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Posts Tagged ‘Sex and Gender’

Fabulous conversation between Jane Clare Jones, and Helen Joyce, the author of Trans reviewed here.

Jones is the author of a darkly humorous, but essentially accurate mock dialogue I’ve linked to before called The Annals of the TERF Wars.

It seems that I link to “must-reads” regularly, so perhaps the impact has been dissipated, but yeah, this is a must-read – if you want a relatively succinct look at the current conversation on this issue. Of course, you’d want to read the book – or one of several others out there – but if you don’t have time, this is a decent introduction – with the added value of Joyce explaining how she got interested in the issue, which includes the trajectory many of us have traveled – from puzzlement to sputtering rage at the stupidity of it all.

Helen: When I started writing the book, I could imagine that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meant something that’s not quite the same as ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male.’ But you can’t do that with ‘male’ and ‘female.’ They have really very specific meanings which are by no means just human meanings. When you say that a male person can be female, you can get to literally anything from that, because that’s like ‘zero equals one.’ During the research I was reading philosophy papers, and I remember [in] one paper I got to page 20 or something, and then there was a sentence: “I take it as axiomatic that trans women are women.” I actually shouted out loud, “For fuck’s sake!” How can you do that? That’s just like saying, ‘I take it as axiomatic that zero equals one.’ You’d have to do a lot of work, at the very least, to say that trans women are women. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was going to have to put in an entire appendix on arguments [that] ‘trans women are women’ and why they don’t work. And in the end, I just thought: “You know what, these are so shit.” These people are not debating, they’re not talking about their ideas; they’re just putting it out there. And people aren’t saying anything, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. So unsurprisingly, this is the most pathetically weak, appalling, stupid body of work I’ve ever seen. You know that I’m not an academic philosopher, I’m not a philosopher at all, and I can look at this, and say, “Oh, that’s where you went wrong. That’s where you said zero equals one.”

So the intellectual reason was just how appalling this stuff was. It actually intellectually offended me. And then the personal reason was seeing these girls. That night after the Detransition Advocacy Network, I sat there and I couldn’t sleep and I just thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to write the book.” Suddenly there were no more questions. It was very straightforward: “They are sterilizing gay kids. And if I write this book, they might sterilize fewer gay kids.” So that’s simple.

Jane: My perception is that the trans rights project isn’t being driven primarily by pharmaceutical interests, but rather by the desire for validation. But by this point these interests have very strongly attached themselves to it, because of the money in it.

Helen: Of course; that’s the way they work. The two biggest lobby groups in America are hospitals and pharma companies, so of course they’re lobbying on this now. But that’s opportunistic. They come in afterwards. The first impulse is definitely middle-aged men whose desire for validation as women is greater than anything else; that’s the ‘zero equals one.’ They’re the people who insist that you say that they’re women. And once you say that lie, everything else follows.

Jane: Yeah, everything else is collateral damage. I mean, I think women’s spaces are a prime target, because they serve this validation function … but the kids are collateral damage, because they serve as evidence for the notion that gender identity is an essence.

……

Jane: Maybe this is a good place to end, because I think this is one of the great accomplishments of your book. As you say, one of the ways that this entire thing has been enabled is because what they’re trying to do is so bonkers that it’s taken us a very long time to convince people that they are actually trying to do what we say they are. It’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, those are crazy women, they’re screaming about nothing. They’re hysterical. They just hate trans people.’ And one of the great achievements of your book is that you’ve managed to document this movement and its objectives, and you’ve done it with such lucidity and grace that it’s very compelling, and convincing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s you being the bonkers one.

Helen: Yeah, and on the other side as well, it’s very hard for a woman to decide, *deep sigh,* ‘I’m now going to dedicate two years of my life to something that’s mad.’ I know you can sympathize because you’ve done it too, but can [the] general [public] sympathize with somebody who has a million better things to be doing with their time and actually has to spend time writing down why we shouldn’t be putting rapists in women’s prisons?

Jane: That’s what makes me so angry, that we have to spend all this energy explaining …

Helen: I. Have. Better. Things. To. Do. With. My. Life.

The maddest bit of the whole book – there were many mad bits, but the maddest bit was saying, ‘Darwin actually worked out why there are two sexes.’ Sexual selection caused there to be two reproductive strategies, two reproductive pathways, bodies shaped by and directed towards two types of reproductive strategies. That’s it. There’s no other definition. It’s the same definition right across the animal and plant kingdom. That’s that. And I think that saved me a lot of time and stupid effort, although, God knows, I had to put a lot of time and stupid effort into this book. I mean, in a way, it’s been intellectually very interesting. But it’s also been ridiculous. And quite a lot of people in journalism have said to me, ‘Look, this is all so stupid, why are you wasting your time on it? Is this what you want to be known for?’ But the thing is, it’s all very well to think that this is so mad that someone will stop it. Well, someone has to be the someone.

There are also interesting observations about how American culture and feminism have contributed to this movement.

Of course, I don’t agree with every iota of every point, and you know that I’d say there are dots that are not being connected in ways that would clarify a lot – but that’s the case with any discussion of any issue, isn’t it?

More of my posts on this here.

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“This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable”

Oh, my word, what happened? What did the American Booksellers’ Association do, for heaven’s sake?

Is everyone okay?

They included promotional material for this book in a mailing to independent bookstores.

Oh. Of course. Totally rational response on all sides.

Well, that pushed me over the edge. I’d been meaning to read this book since it was released, and of course, my local library wasn’t carrying it, and also unfortunately, the two local independent bookstores, of course, weren’t carrying it either, so it’s direct from the publisher for me.

Anyway, after taking in Trans over the weekend, I read Irreversible Damage yesterday, and here are my thoughts.

First, if you or anyone you know is beginning to confront these issues personally or in an institution in which they are involved, Trans and Irreversible Damage are good books to share as an introduction. I know there are others out there that I’ve not yet read, but these benefit from being more up-to-date than books even published just two years ago. This Trans Train moves quickly.

First of all, know that Shrier’s focus, as the title makes clear, is on girls and young women. She addresses general issues within transactivism, but it’s within the context of the social contagion of girls and young women seeking to renounce their female identity, embracing non-binary or male identity instead. So that means, for example, that the impact of male-to-female “transitioners” on traditionally female-only spaces in schools and sports is not closely addressed – because that’s not the purpose of the book.

It’s really about – why has there been this explosion in girls and young women seeking to identify out of femaleness in recent years?

Between 2016 and 2017 the number of gender surgeries for natal females in the U.S. quadrupled, with biological women suddenly accounting for—as we have seen—70 percent of all gender surgeries.

In 2007, there was one gender clinic in the United States. Today, there are well over fifty; Planned Parenthood, Kaiser, and Mayo all disburse testosterone, too. Many do so on a first visit, on an ‘informed consent’ basis; no referral or therapy required. The age of medical consent varies by state. In Oregon, it is fifteen.

