Thursday, April 16, 2009

"An Encounter With Unisexism" by Robin Phillips

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"Androgyny", 12'x20', © 1983 Norval Morrisseau
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When I first viewed Norval Morrisseau’s painting “Androgyny”, I was taken aback. With characters that can be deciphered as neither male nor female, or perhaps both male and female, the painting is admittedly confusing to the casual observer.
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However, if you persevere and read the explanation under the painting, things begin to make more sense. This acrylic on canvas depicts the native Okanagan’s alleged understanding of gender.

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Until 2011, the painting “Androgyny” is on display in Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General of Canada. Painted by the native Canadian Ojibwe painter, Norval Morrisseau, this acrylic on canvas reflects the native Okanagan’s view in the fluidity of gender. The painting was donated to the people of Canada in 1983.

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“In the Okanagan, as in many Native tribes,” the commentary tells us, “the order of life learning is that you are born without sex and as a child, through learning, you move toward full capacity as either male or female....There is a commonly held belief among the First Nations that we, as human beings, are both male and female.”

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Now I don’t know about you, but after reading that I began to get seriously insecure in my masculine identity. After all, I had always assumed that my manhood was an unalterable fact about my existence, rather like my height. But if the understanding articulated in this painting was correct, then I had the chance to move toward full capacity as either male or female. Apparently, I had simply opted for the former.

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No sooner had I grasped this point when another question immediately presented itself. Could someone – like myself - who had “moved towards being male”, move away from being male? Might I one day wake up and find that during the night I had inadvertently slipped into a state of womanhood?

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I was not reassured when I came across the curricula of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a leading distributor of sex-education material for the American public schools. In their “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K–12,” they state that gender identity “refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or a combination of these” and “may change over the course of their lifetimes.”

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If the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States was correct in their contention that gender identity can “change over the course of [one’s] lifetime”, then I knew I needed to keep a careful watch on my gender. You see, I have a habit for losing things: yesterday my pocket knife, today my sandwich, tomorrow – who knows? – maybe my gender will slip away. I realized that if I was going to succeed in preserving my masculinity I needed to be proactive. Consequently, every morning when I wake up, the first thing I check after, checking the time, is to check my gender. I’m happy to say, it’s still there. The static nature of my gender has made me begin to ask: is gender really as fluid as the native Okanagans and the Education Council would have us believe?
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Gender Gymnastics

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It turned out that I didn’t have to answer this question. I discovered it had already been answered for me by that prestigious body, the British Parliament. But first, some background. At that point in my life I was working as a journalist for a media organization in England. My boss asked me to research a story about a “Mrs. C” who had gone through seventeen years of marriage without realizing that her ‘husband’ was really a woman. After having her breasts removed and using a home-made apparatus during sex, “Mr. J” was able to successfully deceive the entire family for nearly two decades. When “Mrs. C” inadvertently stumbled upon the truth, namely that her husband, “Mr. J” had actually been born as a woman, the deception – as well as the marriage - was terminated.

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In their bid for equal parental rights, the verdict against ‘Mr. J’ was based on the fact that the ‘marriage’ occurred prior to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. This Act allows a person to amend the gender on their birth certificate. Because ‘Mr. J’ was still legally a woman at the time of her union in 1977, the court ruled the marriage invalid. ‘Mr. J’ subsequently made use of Parliament’s Gender Recognition Act 2004, so that she is now recorded as having been born male. The verdict declares that a person who was legally female at the time of birth can be retroactively recognized as being legally male at the time of birth, provided this recognition occurred after the 2004 Act. Hmm, okay.

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While the United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 contains a provision permitting one member to seek an annulment after discovering their spouse’s original gender, the act does not prevent “marriages” being entered under false pretences. Indeed, the Gender Recognition Panel - the governmental body established by the 2004 Act to assess eligibility for gender change – has written in a personal letter to me that ‘it would be entirely the person's choice as to whether they would choose to tell their spouse/partner their original gender.’ All I can say is that I’m glad I was married prior to 2004!

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The Deconstruction of Gender

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All of this raised a burning question in my mind: if the gender polarity is really that fluid, then do the categories of manhood and womanhood have any objective meaning? To find the answer to that question I turned to books written by gender scholars. The resounding answer in many of these books was that gender is in fact illusionary. In her book Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin stated this view succinctly when she asserted that, “The discovery is, of course, that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs . . . demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.”

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Family therapist Olga Silverstein expressed similar sentiments when she urged “the end of the gender split” since “until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role…we will be denying both men and women their full humanity.”

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In his book , The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir was even more blunt: “Women are made, they are not born.” Since women have been “made” by society, the corollary to becoming more enlightened is that we should strive to unmake the female. This is exactly what the influential psychologist Sandra Bem has suggested. “When androgyny had been absorbed by the culture”, wrote Melanie Phillips, paraphrasing Bem’s views, “concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would ‘blur into invisibility’” (The Sex-Change Society).
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Susan Moller Okin is equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender. “. . . [A] just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”
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If the above statements are to be taken seriously, then Nietzsche was wrong when he posited the √úbermensch as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process; rather. true utopia will be found in neither the superman nor the superwoman, but the liberated unisex being that will emerge out of the liquidation of gender.
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Other less radical gender scholars have taken the view that while gender does have coherent meaning, there is no necessary relationship between one’s gender and one’s sex. Thus, it is now standard orthodoxy among sociologists that not all members of the male sex are members of the male gender.
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Towards a Unisex Utopia
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These ideas are not simply the abstract musings of academics with too much time on their hands. Indeed, the ideology of gender liquidation has filtered down to the most practical of areas, as activists throughout the world work with untiring energy to eradicate the “sexist” distinctions between men and women.

