Friday, April 18, 2008

When biology is destiny, once again (by Suzie)

         When people tie biology to the desire to change genders, this affects more than transgender people. It also has repercussions for women who are not trans. After all, biology has been used for millennia to discriminate against women.
         In a recent column, Mercedes Allen said science is “close to isolating the ‘gay gene’ and possibly a biological source of gender identity disorder.” Although the disorder is considered a “mental health issue,” she said, therapists agree that
this is only because a specific biological trigger has not yet been determined (although there is ongoing study of both genetic "brain sex" and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals which appear to possibly lead to a better understanding of its origin).
          I wonder how scientists will determine "brain sex" in a world that is so highly gendered, without a nongendered control planet.
         What would a Planet Without Gender look like? People would be born with different genitalia and develop differently, in regard to such things as hair, breasts, musculature, etc. But no one would think twice if someone with a vagina had some facial hair or someone with a penis had ample breast tissue. Any child could wear a frilly pink dress or overalls. Anyone could play with a doll or a truck. Anyone could grow up to be president. On this planet, could someone be born with a penis and yet feel alienated from his body and long to have a vagina? Sure.
          On Earth, however, when a young boy wants to cover his breasts, have babies, use his sister’s things, etc. -- as described in a Barbara Walters special – that doesn’t prove anything about biology. Those are cultural artifacts.
          I’m not saying that there is no biological trigger to gender identity disorder. What I’m saying is that cultural stuff, such as a boy wanting to wear a dress, is not proof.
          This sort of talk reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be male or female. I’ve been irritated about this since I read a newspaper article on Susan Stanton, who was fired as a city manager last year when it was revealed that she would transition from Steve to Susan. The newspaper printed my letter to the editor, but snipped a bit of the snark. I’ll reinstate it for this blog. Here are snippets from the article, with my responses:
  • "Steve needed a helmet wig, pancake makeup and foam breasts to be a woman." I lost all my hair during chemotherapy. When I wasn't wearing a wig and makeup, did I stop being a woman or did my breasts save me?
  • Stanton shakes hands and speaks more softly. Does that make someone more of a woman?
  • She says hormones have softened her personality. Does that mean that women who are jerks would be nicer if they got a hormone patch? Is Stanton equating softness with being female? If so, does that make a female soldier or athlete less of a woman? Some cancer survivors take drugs to suppress estrogen. Are these lesser women?
  • Stanton "still" speaks like a city manager. Is this yet another false dichotomy, like "strong but soft"?
  • Stanton folds her "hands in a girly way." Please print a diagram. I missed the lesson on girly hand-folding in my class on How to Be a Woman.
  • "Steve-Susan loved evening gowns. Steve-Susan loved the clothes a man would choose for a woman. Now Susan is learning to dress for herself." Men predominate as fashion designers, and many women dress to please men. I'm glad Susan has broken free of outside influences, except for her handlers who tell her ...
  • That shirts with collars are "mannish." I'm getting dizzy. Does this mean that other women can't wear collars or just women who were once men? Fashion writers tell women how to be attractive, but I don't remember them addressing collars. Earlier, the story disparaged a "pack of lesbian lawyers" for advising Stanton. Apparently, it's wrong to tell her what to say, but it's fine to tell her how to dress.
  • Stanton can't find clothes that fit well. Unlike the rest of us women who can easily find clothes that fit perfectly.
  • Now she understands the need for a bunch of shoes! Women who don't must be downright unwomanly.
  • "Susan flopped on the bed in tears. Steve would have never cried over his hair." I've never cried over my hair, even when it came out in handfuls. Did I miss a lesson on womanhood?
         I oppose discrimination against transgendered people, and I know many do not talk this way. Susan Stanton was conservative as a man, and it doesn’t appear that she took Feminism 101 as part of her transition. I hope the rest of us will be careful when we link biology to cultural practices.