Milk, Cheese Or Ice Cream & Existential Freedom

Alice Purnell BSc RGN PGDC


Issue 18
Summer 2002

Rather like Pythagoras 2.8k ago, I do some of my thinking in the bath. For some reason, probably thanks to my new, stone deaf, white kitten, Suzie, who has the loudest voice and had just sat on the edge demanding food yet again; this set me on a stream of consciousness about milk and its versatility, about cheese and ice cream. Earlier that day I had been counselling a client who had very rigid ideas about sex and gender, causing her real anguish. The Pythagorean view - all in its place, an ordered world in which status, sex, in fact all, was fixed and dipolar, as therefore was gender. This ordered view, together with the spin off from Darwin's concepts and Freudian psychology, has rather stifled ideas which are not so clearly ordered.

To do Darwin and Wallace justice, each did clearly state that there is diversity, natural variation, and natural selection. Without variation or diversity there would be nothing from which to select and evolution would not have been possible. Our species, like all mammals, reproduces by sexual reproduction and sexual selection, giving the genes almost infinite permutations, so no two individuals are absolutely identical, not even identical twins, since their experience of life and thought processes will have been separate. Each has an individual identity, a name, a separate existence.

Diversity is to be celebrated as an opportunity for nature and for individuality. So what makes a person, is it nature or is it nurture? Psychiatrists tend towards the nurture model, whilst biologists might lean towards genetics as what creates a person, obviously it is a combination, but which is the major factor?

Being seems to come from nature, whilst feelings derive to some extent from nurture, with elements of nature at a more primal level. How does a cat know it is a male or a female, or a cat for that matter? It does know when it needs food or milk. The urge to reproduce is certainly programmed by the brain hormones (and the so called "selfish genes").

Desmond Morris with his "Naked Ape" compared human behaviour to that of our cousins, providing further food for thought. Which feelings come from thought, experience and learning and which from chemistry (hormones) and which from our ancestors in the gene pool?

Gene pools, baths, milk, streams of consciousness; all liquid thoughts . . . food for thought, cheese and ice cream are a nourishment, I must need something, probably chocolate! Sex and chocolate seem to together so back to sex, gender and life in general.

It strikes me that few things in life are clear-cut, save that we are mortal. Sex and sexuality and gender are certainly not bipolar, each is a continuum and is independent, although generally of course one is either male or female, masculine or feminine, heterosexual or homosexual, but what of the hermaphrodite and intersexed people, of the gender neutral, of the bisexual and the asexual person? These are all natural variations.

Recently on television there was a programme by a gay man investigating gay animals. It seems that of course they do exist, the amygdala in the brain of a gay ram is more like that of an ewe than his male hetero-rams. He can not but be other than he is, in that he is attracted to males even in the presence of ewes in oestrous. Sexuality seems to be driven by the wiring of a part of the brain. Equally a sense of gender is in the stria terminalis of the human brain if Dutch research is valid.

A biological reason for gender or sexual behaviours gets people off the "guilty" hook of having somehow chosen to challenge what is termed "normality" (i.e. "good") in a "perverse", "against God and nature", and an ordered paternalistic state, by being other than "normal" that is to say average or ordinary. A person has to be him/herself.

Over the last several millennia warring states felt the need for clarity, dipolarity; so men went to war and women bore children and stayed home and wept. If you remember your mythology the great Greek hero Achilles was disguised as a girl as a child by his mother to spare him death this way but when he was offered a spear or a distaff, the twit chose a spear, revealing his maleness that way so found himself in Troy where he eventually met his fate thanks to his Achilles heel. Any half decent Amazon would have done the same thing. Even Heracles after his great Labours and adventures went to live in a cave with the witch Omphale, where he dressed as a woman and spent his time spinning, bewitched by this woman. After his encounter with the Gorgon who can blame him?

Interestingly the Greeks with Gods and Goddesses were not homophobic, that came with Judeo- Christianity and an all male God. It is sad that we have made God in the image of a man, though Christ did turn His back on male power with His ideas of love one another.

