(Tony Hall, Dec 06 2007)

Earlier this month a North Carolina woman made the news by revealing she had intentionally put drain cleaner in her eyes to fulfil her lifelong dream of being blind:

“I really feel this is the way I was supposed to be born, that I should have been blind from birth”

A more in-depth Snopes report brought to light an online discussion group of people who “wannabe blind”, where the woman in question seemingly found support and encouragement in her efforts. The report includes a post from the woman’s psychologist stating that she is “very happy with the outcome”, and a follow-up post soon after the “accident” from the woman herself explaining that:

“I am much further along on my path to blindness than before this injury, however I am not satisfied quite yet, because I am still sighted…Everyone but me is hopeful that my eyesight will recover fully, but they seem to accept that it may not, and I am sure they will be okay with my vision loss as it progresses as long as they know that I am still in good spirits, which I am.”

This poor woman’s story might be extreme, but there can be few more startling commentaries on our contemporary illusions about happiness and identity.  In the past, the questions of how we are “supposed to be born”, the meaning of our discontent, and the path to genuine happiness would have found answers in a profound religious context. Now people will even embrace self-mutilation in the search for contentment.

The woman apparently suffers from Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a classification usually associated with people who wish to have their healthy limbs amputated.

The similarities with Gender Identity Disorder or Gender Dysphoria are obvious, particularly in the context of sex reassignment surgery, but there are still obstacles to “transabled” becoming the new transgender. 

Firstly, society remains stubbornly “ableist” in its view of disability.  Disability is regarded by many as an undesirable state, whereas gender politics has arguably raised the status of women to a local, if not absolute, maximum. When people wonder why Bruce Jenner would want to be a woman they do so out of genuine psychological curiosity, not because they regard being a woman as an intrinsically undesirable attribute to possess.

Secondly, the rise of cosmetic surgery and hormonal therapies in the general population has allowed doctors to sidestep some of the tricky questions around sex reassignment. If breast implants are okay for women, why aren’t they okay for men who want to look like women? Yet doctors tend to reject the idea of amputating healthy limbs to resolve psychological distress, invoking the Hippocratic principle of “first do no harm”.  When it comes to body modification, “reassignment” sounds much more acceptable than outright removal of a limb or organ.

But if it is acceptable in principle for people to modify their bodies to suit their identity and their ideals, isn’t it just discrimination to draw the line at would-be amputees and people who “wannabe blind”?

What gender and disability have in common – depending on your underlying sociological framework – is that both are socially constructed. What counts as a disability can be highly dependent on the context and environment. At the same time, the precise attributes of gender and the expectations and roles associated with gender are fluid and changeable. The boundaries of masculinity and femininity change from culture to culture, yet apparently some people feel that they cannot be whole unless they are socially affirmed in a change of gender. Meanwhile, any disability advocate can tell you that what truly “disables” them is not a physical or mental limitation but the attitudes of the broader society. 

There is something paradoxical in pursuing a changeable social construct such as womanhood as one’s true identity. Transgenderism is commonly defined in terms of a mismatch between one’s gender identity and one’s sex, where identity is considered more significant than biology. But gender itself is a flexible and heterogeneous social norm, a construct that varies within society as well as between cultures, and which can be altered by participation; that is, as a man I can, in some small and local way, influence our understanding of what it means to be a man.   

Ironically, every new story that affirms the transgender narrative simultaneously contributes to the deconstruction of the same gender norms that inform gender identity. Every man who wants to be known as a woman and every woman who wants to be known as a man diminishes the cohesion of the gender norms they aspire to emulate. The more we refer to the likes of Bruce Jenner as, haphazardly, either a woman or transwoman, the less distinct the boundaries and the content of male and female gender norms will be.  Yet the “woman” that Bruce Jenner identifies with is not the same as the “woman” his transgender story helps to create, beyond the superficial image on the cover of Vanity Fair.

When it comes to “transableism” the identity issue might seem more “embodied”, but socialisation undoubtedly still plays a role, as one would-be amputee put it:

“When I see an amputee — when I imagine the amputee — there is this inner pull that says ‘why can’t I be like that?’”

At least one case study of a woman wanting to become deaf has noted that a sense of belonging or acceptance within a disability community can motivate a desire to be disabled. Did the “wannabe blind” woman simply desire to lose her eyesight? Or did she likewise identify with a heavily contextualised impression of what it means to be blind in her society?

Transgenderism and BIID may well be heavily informed by their social context, but what do these phenomena tell us about society more generally?

As Germaine Greer recently demonstrated, critics of the transgender concept are increasingly accused of holding “problematic and hateful” views.  Such accusations have traction because transgender people are by-and-large “marginalised and vulnerable”, which means it is easy to conflate theoretical dissent with violent animosity. Even from a trans-skeptical point of view, concern for the mental health of people with gender dysphoria and BIID should inspire compassion and caution when commenting on these matters.

What makes transgenderism and transableism fundamentally problematic is the same as much else in our society: the spiritually stifling notion that something as tenuous and illusory as public affirmation of one’s identity can bring happiness.

Our society is increasingly devoid of the scepticism toward worldly goals embodied in the major religious traditions.  We no longer have people telling us that the world is an illusion, a shipwreck, a “vanity of vanities”. We are lacking the kind of unwavering clarity that pours cold water not only on the outer-reaches of our struggles for worldly fulfilment, but the inner-reaches as well: wealth, career, social esteem, fashion, passion, and pride.

Our religious traditions are united in wishing to dispel the illusion that the world can grant us real happiness, whether it be through the accumulation of possessions or being called by the “correct” pronouns. Whether we’re abled, disabled, male, female, or what have you; in the absence of genuine religious influence our society seems to take for granted both the desire and the possibility of finding satisfaction through our various vain pursuits, from the endless distractions of Facebook updates and iPhone upgrades, to the supposed significance of getting other people to affirm your authentic identity. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most prominent recent spokesperson for transgender has been a reality-TV star, whose gender transformation took shape on the glossy cover of a fashion magazine. 

The world seems to promise fulfilment and affirmation, but it is as empty and deceiving as the glamour of Vanity Fair. The most extraordinary efforts to find happiness in the world only make sense if we assume that happiness is indeed around the corner for every one of us. But it makes much greater sense to recognise that promises of worldly happiness are empty, and that the pursuit of worldly goods should rightly be subordinate to a higher goal.

Religion can afford to depreciate worldly goods because it has identified a transcendent reality whose value dwarfs the significance of wealth, gender, identity, and all the minutiae that otherwise dominate our lives.

People report being happy with their change in gender, or the removal of a healthy limb, but they also report being happy at getting a promotion, buying a new car, or getting lots of “likes” on their status update. To find happiness in such things is, from a religious perspective, deluded. By contrast, the “happiness” associated with the transcendent reality at the heart of our religious traditions is such that it overcomes even the failures, frustrations, suffering and losses in worldly life. Our religious traditions are unanimous in these two themes: the emptiness of our worldly goals, and the unparalleled joy, peace, tranquillity and bliss of being in relation to the transcendent reality.

We might recoil at the image of the woman destroying her own eyes, but the real blindness lamented by our religious heritage is our inability to see through the ephemeral happiness offered by this world.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com 

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...