Tag Archives: Gender

Rare Conditions & the Tyranny of the Majority

5 Mar

Odd One Out(Image by Javier R. Lineira used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last Tuesday, February 28th, was Rare Diseases Day. (In leap years, the day is held on February 29th.) The organization’s website reports: “A disease or disorder is defined as rare in Europe when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000. A disease or disorder is defined as rare in the USA when it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans at any given time.” For the purposes of this article, I will supplant the word “diseases” with “conditions” since “disease” is a complex word already examined earlier on this blog.

Rare conditions are frequently misdiagnosed and poorly understood due to a lack of funding for research. All forms of dwarfism qualify as rare, since the most common form, achondroplasia, occurs somewhere between 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 40,000 births. Vosoritide, the drug developers hope may “cure” achondroplasia, is classified as an “orphan drug.” Such drugs are so named because of their difficulty in garnering support for research and development. The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 is intended to counteract this disparity, but vosoritide owes its existence to one father of a child with achondroplasia who had the financial means to launch the project.

However, I don’t think any of these facts were what motivated me as a child to ask my mother, “There are more dwarf people than tall people, aren’t there?” I knew the answer before my mother soberly shook her head. I remember that even at the time I knew I was issuing a hope rather than an honest question. I wanted there to be more of us. Because… Because even a four-year-old knows there is strength in numbers.

Numbers help build community and communities build solidarity. The women’s movement of the 70s, 80s, and 90s often touted the fact that we made up 51% of the world population. (This is no longer true.) Lists of adopted, dyslexic, Jewish, left-handed, colorblind, or genderfluid celebrities are but a Google search away for anyone seeking to celebrate diversity. Activists in the early days of the gay rights movement frequently argued that homosexuality was far more common than assumed. But arguing for a group’s rights on the basis of its ubiquity seems to contradict the foundation of minority rights. So why do we so often do it?

Minority rights advocates know that challengers of a certain group’s fair treatment will often try to portray low numbers as proof of anomaly and anomaly as deserving of a low degree of care. When singer Jason Webley tried—and failed—to defend his Evelyn Evelyn performance, for which he and Amanda Palmer dressed up as conjoined twins raised in the circus, he argued that the number of people who could be hurt by the project was small: “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.” (Emphasis mine.) One commenter sarcastically responded that Webley and Palmer should feel “lucky” that there were so few conjoined twins for them to offend thanks to the fact that the infant mortality rate of the condition is remarkably high.

A man from the U.S. recently complained to me that “LBG-whatever people are like .000001% of the population, but we gotta hear about their rights 24 hours a day!” In 1948, Alfred Kinsey shocked the public when he deduced from his interviews that roughly 10% of the U.S. male population was exclusively gay. The current estimates of openly gay and lesbian citizens are lower than this, but of course the effects of the closet combined with the complexities of self-identification and labels remain a wrench in the work of statistics. But even if studies someday decisively prove Kinsey was overestimating the percentage, they will not disprove the fact that gay people exist in every possible culture and sub-culture. Numbers will rise as shame and secrecy recede, which in turn will cause prejudice to recede. Studies have repeatedly proven that people are less likely to be homophobic if they personally know one or more people who are openly gay. Many more lives would have been saved had there been less homophobia and more funding for research in the first days of the AIDS crisis.

Acceptance is often aided by awareness and awareness is aided by prevalence. This is a frustrating fact for minorities who will always be low in number. Women and ethnic groups may dominate a given country at a given time, but people with intersex conditions or dwarfism will never do so. But while this may be a cause for loneliness—who doesn’t like knowing someone with similar experiences?—it should not be cause for existential threat. The guarantee of liberty and justice for all is founded on the very opposite of this. When liberal democracies commit to equality for all citizens, they commit to protect the few from the tyranny of the majority. In her essay, “What to Expect When You Have the Child You Weren’t Expecting,” philosopher Alice Dreger writes, “Your child’s civil rights and status as a human being should not depend on the prevalence of her condition.” (Emphasis hers. And mine.)

