North Carolina continues to receive fallout and national opprobrium for its legislative freakout over transgender rights. Americans celebrate personal freedom and people going their own way, don’t we, unless it involves gender and sex? I have already written about how North Carolina’s HB2 is a Trojan Horse for a crackdown on workers’ rights. But some coffee urn jokes this week about bathrooms and people’s chosen “lifetyles” got under my skin.
Just as despite everyday observation, the Earth is not flat, neither are sex and gender binary. What laws like North Carolina’s HB2 demand is legally enforced conformity to a binary standard in a world built upon natural variance.
When I was a child, an aunt, uncle and cousins lived next door to a family of albinos. To a kid, they appeared pretty odd. Weird even. But after a few visits and a few neighborhood cookouts, they were just the O’Shaughnessys (not their real name). Both different and the same. They weren’t sequestered in a remote neighborhood of the city, told they had to use a special restroom, or treated as potential criminals. At least, not by us. And albinism is far rarer (1 in 20,000) than the kind of sex and sexual identity variances North Carolina just tried to make disappear through legislation. Disappearing what makes us uncomfortable has become a thing here. The legislature already decreed that the sea level is not rising.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet: Act 1. Scene V
Probably the most jarring and cruel introduction to a world beyond male and female was a radio program one Saturday about intersex children, about one in 2,000. (I don’t wish to conflate intersex with transgender persons, simply to illustrate that sex and gender are more fluid than most people prefer to believe.) This Slate story from 2004 gives the gist of it. Step too far outside established lines and you’ve become a “disorder” (emphasis mine):
Approximately 10 times a year in Houston, at the birth of a certain type of baby, a special crisis team at Texas Children’s Hospital springs into action. Assembled in 2001, the unusual team includes a psychologist, urologist, geneticist, endocrinologist, and ethicist. Its mission: to counsel parents of infants sometimes referred to as “intersex” babies—that is, babies of indeterminate physical gender.
That such a team exists—and that it often counsels deferring surgery for infants who are otherwise healthy—reflects a radical new thinking among doctors about gender identity and outside efforts to shape it. Instead of surgically “fixing” such children to make them (visually, at least) either male or female, a handful of U.S. specialists now argue that such infants should be left alone and eventually be allowed to choose their gender identity. The approach challenges decades of conventional wisdom about what to do with infants whose genitalia don’t conform to the “norm.” Until very recently, such children were automatically altered with surgery, often with tragic consequences.
I was horrified. I’d never heard of such a thing. When I was growing up, we weren’t meant to.
“There are a lot of activists that describe infant surgery in one word – mutilation,” explains clinical psychologist and sex therapist Dr Tiger Devore. He was born intersex. From the BBC documentary:
“Those babies are hidden from general society – and that was my experience of growing up.”
“I always had to keep it a big secret. I could not tell anybody I was having surgery down there, which we’re not supposed to talk about.”
Aileen Schast, a clinical psychologist who counsels families at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says: “It can be very confusing and isolating for families and what worries me the most is an early feeling of shame starts to develop, as this has to do with genitalia, and we don’t talk about that.
“Everyone is dying to find out what the baby is and how do you say we don’t really know yet.
“I had one parent tell me she almost wished her child had cancer because at least people have heard of it, so when she needed support she could say this is what my child has and people would know what it meant.”
These are hardly lifestyle choices, despite social prejudices. The last few decades have been rather appalling in many ways. One way they have not is in growing acceptance of people who for whatever reasons do not conform to to common norms. North Carolina and other states want to shove people who do not conform to a binary framing of sex and gender of back into the shadows. That’s not going to happen any more than they can stop the sea from rising by signing legislation saying it isn’t.
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)