Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM

Okay, time to demonstrate that this is a transgender blog, after our recent foray into fantasy.  You may not be aware that rejecting one's biological sex is officially a form of mental illness.  Here is the DSM listing.

There is a double standard in place regarding children with GID vs. adults with GID.  Essentially, when children announce that they are really the opposite sex, many parents and therapists believe that this is a delusion which can be cured, and they implement "reparative therapy" in an attempt to make the children conform to their socially assigned gender.  Kenneth Zucker is perhaps the best-known reparative therapist practicing today.  It's important to note that, back when homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a mental disorder, similar techniques were used to eradicate patients' homosexual tendencies.  Most people now consider this to be unacceptable.

However, when adults announce that they are really the opposite sex, the official "therapeutic" position is that this is a delusion which has become incurable.  At this point the gender-nonconforming person is granted the right to modify their bodies to match their personal gender identity. Why is it that adults are allowed to choose their gender, while children are explicitly discouraged from gender experimentation?  Is this fair?

Ironically, despite the highly controversial, not to mention insulting, nature of the DSM diagnosis, many adult transsexuals want GID to remain as an official disorder, because it allows them to get insurance coverage for their sex-reassignment surgery.

The newest version of the DSM - version 5 - is currently under review.  Many people are actively trying to reframe the definition of GID; but there are two camps, one which wants to make it less punitive and the other which, as far as I can tell, wants to solidify gender roles and gender-conformity prejudice.  My attention was recently directed to this organization, GID Reform Advocates, whose motto is "our identities are not disordered."  That is something I can get behind.

One last thing: when being transgendered is considered to be a mental illness, you get arguments like this one against ENDA:
Similar problems abound in this bill, which treats a conscious decision to choose a new or different sexual identity as if it were an inherent, unavoidable condition. But it's not. It's actually a psychological disorder, officially listed as such by the current American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Our children and our co-workers should not be forced by law to be held hostage to such disorders, nor should employers be forced to have psychologically troubled persons as the public face of their businesses.
I would not want to work with anyone who thought I was mentally ill.  And many people still consider homosexuality to be a mental illness, even though it's been removed from the DSM.  But it would make me happy if transphobes, as well as homophobes, had one less leg to stand on.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Problem of Community

I've been thinking a lot about community lately.  People always seem to talk about it as though it's a good thing, all comforting and supportive and "one big happy family."  But much of my experience has been with communities that ostracize, that enforce conformity, that give certain people special privileges and expect unquestioning obedience to authority.

In these modern times, communities which value diversity, tolerance, and individual freedom do exist.  (I've even heard that there's a very large community which was founded on the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.)  However, communities do not become diverse and tolerant just because people in the community say, "We are diverse and tolerant."  It takes more than lip service, more than an intellectual belief in equality.  I believe that even an honest desire to be tolerant is not enough.

 Way back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon delivered a speech which probably said all there is to say about community and diversity.  She referred to it as "coalition" and made it clear that it's hard work.  I can't even choose my favorite quote from that speech - go read it yourself.

When I think about community, I find myself asking the question:  "How does this community handle difference?"  Different life experiences, different sexual orientations, different races, different genders and gender identities, plain old differences of opinion of every sort.  The sad fact is that even if you could surround yourself with people who look exactly like you, who profess the same religious and political beliefs, who grew up in the same town, went to the same schools and read all the same books as you, you would still find differences of opinion and some of those people would still refuse to behave the way you think they ought to behave.

Difference is inescapable.  You have to either reject it or respect it.  The means of rejection are many:  if anyone disagrees with you, they're wrong/lying/stupid/crazy/immoral/selfish/out to destroy civilization.  Or maybe they just hate you personally and are trying to make you look bad.  In any case, their opinions don't count.  Some people find difference to be extremely threatening . . . as if the presence of another opinion in the universe completely invalidates their own worldview.  As if their own sense of self is so fragile that it can't sustain the notion of other ways to live one's life.  (And in many cases it seems to be pure jealousy that other people get to do things that are supposedly "forbidden.")  I bet people like that hope and pray that they never have to pay attention to anyone who's different from them.

I just realized today that all my life I've had to deal with people who were very different from me.  I've always felt like a freak.  It's easy to sit around and complain that "nobody understands me."  Today it dawned on me that I never understood them either.  That causes just as much difficulty as being misunderstood - maybe more.  On the one hand, I got really tired of people expecting me to conform to their rules. On the other hand, I had to face the fact that we're all different. They're not going to change their ways.  I'm not either.  And if I want to be respected for who I am, then I have to somehow find a way to respect them too.