Whether you are a woman with the rarest form of dwarfism or a man with breast cancer or the carrier of a condition not yet named or a wheelchair user facing a staircase, your treatment should never be contingent upon how many others there are out there like you. Equality means rare and common conditions both deserve common courtesy. Whether a condition should be cured, treated or accepted by society should be determined by whether or not it inherently causes suffering. The quicker we learn to wrap our heads around that, the less suffering there will be.

 

 

The Easiest Way to Avoid Saying “He” or “She”

2 Nov

Sexism abounds(Image used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A linguist will have a hard time if he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he or she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he/she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if s/he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if they try to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zhe tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zie tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

Depending upon your political leanings, you may find one or more of the sentences above ridiculous. Many people find the very idea of gender neutral pronouns preposterous to the point of sending death threats to those who have dared to formally enter them in style guides. In the middle of the last century, Strunk and White dismissed any linguistic adaptations motivated by gender equality because, they argued, the word “he” becomes gender neutral, not androcentric, when referring to everyman, mankind, etc. This argument has failed to hold up since the women’s movement, and most Western periodicals agree that such language is archaic with male chauvinist undertones, hence the plethora of proposed alternatives.

This can get harder in other languages. In German, everyone knows right away if your best friend is a girl or a guy because you have to call a female your “best friendess.” A troll gives away her gender in Russian or French the moment she types, “I’m smart/rich/European.” A Japanese speaker would give it away at the word “I.”

But wherever there are strict rules about gender, there is deep confusion about gender. A “girl” in German (“Mädchen,” from which we get “maiden”) is technically gender neutral because all words ending in –chen are. Thus, German kids grow up on stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood containing lines such as, “The prince took the maiden home to his castle and married it.” English isn’t any more logical when considering that almost all of our modern caricatures of ducks—ducklings, rubber duckies, Donald, Daffy, and Duckula—are automatically associated with boyishness, yet the word “duck” is technically as female as the word “cow.”

Most people on earth speak a language that distinguishes between “he” and “she” because most of the languages of the former colonial powers do. But a study of several hundred of the 6,000+ languages on earth found most do not. Whether you’re speaking Finnish or Farsi, you can talk about your best friend, your teacher, your doctor or your least favorite coworker for hours without letting anyone know anything about the person’s gender identity. No “his” and “hers” bath towels, no needing to find out your baby’s sex for linguistic ease.

So while The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage now urges its writers to avoid gendered pronouns, it appears the best solution would be to avoid English altogether.

 

 

Does It Matter If It’s Genetic?

16 Feb

Photo 02-07-14 12 29 21(Image by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana used under Creative Commons license via)

 

There is an argument gradually gaining momentum in the LGBT movement: “So what if being gay is a choice?” Rather than lecturing social conservatives that homosexuality is an inborn trait and not a chosen lifestyle, we should ask them what’s so bad about two consenting adults loving each other. With bisexual, pansexual, and genderfluid identities becoming more visible, and all sorts of people becoming more open to experimenting, who really cares if any of it is a choice?

It’s an important question in the broader debate about sex and gender. And it forces me to question the parameters of this blog.

Painting On Scars is founded on the rights of people who are viewed as minorities based on qualities they have no choice about: gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, class background, physical traits, and mental abilities. This foundation is built on my own minority status being indisputably determined by factors beyond my control. There is no doubt whatsoever that I was, as Lady Gaga hollers, born this way.

And when it comes to confronting bigotry, there is something particularly painful about being belittled for something you have no choice about. All of us can feel insecure about the decisions we make, but being told that you’re seeking work in the wrong field or that you talk too loud on the phone is still far less harrowing than being told that your natural appearance is universally repulsive or that your gender makes you intellectually or emotionally inferior. Every one of us wants to be accepted for the way we were born because a rejection of it feels like a rejection of our very lives. As autism activist Jim Sinclair explains:

When parents say, “I wish my child did not have autism,” what they’re really saying is, “I wish the child I have did not exist and that I had a different, non-autistic child instead.” Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. That your fondest wish for us is that someday we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

For this reason, Painting On Scars examines the existence of minorities who are born this way and the myriad reasons why any of us still struggle to accept them. (More on the complexities of parenting disabled children here.)

