A few days ago, I got a note from a friend of mine saying that she wanted to give me a heads up, that my existence had prompted her to write the following blog post after seeing my post about a Seattle video project. She said in a personal message, “your video posting yesterday inspired me. You probably won’t like how it inspired me, but you probably won’t be surprised, either.” Then she pointed me to her blog post at
After acknowledging her post without being able to respond to it due to my grading and administrative issues, she wrote a further clarification:
Not sure if it was kind, but out of respect I wanted you to see the piece before I post it in general on FB. I was also contemplating this issue this morning… and it occurred to me that the main reason I cannot think of you as a “she” probably has a great deal to do with the fact that in my mind you will ALWAYS be 20 years old, with all the male virility that 20 year old guys have (and in all fairness, my recollection is that you had an abundance of that LOL). That is who you are in my head. If I saw you every day, perhaps my perception would change. Is that weird, to have someone think of you as a perpetually charged-up college guy?
So here’s what she wrote and said that prompted her note to me:
I have a friend who used to be a guy, but now he considers himself a girl. He posted this on Facebook today:
The main point being, there is a current campaign out there to teach “queer” youth that “it gets better” so that they supposedly will not be so prone to commit suicide. This video takes issue with that, and points out that these kids shouldn’t have to wait for it to get better.
If by that they mean nobody should be bullying them, of course they’re right. However, that’s not all they mean. This video makes the agenda very clear. We all need to be “re-taught” about gender and sexuality. We all need to “learn” that people can choose to be male or female or even both at the same time, and that sexual preferences for one or the other or both are all okay as well. And the “we all” who need to be re-taught include the school administrators, policymakers, health care providers, social workers, police officers – and my favorite, the churches.
In a comment section on the site where this was posted a few days ago, someone almost immediately highlighted the video’s contention that the churches need to be re-taught, with the observation, “Exactly.”
Do they not see what a violation of others’ rights they are espousing? We don’t need re-teaching (a term uncomfortably close to “re-education” as in re-education camps). We are fully aware already of their opinion on gender matters. But it is just that – their opinion. Many of us have a different opinion. Many of us believe that to surgically alter one’s gender is in fact a form of self-mutilation. Many of us believe that to believe one can choose to be a woman today and a man tomorrow is as delusional as saying one can choose to be white today and black tomorrow. And yes, there are also many of us who believe that sex outside marriage (and yes, we mean a man and a woman) is wrong, and that attraction to people of the same sex is a path to unhappiness best resisted, as are other sexual deviations that take a person outside the marital bond.
However. Until such sorry time as sharia law starts being implemented in this country, they have every right to live however they choose, sleep with whomever they wish, and do to their own bodies whatever they desire, in peace and free of outside interference.
We, on the other hand, have the right to continue our adherence to a different belief system. So to our friends who would indeed espouse what this video is proposing, we say this: We have centuries of moral teaching and a great deal of research on our side when we question your lifestyle, but we are not demanding to “re-teach” you. Kindly do us the same courtesy.
So after almost a week of stewing over her blog post, here’s what i was finally able to write to her:
Donna, I was swamped this week with grading and administrative duties, and have just had a chance on this pleasant weekend to return to your blog post cross-listed on Facebook. I think there are two things I need to write, and they’re two separate issues. One has to do with the sentiment in your blog post for your readers, and the other with you and me.
In this latter issue, I certainly don’t expect anyone to understand, respect, appreciate, learn from my experiences. I’m just a parent, spouse, professor, and probably 50 other roles in society, and I’m happy being those things without functioning as some kind of symbol. I turn down speaking invitations and news reporter invitations when I think the purpose is for me to play the “professor who had a sex change” role — I’m not interested in doing that because a) there’s hundreds of media whores who would be happy to go play that role for Maury or Ellen or whoever happens to be making the request and b) it’s not fair to my family, students, co-workers, where the distracting energy would certainly return to roost with that sort of thing.
