Transgender Lives: the False Self & the Virtue of Integrity

By James and Evelyn Whitehead

The apostle Paul was famously suspicious of the flesh: “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.” (Romans 7:18) But Paul loved the body. In this metaphor, Paul found a visceral image of the community of faith: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Cor. 12: 27) In his plea for harmony among the fractious early Christians, Paul drew attention to the physical body. The body has many components; some parts fit awkwardly in the whole, others are considered inferior or even shameful. Our life-long challenge is one of integration: bringing the diverse members of our embodied self into harmony and graceful coordination. And Paul had advice for how this may be accomplished: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (12:22)  No member of the body, however self-important, can say of another part, “We do not need you.” We are all in this together. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (12:26)

Paul points here to the virtue of integrity as that gradually accrued sense of comfort and fit among the multiple energies that make us who we are. Psychological integrity names that harmonious state that arises when our words and our actions match, when our behavior is consistent with our interior sense of who we are. The achievement here is wholeness, not perfection. Integrity describes not a complete, well-defended self, but an expanding appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses, the light and shadow, that make us who we are. Social integrity names the fellowship that arises when, relieving ourselves of our customary prejudices, we admit into our assembly those who had been relegated to the margins of society. Current political efforts at immigration reform, for example, stand as witness to the dynamic of social integrity.

Transgender persons, aware of a dissonance within their very sense of self, face a special challenge in crafting this virtue of integrity. They experience a deep-seated disconnect between their anatomy and their inner sense of gender identity. They must find a way to integrate the differing witness of their brain and body: the psychological challenge of integrity; and they must find a way to belong and find welcome among others: the social challenge of integrity.

Spiritual guide Laura Thor reminds us that “people of diverse and varied gender…are the latest once-silent minority to step forward from a shadow existence.” Their challenge of crafting an interior integration is matched by the community’s challenge of welcome and integration of these members of the body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer with it.”

The Perils of Belonging and the False Self

Belonging is a perilous process, in both our families and our faith communities. Significant authority figures—parents and religious leaders—provide guidelines and cautions intended to shape our identities. Their goal is to help us become “respectable members” of the group. For many transgender persons, achieving this sense of belonging, so essential to survival, may entail developing a false self.

Psychologist Diane Ehrensaft describes this temporary shelter: “The false self is the layer that we build around the true self to protect it from harm and to conform to the expectations of the environment.” Further, “it is the congenial face we put on at work…the very face that we finally get to take off when we get home, kick up our heels, and let down our hair.” For the transgender person it is also “the face we put on…to our church or synagogue to protect us from their wrath if they were to know who we really are.” The false self is the mask that disguises the true gender self as a person struggles to find a secure place in the world.

Existing in the guise of a false self, a transgender person learns to navigate under the radar. In such a life, belonging is pretending. Even when a person begins to transition to a more integrated life, this identity must often remain hidden, out of harm’s way. David Johnsrud writes, “I am accustomed to getting by in the world by keeping significant parts of my life hidden. This is just common wisdom on many levels, not to mention basic self-preservation.”

The keen awareness of not belonging, never being recognized and welcomed as who a person is leads, in time, to a kind of self-erasure. Johnsrud: “I have documented almost none of my life to date. There are few photos of myself, I haven’t saved my yearbooks, and I did not keep a journal or much else by way of evidence for a life I have lived so far. Not living as who I feel I am has spurred me to continually purge such documentation. But I do want to capture parts of this, at least, with the anticipation that I will one day feel more a part of this world.”

Ehrensaft describes the tensions that arise between the true and false self. If “the true self is the kernel of individuality and personality that is there from birth,” then “the true gender self begins as the kernel of gender identity that is there at birth, residing within us in a web of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, hormone receptors, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics, but most important, in our brain and mind.” It is this true self that comes under threat as a transgender person struggles to belong.