However, the born-this-way rubric is not always helpful. What about the explicit decision to not conform? What about the human right to the pursuit of happiness? It seems only natural—for lack of a better word—to defend alternative traits and behaviors that are very much a choice but do no harm. Women who don’t wear makeup. Filmmakers who dare to feature minority accents. People who want to preserve their parents’ cultural traditions rather than assimilate for assimilations sake.  Men who don’t identify as transgender but still very much like wearing dresses. Objection to these choices usually stems from a rigid belief in homogeneity or simply a difference in taste. Such objections make it clear to me as a blogger that as long as a difference doesn’t cause real harm, it is worth protecting from harm.

And conversely, I tend to defer to others when it comes to minority traits that people have little choice about but that do cause a good deal of harm: personality disorders, psychosis, sexual attraction to children, paranoia, trauma, suicide, or anything that precipitates emotionally abusive tendencies. I research these issues voraciously, not only because I have personal experience with many of them, but because they raise questions about human rights and individual freedom, as well as the greater good and personal safety. (The pro-mia and pro-ana movements, for example, argue that any attempt to treat or cure people with eating disorders qualifies as oppression rooted in narrow-mindedness.) Yet I refrain from opining about these issues publicly because my knowledge of them is as simplistic as they are complex.

Whether to change society or change oneself is a persistent predicament that accompanies every stage of life. When exploring the answer as it applies to minority issues, I keep coming back to the same question: Who suffers more in the change?  Humans have repeatedly proven to cause less suffering when we accept body diversity, intellectual disabilities, LGBT identities, and gender equality than when we oppress them.

Of course, what constitutes oppression and what constitutes acceptance is sometimes disputable. Alex Andreou argues this week in The Guardian that the current search for the gene for homosexuality is quite harmful. While LGBT activists have traditionally opposed the idea of homosexuality as a choice to combat those who argue for a cure through therapy, LGBT critics of the genetic research fear that discovery of a gene for homosexuality will lead to its elimination. Those of us whose conditions are genetically determined and socially marginalized have been acutely aware of this problem not just since the advent of the Human Genome Project 30 years ago, but since eugenicists began sterilizing all sorts of peoples over 100 years ago. In democratic societies where governments no longer dare to be too vocal about medical decisions regarding minorities, everyone still fears the coming of the day when insurance companies inform expecting parents that they will not cover children who will cost more. Because the existence of minorities precludes the efficiency of a one-size-fits-all system, we will always cost more.

In the spring of 1994, I was headed into the operating room to have my Ilizarov fixators removed. While prepping for surgery, one of the members of the surgical team excitedly told my mother, “Have you heard the news about achondroplasia? They found the gene! We can test Emily for it!”

My mother signed a release allowing for them to perform the test during the operation. Several weeks later I received a letter confirming that my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3 had the achondroplasia mutation. My first reaction was, “No shit. Who cares?”

I had been officially diagnosed with achondroplasia on my third day after birth, though admittedly, such an early diagnosis back in the 1980s was a stroke of luck. A girl with achondroplasia who later became my best friend had been born at the same hospital six months earlier, so the doctors recognized our similarities and ordered x-rays on my limbs. My achondroplasia was obviously a result of nature, not nurture.

Then again, in olden days dwarfism was often thought to be caused by mothers with loose morals. I myself had once asked my mother if perhaps I got achondroplasia because of the decisions she had made about the birthing process. (I had just watched Look Who’s Talking and had learned a lot about the pop culture understanding of what goes into having a baby.) The gene for achondroplasia explained how I got it, how I could pass it on, and lay rest to any modern blame-it-on the-mother mindset that might suspect it was because of aspirin or salami or cinnamon. Such information can—but does not have to—affect your sense of self.

A few years ago a woman living in the U.S. contacted me because her two-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with achondroplasia. The girl’s grandparents lived in another country and had steadfastly dismissed the diagnosis. “Americans are famous for over-diagnosing every little thing,” they shrugged. “She’ll grow out of it!” (Pun intended?)