That said, you ask if there’s anything odd with your inability to think of me as “she” based on recollections of a 20 year old guy in college. No, of course not. I remember you and all our classmates as 20 year olds, and I remember my parents as being alive, and I see my teenaged boys and often think of them as toddlers or babies. I think that’s normal. I also have found that people have real trouble with pronouns in a way that they do not with proper nouns — I don’t know why, but maybe human cognition stores these things differently. For example, I’ll be with fellow faculty friends who are talking about Joyce doing this and that (maybe we’re planning something) and they’ll say, “Joyce, he’s going to do X,” and they look at me pained and say, “I’m really sorry — I don’t know where that came from.” But the odd thing is that they never make that mistake with the names George or Joyce, which is where my theory of pronouns comes from. But if you never knew George and never cemented the “he, him” pronouns in your cognition, you never make that mistake, even though you know fully the story of George and Joyce.
So no, I don’t find it odd that you have this difficulty because of memory, categories, and cognition. But I do find it odd that you’d use me and my existence as a jumping off point to your blog entry on Real Live Blog. First, it’s kind of irrelevant, as you could have introduced the topic of Seattle teens and the pro-queer-pride movement they espouse in their video separately from the fact that I shared it on Facebook. And second, I think your reference to me as “considers himself a girl” and “he” indicates either ignorance (which is hard to believe, given that I am pretty sure you’re quite intelligent and experienced in not only the ways of the world but also the various media style guides that discuss how to refer to trans* people) or willful meanness (which is also hard to understand, given your generally pleasant demeanor). Perhaps it was a rhetorical move designed to create for your blog-readers an immediate gut feeling to predispose them to being against whatever your trans* friend posted on facebook. Who knows? In any case, I found your language incredibly dismissive of me as a human being and it really hurt. And it’s odd given the end of your piece, in which you say to “them” (whoever they are) that you’re “not demanding to ‘re-teach’ you. Kindly do us the same courtesy.” I think that’s probably the same thing I would ask of you, not that I expect to teach you anything, but that I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve this treatment from you.
Since you’re a journalist (although this blog is opinion, so maybe it doesn’t fall under the broad category of journalism), you might appreciate what the Associated Press Styleguide (2006) says about transgender subjects:Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
The New York Times (2005) style guide takes a similar approach and does something extra (that’s pretty meaningful, I think, in saying that if the subject’s transgender status isn’t material to the story, it’s not appropriate to mention — and I think your use of my status falls under this category):transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.
So I’d probably strike your first sentence and start simply by saying that you recently came across a video produced by some teens in Seattle that goes further than the “It Gets Better” videos currently circulating the internet. If you need cover so that your readers don’t think you’re actively going out and finding these videos, I suppose you could revise thusly, “I have a friend on Facebook who posted a video today on Reteaching Gender and Sexality,” etc, etc.
And I guess this dovetails with the subject of your blog piece at this point, since my existence is used not only as a jumping off point for your criticism of the Seattle video project, but it’s also conflated with some of the gender liberation espoused in that video on your essay’s second page, where you do the repetition of “some of us” and list your responses to social, sexual, gender, and marriage wrongs you see around you. Among these “sexual deviations” you list are two that certainly feel as if they’re directed at me:Many of us believe that to surgically alter one’s gender is in fact a form of self-mutilation. Many of us believe that to believe one can choose to be a woman today and a man tomorrow is as delusional as saying one can choose to be white today and black tomorrow.
I may be many things, but I’m not delusional; I’m certainly considered as realistic and as rational by my family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and students as anyone. Maybe we’re all delusional, but if that’s the case, then I think we’re redefining delusion to mean something like ideology or world view instead of the more psychological definition we’d apply to someone who believes they can fly or that they have skills that they really don’t have (based on their inability to do whatever it is they believe they’re good at), etc.
As for gender and mutilation, two points. Modifying gender doesn’t require anything surgical. I think if you’d want to talk about modifying secondary sex characteristics, you’d want to say so: “surgically altering one’s secondary sex characteristics is a form of self-mutilation,” which would be a lot closer to what you mean to say, I think. But that would throw an unpleasantly large net over activities you’re probably all right with, such as mastectomies, nose jobs, and the like, which alter secondary sex characteristics (but just not for gender purposes). In any event, I know many transgender friends who haven’t done any sort of surgery whatsoever, people who live as they wish, using nothing more than clothing and grooming to perform their desired identity. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, as I think we (in this society) wish for individuals to be self-actualized and whole members of society. And regardless of your personal thoughts on what you believe gender and sex to be, I hope that as an agent of an institution of higher education, sitting over there in your building off campus and working on the policies that affect the university employees and students, you not only tolerate, but you encourage self-individuation, critical thinking, and respect for State College students and their separate identities [by the way, I'm pleased to see that our alma mater explicitly includes gender identity in its non-discrimination policy].
