On Chelsea Manning and Gender Identity (Part I)

In recent news, Chelsea Manning is second perhaps only to Edward Snowden in controversial fame for leaking classified information of the United States government. As the important details of her legal case are currently beyond my sphere of knowledge, I cannot write competently on that matter, although it would certainly make for pertinent material on this blog in the future. For now, let’s examine another aspect of her public life: her identification as a woman.

The world knew her as “Bradley” when her spread of military intelligence first made news, but now, for her own personal reasons, she has stated openly something she has — according both to her own testimony and secondary sources — known about herself for years. The dimensions of her personality and psychology align more strongly with the “female” classification of gender our society has shaped, than with the “male” one.

To the vast majority of readers, even those of us cisgender folk acquainted with transgender individuals, this may seem a foreign concept. The common status quo is that a person is born a certain sex and is generally comfortable with presenting in a manner coherent with this sex, at least as far as society is concerned. Considering somewhere between 120,000 (calculated from a rather conservative ratio) and 700,000 Americans are transgender, this is an evidently naïve view.

As explained quite simply and intuitively in the above video, we may reasonably speak of a distinction between sex and gender. The former is biological, referring to a person’s reproductive anatomy, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. Although the debate over nature versus nurture with respect to gender (let alone all of human psychology) marches on, it is experientially apparent to all of us that cultures have for better or worse categorized physical aspects, habits, interests, personality traits, relationship dynamics, emotional expression, professional roles, and fashion within two boxes: male and female. Many presumptions about the correlation between these elements and sex have proven false. The existence of male nurses and female soldiers is proof of that.

Despite these errors, humans have tended to find gender a meaningful idea nonetheless, including in ways that are not necessarily dependent on sex or on stereotypes. Though it is an imperfect approximation, American car insurance companies find it prudent to charge higher rates for males such as myself, because of an apparent statistical correlation between gender and reckless driving tendencies. Less demoralizing is the use of gender labels to simplify communication and romantic relationships; when you’re a desperate soul on eHarmony, it’s probably convenient to filter out those whom you have no interest in dating by virtue of features we like to classify under genders.

So where does all this leave someone like Chelsea Manning? Well, imagine that you have found yourself with a certain physiological construction that virtually all of the humans with whom you interact assume implies a host of predictions about your behavior. Some of these predictions are of your innate character, others are expected of you in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, but the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. They contradict who you are as a person with the basic freedom to express yourself harmlessly. This disconnect between your self and the suit into which others try to fit you cripples your confidence, happiness, social fulfillment, and ability to have relationships with partners.

That, within a margin of error attributable to the variability of trans men and women’s experiences, is Manning’s position, the implications of which we will consider tomorrow. This is the predicament not just of one person but of many, the best approach to which is controversial because it raises questions of the meaning of gender and the extent of people’s control over their bodies and identities. What is that approach? We’ll think through several perspectives in the next post.

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Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part II)

(Follow-up to Part I)

If ever there were a case study in active pacifistic resistance, it would be Mohandas Gandhi. Despite my previous criticism of one of his quotes (“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”) as overly simplistic, I would be remiss if I let the reader suppose I have little respect for him. On the contrary, it is difficult to regard with anything but admiration a person who not only stood against a discriminatory and decadent government in the face of arrest, but did so using a very underestimated form of power — the power of nonviolent motivation. He wisely acknowledged that humans are inextricably social creatures, whose interests depend on each other even if they may not value some other humans as ends.

This is why boycotts work. We need not settle for the false dichotomy that either sociopathy is a myth or the only response society can offer to social parasites is swift destruction, because there are peaceful incentives for which people may change beyond appeal to empathy. For example, Gandhi achieved legislative change for the betterment of his community by going on hunger strikes — his positive public reputation dissuaded lawmakers from making decisions that people could construe as causes of his death by malnutrition. His was a subtle system of psychological politics, which showed that with enough willpower it is possible for disenfranchised communities to earn their own rights, without causing unnecessary suffering.

In sum, Gandhi’s life (as told in this short yet informative biography) was at the very least a challenge to the notion that pacifism is inherently passive. The practitioners of his satyagraha code did not merely take the abuse inflicted upon them, but stood up to it as they conducted peacefully active initiatives to change laws and social norms they refused to tolerate. Such is all well and good, but if we want to make decisions that are best equipped to have the most positive effects for people we care about, we need to assess, in theory and in practice, whether turning the other cheek truly does work in such a large-scale context. Could Pope Francis’s call for Catholics worldwide to protest the Syrian massacres with prayer and fasting effect more than a placebo’s worth of change?

To the credit of the military advocates, there seems to be a large gap between the Syrian government and the British government that eventually yielded to Gandhi’s and his allies’ displays of charity, as in South African Indians’ support of British soldiers in the Boer War (see page 2 of the above link). As I understand it, the historical precedents we have of effective peaceful protests tend to revolve around certainly unacceptable yet lower-priority discrimination, as opposed to outright slaughter of people. Gandhi’s protesters endured attacks, but they were not directly combatting already extant violence. I have nonetheless taken this opportunity to cite the story of Gandhi because of the intriguing possibilities we may strive for in the spirit of his activism. The distinction between pacifism in Gandhi’s efforts and in the context of genocidal injustices may be one of quantity rather than quality, although more research is imperative. I confess some doubts about this conjecture after learning of Gandhi’s all but ignoring World War II, in his endeavor to secure Indian independence.

Having recently read vaguely of successful engagements of diplomacy by certain popes from earlier centuries, I will dedicate the next update to a discussion of what I have found about such claims. If reliable, these accounts would lend greater credibility to peaceful solutions to violent problems. I may also investigate the details of the contributions to justice made by Martin Luther King, Jr., who regarded Gandhi as an inspiration and may be more relevant to the tougher cases for pacifism, as his activism took place in a setting when and where lynchings were not uncommon.