Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Is gender non-conformity immoral?

Recently I re-read Christine Jorgensen's autobiography.  The copy on the back cover includes this:
"Fifteen years ago [in 1953], a slender young woman stepped off a plane from Denmark to be greeted by howling reporters and an outraged American public."
Now I ask myself, why were they "outraged?"  Why that in particular? What is there about a sex change to invoke outrage, when it ought to be a personal decision that does no harm to anyone?

A little friend of mine on Facebook joined a group called "I hate it when you can't tell if someone is a boy or a girl." I decided to take a look at it.  I believe that everyone in the group is young, because most of the incidents described happened at school. Also, they sound very young.  And several incidents took the form of "I said, 'Wow, that cute boy smiled at me' and my friends said, 'That's a girl, stupid!'"

In other words, what they hate is feeling attracted to someone who turns out to be the socially unacceptable gender for them to be attracted to.  This gets back to the homophobia I touched on in my earlier post.

I'm discussing gender non-conformity in general, rather than focusing on transgender or transsexuality, because I believe that gender non-conformity is what really bothers people - probably because it's something that more people have experienced for themselves.  Nobody can conform completely to their gender stereotype.  And I believe that everybody knows at least one person who really can't conform, who causes the people around them to feel outraged and disturbed and complain about it on Facebook.  (Unfortunately that's not all they do.)

Some reasons why gender non-conformity is considered to be "immoral":
  1. Cross-dressing is forbidden in the Bible.
  2. Genitals define gender . . . anybody who imagines their gender to be based on something else is insane. (Does that mean that insanity is immoral?)
  3. People are supposed to conform to their gender roles, because society is based on the arrangement that men go out to work and women stay home and take care of the kids.
  4. I don't know any transgendered people, therefore there is no such thing; aka Transgendered people look like freaks, therefore they are freaks/The trans people I've known are neurotic, therefore all trans people are neurotic/I've never wanted to change my gender, therefore anyone whose life choices are different from mine is immoral, ie, wrong.  (Again, that's a very long-winded example of objection on the grounds of non-conformity.)
Gender non-conformity is a sin in the sense that all non-conformity is sinful.  Also gender non-conformity is strongly linked to sexuality, which makes everything worse. (This is what puritanical Americans are taught to believe.)

Examples of gender non-conformity:
  1. Women wearing pants.
  2. Women smoking cigarettes.
  3. Men doing laundry.
  4. Men letting their hair grow below their ears.
  5. Women getting college degrees.
  6. Men taking care of children.
These are all horribly shocking things which have caused the breakdown of society. Right? Also they may encourage transgendered people to think, "Well if they can do that then why can't I transgress a few gender norms myself?" None of the items in that list make a person transgendered or transsexual. But this does:
  1. People deciding that they are not defined by their genitals.
That's the danger zone right there. And really, I mean, what's wrong with that? Why would we want to be defined by our unmentionable bits? (Okay, I'm being sarcastic. But that's what sex is all about in Western culture. We say it's disgusting but we can't get away from it.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Social Skills for Aspies

(No, this is not specifically a transgender subject. But it is a subject that concerns me.  And I do think social skills can be more difficult for trans people.  So.)

