Sunday, December 13, 2009

The "No-Transgender" Controversy

Wow, there was a big blow-up at Bilerico this week. Bilerico is a top-shelf LGBTQ blog (as they call it), and Thursday they published a piece by gay activist Ronald Gold suggesting that there is no such thing as a transgender person. The article was poorly written and poorly thought out, the writer seems to have no insight into human experience and absolutely no understanding of the activist environment into which he dropped this bomb.

The editors at Bilerico didn't know what to do. They were unanimously offended by the piece but they are also committed to the idea of open debate of issues that are important to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. In the end they decided to delete the post and remove Gold's contributor status. You can see their statement HERE and further explanation HERE.

Behaviorist psychologists in the middle of the twentieth century tried to explain human behavior without reference to covert subjective variables. They explained everything in terms of stimuli and responses, and, to summarize, it didn't work. If you want to understand people you have to listen to what they say about themselves, you have to make some judgments about whether they're being honest with you and with themselves. And when someone tells you that they experience life as if their gender were the opposite of the apparent one, you might tend to view their statement skeptically. It is an unusual kind of statement to make, and for us cisfolk it is impossible to imagine what it's like to feel you have been assigned the wrong gender at birth. Counterintuitive, unusual, hard to comprehend, whatever, at some level you have to take people at their word, and the transgender people I have known have been entirely consistent and believable. There is just no reason to doubt them. They make the transition at great personal cost to themselves, losing friends and loved ones and enduring discrimination and random attacks, and in the end they insist their lives are better for it.

Though the article was deleted, I found a blogger who had re-posted Ronald Gold's original piece, and it certainly does not meet the quality that a site like Bilerico wants to maintain. It reminds me of a favorite Saturday Night Live skit, a TV show called "Women's Problems" opens with harps and dainty sounding music (as I recall, it's been many years), and the chiffon curtains swirl open to reveal a panel of men. They discuss problems that women might have such as, "When they get old they get ugly," and how gross it is when they menstruate. Ronald Gold appears similarly unqualified to discuss whether any person is truly transgender or not. In every paragraph he demonstrates that he has no insight into the personal choices that a transgender person makes, and he tries to explain the whole thing with an oversimplified theory about kids who feel different: "when they discovered that their personalities didn't jibe with what little boys and girls are supposed to want and do and feel, they just assumed they mustn't be real little boys and girls." Gold cites no evidence for this explanation, and there isn't any, he's just an ignorant person speculating about something he doesn't understand.

This might be the core idea that motivated this piece in the first place:
So, parents of such little boys and girls, do not take them to the psychiatrist and treat them like they're suffering from some sort of illness. Explain to them that, whatever the other kids say, real little girls do like to play with trucks and wear grimy jeans, and real little boys like to prance around in dresses and play with dolls.

It is not wrong to talk about subjective gender as a social construction, but it is wrong to talk about it as if it were only a social construction. The hopeful idea here is that people can learn to realize that gender is not a binary variable, there are degrees of maleness and femaleness -- boys can do what girls do and girls can do whatever boys do, without losing their identity. It doesn't make sense for someone to be less than they can be, just because conservative forces in society impose an arbitrary limit on them. The writer apparently suggests that the traditional concepts of gender can be stretched to include all qualities of the opposite. And I would agree that a society should accept variations without prejudice, but if you take his suggestion to its logical conclusion you see that the concept of gender will be watered down to nothing -- and that's just not going to happen, because the concept is too useful. The majority of humans are located somewhere near the center of the bell curve for their sex, and gender is an excellent heuristic for guiding unmindful interactions between individuals, which are the most common type. Gender is a very useful concept, the sexes differ statistically on many dimensions and many of the norms of a society have to do with regulating reproduction, and the concept of gender facilitates that, among other things.

So while I would agree that individuals who differ from gender stereotypes should be accepted by others and not be made to feel ashamed, it seems entirely possible that someone's experience may be so far from the norm for their assigned gender that it is more appropriate for them to re-label themselves and perhaps take steps to completely cross the gap. This makes their life simpler, that is, is the roles and expectations for each gender are fairly well defined, and it is easier for others to apply the expectations of the chosen gender rather than giving up the heuristic of gender stereotypes altogether.

So far I have been talking about sex and gender in reference to social norms and expectations, but in reality I don't think that's what it's about. There are virtually no social forces, for instance, that push a child to behave in counternormative ways, it seems obvious that the motivation is intrinsic. The Intersex Society of North America lists these as disorders of sex development that sometimes involve intersex anatomy: 5-alpha reductase deficiency, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), Aphallia, Clitoromegaly (large clitoris), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), gonadal dysgenesis (partial & complete), hypospadias, Klinefelter Syndrome, micropenis, mosaicism involving "sex" chromosomes, MRKH (Mullerian agenesis; vaginal agenesis; congenital absence of vagina), ovo-testes (formerly called "true hermaphroditism"), Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS), Progestin Induced Virilization, Swyer Syndrome, Turner Syndrome. And remember, each category listed contains subcategories, there are for instance many kinds of "mosaicism involving 'sex' chromosomes." These syndromes may exist to some degree and may not be diagnosed in many instances. Further, this is not a complete list of physiological factors that may affect an individual's subjective experience of themselves as one gender or the other.