Family and culture, often confusing difference with deviance, may well encourage the transgender person to settle for a superficial life. Tentative efforts at honest self-disclosure are met with strong resistance. Church communities, too, often conspire in this refusal to recognize the truth of this person’s life. Succumbing to these demands, transgender persons struggle to play the role that society has assigned them, no matter how deeply at odds with their inner reality.

Dawn Elizabeth Wright reflects, “That day in 1951 I learned that being different was dangerous. That day I learned the feelings I had of being a girl were wrong and not according to God’s will for me. I learned the way I felt was unnatural, that the feelings I had inside me were evil, something to be ashamed of and thus hidden away. That day I began to construct the façade that allowed me to hide in plain sight for over fifty years.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan describes her efforts to live under the burden of a false self. “Trying to make the best of things, trying to snap out of it, didn’t help, either. As time went on, that burden only grew heavier, and heavier, and heavier.” And the price of such make-believe is high: “At every waking moment now, I was plagued by the thought that I was living a lie.”

Maintaining this false self, however effective in its disguise, consumes enormous energy. Self-medication by alcohol and other strong medicines are sometimes required to silence the inner voices that protest against the charade of such a life. The time comes—and this is the good news—when the masquerade will no longer work. Sustaining this deception is simply too costly. Choosing to discard this “face” and begin a transition of integrity toward one’s genuine self is enormously liberating.

The Grace of Crisis

But for many transgender persons, this long-sought liberation begins in crisis. Crisis is often described as an unfortunate and even dangerous event in our lives. Erik Erikson, in his developmental perspective on human maturing, offered a much more positive vision: a crisis is often an invitation, however unsettling, to enter a new stage of growth. A crisis threatens a familiar past, even as it forecasts a richer future. Erikson explains: “Crisis is used here in a developmental sense to connote not a threat of catastrophe, but a turning point, a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential.” Erikson further describes the essential role of crises in human development. “Such crises occur in [a person’s] total development sometimes more noisily, as it were, when new instinctual needs meet abrupt prohibitions, sometimes more quietly when new capacities yearn to match new opportunities, and when new aspirations make it more obvious how limited one (as yet) is.”

For transgender persons, the crisis of integrity often arises in an insistence to trust themselves. Accepting more fully “who I know myself to be,” one moves toward a commitment to integrate this self-awareness with “how I am known to others.” This crisis often generates severe anxiety, because so much seems at risk. Yet many transgender persons report that, at this critical moment, there was no other choice. Stephanie Battaglino describes her arrival at this moment: “Forty plus years of putting up appearances, fighting the good fight, and living on someone else’s terms had taken their toll. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

If a crisis renders us confused and vulnerable, its upheaval paradoxically ignites hope. For Erikson: “Hope is the enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes,” and “if life is to be sustained, hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired.” Hope ignites the belief that the transition to a more integrated life is possible. And hope fuels the determination to embark on the journey, even aware of the perils that lie ahead.

The Virtue of Integrity

Integrity is a cherished virtue both in the psychological disciplines and the Christian tradition. Erikson defines the developmental virtue of integrity as that gradually developed ego strength that permits us to acknowledge all that we are, wounds and all. And this resource includes the willingness to defend the dignity of one’s whole life. Psychologist John Beebe describes this virtue as “the recognition not only of one’s higher abilities but also of one’s less noble impulses and desires, and the ability to embrace and incorporate one’s weaknesses and frailties into the whole of the psyche. This process leads to the embodiment of one’s genuine self.”

Developmental psychology also focuses on the social dimensions of integrity, a character strength that grows gradually from the exchanges and commitments we forge with each other. Humans do not begin life fully formed nor do they become whole in isolation, but only through the rough and tumble of our relationships. In league with others who amplify our gifts and tolerate our foibles, we achieve what we could not accomplish alone. Integrating our lives with significant others, we experience a richer dimension of wholeness, a flourishing that is unavailable to our individual selves.

