Monday, April 18, 2011

Toxic fundamentalism here at home

Jon Stewart brought to my attention a massive brouhaha over just-about-nothing: Toemageddon, he called it. This master of damning juxtaposition tells it like it is in a hilarious six minute sendup of something that's really not funny.

Come to think of it, that's Stewart's specialty. Here's how the Chicago Tribune summarized the kerfuffle:

A J. Crew ad that shows a mother painting her little boy's toenails pink has sparked a storm of Internet outrage, with much of the vitriol directed at some pundits who swiftly criticized the online ad and asserted such behavior might make a boy question his sexuality.

"Dr." Keith Ablow is an FoG (friend of Glenn, Beck that is) and one of the pundits in question. Here's some of what he had to say in his column J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity:

Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil -- not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?

Let's take a look at that sentence. I'd rather set aside the boneheaded misapprehension of racial identity that follows as Ablow digs himself into a hole. If you care to be outraged, you might consider following the link. I don't even want to quote that garbage.

I'll focus instead on "suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth." I think what Ablow must have meant by "the [gender identities] they got at birth" is 'the gender identities that correspond to the physical structure of their genitals,' presumably as evaluated by responsible adults at the scene.

Given that, at birth, a human individual is starting out with what she or he is issued in the way of physical equipment, "got at birth" has to refer to physical traits and not social constructions, behaviors, or choices, except for those imposed by those pesky responsible adults. The infants don't have a say at the time. The infants aren't yet equipped to articulate anything about the social constructs into which their personalities fit or don't.

But morphology isn't what "gender identity" is about. Ablow's bio on the Fox site says he's a psychiatrist; he ought to know better.

Merriam-Webster defines "gender identity" as:

"the totality of physical and behavioral traits that are designated by culture as masculine or feminine."

Not just physical. Physical and behavioral. In totality. And not "masculine" or "feminine" in some Platonic ideal, engraved-in-stone sense ... but "designated by culture."

To the degree it is understood, then, gender identity is something rooted in physical and psychological and social components -- the last of which, minimally, is influenced by circumstances and individuals external to s/he who has the gender identity in question. So Ablow is correct to imply that infants are assigned a gender at birth. It's a far shakier proposition, though, to assert that this assignment is infallible or static or objectively defined. After all, the traits that define masculine and feminine are designated by culture. A slippery business indeed. At least as slippery as nail polish.

What Ablow is really saying, then, is that he doesn't like certain influences on gender identity. Or certain choices. Painting a boy's toenails is (a) in Ablow's view an influence on the boy's gender identity; and (b) the kind of influence Ablow doesn't like.

The first of these is questionable at best ... cf. Jon Stewart's video, especially the bit about Chuck Liddell, about 5'40" in.

The second ... well, it would be a bit silly to refute his idiosyncratic nonsense in a rational fashion, especially after Jon Stewart showcased it as the nuthouse drama that it is. Go on, watch the clip...

So ... why should anybody care what Dr. Keith Ablow thinks?

Because, alas, he doesn't just think, he influences. And there's something toxic about panicked, rigid attachment to gender roles like that advocated by this over-degreed pundit. Specifically, the kind of "suggesting" Ablow advocates kills people. Suffocating individuals under socially-constructed notions of acceptable gender identities that do not fit them leads to misery, conflict, violence, and death.

No, I do not think that's an exaggeration.

If you didn't see Making a world where queer kids thrive when I posted it in November, I invite you to read it now. The post is about a rash of young men who were driven to take their own lives last year because their bigoted culture (that would be our bigoted culture if you live in the U.S., as I do) imposed expectations around sexual and/or gender identity that couldn't be reconciled with who they actually were.

I regret to say that the section of that post titled "Being a good parent" prefigures Toemaggeddon ... it describes parental rigidity that is ridiculous and frightening, much like the rigidity Dr. Ablow is "suggesting": parents who get whacked out when a five year old child dresses up for Halloween as a cartoon character and his costume doesn't meet their narrow and brittle conceptions about gender identity. For Halloween, yes. Five years old. That's what I'm saying. As told, the tale does benefit from the strong, certain, eminently sane perspective of the adult parent quoted in my November post.

You'd like to wish people would learn.

UPDATE: If I read the news before posting this blog today, I would have included further evidence of the toxicity of environments advocated and encouraged by Keith Ablow and his ilk: a study published today online in Pediatrics magazine concludes, as the Associated Press puts it, "Suicide attempts by gay teenagers -- and even straight teens -- are more common in politically conservative areas that lack school programs supporting gay rights, a study involving nearly 32,000 high school students found." Can't make this stuff up...

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