Drew Cordes

Gender Discrepancy as the 'Sickness Unto Death'

Filed By Drew Cordes | August 09, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender, philosophy, sickness, sickness unto death, Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard.jpg"Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self." These words appear at the beginning of Soren Kierkegaard's "Sickness Unto Death." Writing from a Christian perspective, Kierkegaard believed in the existence of life after corporeal death; therefore, the only True and Eternal sickness unto death was a sickness of the spirit, of the self - namely, despair. Kierkegaard identifies various types of despair in his book:

  • the unconscious despair of not knowing oneself;
  • the conscious despair of not wanting to be oneself;
  • the conscious despair of the perceived inability to be oneself; and
  • the conscious despair of wanting to be oneself.
Each of these forms of despair is paralleled in the struggles of gender-nonconforming individuals to identify their True selves and integrate their ideal gender expression with their identity.

Not knowing oneself

In relation to gender struggles, this state can be summarized by two words: denial and ignorance. This is a familiar stage for many people struggling with gender identity and expression. Kierkegaard writes:

So when a man is supposed to be happy, he imagines that he is happy (whereas viewed in the light of the truth he is unhappy), and in this case he is generally very far from wishing to be torn away from that delusion. On the contrary, he becomes furious ...

This is the individual in denial. This passage rings true for many trans people's early years - the desperation of trying to escape that something that was lurking, that something that was not quite right, and while one wants to be happy, one also doesn't wish to draw back the curtain and face that horrible truth. One living in denial might not know exactly what that horrible truth is, but one always knows what seeing it will mean - the end of denial, unpleasant confrontation, and an uncertain future. Inarguably, this is intimidating, and this is why many cling to the gender imposed upon them by society, parents, religion, bigotry, etc., and despair.

Within his context, Kierkegaard dubs unconscious despair the most common form. Ignorance is the concept wherein this statement can be seen as true in terms of gender. We can never know how many people are denying some form of gender discrepancy, or how that number compares to those who are actively wrestling with their gender identity.


I will, however, hazard the assumption that the number of people in the world who live with some unacknowledged form of internal gender trouble, however small, is much, much higher than we imagine - be it the adult American male who feels a bit trapped by the silent, stony stoicism of his culture's concept of masculinity, a Muslim woman living under the misogyny of shariah law, the bored housewife, the newly staying-at-home dad, etc. We all live under the constructs and consequences of gender, but this is not something that is in the forefront of most people's consciousness during daily life. Ignorance indeed must be the most common form of gender despair.

Not wanting to be oneself

Kierkegaard views this state as falling into three different categories. To illustrate the despair of not wanting to be oneself, he uses two examples: the man who aspires to become Caesar, and the girl in love:

Thus when the ambitious man whose watchword was 'Either Caesar or nothing,' does not become Caesar, he is in despair thereat. ... It is not the fact that he did not become Caesar which is intolerable to him, but the self which did not become Caesar is the thing that is intolerable; or, more correctly, what is intolerable to him is that he cannot get rid of himself.

Similarly the girl in love also desires to be rid of herself:

A young girl is in despair over love, and so she despairs over her lover, because he died, or because he was unfaithful to her. ... She is in despair over herself. This self of hers, which, if it had become 'his' beloved, she would have been rid of in the most blissful way ...

This is the despair of fantasy, an escape that creeps into the minds of many struggling with their gender. We're all familiar with the myriad daydreams - "Once I get my mastectomy, everything will be better;" "After my surgery, I'll finally be a woman;" "If I could only get breast implants/bigger muscles/a nose job/a brow lift/etc., I'll be my true gender." Unfortunately, those aspiring to validate their gender through physical means will ultimately discover that human beings are not their bodies. The body will change. Oneself will not. As the saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are." This inspires a smile in most who hear it, but for those struggling with gender, with the self, it can range from discouraging to depressing to terrifying.


The next category under "not wanting to be oneself" is the despair of wanting a new self. A step beyond fantasy, this is the despair of delusion. It is obviously not possible for a human being to become someone else. A person may change, and change drastically, but the self, one's consciousness, remains. If one could change, the past self would no longer exist, as Kierkegaard writes, "If he did become another, I wonder if he would recognize himself again!" Wanting to be someone else is a recognizable sentiment in those who are depressed about their gender conflict. They hopelessly wish they were someone else, wish they weren't trans. They wish it despite its obvious futility, which is the particularly tragic aspect of this stage.

There is also the despair of not wanting a self. This is the dissociative, or suicidal despair. If one desires not to have a self, there is only one way to achieve that - eradication. Sadly, too many queer and trans people, particularly the youth we've all seen in the news recently, reside in this category of despair. One mistakenly uses the power of dissociation in order to exercise some control - albeit destructive control. One cannot be affected if one decides to become a thing, rather than a human being, and one cannot lose the discouraging chess match if one knocks the pieces to the floor. These acts of desperation, however, are permanent and painful resolutions to temporary, solvable problems.

Perceived inability to be oneself

Kierkegaard calls this "Despair about the eternal, or over oneself." He says, "If the former was the despair of weakness, this is despair over his weakness." This is the despair of the unwilling, of helplessness. Those in this state recognize their gender confusion for what it is, but are convinced they can do nothing about it. The torrent of laments and excuses from those suffering this form of despair are familiar to us all - "Why me?" "I just can't." "What would people think?" They dwell over this weakness. It is not transness or queerness that defines them, but rather their anguish over their transness or queerness.

