Friday, January 02, 2015

Gender identity, sexual orientation, "fixing society", and resilience

The media have given a lot of coverage to the suicide in Ohio of Josh Acorn, who wanted to be known as Leelah, and believed she was a girl from birth.  The media has also covered her note at death, as in this CNN story by Ashley Fantz here.  The media has noted that she had more support from school and the outside community than from her immediate family.

I understand her wanting this to “mean something” and to “fix society”.  And I can certainly support most of the proposals, from banning “reparative therapy” for minors (just as with sexual orientation), to lifting the ban in the military.  We have the life history of Navy Seal Kristin Beck, who, however lived out her career as a male first before making the change after retiring.  Still, Kristin would be able to do most jobs in the military even now.  (The end of “don’t ask don’t tell” left the transgender ban in place.)  On the other hand, the personal story of Bradley aka Chelsea Manning is certainly troubling.

But there is more to my reaction, which comes more from the perspective as a “conventional”, even “conservative” gay man.  It is true, sexual orientation is a separate issue from gender identity, but the reaction of society, at least during the years that I was growing up, was rather similar.  (This idea comes up in Kristin Beck’s “Warrior Princess” book, on the Books blog, Dec. 4, 2014.) It was hostile.  In “those days”, there was a presumption that gender conformity was about sharing the common risks in a family or community.  Someone who didn’t confirm was seen as leaving the burdens to others or endangering others.  That was the mentality when we had a male-only military draft, even if everybody knew there were lots of gays in the military even then.  In fact, claiming homosexuality to get out of the draft was seen as “cowardly.”
To “fix society”, you have to fully accept the principle that allowing someone to be himself or herself is more important than getting the person to “fit in” to what others in the family or large community may need (perhaps with good reason) him or her to be prepared to do. Not everyone accepts this idea, even though now even social conservatives understand this is the cornerstone of “democratic capitalism” which a lot of the world doesn’t have.  In fact, “individual sovereignty” is a major distinction between “secular” western values as they have evolved, and more authoritarian cultures (religious or not, ranging from Russia and China to radical Islam) much of the world. 
I did have serious problems in my own young adulthood, centering around the William and Mary Expulsion on 1961, and the “reparative therapy” (so to speak) at NIH in the fall of 1962.  I managed to come to a “separate peace”(almost as author John Knowles calls it) and lead a productive life, working as an individual contributor in information technology, where “sociology” mattered less than in the rest of the world.  But I lived a double life, a pretense of “separate but equal”, in a kind of urban exile, no longer feasible in the age of Facebook. 
Today, in retirement, I am in some ways less “sheltered” myself, and have to contemplate how I would live if the world around me was taken away by force.  (9/11 had something to do with this process.)  If I did not fit in and find I had anything to offer, I wouldn’t want to be around anymore.  And I wouldn’t want to use religion or the conventional idea of heaven as a reassuring emotional crutch.  (How I see the afterlife is another manner, as in my Dec. 31 posting on my main blog.)  Yet, I can see how taking one’s own life in trying circumstances could still be viewed as cowardly or arrogant. 
After Tyler Clementi’s suicide in 2010 after the hidden snooping incident from his roommate at Rutgers, and apparently after Tyler’s inability to get the university to take it seriously (this seems unclear), there were reports of notes whose contents have never been made public.  One can imagine what they might have said. But again, it seemed like there was arrogance in the final act, of not wanting to the world have anything to do with him, that it wasn’t good enough if thus could happen.  I certainly know the feeling.  Some forensic psychologists call this a need for “resilience”, to do one’s part in facing adversity that isn’t always one’s own to choose.  Had Tyler seen this through, he might have been a friend now, maybe even among that group of young musicians I know in New York City today.  This was a terrible loss. 

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