The term "Aspies" refers to people who have or appear to have Asperger's syndrome, which is  "characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially."  I have never been officially diagnosed (and I don't want to be) but I was definitely born without social skills.  However, I have managed to learn at least a little bit about social interaction.  Here are my tips:
  1. The first key to acquiring social skills is to want to interact with people, to believe that there is some benefit in it to you, and also to them.  If it is important enough to you, you will put some work into it.  And it does take work but it can be done. 
  2. Basic rules of etiquette are actually very easy to memorize and use.
  3. The purpose of etiquette and small talk is primarily to indicate that you are a) interested in talking to someone and b) able to behave more or less like a normal person.  The actual verbal "information" conveyed in conversation is less important than the act of conversation itself.  This is why, for example, the weather remains a perennial topic of conversation.  If you say, "Oh, it's raining again" or "What a nice day," you are not conveying any information that the other person doesn't already know.  You are giving them an opportunity to agree with you, which is pretty much the goal of most social communication.
  4. Social communication is very often not about saying what you really think.  This may seem like hypocrisy, but it is absolutely essential.  (Reading Jane Austen taught me this.)
  5. Aspies have a tendency to be very intense.  Most social interactions are meant to be casual and superficial - that means, the opposite of intense.  That's why it is helpful to back off, not to treat every conversation as an argument or a chance for you to do all the talking.  And if, like me, you're more likely not to talk at all - it still helps to take conversations less seriously, to cultivate the ritual of conversation, to treat it like a game.  Once you learn the rules, it really is quite predictable.
  6. People like to be given opportunities to talk about themselves. And it helps if you genuinely listen to what they say.  Remember, this is a good opportunity for you to collect information.
  7. When someone says, "Hello, how are you?" the correct response is, "I'm fine, how are you?"  If you know them well and they seem friendly, and you are not in fact "fine," you might expand your response to something like, "Things are pretty crazy today," but keep it short (two or three words) and try to finish up with "how are you?"  The goal is to give them a chance to say whatever they wanted to say when they approached you.  Or if they were greeting you in passing, the goal is to respond and let each of you go on about your business.
  8. Most of these rules are for casual interactions, with people you don't know very well.  I believe that it's also important to be polite to family members and closer friends.
  9. Eye contact.  This is a tough one for Aspies.  Personally, I find that I'm afraid of looking people in the face.  It seems to provide me with too much information.  I prefer focusing on people without looking at them directly.  (Do you find that it's easier to look at someone when both of you are smiling, in a good mood, having a pleasant conversation?)  In any case, it's important to remember to make eye contact - although people don't like fixed stares either.  Meet their eyes for a couple seconds and then look away.  Wait a few minutes and then repeat.
Advanced social skills:  manipulation.  Some people have an amazing ability to tell people what they want to hear, or to talk them into doing what they want them to do.  It seems to be something they're born with . . . one child of my acquaintance, when she wants to use a toy her brother is playing with, reminds him that "it's nice to share."  Get it?  For people like that, the sharing only goes one way.  In any case, manipulation is probably beyond the abilities of socially disabled people, but it is interesting to think about just how much can be done with social skills.  I recommend The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, which includes a description of the techniques used by con artists to manipulate. (By the way, "con" was originally short for "confidence" - gaining someone's confidence is a key element of being able to manipulate them.)

Most of what I've written here is about creating a social persona.  I was also born without one of those (is that the same as being born without social skills?)  A social persona is a buffer between yourself and the world.  It protects you.  The only way I could think of to protect myself, when I was young, was not to attract attention at all, not to talk to people at all. But that doesn't really work too well.  The social persona is a much better shield.  (Although some people go overboard with it and forget that they are anything besides their social persona.  It's important to remember that there is always a real person underneath.)

One last thought:  it seems to be widely believed that children need to be taught how to read.  But they are not taught social skills in the same way -- not "officially" at school.  Ironically, like many Aspies I did in fact teach myself to read before starting school, but I couldn't teach myself social skills.  (If my parents were supposed to teach me -- well, they didn't.)  For us, being expected to understand social interactions is like being expected to know how to read without being taught would be for "ordinary" children.  I have to say that it's very frustrating.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Michael Dillon: The "First" Man-Made Man

The First Man-Made Man, by Pagan Kennedy, is a book about Michael Dillon, one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery.  At the time the book was written he was believed to have been the first female-to-male transsexual, but recently someone else has been rediscovered.  Call Dillon the second man-made man.

It's a short book which contains tremendous amounts of information.  Some of the most interesting stuff is not directly related to Dillon at all.  I will attempt to give a short overview of his life.

The Person

Dillon was born in 1915 and named Laura Maud Dillon.  (He later changed his name to Laurence Michael, but seems always to have gone by "Michael.")  His mother died of complications soon after the birth.  In that era, fathers were believed to be incapable of caring for children, let alone infants, so Dillon's father handed off his two young children to a pair of spinster aunts.  He died when Dillon was nine.

These women were what one might call highly eccentric.  The lives of genteel unmarried women were at that time fairly restricted, and they seem to have imposed even more restrictions than were necessary.  According to Kennedy, they told their niece that no one wanted to come over to her house, or invite her to their houses.  They even told her not to greet people if she passed them on the street.  Under these conditions, it's not surprising that Dillon never really developed any social skills and found it difficult to make friends later in life.

The young Dillon had one stroke of luck:  he was befriended by the local vicar, who convinced the aunts to let him go to Oxford.  The first women's colleges at Oxford were founded in 1879 -- however, women were not allowed to take complete degrees until 1920.  It was at Oxford that Dillon began dressing as a man.

In 1939, a year after graduation, Dillon consulted a doctor for the first time about what we would today call his "transsexuality."  The doctor gave him some testosterone pills, but unfortunately he also gossiped to Dillon's co-workers about this "woman who wanted to become a man."  Dillon quit his job and moved to another town.

In 1943, Dillon met a plastic surgeon, one of the first in Britain, who had studied with the man who apparently invented plastic surgery, Harold Gillies. Dr. Gillies invented his surgical techniques while working on men who had been disfigured in World War I, people who had been injured in accidents . . . and on a certain number of people who either had been born with ambiguous genitals, or wanted sex-reassignment surgery.  His disciple wrote Dillon a note that enabled him to change the name and sex listed on his identity documents (possibly before any surgery had been carried out) and passed him on to Dr. Gillies, who performed several surgeries on his chest and genitals over a number of years.

