Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gender Theory - it's not just theory

It seems to me that the debates between essentialist and constructionist theories of gender that so often play out in feminist spaces like this feel to most people like they're largely theoretical. Those of us who fall on the constructionist side argue that gender is largely a learned performance - there's a script and a system of positive and negative reinforcements, and clear penalties in place for those who fall outside the "norm." Meanwhile, gender essentialists claim that gender is innate, and any variation from the strict binary only occurs where there's some perversion or some negative force that's diverting the "normal" development of the individual away from his/her "natural" inclinations. But since there's no control group available - no child who grows up free of gendered socialization, and who isn't immersed in a gendered world from birth - all the debates and discussions feel pretty theoretical. It's simply impossible to test the theories in this case.

However, the recent news story about a man who underwent extensive "sissy-boy" "therapy" (more like a failed, abusive attempt at brainwashing) and went on to become a lonely, unfulfilled adult who committed suicide at the age of 38 serves as prime evidence that this shit is not just theoretical. "Therapy" programs and "retraining" camps and religious programs that try to pray the gay away often inflict real trauma on the individuals who suffer through them. Profound, lasting trauma that damages them for life.

Every time I'm confronted with this version of extremely conservative, no-holds-barred gender essentialism and sexuality policing I have the same questions, and there never seems to be a consistent way to answer them:
  • If gender identity and gender roles are innate, then why is there any need for the extensive socialization, and the corrective measures that are so often taken when an individual's development doesn't appear to be following an acceptable script? Why is there even a need for "therapy" programs like this if biology is destiny? Why the plethora of books telling you how to reprogram your child's gender expression and sexuality?
  • How can anyone believe that living a non-conforming life when it comes to gender performance could be worse than the trauma that's inflicted on children through these kinds of corrective programs? Would you honestly prefer to beat your child to the point of leaving welts on his body every day rather than watch him grow up to be gay or trans or genderqueer or whatever? Seriously?
  • Whose definition of "normal" is driving "therapy" programs like this? In the case of programs that are connected to churches and religious institutions it's clear, and at least there's no pretense that it's grounded in some kind of objective scientific framework. But in this particular case, you have an extremely socially conservative, religious individual who was using taxpayer dollars to run a "therapy" program designed to force children to conform to gender roles that came from his personal religious beliefs. Very, very problematic.
  • How is it that parents in these kinds of cases have such blind faith in the religious or therapeutic system involved that they willingly partake in the abuse of their children even when the signs of trauma are unavoidably clear right in front of their faces? And how do they overcome their protective instincts to the point where they can participate in the abuse of their child, regardless of what longterm results the program promises?
  • How many other people are there who went through this kind of coercive reprogramming and don't kill themselves, but live a life of quiet desperation and never manage to establish fulfilling relationships, or to really flourish in life? How many of them end up with serious addictions or troubling mental illnesses as a result of the abuse? For sure, we see the most extreme cases, but think of all the cases where the "therapy" is ostensibly successful but the individual is permanently traumatized.
I'm sure there are people who think there are reasonable answers to these questions, but to me the experiences of so many individuals like Kirk Murphy are irreconcilable with this conceptual framework. And even if there was a way to make the view coherent, when so much trauma results from a set of beliefs and practices, it seems like the only humane thing you can do is abandon the position and try to find new ground that allows people to thrive and find fulfillment. Even if the life they end up living doesn't look like the ideal you imagine. Because maybe the failure doesn't lie with them. Maybe you've experienced a failure of imagination. There should be some kind of therapy for that, shouldn't there?


  1. dirtyhippie6/09/2011

    I love the idea of imagination therapy. Love, love, love it. Now that would be fun.

  2. Momofthree6/09/2011

    I believe it's called "unschooling."


  3. Anonymous6/09/2011

    I suspect you hit the nail on the head with your comment about addictions. I think addiction is a really common way to cope with childhood traumas that shake a person's self-image and sense of self-worth so deeply. It's a slower form of suicide, I suppose.

