Sunday, November 10, 2013

Will You, Won't You, Will You Join the Dance?

An interesting article appeared recently on the Atlantic's website by Lori Duron, a writer whose six-year-old son C.J. likes to wear dresses and makeup.  C.J. wanted to dress up as Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland for Halloween.  (The article went up on Halloween, which shows you how far behind I am.)  Her account of how she and her husband educated themselves, stifled their fears for their son, and learned to let him dress up as he likes, is moving.  Their fears aren't just projections of their own uneasiness about having a sissy son: such children are frequently victimized, sometimes lethally, by bullies of all ages, so there's plenty to worry about.  But that just means we (by which I mean all people of good will) need to start bearing down more on bullies and bigots.  No safe space for bullying and bigots!  And that's a lot more difficult than it may sound.

Which reminds me: today at the Doonesbury site, the "Say What?" feature was this quotation:
"Nowadays we're ostracized. [The way people treat us] is no different than the way people used to treat African Americans years ago." — Bradley Jenkins, Grand Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America
Bigots have been borrowing the language of discrimination and injustice to fend off criticism for a long time, but this one was especially cute, I thought.  It's funny how easily absolutists turn into relativists when it suits them.  But I digress; back to Duron's article.

Duron says she has learned that C. J. is "gender dysphoric, which is the medical diagnosis for C.J. being, as he describes himself, 'a boy who only likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.'"  Later she tosses out a few more labels: "gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender fluid, gender creative or whatever term you prefer."

"Gender nonconforming" is the term I dislike least in this array, followed perhaps by "gender variant."  The others don't work even that well.  The "dys" in "gender dysphoric" is a giveaway that, as you would expect from a medical diagnosis, professionals think boys like C. J. have something wrong with them.  Merriam-Webster's definition of "dysphoria" is "a state of feeling well or unhappy," which doesn't seem to describe C. J. at all: it's other people who don't feel well or happy when they are faced with a sissy boy.   Wikipedia adds, "a feeling of emotional and mental discomfort as a symptom of discontentment, restlessness, dissatisfaction, malaise, depression, anxiety or indifference."  Again, this doesn't sound like C. J. as his mother describes him.

But "gender fluid"?  That doesn't work either.  C. J. is gender rigid if anything: he likes "only girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl."  Rigidity isn't necessarily a bad thing: when you know what you like and what you want, sometimes you have to stand firm, uncompromising, rigid.   The same goes for "gender creative": on Duron's account, C. J. is pretty conformist and uncreative -- he just wants to conform to a gender stereotype other than the one he was assigned by the society he lives in; in that light, "gender nonconformist" isn't really the right term either.  (Whether other societies are any different, let alone better, is something I'll consider in another post.)  I'm fine with putting a positive spin on the way C.J. does gender, but not at the cost of accuracy.

The comments under the article were revealing.  One person, posting as "Guest," pressed hard against letting C. J. dress and behave as he likes.  For example:
How is it brave to let your kid indulge in any behavior THEY see fit? They're kids, they need guidance.
This is easy enough to answer: the Durons didn't simply let C. J. run wild.  They talked to him, tried to offer him alternatives (which he rejected, insisting over several years on his own choices), studied up on gender-nonconformist children; they thought and agonized over it, worried about the hostility and danger he would face from others, before they decided to go along with his wishes.  When this was pointed out, Guest replied:
Kids need boundaries, without them they can easily lose their way. The inner cities are filled with kids who are doing whatever they please. The results have been tragic.

This parent may have thought long and hard but how do you consider all of the factors unless you talk to your child?
Of course the Durons did talk to their child, and considered as many factors as possible.  They do have boundaries, but theirs are different from Guest's.  Like many bigots, Guest read the article carelessly if at all before attacking the author and her son.  It's also hard to see how wearing an Alice in Wonderland costume for Halloween can be compared to violence in the inner cities.  When challenged further, Guest protested:
I am not judging him, I am questioning the decision by his parents to indulge him. Not every whim a child has should be embraced. We are so worried about offending our children's tender sensibilities we are failing to be parents.
It's debatable whether C. J.'s behavior should be called a "whim."  Whims come and go; C. J. is evidently determined to like girl things and to be treated like a girl, and has maintained his determination for half his life.  When I whimsically tried on my mother's shoes at five and found them too big, that was a whim.  (So was trying on my father's shoes at the same age; they didn't fit either.)  Guest couldn't or wouldn't explain why C. J. shouldn't be indulged, even if his behavior were a whim.  If it's a whim, it will pass, but if it doesn't, who will be hurt?  Comparing a sissy boy to inner-city gang violence betrays a tenuous grasp on reality.  And of course, Guest's claim not to be judging C.J. is as disingenuous as most people's claim not to judge.

