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Thinking Yourself In

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I think there must be some rule of nature that we haven’t discovered yet that explains why bemusing things always seem to come in clusters. 

Weeks, or even months, go by, when nothing  happens that has anything like a quality of the unexpected, and then–there they are.  Six of them.

The first of the tales of the unexpected happened on Tuesday, when the local news was full of a story about animal control, called in to get a bear out of a tree–on Main Street in Danbury.

For those of you w ho know little or nothing about Connecticut, Danbury is not some rural town in the Northwest Hills.  It’s not Colchester or New Hartford or Salisbury, one of those places so small that there isn’t even a local high school and all the kids have to go to a regional to get beyond that eighth grade at all. 

It  isn’t even Winsted or Willimantic, small cities surrounded by tiny rural towns like those.

Danbury  is a small city in Northern Fairfield County, not only densely populated itself, but surrounded by a few densely populated suburbs. 

It’s the kind of place that makes you wonder what the poor thing was thinking. 

At any rate, this was local media and Fairfield County, so nobody wanted to kill it, so the local news stations and web sites spent the entire day billboarding the story–there was the bear, asleep in the tree; there was the bear no longer asleep in the tree and looking panicked; there were the animal control people with the tranquilizer gun…

This story might have been a little less bemusing if it hadn’t happened on the same day as the building collapse in Philadelphia. 

The national media were worried about people dead and mangled in the rubble.  The local media were worried about the bear.

It was one of those times when I sincerely and desperately missed my father.  He grew  up in Danbury.  He would have loved that story.

The second bemusing story is the one that you’ve probably been listening to over the last few days, and it probably only bemuses me because I am ignorant.

That story is the one about the ex Navy Seal and member of the same Team 6 that took out bin Laden, the winner of a purple heart and a Bronze Star for Valor, who came out as transgender and announced his intention to have a sex change operation.

Now, I am not the sort of person who has vapors over gays in the military.  There have been gay men in all militaries, both out and not, and even more men who seemed to be bi, at least in practice.

If the Greeks didn’t have a problem with the only real love, I don’t see why I should. 

My problem with this is not so much a problem as a confusion.

For a few years now, I have been listening very carefully to people trying to explain how it feels and what it means to be transgender,  and I thought I understood.

This does not fit the explanation as I heard it.

Let me start out by saying that I do not believe that “gender” is “socially constructed.”

Masculinity and femininity may be socially constructed, but maleness and femaleness are biological categories, genetically encoded.  And they are, at this point, still immutable.  You may have a sex change operation, but  it is a cosmetic procedure.  Your DNA still codes for the sex you were born with, and you’ll need a rigorous dose of hormones for the rest of your life to keep the appearance of the sex you want to be from being overwhelmed by hormones.

In spite of all that, however, I thought I at least vaguely understood what people meant by being “born in the wrong body.”  Body chemistry is a complex thing, and it’s not implausible that some people are born (or develop later) with a  mix that makes them feel like a member of the opposite sex and  uncomfortable in the sex that nature assigned them.

So far, so good.  But there’s another problem. 

I also accept the scientific validity of the theory of evolution.

And if human behavior is not, at least to SOME extent, biologically determined–then Darwin was wrong.

Actually, this is one of those things our society is largely schizoprhenic about.

New Atheists insist vehemently that “the mind is what the brain does,” and then go on to attempt to prove it by citing studies that s how that when you put electrodes in one part of the brain it does such and such, and when you put them in another it does something different.

But if things like love and hate, anger and ambition are biologically determined, then they are, by definition, not socially constructed.

You can’t have it both ways–if our major traits like ambition, aggressiveness, and timidity–are products of “what the brain does,” then any attempts to “socially construct” something in opposition to those things are doomed to failure.

And before everybody starts yelling, yes, I do think that the actual situation is a lot more complicated than this, and that people are neither biologically determined nor socially constructed.

But the people who argue these positions are not known for making complex arguments. They take their side and they stick to it.

They also don’t talk to each other or read each other’s books or articles.  If they did, they’d have to start taking these things into account, and then the whole thing would just blow up in their faces.

My question about the Navy Seal is this–I wish I understood in what sense he always felt essentially female.

Does he “feel female” in the same sense that I “feel female”?  Or is this another thing altogether?

Certainly not all women feel female in the same way.  There are some ways of “feeling female” that drive me straight up the wall and out the other side.

I think this is not a minor thing.

We tend to talk about these things–social construction, biological determinism, even “gender”–as if their meanings were crystal clear and unambiguous.

And when we DO claim to be recognizing ambiguity, what we’re usually doing is throwing up a big pile of jargon to obscure our absolute terror that we do not know what we’re doing, and that we may be wrong.

It is one of those things–we’re not going to get the answer any time soon, because we’re going to be far too afraid to ask questions.

