Friday, July 20, 2007

Pause the Child Within

Articles like this one in last week's SF Weekly would not normally be my kind of thing. Sure, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Euginedes' gender-bending bildungsroman, Middlesex (again, as with The Road, I should note, before Oprah was putting her label on it), and appreciated the fairly thoughtful Belgian film Ma Vie en Rose, but by and large transexual and gender identity issues are not normally on my conversational docket.

What interested me about this article, though, is actually the same thing that drew me into the book and movie -- i.e., the focus is on kids. I lived a pretty benign childhood compared to these kids, and I rarely doubted I was happy as a boy (even when I was once mistaken for a girl because of my adorable curls), but I can resonate with never feeling completely comfortable inside one's skin. I was not (and to a degree, still am not) confident in what I can do physically, which is pretty evident to anybody who has ever seen me try to play a sport of any kind. The physical ability to perform an athletic task (or even an act of physical labor) is there, to some degree, but the confidence necessary to do it is hard to muster. Which is why I feel remarkably good about myself when I do something as mundane as fixing a plug on an appliance; and feel very sheepish when friends ask me to try my hand at, say, blacksmithing, preferring instead to sit by the fire and drink. I'm trying to get better at this, though, because I truly believe a time is coming where the information revolution is not simply not going to open out as freely into a host of opportunities for one like me who wishes to lead a "life of the mind." We are, I suspect, on the cusp of returning to an age in which skilled labor -- be it gardening, blacksmithing, or whatever -- will be valued once again, and the opportunities for intellectual life considerably diminished.

Oh, but crap, I just got distracted -- though I think it is all related to where I'm taking this. For now, though, back to the article. Yes, basically, it's a very interesting story about the recent developments in medication that effectively delays puberty. So, if a girl is experiencing major doubt about her "being a girl," rich parents can insure that her hips won't widen, her breasts won't bud, and she won't menstruate until she's old enough, presumably, to make a more informed and mature decision concerning which gender path she wants to pursue. Same story for boys. (In fact, there is a must-see pictoral progression of photos demonstrating his blossoming into a pretty blonde girl.)

The article itself is interesting enough on its own, but it was made all the more so for me when I read this paragraph:

Few of the transgender adults interviewed for this story said they had the consciousness at such a young age to know what transgender was in the days before Internet communities and Oprah specials, let alone that they would assume this identity. While many concede that kids who receive this treatment will have an easier time in puberty and passing in the years beyond, some question how transitioning so early will change a community where having lived on both sides of the gender line is part of a collective identity.

When I first read this, I took it to mean that some transgender activists were opposed to these treatments, on the basis that the identity of transgender community will be changed. And maybe they are. But now that I read it again, it seems that the use of "question how transitioning so early . . ." maybe points more to simple ponderings about what the identity of the transgender community will look like in coming generations. Either way, it seems inevitable that identity is going to be front-and-center. This, though, just seems fundamentally backwards to me.

It is no secret that I'm not attached to the notion of "identity," and thus do not feel as though the end-all solution for contemporary society is to embrace every new identity that can be imagined or created surgically. The upshot of what I have in mind includes acceptance, but it is not defined by it. It accepts difference, however, not because of a moral imperative, but because the identities that are assumed to lie behind and inform who we present ourselves as simply do not matter. They are as (ultimately) inconsequential as they are inevitable.

I take the position that when/if it is understood that everybody is playing a certain role, which we call an identity, a role that we knowingly either fashion for ourselves or acknowledge has been imposed upon us by history and/or culture (considerably more likely, if we're honest with ourselves), the whole situation in which we role-play is exposed as a necessary fiction. Such a fiction, when we become aware of it as such, is thus open to the thinking of radical change, and to fundamental liberation from the expectations we (and others) have on our bodies and our relationship to these bodies. At first, this comes in the way of imagining a radical change, a seeing beyond what is expected of us (by us and by others), and thus the envisioning of a fundamental liberation from identity. What follows from an imagination unleashed is the democratization of sense and sensibility, and the reminder that our status in the world is a political one. That is to say, democratization is manifest only insofar as there is tension between between ways of conceiving the world, a tension that is in fact the conception of the world -- not merely the proliferation and defense of identity. What follows is a shattering of the mirror, whereby I might look at myself and behold; instead, we have the possibility of finally paying attention to things that matter, things like socio-economic devastation and environmental catastrophe, not to things ephemeral and/or inconsequential, for, like tomorrow, they will take care of themselves w/ or w/out our undivided attention. And in finally paying attention, that is, giving life its due, we participate in the process of creating it anew.