And let me make clear, in case you’re wondering. Most of those “gender surgeries” are double mastectomies of healthy breasts. Very, very few female-to-male transitioners, especially young women, have what’s euphemistically called “bottom surgery” – construction of an artificial phallus, usually harvested from deep grafts of skin and other tissue (because it has to be living tissue with blood vessels and such or else it would just hang there and, you know…rot…which sometimes happens anyway) from the upper arm or thigh. You can understand why, just from the description.

Shrier is comprehensive. She talks, of course, to the young women themselves and their families, as well as therapists, physicians, plastic surgeons, educators, online influencers (very important), and detransitioners.

Her approach is not as linear as I expected. So, for example, she doesn’t lay out the gender vs. sex issue right at the beginning, or what is entailed in “transition” or the logical nonsense that “transition” embodies  – she approaches it all sideways, via personal stories, which is certainly different than, say, Joyce’s approach, but powerful in its own way.

What was most helpful to me were Shrier’s exploration of the whole notion of social contagion, as well as her chapters on trans online influencers (a new world to me) and gender curricula in schools.

My only critiques are that there are few more generalizations than I think are warranted, and I think the impact of pornography merits much more attention in this issue – as in the impact of pornography on males and their expectations of female appearance, presentation and sexual availability.

But other than those quibbles, it’s an excellent introduction to this corner of the phenomenon.

Shrier’s book might just leave the reader asking a few more questions of their own – most importantly – how have we failed our girls so catastrophically? What kind of world have we built in which girls feel so anxious about their existence as females that they feel that the solution to their problems is to cut off their breasts and fill their bodies with testosterone?

As Sasha Ayad put it to me, ‘A common response I get from female clients is something along these lines: “I don’t know exactly that I want to be a guy. I just know I don’t want to be a girl.””

And the fact – the fact – that mainstream secular feminists don’t see this as a problem – a crisis, even. As I wrote here:

Not like other girls.

So many of us have felt this. In the present moment, it’s a feeling that’s deepened and exacerbated by a culture in which the value of the individual is tied to appearance, and for females, the value of that appearance is linked to implied sexual interest and availability, and all of it – every bit of it – is woven through with pornography.

Who wouldn’t want to check out of that culture and what it demands and expects of females, especially young females?

Who wouldn’t want to say – no, not me. I’m not like that. Not like other girls. Let me the heck out.

Which is really, in this context, a cry from a sea filled with the drowning.

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Over the weekend, I read Trans by Helen Joyce. I wasn’t planning to read it because I thought – well, I’ve been immersed in these issues for a while and there’s probably little new in it to me. But then all the mess with the American Bookseller’s Association came down last week – in which including a sample of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage was met with weeping and gnashing of teeth by bookseller recipients and followed by an abject apology for the “violence” by the ABA, I decided to go ahead and spend some money to support these purveyors of violence.

And no, there’s not a ton new to me in the book, but it’s good to run through it presented in a cohesive manner, so here’s the thing – if this is an issue you’re in the least interested in or – especially – if you are involved in an organization or institution that is confronting these issues – including the Church – it’s an excellent book to read and pass on to others. Joyce – a writer for the Economist– goes through the history of this movement from the early 20th century to the present, and most importantly explains how the thinking about this matter has changed, accelerated greatly in recent years, from an idealistic conviction that by doing surgeries a man could “become” a woman to the current iteration – that “gender identity” is an almost spiritual reality unrelated to material reality of the body, and that if a person with male genitalia wants to be called and treated as a woman, society and the legal system must treat him as such.

Pretty crazy.

And as I keep saying – if you’re going to deal with these issues, you must understand this – that gender self-identity is the goal of this movement.

She touches on it all – the history, the wealth pushing this, the focus on children – all of it. It’s a good primer.

A few quotes then some comments:

Take, for example, an article for Therapy Route, an American website, by Mx Van Levy, a non-binary therapist, entitled ‘Why the term transition is transphobic’. The reason presented is that the word ‘transition’ is ‘based on the idea that gender looks a certain way and that people need to change from looking/sounding/acting/and more, a certain way for their identity to be respected . . . The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside . . . The term transition implies that we were one gender and are now another. But that is not the case. We are and always have been our gender . . . changing how we look on the outside is not a transition.’

In this, as in much else, the activists do not by any means speak for all trans people. But it is the activists’ version of the ideology that is in the ascendant, and that is being codified into laws.

And that’s what I keep telling you. This is not a niche issue. When local, state and federal jurisdictions declare, under pressure and lobbying, that one’s self-declared gender identity trumps biological sex in access to accommodations, and your daughter’s school, in an effort to just avoid lawsuits, declares all restrooms and changing rooms unisex …..you’ll see.

Democrat-controlled states and cities, however, continued to write self-ID into laws and regulations, both in schools and elsewhere. To give a typical example, an anti-discrimination law passed in New York City in 2019 defines sex as ‘a combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, facial hair, vocal pitch, development of breasts, gender identity, and other characteristics’. When these do not align, it says, ‘gender identity is the primary determinant of a person’s sex.’

Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are……

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion….

But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about – the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language – is collateral damage.

One business sector, in particular, has benefited from transactivism: health care. Helping gender-dysphoric people feel comfortable in their bodies makes no one much money; turning them into lifelong patients is highly profitable.

Now a couple of comments:

First, Joyce makes the decision to use preferred-gender pronouns in this book, which I suppose I understand. The book will be controversial and cancel-able enough without Joyce being accused of murdering trans people by using their dead pronouns or whatever.

Secondly, on matters of more substance.

Joyce’s understanding of the foundation and motivation behind the trans movement reflects, of course, her own worldview. How can it be any different? But as such, it’s lacking a certain philosophical weight. That is, an honest confrontation with the changes in sexuality in general over the past century – most specifically the development and universal use of artificial contraception – the stripping of function from the reproductive system, which leaves us – human beings – in a performative space and not much more.

She inches close at times, but still is pretty far away:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body-denialism. And if you spend a lot of time playing computer games, you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars who can be altered on a whim…

Absolutely. But there’s more, isn’t there?

As I wrote – gee, two years ago tomorrow (odd) in a post:

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Finally:

What Joyce – and other feminist thinkers opposing the trans movement – are unable to confront is the relationship of this nonsense, on a deep level, to abortion.

Because of course, opposing transactivism is about continually bringing out the facts of material, biological reality and emphasizing the point that no matter what you think or desire – you are who you are. A castrated man with breast implants and an electrolysized face is still a man. Our opinions and desires don’t determine reality.

And nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s race or ethnicity. Nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s age. Nor do our opinions change the reality of the rights due to a human being, no matter what age, and no matter where they reside – outside the womb – or deep inside.

So there’s a certain amount of frantic flailing that runs, as an undercurrent, in the work of anti-transactivists. It’s almost as if they can’t understand how this is happening – when from another perspective, it’s very clear: in culture in which sexuality has become performative and preborn human beings are treated as diseased organs, well yes – it becomes quite possible to enshrine, in law, the notion that whatever you think you are – you just are.

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A lot of us know the feeling. We’ve had it since girlhood, and for many of us, it’s never gone away.

Not like other girls.

