When I moved to New Jersey from Arkansas, I had to pay a price. That price was silence, since I needed to commit to learning a new discipline and gaining something approaching stable employment. I now teach computer programming rather than mathematics and I've gained tenure...but it cost me 5 years of activism.
The essay below the fold was the last presentation I did before moving. I'm not totally sure of the occasion but suspect it was a presentation to either social work professionals in Little Rock or mental health professionals in Fayetteville.
Posting this essay was sparked by what I wrote in last week's Teacher's Lounge, by a doctor coming out in Massachusetts, and by a few recent instances in which fellow members have displayed an extreme lack of understanding. To counter that last, all I can do is open the door...
If you have been reading my words, you will recognize some of them in this essay. I stole a few lines from it when I prepared I am a human being, a performance piece I did as part of my application for tenure. Some of it became a poem first published at Cheers and Jeers, which itself later became part of my third performance piece, State of the Onion. That poem is attached to the end.
Layers of Why
When I do presentations of this nature, there are some questions that are invariably asked. Number one on the hit parade (just slightly more popular than why someone would change from a man to a woman and be a lesbian) is, "Why does someone do what you did?"
It wasn’t too many years ago that I, too, was obsessed with the question of why I was the way I was. Was there some sort of genetic anomaly which resulted in people like me? Or perhaps it wasn’t genes that were the cause, but rather the environment in the uterus during gestation. Or maybe some psychic trauma in my very early years implanted in me the notion that I should have been a girl, even though the available evidence was that this was not the case.
If I had to pick a single step in my growth process as a human being, it would be the moment when it occurred to me that it didn’t matter why I was the way I was. What mattered was that I existed, that I was a human being and I was living my life the best way I knew how.
I can’t do any better for myself than to be who I am. In my view, it is also the case that I can’t do any better for other people than to be who I am, because to pretend to be other than who I am is to intentionally practice deceit, and intentional deceit is to me one of the worst of social offenses.
I am fully aware that this causes discomfort to other people. I live in a society which has had a cultural taboo against the blurring of gender, let alone the concept of someone changing hogans. In my opinion, that taboo is the base cause of sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia, but then being a lesbian, my opinion is not an unbiased one. The fact of the matter is that for centuries the prevailing thought among the people who shaped the culture in which I live has been that there are males and there are females and males should act a certain way and should do certain things that females shouldn’t and females should act a different way and do certain things that males shouldn’t. That is, males should be men and females should be women.
That places me in a difficult bind. First of all, I don’t believe that sex (male/female), even if it were that binary, which it evidently is not, must necessarily determine gender performance (man/woman: how one behaves and what one does). There is cultural evidence of societies in which sex was not given this power over our lives. There are isolated societies where this is still the situation, but our society has done its best to stamp this out. We have a historical tendency to look at other societies as being less advanced than ours, but the people who lived in those societies were not depraved barbarians any more than we are depraved because we spend countless hours staring at a television set or more barbaric than a society which practices ritual murder of murderers. They were human beings living the best way they knew how. And the people who lived in those societies had some choice over their gender destiny. So why can’t I?
It is perhaps even more alarming to most people that I don’t really believe in gender. I don’t mean that I don’t believe that it exists. I just don’t believe that it is necessary for it to exist. At this point in my life, I find myself much of the time watching people interact from the point of view of an outsider, sort of like an anthropologist wandering among a native people, observing the practice of some strange rite. For it does seem strange to me...or maybe it is would be more accurate to say that it has become strange to me. I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to remember.
We could quibble about definitions, but I’ll just use this one from WWWebster,
Main Entry: gen·der
Etymology: Middle English gendre, from Middle French genre, gendre, from Latin gener-, genus birth, race, kind, gender -- more at KIN
Date: 14th century
2 a : SEX <the feminine gender> b : the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex
I can’t help myself. In my obsessive-compulsive days, I used to read the dictionary. So I just had to pursue the lead to "kin."