And maybe that’s where this response should end: on identity. You mention sharia law in your final passage, and I think it’s a good analogy to the kind of oppressive rules that these kids in Seattle are railing against, rules that are socially enforced on TV, in schools, in churches, in politics, and in movies. As a libertarian myself, I feel not only dedicated to free market economics, not just in the private sector, but also as a model for public spending projects, but also committed to a laissez-faire approach to identity, and think these kids have every right to be the way they want to be, and to advocate for a society that values them as individuals. And here’s where different groups butt heads. One individual’s freedom of identity is claimed by another group as an oppressive injection of wrong values into their world, and this rhetoric seems to me to be claimed by many different flavors of individuals and groups. I don’t know how we balance our desire to encourage individual identity within a pluralistic society with allowing someone else’s individual identity to have the right to put that first individual’s identity behind a curtain so that it doesn’t taint them. It’s not acceptable that we just all go to our corners, or our enclaves, or our compounds so that we withdraw from interaction with fellow citizens. But there’s also got to be room for groups to maintain their own separate cultures and values. And I guess that meeting of those two sometimes-competing values is what it’s all about. It’s slippery and changes through time. What’s acceptable in 1950 about race or ideology isn’t acceptable in 1990. I don’t know what the answer is, and no one is asking me about my thoughts on the subject.
All I know is that there are some things that simply are, and during the struggle between cultures, maybe certain things that we come to see as “facts” are disputed for quite a while, such as mental abilities of minorities, or whether climate change is real or is caused by humans, or whether there are really people who love and make families with those of the same sex, or whether there are men who used to be women and women who used to be men. All I know regarding the latter category is that this is a real thing — it’s nothing something one simply “considers,” using your words. It’s something pervasive and lifelong. It’s something deadly, as I know from the many, many transpeople who commit suicide every year. I myself sat with a gun, at my rope’s end, panicked and desperate for any solution other than to face this thing. I asked/begged god to help, ever since I first felt these feelings as a youth. And there was nothing but silence. I came to the conclusion that a) there is no one listening, or b) there’s a god who likes to see me suffer, or c) there is a god and I’m created just fine and that accepting myself is the only key to becoming whole. The point of the paragraph being that no one in their right mind would seek this sort of life-long torment, ergo, it’s very, very real.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m healthy, happy, and fine now. The despair went away and all it took was to quit fighting and to begin accepting. I suspect that’s kind of the same way these kids in Seattle look at their existences. It’s hard enough feeling like this and feeling as if all these institutions are against you. It’s not all schools, all media, all churches, of course — only some of them, and I think the Seattle kids have a good point, especially if made specifically instead of broadly, banding together as they are to support themselves and that they’re questioning the institutions that oppress them.
She responded in facebook the next day, and we had a wonderful back and forth during the entire day:
My response, to your response.
December 5, 2010 at 4:45pm
First, thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully at and such length. I didn’t even know how this FB note thing existed. That’s cool.
Allow me to address a few things you brought up.
You are absolutely correct; I did not need to “use” you to start the post, and it was irrelevant and unnecessary. In my mind, the reason you’re posting videos related to gender issues is tied pretty closely to your gender issues, but what if you had posted it when you were “George”? You may have found the video just as relevant back then, and I would not have considered your identity to be of any great import in using the video as a jumping off point. All that to say again, you were right; I didn’t need to “use” you, and I should not have. What’s more, had I not, then I would not have hurt your feelings with my wording. I apologize.