I wasn’t a so-called “tomboy” as a girl, and as I’ve written before, growing up in the 60’s-70’s – well, the so-called “gender divide” wasn’t actually that wide for kids. I just don’t recall a whole lot of pink or sparkly stuff in anyone’s childhood back then. As I’ve said before, my main memory is of brown-backgrounded plaids, turtlenecks, and bikes.

I was also raised an only child in an academic household. Not hippie liberal, but, at least at the beginning, solid Kennedy Democrats (who, like many, as time went on, transitioned into Reagan democrats and who know what they’d be now if they were alive, which they haven’t been, for a while.) who raised me mostly to be able to articulate my opinions and live a life of the mind. My mother would have termed herself an old-school feminist: think Amelia Earhart and Rosalind Russell. But, then, that’s a repeat.

But growing up, what’s also true is that when it came to feelings of “fitting in” – while I did have close female friends and a female bestie at every stage – in terms of groups – group talk, group thinking, group interests – I never did fit in with the girls. I was always more comfortable with the boys. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and I think much of it has to do with the ways girls are socialized, which perhaps reflects most girl’s instinctive interests. I don’t want to dive too deeply into this, but to consider, reflect on the traditional boys’ and girls’ toys – girls’ toys tend to be related to life in the home and boys’ toys tend to be related to life outside the home.

And so it was with conversation and the wisecracks that’s a part of pre-teen and teen life in school. I wasn’t interested in talking about boyfriends or clothes or makeup (not that that was much of a thing in the 70’s) or social life. But the boys? The boys I hung out with – most of us worked on the school newspaper, and that was our main hang-out time – talked politics and issues – probably not very intelligently, and no, this was no Agora and who knows what they talked about when I wasn’t around – it was probably disgusting – but honestly, it was all just so more interesting with the boys than it was with the girls. An argument, in a way, for single-sex schools, where no doubt, if I’d worked on the school newspaper, I would have been with like-minded young women who were deep into arguing about the ERA and Jimmy Carter, too.

And I had short hair!

Gee. Was I trans?

This is a big topic of conversation in gender critical circles. Women my age down to the mid-20’s musing how as girls we didn’t feel “like other girls” and never felt quite a part of intensive Girl World Life – maybe even excluded. For various reasons, of course. Some, like me just had no interest in what the girls in our lives were fixated on – others were “tomboys,” others athletic, others bullied by Mean Girls, and so on.

What would culture say about us today? What would we be pressured to feel and do?

Because, guess what? It wasn’t great. Yes, I did feel left out. Yes, I was resentful at times. Yes, I did wonder if there was something “off” about me as a female. I didn’t wish to be other than what I was, though. I was content with my interests. But still. In that context – small Catholic high school of mostly white Catholics in the South in the 70’s – I didn’t feel completely comfortable.

But did anyone? Does anyone who’s 15 feel at ease, comfortable and “themselves?”

It seems that of late, the most popular way of signaling I’m not like other girls is to declare oneself non-binary. Every day a new celebrity takes to Instagram to change pronouns. The latest, today, is Emma Corin, a British actress who plays Princess Diana in The Crown. (I don’t watch it, sorry.)

A couple of days ago, she posted an image of herself in a makeshift binder, but in the text, tags a company that makes binders – an account with almost 200K followers.

What’s a binder? It’s a wrap to compress breasts. To nothing, preferably.

“Designed with the true you in mind.”

It’s more than a bit ironic that Corin plays Diana, who lived her adult life in a subculture of high intensity and expectations, some of which was related to her sex. It’s almost a natural progression.

I saw this on Twitter the other day, and though it was apt:

Not like other girls.

So many of us have felt this. In the present moment, it’s a feeling that’s deepened and exacerbated by a culture in which the value of the individual is tied to appearance, and for females, the value of that appearance is linked to implied sexual interest and availability, and all of it – every bit of it – is woven through with pornography.

Who wouldn’t want to check out of that culture and what it demands and expects of females, especially young females?

Who wouldn’t want to say – no, not me. I’m not like that. Not like other girls. Let me the heck out.

Which is really, in this context, a cry from a sea filled with the drowning.

So, I will run with this internalized misogyny – for that’s what it is, full stop – to the nearest “gender-affirming” clinic that will suppress my estrogen, give me testosterone instead, I’ll research mastectomies and hysterectomies and set up a Go Fund Me for it all.

But even if I don’t want to go that far, I’ll still want the world to know that no, I’m not like other girls, so I will ….cut my hair (cut my hair? Really?) and then maybe I will wrap my breasts tightly – so tightly I’m at risk of hurting my lungs – and press, press, press down so that these things on my chest – these things that apparently stand between me and being treated as just – a person – will be gone. Just gone.

Do you want to have evidence of the failure of 2nd and 3rd wave feminism? This. That this – young women by the thousands in the West seeking to suppress and amputate the visible signs of their sex, and saying I’m not a “she” anymore …Just “they.” I’m “they” – not “she” – please not “she” – isn’t seen as the crisis that it is.

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1100-260

 

Where were we?

Post 1

Post 2

I’m going to veer a bit from my original “plan” on these posts, and jump ahead to a conclusion of sorts. And then next week or over the weekend, I’ll move back and elaborate. I just want to describe the landscape and what I’m reacting to.

Let’s summarize what I was attempting to communicate in those last two posts (found here and here.)

Human beings come in two sexes, male and female (noted: intersex conditions.) 

Gender is not the same thing as sex, but is intimately related and rooted in what male and female are about: procreative roles and powers.

Beyond that, we should be wary of identifying traits as “feminine” or “masculine.” That type of discourse can certainly help in exploring our personalities and identities, understanding the challenges in relationships and building community.

But, taken even an inch too far, fixating  on and defining “feminine” or “masculine” can become confining, limiting, exclusionary, confusing, oppressive and harmful.

There’s a deep mystery about the human person, including about sexuality. We seek to understand it, but always in humility and awareness of our own limitations.

As I wrote in those posts, I come at this from two angles: first, looking at the contemporary cultural and pop spiritual scene in which there are strong movements to associate spirituality with femininity or masculinity. I’ve said that many are helped and built up by that – and that’s great. But if you are a woman or man who can’t imagine attending a Catholic or Christian women’s or men’s conference or study group – that’s great too. That was really just a side point.

But – and this is the more important point – in observing the broader culture, I’m astonished, puzzled and increasingly angered by this paradox of living in a time in which I thought we were supposed to be past gender stereotypes – but finding that, in fact, gender stereotypes are quickly becoming pathologized.

Last year, ITV aired a series called Butterfly about a male child with gender dysphoria. Sarah Ditum wrote about it and what she said echoes what I’ve been trying to say:

Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.

That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.

And so here we are – in this transgender moment.

Now, wait. It’s a tiny percentage of people who identify this way, you say. Why take time to pay attention? Why comment? What’s the big deal?

A couple of reasons.

First, it’s interesting. One of the aspects of history in which I’ve long been interested in is social movements. I did a lot of work in graduate school on the 19th century woman’s movement, especially in relation to religion. I’ve studied feminism, and this is a crucial moment – it really is fascinating to see assumptions and ideologies flipped around in this way.