Back to biology - in many species males and females are markedly dimorphic - stag or doe, peacock or peahen, especially among the birds there are display differences which become exaggerated when females choose a mate. These differences have evolved so that the successful develops display colours, feathers, antlers, size differences, rituals and so on. Humans are actually less sexually dimorphic than most mammals. Male nipples and the clitoris reveal a little of the fact that there is a potential in any embryo towards either male or female sexual embryonic development from the "female phenotype". During the growth of a fetus there are vestiges of our history as creatures in evolutionary terms and of the individual in sexual terms. In our nearest relatives in the animal world, the chimps, sexual dimorphism is more apparent than in humans. Dominant males are much bigger, and stronger than the females, or their less dominant brothers and rivals. As social creatures, like ourselves, their genes are to an extent their destiny, most males behave one way and females another. Their society is stratified, with alpha males and alpha females, with issues of position and dominance in the group or the clearly defined and tested during childhood and adolescence and by play and by the status of their parents (especially the mother).

The way we perceive ourselves and others perceive us is to a great extent defined by our gender and its place in society. During the last two millennia of patriarchy the roles, and reflecting this, the dress, of men and women have been dictated by various "norms" and prohibitions. Only during the last century in the West have women gained something like equality in matters of political power, ownership, position in the law, creativity and being taken seriously as sentient beings. No longer are we owned by men - by our father, then a husband, with the somewhat limited expectation of dependency and housework and children. Since the advent of the pill many women enjoy the same sexual freedom as men, education, strong role models and challenges to male superiority mean that women are moving towards something a little nearer equality - though traditional "female" jobs are still paid about 20% less per hour than male ones.

So I wonder why anyone with a brain might want to think of themselves as a woman when there are still such inequalities? But that is not really the point, I suggest that a person's gender identity is fixed before birth, normally a girl has a female gender identity, and she is stuck with it. So are some people with the "wrong" chromosomes, since it is not an XX or XY which defines gender. It is more complex than that, just as the genes themselves are more complex than an incomplete X chromosome being a Y, and making a male of the fetus. Incidentally nobody is, as the papers say, "born a man", thank God. Imagine the consequences of trying to give birth to a twelve stone 18 year old? No a baby is born. It might look like a boy or a girl, but many are in-between or unclear.

In a six week period in the operating theatre for a local children's hospital, I saw eleven such children with testicular feminization and others with various problems from hypospadias to genital ambiguity.. The genitals do not conclusively define a child's sex or gender for that matter. Humans are complex, we may be born male or female, both or in very rare cases neither, just as s/he may prove to become hetero/homo/bi or a/sexual in terms of sexual preference.

During the late 19th and early 20th century Freud developed his theories of psychoanalysis, which have a somewhat misogynistic and pessimistic pervading view of humanity, driven largely by ego based dark forces which could be manipulated by the psychoanalyser psychiatrist or by a paternalistic state. His followers added to this by advertising and brainwashing and the controls of "normalcy". This fails to see, as client led, humanistic and an existential view of the individual; that there is a much that is innately good in people. Of course not all individuals are innately altruistic, good; or selfish, or bad for that matter.

After the second World War ideas about individuality, existentialism and freedom have allowed many people to look deeply into who really they are, rather than live unchallengingly as who they "should be". People are coming out of all sorts of closets.

As the closets empty to cries of "freedom, respect, equality" Cabinet makers shudder! The conventional, the insecure, the powerful and the bigot fall off their perches and feel frantic about the challenges to "family life, society and the world as we know it". It is a shame ethical and religious matters have become embroiled in this debate, because belief is challenged by the existential. There is great fear of anarchy among the, hierarchical. But there is no excuse for intolerance save when the behaviour of one damages another (abusers, rapists, terrorists and pedophiliac behaviours do need to be stopped).

To be different means generally to be made to feel not as good, guilty, ashamed. The weapons of the bigot are the same as those of the abuser, using fear, guilt, power to control the victim. Why one wonders do some people react so negatively to the different? Lepers still exist in our land, minorities who are not accepted, are easy targets for the bigots, media, and unenlightened.