As to that wording. I am aware of what the styleguides say, and I ignore them all the time when it suits my purpose. However, my purpose was in no way an attempt to be mean. Nor was it a rhetorical device to ramp up my readers. Upon further reflection I realize that it was really more simple than that – it’s just that, as I mentioned in my brief note to me, you were a “he” to me. I certainly do not mean to be hurtful in saying this. But this is in no way dismissive of you as a human being. No part of your identity makes up all of you who you are (and I’m using the generic “you” here). Neither your gender nor your hair color nor your shoe size defines you. Rather, you are your soul and intellect and the essence of yourself. That thing that makes us human! That does not change no matter what someone calls you or frankly what you call yourself. It just “is.” That’s how I see it. My desire to not consider you a “she” does not take away from any other sentiment I have about you (respect, concern, etc. etc.). But I certainly understand how my calling you a “he” bothers you, and again, I didn’t even need to bring that into it. I am sorry.
On to the issue of “delusions.” Of course you’re not delusional in the sense that you are going to try to fly off the top of a building. But the folks in this video are deluding themselves if they think they can simply change reality by wishing or saying it’s so. What else to make of someone who says “I’m a girl today, and a boy tomorrow, and a girl the next day.” No, you’re not. That IS deluded. You have changed your identity, and are now known as Joyce instead of George. That’s a reality, no doubt. You indicated it’s been a painful journey to get where you are. That’s a reality I would never deny. People may argue over whether you are male or female; they may disagree with your choice, but clearly you made one and that is real. Now, would you say that tonight, if you feel like it, you’ll be a boy again? And that the next day you’ll switch back? That is deluded thinking, and that is to what I was referring. It’s just not based in reality. That’s a long way of saying – I wasn’t talking about you. And I would really be interested in your response to that kind of “thinking” which by some clinical definitions is insane (i.e. no grasp of reality). I am drawing a line in the sand here and saying that gender is not a fluid characteristic.
Thus, I disagree with your contention that modifying gender doesn’t require anything surgical. On the contrary – else why would people do it? (And I think an argument can be made that certain accepted plastic surgery techniques are pretty self-mutilating, independent of this issue. Bruce Jenner. Janice Dickinson. Case closed.) If changing one’s clothes did the trick why would anyone opt for the surgical altering of one’s sex characteristics? And we are back to that line in the sand again. I say (and I believe I’m likely in the majority here) that changing one’s gender is not like changing one’s shirt. You don’t get to just say “now I’m a man” any more than you can say “now I’m Asian.” That is deluded, and it is to be expected that if you make a statement like that, people will respond by saying “that is not so.”
That has nothing to do with the wish for individuals to be self-actualized and whole members of society. If these kids want to pretend to be one gender one day and another the next, that’s their prerogative in a free country. But when they want to impose that delusion on everyone else (as in, I’m going to use the men’s restroom today), then we have a conflict. I am going to come down on the side that says healthy societies embrace male and female gender as a fairly set characteristic, rather than a “flavor the of the day.”
As for my work (and how do you know where my office is? Are you stalking me? LOL I am just kidding)… anyway, you may be relieved to find out that although I do have input into university policy, I don’t set it all by myself. Nobody does. And those of us who work on it all get along because the individuals involved (at least up to this point) are all respectful of each other’s viewpoints. Nuance is important, no? I do not believe we should call out categories for special protection, “gender identity” among them. But I unequivocally support the right of a kid like those in this video to live, work, and learn on campus absolutely free of any kind of harassment. That being said – expressing the opinion that “she” is not a “he” is not harassment.
I strongly disagree with you on your characterization of “oppressive rules that these kids in Seattle are railing against.” How, exactly, are they oppressed? Did they not have the freedom to make this video? What are these oppressive “rules” enforced on TV, in schools, in politics, in movies (I will address churches separately)? There are no such rules, but there is social opinion, which I would opine currently tends to agree with my assessment, that gender is not fluid. Social opinion comes and goes, and “the other side” may eventually tip this balance, and more people will subscribe to what I have described as a delusion. C’est la vie. In any event, it seems that what the kids in Seattle are railing against is anyone disagreeing with them. Society will always have norms, and when you flaunt those norms (in any aspect of society, not just this one), you are going to come up against people who will not agree with you. So what?
As for churches, in this country they are free to teach whatever they want. Neither these kids nor anyone else has any business trying to butt in to that. Why would they even want to? Again, why is it so important to them that everyone smile and nod and agree with all their ideas, even the delusional ones? Could it be perhaps that they are not as comfortable with themselves in their gender fluidity as they insist, and they want us all to pat them on the head and tell them they’re right? You yourself said “it’s not all schools, all media, all churches… only some of them.” So, like I said, they’re not happy till EVERYONE agrees with them. Seriously. They need to have the courage of their convictions already and stop whining about being oppressed.
