The text came 45 minutes before Year 1 started on 2 September. “Just to let you know that Sasha is now Haruto (Japanese name). We tried it over the summer and didn’t think it would stick but it did. We’ve informed the school.”
This message came from a parent – one of two mothers in the family – in relation to my son’s best friend at school. Sasha – now Haruto – was the only person my son would know well in his new class. During the previous school year, Sasha’s parents had also announced that Sasha viewed herself as a boy. Again, the school had been informed.
The news sparked a range of emotions: the desire to be open-minded where a child’s spiritual health is at issue; indignation at the late communication; and bafflement at the pace in which the world seems to move.
These emotions were small when set against a parent’s first thought: concern for my child, whose own importance at school, had arguably receded before the undeniable drama of this situation.
As I walked him to school, I found myself wondering what Christianity has to say about this. If Christianity is true, it must be of some help – even though, so far as is known, transgender issues were rarely raised in Nazareth under Herod.
This silence on the question is a useful starting point. In his parables, Jesus always speaks with a profound respect for the creation of the person he mysteriously calls his Father. When we are told to “consider the lilies”, it’s clear that we’re subordinate to them – that if creation is a marvel then it’s a marvel we’re stuck with.
If that is true in the realm of gender – as it is for most people from JK Rowling to St Augustine – then it’s also true when it comes to aptitudes. For instance, I’m not good at mathematics. But, conceived in freedom, it would be possible for me to announce that not only am I gifted at non-Euclidean geometry, but that I intend to be a mathematician.
Indeed, I can claim that I am a mathematician, and expect to be viewed as such. Others would fall in line, perhaps out of alarm and a tip-toeing politeness. But over time, it would transpire that this idea of myself didn’t accord with reality. Jesus repeatedly warns us off twisting the truth like this.
That initially sounds worrying for Haruto. But the question is different in relation to gender. There’s little doubt that some feel a profound sense of misgiving about their bodies. They continue to feel, having reached maturity, that this anxiety will be best allayed by switching gender.
This isn’t entirely new: it was the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus who noted that he was ashamed to have a body. Perhaps this distaste for the physical can be construed as a foretaste of Heaven. But the secondary nature of the body isn’t what is being proclaimed in the case of Haruto; the argument is that the body is primary – so much so that it must be immediately reimagined.
Theologically speaking, transgenderism finds limited support. One would have to turn to the radical figure of Milton, and his baffling descriptions of the ungendered angels and how they supposedly effect paradisal intercourse, to find the subject glanced off.
Instead, as I neared school, I found myself thinking of the Divine Comedy – not every primary school child’s go-to text, to be sure. Dante sees the world through the love that animates a world which nevertheless remains strict as to its law. In Dante’s view, love is synonymous with humility.
Throughout the “Inferno”, Virgil shows Dante those who have made mistakes – from the understandable (those who strayed in love, or lived before Christ) to those who did greater violence to God, like the usurers. But as we move through his vast poem, we come to realise in the “Purgatorio” and to a still greater extent in the “Paradiso”, that we prosper in so far as we come into our being humbly in relation to God’s love – that it’s this love “which moves the sun and the other stars”.
Is it the case that Sasha/Haruto is coming into his or herself through God’s Love? Or are we witnessing a kind of self-love – an elevation of human whim above something sacred and fixed?
As I neared the school gates, it occurred to me that this is unknowable – and I was reminded that Catholicism asks not that we judge others, but that we pray for them. Sometimes, a prayer is demanded of us when we would rather have been doing something else.
Well then, I thought, as I dropped my son off at the gates: God help us all.
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