Thursday, March 3, 2011
The New York times posted an article titled "David Reimer, 38, Subject of the John/Joan Case" on May 12, 2004, that revealed the hidden truth about the plight of a Canadian family who brought a set of twins, Bruce and Brian, into the world on August 22, 1965 only to have one of them unwittingly made a eunuch after a botched circumcision operation. The doctor who performed the operation was using a new cauterizing technique which unwittingly proceeded to burn off the entire organ. As a result of the mishap, Bruce Reimer became the first developmentally normal child to undergo a sex reassignment. And since he had been born an identical twin, the situation presented the perfect circumstances for monitoring the experiment with a built in matched control subject.
Subsequently, since nothing could be done to undo the damage, and since reconstructive surgery was out of the question, the decision was made to remove his testicles. On the 'expert' advice of Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University, who was noted for his theories on sex and gender that stated infants are born psychosexually neutral, the Reimers decided to raise Bruce as if he had been born a biological female, and keep the real truth 'hush-hush'. They renamed Bruce "Brenda" and began to raise him as if he were a biological female. They dressed him in skirts and dresses, and gave him girl toys to play with, but none of that seemed to matter to 'Brenda" who wanted to have nothing to do with it, later rejecting all of the attempts to feminize Bruce into a well adjusted biological female. Medical teams monitored the situation very closely over a period of several years, injecting Bruce with female hormones, fabricating a synthetic vagina, using the skin flap left over from the scrotum after his testicles were removed. The plan was ultimately to create an inner cavity so that 'Brenda' would appear more like other girls, and thus with more realistic features, better identify as the psychologically well adjusted biological female they were all trying to convince him/her that s/he was.
Aside from the obvious tragic consequences of such a medical catastrophe, what most strongly piques my interest in this story is the issue that arises regarding the politics of the binary gender construction, framed by the themes of cultural gender variance as found in the text "Gender Diversity" by Serena Nanda. In this text she compares and contrasts the gamut of gender expressions across several cultures and continents. The comparisons that seem to be most striking are those that are made between vertically structured societies and those that are not.
For example, in terms of gender, the indigenous cultures of North America, such as Native American tribes the Mojave and the Navajo, affirmed couple pairings and gender expressions that were outside the typical dimorphic patterns of Eurocentric cultures, which normatively included only hetero-normative mated pair models.
The Navajos had a term for those not hetero-normatively oriented. These were called Nadleeh, and the name was used to specify those who in early childhood exhibited an orientation toward those occupational interests of the opposite gender. Boys who showed a gravitation toward crafts and domestic duties were accepted as part of this class. The same is said of the females who exhibited proclivities for interest in what were ordinarily considered male orientated tasks, such as hunting. Nanda tells us that “these would adopt almost all aspects of the opposite gender's dress, work, language and behavior”. The Mojave, whose gender variant counterparts were called Alyha (male) and Hwaume ( female variant) went even further, and adopted the physiological traits and status of the opposite gender as well. Explorers, at their arrival on the continent and upon encountering what seemed to them to be behavioral abnormalities condemned these practices as taboo as indeed they are in Eurocentric cultures. They labeled them 'berdeche', a derogatory term derived from the Arabic, meaning 'male prostitute'. However, the indigenous peoples simply knew nothing of such comparisons, and therefore no context was prevalent in which such objections would arise. In the minds of the indigenous, these were as much a part of the gender status quo as are their correlates in gender binary cultures; they did not see themselves as 'variant' in any degree, but rather as 'two-spirited', simply another presentation of gender. The idea here is that of multiple persuasions, rather than variation, which implies deviation from a norm.
As it stands, one of the major differences between these cultures and its Eurocentric counterpart, is the manner in which the Europeans conflate gender and sex. This seems to have arisen from the ideology surrounding the practicalities in division of labor tasks where early on females, being restricted to 'home and hearth' type activities during gestational periods, were better fit to exercise the role of caregiver, keeping them close to camp and better prepared to serve domestic needs. Males, on the other hand, lacking in maternal ties to their offspring, yielded to the responsibilities closely associated with protection, hunting and foraging for food, which required more flexible mobility.
As the fledgling European culture in its earlier developmental phase reveled in its flourishing humanism, compelled by its tendency to formulate scientific systems of taxonomy, and with culture as captive audience, the values related to dimorphic coupling became reinforced, and ultimately enshrined as cultural code. Transmitted institutionally from generation to generation, morality ultimately galvanized a social propriety that expected adherence to behavioral practices endemic to the particular cultural ethic, an ethic based on Judeo-Christian values. Broadly speaking, these values were imported during the process of colonization when Europeans migrated to other continents, imposing upon its inhabitants a new set of foreign values intended to supplant those that had sprung from their own organically adaptive needs set. While projecting their institutionalized biases onto the cultural practices of the indigenous peoples, the Europeans condemned as heretical their purely natural and normative behaviors. As a result, European “repression and the growing assimilation of sex/gender ideologies” forced the disappearance of gender variant roles.
So, by the time the twins Bruce and Brian were born, their society was well established in its rules regarding acceptable gender roles having been appropriated histrionically and transmitted generationally. It was very clear to the twins' parents what was expected. It was very clear to the twins' parents what was expected. A body without a penis had to have a vagina. There was no in between, because in the back and whiteness of pink and blue culture such standards are set to serve a larger purpose, that being those of the dominant prevailing ethnocentric power base. And ethnocentric values, thy name is 'capitalism', with its characteristic division of labor, which forces all of its subjects to chose from one of two optional roles to serve that end. And thus, the first question asked of a subject upon its arrival in the world is "what is it?". So when the Reimer family was given a medical prescription for how to solve the dilemma forced upon them by this twist of fate, they jumped at the only chance they had to ensure what was promised to be the best solution for ensuring Bruce's psychological and social adjustment.
The problem is, Bruce never succeeded in adjusting to the course imposed for him. Internally, his own innate genetic make up would fight all therapeutic attempts to make him out to be what was inherently against his biological nature. Externally, he would resist his family's attempts to socialize him as a biological female. The doctors tried to force him/her to have the surgery to complete his feminization but he resisted emphatically. He both felt and lived with the conflict churning inside, knowing intuitively that something was not right. Against their protestations, he wanted to rough house; he wanted to shave like his father; he dreamed of fixing cars. By the time he reached adolescence, in a moment of sheer stress and frustration, his father blurted out the truth, that he was not a girl; that he had been born biologically male, and revealed what happened during the circumcision.
Most disconcerting about the case of Bruce and his twin brother Brian (his entire family actually), is that having to live with such conflict destroyed their lives, much in the same manner that colonization, by forcing suppression, obliterated the perceived anomalies of gender variant cultures. The infamous Dr. Money, supported by the institutions that he represented, colonized the Reimers to adjust to the prevailing ideas stemming from ideologies that endorsed dimorphic classification. A similar process happened in India with the Hijra and Sadin; it happened in Thailand with its Kathoey, and in the Philippines with its Bakla, Bantu and Bayot, transforming through assimilation cultures that at one point functioned efficiently within the frame of egalitarian and horizontal structure. Understandably, those cultures untouched by the enforced vagaries of capitalism seemed most prone to maintaining a consistent homeostasis. Not having to strive continuously to strike a balance on the fickle teeter-totter of market ambiguity, these cultures lived the best of both worlds as they strove to satisfy the most basic needs and desires of the human spirit relative to the objectives for meeting the needs of both the individual and the larger cultural community.
As the world continues to evolve as a global culture, one can only wonder what inventions power mongers will create to further control, manipulate and exploit human capital to serve its own gains.....one can only wonder.