Speaking of oppression: My point about sharia law, of course, is that it does not allow gender fluidity in society. The church may disapprove of gender fluidity, but America is not a theocracy, and most of us who are conservative/libertarian are doing everything we can to protect that free-thinking America. Under Islam, no can do. Please don’t conflate the Christian church with Islam. Their approaches to all gender issues (as is clearly evidenced in current events) are entirely different.
I also think these kids have every right to be the way they want to be, and advocate for a society that values them as individuals. But again, nobody kept them from making or distributing this video. Likewise, nobody keeps me from commenting on it and pointing out that to claim you can change your gender on an hourly basis is problematic, at best.
And I think you are correct in noting that this is where we approach the heart of the conflict, when you say that “one individual’s freedom of identity is claimed by another group as an oppressive injection of wrong values into their world.” I would argue that the very fact this video was made indicates that these kids indeed feel a great deal of “freedom of identity.” But likewise, doesn’t that “other group” have the freedom to express their case for, as you put it, “wrong values”? Of course they do.
Clearly, there are facts. In this lifetime we may never agree on what those facts are, but that doesn’t change the reality that there are facts. The facts don’t change; our opinions about them do, and like you and I both said, society’s viewpoint shifts here and there along with individual viewpoints. Regarding your statement about the fact that there are men who used to be women and women who used to be men – that that is one of those facts, and that I was wrong to say you “consider” yourself female… surely you agree that there are many people who insist that no matter what a person does to his or her body, they remain whatever gender they were born. As for me, I was not sure and did not remember (nor is it really any of my business) whether you had taken physical steps to change your gender. If you had not, then as I stated above, it is my opinion that you are not a women just because you say it is so. And if you have gone to the considerable pain, trouble and angst of having gone through surgery to change – again, why would you condone a group of teenagers announcing they can switch their gender off and on at will? Again, why would anyone ever go through surgery if that were the case? Why would you describe it as a lifelong torment (living with the “wrong” gender) when these kids say you can live just fine flipping back and forth at will? They, and you, seem to be talking about two different things. I see a distinction here that you don’t seem to be making. You say the despair went away when you quit fighting and began accepting (and I have great respect for the courage involved in taking a decisive step that is not popular). This type of momentous decision doesn’t seem on the same planet with the flippant “we can be anything we wanna be” message of this video.
Here is what probably bothers me the most. I very much resent the implication that if we do NOT all pat them on the head and tell them they’re wonderful little girls+boys (at the same time!)… they’re going to jump off a bridge. This kind of emotional blackmail is unhealthy when done on an individual basis, and it’s unhealthy societally as well. Good grief, conservative kids are told in universities every day that they are ignorant, nasty and hateful. I don’t see them threatening to jump out of buildings. I resent the teen suicide angle being used to bully people into agreeing (at least on the surface) with one side or another. This was painfully evident in the video I posted and wrote about a few weeks ago from the “NoH8” campaign. Even the name “no hate” makes offensive assumptions.
I found the story of Tyler Clementi to be heartbreaking. That last Facebook entry that was publicized was profoundly tragic. I can’t even imagine what hell his parents are going through. But I reject that this is about him being gay, or even gay bullying. This is about a couple of roommates who had no respect for Tyler’s privacy. One can argue he would have been unlikely to take his life had they broadcast him having sex with a girl, societal approval of virile boys being what it is, but it doesn’t take that much of a stretch to imagine a young woman being devastated by such a video. Maybe more so some decades back, but still. Girls have killed themselves over this type of thing. The fact that he was gay is somewhat (not wholly) peripheral. But – and this is really important – for either Tyler or my fictional devastated girl, they are confusing who they are with what they did. Tyler could have withstood this humiliation if he had a right view of himself and his own human dignity. That is separate from what gender he likes or even what gender he is.
