The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.
- W.E.B. DuBois
While I see his position as one of defending bigotry, I sympathize a bit with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory when he tells NPR, “Most people had never heard of this issue five months ago.”
I was one of those people. Until quite recently — certainly before Caitlin Jenner and going back to the early 1950s when ex-GI Christine Jorgensen had sex re-assignment surgery — the term transgender meant a person had submitted to hormone treatment and surgery that involved, for a male, cutting off the penis and surgically creating some approximation of a vagina. A male or female who chose to wear clothing of the opposite gender was known as a transvestite. That semantic understanding seems to have gone the way of negro and colored people. It’s now a matter of how one feels inside one’s body. Somewhere in time a semantic shift occurred in the minds of enough people that it has now reached the level of law where we see a classic battle between a reform-minded, liberal federal government and that old standby of conservatives and bigots, states’ rights.
In North Carolina, a law known as HB2 was passed that limits protections for LGBT people and requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the gender noted by a physician on their birth certificate. That sounds nice and neat — certainly to the conservative and bigoted mind. But what if one was born with real, physical ambiguity down in the pudendum area? Or what if a cocktail of chemical hormones and life experience led someone to see and feel him- or herself differently than the working stiff did who noted an infant’s gender on a birth certificate — or for that matter, feeling different about oneself than the socially- and politically-correct views of certain southern, God-fearing conservatives? What if Norman Mailer, who is dead, was wrong when he wrote that little anti-feminist gem I read titled Prisoner Of Sex? Of course, many of us loved the strutting pugilistic Uncle Norman, especially when he protested the Vietnam War; but, then, Norman was famous for being a magnificent, often drunken, asshole.
The Fort Worth school system recently established the right of transgender students to identify their gender as they wished and to use the bathroom of their choosing. Since transgender people tend to want to be private and discrete, this sounds reasonable and compassionate. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, then, publicly damned the system’s superintendent and framed the issue as one of security for young girls vulnerable to lurking predatory males using the ruling to gain access to rape young girls. “Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged,” he said. His hysterical vision was basically a heterosexual version of the Jerry Sandusky scenario, where nobody worried about their sons being raped in a Penn State youth program. The point is, sexual abuse of youth has always been illegal and, when reported, rigorously enforced.
Sex and gender are in the air as Americans gird their loins for the coming Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton down-in-the-gutter mud wrestling match between a powerful feminist eager to break a glass ceiling and a business mogul who thinks he’s back in the imperialist 19th century smoking big cigars in the drawing room after the womenfolk have been shushed out to sew doilies for the troops or whatever it is they do.
I once published a black humor short story in Penthouse magazine about prostitution in Vietnam called “Polyorifice Enterprises.” I was weaned on literature reading Henry Miller and Joseph Heller, so my story was vulgar; it also had quite nice Shakespearian couplets that my infantry soldier back from the boonies in Pleiku expounded heartily as he coupled with a lithe Vietnamese beauty for a five-dollar bill burning a hole in his pocket. To turn Sherman on his head, the point was war is hell for the poor, vulnerable people we invade and occupy. I was guilty and I was young, and I tried to make the piece funny. Later, a photographer acquaintance of mine who specializes in fine art black and white shots of naked women ran an essay of mine on his website. Then, a couple years ago, I got into trouble with two righteous leftists after I uploaded a Facebook gallery of over 100 photographs from Rio de Janeiro, the Copacabana, a range of Brazilian people, life in a poor favela, etc. It included two images focused on women’s buttocks. In Brazil, of course, a beautiful butt is a matter of national pride. All this led to my damnation; I was corrupt to the core, someone who associated with “known pornographers.” It was a minor skirmish, but it felt oddly McCarthyite.
I only mention this as ironic credibility so I might now speak about matters of sex and sexuality as an older, wiser man in a serious, compassionate fashion. Back in the sixties, I liked to drop in conversation an anonymous hippy mantra: “Whatever sets you free.” My conservative dad loved it; he always laughed. Oddly, that mantra now seems to be at the center of the gender battle. Critics of transgender awareness don’t feel whatever sets you free should be given any credibility. At the same time, the US Army recruited me with slogans like “Be all you can be” and every other half-baked propagandist for American values says, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want.”
