Monday Earworm: No Doubt

So last week at a faculty meeting, we all had a conversation about dominant versus subordinate social groups: to put it in extremely simple terms, we self-identified into a number of groups based on our identities that marked us as part of the dominant culture or targeted. For example, a person could identify as male (dominant) or female (targeted), as hetero (dominant) or LGBT (targeted), as middle- to upper-class or poor, as White or POC, Christian or Jewish/Muslim/Hindu, etc. You get the idea. And then we paired with one colleague and talked specifically about our own experiences, whatever we were comfortable with sharing. We were asked to discuss when we realized we were part of a particular group (dominant or subordinate) and then also when we realized how being part of that group would affect the way we were perceived or treated in society.

My conversation was with a male colleague from my department. He talked about being male, and I talked about being female. I realized that the moment I learned that I was female (and that this was different from being male) was when I was about six years old and my youngest sibling was born. My father and I were up at the hospital walking around the maternity ward, looking at the babies in the nursery. A nurse held one baby up in front of a large window, a boy who was naked. Dad pointed out the baby’s genitalia and explained that it marked that child as a boy, and that this was different from a girl’s body. I knew I was a girl, and now I knew on an intellectual level what the biological difference between the binary bodies was. I didn’t really think much else about it.

Then my colleague told me the moment he realized that being male meant he would be treated differently came along in his teaching career (at a different school from ours), when he heard a female colleague lament that her students weren’t showing her much respect, and he realized that if he’d made the same remarks to his students, their reaction would have been completely compliant. He recognized his male privilege in that moment.

The moment I realized I would be treated differently by society for being female had come when I was in second grade. We had to line up in our classrooms every day according to height, and dear reader, I am and have always been short. (Think Queen Victoria short. Literally.) And this was a sore point; I was teased about it for some inane reason on a regular basis. Anyway, we were lining up to go across campus to have our class picture taken, and for once I was not the shortest person in my class! There was one other person shorter than I, by almost an inch: my friend and neighbor and carpool buddy, P.J. Eubanks. And I proudly stood in front of him and smiled, giddy not to be the last person in line for the first time.

And our teacher, a generally kind older woman with short graying hair and a wardrobe full of floral print knee-length dresses, sauntered right over to us, frowned slightly, and moved P.J. to stand in front of me. When I began to ask why she’d done this, she explained that he was a boy and that it might make him feel bad to be the shortest person in the class. So she needed me to stand at the end of the line, as usual, so he wouldn’t get his feelings hurt. She straightened my position at the end of the line, smiled, and walked back to the front of the room to lead the class out the door. P.J. turned and grinned and shrugged, and I walked sullenly behind him all the way to the gym, my feathers crumpled in the knowledge that this was how it was going to be.

At least for a while.

When I told my colleague this story, he was appropriately bemused. He didn’t seem to find it any more important than P.J. had.


Fear and the Proposed Federal Redefinition of Gender

Sometimes it feels like the news cycle is just a firehouse on full blast firing acid on everyone, doesn’t it? Well. That’s how it feels here. And among the recent horrifying developments was the federal government’s floating the idea of redefining gender, the practical result of which would be to limit or all-out eliminate protections for those of us who aren’t living in a strict binary.
That cannot stand, if we are to have a good and kind and compassionate world.
I cannot address this in nearly as eloquent a way as my good friend Sean Fitzpatrick can. He’s the executive director of The Jung Center in Houston as well as a Jungian psychotherapist. I’ve known him well since we went to college together; our families are close; he is one of the best men I’ve ever known. His thoughts on this matter are beautiful and conducive to healing, so I’m sharing them here (with his permission) with you. (You may also view his remarks online by clicking here.)


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
Executive Director