  4. On your second to last bullet point, there was a very short part of the clip that interviewed Kirk's mother, and I distinctly recall her saying something similar to "I [Kirk's mother] was worried he wouldn't live a normal life".
    I think it's likely that one type of parental instinct (the fear her child would be ridiculed throughout life) overrode any parental instinct against abuse in the short term. I don't know this for any sort of fact, but I wish the video had placed more emphasis to Kirk's parents. There's no question that what happened to Kirk was awful. I can't imagine living with that. What happened to him motivates me toward creating an environment where no parent thinks this is okay, and that starts with understanding the rationalizations of Kirk's parents.

    Personally I believe an environment where gender is essentialist will always create parents who can rationalize brainwashing their children.

  5. Sinderella6/10/2011

    Well, I know it doesn't make sense, but these types think they're "saving" the child from some perversion they've been exposed to in the environment. Even as tiny children, if they show these tendencies it's attributed to a perversion in the environment. That's how they can maintain the essentialist picture and also think all this retraining is necessary.

  6. Anonymous6/10/2011

    It is so weird to me that people should put restrictions on the toys that children play with and even punish them for playing with the "wrong" toys. Why can't children just discover themselves?

    Great post by the way.

  7. Thanks, feministatsea.

    I know sometimes the underlying concern is that your child will be bullied by other children, so you're "preparing" him or her to function well in the world. And I agree that, to some extent, this is a valid concern for parents. But to think that this justifies such extreme measures is a whole nother thing, as my stepdaughter would say. =)

  8. Anonymous6/10/2011

    And shouldn't every child be prepared to deal with bullies and know how to respond? It's not like gender performance is the only thing other kids will bully you about.

  9. This is so well said here, wonderful wonderful post.

  10. @Dragonlady - coercive behaviour and extreme bullying against fat children is also very common to "help" them avoid bullying and be "normal", but it's still abusive bullying. My mother genuinely believed (and still believes) that starving and punishing me as a teenager was an appropriate response to my body shape (I say "shape" rather than "size" because I was not actually fat, though I didn't know this at the time!)

    At the same time, she was perfectly happy to allow me to be gender non-conformist. It's the parents' job to guide their children through a vicious and conformist society, not mutilate their kids until they fit it.

  11. Anonymous6/13/2011

    I think the parents involved in this stuff make the all too common mistake of conflating 'I just want you to be happy' (a laudable aim), with 'and I know what will make you happy better than you do.' Not so laudable.

    Frankly, with all the nastiness and bigotry that seems to so often come with 'normal', I really hope my kids don't aspire to that state.

  12. Thanks, Blue Milk.

    I think this kind of parental bullying may actually be getting worse rather than better, given our current cultural obsessions with the "obesity epidemic" and all the misinformation out there about health and body size. It seems like everywhere you look there are programs and PSAs reminding parents to obsess over their children's body size. Meanwhile in America we continue to heavily subsidize the least healthiest foods, use them in school lunches, and allow junk food marketers to relentlessly prey on kids. It would be comical if it wasn't so infuriating.

  13. mistressofboogie,

    Agreed. I hope my kids grow up to be quirky, compassionate, critically-thinking non-conformists. Is that too much to ask?


  14. Anonymous6/15/2011

    Well said!

  15. Anonymous6/27/2013

    Couldn't the studies such as the 'anti-sissy' therapy show that gender is in fact innate, and so when people tried to make the boy act 'against his nature' he became very damaged?

    1. If by "gender" you mean two distinct boxes into which each individual will fully and comfortably fit, then no.

      All kinds of tendencies are obviously innate. Many aspects of personality are innate. We all have distinct preferences and tendencies and aspects of our temperament that seem to develop independently from or in spite of our environments. But why would that mean gender is innate?

      Gender is shape-shifting and culturally dependent. Our version insists that there are only two (or three, or four) ways of being. Who can look honestly at the particular, individual, widely variant human experience and believe that?