A friend from the same country explained to me that disabled people there generally have few support networks and even fewer opportunities for independence. Perhaps the grandparents’ refusal to believe in achondroplasia stemmed from their fierce desire to remain hopeful about her future.

Would running a genetic test finally convince them to accept reality? When I was born, my parents and I benefited greatly from the dwarf rights movement of the 1970s and 80s, which had emerged due to the egalitarian spirit of the times that indulged in civil rights and celebrating diversity. As with the gay rights movement, millions of supporters showed that they did not need to see the results of genetic testing in order to justify and defend a minority’s right to exist and be accepted. If they could do it, so can we.

 

 

New Rights for Intersex Newborns in Germany

25 Aug

Germany has become the first country in Europe to allow parents to check one of three boxes for gender on their child’s birth certificate: “male,” “female,” or “blank.” The new option is intended to accommodate the parents of intersex newborns; i.e., those whose reproductive or sexual anatomy does not appear to fit the traditional definitions of male or female. The children will be allowed to choose “male” or “female” later in life, but they will not be required to. This will all go into effect November 1st.

While the law says nothing about gender ID in passports, equality activists are celebrating it as a tremendous step forward. According to Silvan Agius of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, the European Union has been slow to act on issues of gender identity. “Germany’s move will put more pressure on Brussels,” Agius told Der Spiegel. “That can only be a good thing.”

However, not everyone in the intersex community is celebrating the idea of a third gender box. Creating a new category, they argue, is to give in to the idea of narrowly defined categories. Instead of turning the gender binary into a triad, why not loosen the definitions of “male” and “female” to include those with all sorts of bodies? Many people with intersex conditions have a perfect sense of belonging when it comes to gender – they only feel alienated when others insist they don’t belong.

And while they often cooperate politically, intersex people should never be confused with transgender, transsexual, or genderqueer people. The Intersex Society of North America states, “Most people with intersex conditions come to medical attention because doctors or parents notice something unusual about their bodies. In contrast, people who are transgender have an internal experience of gender identity that is different from most people.” The ISNA’s history of intersex offers much information about the long medical tradition, and resulting problems, of conflating and confusing the two.

Professor Alice Dreger explains that cases wherein intersex individuals also qualify as transgender because they elect to transition from the gender assigned to them at birth—this is essentially the plot of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex—are quite rare. Dreger notes, “Far more often, the concerns of intersex and transgender people represent opposite sides of the same coin: intersex people get surgeries they don’t want, and transgender people can’t get the surgeries they do want.” The surgeries many intersex people regret having undergone in childhood are primarily cosmetic, removing or adding tissue only for the sake of “normalizing” the appearance of their genitals, and at the expense of sensation and function.

Another all too common problem is the concealment of the patient’s intersex condition by her parents and doctors, leaving her unaware for as long as possible and discouraged from asking the questions she might begin to have about her anatomy. In her essay “Twisted Lies,” Sherri G. Morris writes that not finding out until college that you are without a uterus can be rather upsetting, to say the least.

As for the well-known term “hermaphrodite,” it is inaccurate at best and defamatory at worst. The word represents the idea of one person being anatomically both male and female, and this idea is a purely mythological one. Because it is physiologically impossible. As Dreger points out:

…the only way you could be born with “both sets of genitals” is if you had two bottoms. The clitoris and the penis are homologues—they are the same organ developmentally—so you get one or the other, or one in-between organ. Similarly, the labia majora and the scrotum are homologues—so you get either a set of labia majora, a scrotum, or something in between. But you can’t have all the female parts (clitoris, labia majora, etc.) and all the male parts (penis, scrotum, etc.) on one person…

What people mean when they say a person “was born with both sets of genitals” is that a child may be born with a phallus that looks a lot like a penis plus a vagina (the tubular organ that goes from the outside of the body towards the uterus, if there is a uterus). This can happen because of hormones, in conditions like congenital adrenal hyperplasia and partial androgen insensitivity syndrome. But to say that gives you “both sets of genitals” is to pretend that somehow all that matters to males is their penises and all that matters to females in their vaginas. In fact, many of us women also care about our clitorises. (For that matter, many men care about their scrotums.)