When accused of homophobia, Guest moved into familiar whining-bigot country and riposted:
I am not afraid of homosexuals obviously. You might be astonished to learn that most people aren't comfortable with little boys parading around in girl's clothes. This notion that I am the one who is odd is pretty absurd. 

I will give the gay activists credit, they have bullied millions into "accepting" their agenda. The problem is not everyone has accepted it, they just got tired of being called names and have pretended to go along.
And so on.  Speaking of conformity, I could have written Guest's comments, which are culture-war boilerplate.  "Most people" are and have been "uncomfortable" with many things: a half-African President, women ministers and priests, interracial dating and marriage, religious freedom, criticism of government policy, Jewish boys with yarmulkes and sidelocks, foreigners in outlandish clothing speaking languages decent people don't know, you name it.  These people need to learn to mind their own business and back off.  We live in a society with many different kinds of people in it, and that's not going to change. It often creates discomfort when you see something you aren't used to, but that doesn't mean you're right and the other is wrong. More likely it's the other way around.

Guest asserted,
I am not necessarily in support of reprogramming sexual preferences, there is no need for that unless the preference is unwanted and the person wants to change by their own choice.

I just don't see anything wrong with asking a very young child, who is obviously not mature enough to understand gender or sexual matters, why he prefers to cross dress. I am not saying somebody should beat it out of them.
First, "sexual preferences" can't be "reprogrammed." There's ample evidence that attempts to change sexual orientation don't work, including from researchers who tried very hard to come to other conclusions. It's appropriate to challenge claims about the supposed innateness of sexual orientation, but not by trying to put false claims in their place. (Contrary to Guest's assertions, the popularity of innatist claims is not part of the "gay agenda," though a lot of gay people buy into them: the science in those claims is highly reactionary, even traditional in its gender ideology. And gay researchers have been among the most vocal critics of "born this way" pseudo-science.)

Second, it's hard to speak of "their own choice" when gay and gender-nonconformist people are the targets of so much coercion. It's not unreasonable to want to change when everyone around you is picking on you for being different, but can it be said to be your own choice?  And any honest, responsible clinician had better tell someone so hurt by harassment and abuse for being queer that they want to change, that the odds of changing his or her sexual orientation are virtually nil. Promising change is false advertising, to put it mildly.  Anyone who claims otherwise is showing that they really don't know what they're talking about.

Unfortunately most of the commenters who disagreed with Guest bought the born-that-way line, like this one:
It's not unreasonable for people--even children--to deeply crave recognition for their gender identity, and science is increasingly revealing to us that gender identity is more or less inborn. It can't just be rewritten through upbringing. Isn't it odd that conservatives often point out that nurture can't overcome nature with respect to gender differences, but in cases of transgender individuals they are prone to insist that surely the right kind of nurture can rewire these kids brains?
This person is as confused as Guest. His or her point about bigots' inconsistencies is well taken -- but it backfires on the liberal position as well.  It doesn't matter a damn whether "gender identity" is inborn or not.  People are allowed to make choices, such as religious ones, that few if any people would claim are inborn.  Children have less freedom in this regard, but parents should still grant them what freedom they can.  The important question is whether C. J.'s choices hurt anyone else, which they don't.  (Guest asked whether he might not be hurting himself, but had no arguments or evidence to back that up, except the conviction that If I don't like your behavior, it must be bad for you.  I'm only concerned with your welfare.)  But human brains are not "wired," and there isn't as far as I know any more reason to believe that "gender identity is more or less inborn," than that sexual orientation is.  We, including "science," really have no idea what gender identity is.  It's also too early to say whether C. J. is "transgendered."  Should he only be allowed to wear dresses and makeup if he is?

My main personal reaction to C. J. is relief that I'm not a parent.  If anything, as I indicated before, I'm uneasy about his gender conformism.  I've written before about the curious narrowness of the female role models that sissy men seem to prefer: hookers and strippers, mainly, or stage performers in their stage personae.  There's nothing particularly bad about those options compared to others, but it sets off my bullshit detectors when such men claim to want to be women: they seem to want to be certain kinds of women -- as one feminist observed of drag queens in the 70s, they don't want to be women, they want to be men's idea of what women should be.  (I think this is analogous to gay men who are "attracted to men" but by "men" mean only a very narrow stereotypical range of adult human males.)  If I were the father of a little girl, I'd be as unhappy if she wanted to be a Disney Princess as I'd be about a little boy who wanted to be one.

