On Sunday, the New York Times published a report that the Federal Department of Health and Human Services is considering redefining gender in such a way that it would assign gender, male or female, at birth (or soon after, via genetic testing). As the Times reported, gender would become “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.”
The consequences of such a policy, which would have the force of law, would be to radically restrict the civil rights of the more than one million Americans who understand their gender to be different than the one on their birth certificate. It would reject contemporary medical understandings of the complexity of gender. It would inflict government-sanctioned suffering on transgender people and implicitly legitimate discrimination based on gender identity. It would be an act of utterly unnecessary violence on the human psyche.
And, as a wiser man than me has frequently said in The Jung Center’s classrooms, it ain’t about what it’s about.
A few years ago, my elementary-aged son Daniel left our table at a local taqueria to head to the restroom while I finished my meal. Two men were eating at a nearby table, and one of them called out to me and wondered if I was scared to let him go into the restroom alone. No, I said. The man said he would never do that, because now anyone can go into whatever restroom they choose, and some awful person might molest my child.
This was during a brief moment in Houston when the city government supported the right of individuals to make their own choice about which restroom – men’s or women’s – to use. The successful campaign to end the policy via referendum deployed the rhetoric used by this man, who was genuinely scared for my son. That rhetoric had absolutely no basis in fact – none – but it has old roots in our collective imagination. Before transgender people were associated with sexually predatory and violent behavior, gay men were associated with it. Monsters have always emerged from our collective imagination at times of change, and often they have been created quite consciously to manipulate human behavior.
Fear is one of the prime, irreducible motivators of our thoughts and actions. When I was Daniel’s age, my mother told me a story about a child who had been sexually assaulted with a razor blade in a men’s bathroom. She said she was telling me the story to keep me safe. She was also voicing her own fear of the unknown, the ways in which she couldn’t protect me from the world, no matter how much she wanted to. I cannot say whether the story made my life safer. It did make it scarier. That man with the razor blade is still alive in my imagination.
The proposed redefinition of gender motivates fear and is motivated by it. It is no exaggeration to say that our understanding of the world – or at least the amount of information we have about it – is growing at an unprecedented pace that accelerates constantly. When something as seemingly unchangeable as the binary of male and female starts to change because of new knowledge and the courage of those willing to risk their lives to voice their experience, fear is an inevitable, even understandable response. (Although anthropological research tells us that the Western, historical understanding of male/female is not nearly as timeless and universal as we believe.)
We can fear what the erosion of old certainties may mean for the future. But we are responsible for carrying our fear consciously, for examining its roots closely, and for choosing our actions carefully. It is an act of avoidance bordering on cowardice to reject new knowledge by violently imposing a seemingly simpler order. Accepting ambiguity and complexity is a necessary task of human psychological growth – and the path to a life filled with curiosity, healing, and humility before the mystery of existence.
Sean Fitzpatrick, PhD