Unfortunately, sick fascination with the hermaphrodite is utterly pervasive today. Comedians of all stripes, from South Park to Flight of the Conchords, have yuk-yukked over the idea of a person with both sets of genitals being able to have intercourse on their own, while artists have done their fair share of poking at and playing with the myth. (See here for an intersex woman’s take on Middlesex.)

On this issue the ISNA is emphatic: “The terms [‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘hermaphroditism’] attract people with sexual fetishes and fantasies that, frankly, we as a patient advocacy organization are not interested in hearing from.” They therefore advocate expunging any terms related to “hermaphrodite” from all medical literature:

We think it is much better for everyone involved when specific condition names are used in medical research and practice… While some intersex people seek to reclaim the word “hermaphrodite” with pride to reference themselves (much like the words “dyke” and “queer” have been reclaimed by LBGT people), we’ve learned over the years it is best generally avoided, since the political subtlety is lost on a lot of people.

Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed piece appearing yesterday in Spiegel International, Agius argued, “…real progress for intersex people is not measured through the number of available labels but through an end to the human rights breaches currently being inflicted.”

Indeed, the new German law is just the tip of the iceberg. Considering that one in every 2,000 infants is born with an intersex condition, shame-induced secrecy continues to be an abysmal problem. The rights and concerns of those with intersex conditions receive far too little attention. (I was completely uninformed until I met Dreger ten years ago at the conference Surgically Shaping Children.) Whatever the legal specifics, Germany’s new law will hopefully promote awareness above all else, and in more ways than one.

 

 

 

Does GoldieBlox Break the Box?

9 Jun

 

After its Kickstarter fundraising campaign (see above) proved to be a success, GoldieBlox is here and available for retail.  Designed by an engineer appalled at the 1 to 10 ratio of female to male professionals in her field, the toy is the latest in a series of efforts across the West to combat the gender gap and get girls excited about scientific concepts from the earliest possible age.  Questioning the stereotype of women as “naturally” less competent in math, science and visual-spatial thinking is always admirable.  But does GoldieBlox really amount to anything more than simply painting science pink?    

Parents who want to conscientiously ensure their daughters feel every option is available to them will probably already have bought them Legos and Erector Sets.  But parents and relatives and neighbors who rely more on tradition when picking out presents may be swayed by the color-coding GoldieBlox employs.  As in: “I need a present for a cute girl.  Look, this is pink and cute.  I’ll take it.”  Having worked in early childhood education as well as social justice, I wish every adult responsible for stocking a child’s toy box would be conscientious enough to consider the value and purpose of their every purchase—or at least read the picture book all the way through—before heading to the cash register.  But plenty of adults who want to make kids happy don’t share my interest in kids’ things.  They truly appreciate age recommendations on the boxes, and the pink and blue color-coding.  It is these adults and their beloved little girls who will benefit tremendously from the GoldieBlox expansion of the world of pink into the realm of engineering. 

But why do we need to color code anything to let people know which gender it’s for?  Do we need to rename it GoldieNASA to get more women to work there?  Last year, when Bic introduced pens for women (“Easy glide – feel the smoothness!”), its Amazon page almost crashed under the weight of sarcastic reviews:

 

No Good For Man Hands

 

And then there were the appropriate reactions in November to the Honda She’s, a car marketed to women in Japan with special light and air-conditioning features to prevent wrinkles.  Feminists asked:

 

26

 

Indeed, the most offensive aspect of the pink-is-for-girls mentality is the antiquated belief that women need a softer, daintier, less intimidating variation of the standard, which was built for men by men.  Any woman who stops posing for a portrait and approaches that standard is an accident waiting to happen!  Right?