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The pervasive attempt to achieve a gender-neutral vocabulary is probably the most concrete example of the attempt to eliminate anything and everything from our culture which threatens to remind us that women are women and men are men. Hence, the publication of such books as The Elements of Nonsexist Usage, or the thousands of pounds the UK government spent educating their staff how to avoid “gendered” terms such as “seamstress.” (The author of The Elements of Nonsexist Usage had to seek long and hard for a gender-neutralized substitute for “seamstress”, reported Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail. Eventually they came up with “sewer”.)
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Careful as we might wish to be with our language, there remain a multitude of facts which threaten to remind us that men are men and women are women – such as the fact of pregnancy. Aware of this problem (what could be a more recurring reminder of the divide between the sexes), the British Department of Health issued a guide to pregnancy in which men are told that “expectant fathers can suffer morning sickness too” as well as postnatal depression. (As a man, I confess I never felt the world prejudiced against me in the assumption that only women could suffer morning sickness and postnatal depression, but I guess that shows just how “sexist” I really am.)
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Not to be beat, extremist feminists in Sweden have argued that men should sit down to urinate to bring out their “gentle” side. Isn’t it grossly unfair that men keep doing something that women can’t?
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Yet even if men did consent to sit down to urinate, they would still be reminded of their manhood by having to use the men’s room. However, if activists in England’s Manchester University get their way, even this final reminder would be eradicated. Last year a dispute broke out when one of Manchester’s transgender students tried to change the names on public lavatories to allow for those who were neither male nor female in orientation, but kind of in between.
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Gender and Worldview
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Many ordinary people may find this gender ambivalence as strange as I did when I first encountered it. Yet it is not so very strange after all, seeing that the systematic erosion of the gender polarity comes as the rational corollary of the anthropologies necessitated by our society’s dominant philosophical commitments. Among such commitments is the naturalistic materialism that became mainstream following the 18th century Enlightenment. Such materialism entailed the view that “there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life”, to quote from Julian Baggini book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. To the degree that such materialism reduces human beings to physical particles, it is hard to see how the differences between the sexes can have any ontological fixity outside pure anatomical fact. This leads to the consequence that any description of gender differences, other than purely physical descriptions, is purely arbitrary. This would include discussion of gender in nearly all sociological and anthropological contexts, since such contexts presume that gender has objective content external to the physical particulars allowed by materialism.
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Despite its stronghold in most of the science departments, materialism in the West has been on the decline, and in its place there has emerged a genuine openness to transcendent, non-materialistic categories. The dominant contemporary approaches to humanity, though hardly as monochrome as materialist anthropology, do allow one to root significance and purpose in realities that are beyond, and non-reducible to, the chemistry of material processes. From the growing interest in New Age and Eastern religious movements, to neo-paganism, to postmodern spiritual eclecticism, to the existential idea that meaning is created by individual choice, to various combinations of all of the above, there has emerged a constantly replenished reservoir of ideas, practices and methodologies which provides an alternative to the reductionist hammer of naturalistic materialism. However, unlike traditional religions, these alternative spiritualities tend to be self-directed and to resent all external forms, structures and objective organizing principles, including the constraints of consistency.
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Not surprisingly, a corollary of this emerging network of spiritualities has been to discard gender categories as carrying any ontological weight beyond that which each individual subjectively infuses into these concepts for him or herself. Consequently, what manhood means to me may differ from what manhood means to you, and each one of us is free to autonomously work out his or her own understandings of these concepts. This was reflected in the dispute over the Manchester toilets (mentioned above), when a student was quoted in the paper as saying,“
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If you were born female, still presently quite feminine, but defined as a man you should be able to go into the men's toilets. You don't necessarily have to have had gender reassignment surgery, but you could just define yourself as a man, feel very masculine in yourself, feel that in fact being a woman is not who you are.”
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The new spiritualities, underpinned by the epistemology of Postmodern relativism, liquefy gender as thoroughly as their materialistic predecessors, not by reducing them to meaninglessness, as in the case of the latter, but by reducing their meaning to something that is self-actuated by the relative individual. Having to submit to an outside narrative of what it means to be a guy or a gal is a stifling imposition on our freedom – the freedom each of us should have to work out our own gender with fear and trembling.
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So while my gender may not be in danger of slipping away during the night (oh good, I can sleep now), it may certainly slip away during the day by an act of simple volition.
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Robin Phillips
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About author: Robin Phillips lives in Post Falls, Idaho, where he works as a researcher and political journalist for a Christian pressure group in England. His wife, Esther, and he have five children, ranging from 19 to 3. His chief interest lies is in trying to fathom the numerous ways that ideas play out practically in society over time. His amusements include listening to ‘classical music’, hiking, reading, playing the piano and bloging, but his chief joy is his family.
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Source: "Robin's Readings & Reflections" Blog
----------/Used with permission/
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* The photograph of the above painting by Norval Morrisseau was taken in Otawa in February, 2006 at the opening of the "Norval Morrisseau - Shaman Artist" exhibition. It was the first solo exhibition featuring a First Nations artist in 126-year history of the National Gallery of Canada.

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