C. J. is too young to deal with these questions, but adults aren't, and I think they're worth thinking about.  He says he wants to be "treated like a girl."  I don't think he really does, but how could he know?  Little girls' lives are less restricted than they used to be, but there is still pressure to limit them.  C. J.'s parents are enlightened liberals who wouldn't forbid a daughter to wear pants, to get dirty during play, or lock her in at night when she reaches puberty so she won't dishonor her family by losing her virginity.  The same gender-normative boys and men who pick on queers also pick on girls, often pretty brutally.  Little girls who want to be boys have the same misunderstanding of what their wish would entail.

One of the best writers on this aspect of gender defiance has been Annick Prieur, in Mema's House, Mexico City (Chicago, 1998).  She tells how Mema, the middle-aged homosexual who maintains a household for young gay men and does AIDS education work in Mexico City, visited a family.
Mema gave a special invitation to the fifteen-year-old twin sons, and told them he found them very handsome. They laughed shyly while their parents laughed loudly. Mema then grabbed the nineteen-year-old son and asked if he could take him with him. Of course he was a bit young, but with proper training, he would become a perfect husband for Mema. Everybody laughed, the boy most of all. When we left, Mema handed some condoms to the twins, and neither the twins nor their parents made any fuss about that. But the fourteen-year-old daughter did not get any [58].
Again, about the vestidas, the young effeminate gay men who live in Mema's house:
Others, like Lupita, told me they liked housework. ... Having lived with some of them, however, I have good reason to doubt that they really like housework that much. Confronted with a stack of dirty dishes their femininity evaporates, and they start to resemble lazy teenagers. Not that this is any proof that their femininity is superficial - I suspect their sisters are not always fond of doing the dishes either. But their sisters can refrain from liking without much ado. (That they lack the same possibilities to escape it is another question) [176].
And finally,
One of the jotas' dilemmas is that they want a man who is man enough to be dominant, and yet they do not want to be dominated. Even Flaca, who sees battering as a sign of love, does not obey the dominant male she is so proud to have found: she takes advantage of every possibility to deceive him [255].
In other words, these boys want to be girls on their own terms.  They have a very specific and sometimes idiosyncratic idea of what it means to be a woman.  They can pick and choose where they'll conform to Mexican standards for women, and where they'll fall back on their maleness.  (Their American counterparts, of whom I've known a fair number, are very similar in this regard.)  Fair enough, but women don't have comparable freedom, though they have a little more in the US.

Children have a limited understanding of what it means to be a boy or girl, a man or a woman.  David Ellis wrote something in his memoir that I've heard from other heterosexual men.  His mother, he says, worked in a factory before she married, and returned to wage work when she could, as much (Ellis believes) for the "conviviality" of the workplace as for the money:

There were others in her position in my immediate environment, yet whatever understanding I drew from those cases was countered by the strong sense I had when growing up of living in a society that was matriarchal. The women who mattered to me may have been economically dependent but, as far as I was concerned, they were the ones with all the authority and who therefore lived richer, more satisfying lives than their husbands. Having abandoned responsibility in the domestic sphere, my own father lost all power within it [38-39].
Some writers have speculated that the widespread myth of a primordial matriarchy might have arisen because most children spend their earliest years in what feels like a matriarchy.  (Not all of them do, of course: for some the power of the father intrudes forcefully.)   As they get older, they learn who really has the power.  Their environment may look matriarchal to them, but it isn't, any more than the sun really moves around the earth.

I'd like to ask C. J., and other boys like him, what he means by being "treated like a girl."  Of course he has little understanding of the downside of that, just as tomboys know little about the downside of being treated like a boy.  But it would be interesting to hear what he believes, not with an eye toward changing him, but to understand him.  In the long run he will change, of course, and he should, just as boys who want to be boys need to broaden their ideas about what a boy can do, but it's impossible to predict in what ways he'll change, and he'll have to choose them himself, just as he now decides what to wear for Halloween.

If I met C.J., I'd oblige him and "treat him like a girl" -- by taking him seriously, listening to him, and respecting him.  But that's how I treat boys too.  I'd also be appropriately skeptical about his conception of what it means to be a girl, or a boy, just as I am with standard-gender children and adults.  I'd challenge his stereotypes, in other words, just as I would with anyone else.  To that extent I agree with Guest, except that I don't think the "whims" of American or other cultures about gender should go unquestioned any more than those of gender rebels.  After all, I'm a gender rebel too: I resisted behaving in certain ways just because boys were supposed to, I grew my hair long in the 1960s and had trouble with school authorities because of it, I didn't like sports -- but not because I wanted to be girly, though I felt free to like girly stuff when I wanted to.  My gender was more characterized by being a bookworm, an intellectual; we're the real 'third sex.'  Later I resisted behaving in certain ways that other gay men expected.  "I mean, you're supposed to like Barbra Streisand if you're gay, aren't you?" a gay kid asked me very seriously in 1972.  As it happened, I did like Streisand, but I never thought that liking her had anything to do with kissing boys.  I still don't.