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Trans-substantiation: The Metaphysics of Gender Ideology

The first time I had my pronouns corrected was at a seminar on theology at Oxford. I referred to the eucharist as “it.”

Dr. Devin Jane Buckley
Dr. Devin Jane Buckley

On Saturday July 17th, Antifa gathered for a second time in front of a Korean spa in Los Angeles to attack protestors who demanded women’s spaces be accessible only to biological females. This protest was prompted by a video in which a woman expressed outrage at Wi Spa for allowing a male with intact genitalia to enter the women’s section, naked, because he identified as a woman. In a collection of short video clips posted to Twitter, Antifa counter-protestors can be seen pouring out tirades on gender ideology, threatening those who oppose them with violence, and hurling projectiles at police whom they refer to as “pigs.”

In one clip, an Antifa woman yells into the camera, “Genitalia does not mean anything about gender!”

Her statement raises the question, what exactly is gender if it is something that can transform entirely without any alteration in appearance? To phrase it more academically, what is the metaphysical status of gender? Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and knowledge of reality. The questions “What kind of a thing is gender?” or “Is gender real?” are metaphysical questions. As such, they should be legitimate starting points for inquiry. Yet, as the Hypatia controversy taught us, philosophical curiosity alone can merit cancellation if it probes the wrong topic.

Hypatia is an academic philosophy journal named after the ancient female mathematician and Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia. In Spring 2017 the journal published an article by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, titled “In Defense of Transracialism.” Long before Oli London declared that he transitioned to Korean and tweeted, “If you can be transgender you can be TRANSRACIAL,” Tuvel wrote in an endnote, “similar arguments that support transgenderism support transracialism.”

Tuvel used Rachel Dolezal as a starting point for an interrogation into the philosophy behind identity transformation in general. Importantly, Tuvel never defended Dolezal’s claim to be black, nor did she reject the idea of transgenderism. She merely argued that the same assumptions that lead many to accept transgenderism, should entail an acceptance of transracialism. If a person literally is a woman because he feels like one, then why isn’t a person made black by feeling that way, instead of lamenting with Lou Reed, “Oh I want to be black / I don't want to be a fucked up, middle class, / College student anymore.” If conforming to female stereotypes can make you female, then why can’t conforming to black stereotypes make you black?

“If conforming to female stereotypes can make you female, then why can’t conforming to black stereotypes make you black?"

Tuvel was immediately attacked. Hundreds of academics signed an “Open Letter to Hypatia” demanding the article be retracted on the basis of the “harm” it causes marginalized communities. One of the journal’s editors, Cressida Hayes, posted a long apology from “the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors” to the journal’s Facebook page, which states that “the article should not have been published” and that the bullying of Tuvel was “both predictable and justifiable.”

In a public Facebook post, Nora Berenstain, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, attacked the article in the bloated prose typical of academia, claiming that Tuvel displayed “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.” The word “discursive” adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. It’s there to increase the syllable count and intimidate those not jaded to the drivel that is regularly passed off as intellectualism within even the most elite halls of academe. As for violence, this includes the fact that Tuvel “talks about ‘biological sex’ and uses phrases like ‘male genitalia,’” in Berenstain’s words.

Over two thousand years after Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth by asking them questions, the very discipline founded in his legacy—philosophy—wants to do the same. I say we imitate Socrates and think outside the confines of academic journals, university seminar rooms, and tenure committees that ensure conformity to the academic establishment by preventing deviant thinkers from succeeding professionally.

Meme the author made based on the painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Let’s take the screaming Antifa woman as our philosophical starting point instead of perpetrators of discursive transmisogynistic violence like Rebecca Tuvel. If we accept that an individual’s appearance, including genitals, can remain the same while his gender transforms, then I believe gender ideologues are proposing a metaphysical idea almost identical to the Catholic idea of transubstantiation. It’s not surprising that gender ideologues and Catholics rely on similar metaphysical concepts since they grapple with a similar problem.

The problem in Catholic theology is thus: “how is it that the communion bread (the eucharist) can be literally Jesus Christ without becoming the finite body of a deceased middle-eastern Jewish male from antiquity?” Why does a piece of bread continue to resemble a piece of bread even after an ordained man has declared its transformation into the Lord almighty so that it may be consumed for our salvation? The Lord is, after all, not a spongy, carbohydrate-rich, thin, edible off-white object.

For gender theorists the problem is: “How is it that an individual can become a woman while continuing to be a beard-laden, densely muscular individual in possession of a penis, mobile gametes, and an XY chromosomal profile?”

To explain how a piece of bread can become a God-man, Catholic theology adopted a metaphysical distinction from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle between “substance” and “accidents.” An article on Catholic Exchange explains the distinction for a lay audience:

“The human being will have all kinds of different characteristics—weight, height, hair style—but essentially, before anything else, apart from any other attribute, it is first and foremost a human being. The human being’s weight could fluctuate; his height could increase or decrease with age; his hair style could change from a crewcut to dreadlocks; but those changes do not put that human being out of existence and an entirely new one into being. There is something that endures beyond all these changes: the human being himself, in his essence.
We could put it this way: with all the aspects of a human being and all the ways they can change, there is something that stands under those different attributes. “Stands under” in Latin is sub–stans, which gives us the word substance. All of these changeable, secondary aspects of the substance are, you might say, ‘attached’ to the thing, but are not an integral part of the thing itself. ‘Attached’ in Latin is accidens, which gives us the word accidents. Thus, substance refers to what a thing is, and accidents refer to what a thing is like.”