Main Entry: kin
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English cynn; akin to Old High German chunni race, Latin genus birth, race, kind, Greek genos, Latin gignere to beget, Greek gignesthai to be born
Date: before 12th century
1 : a group of persons of common ancestry : CLAN
We are apparently supposed to be born with gender if the etymology of these words is any clue. We are supposed to be a kind. But the words give no indication that there are only two kinds or that everyone must be of one of those kinds and remain that kind from birth to the end of life. I know that we are taught to behave in sex-appropriately gendered ways from birth. I guess I just failed those lessons. But I am no less human for doing so.
Why would someone "reject" that teaching? Now there is a very good question. All evidence, including personal experience, would seem to indicate that life is not made easy for such people. Indeed, traditionally gendered people and the society they have generated can make life very difficult for us gender-variant folks. So there would seem to be no survival advantage in it. Maybe we were and are just obstinate. But maybe it just didn’t make much sense to us. Maybe it still doesn’t.
From my point of view, a better question would be, "Why do some people want to tell other people how to live their lives?" And for the answer to that question, you would have to ask those who do that. I have enough to handle constructing my own reality. Why would I want to interfere with someone else’s reality? I would never dream of telling anyone that they have to cease living within the confines of sex-appropriate gender. It’s just that I don’t wish to live within those confines. And in my chosen reality, I don’t have to.
Why should what I have just said or how I live my life be deemed not "acceptable?" Why should society have any interest in how one person chooses to live one life if that person does no harm to others? Or is the message given by that society to be that not being or living like everyone else IS harmful to others.
When I was a child, I was classified as "gifted." What it meant to me at the time was that I and a few other kids in my grade got to go on field trips to museums and have other similar activities when the other kids were probably doing stuff that we thought was boring. We also had to learn the words in a book they gave us, so that we could expand our vocabulary. Sometimes I felt embarrassed around other kids because I was gifted and they were not. It set me apart. But it was supposed to be a good thing.
Why is "normal" the objective?
Why do humans place boundaries on what it means to be human? Why does our society stigmatize some behaviors, some beliefs, some desires as being prima facie evidence of having mental disease or disorder and then to prove its point place a system of barriers against and punishments for behaving THAT way or holding THAT belief or having THAT desire. Of course there is going to be dis-ease for someone who is punished for existing. Of course there is disorder in a person’s life if there are barriers erected to that person living that life.
Why are what the average person does, how the average person behaves while doing it, or what the average person believes suppose to be of any relevance to one individual? I’m not a sociologist, rather I'm just a mathematician, but it seems to me that if a society is driven by the desire to have its individual members to be above all else within the bounds of what is defined to be normality, then it will attempt to truncate its outliers, to either "cure" them or remove them from that society. In so doing, the boundaries of "normal" would be contracted, leading to another round of truncation, and so on and so on, a pattern repeated for generations as more and more people are deemed less than worthy of human respect.
We are at the dawn of a new millennium, with technology evolving so rapidly that it beggars belief to think that humans aren’t evolving as well. Humans are developing new abilities to process information at rates never before conceived. The ability to multi-task is a new talent that some people have and others seek to develop. It would seem likely that other, as yet not conceived of, talents/skills will become apparent in the not too distant future. Why aren’t we as a society encouraging the expansion of the boundaries of human normality than seeking the contraction of those boundaries? What are we afraid of?
In this society, psychologists and psychiatrists are in an unenviable position, I think, because society looks to them to define those limits on normality. It therefore becomes incumbent upon them, I believe, to explain carefully that being or living outside of those limits is not always a bad thing. Above all, I believe, it is necessary for them to fully describe the lives of those people who are labeled "not normal" in ways that do not unduly stigmatize that non-normality. That starts with the psychologists and psychiatrists themselves re-examining their own biases in this regard. It begins with them being ultra-sensitive to the need to relate to patients as people rather than as cases. It includes developing methods for parents to raise children who are not normal, rather than developing and promoting still more ways for parents to force their children to BE normal.
There is before us a broad horizon of possibility for the human condition. Rather than circling our wagons to protect and defend only one or two or even just a few acceptable ways of living, shouldn’t we begin the exploration of those other possibilities? Why isn’t it possible to expand the definition of woman and expand the definition of man, while simultaneously allowing for people to claim neither or both or even to develop whole new categories of gender? What does society have to lose? What does society have to fear?
Once again, I have to ask: Why is normality the objective?