Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Next Barrier

I finished reading Lauren McLaughlin's new YA novel Cycler this week. In the wake of the presidential election, where I think that we proved that, as a country, we've finally moved past our oldest form of racism, I think it's time to move on towards eradicating some of our other forms of national lunacy, like homophobia. (Votes to ban gay marriage are not a step in the right direction, though.)

Cycler is not about being homosexual. The main character, Jill, is physically changed into a boy for a few days each month. But Jill's parents, who are understandably upset and bewildered by this change, which began with puberty, refuse to see the boy, who calls himself Jack, as their son. They lock him in Jill's room and help her use self-hypnosis to forget what happens during the days he exists. But Jack knows what is going on in Jill's life, and as he emerges more frequently and with needs of his own, the plot comes to its crisis with Jill and her mother trying to contain the harm they think he will do, and with Jack showing them that it's not possible to wall off part of your existence forever.

Jill panics when she learns that, as she puts it, "the man of my dreams, the love of my life, is not even heterosexual" when the boy she's had a crush on tells her that he's attracted to her, but that he's bisexual.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I don't know why I thought you'd be cool with it....Better to know now rather than later," he says. "I've learned that lesson."

Jack, on the other hand, finds that the girl of his dreams, Jill's best friend Ramie, has some idea of what's going on, despite how unbelievable it seems. He is willing to open up to her because, he says, "Ramie, 'worshipper of chaos' that she is, can usually be relied on to choose the more reckless of any two options."

And yet, why is it "reckless" to love someone who doesn't fit neatly into one of two gender categories? This month's Atlantic has an article about transgendered children, and their parents' struggles to accept them and help them be accepted in their communities. One parent, the mother of a transgendered boy's best girl friend, refused to let her daughter see her friend anymore, saying "God doesn't make mistakes."

Mistakes? Infinite variety is a mistake? I don't see that. I particularly don't see why doctors (a psychologist named Kenneth Zucker is featured in the article) should try to "re-educate" such children. I don't see why doctors in the 1960's felt entitled to physically alter babies who had been born with both male and female characteristics, sometimes without the consent or knowledge of the parents (shades of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards and Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides).

I do see that it's a difficult decision for some parents, who have to authorize their child's use of hormone blockers as early as age 10, before the onset of puberty. And yet, since the hormone blockers are reversible, what kind of parent would deny them to a child who has identified with the "opposite" sex since she/he was first able to talk and draw pictures (the article features a kindergarten-age boy's self-portrait of himself as a girl)? Yes, there are cases much less clear-cut than that one. But why is it so important to us to make a clear distinction?

Are we making all of this harder than it has to be? I think so. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

In Japan if you are born with the rare gene of red hair you have to dye it brown for school because it is a "distraction". They will check your roots.

Lauren said...

"Are we making all of this harder than it has to be?" The short answer is yes. It amazes me how much effort and energy is put into defining gender and dividing people according to gender and sexual orientation. I'm a heterosexual female so I get a lot of pleasure out of certain anatomical differences between (most) men and (most) women, but I've never understood all the rancor that surrounds the subject. Why make it a war when instead it can be a fun game? I hope Cycler gets people to ask these kinds of questions, but one thing I've noticed is that a lot of readers bring their agenda to the table and read the book through a very narrow lens. If it doesn't say exactly what they need to hear on the subject of gender--and say it firmly--they feel betrayed. I think this is indicative of how deeply our gender values are embedded into our sense of self.

Anonymous said...

I really hope America is growing past race, but I just don't believe it. That could be me not being able to see the forest because of all the trees...I live in Louisiana.

Jeanne said...

J. Kaye, my father-in-law quit spending his winters on the gulf coast several years ago because he was dismayed to find that so many of the people he met felt free to express racist views. So I know it still exists.
But I agree with Nicholas Kristoff, who recently quoted MLK Jr. in the NYTimes because, he says, the quote is "an apt description of America today." MLK ended a 1959 speech by borrowing a prayer from a preacher who had once been a slave:
"Lord, we ain't what we ought to be; we ain't what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain't what we was."

Anonymous said...

I'll agree with you there. :)