The current gender conflict seems so absurd to me I sometimes find it hard to keep a straight face. I want to make stupid jokes on the Obama-as-dictator charge. Is that as in dick-tator, a cross between a penis and a potato? But maybe I’m wrong; after all, Dan Quayle did insist potatoe should be spelled with an “e” on the end. Which naturally brings us to the fact I’m 68-years-old with a rising PSA count and my urologist has been putting me through a battery of tests on my prostate. It all makes me recall Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris telling Maria Schneider he had a prostate like a potato, as he snorted like a rutting boar and she trilled like a canary, and he applied the famous stick of butter, sending the Bertolucci film into a realm any upstanding, God-fearing American would naturally find repulsive — as audiences flocked to the theaters.
Free-association: That’s what sex does. Once you slide into it there’s no way out of the complex, writhing embrace without getting some of it on you. Conservative “ladies man” Donald Trump has said he doesn’t give a damn what bathroom transgender people use. He seemed to be saying he had bigger fish to fry: Grow up, people! For a while some years ago, radical feminists and far-right conservatives joined forces and became strange bedfellows over censorship of sexual material. Nothing made a decent, God-fearing American run screaming into the night more than frank talk about sex. On the other hand, violence never seemed to bother them — unless of course the violence was done by black people or was against them or some beloved institution like suburban contentment, capitalism, imperialism or oppression of a chosen minority. Incinerating millions of Vietnamese and Indochinese for doing absolutely nothing to threaten us after they were our ally against the Japanese in World War Two was just fine. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently honored Henry Kissinger as a great American, so I guess it’s still not a problem. Better to focus on perceived sexual deviants, since everybody knows it’s sexual deviants who wish to relieve themselves in the wrong bathroom who have caused America to fall from greatness.
In the absurd and lurid political climate of expectation focused on the upcoming Trump-Clinton battle of the sexes, it’s entirely appropriate for a lame-duck Obama justice department to send to backward states a dictate that injects panic into the hearts, minds and crotches of God-fearing conservative Americans. If the battleground must be bathrooms and red-light-district “combat zones,” bring it on.
For a living, my atheist, conservative father lectured in physiology to large auditoriums of freshman medical students at the University of Miami Medical School. He had been a PT boat captain in the Pacific in WWII and he grew into a crusty old bastard who liked to get the attention of his fresh, young medical students by informing them, “The next time you kiss your girl- or boy-friend, remember what you’re really doing is kissing one end of a 24-foot tube half full of shit.” Apparently, it set just the right mood and the students loved him.
I’m not a doctor or well versed in the intricacies of biology or clinical matters of sexuality, but I do know this: Complexity and variety describe the essential nature of life. Some cherish the fact and call it “the spice of life,” others cringe from it. As W.E.B. DuBois spent a brilliant and frustrating career trying to explain about race: People are not one thing or another in a binary or “black and white” fashion. DuBois took great pains to point out the so-called color line in America was nothing but a convenient reduction of the complexity of life to align with manmade, mentally-constructed prejudice — ie., whiteman-made prejudice. The notion of being “white” or “black” was entirely a fiction! I’m about as white as a highly faded khaki shirt. While Barack Obama, for example, is about as black as a brand-new, darker version of the same khaki. I have a friend from Southern Sudan who is probably the closest I’ve seen to truly “black” — still, she’s actually a very dark brown with a shimmering bluish cast in the right light. While nobody on Earth is actually either black or white, the mental construct of a binary color line has warped our minds and behavior to the point some people would claim not to understand what I’m even talking about. They’d look at me like I was a nutcase. Some might be nasty enough to harbor fantasies of beating me or worse. Or maybe just forging some stupid law to restrict my actions or to marginalize me out of effective existence. DuBois tried valiantly to correct this view, before he gave up and became an ex-pat in Ghana, where he was celebrated until he died.
I submit the so-called gender line in America and elsewhere is similarly largely a construct of the human mind created to defend prejudice and to protect well-cushioned states of privilege such as the privilege extended to hyper-masculinity in the guise of the current post-9/11 warrior ethos that extends into ever more militarized networks of local police forces. It’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is not a Black and White issue, but a Black and Blue issue.
Between the world wars Freud, out of frustration, played around with the ideas of Eros and Thanatos, or the Death Instinct. Whatever he was frustrated about is happening again in spades today. His idea of Eros involved human compassion and connection, things like education and community; while his Death Instinct centered on force and violence and had a self-destructive component. For those willing and able to see the connections, much of these concerns can be framed as gender oriented issues. The ironies, here, include the would-be first woman president attacking someone like Donald Trump from the right as a militarist lest she be seen as a “pussy.”
