I quite like participative and collaborative art projects, especially when they make nice progressive statements. So I was intrigued when I read about the "gay sweater", made of human hair - the hair of hundreds of LGBTQ Canadians - and adorned with rainbow buttons. The sweater is the brainchild of Jeremy Dias, Amelia Lyon and Brenna MacDonald of the Canadian Centre of Gender and Diversity (formerly Jer's Vision), and is to be officially unveiled at a tenth anniversary Day of Pink gala on April 8.

Now this Centre - and these people - have done a lot to address the problems of homophobia, transphobia and bullying in the schools and beyond. The great thing about art (and I think this would probably apply to ALL the arts) is that it can appeal to us - or, for that matter, disgust us - on many different levels. Good art, to me at least, is laden, perhaps sometimes unconsciously, with myriad connotations and overtones. But the greatest strength of art may also be its greatest weakness. If you want to denote a clear and unambiguous message like "Just say no" or "Bullying is never OK", then art is a pretty blunt instrument.

The connotations of a hair shirt (or if you want to, well, split hairs, hair sweater) are to me particularly unfortunate for a project of this nature, suggesting penitence and asceticism. Do these people want to be "cured" of a pathological sexual orientation or gender identity, through electric shock, aversion therapy, "supportive" counselling or whatever? I rather think not! It almost seems to convey the opposite message to gay pride.

Perhaps the problem is that today's generation of young adults, at least those who are not from devout families and have gone through the secularized public school system, are not familiar with the Bible or indeed with any major religious text, be it Islamic or Aslanic - sorry, I still have Narnia on the brain. They haven't studied them even in the context of our literary, historical or overall cultural heritage.

But taken as a whole, the younger generations tend to be far more accepting of gender variance and diverse sexual preferences than was our generation - or our parents' or grandparents' generation. If this project only reaches out to kids and young adults, it is to a great extent preaching to the converted (well, perhaps unconverted is more to the point here). If they want to reach out to old fogeys like us, then they need to speak to us using the lingo and imagery that old fogeys can understand - at an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

Or maybe I'm the one who is missing the point. Maybe they deliberately appropriated the motif of the hair shirt, and transformed it into a gay sweater of many colours by weaving it of "gay" hair and adorning it with rainbow-patterned buttons?

I don't know. But I would welcome the opportunity to go and view this artistic creation some time!
And gender! And while we're at it, let's tackle orientation, identity and expression.

All of the above have been much in the news lately. To some extent I'm on board. Same sex marriage? Absolutely! Revamp the schools' sex-ed curriculum? Definitely a step in the right direction. Equal legal rights for the gay and trans populations? Bring it on!

But in other respects, I find myself at odds with the received "wisdom". I worry that we are still promoting just as many myths and half-truths about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as we did several decades ago - it's just that those myths and half-truths are different ones. And sometimes it seems that we are so concerned about protecting the rights and comforts of minority groups that we ride roughshod over those of the majority - and ironically end up satisfying neither.

I still remember when the newspaper classified ads had a column labeled "Help wanted: Male" and another one labeled "Help wanted: Female". I remember when bars had a "Gentlemen" entrance and a "Ladies and Escorts" entrance. And while I don't want to go back to those days, I'm a firm believer in sex-specific spaces for certain purposes and activities, or indeed as one option for just about ANY purpose or activity where members of the community see a need for it.

For example: I was glad that Girl Guides decided to remain female-only. I think it's vitally important for girls to have access to strong positive female role models. That's true when they're very young - the Sparks and Brownies - but also as they get older, going through Guides, Pathfinders, junior or senior leaders, whatever the steps are. Because although adolescent girls are hopefully aware that yes, women can be engineers and plumbers and surgeons just as men can, I still see a value for having spaces in which girls and young women can interact and share their innermost thoughts and aspirations, without worrying about what the boys or the men may think or do. What about Scouts becoming coeducational? I don't know. It seems to me that there's a value in having some of the groups remain all-male for those who prefer that option.