Ironically, respecting difference entails the recognition of what we have in common:  we're all human.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Transgender Fairy Tale

This is from The Violet Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, first published in 1901.  (He got it from a book which was published in French in 1894, and it appears that he modified it freely, but it's still a great story.)  I'm so happy that it occurred to me to go over to Project Gutenberg and look for this book.


Once upon a time there lived an emperor who was a great conqueror, and reigned over more countries than anyone in the world. And whenever he subdued a fresh kingdom, he only granted peace on condition that the king should deliver him one of his sons for ten years' service.

Now on the borders of his kingdom lay a country whose emperor was as brave as his neighbour, and as long as he was young he was the victor in every war. But as years passed away, his head grew weary of making plans of campaign, and his people wanted to stay at home and till their fields, and at last he too felt that he must do homage to the other emperor.

One thing, however, held him back from this step which day by day he saw more clearly was the only one possible. His new overlord would demand the service of one of his sons. And the old emperor had no son; only three daughters.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Emily and Charlotte Bronte

I wanted to write about the life of Emily Bronte.  But that's pretty much impossible. As far as I can recall, she had no friends outside of her family.  She left few if any letters, never kept a regular diary, and much of her unpublished writing was destroyed at her death.  Most of what we know about her, outside of Wuthering Heights and her poems, comes from her sister Charlotte.  And Charlotte was not objective; she may even have been deliberately untruthful.

Nonetheless, Katherine Frank has published a biography of Emily Bronte, and if she can create a whole book on the subject I can create a blog post.  So.  I do recommend her book; it's unavoidably weak in spots but some of her insights and deductions are quite penetrating.

Her most interesting deduction is that Emily Bronte (and probably her sisters too) had an eating disorder.  Once it was pointed out to me, I reread Wuthering Heights and realized that on almost every page, one of the characters is refusing to eat.  They're too angry, or too sad, or distracted, or have just lost interest in living.  They all do it.  Frank points out that refusing to eat is a means of asserting control over your life. Maybe you can't control anything else, but you can control what you put into your mouth.

Also, the hunger strike is a well known form of protest:  you are no longer cooperating with a world that refuses to give you what you want.  I have read quite a bit about the Brontes here and there, but not until I read Frank's book did I know that they once went on a hunger strike.  Their beloved family servant, Tabby, had broken her leg and the adult Brontes (the children's father and aunt) had decided that they didn't want to take care of her and there was no use in having her around the house.  They were going to ship her off to one of her relatives, but the young women insisted on nursing the woman who had always taken care of them.  And they stopped eating until the grown-ups agreed to their demand.  This happened in 1836, when Charlotte was 20 and her two sisters were 18 and 16.

I also noticed that people in Wuthering Heights lie all the time.  Probably the most frequent liars are Heathcliff and the narrator, Nelly Dean, but everybody does some of it.  Lying is also a very good way to control your environment, to evade punishment and make yourself look good.  When it takes the form of well-written fiction, we admire it.  But in general, people acquire the art of lying first and the art of good writing later (if at all.)

Food goes into our mouths, and words come out.

Food and lying also play a part in one of the stories about Emily that Charlotte wrote in 1830, when she was 14 and Emily was 12.  As I mentioned in my other post, Emily and Anne created one imaginary country and Charlotte and Branwell created another one.  Charlotte's alter ego, Lord Charles Wellesley, visits Parrysland (Emily's country, named after the Arctic explorer) and makes fun of everyone and everything.  The inhabitants of Parrysland talk funny (apparently Charlotte continued to make fun of Emily and Anne's baby talk, even after they grew out of it) and they spend a lot of time discussing the doll clothes that Emily and Anne make for them.

According to Charlotte/Charles, they're also gluttons.  (Eating disorders often start in adolescence; it's likely that Charlotte began to feel anxiety about food before her younger sisters did.)  They spend their whole time eating themselves sick, and Lady Emily Parry's child is actually named "Eater."  After supper, Lord Charles is left alone with Eater, and he proceeds to beat the crap out of the child.  There's really no other way to describe it:
I ordered him to sit down.  He laughed but did not obey:  this incensed me and heaving the poker I struck him to the ground.  The scream he set up was tremendous but it only increased my anger; I kicked him several times & dashed his head against the floor hoping to stun him . . .
When the boy's father comes running in and asks what happened, Charles/Charlotte replies, "Nothing at all . . . the sweet little boy fell down while I was playing with him & hurt himself."  (As I said in the previous post, it really makes one think that Charlotte should never have been put in charge of any children.)