What we’re seeing in this moment, thanks to transgenderism, is a deep, even violent clash between social movements and ideals. It’s startling, to be honest. Some look at what is going on with a sort of Schadenfreude  – “Always entertaining to see the Left eat its own.”

And, well – I suppose there’s some of that.

But what’s going on deserves more serious attention than that – and it deserves it even from those of us who aren’t directly involved and see ourselves as distant from or unsympathetic to these concerns and issues.

Because what is going on is not just a squabble between interest groups or a struggle for acceptance and tolerance. The outcome is going to impact the law – in fact, one of the major explosive points in this conflict has come, precisely, because of a battle over law and policy in England over the past year – and the policies of organizations from Girl and Boy Scouts to your local high school and health club.

And we owe it to the truth to be thoughtful and clear-headed about the issue, and not get wrapped up into sentiment.

So what am I doing? I want to talk about what’s going on with this issue and share what I think are possible consequences – and help folks make sense of it, in whatever way I can.

I think this is a deeply important moment, and because of the power of rapid communications and the quick and harsh power that interests group can yield now, we need to pay attention. There’s a middle ground between:

  • Seeing this as an issue that crazy people over there are squabbling about and since I don’t like most of what they are saying anyway, I’ll just point and laugh

and

  • Blindly acceding to the nice-sounding  slogans of acceptance and diversity of the moment

 

Oh – and a warning. The material I’ll be linking to and quoting will, at times, be pretty out there and contain what some might find offensive language. And of course, I don’t agree with every other point made by writers and activists I’ll be citing. Just know that going in.

Here’s my entry point, and I think this pretty succinctly summarizes the current situation. The writer is a leftist feminist academic. Her field is not gender or sexuality, but I think this is a helpful summary of the core issues – it was published in 2015, but is still valid – again, her starting definitions are not those I necessarily share, but stick with it:

Transgenderism bastardises the core feminist insight that “woman” is a politically defined social category generated by male violence and the exclusion, expropriation and colonisation of female human beings. Rendered as a Leftist wedge issue, this insight becomes the distorted proposition that “woman” is a flexible human “identity” with which any individual might associate themselves – even fully-grown rational male human beings.

Rather than being a designator of subordinated social class membership, “woman” is a feeling that can swell in any man’s breast. Acting on this feeling, he might adopt sex-stereotyped clothing and behaviours, and others must hold these caricatured displays in high regard. Female pronouns must be used, and laws and policies must be changed to newly recognise women, not as an historically vulnerable social group, but as the product of an individual man’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The Leftist purge of women who refuse publicly to declare allegiance to such ideas of transgenderism is proceeding apace. It takes the form of the “no-platforming” of feminists at speaking events, the petitioning of conference venues to drop bookings from feminist groups, the public harassment and ridicule of dissenters, and lobbying for women to be removed from jobs and positions of public profile.

So what is she talking about in that last paragraph?

Basically, the war that has broken out, at least in English-speaking countries (that I’m aware of) between feminist, lesbian and transgender activists. It’s not a small thing.

The controversy exploded last year with proposed changes to the British 2004 Gender Identification Law – the changes would loosen the requirements for determining gender. The following is taken from an opinion piece by two scholars opposed to the changes:

One of the main reforms proposed is that anyone should be able to be formally recognised as a member of the other sex purely on the basis of self-identification. Therefore, the sole criterion for determining that a person is a woman would be that person’s belief (or stated belief) that they are a woman. Anyone who wants to be a woman would have to be viewed as one.

The effect of this proposal becoming law would be to erode the very concept of woman. It will erase women’s lived experiences, and undermine women’s rights. Being a woman is about sex and biology, in that our bodies determine so much of our experience, and also about the way we are constructed socially, which also helps determine our lived experiences. It is not about how a person feels or what they claim to feel.

Self-identification will allow anyone to access women’s spaces at any time, having self-proclaimed that they are a woman. This is  problematic for women accessing women’s spaces and services whose lived experiences (such as surviving sexual violence) or protected characteristics (such as religion that requires sex-segregation for certain activities) make it essential that women’s spaces remain sex-segregated.

Self-identification is also open to abuse by men seeking to access women’s spaces and women’s bodies. We are already seeing people who were born and still live and present as men claiming that they are trans-women in order to gain access to women’s spaces, including convicted sex offenders demanding to be housed in women’s prisons; individuals videoing women and girls naked in women’s changing rooms; and individuals seeking to join all-women candidate lists in local or national elections. Allowing self-identification of trans people will enable and embolden these types of activities.

There is clearly a conflict of rights and interests at the heart of these discussions. This conflict needs to be aired and discussed.  

So what is happening?

Essentially this:

In organizations, movements and platforms throughout the English-speaking world, women who question and challenge transgender ideology are being pushed out, excluded, and threatened.

The nature of the questions and challenges range across various concerns:

  • Transgendered individuals participating in girls and women’s athletic events.
  • Transgendered individuals being admitted into all-women spaces, ranging from prisons to shelters to, of course, restrooms.
  • Transgendered activists redefining women and aspects of female physiology.

Somewhat distinct, but of even more pressing concern is the impact of this on children and young people: encouraging children who are confused and – as most children and young people are – uncomfortable with body changes, fearful and confused about identity and the future – to latch onto gender stereotypes, accept hormonal treatments and surgery to “become” another gender.

I’m going to go into these in more detail in later posts. It’s easy to find all sorts of related news everywhere, but there are a few cases that interest me in particular.

What I wanted to focus on in this post is the impact on social movements – feminism and gay activism, in particular. You may not think it has anything to do with you, but think again. We should all know by know how quickly these demands develop.

One of the things you quickly – immediately – notice – is that the movement in this area is all in one direction:

Men identifying as women demanding access to traditional women’s spaces and activities.

It’s never the other way around. The pressure, the hate and the violence – yes, the violence – is emanating from men demanding to be identified as women.

And the pressure is on.  Here’s a good summary from Meghan Murphy – a Canadian journalist who this past week filed a lawsuit against Twitter for banning her – for saying, basically “men aren’t women.”

This is a long excerpt – and I encourage you to go read her entire piece for many more examples.

The statement that “Men aren’t women” would have been seen as banal—indeed, tautological—just a few years ago. Today, it’s considered heresy—akin to terrorist speech that seeks to “deny the humanity” of trans-identified people who very much wish they could change sex, but cannot. These heretics are smeared as “TERF”—a pejorative term that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—and blacklisted. On many Twitter threads, the term is more or less synonymous with “Nazi.” 

In many progressive corners of academic and online life, it now is taken as cant that anyone who rejects transgender ideology—which is based on the theory that a mystical “gender identity” exists within us, akin to a soul—may be targeted with the most juvenile and vicious attacks. “Punch TERFs and Nazis” has become a common Twitter tagline, as is the demand that “TERFs” be “sent to the gulag.” (This latter suggestion was earnestly defended in a thread authored by students who run the official Twitter account of the LGBTQ+ Society at a British university. The authors went on to say that the gulag model would, in fact, comprise “a compassionate, non-violent course of action” to deal with “TERFs” and “anti-trans bigots” who must be “re-educat[ed].”)