But often it is the very religious tradition in which a transgender person has grown up that has jeopardized this longed-for integration. Laura Thor observes that “so deep is many transgender person’s absorption of negative religious messages that their spiritual work involves a process of birthing the spiritual self” beyond the moral judgments that had crippled their earlier life. If this is the challenge of integrity that a transgender person faces, she reminds us of the community’s task of integrity: to “remind our seekers, and ourselves, that life in all its diversity is welcome in the divine milieu.”

Integrating our Lives—Welcoming the Other

The virtue of integrity, harmonizing the diverse parts of ourselves and making peace with this multiplicity, is more than a personal challenge. The social processes of integration, positive efforts to welcome once-marginalized members of the community, are ongoing challenges of integrity. The Church has always faced the tension of welcoming newcomers while rejecting those who appear inimical to its own ideals.

Many Christians today aspire to a social integration that is eager to include rather than exclude. This is a virtue that not only harmonizes the light and darkness within ourselves, but strives to integrate the differences that exist among us. Here the virtue of integrity pivots not on detachment from those who are different, but on attachment to others whose strengths and limits, like our own, can bring us to a flourishing that we as individuals could never achieve. Psychologist Beebe notes the link between such integrity and the virtue of justice: “Integrity involves a willing sensitivity to the needs of the whole, an ethic that combines caring for others in the world with a sense of justice in insisting that others treat us and we treat them as we would like to be treated.”

Christian spirituality, once wed to ideals of detachment, distancing ourselves from threatening outsiders, is revisiting the virtue of attachment. In centuries past, attachment was most often associated with a clinging, dependent belonging that would compromise a person’s integrity. Today we recall how we begin our lives profoundly attached to another individual. Each of us is first nurtured in a womb where we are securely tethered by a life-sustaining cord. This bodily contact, with its intimate flow of fluids, does not contaminate, but sustains us. The umbilical cord is soon replaced by multiple other attachments: in vital contact with family, neighborhood, and other communities, we grow and further integrate our lives with those of others. And we continue to forge new interdependencies, creating the links of love and work and faith that confirm us as adults. These are the engagements that define our lives and make them fruitful. Our integrity will not be preserved in isolation, unsullied by contact with others. Instead, wholeness develops out of multiple commitments and hazardous compromises. The greatest peril is not contamination by others but an isolation that leaves us intact but ungenerous, pure but sterile.

The virtue of integrity is finally celebrated in those social arrangements where we are linked with others: in nurturing children, in crafting human culture, in befriending the poor, in stewarding the resources of the earth we share. As we forge, over a lifetime, the integration of our own lives, with all their gifts, wounds, and complexities, we continue to craft the virtue of integrity in our communities: welcoming those we had disregarded, befriending fellow believers we had once marginalized. The virtue of integrity flowers not in an inviolate privacy but in these bracing, sometimes messy engagements that link us vitally with others. ▼


See Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, p. 22. Diane Ehrensaft explores the false self in Gender Born, Gender Made. David Johnsrud’s remarks were received as personal communication.

See Laura Thor’s excellent reflection in “Living in the Image of God: Transgender People in Spiritual Direction,” Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, Vol. 19, # 4, December, 2013, 52-59. A shorter version of this essay is the next piece in this QV.

Erik Erikson explores crisis in his Identity, Youth and Crisis. See p. 96. He describes trust and hope in Insight and Responsibility. See p. 115. Also see Childhood and Society, and Identity and The Life Cycle.

L. H. Kalbian emphasizes the societal aspect of the virtue of integrity in her essay, “Integrity in Catholic Social Ethics,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 24, no. 2 (2004), 55-69. A number of authors in The Psychology of Mature Spirituality explore the virtue of integrity. See especially John Beebe’s essay, “The Place of Integrity in Spirituality,” Ruthellen Josselson’s “Relationships as a Path to Integrity, Wisdom and Meaning,” and David Rosen and Ellen Crouse, “The Tao of Wisdom.” ▼