As for God. He is, and He loves, and I don’t think it much matters whether the person who loves Him back is Joyce or George. But I would argue that we should love Him back. And with that, I’ll stop. J
you’re right about a needing a sabbatical — I’ve got a final exam to write, semester graduate papers to read, and a whole bunch of admin stuff to complete over the next week, but I *will* return to this, if you’ll forgive the lapse in back…-and-forth argumentation.
In brief, I suppose the main concept I will advocate is that I don’t see any problem or impediment (short of social confusion) to people having fluid identities — of any sort, sexual, professional, vocational, religious, educational, and so on. It may be overstated to call social norms “oppressive,” but that’s how I’m using the term for the purposes of this argument — we may be able to agree on a softer term that captures the same sentiment of society’s prescribing norms of thought and behavior on its members, along with what that feels like to members who simply do not share those thoughts and behaviors.
Well, the main problem with people having a fluid sexual identity is that it flies in the face of reality. Those other categories you mentioned are expected to change and do regularly. It’s like having a fluid racial identity. And if that w…ere NOT the case, and it’s something you can change like changing your shirt, then why should any gender category at all be a protected class?
I will wait for your sabbatical — or possibly your retirement — when you will have enough time to answer. LOL.
reality is an awfully big word, and yes, people do have fluid racial identity, as any book on black “passing” will point out. I think what we generally aim for is sex discrimination, not gender discrimination, although there are good reasons to consider the latter as far more in need of protection than the latter, but that argument is ongoing and is far from fleshed out or decided.
When I use the word sex, I refer to various biological markers, such as chromosomes, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, and so on. Intersex people and theorists will point out that there are a lot more than two sexes, perhaps something like 11. When I use “gender,” I mean the set of social codes that comprise what we tend to think of as masculinity and femininity, along with the degree to which we tend to assign masculine attributes to males and feminine attributes to females, and some combination of attributes to androgynous people, along with educated and older people. This distinction is what makes it easy to say that changing gender is as easy as changing your attitude (among other things) but changing your sex often involves chemicals, surgery, and that sort of thing. The important point is that we never really know what sex someone is by looking (I’m certainly not going to submit to a crotch check any time soon, unless TSA decides it’s a matter of national security), so all we’ve got to go on is what we see, and that’s gender (i.e. the performance of more or less recognizable genders).
I don’t think reality is that problematic a concept. Intersex people and theorists may point out 11 sexes but the rest of us know that’s not reality at all for purposes of discussion. The black “passing” analogy doesn’t fly — the person is… still whatever race they were born; it’s purely a matter of how they are perceived. And of course a woman can be perceived as a man and vice versa — that doesn’t make her a man, however.
Bigger picture. I don’t agree in theory with the protected class argument at all. Race, color, religion, gender, etc. For anyone.
I’m fine with abolishing protected classes, but your insistence on reality in the cases mentioned above is simply not warranted according to real biological beings and their lives. There are people who have mixed sex organs, there are people with different chromosomes than merely XX and XY, and there are people who have combinations of secondary sex characteristics. Heck, I even know of a man who spontaneously changed sex due to a very strange condition that’s incredibly rare. These are simply biological facts, and yes, for the sake of simplicity we may feel better about insisting that we collapse that complexity into tidy categories, but life doesn’t care about those categories.
Same for race — there’s simply no reason for one’s racial identity to be affixed and immutable at the time of birth by the attending physician — that simply flies in the face of racially complex identities, and to insist that we collapse those complexities (which are real, unlike the categories) into simple labels seems needlessly simplifying.
It’s not a bad thing — it’s a good thing. We don’t have castes in this society, and we aren’t stuck in the same town all our lives, and we generally don’t see biology as destiny (to echo first wave feminism), and I take that view not just as first-wave feminism, but a liberating concept for everyone.
I honestly don’t see why fluid identities is a problem, and I’m curious as to what the reasons might be for those problems.
Still not buying the race analogy, since now you’re talking about what a doctor calls you at birth. That is not relevant to my point, which is that WHATEVER you are, label it whatever you want – your race will never, ever change. You won’t …become more white, or more Asian, etc. Likewise, a doctor will call you a gender at birth, which also won’t change, except in those extremely rare cases you mention, and of course when people go to the considerable effort of making the change themselves. So far, people can’t really do that with their race.