Some Women's Centres admit men, at least some of the time; others don't. In the mid-1970s, the Ottawa Women's Centre on Somerset Street did not. I thoroughly enjoyed attending their programs, particularly the Consciousness-Raising group. Frankly it would have been a far different and less positive experience if men had been allowed as participants or observers. By the 1980s (or maybe long before that), men were forming their own groups, doing drumming circles or whatever - and that's always been fine with me. And for reasons which to me (and I suspect most men) are obvious, places like battered women's shelters have always been circumspect about their location, to guard against violent current or ex-husbands and -boyfriends tracking down "their" womenfolk.

I could go on. Same-sex education, at least in certain subjects; courses like "Home repair for women" or "Meal planning for men" based on the often quite-warranted assumption that their upbringing and/or education may have left them lacking in certain practical skills. Health care facilities and athletic clubs which limit their membership to one sex or the other.

But here's the thing. A large part of the rationale for same-sex spaces is to have forums (fora?) where women (or men) can interact on their own terms, liberated from the spectre of sexual attraction and/or sexual interference. The moment that the gay, lesbian and trans communities enter these spaces, all bets, as it were, are off. Which is, I suppose, a large part of the reason that the LGBTQQ community has been demanding and creating its own "safe" spaces.

So today I'm going to address what I see as a few of the most prevalent myths and half-truths of the modern era. I know that to a lot of people, what I'm writing is politically incorrect in the extreme, but hey - this is my blog and I call it how I see it.

#1 - Being gay is not a choice

It's true that we don't choose who(m) we're attracted to. We may not even fully understand ourselves why we're attracted to one person but not another. But the decision to enter (or not to enter) into a relationship with another person IS (or at least OUGHT to be) a choice. If I suddenly find myself attracted to, say, a priest who is obliged to remain celibate, or to a co-worker (especially if that co-worker happens to be my boss or someone I supervise), or even just to a man or woman whom I know to be happily married to someone else, then as far as is reasonably possible, I'm going to keep myself out of the path of temptation.

Besides, I rather subscribe to the view that there aren't really gay PEOPLE, only gay relationships. Some people do lean more towards one or the other but ultimately, it's INDIVIDUALS whom we love, not orientations.

#2 - Gender identity is set and immutable by the age of three or four

Nonsense, I say! And by the way, same goes for sexual orientation ("gay gene", anyone?)
I do accept that children are sexual beings, perhaps right from the beginning. Many children masturbate from a very early age. But children, certainly throughout adolescence and early adulthood if not beyond, are still in the process of becoming full-fledged, fully-rounded people; they are "finding themselves" as we used to say in the sixties. We wouldn't expect a three-year-old to know definitively that she wants to be a doctor or lawyer or grand First Nations Chief when she grows up. In fact, it's becoming increasingly rare for people to remain in just one career or occupation over their entire working life. We decry - and rightly so - cultures where girls are married off at the age of eight or nine, usually to boys and men many years older than they are, yet somehow we think a preschooler innately knows whether he'll grow up to be a man or a woman or straight or gay. Personally I don't see any logic in that.

#3 - There's no such thing as the "gender binary"

Yes, I know about inter-sex people. I know about some of the odd genetic configurations like XXY and XYY. But it's very rare. Generally speaking, if you put 100 random people into a room, about half will be readily identifiable as male and another half readily identifiable as female. Even if they're fully clothed. Moreover, I can't think of any other human characteristic that so readily divides the human race roughly in half. You can't say, for example, that half the world's humans are black and the other half white. Or that half have brown eyes and half have blue eyes. That's not the same thing as saying that the characteristics of men and boys versus those of women and girls are mutually exclusive. We are all human, after all, and more alike than we are different!

