Gender Extender

Tuesday 15 July 2014

The morning after my chat with the Fool on the Hill about the “transgender tipping point,” I left my bench on the Village green and walked over to Dogface Donuts. I took my customary seat on the plastic milk crate outside the front door. It was a good day for depending on the kindness of strangers: I soon panhandled enough for a medium latte and a Choco-Loco croissant. Mighty tasty. Crossing the street to the library, whom did I meet but my old pal Moe Rahn.  It was still ten minute before the library’s opening time, and I hadn’t seen Moe for a while, so it was good to catch up with him.

“Idiot! What brings you to our fine local bibliothèque? They painting your bench today or something?”

“No, Moe, I come by most mornings, use the restroom to brush my teeth, wash my face, tidy up a bit. Then I’ll do some reading, catch up on the news. In fact, just yesterday the Fool on the Hill and I were discussing this so-called transgender thing and I want to learn more about it.”

“Oh, yeh, the Laverne Cox story. Did you read that Time piece on her a few weeks ago? And how’s the Fool doing, by the way? Haven’t seen him in a while, either.”

“He’s good, but the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round. And yes, that’s the article we talked about.”

“Come to any conclusions? Reach an agreement? I imagine you two see the issues differently.”

“Not really. He reminded me that human societies have always had to tolerate individuals who occupy a liminal sexual status. That’s the Fool’s preferred term, ‘liminal,’ but it seems some people now call this ‘two-spirit.'”

“True, but others use the term ‘third gender.’ In fact, the Supreme Court of India ruled a couple of months ago that this is now a legal category of persons. The law is mostly about welfare-state benefits and protection from discrimination, not so much about social acceptance. And you know, that idea is really old in India. There’s a line in the Mahābhārata I recall: ‘among men you will become a man in form, among women a female, among the third class an un-man.’ And you’re the grammarian after all. That’s what the neuter gender is all about, right?”

“Huh. Yeh. That’s interesting. Reminds me of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, where Eteocles demands the loyalty of everyone in the city, ‘man, woman, and whatever exists between them.’ What worries me, though, isn’t that there have always been such people, but where we think we’re going with all this redefinition. I mean, the ‘third gender’ itself is a basket of virtually infinite varieties and nuances of gender and sex, like Facebook’s hypostatizing list of sexual self-identifications. Eventually this can only render basic words like ‘male, female, masculine, feminine, man, woman’ meaningless. That doesn’t seem much like progress to me. Seems more like chaos.”

“Just fears, Idiot old friend, and timely too. Jerry Brown just signed legislation replacing the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in California state marital laws with ‘spouse,’ and another bill is heading to the California senate that would allow a woman to refer to herself as ‘father’ or a man to denote himself ‘mother’ on a child’s birth certificate. Once you finish your toilette, check those out. And you’ll want to read a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Dr Paul McHugh on  the medical ethics of sex-change surgeries. Let me know what you think.”

“Paul McHugh, huh? Will do, Moe, and thanks for the tips.  See you around the Vill.”

I spent the rest of the morning in the library, following this trend as far as I could and wondering where it might be leading. The McHugh piece made sense: people who feel that they are a different gender than as they were born are suffering from a psychological disorder and deserve our understanding and proper treatment. Gender “reassignment” surgery seems nothing more than disfiguring mutilation. And one article I read made an interesting comparison to the Cat Man, that sad guy who really felt that he was a wild cat and had all kinds of surgeries to become one. Killed himself eventually. All the cases of sex-change changes of mind and the high suicide rates of people who still can’t find happiness after their surgeries — I don’t know; doesn’t seem like something we should be celebrating as a “new civil-rights frontier” in magazines. Seems a lot more like a serious medical ethics problem, a detachment of science and technology from humanism and nature. Some parts of the Hippocratic Oath still apply after all: “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman.”

As I walked back to the Village green I wondered ‘How’d we get to this point?’ I could detect filaments of Romanticism, Nietzsche, Deconstruction, feminism, the sexual revolution, anarchism, multi-culturalism, diversity — one gnarly knot of notions. Back on my bench I then remembered Moynihan’s fine and famous article “Defining Deviancy Down.” Good old Moynihan. And that’s it, really: the advance of the anti-normative over the normative. The very concept of norms is increasingly viewed as oppressive, while deviation from norms is increasingly regarded as heroic, liberating, deserving of favored or special treatment for all those who might claim restitution for some real or imagined past injustices. That is, for all of us. And not as members of a society or civilization but as separate claimants upon society for its social goods.

Well, at the Village Odeonplex they were showing the classic Dog Day Afternoon, wherein Sonny and Sal hold up a bank to get money so that Sonny’s lover Leon can get his sex-change operation and be a woman. Based on a true story.  More or less.

To be continued …

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