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Hooked on a Feeling

Is Gender Just a State of Mind?

by Regis Nicoll

In the wake of the British Invasion, a one-hit wonder from Boston posed the question, "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?" It was the hit single of The Barbarians, whose shoulder-length hair, sandaled feet, and cheeky lyrics reflected the dizzying changes of the 1960s.

I remember it well. In a garage band of my own, I sported the longer hair and cross-cutting fashions of the epicene trend. On more than one occasion I heard, or overheard, some variant of that question muttered by some backward yokel. Whether intended as fun or due to honest confusion, the question always presumed that underneath the androgynous exterior, there really was a boy or a girl.

Flash forward about forty years. Given what we're now being told about sex and gender, an updated version of The Barbarians' hit might well be titled, "Are You a Boy and a Girl?" I'm not kidding. But first a little background.

Sartre's Wrecking Ball

In the early Greek tradition, everything possessed an essence—an intrinsic nature defined by its purposeful end. For example, the nature of an acorn was to become an oak tree, and the nature of an egg was to become a bird. Likewise, human beings had a nature that, if properly followed, would result in the "good life."

That notion held sway for nearly two and a half millennia, right up until Jean-Paul Sartre announced that "existence precedes essence." According to Sartre, the essence of humanness was not innate and fixed; it was emergent and malleable, shaped by the culmination of our life experiences. And since each of us experiences life differently, our natures are as varied as our DNA.

Sartre's simple jingle turned the wisdom of the ancients on its head, becoming the wrecking ball for a generation of coffee-house dreamers intent on leveling the foundations of good and evil, virtue and vice, and beauty and ugliness. But perhaps no change in the last forty years has been as disorienting as the leveling of gender.

Creative Word Play

As recently as a few decades ago, it was commonly accepted that there were two types of human beings—males and females—differentiated by their distinct and complementary roles in sexual reproduction. But that began to change with the advent of feminism.

In the mid-1960s, feelings of exploitation in a male-dominated culture ignited a movement intent on gaining social and political equality for women. Pivotal in the movement was Betty Friedan, who, in her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), associated the exploitation of women with culturally imposed stereotypes that constrained them to the role of domestic worker. If women were to be liberated from male domination, it was argued, the socially constructed and biological aspects of femininity needed to be separated. But, first, a little creative word play.

Prior to the sixties, "gender" was used primarily as a grammatical term for classifying masculine and feminine nouns in various languages. Feminist thinkers were quick to note that, like the cultural distinctions between the sexes, the linguistic classifications of gender seemed largely arbitrary. Once co-opted into the feminist agenda, "gender" was hitched to words like "identity," "role," and "orientation"—terms reflecting free-floating feelings and attitudes rather than hard-wired genetics and biology.

For example, "gender identity" was one's sense of being male or female, "gender role" the public expression of one's gender identity, and "gender orientation" one's romantic inclination toward persons of the opposite sex or same sex. In each case, "gender" referred to the non-essential features of sexuality attributed to nurture and environment.

However, as "gender" gained currency, it became a synonym for "sex," while reducing "sex" to a term for intercourse and other sexual acts. In effect, "gender" eventually subsumed even biological sex. Quite a social construct from a group opposed to social constructions.

Queer Theory

Despite the linguistic prestidigitation, most feminists still regarded gender as a binary classification of maleness and femaleness. More radical thinkers, however, viewed it as a spectrum over which sexual identity, desires, and actions drifted as free variables. At the forefront were Michael Foucault and Judith Butler, architects of "queer theory."

Queer theory follows the trajectory traced out earlier by Sartre. According to Foucault and Butler, gender is not an inherent feature determined by our genes and constrained by our physiological equipment and hormones; it is something we do—our acted-out sexual desires. In line with "existence precedes essence," our gender is the sum total of our sexual behaviors unhinged from any innate purpose like procreation or unitive sex. It is an experiential palette from which we can playfully mix and match among an eclectic assortment of sexual behaviors to shape our identity.

And in the age of Choice and Self-Actualization—the Ark and Grail of radical individualism—who can argue, especially when these theories are espoused by respected authorities?

From the "Experts"

One authority is a "national task force of experts" that defines "gender identity" as our "internal sense of being male, female, or a combination of these" (emphasis added). Sound familiar? Moreover, says the task force, in contrast to "biological sex," which refers to fixed physiological differences, gender identity can change over time.

Left at that, one could reasonably conclude that "gender" has to do with personal feelings that may or may not reflect our actual sex. Yes, but that's not quite the bottom line.

You see, while the task force acknowledges that gender identity may be at odds with biological sex, it also insists that it is a "part of who a person is." Thus, by making gender a variable and variegated product of our feelings, and by elevating it to a fundamental aspect of personhood, the question "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?" has become not simply harder to answer but entirely irrelevant. More on that in a moment.

The "task force" happens to be the brain trust of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)—a leading distributor of sex-education material in public schools—whose statements about gender are included in their "Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K—12." SIECUS boasts that over 100,000 copies of their guidelines have been distributed, with more than 1,000 downloads per month to school administrators, educators, and others.

In higher education, the mandarins of the new sexuality are propagating their views in, of all places, college literature classes. That's right—what might have been considered a topic for psychology, sociology, or even philosophy is embedded in the curricula of many university English departments. For example, ten English faculty members at Cornell list their "scholarly and professional interests" as gender studies and/or gay and lesbian studies•topics that are included in about a dozen of Cornell's undergraduate English courses.