A number of different causes can trap one here - cowardess, self-pity, self-hatred, lack of agency, vanity, social pressure. Make no mistake, these people know who they are, and it is precisely this knowledge that forms their agony. Every day of their lives they say "no" when the chance to be happy is offered to them. Kierkegaard writes, "Just as a father disinherits a son, so the self is not willing to recognize itself after it has been so weak. In its despair it cannot forget this weakness, it hates itself in a way, it will not humble itself ... in order to gain itself again." As he states, the antidote to this pride and stubbornness is humility. As anyone who transitions or lives outside the gender binary will tell you, humble moments are common. The helpless and unwilling envision these moments as crushing, hence their inability to embrace the self. While they do sting sometimes, the person who has succeeded knows that they are nothing compared with being at home in one's own skin.

Wanting to be oneself

In this case, the person recognizes the Self and seeks to become itself but is unable to do so, and thus becomes hardened and resentful against the steps that must be taken or any help that is available. This is the despair of heroic suffering. When translated in terms of gender, the issues presented in this section become more practical and "real-world," as opposed to the mental states and self-understanding of previous sections.

Kierkegaard writes of a man who "becomes an experimental God" and tries to attain Selfhood himself, rather than taking the correct route - humbling himself through faith in a Christian God. One can draw parallels of this example to gender-nonconforming individuals who refuse or are unable to seek professional help, opting rather to do it on their own. This can be a dangerous undertaking. The mental strain of shifting genders, as well as the physical strain of changing one's body through drugs or surgery or diet is jarring at best and deadly at worst.

A more thought-provoking comparison presents itself in this form of despair as well, in the case of those trans and genderqueer people who do seek help and treatment. Specifically when transitioning, there is a seemingly unending set of rules and qualifications one must live up to in order to be deemed worthy or ready to work toward living as one's true gender. The therapists are looking for the "right" answers; the doctors require one to pass "real-world" tests before they treat you; the surgeons need clearance from those therapists and doctors; the government needs statements from those therapists, doctors and surgeons to change your documents; even friends and family tend to need to see some concrete proof before they are willing (consciously or unconsciously) to realign their perceptions. Accordingly, the patient must supplicate him or herself and "play the game," even if the rules (which were of course made up by non-trans people) can seem unfair and degrading. Kierkegaard touches on this feeling beautifully:

A sufferer has one or more ways in which he would be glad to be helped. ... But when in a deeper sense it becomes seriousness with this thing of needing help, especially from a higher or from the highest source - this humiliation of having to accept help unconditionally and in any way, the humiliation of becoming nothing in the hand of the Helper for whom all things are possible, or merely the necessity of deferring to another man, of having to give up being oneself so long as one is seeking help ...

If one doesn't fit the mold and give the right answers, if one objects to the Harry Benjamin standards of care, if one's doctor is less than understanding, if a doctor experienced in trans medicine can even be found, if one simply doesn't have the money, if one's friends or family are hostile - in these all-too-common cases, one becomes disenfranchised, trapped in the despair of heroic suffering. This is perhaps the most maddening state of gender despair, since one recognizes the True self and is willing to pursue it, but one's ideal goals are always tantalizingly just out of reach.

The solution to despair

Kierkegaard believes faith is the solution to despair, specifically, faith in God. For the purposes of gender, the answer is not so simple. For the first three forms of despair discussed, faith does translate as a solution. Rather than God, though, one must place faith in oneself, that being true to oneself will alleviate the internal torment over identity. This concept is not new. It reappears throughout history from Ancient Greece ("Know thyself") and Shakespeare ("To thine own self be true"), to Nietzsche's Ubermensch and Joseph Campbell's words of advice, "Follow your bliss."

The final form of despair discussed, being rooted in more pragmatic problems, presents a dilemma. Faith in the Self can take us far, but it cannot provide health care, money, bureaucratic solutions, or convince others to be accepting. Sadly, to rectify this conflict, personal philosophy and psychology must be abandoned in favor of politics and social activism. In our fight, we are forced to make the personal public. We are forced to surrender our control and privacy, compromising and subjugating the very Self we wish to strengthen. It is not ideal. On the other hand, lying down and giving in to despair, oppression and inequality is not an option. The fight for acceptance from others and from ourselves must continue. For us and for those in the future, despair not.


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Rachel Bellum | August 9, 2011 2:26 PM

Fear and Trembling was one of the most powerful works I've ever read.

This has given me a lot to think about. Thank you very much.

Eva-Genevieve | August 11, 2011 1:05 PM

For myself I find Kierkegaard to be right. I would not have had the strength to transition were it not for a strong faith, one that clearly shows me that God made me this way and fully accepts me as created. Faith in God is the answer for me but it took a very long time and a lot of soul-searching and prayerful struggle to reconcile who I am to Biblical Christian faith. The problem here being that so much of western Christianity is driven by very prejudiced dogma especially when it comes to transgender individuals like myself. Scripture itself is very validating to transgender people if one reads it with an open mind and looks beyond the surface of the words. However that one has to have the fortitude to face all the ridicule, oppression and outright hatred directed at them from the very people who ought to be welcoming them into the fold.