This episode is reminiscent of several scenes in Wuthering Heights - but it was written by Charlotte, who later professed herself shocked by the violence in Emily's novel. We have some information about Charlotte's transformation from raging adolescent to melancholy, resigned adult.  We don't know exactly how Emily went from sewing doll clothes to writing works of passion.  But it seems accurate to say that Charlotte learned, to an extent, how to compromise with the world:  to tell it what she thought it wanted to hear.  Emily never did.

We will never know the details of their sisterly life.  All we do know is that they did spend most of their short lives together.  In 1845, Charlotte was 29 and Emily 27.  They had briefly attended various schools, usually together, and usually disliked it.  They had tried to start their own school, which failed.  They had played together, told stories together and apart.  In 1845, Charlotte noticed among her sister's things a book, which she opened.  It was a manuscript collection of Emily's poems.

For whatever reason, Charlotte had not been aware that Emily was writing poems, even though they lived in the same house. But she did know that looking at her book was an invasion of privacy.  Charlotte never denied the fact that Emily was angry at her; but she insisted that the poems were good enough to be published, that they must be published, that the Bronte sisters who had failed in the only profession which was open to them could succeed as writers . . . wait a minute.  These are Emily's poems we're talking about here.  How did her sisters get in on the act?

It seems that neither Emily nor Anne had any interest in publication.  This was Charlotte's idea, and she was the driving force.  But Charlotte could not conceive of acting without her sisters.  She needed them to attack the publishing world together.  It seems to be generally agreed that, although all three of them had been writing poetry, Emily's was the best.  But Emily, perhaps, was not interested in publishing.  Charlotte, at the time, had not written her best work, but she had the desire to succeed.  It's a weird symbiotic relationship - and there was Anne too, along for the ride.

Incidentally, I believe that Anne is a better writer than she's been given credit for, and Charlotte is partially to blame for this.  After her sisters died, she reissued Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey. She chose not to republish Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  "She hardly thought it worth preserving. The choice of subject had been a mistake; Anne had written it 'under a strange conscientious half-ascetic notion of accomplishing a painful penance and severe duty.'"

That quote is from Rebecca Fraser's biography of the Brontes; there doesn't seem to be a citation but I guess those are Charlotte's words. If so, I've read the book and I do not understand what Charlotte was on about.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about alcoholism.  We believe that Anne's primary experience with alcoholism was the deterioration and death of her brother Branwell - a long ordeal which affected Charlotte deeply as well, since she and Branwell were very close (arguably, closer than Charlotte and Emily, considering the fact that they were writing partners.)  It seems likely to me that Anne was more objective on the subject than Charlotte -- in fact, one of the unusual things about Tenant of Wildfell Hall is its objectivity, a trait lacking in other Bronte works.  It's not a bad book; I would not even call it a "painful" book, especially not when compared with Charlotte's Villette.

Anyway.  I wanted to write about Emily.  But that anecdote does illustrate how Charlotte controlled the work and reputations of her sisters after their death, and how she may have misinterpreted them.

One last fact:  Emily spent the last year of her life working on her second novel.  We only know that because she mentioned it in a letter to her publisher.  We know nothing else about it, not even the title. What happened to the manuscript?  Was it deliberately destroyed - and if so, by whom?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fantasy World of the Brontes

I've written about the Brontes before.  Found myself going back to them recently.  Perhaps because John Addington Symonds' obsession with his homosexual fantasies reminded me of the elaborate fantasy world they created as children. Not that their fantasies were explicitly sexual.*  What Symonds' fantasies and the stories of the Bronte children have in common is that they were all about forbidden things; things they couldn't have.

Katherine Frank has written a very interesting, if fragmentary, biography of Emily Bronte which makes some good points about the "plays."  For example, they started off being set in Africa:  a warm, luxurious, fertile country very different from the bleak Yorkshire moors that were all the children had ever known.  And yet, they did know about Africa, and British colonialism, through their precocious and voracious reading of newspapers.  They were proper little imperialists, following in their father's Tory footsteps.  And in their fantasy world they were omnipotent.  Everything that they could not do at home, they did in fantasy.  They could even restore the dead to life.

Many people have recounted the story of how the young Branwell Bronte received a set of toy soldiers from his father, and how the boy and each of his three sisters chose their favorite soldier, named him after some historical figure and began to make up stories about them. Charlotte's soldier was the Duke of Wellington, Emily and Anne chose the Arctic explorers Parry and Ross, and Branwell chose Napoleon.  I have not found anyone who points out that to British people of that era, Napoleon was a very bad guy.  Also, he and Wellington were archenemies. In modern terms, for Charlotte and Branwell to play Napoleon and Wellington would be like playing Superman and Lex Luthor, Xavier and Magneto, George Bush and Osama bin Laden (oops, I digress again.)