The reason why engagement with the most militant trans activists is fruitless, and yields only a slew of empty mantras and false stereotypes, is that one cannot argue with religious faith. At the core of transgender ideology is the idea that the old mind/body problem that has bedeviled philosophers for centuries has been definitively solved by gender-studies specialists—and that a female mind can exist within a male body and vice versa. Moreover, we are informed that these mystical phenomena are invisible in all respects, except to the extent that they are experienced from within—which means the only reliable indicator of supposed bona fide transgenderism is the self-declaration of trans-identified individuals (many of whom seem to have made these stunning discoveries as part of a sudden social trend).

Like other women who have been sounding the alarm about these trends, I regularly get accused of spreading moral panic, and of attempting to vilify trans-identified people as inveterate predators. But my issue isn’t with “transgender people,” per se, but, rather, with men. There is a reason certain spaces are sex-segregated—such as change rooms, bathrooms, women’s shelters, and prisons: because these are spaces where women are vulnerable, and where male predators might target women and girls. These are spaces where women and girls may be naked, and where they do not want to be exposed to a man’s penis, regardless of his insistence that his penis is actually “female.”

The internally experienced mystical conceits of a man’s mind do not affect any of the reasons why sex-segregated spaces were created in the first place. Female firefighters in Canada had to fight for years to have their own facilities like locker rooms, bathrooms, and showers, after suffering regular harassment in previously shared spaces. Such are the gains that the radicalized portion of the trans-rights movement wants to roll back. Generations of feminists have made it their life’s work to help women feel safe in historically male spaces. But in the name of ideological fashion, that has been flushed away in the name of male demands for “inclusivity.”

In May, nine homeless women signed on to a lawsuit against Naomi’s House in Fresno, California, after they were forced to shower with a biological man who, while claiming to be a woman, made lewd, sexually inappropriate comments to them, and leered at their naked bodies. In Toronto, similarly, Kristi Hanna filed a human rights complaint against the Jean Tweed Centre, which runs Palmerston House, a shelter for female recovering addicts, after she was told she must share a room with a hulking, plainly male-bodied individual claiming to be a woman.

….

Friends sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t worry too much, because Twitter “isn’t real life.” But online fights have an effect on “real life.” Last month, Canada’s Greystone Books, with which I’d been working on a manuscript for almost three years, told me they were dropping my book. The manuscript had just been completed, and I’d agreed to all the suggested edits with regard to the material on transgenderism. The email sent to me by the owner of the company was completely out of the blue, and explained, “I cannot and will not accept a manuscript for publication at Greystone which is hurtful to individuals or groups because of what they believe about their own gender.” When I responded with shock and confusion, he declined to explain what it was about my analysis that suddenly had become “unacceptable” to him. Presumably, he was just late getting the memo about “TERFs.”

We are indeed in an era of social panic. But this panic isn’t directed at trans-identified individuals, who, in fact, are now called on to lead parades. Rather, the panic is directed at anyone who claims that 2 + 2 = 4. After stickers with the words, “Women don’t have penises” appeared on campus at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Jennifer Dyer, interim head of the gender studies department, blamed “TERFs.” And university president Gary Kachanoski responded immediately with a statement that called the stickers “transphobic” and “hateful.” Bailey Howard, director of external affairs for the Student Union, saidthat not one, but two meetings were being planned to “discuss next steps.” An anchor for NTV, Newfoundland’s provincial news program, labeled it a “hate crime.” All of this hysteria was set in motion by a set of stickers that express a sentiment endorsed, at least privately, by most members of our society. It feels like a Monty Python sketch come to life.

I was angry to have lost a Twitter account with tens of thousands of followers. I was angry to have lost a book deal. But I will recover. I am resilient, if nothing else. I will find another publisher and other ways to communicate with the public. I have countless supporters, and my career is far from over. Certainly, I don’t plan on shutting up.

But this isn’t just about me. It’s about a cultish movement that is flexing its muscle on campuses, in civic organizations, at public events, and in the back offices of social-media companies, to strike down anyone who dares point out that the gender emperor wears no clothes. It is about our ability to debate important issues and speak the truth in the public realm. It’s time for all of us—not just women and feminists, who are now taking the worst of it—to put their collective foot down and demand a return to sanity.

 

TO REPEAT:

You can look at all of this  and say, Hahaha – what do you expect from progressives? Feminists getting a taste of their own medicine!

I suppose you can do that. But it’s not a serious response. For this isn’t a battle being fought only on Twitter and in academic departments. We’ve seen how quickly the social landscape changes.

For this can, in a way, be a teachable moment, can’t it? It can be an opportunity for us to take a deep breathe and indeed reconsider what it means to be a person, a woman, a man – and consider whether or not certain old truths still might be…true.

I mean, look at the bolded paragraph section up there. And think about, compare it to this article asking – is the soul sexed? 

…..

Fair Play for Women is a UK-based organization that has all the resources you need to get started. 

Here they are on Twitter.

We are concerned that in the rush to reform transgender laws and policies women’s voices will not be heard. Run entirely by a team of volunteers with skills in many different disciplines, without any corporate sponsorship or formal funding, we have worked hard over the past year to bring this issue to public attention.

Women get called transphobic for simply asking questions. Women are afraid to speak out and fear for their jobs and reputation if they do. We provide the safe platform necessary for women and men to voice their concerns, share their real-life stories and expert knowledge.

4th Wave Now looks at it from another angle:

The purpose of this site is to give voice to an alternative to the dominant trans-activist and medical paradigm currently being touted by the media

Twitter.

Jane Clare Jones is a writer with a strong voice. She blogs here. Her most popular post is “The Annals of the TERF-wars” found here. Again, warning for strong language.  

 

Trans activists: So hey, when we said we’d like you to treat us like women that wasn’t right, because actually, we ARE women and we demand that you treat us exactly like women because we are women and that you to stop violently excluding us from all your women things.

Women: Um, we thought you were male people who had to transition to help with your dysphoria?

Trans activists: No, that is out-dated and pathologizing. Women are women because they have a gender identity which makes them women.

Women: Um, we thought we were woman because we’re female?

Trans activists: No, you are women because you have magic womanish essence that makes you women. We have the same magic womanish essence as you, it’s just that ours got stuck in the wrong body.

Feminists: That sounds kind of sexist. Can you tell us what this woman-essence is, and how it gets stuck in the wrong body, because that sounds like a weird metaphys…..

Trans activists: It’s SCIENCE.

Feminists: Science says there’s ‘magic woman essence’??? Are you sure? Because feminism would…

Trans activists: Shut up bigots.

But it’s hilarious. And true.

Julia Beck, on Tucker Carlson this past week, describes in this long piece how she was kicked off the Baltimore LGBTQ Commission for calling a guy “he.” 