Stereotyping is a good way to dehumanise immigrants, blacks, Moslems, Jews, cripples, gays, Trannies. Perhaps it becomes harder to be a bigot when you see a real person whose aspirations to be loved, respected, accepted are as reasonable as your own. But boys will be boys and girls will be girls from day one of a child's life. It is hard for a mother to accept that her little girl has become a man, or is a dyke, much harder than if she is a drug addict, alcoholic or a criminal. Perhaps even harder for an only son of a Moslem to be accepted by his father as a woman.

It amazes me that fellow Christians judge others by Old Testament standards, when for example they would not necessarily stone to death a woman taken in adultery. Many of my clients suffer great guilt trips about being different, having been bashed by many a Bible, or simply realising how upset a parent feels about their son or daughter's gender affirmation.

Frequently a person with gender identity disorder feels sure about his or her gender, but they also feel isolated, rejected, confused, betrayed, not good enough, guilty, even suicidal. Surely they should feel liberated, freed, joyful by that recognition and experience. There is a high price to pay for freedom.

Back to dairy products, too much and you put on weight, but that strays from the drift of this. If we think of the fertilised egg as the milk it can by various processes, temperatures, additional ingredients, become cheese or ice cream for example.

It may be designated for cheese making or to make other things. It all depends on the plan, processes and storage and care taken of it. It could be redesignated equally well. The fertilised egg generally, but not always, has the sex of the embryo defined by the genes, visible to some extent in the pairs of chromosomes. These genes probably act as switches as the fetus develops, as do hormones produced by the fetus and in the maternal blood stream. Physical and neurological growth takes place, so that nine months later a reasonably healthy baby will hopefully be born.

If the milk that was "supposed to become cheese" is given the ice cream process, it will be ice cream. Similarly gender identity depends on all the "right switches" operating at the right times, the right hormones, temperatures, timings. . . so many variables, not least the genetic makeup. The environment, the womb, needs to be perfect, no stress, drugs, cigarettes, hormones, the right acidity etc., then comes nurture after the baby is born. We are all accidents or experiments of nature. To a lesser extent I think nurture also has a role in reinforcing or releasing inherent traits.

I remember a post card I bought in my early lesbian days. It depicted two women. One said "My mother made me a lesbian."

The other replied, "If I gave her enough wool, would she make me one too?"

I do not think we can "Blame" mothers or fathers for variation, save that it is a natural consequence of the complexities of human development.

Even by year two of a child's life he or she will probably know how he or she should behave, because of all the positive and negative reinforcement of his parents and his peer group, and usually will not need to challenge this. I believe that a sense of gender identity is there at birth. By the time we are adults we know well the prohibitions about crossing gender divides, especially if a boy has been a sissy. There is much denial about being feminine if you were born a boy, less so about being a tomboy if you were a girl.

There is a caution in all this, hate of one's sex or gender is not the best reason to adopt the other. This is reactive gender identity disorder, rather than one which is a drive towards what is right, it is away from what was unpleasant. There are no guarantees that the other side of the fence will be any less uncomfortable. I have met clients who I would describe as autoandrophobic, hating maleness, because of some trauma in earlier life. A sense of being is a stronger indicator of self rather than a sense of not being. Both sets of feelings are equally powerful. It is also dangerous to rationalise you are living in the wrong gender if you prefer the clothes of the other, or as a guilty transvestite you feel released from guilt if you describe yourself as a transsexual person. It is a big and almost irreversible step to officially and physically cross the gender divide, costs are high, I do not just mean financial costs, so one needs to be certain.

Your genes are not always your destiny, but your development during the processes of conception gestation, birth and childhood and early life can mean that a search for and a sense of personal identity, of whatever gender allows those with gender identity disorder to question in a very healthy way the whole ridiculous inequalities which still exist in our society. This is only one dimension on being a person, in a sense what sort of man or woman or un-gendered or polygendered person you are is an even more challenging question. A personal identity is vital to each of us. Many are not so challenged. Many T people would prefer to never have had to face these problems and the challenges of an unsympathetic society, however perhaps we will soon be celebrating diversity in a rainbow world, where there is plenty of room for different ice creams and cheeses and people.

There are many types of cheeses and of ice creams, most of them are very good.

Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 15.01.04