South Park, Cartman's bathroom

Gender Differences: Why the Sudden Concern?

Gender differences are suddenly a front-burner concern for citizens of Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia — possibly alarmed because of the Supreme Court decision last year that gave same-sex couples the right to marry  (Liptak, 2015). Their concerns about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have led to passing laws that have drawn reactions nationwide. According to Mele in The New York Times (2016),

In Mississippi, companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota, all major employers in the state, have raised objections to the law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The far-reaching legislation allows individuals and institutions like churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to gay people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender.

North Carolina Law Bars Transgender People

The article goes on to say that North Carolina law “bars transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates.” Because of Governor Deal’s veto of Georgia’s so-called “religious liberty bill,” we narrowly escaped state-sponsored bigotry ourselves.

To me, this simply underscores the ignorance and strange attitudes that exist about particularities among a spectrum of human biological characteristics that makes each person unique.

Thus when I refer to gender differences, I envision a sub-set of all human differences. These gender differences exist along a spectrum of characteristics, instead of in the simplified male and female categories. But, where do we draw the lines to say, “this person has characteristics that define a fully feminine or fully masculine human”?

I think we don’t know enough about this to say. In the past, we have simply defined men and women based on their outward appearance.

A Natural Curiosity about Other Humans

In truth, we are all naturally curious about other humans and how they look and behave. We have observed and/or heard about all kinds of people in our lifetimes, from those who seem to look like us and adapt well to day-to-day activities and conflicts, to those who are different and whose behavior is dangerous, problematic, or puzzling.

We have all formed opinions about others ourselves, based on our own experiences — coupled with public opinion. In fact, what we consider appropriate or inappropriate largely relates to public opinion.

Gender Differences Not Fully Understood

Over the years, discussion about gender differences, especially those outside a heteronormative worldview, has gone underground because of censorship, which of course is related to public opinion.

Now, gender differences have suddenly become a critical social issue, even though obviously genderqueers have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Maybe this month’s movie, The Danish Girl  (Hooper, 2015), contributed to the urgency of this perceived public problem.

I want to consider a couple of ideas that may help us understand what about this has suddenly become urgent. First, considering the fact that humanity is not fully understood in all of its instantiations in societies gives rise to fear and distrust in many about “the other” — that particular person or group that is beyond their experience, e.g., queer or otherwise different. Sometimes these differences have led to marginalization because people think of them as disabled or dysfunctional or scary.

Any number of physical, intellectual, emotional, and/or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairment; however, these do not necessarily lead to disability unless society fails to take account of, and include, people regardless of their differences.

Defining a “Problem” of Gender Difference

Next, and consequently, human differences may be considered a “problem.” Thus the person who has characteristics that are outside recognized norms is in danger of unjustified social limitations. Further, simply how a problem is defined or the particular tools available to manage it dictate its solution. (“If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.”)

In our movie this month, Einar/Lili pursues consultation with medical doctors for help with gender identification. This reveals that in h/er context, s/he and Gerda have defined this distressing condition as a potential medical problem.

This is one of three (3) ways that people typically define individual human systems dysfunction:

1. A psychiatric problem:
Crazy, mental disorder, mentally disturbed. Mental disorders are usually defined by a group of attributes: how a person behaves, feels, perceives, and  thinks.
2. A medical problem:
Physically disabled, a medical model of disability (“Medical Model of Disability”, 2008, p. 718):

. . . the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.

or called “medicalization” (“Medicalization”, 2017),

Once a condition is classified as medical, a medical model of disability tends to be used in place of a social model. Medicalization may also be termed ‘pathologization’ or (pejoratively) ‘disease mongering’.

And finally,

3. A religious-belief or faith problem:
Sinful, acting against God’s laws. When a condition is classified as religious problem, it may further be classified as a physical, metaphysical, or moral evil.

By the way, on terms and definitions, I didn’t realize until recently the distinctions that the LGBTQ community makes regarding the destructive nature of certain terminology. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times restrict usage of the term ‘homosexual’ — a word where clinical histories and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased, or psychologically and emotionally disordered.

The editors have also established rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle” (GLAAD, 2013). It would be good for all of us to become familiar with these distinctions so that we might not be guilty of promoting hurtful prejudice.

