Thursday, August 28, 2008

A road map to gender freedom

Below is the speech I delivered at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum entitled We Are Not Deviants at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila sponsored by UP Stonewall, a new LGBT student organization there. Because of the 10-minute limit allotted to each speaker—there were five speakers in all—I decided not to talk about the trans in transgender but instead focused on gender.

Good morning I am here today because I’d like to talk about gender and how we must freely express it or we must be free of it. Before I do so I would like to thank members of UP Stonewall for the invitation to speak before you today. I must admit that when I first saw the title of today’s forum over an email exchange the first thing that came to my mind was “That title is so 60s!” Frankly, in the past decade of being active in the local LGBT community, I’ve never heard the word deviants mentioned in the same breath with LGBT. Divas yes, deviants, no. In fact, a quick Google search when you key in the word deviants fetches a Wikipedia entry of The Deviants (formerly The Social Deviants), an English rock band made up of manly men I suppose from, you guessed right, the 60s.

But still, I appreciate the title of today’s forum. We all know that even in this age of slogans like “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” or “One, Two, Three, Four! Open up the closet door! Five, Six, Seven, Eight! Don't assume your kids are straight!" or the classic “Bakla ako, may angal?” (by the LGBT student org UP Babaylan), many people are still not used to it, assume their kids are straight and have angal against bakla people. And so we hear very real and often times sad stories of oppression and discrimination that are largely fueled by the ignorance, bigotry and hatred of others. We hear of the woman who was not hired for a job because she told the employer she was lesbian. Or the people who were refused entry to an establishment because they were transgender. Or the teen who was ran out of his home by his own parents because he was gay, bisexual or questioning. Certainly there are more stories than these and they get worse.

One thing is certain though. Those mentioned above have one thing in common: gender and the oppression that comes with it. Before I go on further about this thing we call gender and this road map to gender freedom that I mentioned, let me introduce to you some trivia about it. Did you know that even if gender terms were already in use in language to denote, for example, male, female, and neuter nouns, it was only in 1955 when it officially entered the language of the social sciences? John Money, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University is credited for making this possible. Money adapted the binary concept of gender from language and decided to apply it to people. The result as we all know now is a disaster. Why? Because Money also theorized that gender identity is simply determined by two things, genitalia and socialization. So if you’re a baby with a vagina and raised as a girl, you will end up female. The same goes for the baby with a penis who is raised as a boy. He should be male. If not, then--this is where Money used psychology to explain away those who did not fit his system--it’s either your parents fault for not bringing you up right or you’re mentally ill.

But life as we know it is not that simple. Case in point: David Reimer. Reimer was one of twin boys whose penis got burned off in an infant circumcision accident. It was Money who advised Reimer’s parents to have him surgically and hormonally changed into a girl and raise him as one. Money extensively talked about Reimer’s case calling it the John/Joan case and used it as evidence that his theory was right. The medical and scientific community later found out that Money deliberately lied about Reimer’s story which is documented in the novel As nature made him: The boy who was raised as a girl by John Colapinto.

It turns out that Reimer, while growing up, showed an innate sense of his correct gender and rejected all efforts to feminize him. Despite having female genitalia, he did not identify as a girl. Nor did he want to live as one. Later on, Reimer would transition back into male. His story, however, would end tragically when he committed suicide in 2004.

What does this story tell us? It confirms that gender is too complex a phenomenon that cannot be explained by simplistic theorizing alone. It is not a matter of just nature or just nurture. It is a matter of both and everything else in between such that a comprehensive theory of gender will have to take cognizance of the fact that we are complicated bio-pyscho-socio-cultural beings who will not always fit into neat categorizations. And yet, a little over half a century later Money’s theory of gender seems to continue to hold sway.

Notice that when we first meet a person our first instinct is to attribute that person either of just two genders. Is he or she a man or woman? Those who are difficult to place, according to transgender philosopher Miqqi Gilbert risk facing “ridicule, ostracism, systemic discrimination, legal and social persecution, medical mutilation, institutional isolation, state supported harassment and even death.” Perhaps this is the more important lesson we need to learn today: that in the past 50 years, the dichotomous gender system has become an oppressive institution.

Thus our job as LGBT activists is to seek to democratize it. We can do that by first rejecting the notion that gender is dual. A more profitable way of looking at gender, according to Dr. Carl Bushong, is to treat it not as bipolar or bimodal but as a matrix, a spectrum. This will make room for people who for various reasons do not identify clearly as male or female and those who identify as somewhere in between, a combination of both or neither. This system will also recognize that women can have breasts and a penis and men can have vaginas with the world not worse off for it.

Second, in a gender democracy, gender is inconsequential, insignificant, and irrelevant. This will wrest away the power to attribute gender to persons from other persons and institutions. This means that we have to consciously stop attributing gender to people and stop caring if the person we meet is a man or woman or both or neither. It should not be important in the same way that in today’s world that person’s sexual orientation, skin color, disability, social status, religious beliefs, political persuasions, etc. are not important. This means that gender should have no place in official documents. Do your documents say if you’re bisexual, black, a double amputee, rich, or Moslem? Lastly, the best way to gender freedom is to let the individual decide his/her gender identity and expression. In this case gender is not a privilege practiced correctly by others based on arbitrary standards but a right that is determined solely by each and every person. Gender ultimately is a matter of self-determination.

If this is not possible then we do the next best thing: we must eradicate it. We must destroy gender. Thank you and once again good morning.


Pisanu for BISEAN said...

I got nothing but R-E-S-P-E-C-T for you.

I couldn't even believe I actually finished reading the whole dang post! got something to say. From here on...I'm listening.

Sawasdee from the BISEAN Blog.

PinayTG said...

Thanks for dropping by Pisanu! The R-E-S-P-E-C-T is mutual mind you. Keep writing about South East Asia. You make me proud to be in the same neighborhood. :)