Little surprise, then, in what a friend of mine recently learned in an undergraduate literature class: During the exploration of women's literary works, my friend's professor intoned that children are not born male or female but as a gendered blend somewhere along the male-female continuum. The professor went on to say that gender was not determined by genetics but by psychological needs and social nurture.

If we're to take this stuff seriously, then there are some profound implications here—not the least of which is what to do about all those forms and questionnaires holding our bureaucratic complex together. For instance, those check boxes marked "Gender" on job applications, customer surveys, and medical claims—to name but a few—will have to go. I guess they'll need to be replaced with a sliding scale: you know, a bar on which to mark where you feel you belong on the gender spectrum. But wait! Since that could change from day to day, there would need to be a way to revise and resubmit accordingly. Whew!

All fun aside, some folks are taking these ideas seriously, quite seriously.

Feeling Is Reality

In his book The Right Questions, Phillip Johnson tells the story of a college student who "discovered" that he was a girl. When he made the announcement to his parents, they were—to put it mildly—undone. At the same time, they were helpless in challenging his new insight. Like their son, the parents had read all the literary works by gender-bending thought leaders and had endorsed their theories—until, that is, those theories "took on flesh" in their own family.

Then there's the cross-dresser who recently received a settlement from the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority for being arrested after using an MTA restroom. Well, not any restroom—the women's restroom. Henry McGuinness, a 70-year-old technician who goes by the name Helena Stone, defended his action, saying, "I'm a 24-hour woman. I just feel like a woman, and I like to wear women's clothes." (Emphasis added.)

Because of Henry's—er, Helena's—feelings, as well as legal pressure from the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the MTA consented to let individuals use their rest rooms "consistent with their gender expression." Hmm. I suspect those whose "gender expression" includes dressing up as women for voyeurism or worse might just test how far that consent goes.

Notwithstanding the new dangers posed by the decision, it was received in stride by a 23-year-old coed: "It doesn't bother me because it is a reality. If they believe they are women, they should be treated as one." It seems that, for this young woman at least, feelings create realities that entitle feelers to certain rights. And the august body of SIECUS experts agrees. In their K—12 sex-ed guidelines they assert: "All people have a right to express their gender identity."

By invoking the term "rights," the lifestyle Left has elevated the unfettered exercise of expression over the physical safety of women, clearing the way for absurd and dangerous outcomes like the MTA decision. Did I mention that this all began in reaction to women's exploitation?

Testing the Theories

Ironically, this "right" also puts at risk the very persons it has intended to serve; in particular, those like "Helena" who experience psycho-emotional stress because their identity is at odds with their physiology. To help such individuals, a clinician has two options: therapy or surgery.

In the therapeutic option, a sexually conflicted individual undergoes counseling to re-orient his sexual identity in accordance with his body. For those who are convinced that their orientation is an inalterable fact of life, there is the option of surgical reconstruction to conform their bodies to their desires.

While in theory the surgical option would seem an effective solution for the gender-confused, reality is another matter, as Dr. Paul McHugh (a Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry) learned.

Dr. McHugh wanted to know whether sexual re-assignment surgery resulted in improved psycho-emotional stability. To find out, he performed follow-up studies on individuals who had undergone such procedures.

What Dr. McHugh discovered was that, in terms of psychological health, very little had changed for these people. Most of those in the study population continued to experience many of the same emotional problems as they did before their surgeries. Thus, McHugh concluded that surgical re-assignment for transgendered adults "was fundamentally cooperating with a mental illness" and that clinicians would be more responsible by focusing their efforts on their patients' psychology rather than their physiology.

Dr. McHugh also reported on a cohort of boys born with defective genitalia. Assured by clinicians that their children's gender would conform to surgical re-assignment if nurtured as females, trusting parents agreed to have their boys undergo sex-change operations. Yet, even with female genitalia and regular hormone injections, all of the boys exhibited male-like attitudes and interests, despite being nurtured as girls.

Another case involved a re-constructed boy raised as a girl, who, after learning of his genetic gender, had himself re-engineered as male. Tragically, as McHugh reports, the young man experienced severe depression and eventually took his own life.

Findings like these convinced McHugh and the Johns Hopkins staff that prior to any radical decisions about sexual re-assignment, children with defective or ambivalent genitalia should be socialized according to their genetic sex.

In studies of adults and children alike, it was concluded that although social factors can be influential, it is primarily genetics that defines our sexual identity. No wonder that a re-engineered body proves unfulfilling and, in some cases, results in heartbreaking consequences for the conflicted patient. Before our indoctrination by the cultural elite, such outcomes would have been axiomatic.

Imagine the owner of a sport coupe who, desiring an off-road vehicle, attempts to modify his street car accordingly. Notwithstanding the merits of mud tires, grill guards, and heavy-duty shocks, no amount of alteration is going to turn his Accord LX into a Hummer. More likely, the minute gains he achieves will only exacerbate his frustration with the gap in what he has versus what he wants.

How much healthier for him and his Accord if, instead of trying to modify his car to suit his desire, he alters his desire to conform to his car? While the latter—even with much effort—may be difficult, at least it remains possible.

"Are you a boy or are you a girl?" asked The Barbarians. Those of us who can tell the difference between an Accord and a Hummer should have no trouble with our answer. 

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