November is a month for counting our blessings. When I want to appreciate how fortunate I have been in my life, I sometimes play a little game. I go to a mainstream media site such as the Huffington Post, and imagine what my life might have been like if I had been raised by people who thought that way.
It’s not meant to be an exercise in self-righteous back-patting, so I try to approach it in the spirit of St. Augustine and his pear-stealing incident. Recollect childhood vices, and consider how fearsome they might have grown but for God’s grace and the blessed interference of prudent adult guardians. Every time I play this game, I find something new to appreciate in my parents, and in the other wise and loving people who helped me to get my start in life.
This particular week, I have been reflecting on these questions while reading about the Senate-approved Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I will not get into the details of this legislation, since they have already been discussed quite recently here on Crisis, but I think it is fairly clear that the left is looking to normalize transgenderedness through legislation like ENDA. They want us all, from our cradles, to see it as absolutely normal for boys to decide that they would rather be girls or for women to suddenly “present” as men. It seems to me like this is exactly the sort of case in which personal reflection can be useful in helping us to identify the follies of the larger social vision.
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Do liberal parents really not appreciate the insecurity they will introduce by opening a rift between “sex” and “gender”? For every child who yearns to reject his naturally-born sex, there must be hundreds or thousands for whom the basic recognition that “I am a boy” or “I am a girl” is a cornerstone of his identity. Suggesting other alternatives, and encouraging children to entertain them as real possibilities, cannot but diminish the security of that fundamental identification. Every child will now be forced to confront the lonely possibility of having no natural home either in the company of men and boys, or in the company of women and girls.
This is sad to contemplate, and we must feel particular pity for those children whose parents attempt to trumpet their progressiveness by “changing” their gender at a young age. (“You remember my daughter, Brenda? Great news! Meet Bill!”) But the deepest irony is advocates of ENDA-type legislation normally present themselves as champions of “diversity.” But in fact, the normalization of transgenderedness closes off real opportunities to develop and appreciate diversity. Differences can be appreciated only so long as they are variations on a theme. Destroy the theme and the differences become meaningless collections of traits. They cannot be valued or appreciated, because there is no rhyme or reason to them, and no pattern against which to compare them. In a world in which the right of self-invention is held to be sacrosanct, there can be no opportunity to transcend the self, and the most that can be said of anyone is, “He is what he is.”
Thinking over all of this brings me back to reflections on my own girlhood, and on the sensible, conservative Mormons who raised me. Mormons are fairly comfortable with the promotion of traditional roles for men and women. I was a little outside the norm however. Though I was not quite athletic enough to be labeled a “tomboy,” I rejected pink or pastel-colored clothes, rejected dolls and tea parties, and favored adventure stories and murder mysteries over Anne of Green Gables. If my friends insisted on playing “house” (which was never my preference), I would cheerfully accept the unclaimed role of “Dad.”
Moving into my pre-teen years, I was scornful of the make-up and nail polish that was catnip to many of my pre-teen peers. I eagerly joined the debate team, but was mortified when a friend suggested trying out for the cheerleading squad. At 5’11” and 125 pounds, I probably could have commanded some attention if I had chosen to cultivate more sex appeal, but I was not interested. To me, that kind of girliness seemed shallow. I was prepared to tolerate it in friends, but for myself, I was anxious to be regarded as a person of substance.
Looking back on it now, I think that there were some good intuitions behind my rejection of overtly feminine things, as well as some less admirable motives. My distaste for the oversexualized, vulgar overtones of girl-directed products was healthy. My intellectual hubris was not. The latter eventually found a healthier outlet through the advanced study of philosophy. And as for my rejection of “girliness,” I must say that marriage and motherhood eventually softened my attitude towards feminine things. In a house full of males, I do occasionally like to assert my femininity by donning a pink polka-dot party dress. Nonetheless, I still love football, political debate and suspense thrillers. None of those features leave my sons remotely confused about the difference between “mom” and “dad.” With proper care, all of my rejectionist childhood impulses could be harmoniously incorporated into a more mature, but still feminine, adult self.
Imagine, now, how my life might have gone if I had been raised by modern, liberal parents. Very likely I would have been identified at an early age as “gender nonconforming” and sent for a serious talk with a school counselor, who might have forced me to read something like this in order to “affirm” me. Having broken the bad news that I was a rarified nobody-was-sure-what, the counselor would have sent me home to contemplate terrifying questions about what sort of identity and gender role “felt right” to me. This is the sort of question that no child can reasonably be expected to answer, and of course the possibility of hormone treatments or sex-reassignment surgery would have hung over my head as ominous future possibilities.
Reading the agonized accounts of now-grown persons who regard themselves as transgendered, I can readily imagine how it might be. Every minor choice or preference would begin to seem like a “gender identity” cue. I can picture my younger self wondering anxiously whether my distaste for romantic comedies was really a reaction to the cliché plots and terrible scripting, or whether it was the manifestation of a deep-seated masculinity that no perfume or Avon product would ultimately be able to suppress.
In the end, it’s impossible to say what exactly the burden of “gender nonconformity” might have done to me. I have to think, however, that it would have diminished the chances of my ending up happily married, and the mother of three healthy children. As it was, my parents very sensibly recognize that femininity, like masculinity, is broad enough to allow for reasonable variation. Some men aspire to be warriors, some to be poets, and still others to be philosophers or priests or builders of great monuments. Women can be just as variable, and in that spirit, my parents accommodated me to some extent while still making it perfectly clear that I was a girl. My clothes had to come from the girls’ section of the store, but did not need to be pink or lacy. Debate teams and adventure stories were acceptable, but I was also taught the fundamentals of cooking and sewing, and of course my Mormon youth activities ensured that I spent lots of time in the company of girls and women.
This last point is particularly important. I sometimes wonder whether our challenges with “transgenderedness” spring in large part from the loss of those single-sex outlets. I do not mean to suggest that this would be a cure-all solution for even the most difficult cases. Still, spending time with our own sex does help us to develop a sense of the “theme” of masculinity or femininity, while also reassuring us that certain variations can be interesting and healthy. We need not conform to a precise cookie-cutter pattern, but a robust appreciation of manliness or of womanliness can give meaning and focus to our developing sense of personal identity. It takes practice, however, to develop a nuanced appreciation of something so complex. Many young people today are insufficiently “practiced” in the ways of women or of men, because properly manly or womanly environments are so scarce.
Churches, communities and schools should work to give young people plentiful opportunities to enjoy the company of members of their own sex. This is one of the best ways of enabling them to develop a healthy sense of what it means to be a boy or girl. But as Catholics, we are also fortunate to have a myriad of wonderful examples in the saints. Hagiography is a delightful study in large part because its subjects are as diverse as they are inspiring. Everyone can find at least a few saints whose character recognizably resembles their own.
Those stories can uplift us, affirm us, and enable us to “appreciate diversity” in a way that GLBTQ activists cannot possibly understand. They can enable us to appreciate that our differences exist for a reason, and that our “self-expression” can ultimately be about something far greater and nobler than self. Through a proper appreciation of masculinity and femininity, we can come to realize that diversity is wonderful exactly insofar as it brings us back to the common core of what we all share, and teaches us the richness and depth of what God created on the sixth day.