Compassion for suffering souls

Sometimes the opening is the hardest part.

I've been sitting here for quite some time, trying to come up with a clever or profound or even just passable way to open an article about Bruce/Caitlin Jenner. It isn't easy. And so I turn to Facebook for distraction. I find no distraction, but rather that Vanity Fair cover shot, over and over.

And then, a post from a friend and fellow writer: "Struggling to find a charitable way to write about #CaitlinJenner. Considering scrapping the whole thing and keeping my thoughts to myself."

I know the temptation.

It's not that I find it difficult to be charitable. After all, we are talking about a human person here, known and loved by God, who clearly has suffered deeply. For that, I have deep compassion.

What I lack are the more basic elements of my craft. Like a name. Or even a pronoun.

I guess it's common courtesy to call someone by the name they request. A little awkward when the subject is a grandfather asking to be called by a name common primarily among teen-aged girls, but whatever.

The pronoun is more complicated. I can choose neither "he" nor "she" without coming face to face with the now controversial question of "what is gender?" Is it a defined biological reality? A social construct? A figment of our imagination?

If I refer to Jenner as "she," I am saying I believe that Jenner's gender (try saying that 10 times fast) has indeed changed and that the surgical enhancements and extractions that make someone look like a woman will actually indeed make that person a woman. Whereas, if I go with "he," I am telling the world that I believe gender is a fixed biological reality and that regardless of the cosmetic remodeling work, the persistent presence of the XY chromosome indicates that this person still occupies a fundamentally male body.

And that brings us back to the "charity" problem. If I say "he," I violate political correctness. I place myself at odds with Jenner's preference. I disagree with … him. And we live in a climate where, in many circles, disagreement is tantamount to "hate."

I don't "hate" Bruce Jenner, or Caitlin Jenner or anyone else who has suffered from gender dysmorphia. I believe that they suffer. And of course I would love to see their suffering relieved.

But I question whether this is the best way to do it.

Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins Hospital wrote a fascinating article entitled, "Why We Stopped Doing Sex Change Operations." Johns Hopkins was a pioneer in the field of gender reassignment surgeries. They followed their patients closely for years post-op. And what they found were very poor outcomes. They found, for the most part, that these people were no happier living as women than as men, or vice versa. So pervasive were these negative results that the hospital discontinued its program entirely.

Apparently a wise decision. A broad-based, long-term study of gender reassignment patients out of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden in 2011 found increasing mental difficulties in the years after surgery, and a suicide rate nearly 20 times higher than the comparable non-transgender population.

I find this very alarming.

Of course, what Bruce Jenner does to become Caitlin Jenner would generally be none of my business. But the buzz and the hype and the relentless presence of that photo-shopped image certainly brings the topic out here into the mainstream, where it suddenly becomes all of our business. And, with a reality show in the works, it is big business at that.

And so the question, "Is this a good idea?" seems valid to me.

I don't think it is. A disconnect between perception and reality is common to many, many psychological conditions - from anorexia and bulimia to paranoia and schizophrenia. Traditionally, we have treated them by bringing the perception into line with reality. But recently we have begun to do the opposite - to try to alter reality to correspond with the internal perception.

The first problem is that we have considerable evidence demonstrating it doesn't work, if by "work" we mean "relieve their suffering."

The second problem is that it doesn't stop with any one person. They don't live in an isolated reality. They live here in the world with the rest of us. And so we find ourselves falling further and further down the rabbit hole, trying to change our realities to line up with their subjective perception. Already I have heard of efforts to move Jenner's Olympic victories from the "men's" to the "women's" categories. As male bodies generally have a higher percentage of muscle than female bodies, Jenner's performance blew the female athletes out of the water. Such a reclassification would give "Caitlin Jenner" multiple new world records, and strip the current, legitimate record holders of their standing. And it effectively would make the separation of men's and women's athletic categories meaningless, disadvantaging true female athletes going forward, and even retroactively.

Just one small example of the mental gymnastics (pardon the pun) we impose on ourselves when we try to tinker with reality.

And so, I reject the idea that "compassion" for Bruce/Caitlin Jenner requires agreeing that what has been done here is healthy and good and "brave." I don't find that particularly compassionate at all. Real love means wanting what is best for the other - for Jenner and others who suffer from some type of sexual dysphoria. I'm no expert in psychology, but it seems to me - especially in this age, when rigid gender-defined roles are a thing of the past - that it would be far healthier to help the patient adjust to their biological gender instead of attempting to re-write reality itself.

McHugh, who is an expert in psychology, says, "I have witnessed a great deal of damage from sex-reassignment."

I am opposed to inflicting damage on suffering souls. That is my compassion, and I'm sticking to it.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015