Friday, June 1, 2007
Changing minds, changing bodies
This week’s Newsweek has a letter responding to the previous cover story on gender identity. This person’s reaction was that the very idea that there were not two distinct sexual categories was “bone chilling,” a “grievous commentary on the fall of American morals. Have we strayed so far from the Bible that we have forgotten God created Adam and Eve?” Meanwhile, whereas the article largely concentrates on people who think they have the wrong equipment, the previous letter points out the reality that some people are born with both sets of equipment, or something in between. When your religious faith starts requiring you to deny actual reality, you need to get a new religion.
The same woman’s letter concludes, “Please don’t ask me to rethink gender.” This seems like the real crux of the issue. Even the nonbelievers like me don’t like having to rethink things we thought we knew. On gender identity, the Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex is compelling, but for people already familiar enough with that issue to fling about expressions like “LGBT,” a documentary I saw on cable called Whole presented a rarer phenomenon. It dealt with people who wanted to become amputees, in some cases so desperately so that they’d resorted to home surgery or shooting off the offending limb (it was always a particular limb). Before you go dismissing these people as sick twists who need therapy, which was my initial reaction, listen to their stories. I remember one guy wore some kind of harness sometimes to feel like an amputee. Another had struggled years and years with his desire, therapy and all, but then found someone to operate on him and had no regrets about the surgery except not getting it earlier. If surgery immediately made him happy, and nothing else did, was it unethical for the doctor to operate?
There’ll probably never be enough of the wannabe amputees to constitute an identity group like transgendered people, but the idea does raise the same issue as people who want to alter their gender, about what is normal and whether it even matters if its normal. An Atlantic magazine cover story a few years ago, though largely sympathetic to the idea of people wanting sex changes, raised the idea that perhaps some people would not have felt themselves to be members of the other sex had they not known that there was a possibility that it could be done. In the future, technology will allow us even more new ways to make all sorts of changes to ourselves. Which of those changes will people begin to want when they learn about these possibilities, and which will become “identities”?