But by and large, we are all born male or female (biological oddities notwithstanding). That’s the reality to which I refer. For all of recorded history, that has been reality, and barring some epidemic of freakish mutations, that will continue to be the reality. It’s sort of a necessity in order to perpetuate the species. And speaking of species, they are all born male or female too (again, minus the biological “accidents”). Not sure why you would argue against that reality…
Joyce Bailey those accidents are part of that reality, are they not?
Donna Schaller Of course they are. But they are not relevant to an overall policy discussion. They are not relevant to the Seattle kids’ argument. An enormous majority of people will never even encounter one of those “accidents.”
well, that’s an assumption on your part, but we can let it lie at that, I suppose. For my part, I think the biological and social fabric of reality is very interesting and much more complex than our prescriptive efforts allow it to be. I …don’t see the threat in recognizing the incredible diversity of experience, preference, inclination, and identity. And since there are real people experiencing real lives that lie outside neat descriptions and categories, why not recognize those lives?
Your race example is kind of strange — that we need a race at all is what’s strange about it. Of course the various racial/ethnic strands that comprise our DNA won’t change through time, but that label (hence my use of “passing”) is quite fluid. What is one supposed to do: carry a genomic analysis of their mixed race heritage (which we all have) and say, “this is me, it’s immutable, and furthermore, I’m stuck with the label that others applied to me and continue to apply to me”? Thanks, but no thanks, as this insistence on the label seems totally unnecessary regarding race, and I would argue, for sex as well.
I suppose it may come down to a descriptivist versus prescriptivist view of categories. I’m all for prescribing education, responsibility, and lawfulness, and that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.
Agreed that race labels are unnecessary. Not agreed that gender labels are unnecessary. As I said, it comes back to a pretty basic societal need — to continue breeding.
One could argue that no man can ever become a woman, no matter what he goes through to attempt it, because he can never make himself capable of conceiving/bearing a child. Likewise, the other way.
You may argue that reproduction is only one function, but I would argue that it is by far the primary function of our genders.
Of course we’re discussing the difference between what one IS and what one is labeled.
Do you really have no problem with the kids’ insistence that they are boys because they say they are, or vice versa? I mean — that’s just silly. And yes, I know that most everyone in the world agrees with me on that one.
It’s true, yes, I have no problem with those statements, and no, not everyone in the world agrees with you. With regard to reproduction, I think that argument flies in the face of a) the power of biology, which will reproduce the species regardless of our imposition of categories on our humanity and b) the fact that a vast number of people are not fertile, and clearly don’t lose their rights to dignity, law, and other basic rights. You cant’ tell by looking at someone whether they’re fertile any more than you can tell what sex they are, and I think that’s perfectly fine with me.
And yes, maybe that’s where we reach our argumentative impasse, that there is not only a fundamental difference between what one IS and what one is labeled, but also whether those essences and those labels are immutable. You argue for more or less stable essences and categories (both ontological and epistemological), and I’m arguing that those categories need not determine our identities. Further, I think we are at odds as to whether fluid identity constitutes some “problem” that requires action on the part of “normal,” or “non-fluid” citizenry. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, and in fact should be celebrated, and I think you’re probably arguing that it is a problem because it may give rise to what you might call an alternate normativity that might, via slippery slopes, water down certain values that relate specifically to sex, namely homosexuality, marriage rights, and various “deviant sexual behavior” that you mention in your original blog post.
Actually, no. That’s not the main problem, as I see it. The main problem is the lack of grasp of reality, which contributes to a lowering of our collective ability to communicate via shared meaning.
I don’t think someone is not a woman because they choose not to have a child, or because they’re infertile. But I would say that they’re not a woman if they’re a man. The two categories are mutually exclusive. Your Seattle friends don’t seem to be able to make that distinction. I maintain that’s delusional. And you’re right, we’re probably at an impasse.
See, communication is my business as a theory and a practice, and I’m assuming that it’s also your business, and I simply don’t think that what you’re calling a lack of grasp of reality poses a serious threat to our semiotic mission. The world is highly fragmented, and many facts, not just those about sex and gender, are disputed, and communication among citizens still seems to proceed. I’d probably say that more communication around disputed realities is a lot healthier than less communication.