Sex and gender are not "about" genitalia. In reality, your subjective gender is part of your sense of self, the way you experience yourself, not what kind of equipment you have. As such, gender is located in the brain, not in the reproductive organs. The brain, with twenty billion highly interconnected neurons, may contain patterns that promote a male or female gender identity, but good luck finding them. Some areas have drawn attention, but with so much to look at and so much other variations among individuals and so many possible patterns of connectivity that could affect such a global sense, it is almost certain that no single pattern will ever be identified that explains a majority of cases.

Clearly the biological substructure of sexual identity is complex, and though a physiological explanation for every instance of a transgender individual may not be known, it is likely that there is one. In this kind of world, Gold's folk-psychological model of gender identity doesn't hold water at all. Some people report very convincingly that they feel subjectively like they are one gender or the other, and not necessarily the one they were assigned when the doctor took a first look and spanked them. Subjective gender correlates with anatomical sex, something makes a person feel like a man or a woman, and it is not just inferred by looking down in the shower, likely the experience of gender has physiological causes as well as social ones, and some people experience their gender incongruously from expectations. These people are transgender, no matter what Ronald Gold says.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

December 14, 2009 8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, you're now on the naughty list!

December 14, 2009 9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

inconvenient lies from Al Gore:

"There are many kinds of truth. Al Gore was poleaxed by an inconvenient one yesterday.

The former US Vice-President, who became an unlikely figurehead for the green movement after narrating the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, became entangled in a new climate change “spin” row.

Mr Gore, speaking at the Copenhagen climate change summit, stated the latest research showed that the Arctic could be completely ice-free in five years.

In his speech, Mr Gore told the conference: “These figures are fresh. Some of the models suggest to Dr [Wieslav] Maslowski that there is a 75 per cent chance that the entire north polar ice cap, during the summer months, could be completely ice-free within five to seven years.”

However, the climatologist whose work Mr Gore was relying upon dropped the former Vice-President in the water with an icy blast.

“It’s unclear to me how this figure was arrived at,” Dr Maslowski said. “I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this.”

Mr Gore’s office later admitted that the 75 per cent figure was one used by Dr Maslowksi as a “ballpark figure” several years ago in a conversation with Mr Gore.

The embarrassing error cast another shadow over the conference after the controversy over the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, which appeared to suggest that scientists had manipulated data to strengthen their argument that human activities were causing global warming.

Perhaps Mr Gore had felt the need to gild the lily to buttress resolve. But his speech was roundly criticised by members of the climate science community. “This is an exaggeration that opens the science up to criticism from sceptics,” Professor Jim Overland, a leading oceanographer at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

“You really don’t need to exaggerate the changes in the Arctic.”

Others said that, even if quoted correctly, Dr Maslowski’s six-year projection for near-ice-free conditions is at the extreme end of the scale. Most climate scientists agree that a 20 to 30-year timescale is more likely for the near-disappearance of sea ice.

“Maslowski’s work is very well respected, but he’s a bit out on a limb,” said Professor Peter Wadhams, a specialist in ocean physics at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Maslowki, who works at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, said “I was very explicit that we were talking about near-ice-free conditions and not completely ice-free conditions in the northern ocean. I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this,” he said. “It’s unclear to me how this figure was arrived at, based on the information I provided to Al Gore’s office.”

Richard Lindzen, a climate scientist at the Massachusets Institute of Technology who does not believe that global warming is largely caused by man, said: “He’s just extrapolated from 2007, when there was a big retreat, and got zero.”"

seems like we keep finding scientists from major universities who don't buy anthropogenic global warming theory

December 15, 2009 8:43 AM  
Anonymous svelte_brunette said...

Thanks Jim, for being such a vociferous, articulate, and consistent fighter against anti-trans bigotry. I think you provide a great example of how one can still respect other people’s differences, even if we can’t fully understand them. Hopefully your attitude will suffuse to larger portions of society.

I have some thoughts on the particular topic you posted, but work and other obligations are sucking away all my free time right now. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some thoughts this weekend.

Peace,

Cynthia

December 16, 2009 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, good

I'll schedule an abrasive and offensive response for this weekend

December 16, 2009 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another snarky, supercilious response by our Favorite Anonymous Troll!

We know you all too well here.

We have come to expect that you will, indeed, "schedule an abrasive and offensive response for this weekend". Why try to reform yourself at this late stage in your life?

You were obviously not raised on the "milk of human kindness" by your mother. In your case that milk was sour and curdled.

December 16, 2009 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, I have some thoughts on the particular topic you posted

I'm just being nice to let Cynthia go first

then, it's an abrasive and offensive response

December 16, 2009 11:21 PM  
Anonymous svelte_brunette said...

Anon warned us:

“oh, good
I'll schedule an abrasive and offensive response for this weekend”

Sorry to keep you waiting Anon. I’ve spent several hours of each of the last two days shoveling snow, and I’m too tired and sore to type up one of my typically fascinating and insightful responses. Fortunately several of my kind neighbors helped dig me out; otherwise I’d be even more sore. I guess you’ll just have to be abrasive and offensive for no apparent reason.

Have a nice week.

Cynthia

December 20, 2009 8:10 PM  

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