At 54 years old, I have been dealing with issues of gender and sexuality all of my life. Don’t worry. I am not about to pull a Bruce Jenner. Unlike Bruce, or Caitlyn if you prefer, I know it takes more than chemicals, costumes, cosmetic surgery and wishful thinking to make you something you are not.
The issues facing me aren’t exactly personal, they’re societal. But as society slips into chaos, it does become personal. It impacts how I deal with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, even strangers on the street.
Anyone who believes gender issues are a recent phenomena is either a naive millennial or has been living a sheltered life the past several decades. The only thing new are attitudes.
I was born in March, 1962, about a month after John Glenn flew Friendship VII around the world three times, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The next year, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book often credited with launching the second wave of feminism. So I entered into the world the same time the world entered into the promise of the Space Age and the confusion of the new age of gender and sexual chaos.
The new feminism seemed innocent enough. The old feminism – the fight for female suffrage, or the right to vote – had been victorious in England and the United States in the early 20th century. Mid century had seen an enormous number of women enter the workforce to fill the labor shortage caused by men going off to war.
After the war, most of these women returned to the traditional roles of housewife and mother. But as baby boom children reached their teens, a new generation of women wanted the same opportunities as their older sisters came of age, and a booming economy demanded an expanded workforce, the time seemed right to demand greater economic freedom for women.
What actually happened was an explosion in the divorce rate, the breakdown of families, and the substitution of federal benefits for the economic security of a marriage. The breakdown of the family led to rising drug use, gang violence, and poverty. But that’s fifty years of well documented hindsight.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The success of the civil rights movement for blacks and the feminist movement for women prompted the start of the gay rights movement after the Stonewall Riot in 1969. The LGB community was born along with the Gay Liberation Front.
In the early 70s, David Bowie launched into the androgynous phase of his career with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Along with the androgynous stage character, Bowie maintained ambiguity about is own sexuality.
The band and performer Alice Cooper added to the confusion. My first real exposure to the idea a man could become a woman occurred around 1972 or 1973 when Alice Cooper came to Houston. The rumor around my elementary school was Alice (originally Vincent Damon Furnier) had been a woman who became a man. Or maybe a man who became a woman. Regardless, something had obviously gone horribly wrong.
Alice Cooper and David Bowie represented one part of the theatrical nature of rock and roll in the early 70s but they taped into growing questions about gender and sexuality in Western culture. These questions rose to the surface largely as a result of the feminist movement and sexual revolution of the early 1960s.
The Culture Catches On
The idea of a man dressing as a woman was a common comedy trope probably going back well before the time of Shakespeare. While M*A*S*H had the first regular cross-dressing character in Corporal Klinger, Milton Berle used the gag to become one of television’s first stars in the 50s.
In the 1960s, though, a few television episodes had men and women actually changing bodies. In an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, Jeannie turns Major Nelson and Major Healey into women to teach them what it was like to be chased by men. In this case, actresses played Nelson and Healey as women.
One episode of Gilligan’s Island featured a mad scientist “rescuing” the castaways and taking them to his castle on a nearby island. There, he and his assistant use the castaways in an experiment in transferring minds from one body to the other. Gilligan is swapped with Mr. Howell, then the Skipper with Mrs. Howell (pairing Gilligan and the Skipper) and the Professor and Mary Ann. Finally, the scientist’s assistant Igor swaps himself with Ginger.
In a more serious exploration of the same theme, the final episode of Star Trek featured a woman using an alien device to swap minds with Captain Kirk. The woman sought revenge for being passed over for an assignment as a Star Fleet captain. She believed it was because she was a woman. The official reason was because she was emotionally unstable. The episode leaves us to question which was the cause and which was the effect.
Does anyone else remember Flip Wilson’s Geraldine from the early 70s? The difference between Flip Wilson and Milton Berle was Flip intended to pass as a woman. He was impersonating and exaggerating, not just engaging in slapstick humor. Times were changing.
Remember Renee Richards?
So the culture was filled with gender-bending stories and entertainment well before Dr. Renee Richards hit the scene in 1975. Here was a real-life example of a man who actually had (or claimed to have) become a woman. As a man, Richard Raskin attended Yale and was ranked as one of the top male tennis players in the country. He had joined the Navy, become an ophthalmologist, married, and fathered a child.
After divorcing and having reassignment surgery, Richards decided to try her skills as a professional tennis player. The United States Tennis Association, The Women’s Tennis Association, the United States Open Committee, and the vast majority of the American population balked. They required female athletes to pass a genetic test to compete.
Now Richards balked. She finally submitted to the test, but the results were “ambiguous”. Perhaps simple genetic testing was still in its infancy, but I think it more likely someone wanted to make sure the case went to court.
On August 16, 1977, a federal judge ruled “This person is now female.”
Transgender individuals now had legal precedent.
Of course, there were concerns men would flood into women’s sports, but it didn’t happen. Not many male athletes would willingly dress like a woman and submit to hormone therapy, just to win a competition against other women. They certainly wouldn’t submit to sex reassignment surgery.
Biological Sex and Intersex
The Olympics replaced external physical examinations with genetic testing in 1967. This would seem to be a definitive way to determine if female athletes were in fact female. The system hit a snag during the 1996 Olympics, however. Presumably, the testing had improved over thirty years or so. In 1996, out of some 3500 female athletes, the Olympic Committee identified eight a having Y chromosomes. Thus, they were genetically male.
The complication came when seven of the eight were identified as having Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), a condition which prevents the body from absorbing androgens. Androgens include male hormones such as testosterone. Because of AIS, these individuals were born with external female organs. They had testes, but they never descended. They had no where to go. At puberty, their bodies produced increased testosterone, but because it wasn’t absorbed, it broke down into estrogen causing them to develop typical secondary female sexual characteristics.
All of these individuals had been identified as female from birth. They were raised female. They believed themselves to be female. In fact, because their bodies didn’t respond to testosterone, they might have appeared more feminine than their competitors. But their genetic composition said they were male. Internally, they had male genitalia. Their condition is known as intersexed. In 1996, the Olympics abandoned genetic testing.
While issues of sexual orientation and gender identity have been around for close to six decades, the intensity and pace of the controversies seems to have accelerated. From the de facto legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court to the North Carolina Bathroom Bill, battle lines are being drawn and both sides are digging in.
What started as a demand for gender equality has lead us to a demand for equality of sexual orientation and the expectation anyone can “self-identify” as either gender or any gender. In fact, some have called for the complete deconstruction of the idea of biological sex and gender differences.
That’s a topic worthy of it’s own post, don’t you think?