Pink cars and laptops and cell phones and building blocks trigger my gag reflex because they seem to be so obviously marketed as the deviation from the more serious male standard.  But is it fair of me to assume this?  Would GoldieNASA really be so bad?  A friend who works as a software engineer and buys so many Hello Kitty products I suspect he accounts for half of Sanrio’s market share would say no.  He agrees with me that Barbie and the Disney Princesses inappropriately introduce pre-schoolers to sexual self-objectification and viciously narrow beauty standards.  He is both irritated and concerned about those of any gender identity who think they should use their vulnerability to get what they want.  But his kitchen cupboards are brimming with cups emblazoned with pink hearts and daisies and butterflies.  He would love to work at GoldieNASA.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or with girls and boys, and men and women, being cute.  In fact, trashing the color pink and all things marketed at girlie-girls is often motivated by a powerful misogynistic tradition: the belief that things for girls are dumb and frivolous because girls are dumb and frivolous.  This is usually why boys and girls watch films and read books marketed to boys—like Harry Potter or Star Wars or every Pixar film but Brave—while only girls watch films and read books marketed to girls.  Some misogynists and feminists uphold this disparity by uniting in their belief that twirling around in ball-gowns is silly because it’s not a skill needed by the average adult in modern life.  Indeed, it is not.  But then neither is sword-fighting.    

For this reason, it is imperative to teach kids that the value of a toy or story derives from its content, not its color.  Within this lesson lies the truth that there is more to being a girl than dressing up and being cute, just as there is more to being a boy than being stoic and winning every competition.  Every child should feel every option is available to them because the most innovative minds approach the world with the least reliance on tradition.

GoldieBlox will have succeeded when it is ubiquitous in any child’s room because it will signify that adults are picking their purchases based not on color but on this simple rubric:

 

 

 

PINK!

19 May

(Image by Monika Tugcu used under CC license via)

 

This holiday weekend I’m sparing you my deep and profound thoughts about the Barbie Dreamhouse exhibit that opened this week in downtown Berlin and the protest that accompanied it.  Instead, I’ll let the issues and problems of beauty standards and femininity and sexuality and body image and fashion and pink and sparkles be summed up by a little story I discovered this year:

In 1999, Jon Stewart was invited to be featured in People magazine’s annual list of 50 Most Beautiful People.  (I’ve written about the List before in The Body Image Series, highlighting Michael Chabon’s excellent reaction to it.)  Stewart agreed to be featured but insisted on wearing a pink prom dress and a tiara for the photo shoot.  Why? 

I feel pretty!

 
 

Who Should Have To Expose Themselves?

5 May

(Via)

 

If you live anywhere in the West, you know this transphobic joke.  Girl and guy go to bed.  Guy wakes up and finds out somehow that his lover was not born a woman.  The moment of realization is sketched out across his face in excruciating slow-motion, and then he runs away in horror/vomits his brains out/gets very, very, very angry.  The message? 

1)      A trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, she’s a freak.

2)      His being attracted to her somehow makes him less of a man.

3)      Most importantly, he’s been duped.

Feeling duped is the bedrock of transphobia.  Those who feel indiscriminately upset at the very idea of transsexual and/or transgender people usually say something along the lines of, “They’re deceiving people!  I’d be pretty pissed if I found out my girlfriend/boyfriend had had a sex change.”  This feeling is usually enshrouded in the myth that transitioning into the opposite sex is done capriciously, just for laughs and the thrill of going undercover.  This mentality never ever acknowledges the fact that many transsexual and transgender people feel as uncomfortable in the body they were born in as cis people would feel in a body they were not born in.  And it fosters the view of cis people as victims of trans villains, ignoring that trans people in the United States have a suicide rate 26 times higher than the nationl average and that worldwide one trans person is murdered every three days.

This all too common belief that trans people are deceptive, and maliciously so, has now reached new heights as two trans men in the U.K. have been charged with and convicted of sexual assault.  Their accusers claimed that the men’s failure to disclose their gender at birth before they slept with them was a form of fraud and thus the consent the women gave to sex was under false pretenses.  I am in no position to make a final judgment about these two specific cases.  Perhaps they involved many other factors revealing coercion and predatory behavior.  I cannot speak for the defendants or the accusers.  But I can and will speak out against the widespread belief that the freaks of the world are obliged to warn everyone they know about their atypical features and histories before they dare try to get close to someone.