The author then explains how the distinction between substance (a.k.a essence) and attributes (a.k.a accidents) applies to the eucharist:

“If it’s possible for the attributes of a thing to change while that thing remains the same, it’s intelligible for the thing itself to change while the attributes remain the same. This is precisely what happens in the Eucharist: the substances of the bread and wine change, but the accidents remain the same. That is, what they are is now different, but what they are like is not. Before the Mass, the bread is small, soft, and white, and the wine is wet, aromatic, and intoxicating. After the words of consecration are prayed, all of these attributes remain, but what is on the altar is no longer bread and wine, but the very substance and presence of Jesus Christ Himself.”

In this philosophy, what something is has nothing to do with its actual material properties. With the correct ritual, an ordained man can turn an unconsecrated host (a flavorless wafer) into a consecrated host (literal God) even if it continues to appear to be a flavorless wafer. Since substance takes priority over attributes, the bread is now properly referred to as “He.”

That’s right—if you called the eucharist “it,” you would be misgendering Him.

In fact, the first time I had my pronouns corrected was at a seminar on theology at Oxford. I referred to the eucharist as “it.” A Catholic man curtly responded to me with “He” to correct my misgendering.

To my knowledge, there is no credal unity among gender ideologues about whether gender is the substance and sex the attribute, such that gender can change while sex remains, OR whether gender and sex are both a substance that can be transubstantiated by self-ID without any alteration to the genitalia, which would be the attributes.

Another way to frame the issue is to ask if “trans-women” are women, what work is the prefix “trans” doing? This is very important, metaphysically speaking. If gender is the substance and sex the attribute, then trans-women would be male women and cis-women would be female women. The term “woman” would indicate the gender-substance and the term “female” would indicate the material attributes, namely the sex.

This raises the question, of course, if sex is utterly irrelevant to gender, why would it be urgent to alter one’s body? If gender is a substance, then isn’t one made wholly a man or a woman simply by transubstantiating oneself through the act of self-identification? It seems that by insisting on gender ‘affirmation’ through hormones and/or surgeries, one belies a belief that gender is not merely a heavenly substance but is defined in some way by material attributes like sexual organs—but now we are hovering on the edge of the TERF heresy.

“In fact, the first time I had my pronouns corrected was at a seminar on theology at Oxford. I referred to the eucharist as ‘it.’"

Perhaps then “sex” is also a substance which is transubstantiated such that a male becomes a female despite retaining the material attributes of a male such as a penis? In that case, the term “sex” would be indistinguishable from gender, since both words would function the same way, namely, they would both be terms for a substance that transforms while the material attributes (e.g. a penis or breadiness) remain the same. “Woman” and “female” would be synonymous, as would “male” and “man.” In that case, there wouldn’t be male women or female men, there would only be males and females. Some of the females would just happen to have a penis.

Regardless of which scenario we are dealing with, both rely on the metaphysical differentiation between substance and attributes. Both involve transubstantiation.

If you aren’t confused enough, here’s one final complication to consider. Is a “trans-woman” a woman prior to identifying as a woman or only after? If changing one’s gender involves changing in substance from a man to a woman then the individual would have been both a man and a woman in a single lifetime.

However, if gender identity amounts to a discovery of what one already is, then transubstantiation would not technically have occurred after self-identification. Gender would still be a substance distinct from attributes—just not one that had transformed. There would only be a change in knowledge—and if you are a celebrity, a scrupulous revision of your Wikipedia page.

“When a gender ideologue needs to resolve one of the problems I posed above, how does she know which subreddit to reference?”

In this case gender would function like homosexuality. One discovers what one already was, even if one was in the closet about it. In other words, people would realize that the person they had taken to be a man was, in substance, always a woman and they should have referred to said person as “she,” much in the same way that a Catholic might realize that what he had taken to be an unconsecrated host was, in fact, a consecrated host and he should have crossed himself when he walked by it.

The only thing to be sure is that in pronouns and communion alike, your salvation depends on getting it right!

Really, the Catholic church has the intellectual and institutional advantage here. Gender religion’s policing structure is anarchic rather than hierarchical, its priests are self-appointed, and it lacks a coherent creed and formalized theology. When a Catholic needs a primer on transubstantiation, (s)he can open up Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. When a gender ideologue needs to resolve one of the problems I posed above, how does she know which subreddit to reference?

Catholic theology is also more honest. It’s frank about believing in miracles and the invisible—and it never denies the existence of truth. In fact, Catholicism declares itself the infallible arbiter of truth. Gender ideology, on the other hand, begins in a postmodern denial of truth so that it can reject the reality of biological sex, but ultimately betrays postmodernism by enshrining gender as an intangible substance within a confused and inconsistent metaphysics. Gender ideology begins in postmodern subjectivism by claiming that there is no reality, only subjective constructs, but it ultimately turns subjectivism on its head by then declaring that reality is actually determined by the subject. Far from a postmodern rejection of truth, gender ideology insists on the truth of the invisible against the visible; of substance over appearance.

Dr. Devin Jane Buckley

Dr. Buckley holds a Ph.D. from Duke, where she studied literature and philosophy. She also has a science background and has received several awards and honors in both philosophy and neuroscience.