Written by janeh

June 7th, 2013 at 8:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Thinking Yourself In'

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  1. I’m, sorry: I am NOT doing what it means to “feel female.” Perhaps someone else without a Y chromosome can help here?
    A couple of side issues, military-related. One is that junior enlisted sleep in barracks, these days two or three to a room, leading to problems Greek militias on campaign didn’t have. There is also the problem of sex and power relationships, which we mostly get in heterosexual relationships currently. Remember that spate of stories about drill sergeants taking sexual advantage of trainees? A superior who sexually desires a subordinate is a problem in any hierarchy, and especially one like the military which just can’t be a nine to five job. Here attitudes shift over time. What we see as sexual abuse, the Spartans seem to have seen as a career-enhancing opportunity. (See OUR shifting attitudes as regards secretaries, nurses and airline stewardesses.)
    There’s also the problem of effeminacy–but it’s an overlapping problem, not the same one. If that SEAL is the one I’m thinking of, his sexual interests were known for years–but passing SEAL training pretty well removes the effeminacy problem. A company clerk who barely meets the physical standards and is finicky about his person has more trouble, even if he would prefer to sleep with the opposite sex.
    So you either leave a lot of discretion to local commanders–remember Klinger from MASH?–or you try to write general rules from a central authority, and discover that they sometimes create more problems than they solve. This seems to be the current American–indeed Western–way, and not just in matters of sex.
    But overall, I agree: lots of variation, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get everyone to fit in their assigned boxes.
    Not that we’ll stop trying any time soon.


    7 Jun 13 at 10:08 am

  2. You’d have to ask that particular man what he means by saying he always felt female. I’ve never really understood that sort of claim. I noticed that a lot of trans people tend to go for rather extreme versions of what I think of as the superficialities of being female – the clothing and makeup and such, whether or not they actually go through the surgery. But then I realized there are some who dress as casually as any, er, XX female, in slacks or jeans and tops and little if any makeup or frills.

    I do strongly suspect that not all such people are truly victims of being in the wrong body, perhaps having been born with ambiguous genitals and an odd horomonal makeup – especially not the adolescents who are sometimes given hormone treatments and even sometimes surgery to deal with their dissatisfaction with their current body.

    I’m female and I don’t know what it’s like to feel female. You might as well ask me what it’s like to feel blue-eyed, or the possessor of a skeleton or pair of lungs. It’s what I am, not what I feel like.

    When I was quite young, I sometimes imagined myself in the role of the boy heros in my favourite novels, but that was when I liked the novel and hadn’t found a similar one with a female heroine. I didn’t think I was a boy, or want to feel like a boy. I wanted to more easily imagine myself in an exciting situation. There’s the role, the action and activity of being a boy or a girl, and there’s the reality of what you were born and, I am told, the experience of realizing that when your hormones kick in, your body doesn’t seem to react like other similar bodies, which I can accept intellectually. But ‘feeling like’ a member of the opposite sex – such a large and varied group – I don’t get it.


    7 Jun 13 at 11:35 am

  3. Part of evolution is the process of mutation, which required mutable DNA. Part of the mutability of DNA is the possibility of slight errors in reproduction of the DNA or things that don’t *quite* hook up right during the process of sexual merging of two sets of DNA. And by slight errors, I don’t mean tentacles instead of ears, I mean coding for how we “feel.”

    Then there’s the expression of the DNA code in the physical body and the mind, which can be influenced by the environment to some extent, but not always. Some people end up with more than two nipples, more than two testicles, more than 5 fingers on a hand. These things can be triggered by small variations in the uterine environment. Right now we’re thinking that homosexuality may arise due to slightly elevated or depressed hormone levels in the mother in a very specific period early in pregnancy. It’s a delicate process, growing a human. With so many moving parts, it’s easy to get slightly off-center on one or two.

    I never believed how much genetics influenced behavior until I watched it in my son. He essentially had NO contact with his father for the first two years of his life, and very little until he was 5. Yet, well before he was two, he displayed specific behaviors that were so like his father it was eerie.

    I haven’t known large numbers of trans-gendered folks, but some of the male-to-female ones have indeed embraced the whole over-the-top Donna Reed feminine persona. I always thought it was a compensation for a physicality that didn’t match their mental image of themselves. They had to become hyper-feminine because when the pearls & heels came off, well, there was that darn penis. Those of us whose mental image matches the physical don’t have to try so hard, unless we just love the whole dress-up thing, because our mental identity is reinforced by our physical being, not contradicted by it.


    7 Jun 13 at 1:01 pm

  4. Does “gender is socially constructive” make any sense outside of a high technology society?

    We live in a society where breast feeding is optional and women can drive bulldozers.

    Go back just to say 1900 and breast feeding is the only way to feed a baby and a lot of work requires brute force manual labor and different roles for men and women make much more sense.


    7 Jun 13 at 7:12 pm

  5. I’m with Robert on this issue as far as the military is concerned. A great deal of the military’s current problems are caused by being forced to adopt societal standards that are minority standards even in the mainstream community.

    As to whether a Navy SEAL or any other individual could possibly know that they have always felt like a member of the opposite sex, without ever actually being a member of that opposite sex (either before or after the surgery), they are seriously deluded. Which is and always has been their problem, of course.


    7 Jun 13 at 9:30 pm

  6. Well, yes Mique–but we’re talking a SEAL here. These are people who jump out of intact aircraft, and sometimes not even over dry land. Their delusions are necessary to the national security.

    Oh. You mean his personal delusion. It’s not as helpful to the nation–but I’m not sure it’s any stranger.

    Completely off today’s topic, but one we’ve covered before:



    8 Jun 13 at 11:26 am

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