It’s basic reproductive biology that a fertilized ovum becomes a zygote and, eventually, a living, breathing infant. What’s interesting to this argument is that we all start out as an identical lump of biology. Based on DNA instructions, hormones and a thousand other things I don’t understand, genitals evolve in one of two directions: toward the male with a penis and scrotum or toward the female with a clitoris and labia — plus all the other reproductive elements. Our standard genital parts are, thus, said to be homologous. My dictionary defines homologous this way: “Biology (of organs) similar in position, structure, and evolutionary origin but not necessarily in function: a seal’s flipper is homologous with the human arm.” A penis is homologous with a clitoris, and so forth.
Given such biological complexity, human sexuality and gender can fairly only be represented on a continuum — versus a binary conception — with the most “male” on one end and most “female” on the other. All sorts of mixtures and nuances exist toward the mid-point of the continuum, where “confusion” between male and female can and does exist. Hermaphrodites are a small minority of humanity, but they do exist, generally in secret for obvious reasons, assuming the public identity of one or the other gender. Greeks and Romans often killed hermaphrodite infants out of sheer terror. In the Felini film Satyricon, based on a narrative Roman poem, a hermaphrodite is presented as a strange and magical creature. Add to this rare physical condition the vagaries of hormonal influences, traumatic experience at a young age and the inner shaping forces of psychology, and we’re left with a quite complex, even colorful, continuum. A healthy society might accept it and even call it a rich pageant of life.
Here’s where the DuBois analogy kicks in. As sure as life is complex, bigotry thrives on ruling with a simple-minded, often cruel hand. A complex, nuanced view of human gender and sexuality is simply too much for many people to live with. Thus the struggle. There’s the beloved French saying, vive la difference, an adage of life I’ve enjoyed pondering since I first discovered sex for 50 cents from a black prostitute in the middle of an avocado grove. On a more sinister level than vive la difference, akin to anti-black bigotry, there’s a long, sad history of homophobic violence directed by presumably heterosexual males against “faggots” and others declared by bigots to be deviants whose simple existence is seen as justifying a cleansing violence. It makes me recall the motorcycle macho in Hunter Thompson’s Hells Angels who intimidates a man to felate him in a bar, then proudly puffs up his chest, telling Thompson, “I guess that proves I’m not a faggot.”
I was once given a tour of the Philadelphia prison system, and in one of several intake cells I noticed a woman among the dozen men. Since this was an urban Philadelphia jail, all the captives were African American.
“Why’s there a woman in there?” I asked.
“Because he/she has a penis,” the smug officer told us. “If you have a penis you’re a man.”
It comes down to how much complexity can a person or an institution deal with in a world where binary thinking is comforting — and whether or not one is driven by compassion or power accumulation. The motivation behind the 19th century rightwing party known as The Know Nothings might be reduced to the adage that ignorance is bliss, or its obverse from Ecclesiastes 1:18: “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
I’ve suspected (and hoped) for sometime that we are entering, for lack of a better term, a Third Reconstruction, the first being the Civil War itself and the post-war period, the second the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. As the world has evolved, technologically and otherwise, there’s been lots of backlashing, backtracking and the rise of a very successful political right. The time seems ripe for frustration boiling up from the bottom to gather some kind of critical mass and explosive power that makes it clear the tamping down and crushing of social complexity and diversity can no longer be sustained. Bernie Sanders, especially, makes this case; but even Donald Trump works this frustration on the part of working class white people, many with roots in the bigoted classes of yore, a constituency I heard Trump refer to in a speech as “the poorly educated.” Regrettably, the right has divided and, thus, conquered the working class by pitting it against itself economically, racially and gender-wise.
The battleground for gender complexity has by some function or default come to be the public bathroom where each of us stand and unzip or plop our pudenda down on a seat to accomplish a biological function at the scatological end of my father’s 24-foot-tube, which is part of a marvelous biological process that starts where we feed ourselves nourishment and show affection by kissing each other.
I don’t believe in God, Christian or otherwise, though I do highly regard the humble teachings of Jesus Christ and his lessons on forgiveness. If, perchance, we actually were created by a superior being, he or she was certainly a comedian. Why else were our excreting organs so intricately linked with the organs we enjoy so much for erotic and reproductive purposes. This helped people like Sigmund Freud forge successful careers and write many books trying to explain it all. It also explains why bathrooms have suddenly become a battleground.