When a man says he is "really" a woman or a woman says she is "really" a man, that presupposes he knows what truly defines or constitutes womanhood and that she knows what truly defines or constitutes manhood. Isn't that a little presumptuous? Surely it is up to those who are already clearly and demonstrably under the "male" or "female" umbrella to define the quintessential nature of manliness or womanliness? Following the logic typically promoted by the trans movement, it is discriminatory to, for example, deny a "trans woman" access to a female-only space. Even though she has probably had a male upbringing and socialization and possesses a well-ingrained male sense of entitlement. Murray McLauchlan asked "Just who made the map of a man and a woman's life from beginning to end?" If the point is to broaden accepted social or psychological notions of who a woman or man should be and what s/he should do in life and how s/he should behave, then great! It illustrates that at least to a great extent, anatomy is NOT destiny. But why should we start letting MEN map out women's lives and WOMEN map out men's? And given that we are getting farther and farther away from the anatomy-as-destiny inevitability, surely it is a big mistake to strive to change destiny by altering the anatomy; to, as Gloria Steinem put it, change the foot if the shoe doesn't fit?

When even the medical profession is embracing (though admittedly with a few safeguards) the "change the foot" approach, I can't help feeling that the world has gone crazy. A few decades from now, as we progress (at least in this part of the world) towards equality of the sexes, will health care professionals look back and ask "What on earth were we thinking?"

At least with adults, however, we can normally assume that they know their own minds and can pursue whatever medical care they feel is right for them, in consultation with the medical professionals involved. I'm much more concerned about the ethics of allowing minor children to embark too far on the path to gender reassignment. Because they're still very much in the process of growing and becoming and to do anything irreversible or difficult-to-reverse at this stage is, I believe, irresponsible if not immoral. The families of these kids are certainly well-meaning and it's to their credit that they are willing to go to bat for their kids and offer them unconditional love and acceptance. But I really think that when children, especially very young ones, claim to "know" that they are the other gender, it's usually because of adult attitudes they have unconsciously absorbed and been exposed to. Or even a bid for attention, although I think in that case it would die a natural death once adults started taking them seriously.

Will they pin all their hopes and dreams on breaking out of the confines of their closet, only to find themselves stuck permanently in Narnia?
In my lifetime, I have witnessed a sea change in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ community.

When I was around eleven or twelve, the attitude of parents, teachers and other authority figures towards same-sex attraction was generally that until the age of, say, eighteen or twenty-one, it was not really to be taken seriously - a youthful indiscretion, nothing more. Or perhaps a question of seeking out a role model. The attitude of most other adolescents, however, seemed to be that it was something to avoid being associated with at all costs! I remember girls in my class saying silly things like, "You wouldn't believe my three-year-old cousin - she's a real LEZ!" As if any kind of physical affection demonstrated by a little kid towards an older one of the same gender were to be construed in a sexual, and therefore unsavory manner.

Of course, sex education in the schools in those days left a lot to be desired - and goodness only knows what kind of desiring went on in our teenaged hearts and minds and behind closed bedroom doors! In grade seven, girls got to see that "special health film". The cloying images of hearts and flowers and birds and bees and romanticized statements about the miracle of new life were far removed from the considerable discomfort I was already experiencing every month with my newly-arrived womanhood.

As we progressed through high school, we got stern warnings about the perils of "going all the way" which included the spectres of gonorrhea, syphilis and unwanted pregnancy. We didn't know about AIDS then and I don't even recall discussion of chlamydia. We got to see a film called "Phoebe" about a girl who discovers right at the beginning of the film that she is pregnant. The remainder of the film consists or her fantasizing about the possible reactions of her parents, teachers and boyfriend when she breaks the news to them.

But homosexuality, bisexuality and gender identity were not discussed. Of course, that was Before Stonewall and before Jan Morris, though certainly not before Christine Jorgensen.

What a difference a few decades makes. Gay marriage is now legal in Canada. A decision not to allow Jenna Talackova, né male, to compete in the Miss Universe Canada competition, was recently reversed. We've come a long way, baby, but we've still got some distance to go. Next month, when Bill C-279 (the Trans Rights Bill) comes up for debate in Parliament, we should make our views known and urge our MP's to support it.



October 2017



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