How gender became political, and the political became personal
by Wayne J. Ottenbreit |
In May of 2015, after double digits of a nominally conservative dynastic rule here in Alberta, the provincial New Democrats came to power. Many analysts saw this as protest against a party that had come to see itself as destined to rule. In Canadian politics the centre-right is less dexterous than south of the 49th parallel, and the left more sinister.
Few were surprised when the new minister of education, building on sandy legislative footing from the departing Tories, issued the so-called Guidelines for Best Practice in January of last year. This document sets forth a vision of how schools should work with “individuals whose gender identity and gender expression differ in some way from the sex they were assigned at birth.”
Maybe the personal influenced the political in this development. As the governing party was changing, media attention found a cause célèbre in the provincial capital. The family of a seven year old boy-identifying-as-a-girl filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission that he was denied use of the girls’ washroom at his school. The child was quoted as saying, “When I have to use the everybody washroom it makes me sad.” Bureaucracy and its insidious cousin, fear-of-liability, overtook common sense and the managers of this Catholic school caved to pressures real, perceived, and feared.
Amongst the Guideline’s suggestions (recognizing that nothing from the government ever remains merely suggestive) are the following:
- Self-identification is the “sole measure” of one’s biological sex;
- No one should be referred to any professional who “purports” to fix incongruence between mental and physical identities;
- Sex-separated sports participation and washroom and change room use reflect self-identification rather than biology;
- We pre-emptively use “non-gendered” language in referring to parents and students.
A word on sex and gender
The dynamic nature of language plays a part. While the term “gender” can refer to the sexes (i.e., male, female), it is better used to discuss how the sexes present themselves. Being male or female is categorical; using contemporary terminology, they are binary. Aside from rare conditions involving ambiguous genitalia, the physical differences that manifest sexual identity are apparent from birth. Sexual identity is recognized at birth, rather than assigned.
The manner in which we recognize an individual’s sexual identity is much more fluid; so much so that it is probably fair to say that no two people display precisely the same level of masculinity or femininity (that is, gender). These are not disconnected from one another. Chromosomes determine hormonal levels. In turn, hormones direct biological development. Physical structures, as bodies designed to continue the species through sexual reproduction, differentiate individual practice. And the cumulative expression of these practices over time are reflected in cultural norms. Not absolute nor static, but neither disconnected.
How the political became personal
The Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary (since retired) published a series of open letters to the minister, protesting the Guidelines as subversive of religious freedom in denominational schools. With such leadership, individuals and groups entered into the fray with some confidence.
My wife became active in promoting opportunities to learn more about the potential impact of these directives. I made some informal presentations to small groups myself. In my role as a school guidance counsellor, I shared Paul McHugh’s article about Johns Hopkins University’s cessation of sex re-assignment surgery. My supervisors replied that such views betray an agenda and did not forward it onto my associates at other sites. The political was clearly also professional.
And cultural winds quickly carried these political seeds back to the personal, in our own lives and on multiple fronts. A colleague with another school, where the parents had purposely been under-informed about the event, took a personal day of conscience off to avoid being part of an advocacy assembly there; her like-minded colleagues did not feel able to act with the same conviction. A daughter in high school made reference to a nice girl she had met there, and was told by her older sister that shewas he. Most dramatically, but with smaller direct effect on our own family, a close relative underwent surgical re-assignment, at public expense, without parental involvement and while still in her formative years.
Hitting closest to home, a younger daughter confessed to feeling “guilty” because she didn’t want to use the girls' washroom at her junior high school when one of the boys is in it. In discussing this tremendously valid concern with the principal, my wife was initially told that the best solution might be for our daughter to use the “transgender washroom”. The principal, whether by sincere conviction or sensing a need to be thus convicted, explained that all the students at the school are comfortable with the young man’s assumed identity (though this principal-manager was careful to reference him as “her”). Another daughter, having friends at that same school, informed us that the students are not in fact comfortable, but neither do they feel able to share this openly.
Power, not enduring standards, determines what is acceptable
The situation does not inspire optimism. Thanks to intellectual laziness that thinks in soundbites, most members of the prevailing culture have adopted a postmodern viewpoint without sufficient attention to important nuances. Not tied to enduring standards, power determines what is acceptable. In the West, social power is predominantly exercised by a progressive elite very comfortable dictating their own prescriptive and proscriptive norms.
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