My husband thought I must have been in a car accident years ago when we met for the first time at a birthday party.  I was wearing a sleeveless top exposing the lavender scars that traverse my upper arms.  I know I told him soon after, on our first date, about my long medical history, but that was because we were having an intellectual debate about the role of the media and I decided to use my childhood experiences as an example.  I decided to do so because I liked him and trusted him in a very special way.  It was not because I felt that anyone I was interested in romantically “deserved” to know.

What do potential sex partners deserve to know?  Do they deserve to know I had my calf bones removed?  Do they deserve to know I had my tonsils out?  What if I had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant?  What if I used to weigh twice as much, or half as much, as I do now?  What about veterans or cancer patients who have lost body parts normally only seen by sex partners?  Is it fraudulent of a cancer survivor to wear a prosthesis that would suggest she still has both breasts?  

Indeed, the moment I read about the British cases, I was immediately reminded of a poem by Robert Hass about a woman who is abandoned at her doorstep by a young admirer after she tells him she has had a double mastectomy.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I could,” he mumbles before he turns his tail and runs.  I do not know what it is like to be a cancer survivor or transsexual, but surely many of us know what it is like to fear being rejected for something we never had much of a choice about.

In reponse to the British accusations of sexual assault, law professor Alex Sharpe has asked, What if a potential sex partner appears white but is in fact of mixed race – is a failure to map out your entire family tree grounds for prosecution?  Of course not.  He points out that individuals are not legally obliged to reveal to sex partners that they are bisexual, married, divorced, have a past criminal record…  The list is endless, and thus he argues: “Given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Of course, any counselor or psychologist will tell you that trust, openness, and honesty are necessary for a healthy relationship and true intimacy, but the right to privacy and personal dignity are also necessary for any community founded on justice.  And there can be no genuine trust when certain people reveal personal information only because society’s hang-ups about gender, sexuality, or atypical bodies demand they do. 

Everyone is entitled to their sexuality.  No one should ever be pressured into a heterosexual, homosexual or pansexual relationship.  Open and honest dialogue about this is essential.  But the more we blame minorities for upsetting our delusions of normalcy just by being who they are, the more we tell jokes implying that any normal person would be disgusted by their physiology, the more we insist that their identities are a perversion of ours, the more difficult we make it for them to be open and honest with us.

 

 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

When It Comes To A Boy In A Dress, The Question Is: What’s Wrong With Us?

12 Aug

When I was about 10 years-old, a friend of mine with achondroplasia was being teased at her school for being so short.  After being shunned at lunchtime repeatedly—“No freaks at this table!”—her mother finally called her local chapter of Little People of America, which sent a spokesman into the school to give a presentation.  After he read Thinking Big to the class, explaining thoroughly in an age-appropriate manner why my friend looked the way she did, one of the biggest bullies raised his hand.  “So, you mean, she’s little because she’s a dwarf?” he asked.

The spokesman offered to let my friend answer the question herself and she replied, “Yes.”

The boy who had teased her so much suddenly had tears in his eyes.  It later came out that his new baby brother had just been diagnosed with dwarfism.  He had had no idea until that moment that his brother was going to grow up to look just like the girl he’d targeted. 

To anyone who insists, “He couldn’t have known,” he could have.  We could have let him know.  What is school for, if not the pursuit of knowledge?  With the exception of women, all minorities risk marginalization not only by others’ lack of empathy but by the lack of visibility automatically brought on by their lower numbers.  Any place that prides itself on learning should pride itself on learning about other perspectives, other identities, other behaviors, no matter how rare.

So “What’s Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?” asks The New York Times magazine on its cover this week.  Despite that the flippant headline sacrifices sensitivity for saleability, at least it’s shedding light on the subject.  I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest:

 


When asked why he likes regularly wearing his wife’s nightgowns, one man shrugged, “It’s comfy.”

The Times article has its flaws.  When discussing how boys who wear dresses turn out later in life, the article stuffs them into three overly simplistic boxes: a) gay, b) heterosexual, and c) transsexual.  Such labels do not encompass all the ways and reasons people of various gender identities and sexualities wear dresses into adulthood.  As one friend observed, “The path of least resistance for so many is to wear dresses in secret.  By using these limiting categories, the article implies that and also does nothing to change that.”  The use of the categories also implies that these individuals owe us a clear-cut, sex-based explanation for their behavior, which is itself a symptom of narrow mindedness.  No one demands a woman explain why she likes wearing jeans.