The Problem Represented in the Movie

Now, let’s look at how the gender identification problem is represented in The Danish Girl, particularly about Einar/Lili’s diagnoses.

First, a medical doctor treats him with radiation, but it is not clear why.

Then, a psychiatrist weighs in, at which time the diagnosis becomes schizophrenia, and in that scene, he barely escapes the men in white coats pursuing him with a straitjacket.

If he had been shown to consult with a priest, would the treatment have been exorcism to cast out his demons or evil spirits?

If a pastor, would the treatment be to shun him until or unless he repents and remains celibate (Ben, 2013;  Denison, 2014)?

Lack of information and/or understanding can produce all kinds of responses thought to be helpful (or hurtful), but this movie depiction simply underscores a societal misunderstanding that still exists (Sasson, 2015).

Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Psychopathia Sexualis
Psychopathia Sexualis

Psychopathia Sexualis (Krafft-Ebing, 1886) is said to be the first scholarly attempt to shed light on human gender differences, and this book is available for reading thanks to the Guttenberg Project and the Internet Archive.

Krafft-Ebing proposed a theory of homosexuality as biologically anomalous and originating in the embryonic and fetal stages of gestation, which evolved into a ‘sexual inversion’ of the brain (Wikipedia contributors, 2017, Jun 22).

The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is a more recent contribution from an author who has lived through the experience herself (Bradford, 2007).

The focus of The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is gender identity conflict. . . . The condition is examined from the perspectives of medical science, religion, political theory, the arts, and others. Perhaps as compelling as the nature of the condition is society’s reaction to it.

The Bradford work appears to be a courageous book that is worthy of our reading.

Glossary

Medicalization

Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions; and, thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.

REFERENCES

Ben. (2013, Nov 25). A gay christian responds to Stanton Jones’s article. Christianity Today. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/november-online-only/honest-questions-about-same-sex-attraction.html

Bradford, B. (2007). The Fallacy of assignable gender. Englewood, FL: Transcendent Publications.

Debruge, P. (2015, Sep 2). Venice film review: ‘The Danish girl.’ Variety. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2015/film/festivals/the-danish-girl-film-review-eddie-redmayne-1201586696/

Denison, J. (2014, Mar 24). World vision board reverses same-sex marriage stand.  Denison Forum. Retrieved from https://www.denisonforum.org/cultural-commentary/998-world-vision-board-reverses-same-sex-marriage-stand

Denison, J. (2014, Mar 26). World vision’s same-sex marriage stand: what does God think? Denison Forum. Retrieved from https://www.denisonforum.org/cultural-commentary/997-world-visions-same-sex-marriage-stand-what-does-god-think

GLAAD media reference guide – AP & New York Times style (2013).   GLAAD. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/reference/style

Hooper, T. (Director, Producer). (2015). The Danish girl [Motion picture]. USA: Focus Features.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886). Psychopathia sexualis, with especial reference to the antipathic sexual instinct, a medico-forensic study (12th ed.). New York City, NY: Rebman.

Liptak, A. (2015, Jun 27). Supreme court ruling makes same-sex marriage a right nationwide. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html

Medical model of disability. (2008). In W. Kirch (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Public Health (p. 718). New York City, NY: Springer.

Mele, C. (2016, Apr 13). In North Carolina and Mississippi, backlash grows over rights law. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/13/us/north-carolina-mississippi-gay-rights-boycott.html

Sasson, E. (2015, Apr 27). America has not reached a transgender tipping point.  The New Republic.  Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/121653/bruce-jenner-interview-cox-photos-not-transgender-tipping-point

Schou, S. (2015, Nov 20). Eros and identity meet again in Copenhagen, in The Danish Girl. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/movies/eros-and-identity-meet-again-in-copenhagen-in-the-danish-girl.html

Spong, J. S. (2004, Apr). Was the apostle Paul gay? Beliefnet. Retrieved from https://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2004/04/Was-The-Apostle-Paul-Gay.aspx

Wikipedia contributors. (2017, June 22). Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Richard_von_Krafft-Ebing&oldid=786966228

Wikipedia contributors. (2017, Oct 23). Medicalization. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medicalization&oldid=806685925

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