Indeed, the four children divided into two teams, with Emily and Anne telling most of their stories together, and Charlotte and Branwell creating their own fictional world.  (As far as I know, only Charlotte's stories have been published.  I believe that none of Emily or Anne's original writing survived; although Emily's later poems about her fictional world of Gondal have been published, the book is hard to find.)  It appears that many of Branwell's characters were rogues and villains.  Charlotte's characters tend to be less actively malicious, but they are rather deceitful.  Perhaps the most notable thing about the stories she wrote down is the strong vein of satire.  She makes fun of her brother's poetical pretensions.  She makes fun of her younger sisters, finding the things they told stories about to be babyish.

Much of her juvenilia took the form of a series of magazines that were published in their imaginary British colony, and the advertisements in these magazines are as carefully drawn as anything else.  One of her heroes publishes a book called "The Elements of Lying."  A rat-trap is sold by one Monsieur "it-can-catch-nothing-for-it's-Broken."  Branwell and Charlotte were also obsessed with poison.  He invented something called "prussian butter,"which was made from prussic acid (now known as cyanide).  "White flour" was a synonym for arsenic.  Therefore, perhaps the scariest of Charlotte's imaginary advertisements is one for white bread and prussian butter, sold by Captain "make-thousands-Not-Eat-any-more-food-for-the-Remainder-of-their-precious-Lives."

It's black humor - tame by today's standards, but in distinct contradiction to the morality of the Victorian era - especially, the morality that was imposed on children.  Many people professed themselves to be shocked by Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre.  If they had read the tales of murder, adultery and drunken debauchery that Charlotte and Branwell concocted while in their teens, they would have been even more shocked.

Indeed, the tragedy of Branwell's life is that he acted out his fantasies of the hard-drinking, misunderstood, black-sheep poet (fantasies strongly influenced by the life of Lord Byron), and they killed him.  The tragedy of Charlotte's life is that she was not allowed to act out any of her fantasies . . . even her fantasy of being a writer was considered unsuitable for women.

At the age of fifteen, Charlotte went to boarding school.  This affected her fictional world in two significant ways.  For the first time, major female characters appear and romance becomes one of the themes.  The other major change was that Charlotte began to feel conflicted about her fantasy world.  She knew that she had to start dealing with the real world, but she didn't want to.  She made two life-long friends at school, but for the most part she didn't like people, and she especially didn't like children, which was unfortunate because the only occupation that was considered suitable for a woman of her social class was that of teacher or governess.  (The treatment of children in her stories would have horrified any potential employers.) 

To her more religious friend, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte wrote a lot about her own "wickedness."  I believe that this can refer only to her fantasy world, to its amorality and general unbecomingness for a young lady.  It was her only solace.  For years it had been her only source of entertainment.  She found it impossible to stop living in that world.  But what did the real world have to offer her?

I don't believe that fantasizing is "wicked."  Is it wicked for a teenage girl to pretend to be an explorer, a Regency rake, a magazine editor?  I don't even believe that it cuts people off from the real world.  The fantasy world of the Bronte children was strongly rooted in actuality:  the Duke of Wellington and his family, British colonies in Africa, Byron and Napoleon are all found there.  Drinking, gambling, adultery and (horrors!) atheism are things that good Christian children are not supposed to know about, but somehow they learned about them and happily told stories about them.  And yet there was a gulf between reality and fantasy that none of them could cross.  The forbidden remained forbidden.

What if it had not been forbidden?  What if there were a way to bring the power and pleasure of the fantasy world into reality?  Hopefully the Brontes would not have become famous poisoners.  But if they had not seen their dreams as wicked, if they all, especially the girls, had had more options . . . perhaps they would have accomplished even more than they did.

Okay, I have one last anecdote about the talent of imagination.  Elizabeth Gaskell, friend and fellow writer, once asked Charlotte if she had ever taken opium, since her description of its effects in her last novel, Villette, was very realistic.
"Charlotte replied no, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything not within her own experience:  she thought intensely about it for many a night before falling asleep, 'till at length . . . she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened.'"
Robert Graves used a similar technique to recreate events for his historical novels (he also presented his visions as historical fact.)  I believe in the power of the subconscious mind to solve problems in the real world. I wonder if Charlotte ever tried to answer any more pressing questions that way.

* At least, not the ones they wrote down.  Charlotte Bronte, writing at the age of 13, distinguished between their secret and non-secret "plays."  "Bed plays means secret plays - they are very nice ones."  Of course, that still doesn't mean they were sexual, and that's not my primary interest.  I digress.