And yet the article also keeps its subjects silent.  While documenting the struggles of both conservative and liberal parents, the author would have been wise to include the perspective of adults who wore or wear dresses.  In the absence of their agency, their nervous parents are essentially speaking for them.  (Rule Number One in Battling Intolerance: Never, ever let a minority’s agency be ignored.)

But for all these errors, the article concludes with those who ultimately support their sons as best they can.  One dad heard that his five year-old was being taunted in kindergarten for wearing pink socks, so he bought himself a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear in solidarity.  The kindergarten teacher jumped in, too, opening up a class discussion about the history of gender rules and shocking the kids with the information that girls were once not allowed to wear pants. 

Whenever reports on “different” children list the anxieties parents have about their kids not being accepted, the message often starts to get muddled.  Sometimes the article is clear that we as members of society need to get over our hysterical hang-ups and start accepting these children as they are so that they and their parents no longer have to worry what we and our own children will say.  Too often, however, the article spends so much time quoting the parents’ fears that the source of the problem starts to sound more and more like the child’s disruptive identity, not others’ clumsy reactions to his identity.  And that’s wrong.

Whenever a child is made fun of for being himself, it’s our problem, not his.  Biologists can say what they want about a fear of difference being an evolutionary adaptation, but our culture values differences two ways, either as “abnormal” (i.e., strange and pitiful) or “super-normal” (strange and admirable).  The Beatles’ mop-tops were abnormal to parents of the time (“They look like girls!”), and super-normal to their teenage children.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, we need to stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture,” because changing the environment a child grows up in means changing the behaviors of more than just one set of parents.  Mine never once told my younger brother, “Only sissies cry,” but his little league coach told the team just that.

This is our culture and we are the ones shaping it as the creators and consumers.  By making and watching films and TV shows that state what’s “gay,” “wimpy,” “ugly,” “freaky,” or “gross.”  By stating, “Guys just don’t do that,” or letting such remarks go unchallenged.  By repeating traditional views of minorities—e.g. the dwarfs of Snow White and Lord of the Rings—and failing to provide more realistic portrayals with greater frequency.  As adults, we bear so much responsibility for shaping the world the younger generation is trying to navigate.   (As this German Dad proved so well.)

Since the Sixties, many parents and teachers and educational programs have embraced books that promote understanding of ethnic diversity such as People and of disability such as I Have A Sister: My Sister Is Deaf to broaden our children’s perspective and nurture empathy toward people they do not encounter every day.  Yet books like My Princess Boy or The Boy In The Dress have yet to break into the standard curriculum.  There seems to be an unspoken assumption that such books are primarily for the boys they’re about.  (Buy them only after your son starts actively asking for a tiara.)  But everyone should be reading them, for the same reason everyone should be reading Thinking Big.  By waiting to address the idea of free gender expression until a little boy gets bullied, we are cultivating the assumption that the problem never existed until that little boy came along.  The problem was always there.  

Critics have argued The Boy In the Dress is unsuitable for any boy in real life who feels the like the protagonist because any school he attends in real life is far less likely to rally around him so enthusiastically.  But that’s exactly why this book needs to be read and discussed and picked apart by school classes around the world, not just by boys alone in their bedrooms. 

As a teacher, babysitter and relative, I encourage the little boys in my life to play dress-up, house or princess with their female playmates because I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it’s any different from encouraging the girls to get down and dirty in the mud with their brothers.  Sure it’s radical—just as my mother’s wearing jeans to school 42 years ago was radical—and the last thing I want to do is turn a child into something he’s not.  But as with a girl, I want him to feel that every option is open to him, despite any hang-ups tradition has about it.  And if it becomes evident that he truly has no interest in anything soft or sparkly, I at least want to do my best to ensure that he never, ever makes fun of any boys who feel otherwise.