I think the postmodern delusion is one you’re espousing, actually, that there are immutable narratives and norms and that we should spend considerable effort reining in transgressions to those narratives and norms.
Donna Schaller Well, unless you consider the length of this thread “considerable effort” — I would say that considerable effort is being spent “on the other side” (whatever the opposite of reining in transgressions is). As in, videos being produced and such. But my argument with you didn’t involve threats to missions; it just involved what I see as near-lunacy in trying to reshape reality to a political agenda.
I am not sure that it constitutes a political agenda, but it’s probably true that it’s a cultural agenda. To the degree that cultural movements put pressure on our political system (as some of them do, such as legalized pot or no-fault divorce, and that sort of thing), I can certainly see these cultural demands as being seen as political agendas. But I certainly don’t see any particular coherence (as a political agenda, per se) to these sorts of identity desires.
Regarding “effort,” I think that speaks directly to the sense of oppression (or we can call it social prescriptions, if you want) and the sense that who you know yourself to be is largely dismissed or punished. It is definitely worth making the effort, and if these efforts seem absurd, the absurdity should be seen as necessary because of the pervasiveness of the cultural hegemony that they feel prescribed and inscribed by. Sure it’s absurd, but we see many wonderful results of absurd efforts in the past, so I don’t accept that a group’s absurd efforts necessarily negates their goals.
Donna Schaller I stand corrected; you are right that “cultural agenda” is a far more accurate description. And this does bring us back to a place where I would be in direct conflict with that particular cultural agenda. And one of the ways I would express my opposition would be to point out the near-lunacy of the other side’s absurdities. Are we at a standstill now?
sure, it sounds like an inter- or cross-cultural impasse, and I think that’s fair enough of a characterization, and it allows us to say that what appears to be sheer lunacy from one culture’s perspective may be perfectly reasonable from the other culture’s perspective (i.e. our concepts of reason and rationality have both a universal and a cultural component)
What’s troublesome to me (just finishing up a graduate seminar on argumentation, and especially focusing on the possibility of broad intercultural deliberation or debate) is whether there can be common ground across cultures — there must be common values that join Yemeni Clerics and New York Jews, but I think they may be awfully vague and perhaps not very useful, which is troubling. I hate the thought that cultures (and micro cultures) may have to retreat to their corners if common ground cannot be found because I believe working together and deliberating hard issues based on the broadest input, pro and contra, produces better decisions than more narrow, insulated groups.
To end this very pleasurable discourse with you (as I’ve got class in 30 minutes), let me ask what the harm may be in allowing this other culture to engage in its lunacy (from your perspective)? Is this lunacy that you perceive in this cultural impasse so loony as to bring some sort of damage or physical harm? I know a guy who built a really large pyramid-shaped greenhouse on his place, and it’s got all the harmonic power of pyramids and he poured all his savings into it (both points strike me as close to lunacy), but I don’t really see the harm.
Cultures interact all the place, in physical borders and emotional borders and cognitive borders and economic borders, and those spots are always messy because the two cultures bleed over into each other (hence the Tex-Mex part of the country in which I live, for example, where linguistic and cultural groups mix in varying degrees). Are there some boundaries that have such investment in their fences that there can be no blending, no understanding of those on the other side, such that even the acknowledgment of their existence may constitute a threat? I believe there are indeed such boundaries, cultural and otherwise, and I’m curious if they need be so.
I think there can be a great deal of useful interaction and places of agreement, and I also think the time-honored concept of “agree to disagree” is eminently valuable.
What harm do the Seattle kids do me? Well, I didn’t mean to argue that they were doing me any harm. And I even noted that they had every right to do their thing, and that I would defend their right to do so in peace and goodwill. The only potential “harm” that I foresee is that which they imply with the idea that someone needs to be re-taught, which further implies that my expressing my opinion about gender roles (which admittedly is more popular than theirs, for now) is somehow “dangerous” and makes their lives less “better.” I believe their video is intended to have a “chilling effect” on the discourse, if you will. My original point at the end of the piece was that nobody is sitting them down and force-feeding them Biblical concepts of gender roles, for example. They are aware of the more traditional concepts and they reject them. All well and good and their prerogative. But they are implying, in this video, that they are not willing to extend the same consideration.