In 1949 he became the proud new owner of an official penis.  Ironically, the main purpose of this organ was to allow him to pass in those "public" situations where men are gathered together in the nude or semi-nude.  It was not fully functional, and considering that men have a taboo against staring at each other's equipment, one can't help but wonder just how realistic it was.  In any case, Dillon was happy.  Temporarily.

The story of Dillon's outing is surely unique.  Dillon's father had actually been a baronet.  When he died, the title passed to Dillon's older brother, who had no children.  Therefore Michael Dillon was the heir to the baronetcy (although Laura Dillon would not have been.)  Dillon wanted to be officially known as the heir.  It turns out that there are two directories of the peerage in Britain -- Burke's and Debrett's.  Dillon showed his revised birth certificate to the editor of Debrett's and explained the situation.  The editor saw his point and changed the entry for the baronetcy in question.  He believed that Burke's peerage would also get changed, but this did not happen.  Someone compared the two peerages and asked, "Why is Laura Dillon listed in one and Michael Dillon listed in the other?"

This happened in 1958.  Dillon was then working as a ship's doctor.  His ship was docked in Baltimore when the story of the peerage discrepancy broke -- and apparently it was huge.  Dillon couldn't stand the publicity (if it had been me, I would have left the peerage and the baronetcy alone, but Dillon wanted to be recognized.  Except he also didn't.)  He fled again.

A couple years earlier, he had become interested in mysticism.  He studied the works of Gurdjieff, and found a "Tibetan" guru who turned out to be a fake.  But Tibet still called to him.  When the peerage story broke, he went to India and became the disciple of an English Buddhist who had been ordained as a monk in the Theravada tradition.  Dillon wanted to be ordained as well, but he discovered that, according to the original Buddhist rules, members of the "third sex" are not allowed to be ordained.

What did they mean by the "third sex?"  Kennedy says it's not clear.  I would have been fascinated to find out, but if Dillon felt any particular curiosity, his biographer doesn't mention it.  He hoped that they would make an exception for him.  He was happy in India (it was difficult to get to Tibet because it was in the process of being occupied by the Chinese) despite these various problems. 

As Kennedy says, he had reshaped his body and now he was trying to reshape his mind.  He was living in a foreign land . . . there must have been something comforting about that.  I believe that people judge foreigners less harshly than they judge their own -- or rather, they allow strangers to be strange.  If it's one of your own kind, you have to keep them in line.  Dillon also admitted to feeling a certain superiority, as a white man in Asia.  In England he was only a freak.

He gave away his inheritance, an act which he believed was in accordance with Buddhist doctrine, and lived in poverty.  He died in 1962, in India, probably of malnutrition.  (There is a website which claims that the Buddhist vegetarian diet is what malnourished him, but it was more likely to be lack of food in general.)

The Book

I would not say that Kennedy is unsympathetic to her subject, but I do feel that she misses the point of transsexuality.  Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of the history of cosmetic surgery and hormone treatment, in which Kennedy provides many fascinating (and sometimes grotesque) facts.  Her goal is to demonstrate that both cissexuals* and transsexuals have sought to alter their bodies with surgery and hormones . . . and if that causes people to feel more tolerance for transsexuals, that's great, but I still believe that wanting to get a new nose (for example) is not at all the same thing as wanting to change your biological sex.  Also, hormone therapy for cissexuals promises to "maintain" or "restore" their current or former state.  It doesn't create an entirely new physical condition.

After reading this book, I had to wonder if I really understood Michael Dillon.  Perhaps biographies of transfolk can never be entirely successful, because it is such a subjective state of being.  For example, after I read Conundrum by Jan Morris (which Kennedy describes as "masterfully written," by the way) I did feel as if I understood her.  She was expressing herself, speaking for herself; no one else could speak for her.  That is the essence of transgender/transsexuality:  no one else can speak for us.  (Incidentally, the year before he died Dillon did complete an autobiography, which Kennedy had access to, but the manuscript has not been published.)

The First Man-Made Man is unquestionably worth reading . . . but it also seems to be wandering in the dark.  (Is that an accurate reflection of Michael Dillon's life?)  It describes his body, and some of his mental processes, but it never seems to find his heart.  The body can be reshaped, the mind can be reprogrammed, but the heart is that item deep inside of us which does not change.

*"Cissexual" is the opposite of "transsexual," just as "cisgender" is the opposite of "transgender:"  it refers to someone who feels their gender to be in harmony with their biological sex.