Our very first meeting was in May. To make the commission “as inclusive as possible,” Mayor Pugh invited applicants to a welcoming reception. When I arrived,  Ava Pipitone, president of Baltimore’s Transgender Alliance, was preaching everyone’s favorite buzzword: “inclusion.” He seemed a caricature of femininity with overtly demure mannerisms and performative vocal fry. At the end of his prepared speech, Mayor Pugh tenderly embraced him, thanking him for being “so brave” at the podium.
….

When I arrived to the first Law and Policy meeting, Ava Pipitone, of BTA, shook my hand and greeted me by my full name. I knew I was in for a show. I asked him what he does for a living, and he gushed about the app he’s developing with engineers in California — “like if Air BnB and OkCupid had a baby” — a dating website based on rental locations, every pimp’s wet dream. It was no surprise to hear him confess later in the night that he’s an agent for the global pimp lobby, the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Before we could talk about bylaws, Pipitone announced the rejection of my written comments on some new policies from the Baltimore Police Department. He further derailed the conversation by asking me to name his sex. There was no point in lying. I said, “You’re male,” but my Co-Chair, Akil Patterson, a gay man, disagreed on the grounds of gender identity. When I asked Patterson to differentiate “gender” from “sex,” Pipitone accused me of gaslighting. Instead of answering, they deferred: Why does a stranger’s identity matter so much? Why can’t you just support trans people? What does it have to do with you?

I brought up Karen White, a convicted pedophile and rapist who was placed in a UK women’s prison, despite being legally male and undergoing no steps to socially or medically transition, where he then raped two inmates. White’s case illustrates how easy it is for men to manipulate the law, but Pipitone smirked and claimed I was being performative. In delicate tones, he expressed concern with my leadership. He claimed Lesbianism and transgenderism are incongruent political forces (probably the only thing we agree on). Instead of enacting “lateral violence” against transfolk by crashing “our parades,” he argued that lesbians should assimilate with male lesbians to “punch up” at an unnamed oppressor.

Incidentally, Beck’s piece is at the website After Ellen – a lesbian website whose editor is today under attack from transactivists for some reasons I really don’t understand.

****

Several years ago, when I first started observing these movements, the following popped into my head. If you read my first post on this, you know that the thought of Germaine Greer and 80’s era feminists who questioned the impact of reproductive technology on women has been very important to me. What all of these thinkers – as well as pro-life feminism –  emphasized wast the cultural and social temptation to, as it were, castrate women to make them more productive cogs in male-defined social and economic structures – make them easier to sexually exploit, with little fear of pregnancy – and render them more efficient workers. Hence the title of Greer’s book The Female Eunuch. 

So when I started seeing this moment evolve, here is what I thought, and I can’t shake it:

When historians look back on this, they’re going to see the ultimate triumph of  misogyny, enabled by technology: The ideal woman – is a man. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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EPSON MFP image

Hey there – thanks for the good comments. Let’s all gather round in our earth-tone plaids and do Spirograph and eat Burger Chef, shall we?

In a gender-neutral kind of way?

****

You can probably tell where I’m going, but it’s going to take me a couple more days, simply because there are a few stages I have to work through to get to the point at which I can effectively articulate what is, quite frankly, something close to rage.

****

If we’re going to think about sex and gender, I suppose we should talk about them. About men and women.

Remember one of the motivations here: Genesis 1-2, forming the first readings this week at Mass. 

I hope this post won’t be as windy as the last one.

So, here we go:

I’ve been married twice, have four sons and a daughter and have taught hundreds of adolescents, male and female, have a mother and a father, have many friends and acquaintances of both sexes, and here’s what I think the differences between men and women are:

Women are always cold.

That’s really it. I can’t pin it down any more than that.

Because in every classroom, every office situation and in my home, that’s the crucial, unmoving divide: the guys always want the air conditioning turned way, way down, and the ladies are always freezing. (Including me.)

Just last evening, I went to the Piggly-Wiggly. Called “The Pig” in these parts. I walked down one aisle, and there was a woman about ten feet ahead of me. Another woman was headed our way in the opposite direction. As she passed the first woman, they exchanged words, and the subject was clear. One of them responded to the other saying something like “So cold.” And, joined with them and to the cycles of the moon, probably, I immediately glommed onto the meaning and added my two cents, “Always. Coldest store in town.” And we all smirked in agreement.

And beyond that – I got nothing.

It’s a joke, yes, but it’s not. Because this is what I know: Men and women are certainly different. Clearly, obviously. But to delineate those differences and try to figure out how?

Go for it. Good luck.

And really, I’m okay with that. I’ve read extensively, thought about it, lived it, and concluded – the mystery is okay.

We can – and do- say various things about these differences. We say that women are more emotionally attuned and nurturing, that men are able to distance themselves from emotions, etc. Women listen, men state things, want to fix things, and on and on and on.

Perhaps – maybe –  most of that is true for most men and women, but you know what? The other truth is that whenever you try to abstract from that or categorize actual human beings according to those traits you immediately run into exceptions and outliers.

And since books have been written about the subject, I’m certainly not going to attempt to summarize hundreds of years of thinking on it in a blog post.  So I’ll try to be brief about the particular angles on this that will pertain to my bigger point – coming in a day or two.

  • Male and female persons are different.
  • Why is this? Nature? Nurture? Socialization? Well, like everything about human life, the best we can say is: both.
  • Sex and gender are different things. Every human being is either male or female. That’s our sex. The way we live that out – the dispositions and expressions associated with that are gender. What we refer to, in part, in our binary way as feminine and masculine traits or expressions. Gender, rooted in sex, is certainly culturally and socially reinforced and conditioned.

There is, of course, no lack of discussion and teaching on this score in Catholic tradition. But here’s the funny thing.

Catholic reflection and teaching on sex and gender affirms difference. It has a very developed understanding of the relationship of body/soul/sex (more on that tomorrow). Catholic reflection on human anthropology also affirms what Genesis implies: some sort of male-female complementarity.

But what – aside from sex – defines or describes “man” or “woman” – what is “masculinity” or “femininity?” 

Contrary to what you might assume, Catholic tradition doesn’t dogmatically decree on the matter. Certainly Catholic thinkers and theologians with great authority have explored the matter and Catholic institutions and traditions have expressed various perspectives, usually managing to both reflect and challenge the social structures in which the Church is existing in that particular culture.

But for the most part, when it comes to the core of Catholic teaching, the mystery is allowed to be a mystery.

Looking at the Catholic landscape of the past few decades, you might not know that. Pope John Paul II wrote quite a bit about sexuality and the family, and many have found his teaching helpful – and it’s become the center of formation efforts and movements. John Paul II did reflect on male and female identity, elevating the idea of complentarianism and specifically the “feminine genius.”

His apostolic letter on women would be a place to explore this and, in a shorter form, his 1995 “Letter to Women.” 

His thinking has been quite influential. What does John Paul II suggest the “feminine genius” is about? Basically, a stance of receptivity, acceptance, sensitivity and generosity. You can read all about it in the links above. Maybe you’re really into it and you can teach the rest of us about it.

For my part…I’m just not a fan. Again, if it helps you, great. I’m just way too attuned to the outliers of any abstraction or generalization to climb completely on board. I also experience extended, anxious, deeply-felt attempts to assure me of my full humanity as, in the end, condescending.

