Sunday, January 29, 2012


Maybe it’s because I recently finished rereading the late Octavia Butler’s xenogenesis series. Or maybe it’s because I’m just getting really tired of hearing hypocrites like Newt Gingrich ranting about how gay marriage stands to destroy the structure of family values and lead America down the path to rack and ruin.

But when I read Frank Bruni’s article in today’s Times, Genetic or Not, Gay Won’t Go Away I couldn’t stop thinking about the way gender has been treated through most of history on this planet: there are only two (male and female), male is inherently superior, and females are primarily baby-making machines.

Butler’s wonderful books, Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Imago (later reissued in a single volume as Lilith's Brood), consider the impact of introducing a third gender into the mix, but it’s really rather more complicated than that. Hers is a post-apocalyptic earth visited and rescued by a race of traders in genetic material who provide humankind with a path toward survival after they’ve damned near blown themselves to smithereens. But human beliefs about gender specificity (and proper roles for women and men) hinder the evolutionary possibilities available to the survivors.

In our present-day, so far pre-apocalyptic world, we seem so bent on making sure everyone follows the traditional paths—especially those codified in religious texts—that we end up falling into camps that don’t do much to expand possibilities. We either support gay rights because we think they have no choice (i.e. it's all in their genes), or we condemn all varieties of sexual difference because some Bible or other says it’s an abomination (whether or not the text of that Bible actually says so).

Bruni points out that whether or not someone is genetically programmed toward a particular gender doesn’t matter. Gay people just aren’t inclined to change, and there’s no real reason for them to do so.

It occurred to me while reading Butler’s novels that we really don’t have just two genders anyway. There are homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, heterosexuals and asexuals; some people may be more than one over the period of a lifetime. And trying to fit everybody into two convenient categories doesn’t really seem to do anyone any good.

Pronouncements about the sanctity of marriage based on ignorance don’t make things any better. If family values (loving parents taking care of well-loved and guided children; familial loyalty and affection; extended families) are so important, it seems to me that we should be allowing them to spread wherever they can sprout. In my own experience, some of the most engaging, respectful, creative, and clearly loved children I’ve ever met have been raised by gay people who may or may not be their biological parents. And one of the best consequences I can think of is that none of these children feels compelled to fit into any particular role just because he or she is a he or a she.

Even when I'm talking about art history, I find myself pointing out gender disparity in that vast span of human experience between the Paleolithic (when men may not have understood their role in procreation) and the development of agriculture (when they seem to have decided that they had everything to do with making babies). What anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher once called “the pernicious analogy” (semen = seed) developed during the Neolithic beginnings of farming (which seems to have suggested “planting” the “seed” in the womb, where it would be nurtured as in fertile soil), and was followed by the notion that women were merely empty vessels just waiting to host a little homunculus. Inexplicably, however, if the woman didn't bear sons it was her fault. Sigh.

Things are only now beginning to look up. When I was a fourth-grader, I wasn’t skipped to a higher grade, despite evidence of some intellectual talent, because we hadn’t covered fractions yet and girls weren’t “good in math.” But my male classmate was skipped because boys were supposed to be innately much better at quantitative skills. Nowadays, girls are much more frequently encouraged to excel in whatever they can, but that glass ceiling persists, and true gender equality still seems to be a long way off.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that consideration of multiple genders isn’t really even on the radar at the moment. Human beings seem to be really good at partitioning out “otherness” in terms of color, religion, culture, and/or political economy. Of course, we still use mere otherness as a reason to discriminate, and that’s not likely to change soon, either.

Being able to label someone as a deviant from the norm used to be the purview of despots (witness the concept of Degeneration popular in the 1930s, which became one of the excuses for annihilating Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals). If we were to expand the concept of "normal" to include not only all races, colors, creeds, and politics, but multiple genders as well, who would the bigots be able to pick on?

Image credit: 3D expanded gender symbols modified and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Ju gatsu mikka.


Ellen Sandbeck said...

Lovely, lovely post. Thank you!


Owlfarmer said...

Thanks, Ellen. It's good to hear from you. No sooner had I posted than I received a note about a wedding reception for a couple of gay friends, and a letter about the Women for Obama group from Lilly Ledbetter (who had filed a discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear in 1998 for unequal pay practices). So thanks for the encouragement!

Tony said...

What a wonderful post, Candace!