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23 September, 2009

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

Questioning sexuality and gender often seem to run together, so I hope you'll forgive me if I take a moment to discuss gender roles today.

The link occurred to me today because there seems, in recent conservative rhetoric, to be a link between the teeming evils of polyamory, pornography, and the diluted strength of gender roles. One Pat Fagan argues that "By controlling ... [education of children, sex education and adolescent health,] the culture of polyamory diminishes the influence and dismantles the authority and influence of parents of the culture of monogamy particularly in their ability to form their children as members of their own culture." Evidently we polyamorists are dissolving the family from childhood on, splashing our caustic feminism across the marble face of U.S. society. Fagan argues, among his maddened antisocialist rants, that conservative families have to model "a new 'masculinism'" for their children - that fathers must strike a strong, unambiguous pose for their children - or, in today's culture, those kids will grow up with an unhealthily confused picture of sex and gender. When you stop laughing or crying (pick your preference), some of Fagan's points may be worth exploring.

One element of the current trend for genderbending as a human rights issue is the emphasis on individual rights. One ought - and here I'll thoroughly agree - to have as much right to self-determination as one can carry! There's no coherent argument for the quashing of self-expression, as long as that expression is responsible and doesn't reach the point of shouting "Fire!" in a theater (at least, there's no argument brief enough to entertain here). In short, this argument takes it as axiomatic that human beings have the right to be left free to follow the course of their own actions.

That said, there is a case to be made for the value of clear role models. Education is a strange, liminal period, and the ethical implications of controlling childhood behavior are blurry. Children do, I believe, need guidance; they don't need a Skinner box. Growing up, it would be a bit nuts to make children follow adults' example in lockstep. It's useful, though, for children to have adults on whom they can model themselves. If we don't find a behavioral model with which we can identify during our childhoods, most of us are left confused and feeling somewhat inadequate.

The trick is that children have a problem with categorization: they can't get enough of it. It's easy for me to imagine the confusion that children will experience if (when) they encounter adults, especially when those adults are their parents, who have complex gender identities. In my own childhood, I didn't have many male role models, and most of them either bowed before women or were fictional caricatures of violent manhood. I grew up with the notion that anything a man could do, a woman could do better, with the possible exception of being an asshole, and with the implicit notion that "man" and "woman" were meaningful categories. (Then again, some of those female authority figures ruling the schoolyard were great at being assholes - but their violence was never the physical violence I saw from men in fiction.) To the extent that I self-identified with the category of maleness, I devalued myself; and, unsurprisingly, I went through a silent but memorable flirtation with gender crisis around the beginning of high school. Wouldn't a powerful, noble masculine figure have been a boon to such a child?

Now, imagine the search for selfhood in a child whose role models refuse even to stick to a category. As adults, we should and must have the right to self-determination. There simply is no tenable reason to legislate restriction of expression, as long as that expression doesn't harm others (and I am not arguing that the effects described in this essay meet that criterion). But children don't have the same depth of self-knowledge that adults eventually obtain. How is a kid to know, at the age at which it's just figuring out the concept of male and female to begin with, where it fits on that spectrum? How is it to know with what adult behavioral models it should identify itself? When puberty hits, if that kid suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of gender lines and is unable to live up to its self-image, that's when the crisis would hit as well. Children (and no doubt adults) favor their own social groups, even when those groups are created randomly for a study; imagine the pain and confusion one feels when one's body rebels against the group with which one self-identifies, as could easily happen when a child who's always identified with the gender not associated with its sex hits puberty and its hormones kick in hard. Clearly, Fagan would conclude, what would be best for children is to create an environment in which such ambiguity is not present.

I reach a different conclusion. What causes the problem in this scenario is not the ambiguity gender in the children's role models; it is instead the inclusion of gender as an aspect of self-identity. There are some elements of character that one does or has, and others that one is (or at least, that is who we conceive of them). I may have a disease, but that does not change my perceived nature; I may do a certain job, but that need not change my nature, either. Other people, though, would say that they are a member of their profession, using it as an element of identity, and the same for any other element. If maleness or femaleness were something that one had or did, rather than someone one is, it wouldn't inspire a crisis for children to realize that they don't do gender in the same way that their role models do. The answer to this problem, if we want to maintain the emphasis on self-determination that the U.S. has always loved so well, is not to lock down gender roles but to abandon the identity politics that make "men" and "women" socially differentiated.

Identity politics turn categorization into a weapon, and even the ambient category delineation that surrounds gender can cause massive collateral damage. Difference is important and worth celebrating, but the real location of difference is between individuals. No group acts as a unit. Given that, despite the existence of general, evolved trends in difference between men and women, there will be some exceptions in any individual, these categories may do more harm than help. In a future in which more people openly defy today's gender expectations, and in which medical technology will increase the resolution with which we define sex and its relationship with gender presentations and sex-typical or gender-typical behaviors, those categories will become progressively less useful. A medical distinction will continue to be useful (after all, not everyone needs to be screened for prostate cancer), but in a world where sex is just that, and gender drops from the biting world of identity politics ... well, fuck it! If sex and gender are divorced and identity politics wither, do we even need gender as a category?

Which outcome is more feasible? At this point, no-one is going to force transfolk back into the closet without some shocking and unpredicted outside event (say, to be ludicrous, global nuclear war, after which the details of U.S. culture would hardly matter). Unfortunately, identity politics seem to be a serious pillar of contemporary social liberalism. The idea of celebrating difference doesn't yet seem to be divorced from the notion of social categories, which means that gender as an element of group and personal identity probably has a long life ahead of it. Still, consider the two proposed solutions: Fagan's attempts to treat the symptoms resulting from tying gender to identity; this seeks to remove the cause.

Commentary? Dissent? When I talk about sex and gender, I usually don't have to ask for comments in order to get an argument going, and given that I wrote this between classes and during conversations, I suspect that'll be true here as well.

NB: Please do not take my endorsement of "self-determination" as an indication that I believe in the concept of "free will". The two are mutually exclusive; one is a sociopolitical concept, while the other belongs to the natural sciences.

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