Are we again, back to the personal context? Perhaps. Perhaps being raised in a family by an  emotionally distant mother and a warm, friendly approachable dad has given me a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to generalizations about “femininity” and “masculinity.”

As, perhaps, did my own childhood and adolescence of feeling not quite attuned to girls as a group. I certainly had female friends – some of my best friends were girls!  – but you know what? When it came to high school, I was always the girl who drifted towards sitting with the smart, issue-minded boys, because none of the girls in my (admittedly small) class had any interest in issues outside of school or their social circle or personal concerns.

When I was a freshman in college, I, as many good Catholic girls did and do, consider religious life. I was guided towards an order that, I was assured, was “the female Jesuits.”  I visited a convent in Washington – this would have been 1979. There were a few aspects of the short visit that revealed to me that perhaps this was not my vocation, but the most vivid emotion I experienced, sitting there at lunch with these very nice women was a reality, descending like a bolt: If I join, that means the rest of my life  and my identity will be centered on a group of…women. 

The idea of that – the prospect of it, was, not to put it too strongly, almost repellent to me.

(Which is pretty much the opposite reaction my daughter had in college when she joined a sorority. It struck me as a bizarre, out-of-character choice, but I finally understood it when – this young woman, the only sister in a family with four brothers – posted on Facebook after she was accepted: At last! I have sisters! )

But did any of this ever make me question my femaleness? Nope.

The Catholic world has met contemporary gender questions and turmoil with its own set of movements and gathering spaces, where feminine and masculine virtues are celebrated and reinforced. Fantastic. One of my own sons has benefited greatly from one of these groups, and I’m deeply grateful.

But to recognize the risks with all that. There’s no Catholic doctrine or dogmatic teaching anywhere that insists on a particular set of “feminine” or “masculine” virtues or even characteristics. Yes, dive into JPII’s Theology of the Body and extrapolate from that and find benefit in it, but – deep breath – the insights of the TOB on this score are not dogmatic. They are rooted in dogmatic truth – the creation of man and woman as male and female by God’s will and the role of the family in the created order – but the notion that “femininity = innate receptivity,” for example,  while helpful, is not anything that anyone is required center their thinking on  – about women in general or themselves in particular.

So, if you are a woman who looks at the current feminine-genius-you’re-beautiful-every-woman-is-a-mother-in-some-way-love-Jesus-love-makeup-too landscape and thinks….not me. 

You’re fine.

We’re fine. 

And we’re still women.

Dig back into Dorothy Day, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard, Flannery, and all the other quirky Catholic women and feel right at home again.

We have to be so, so careful, in our determination to fight what’s wrong in the culture and celebrate the truth of the beauty of the human person, male and female, to not communicate a whole other set of expectations and assumptions that might, indeed, have some foundation in authentic Catholic thinking, but aren’t actually normative for every single person.

“The Real Catholic Woman” can be a mother of ten or none. She can be really interested in fashion or absolutely, totally indifferent to it. She can be hoping for a spouse or she can be fully content without one. “The Real Catholic Woman” can find “beauty” a helpful personal and spiritual concept – or not. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be ambitious and entrepreneurial or she can live more quietly, oriented to serving those around her in simple, ordinary ways.   “The Real Catholic Woman” can find deep connection and nourishment from being with other women – or she can find that from hanging out with the guys, or professional colleagues or in her garden or heck, with her cats. I guess. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be deeply into Church-y things – or she can hit Mass once a week, say her prayers and do her best in life.

***

Now you know what?

I’m going to swing right around again. I’m going to come full circle to the beginning of this post, and hopefully not into total incoherence.

Sex is binary.

Sex differences are real.

Gender is real and the result of both nature and nurture. Masculinity and femininity are complementary. I do think that there are qualities more associated with men than women, and vice versa. Defining them too specifically, however, is a minefield, fraught with exceptions and the risk of unjust judgment.

And finally –  the only – the only – logical and authentic way to understand gender is rooted in the roles of male and female in reproduction. It remains a deep mystery (see above), but any other foundation is arbitrary and ultimately oppressive and destructive.

So what’s our conclusion?

When you separate sexuality from procreation, you do, indeed, lose your definitions. 

When you sterilize a culture, gender does, indeed become a game of appearances and affectations.

Incoherence? Mystery? It all, as usual, depends on where you start.

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Welp, so much for the “week” thing. Also, apologies for those who either read the unfinished post earlier after I accidentally scheduled it, or came here looking for it. Here it is. 

I’m going to talk about gender this week. Probably not every day. Because every time I do that I end up either getting caught up in something else and breaking my promise or…keeping my promise and letting it take over my life.

So why this week?

Well, these are notions and thoughts that have been peculating for a while. As is the case with almost everything these days, there’s just so much – it’s paralyzing for those who want to write or talk about such things. You think you get a grasp on one aspect of it, you settle on an angle – and thirty minutes later, some other news story or perspective pops up and blows it all to hell. Again.

But as I looked at the Mass readings for this week, I was struck by the fact that this week – this fifth week of Ordinary Time – we’re starting, with our first readings, with Genesis 1.

(And Mark 7 in the Gospels.)

So, it seemed to fit.

But don’t come here looking for restatements of takes you’ve read elsewhere. I have my idiosyncratic way into these issues. You won’t find hardcore social analysis here.

For sure you’re not going to read rhapsodic celebrations of complementary natures or the feminine genius. If that’s your thing, go for it. It’s just not my thing – it’s not the way I think or experience being a person.

I’m puzzling through some things and trying to say some things out loud that I’m not hearing many other people say.

So we’ll begin, as one does, with the personal angle.

Where I’m coming from. 

I want to talk about gender (and sexuality) because it’s an issue that’s fracturing our culture and fracturing social and political movements – which is rather entertaining to watch. My reasons have nothing to do with any sort of personal, passionate interest in gender issues or investment or attachment to a cause.

Briefly:

I’m 58, going to be 59 this summer. That means I was born in 1960 and grew to adulthood in the 1960’s and 70’s. I’m an only child of academically-minded parents. My mother almost got a M.S. in Library Science and my dad was a Ph.D. in political science. I grew up in college towns from Bloomington to Lubbock to DeKalb to Lawrence to Knoxville. Small families on both sides, mostly educators and business people on both sides, male and female, father’s side southern minimally-practicing Methodists, mother’s side French-Canadian Catholics, mother specifically very sour on post-Conciliar Catholicism by the early 70’s, stopped going to Mass. Highly intelligent parents, politically and socially middle-of-the-road, constant conversations about issues in the home, exposure to the life of the mind, etc. , etc…..

Why is that relevant?

I think because, as I reflect on how I think of myself as “a woman” that background might go some distance in explaining why I have a hard time doing just that –  thinking of myself in terms of  “a woman” who’s part of this group called “women” that is supposed to have particular interests and characteristics. Or at least – defining myself primarily in terms of “womanhood.”

