, and it rings so true for me. When someone misgenders me, it feels like they are making a statement about me which is false, like they are putting forth a contradictory narrative of who I am. For me to live truly, I need, or at least want, their cooperation in some way.

Walden also describes, again in beautiful language, how when we share honest narratives of our lives, we help draw others closer to God:

“[In] disclosing ourselves we also disclose the work of God. Bearers that we are of the divine image, in these acts of narration we teach other people how to gloss that image […] To tell other people what our lives mean is to draw them deeper into ourselves, and to listen to what someone tells us their life means is to be drawn deeper into the mystery of both their humanity and humanity’s maker.”

There’s more I find beautiful in Walden’s essay (and in his response to Griffith’s take), but this post is long enough, and I’m not quite sure I can do it all justice. Therefore, I highly recommend you go read “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense” for yourself, and then please let me know what you think!

Featured image: The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch.

“Divine Images: Our Self-Narratives of Gender” by Cam Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam Coulter

Cam Coulter is a writer and accessibility nerd, among other things. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work as a digital accessibility consultant, and they think incessantly about ethical technology, speculative fiction, and intentional community. Cam also blogs on their personal website, where you can find more information about them: www.camcoulter.com.