I just…can’t.  I don’t even know what that means, really. I’ve never had any driving desire to attach myself to other “women” in women’s groups because we’re women and that’s what women do. I suppose in part it’s because I’m not a joiner, period, but I do sometimes wonder if it’s because I was raised in this household where a) I didn’t have a brother for comparison – either by my parents or myself, and so my existence wasn’t delineated against any male family member peer and b) the expectations my parents had for me and their sense of who I was had nothing to do with being female – it was all about learning and ideas and accomplishment (to some degree) and living a decent life as a person in a family and in society. No one ever talked much about being female or male or what that meant or what was right or appropriate. I was just a person.

I went to a small Catholic high school in the South in the 70’s, so consciousness-raising was really not on the menu. I mean – no one cared. When I got to college – in 1978 – at UT, I did venture to the Woman’s Center. I was a politically minded person, but I’m really not sure what I thought I was going to find or why I was going – I do know that one of the musicians in the folk group at the Catholic student center was a part of it. Perhaps she invited me? Well, for whatever reason, I went to some meeting, and heard, right away, a focus on abortion. It was the center of the conversation. So I stepped away and didn’t return.

Later on, I did get involved in the national organization Feminists for Life – at a pre-internet era when involvement in national groups was a lot more challenging than it is now. But I did, and knew all of the leadership at the time and their writings and the writings they promoted were very important to me.

Every few years, it seems, people rediscover the possibility of progressive/liberal prolife views – it’s good that it gets rediscovered, but also puzzling to me how short our attention spans are now. Every time someone raises a proverbial fist on Instagram and proclaims in wonderment, “Yo! I’m pro-life and – ” wait for it, you’ll be shocked and amazed – “a feminist!” – aren’t you amazed? I just feel old and grumpy. More so than usual.

Okay, let’s look at that word: feminist. It’s not a big deal to me. You want to call yourself a feminist? Sure. You want to avoid the term? Sure. I don’t care. You want to write for pages or talk for hours about why you do or don’t call yourself a feminist? Then I’ll probably find something else to do.

Once, probably in the early to mid-70’s, my mother, who was born in 1924, went on a rant about feminism. She said something like, “Sure, I’m a feminist. I’m an old-school Amelia Earhart, Rosalind Russel, Katharine Hepburn feminist. We all were.”

 

 

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And if there were any late 20th century feminists who had any role in my intellectual formation it was first, Germaine Greer, and later, Camille Paglia – although Paglia is not as serious a thinker as Greer. Reading The Female Eunuch and Sex and Destiny blew my mind in my late 20’s and early 30’s. That as well as pro-life feminism, and various feminist critiques of developing reproductive technologies – critiques which were standard and pervasive – provided the framework for any most of my political and social framing of women’s issues.

So that’s the essence of my growing-up-as-a-female: Raised playing in neighborhoods with boys and girls, mostly outside, reading whatever I felt like reading, all of us wearing shorts and t-shirts and jeans and tennis shoes, my toys a jumble of Barbies, games, a dollhouse, contraptions like Spirographs and this Fun Flower Thingmaker, a firetruck, a dump truck and lots of Matchbox cars. Expectations? Mostly that I’d be a professional of some sort, probably an academic. And that I’d try to live a good life.  I wasn’t raised in a household that articulated or even assumed any particular female-identified choices or behavior.

Was that strange or unusual? I honestly don’t think so. The girls and women I grew up with – we didn’t feel any particular need to assert any roles that we felt denied.

Nor – and this is my focus right now – did we feel any pressure to dress or comport ourselves in a “feminine” kind of way.

Perhaps others have different experiences. No doubt they have. But that’s just mine.

Discrimination, exploitation and worse exists and always has. The powerful use and repress the less-powerful, and this happens in a web of racial, sexual, socio-economic and cultural identities. Ask any woman or minority group member trying, say, to work in predominantly white male environments in the past or in the present. It’s real. The harsh, contemptuous, lurid male gaze cast upon women is real, something most young women can tell you about in distressing detail.

But what this rambling post is about is not that. It’s not about workplace discrimination or social exploitation. I’ll get to that in a couple of days.

No, what this is about is simply setting the stage for my …confusion and puzzlement about how we got from there to here, particularly in regard to gender “roles” as expressed culturally and socially.

Quite often those kinds of questions are posed by older folks looking back and wondering how a seemingly more restrained past became so loose. My observation takes me in the opposite direction.

And really – honestly – I’m angry.

I reflect back on the 60’s and 70’s and I see a casual, relaxed landscape in which kids and young people are exploring and figuring things out,  and it seems, everyone is wearing earth-toned plaids.

And at some point – I don’t know when – the pink and blue shelves sprung up. Sprung up, exploded and closed us in.

You know what I mean, right? How you go into a toy store or even the toy section of a department store, and you can tell the “girl toys” from the “boy toys” simply by color? The girl section is all – all – pink and the boy section is, if not baby blue, dark blue and black?

For contrast, take a look at vintage Christmas catalogs – here’s a great collection that will definitely take you down some rabbit trails. I looked at a few from the 50’s and 60’s and the FAO Schwarz 1967 catalog.

Yes, toys are, to some extent “gendered.” But perhaps partly because they catalogs aren’t in full color cover to cover and employ fewer human models, you don’t have your oppressively pink-and-blue division. In fact most of the toys and games are just that – toys and games for kids. There’s an acknowledgment of realities – no matter their source in nature or nurture  – that more girls than boys like dolls and household-related toys while more boys than girls lean to toys that echo life outside the home. But it doesn’t strike me – nor did it growing up in it – as oppressive or restrictive. As I said – I had a lot of cars and trucks and science kits and yeah, I think I had a cowboy gun and holster

Even the kids’s clothes are – yes, obviously made for female and male tastes – are for the most part, simple and straightforward. And, yeah, plaid. Not super gendered either in the direction of Girl Power or Tough Guy!

Oh look, – here we go. No more words necessary. I was probably four years old here and look what I got for Christmas: a fire truck. A baby doll carriage. And a freaking punching ball. 

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Chaser – 3rd birthday. Look at my big present.

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And guys, this wasn’t a political statement. This was 1963, pre-second-wave feminism, which my family didn’t get into anyway, despite being academics. My parents were, at the time, good Kennedy Democrats, and this was the Durant, Oklahoma home of my conservative Southern Methodist grandparents. It was just not a big deal. 

****

As I said, this is an intro.

My typical, discursive, wandering intro to get my brain to a more focused place.

And that place is, quite simply, wondering how we – to use a common phrase – transitioned  – from:

…a landscape in which expressions of “gender” were downplayed or even discouraged as stereotypical and limiting

to..

..a landscape in which “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypical preferences and expressions have become pathologized.

Where little girls who like short hair and to play outside in the mud or tween girls who are uncomfortable with their changing bodies are being told that this is clearly a sign that they aren’t a “real girl” and then shot through with puberty blockers and given mastectomies and then boys who don’t like sports and present effeminately are being told they are obviously really girls– because, you know…

you can always tell a girl by how much she likes girly things.  

OHLT

****

Come back for more.

I’m already thinking it’s the Reformation’s fault.

But you predicted that, didn’t you?

 

 

 

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